RIP Road Warrior Animal

It has been reported by several wrestling sources that Joseph Laurinaitis, better known to the wrestling world as Road Warrior Animal, has passed away.  He was 60.

Laurinaitis began his adult life as a bouncer in Minnesota, and was discovered by Eddie Sharkey alongside fellow bouncers Mike Hegstrand, Rick Rood, and Barry Darsow (all of whom also became nationally famous).  After going through several minor league gimmick, he was called “The Road Warrior” in honor of the Mad Max franchise that was big in the 1980s and portrayed an outlaw biker.  However, when the Georgia territory decided to make Paul Ellering the leader of a stable called the “Legion of Doom”, Hegstrand joined Laurinaitis in the outlaw biker look.  The two were re-christened “Hawk” and “Animal”, respectively.

While early on their look was a little too plain — comparisons to the Village People’s biker outfit didn’t help — the duo decided to go with a more outlandish outlaw costume to fit their style.  Soon, they figured out the signature look that stuck with them: Hawk’s inside-out mohawk that matched animal’s traditional one; wild facepaint (including the spider between the eyes on Animal); and shoulder pads covered in spikes that they wore to the ring.  Throw in an interview style consisting of wild-eyed yelling and bizarre platitudes from Hawk, and the two caught fire in a major way.

Hawk and Animal, alternately called the Road Warriors or Legion of Doom depending on who was booking them, were perhaps the most successful tag team of the Golden Age of US wrestling.  Their first legendary bout (to many) was the Night of the Skywalkers, a scaffold match against Bobby Eaton and Dennis Condrey, during which both men (and Jim Cornette) were thrown off the structure.  By 1988, they were NWA World Tag Team Champions, but it didn’t last long as then-referee Teddy Long cheated them out of the gold.

In the summer of 1990, Hawk and Animal arrived in the WWF just in time to kick off what was many fans’ dream feud with Demolition.  Due to the Road Warriors’ success, many promotions had similar “face-painted tough guy” teams, but Ax and Smash were far and away the most successful of them and the only ones who seemed possibly on par with the original.  Unfortunately, Ax’s health issues meant the rivalry fizzled.  Nevertheless, the Warriors went from strength to strength, demolishing Power and Glory in 59 seconds at WrestleMania VII before winning the WWF Tag Team titles (and completing the AWA/NWA/WWF trifecta, a unique achievement) from the Nasty Boys in Madison Square Garden.

1992 seemed to start well, as the duo was paired up with Paul Ellering in the WWF.  But Vince decided to add one more piece of the puzzle: a childhood toy named Rocco that Ellering would use to do a bad ventriloquist act in support.  Hawk hated it so much that he quit the WWF after a SummerSlam win over Money Inc., leaving Animal to finish contractual obligations.  While doing so, he badly injured his back and it was thought his career was over.

In 1996, though, the Road Warriors made a comeback in WCW.  It didn’t last long — just enough to have matches with the Steiner Brothers, Harlem Heat, and Sting/Luger — before they returned to the WWF.  At WrestleMania XIII, they alongside Ahmed Johnson won a street fight over the nascent Nation of Domination in a match given the unenviable task of following the Hart/Austin instant classic.  The LOD, as the WWF called them, would join Austin’s side against the Hart Foundation and take part in the Canadian Stampede ten-man tag match.  One final title reign in 1997 was ended by an unknown and then-unheralded duo of Billy Gunn and Jesse Jammes.

Various attempts to jump-start the LOD in 1998, including giving them Sunny as a manager and adding Darren Drozdov as a third partner, went nowhere, largely because Hawk was battling personal demons at the time.  In what is sadly not an isolated incident in wrestling, the solution was to make Hawk the character as unreliable as Hawk the person, eventually leading to Hawk threatening suicide by jumping off the TitanTron.  Droz went up to save him, but Hawk either fell or was pushed.  The whole thing was such bad taste that Hegstrand, Laurinaitis, and Ellering all quit the WWF basically on the spot.

Animal was brought back by WCW in its dying days in 2001 to join Ric Flair’s authority stable.  The idea was that he would enter as a surprise fourth man in a match with Sid Vicious, Jeff Jarrett, and Scott Steiner, seemingly evening the odds for Sid before turning on him and securing the pin for Steiner.  Unfortunately, by the time he was to rush in, Sid had suffered a mid-match gruesome leg injury, taking the sting out of his turn.

Hawk’s death in 2003 — shortly after a tryout match with WWE against Kane and Rob Van Dam — seemed to indicate an end to Animal’s fortune, but he had one last chance to come back.  The WWE wrote a story in 2005 where Animal was looking for a new Hawk, and he found one in John Heidenreich of all people.  The duo was given one last short run with the gold (with Animal dedicating the run to Hawk) before it became clear the team had no chemistry and would not last.  Animal had a brief solo run as a bitter veteran and would have won the WrestleMania 22 pre-show battle royal, but he failed a save late in the match and finished third.

In 2011, the Road Warriors (Hawk, Animal, and Ellering) were placed in the WWE Hall of Fame.  That same year, he was inducted into the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum.  He and Hawk are inaugural members of the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame.  The duo are part of a Wrestling Observer five-star match as part of the initial series of WarGames.  They were co-Rookies of the Year in the WON Awards in 1983 and four-time PWI Tag Team of the Year.  Their role in the Dusty/Horsemen feud was honored in 1987 by PWI, and in 2005 Animal received PWI’s Comeback of the Year for his run with Heidenreich.

Joseph’s brothers followed him into the wrestling business after his success.  Marcus was part of a similar tag team called the Wrecking Crew that spent some time in the WCW lower-card.  John, however, became almost as famous (or infamous) as Joseph, both as a Japanese tag team wrestler under the name Johnny Ace and as a backstage power broker.  In addition, Joseph’s son James was one of the best college football linebackers of his time and had an eight-year career in the NFL.

While no one would accuse Laurinaitis of technical prowess, he and Hegstrand’s chemistry and charisma changed wrestling.  The Road Warriors became one of the — if not the most iconic tag team in history, and certainly the most famous of the 1980s.  They won tag titles 17 times in their career, including 2 WWE, 1 NWA, 1 AWA, and 1 AJPW reign.  In 2003, they were called the greatest tag team of the “PWI Years”, dating back to the late 1970s.  There is no doubt as to their status as one of the cornerstones of wrestling in their time.  There will never be another Road Warriors.