When Joseph Laurinaitis, aka Road Warrior Animal, passed away on Tuesday, Sept. 22, I was shocked to find out that he was only 60. The main imagery of Animal and The Road Warriors that comes to mind are hazy images from 1980s television that feel like it was shot 50 years ago. When I think of wrestlers from the 1980s, I think of Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair, wrestlers who look old and broken down, or Roddy Piper, Dusty Rhodes or Randy Savage, who died years ago.
But Animal was just in his mid-20s when along with his tag team partner Hawk, he became one of the defining acts during a boom period in wrestling and an instantly-recognizable icon around the world. Even when he came back to the WWE in 2005, when his act felt old, broken down and faded, he was only 46, which is just three years older than AJ Styles is today. The Road Warriors were young when they conquered the world, and unfortunately the pain and substance abuse that was deemed necessary to be a star in wrestling likely contributed to both of them passing away at an early age.
Animal got his start in pro wrestling while he was working and living in Minnesota, bouncing at a bar that was owned by former wrestler and trainer Eddie Sharkey. He had previously met the future Road Warrior Hawk while working out at the same gym, and the duo were recruited by Sharkey to be trained, along with the future Rick Rude and ironically, Barry Darsow, the future Smash of the WWF’s Road Warrior knock-off tag team, Demolition.
Animal first started working in 1982, using a biker gimmick called The Road Warrior, ripped straight off of the 1981 film Mad Max 2, which was released as “The Road Warrior” in the United States. His career was headed nowhere though, and he was recruited to Georgia by Paul Ellering, who was looking to manage a new monster tag team. Animal hooked back up with Hawk, who had been finding limited success wrestling in the Pacific Northwest, and the duo debuted in Georgia Championship Wrestling as The Road Warriors.
The gimmick took some early refining; but soon they were a massive success. Huge and agile, the duo came out to the Black Sabbath classic “Iron Man” and specialized in short, quick squash matches against local competition that looked (and felt) brutal. Their signature move, The Doomsday Device, was incredible for its time both for its visual appeal and real sense of danger.
Perhaps more than anything, The Road Warriors turned the squash match, long a staple of the professional wrestling industry, into an art form. If fans want to go back and see what the Road Warriors were like as a team, they should not go back and look at huge PPV shows that settled the end of feuds or anything like that, they should go find the squash matches. In two minutes or less, The Road Warriors hit the ring and would annihilate their competition, quickly and ruthlessly, with a few serious power moves thrown in to show that these guys were basically unstoppable.
The squash matches were the key to their success. The Road Warriors were physically impressive and cut an image running down the aisle with their intensity, costuming and presentation, but they were not refined workers. If they had a basic 10 minute match, they would have quickly become exposed and never gotten over to the degree that they did. Instead, the matches were kept short, their weaknesses were hidden and the duo got over as unstoppable bad-asses.
The group also flashed great charisma and star presence in promos. Obviously they were intense and took the gimmick seriously, but both guys, particularly Hawk, had an edge of humor, that gave the promos some extra spunk and helped get the team over as babyfaces. They were not just big, intimidating tough guys, they could wink at the camera as well and let the audience in on their fun.
Quickly, imitators would begin popping up all over the country. The Powers of Pain (The Barbarian and The War Lord) in Jim Crockett Promotions and Demolition in the WWF were the two most obvious imitators, and even though fans saw them as clear rip-offs, they both managed to get over. The Blade Runners in Mid-South Wrestling were less successful as a team, but the individuals (The Ultimate Warrior and Sting) would go on to great success, largely following The Road Warrior Playbook of being super jacked, wearing face paint, and having quick squash matches.
Contrasting The Road Warriors with today, it is impressive to think how on-point they were in contemporary pop culture. The Road Warriors gimmick was inspired by a current popular movie, and their brawn, attitude and post-apocalyptic look fit right in with the pop culture of the time. The Road Warriors were cool and I’m not sure if there are many wrestling characters right now who symbolize pop culture in 2020. That kind of missing connection plays a role in wrestling not being as mainstream today as it has been in prior generations.
The Road Warriors benefited tremendously from the territory scene in the 1980s; since they were limited in what they could do inside the ring, they were not going to have a super-long shelf life. Nobody wanted to see The Road Warriors sell, so they followed a familiar pattern. They would come into a promotion, kick-ass, win the tag team titles, lose them in a protected finish, and then move on. Later down the line they would come back to the territory, their triumphant return leading to the phrase “Road Warrior pop” to describe the crowd’s reaction to their return.
That traveling act made The Road Warriors probably the biggest wrestling team on a worldwide basis. From Georgia to Japan, The Road Warriors went everywhere and got over everywhere. Over the last two decades, WWE’s industry dominance, coupled with Vince McMahon’s long-standing distaste for tag team wrestling, had led some fans to believe that by its very nature, tag team wrestling is a midcard act. Make no mistake about it, The Road Warriors were a main event team, and were one of the biggest drawing acts of the 1980s.
While Animal and Hawk were friends since before they got into professional wrestling, they were very different outside of the ring. Hawk was a notorious partier, even by the standards of that era and his excessive drug use would play a major role in his untimely death in 2003, at the age of 46. Perhaps the most famous incident was at SummerSlam 1992, where Hawk was clearly under the influence of prescription drugs during the match against Money Inc., leaving Animal to basically work the match alone.
On the contrary, Animal was a dedicated family man, who was famous for flying home to see his family if he had a day off in-between shows, spending nearly a full day flying back and forth in order to spend just a few hours with his wife and kids. His son, James Laurinitus, was a 3x All-American Linebacker at Ohio State before an 8-year NFL career. When he was in college, Animal would show up in the crowd, in full face-paint/shoulder pads to watch his son play.
By the time 1990 rolled around, the sun was beginning to set on The Road Warriors. The end of the territories limited their ability to hop back and forth and they ended up in the WWF, having a disappointing run before leaving in 1992. Animal hurt his back right before he left the company and would wrestle sporadically over the next few years, while Hawk worked mainly in Japan with “Power Warrior” Kensuke Sasaki. They would team up later in WCW, have a run back in the WWF as a lower-card team during the Attitude Era, and pop up here and there, but the glory days were long in the past. After Hawk passed away in 2003, Animal returned to WWE and formed a poorly-remembered team with Heidenreich, who played the role of Hawk but the crowd largely rejected this new incarnation of The Road Warriors.
As a side note, I was a kid when Animal and Heidenreich teamed up. I knew very little about the real Road Warriors; but I was intrigued by the cool shoulder pads, the face paint, the entrance music, and the Doomsday Device was awesome. Decades after they debuted, The Road Warriors were still cool to impressionable kids like myself. It wasn’t until I got a little older and started going online that I found out that most fans despised the Animal/Heidenreich team.
When it comes to the greatest tag team of all-time conversation, there are numerous teams with strong cases. Pat Patterson and Ray Stevens were better workers than The Road Warriors, The Midnight Express were more dynamic and Antonio Inoki and Giant Baba were bigger TV stars. But, let’s keep it kayfabe for a second–there is no way those teams could beat The Road Warriors. The Road Warriors, despite numerous duplications and knock-offs, remain in a class by themselves when it comes to badass tag teams.