Cucch’s Book Review: “Wrestling With the Devil”

Lex Luger enjoyed a long and highly decorated wrestling career. Almost from the minute he first stepped into the squared circle, he was pushed as a top of the card talent, and for good reason. Lex Luger had the look and athleticism to become potentially one of the greatest wrestlers of all time. He had a very nice run, winning the WCW title three times. However, the lifestyle of wrestling soon caught up to Luger, and he experienced one of the most incredible falls from grace ever seen in wrestling. This book is the story of the depths Luger fell to and what he did to climb out of the abyss.

Lawrence Pfohl was the youngest of three children born to Roger and Marion Pfohl in 1958 in Buffalo, New York. His father was an incredible musician who taught himself to play nine instruments, more notably the piano, and his mother was an extremely intelligent scholar who received a Master’s degree. Larry’s parents were not what one would call fans of athletics, and so were dismayed when Larry shunned his parents wishes that he learn the piano in favor of pursuing sports. While Larry would one day, as most fans know, become a decorated football player who had a short career with both the Montreal Alouettes of the CFL and the Green Bay Packers of the NFL, football was actually Larry’s least favorite sport. No, he instead was enamored with both track and field and basketball. He excelled at both sports, while also maintaining a 92 grade average through high school. Larry dreamed of one day playing for the NBA, but during his senior season, he came to a realization: At 6’4″ and 225 pounds, he had been able to dominate the high school opposition as a power forward. To progress at that position in college or the pro’s, you need to be about 6’9″ of so, and Larry had finished his growth spurt.  So he turned his attention to football. In Buffalo around that time, the main draw of the local Bills franchise was a former USC running back named O.J. Simpson. While most kids in Buffalo idolized Simpson, Larry actually appreciated the unsung talents of the offensive linemen who blocked for Simpson, so he was determined to make the NFL as an offensive lineman.

Larry received several scholarships to Division 1 NCAA schools, but the two that stuck out were Penn State and the University of Miami. That Pfohl essentially only played his senior season in football (and did not know many of the fundamentals, instead relying on instinct and talent) and received looks from major college programs is a testament to the type of athlete he was. Joe Paterno, the once deity of football in Pennsylvania (since disgraced by the Jerry Sandusky scandal) actually visited Larry’s house to make his pitch for him to join the Nittany Lions. Luger accepted, and was off to Happy Valley to play for the illustrious Joe Pa.

Larry was having success at Penn State, and had even met his first true love, Peggy, who would later become his wife. But during a practice his first season, his MCL was torn and he had to miss his first college season. Larry was so devastated that he stopped attending classes, opting instead to leave Happy Valley and transfer to the warmer weather of the University of Miami.

Now, I need to point this out: The University of Miami in 1979 was not the football factory it was to become under Jimmy Johnson in the 1980’s. However, there was a relatively well known head coach there in the form of Lou Saban. Saban, no relation to current Alabama football coach Nick Saban, also had ties to Northwestern University, where he drew the attention of a student who was, in a few years, destined to take over the most storied franchise in sports. When Ohio native George Steinbrenner took over the Yankees in 1973, he brought Saban along with him, first as an advisor and eventually as General Manager of the team. George was a huge Big Ten football fan, so he brought football coach Saban with him to try to drill football discipline into his baseball organization.

Its one of the many reasons a good deal of Yankee fans hated King George.

Anyway, back to Larry. He had a golden opportunity at Miami. He was up to 255 pounds of muscle, and was running an absurd 4.6 40 yard dash. However, Miami is a pleasure palace with year round fun in the sun, and young Larry was soon up to his eyeballs in youthful indiscretions. To make a long story short, Larry fucked up one time to many, and was kicked off the football team. Devastated, he left the team and started working as a bouncer at a local club. He enjoyed the experience, and made some good money doing it. After every night shift, some members of a local, ahem, Italian fraternal organization befriended Larry and bought him breakfast every morning. As much fun as he was having, Larry still dreamt of playing pro football. So when an opportunity arose to play for the Montreal franchise of the Canadian football league, he jumped at it. He played a couple of seasons there, even appearing in Canada’s equivalent of the Super Bowl, the Grey Cup, losing to Warren Moon and his Edmonton Eskimos.

Montreal released Larry when he was injured the following season, but told him they would quickly resign him once he healed. The CFL has a limit on how many Americans can be on a team, so this was just a deft roster move, with the joint understanding that Larry would be back. However, in what would soon become a trend, Larry decided to join the Green Bay Packers when they called for a tryout. He made the team, but was injured and never played a game for them. He was soon released and joined the fledgling USFL Memphis Showboats, but nothing was quite going the way Larry wanted it to. So he decided a career change was needed.

Larry’s grandmother had watched wrestling regularly when he was a child, but he never really got into it. Yet for some reason, he decided to try to train to be a wrestler. Luger went down to the Tampa offices of Championship Wrestling from Florida. He was directed to Hiro Matsuda, and was soon being subjected to Matsuda’s rigorous training. Lex was always a good athlete who pushed himself in everything he did, so he took to the training regimen of Hindu Squats and endless pushups like a duck to water. A short time after Halloween, the newly christened Lex Luger made his debut, and rocketed up the Florida card in no time, winning the Southern Heavyweight Championship from Florida booked Wahoo McDaniel. Lex, while still very green, was an instant sensation due to his look and explosive power. Soon, Florida promoters matched him up against visiting NWA Champion Ric Flair. Luger praises Flair for making him look like a million bucks, and also getting him signed to Jim Crockett promotions soon after, as the newest member of the Four Horsemen.

Here is where the book veers a little bit. Luger does describe his time as a Horseman, but he just kind of glosses over it. There is no mention of War Games or some of the bigger angles he was involved in. He does describe what life on the road was like with the supergroup, but that story has been told by countless others many times, so nothing new there. He skips over his semi-famous “I am an athlete” promo. He does mention the attack by the Horsemen on him. However, he skips a ridiculous amount of his career here. There is no mention of his 1988 series with Flair, aside from quick summations of it. He skips his tag team with Barry Windham and subsequent betrayal. He briefly mentions his match with Steamboat in 89. And from there, he jumps almost directly to Bash 91, where he wins the WCW title and turns heel for no good reason.

There is a notable exception through all this speeding through his career: Sting (who wrote the foreword). The first time Luger encountered Sting, he was curt and impolite, as he saw him as direct competition. However, they soon became very good friends, and he mentions the SuperBrawl match with the Steiners as a favorite. He mentions it was Sting who laid out the match where, instead of one of the babyface teams working heel, all the guys would just cycle through all their best spots. The result was a true classic, one that won a good deal of Match of the Year honors in 1991.

By the time 1991 was ending, Lex was getting burnt out and wanted out of WCW. They complied, and Luger dropped the title to Sting at SuperBrawl two in a lackluster match. Luger admits he was at fault in that match, as he showed up literally right before the match and had no time to discuss the match with Sting. He also admits he just wanted to get in, drop the title, and get out unharmed. Sting was not pleased with this, and it was a point of contention between the two for a while.

When Luger exited WCW, he had agreed that he would not compete for any other wrestling company, as he was leaving his contract prematurely. He instead joined Vince McMahon’s World Bobybuilding Federation. WCW was not too thrilled with that. Lex insists he was not in the wrong here. WCW filed a suit against Luger for appearing on WWF programming. Lex says WCW stated that he had appeared at WrestleMania 8, and he insists he did not. If you have seen Mania 8, you know he did appear live via satellite to discuss the WBF. However, he never made an appearance on the soon to be ill fated WBF shows, due to a life experience that almost killed him.

In Summer of 1992, Lex decided to go for a joyride on his motorcycle. Just minutes away from his house, he collided with a car head on and was thrown approximately 150 feet, and his arm was nearly severed off. His local hospital was unsure how to care for the injury and were ready to amputate. But Luger had a savior that say in the form of his estranged friend Sting. Sting insisted Luger visit famous surgeon Dr. James Andrews. Andrews was able to put Luger’s arm back together again, and by January of 1993, Lex was on to the next phase of his career.

With the WBF now nothing more than a study in bad decision making (Certainly not Vince’s last), Luger redebuted in WWF at Royal Rumble 1993 as the Narcissist. That gimmick did not exactly set the world on fire. Lex’s only real match of note from that period was with Mr. Perfect at WrestleMania 9. Hennig laid out the match before hand and was going to lead Lex through it, but as soon as they got into the ring, Luger says Hennig forgot the whole layout, and Lex called it on the fly. The Narcissist languished around the midcard for a few months, until something interesting happened.

Vince McMahon had turfed Hulk Hogan out of the promotion, and set out to make Luger his new All American babyface. Thus was born the Lex Express and the most ridiculous push in wrestling history. Luger says the plan was for him to eventually win the title at Mania X, but Vince changed his mind. Nothing more, nothing less.

There is a funny little story Luger relays about Bret Hart. He and Bret were actually fairly close outside the ring, but Luger admits that Bret was responsible for one of his many addictions: Starbucks Coffee. Once he discovered it, Luger and Bret became, as Luger calls it, “Coffee buddies.”

Luger lost somewhat ignominiously at Mania X due to shenanigans from guest ref Mr. Perfect, and he sped to the midcard in a tag team with Davey Boy Smith. As the Summer of 1995 was winding down, Luger was having a chat with Sting, and he mentioned to him that he had been wrestling for WWF without a contract for about six months. Sting told him to call Eric Bischoff. Eric has said in his book he was not a fan of Luger, and offered him a low dollar contract, which Lex confirms here. He was told not to tell anyone, and Luger lived up to his promise. On the inaugural episode of WCW Monday Nitro, Lex Luger shocked the world and confronted Hulk Hogan. Luger had been working on a handshake deal with Vince, and he has not forgiven Luger to this day for his betrayal.

Luger rekindled his friendship with Sting, and had some of the most enjoyable years of his career, particularly in August of 1997 when he dethroned WCW Champion Hollywood Hulk Hogan via clean submission on en episode of Monday Nitro. It was a shock not only to see Hogan lose, but to do so on broadcast television. Hogan won the title back in short order a few days later at the Hog Wild PPV, but the Nitro title switch helped crystallize to fans that anything could happen on the upstart program, and made it must see television.

While Luger was enjoying perhaps the height of his professional career, his personal life was spiraling out of control.  He had used steroids in the 1980’s in cycles, 12 weeks on, 12 weeks off. He says he quit using them when he joined WWF due to their drug program at the time, but when he rejoined WCW, he started using them again because the WCW drug policy was a joke. He says you could easily beat the test simply by dropping a bit of visine in the sample. However, by this point, Lex was also drinking and drugging heavily. He and Sting were hanging out after matches and ingesting many different painkillers. While Sting eventually stopped using in 1998, when he became born again, Lex continued on his path of self destruction. It caused a rift between the two friends, and it would be a while before they were back on good terms with eachother.

Luger was injured in 1998 when he tore his left biceps. He worked feverishly to get back, and returned mid way through 1999. However, at this point he was not only addicted to painkillers, he was believing his own hype. He admits that he turned into his WWF Narcissist gimmick, staring at his own sculpted body for hours on end. He was becoming a preening primadonna. He was also living it up outside of the ring, spending lavishly on shit he really did not need. He was ignoring his family, and he soon began an affair that would lead to tragedy down the road.

Miss Elizabeth was paired with Luger on screen after his return, and she had quite the thing for Luger. Soon, the two were an item outside the ring, trying to keep it on the down low. Soon after WCW went out of business, the two were essentially drug buddies, spending many nights drinking and doing pills, among other things. This of course lead to the death of Elizabeth in 2003 via accidental overdose. I will let you read the book and judge Luger for yourselves, but he does seem contrite.

Elizabeth’s death was just the beginning of Luger’s descent. He was still drinking and drugging, and constantly finding himself running afoul of the law. His many indiscretions eventually landed him multiple stints behind bars. After the first two, he would immediately get out, and his “friends” who would pick him up would have spiked Arnold Palmer and his pain pills waiting in the car from him as soon as he exited the prison gate. He tried rehab, but it never stuck. It took his third time going to prison, for failure to pay alimony, for Lex to finally get his shit straight.

The third time in prison, at the Cobb County Correctional facility, was where Luger began to climb out of the abyss. A prison chaplain invited him to speak to him in a private room. At this time, Luger was basically in solitary…no tv, no books, no nothing. The Chaplain lead him into a room, and let Lex watch an action movie on his lap top. Religion was never broached. When Lex was released, the chaplain asked if Lex would help him workout. What started as a marriage of convenience soon turned into a lasting friendship.

Luger was still not clean though. One night he was drinking and drugging by himself, and fell asleep. He had a vivid dream that he was drowning, only to see the faintest sense of light that he was fighting to reach. He woke up the next morning convinced that he had overdosed right there, and God had saved him. He soon reached out to the Chaplain, Pastor Steve, and he began attending masses. Luger felt something inside him, but was still confused. On day Pastor Steve told Lex that he needed to pray for forgiveness that may never come from people who he had wronged, but Jesus will always forgive him. Lex dropped to his knees and was overwrought with emotion. At that point he became born again. He continued attending masses and kicked drugs altogether. He rekindled his friendship with Sting, who was the man who baptized Luger. Luger even rekindled his friendship with another WCW wrestler who had been born again: Nikita Koloff. Luger decided he was going to become a vessel of the Lord, and help those in need realize that they too could overcome. He was going to start a newsletter that advocated healthy living for Christians. Things seemed on the up and up when suddenly, his body betrayed him.

Lex had always had some back issues, but one day he was experiencing some serious hip pain at a fitness competition. A woman there talked to Lex and said she noticed he was in great pain. She referred him to a doctor in Arizona, and when Lex was checked out, he was told he had basically no hips left, and would need a total hip replacement. Luger made the appointment to have everything done at once.

About a week prior to the surgery, against friends concerns, Luger decided to go to an autograph signing in San Francisco. During the flight, he was having some back discomfort, but thought nothing of it. When he arrived at his hotel, the pain was blinding, but he figured it was just sciatica, so he decided to rest and hope it felt better in the morning.

It didn’t.

Lex woke up the next morning and could not move. He fell from his bed, and cried for help. By the grace of God, someone heard him, and soon an ambulance was on the scene, which transported Luger to Stanford University Medical Center. There, the doctors gave Lex a grave prognosis: His spinal cord had suffered serious damage due to a perfect storm of factors, and Lex Luger, the one time physical marvel that wowed wrestling crowds from coast to coast, was a quadriplegic.

This, however, was not the old Lex Luger who would have sunk to using drugs to numb whatever emotional distress he was feeling. This was a born again Lex. He rehabbed feverishly, and after a couple of years, was once again, miraculously, walking.

All in all, Luger’s book is quite the case study. I know a lot of people will be turned off the amount of religious rhetoric Luger lays on in the final chapters. Some will not like that he glosses over large chunks of his in ring career. But the fact is, Lex comes across as honest, believable, and contrite. Lex admits how far he sunk, what a total degenerate he became. But it shows you that even someone who was as admittedly depraved as Luger is not immune to salvation and rebirth. It is an inspirational account, one I would highly recommend.

I hope everyone, be it a wrestler or from any other walk of life, can read this and realize: It is never too late to be saved from a life of addiction.