Joe Laurinaitis, half of a tag team known as the Road Warriors who brought a brash, muscular showmanship to professional wrestling in the 1980s and were among the sport’s biggest stars in that era, died on Sept. 22 in Missouri. He was 60.
World Wrestling Entertainment announced his death. No cause was given. TMZ Sports reported that he died while vacationing at a resort in Osage Beach.
Laurinaitis was known as Road Warrior Animal, and with his partner, Michael Hegstrand — aka Road Warrior Hawk — made a splashy entry into the sport. Tag-team wrestling had faded from prominence in the 1970s as individual wrestlers took the spotlight, but the Road Warriors, with chiseled physiques, garish face paint and costumes, and a name drawn from a 1981 Mel Gibson movie, helped the two-man version come roaring back.
“Perhaps the most successful tag team gimmick in history, Hawk and Animal came into being in 1983 as post-apocalyptic biker toughs,” Greg Oliver and Steven Johnson wrote in “The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Tag Teams” (2005). “They rewrote the book on power and size, thrashing all comers.”
The book ranked them second only to the Fabulous Kangaroos, an act that worked an Australian theme, among the greatest tag teams in wrestling history. The Road Warriors got a crowd’s attention before they even made it to the ring, thanks to their signature entrance music, Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man,” a song that opens with thudding percussion that is soon joined by a screaming guitar.
“When you heard that drum beat,” Laurinaitis told the podcast “Chair Shots to the Cranium” in 2018, “and you heard that guitar riff, you’d know that someone was going to get their head kicked in.”
Another signature was a bit they called the Doomsday Device.
“The Doomsday Device was our finishing move,” Laurinaitis explained in his memoir, “The Road Warriors: Danger, Death and the Rush of Wrestling” (2011, with Andrew William Wright). “I’d duck down behind an opponent and pick him up on my shoulders. As soon as he was balanced in an upright position, Hawk would come off the top rope with a big clothesline and knock the guy for a back flip.”
The pair’s appearance, distinctive for the time, included complementary mohawks, an idea that came from Hegstrand, according to Laurinaitis. He suggested that Animal go with a single strip of hair in the center of his head, while Hawk had smaller strips on the left and right of his head.
“‘That way it’ll look like we could plug our heads into each other,’” he recalled Hawk saying.
“As crazy as it sounded to me,” Laurinaitis wrote, “it really didn’t sound that crazy at all. So we did it.”
The two, who were also known as the Legion of Doom, won an assortment of titles in the 1980s and ’90s. Hegstrand died in 2003 at 45.
Laurinaitis continued to wrestle well into this century. In announcing his death, WWE called him “one of the most intense superstars to ever step into the squared circle.”
Joseph Michael Laurinaitis was born on Sept. 12, 1960, in Philadelphia to Joseph and Lorna Laurinaitis. When he was 13 the family moved to Florida, where he took up weightlifting. Two years later another change in his father’s employment took them to Minnesota. At Irondale High School in New Brighton, he played baseball and football. He also played football during his two years at Golden Valley Lutheran College in Minnesota.
But he left college when his girlfriend became pregnant. (The resulting marriage was brief.)
By 22 he was drawing attention as a power lifter — aided, he later admitted, by anabolic steroids. He and Hegstrand became acquainted when both were bouncers at local clubs. They started working out together and, as Laurinaitis wrote, “decided to see what a regular steroid regimen could do for us.”
When they teamed up and joined the wrestling circuit, their muscle-bound physiques were a decidedly different look.
“We basically changed tag-team wrestling forever,” Laurinaitis told The South Florida Sun-Sentinel in 2001. “The era of the beer-bellied drinking guy who said, ‘Give me $50 and I’ll be happy,’ ended.”
Laurinaitis’ survivors include a son, James, a former professional football player.
Appearing on the scene just as cable television was taking hold, the Road Warriors were a bridge between an old style of wrestling and today’s version of the sport.
“The Road Warriors were innovative because of the paint and the look and the force,” Paul Ellering, who managed them, was quoted as saying in “The Tag Teams.” “Putting all that together in a package, spreading it across the country, it was a big deal.”
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