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When Vince McMahon set out on his quest to conquer the wrestling world, he knew exactly the guy that would help him do it. Hulk Hogan, a staple of the rival AWA, was the perfect figurehead for McMahon’s campaign across the wrestling landscape. Hogan had an incredible physique and a unique type of charisma that made it easy for fans at the time to believe in him as the biggest, coolest star in the world; an action hero on par with Rambo, GI Joe or Arnold Schwarzenegger. Hogan was the perfect choice to lead McMahon in the war across the continent.
While Hogan had the appeal to take the regional WWF and turn it into an international juggernaut, he wasn’t a perfect performer. When he first won the WWF World Heavyweight Championship, he was still relatively green in the ring and needed his matches to be short and simple. Otherwise it would expose his flaws as a performer.
Waiting for Hogan was the perfect opponent, Paul Orndorff. Orndorff had debuted in the company right around the same time as when Hogan captured the world title, but was already a respected veteran. A great college football player as a running back at the University of Tampa, Orndorff spent a year playing minor-league football before turning to pro wrestling in 1976. A tremendous natural athlete, Orndorff quickly established himself as a top star, and was a staple in Memphis and in Georgia, where he was a frequent opponent of Ric Flair and won the NWA National Heavyweight Championship (the belt that was second to Flair’s NWA World Championship) on three different occasions.
That time spent in the Southeast turned Orndorff into a hardened, veteran worker who understood the ins-and-outs of putting on an entertaining match and could guide Hogan through thrilling matches that played to his strengths and hid his weaknesses. Hogan had an endless stream of opponents throughout the 1980s but none were as consistent as Orndorff, who was a trusted and steady pair of hands that could work with Hogan and get the most out of him.
Any wrestling fan would recognize the formula; the match starts with Hogan coming out hot and taking it to the challenger. Then something nefarious would happen, the heel would cheat or a manager would interfere and the heel would gain an advantage on Hogan and take control of the match. The heel would then spend several minutes building heat, all leading to the trademark Hogan comeback, with the “Hulking Up”, the three punches, the big boot and then the leg drop. The sold-out audience would go crazy and everyone would go home happy.
If you think about Hogan’s greatest opponents, most fans would think of the more famous names; like Roddy Piper, Andre the Giant and Randy Savage. While Hogan headlined WrestleMania against those guys, it was actually Orndorff who was Hogan’s best drawing opponent, as they headlined an endless series of house shows across North America using that same formula. Orndorff worked the most house shows against Hogan; and while Piper and Andre drew the big TV ratings, it was Orndorff who was in the main event with Hogan more than anybody else. Cumulatively, it is possible that Hogan vs Orndorff is the single-biggest drawing program from a live-attendance perspective in US wrestling history.
While Orndorff didn’t have the glitz or fame that Piper, Andre or Savage provided, what set him apart from his peers was his unselfishness and stability. Piper was much more charismatic and often teamed with Orndorff, but Piper was very protective of his position and famously refused to lose to Hogan as he thought it would damage his drawing power. Orndorff on the other hand had no qualms with getting pinned by Hogan, so Orndorff did the job every night. At WrestleMania I, it was predictably Orndorff and not Piper, who would lose the fall to Hogan and Mr. T.
Orndorff also brought a level of intensity to his matches that his peers often lacked. Hogan was much larger than Orndorff, but Orndorff made it easy for fans to believe that he was a real threat thanks to his intensity and his athleticism. Hogan had big muscles, Piper had amazing charisma and Andre was a literal giant, but Orndorff had the aura of a powerful athlete that was not always prevalent in the WWF at that time.
Other wrestlers, such as David Schultz, were brought in to fill a similar role as Orndorff as a heel to work with Hogan, but Schultz lacked the stability and professionalism to last long in the position. In an era that was ripe with paranoia and politics, Orndorff was reliable and professional, always willing to take a pinfall and make the next town. As the WWF expanded into new cities with Hogan as its top star, Orndorff could always be counted on to deliver in the main event and do things in a professional manner, which was at a premium at the time.
Orndorff would spend time as a babyface teaming with Hogan, but of course would later turn on him in a famous betrayal which kick-started another chapter in their feud. That feud would involve The Big Event, a special stadium show that drew approximately 61,000 fans to Exhibition Stadium in Toronto, to this day the largest crowd in North American wrestling history that was not a WrestleMania. Given that the show didn’t carry the WrestleMania name and still drew that big, it gives you an idea of how hot the feud was. Historian Matt Farmer said that during the week of that show, Hogan vs Orndorff drew more than 150,000 fans to their shows on different nights.
Orndorff injured his arm in a weight-lifting accident at some point in 1986 or 1987 during his big run against Hogan, but kept working because he was making so much money on that house show run. The lack of rest caused permanent damage to his arm and caused it to atrophy. Years of taking most of the bumps in all of those main events had worn him down and injuries hampered him throughout 1987, and in Jan. 1988 he left the company. He took a year off and re-emerged in Japan and later WCW. While not the athlete that he once was, he was still a damn good worker and had some notable moments in WCW, often in tag team action and particularly with Paul Roma. In 1995 his body broke down for good and he retired.
The WWF became the world-wide leader in wrestling thanks to the vision of Vince McMahon and the marketability of Hulk Hogan; but it wouldn’t have gotten there without someone like Paul Orndorff, the reliable, intelligent veteran who could always be counted on to handle the biggest tasks. Orndorff is not a cultural icon of the 1980s like some of his contemporaries, but those mega stars like Hogan stand on the shoulders of professionals like Orndorff.
In this edition of the Gentlemen’s Wrestling Podcast, Jesse Collings (@Jesse Collings) and Jason Ounpraseuth (@JasonOun95) talk about the famous Nexus angle from 2010. The guys go over the original debut, what went wrong at SummerSlam 2010, the weird post-Nexus careers for the talent involved and how the angle paved the way for future instances of WWE failing to elevate younger talent.