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Shortly after closing time, the manager of Ribera’s Steakhouse made a bizarre request of Joe Laurinaitis as he stood in front of his restaurant in Tokyo, Japan.
“Hide behind the bushes.”
It was just past 10:30 on a weeknight in the early 1990s, and Laurinaitis — a hulking, 285-pound pro wrestler — had already tried helplessly to hail a cab. Eventually the manager came outside and stashed Laurinaitis and his friend, James Beard, behind some shrubbery while he flagged them a ride to their hotel.
“The Japanese people back then were deathly afraid of Americans anyway, especially big strong guys,” Beard said Wednesday. “So they definitely weren’t going to stop for a guy named Animal.”
“Thing was, he wasn’t an animal at all.”
A longtime referee, Beard chuckled as he recalled the story on an otherwise somber Wednesday evening, less than 24 hours after Laurinaitis — a member of the infamous tag-team “The Road Warriors” — had passed.
Laurinaitis, who was known as “Animal,” reportedly died of natural causes in Osage Beach, Missouri. He was 60.
“Joe was a sensitive guy, a family guy,” Beard said. “He cared about people and touched their lives. He was easy to love and he loved easy.”
Wrestling luminaries such as Ric Flair, Bret Hart, Sting and Hulk Hogan flocked to Twitter Wednesday to pay tribute to Laurinaitis, who was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2011. Even celebrities such as LeBron James sent tweets, illustrating how truly iconic Laurinaitis and the Road Warriors were not just in wrestling, but in mainstream culture.
Michael Hegstrand, Laurinaitis’ best friend and the other half of the Road Warriors known as “Hawk,” died of a heart attack in 2003.
“The Road Warriors were trendsetters,” Hall-of-Fame wrestling commentator Jim Ross told Outkick Wednesday. “They turned heads wherever they went because their look — everything about them — was so dominant. They changed the face of wrestling in a lot of ways.”
Laurinaitis and Hegstrand met in their native Minneapolis, where they were weightlifting buddies and bouncers at a downtown bar called Gramma B’s along with future pro wrestlers Rick Rude, Barry Darsow (“Smash” of the tag-team Demolition) Scott Simpson (Nikita Koloff), Scott Norton and others. In their free time the bouncers would attend local AWA events run by Verne Gagne and realize they were bigger and stronger than the organization’s top stars. The cards were drawing 20,000-plus fans, so when the opportunity came to train to become wrestlers, they jumped on it.
Laurinaitis and Hegstrand ended up in Georgia Championship wrestling, where promoter Ole Anderson dubbed them “The Road Warriors” based off a character he’d seen in the movie “Mad Max 2.” Their costumes started out as sleeveless leather vests and leather pants. Eventually they began painting their faces and wearing football pads adorned with spikes to the ring.
The entrance theme song — “Iron Man,” by Black Sabbath — sent fans into a frenzy. Ross said the reaction became known as “The Road Warrior pop.”
“It was similar to the sound of the Undertake’s gong, or the glass shattering for Steve Austin,” Ross said. “The very first note of that song would hit, and the arena would just erupt. “The Road Warrior” pop is part of the pro wrestling nomenclature, the pro wrestling language. It’s something everyone strives to achieve.”
Ross said Laurinaitis and Hegstrand were quick to earn the respect of their peers because, rather than rely on their strength and physiques to earn money, they insisted on learning how to become true wrestlers.“People looked at them as power guys, clothesline guys, body slam guys, strikers, so to speak,” Ross said. “But they were very athletic, and that is sometimes overlooked. Still, when they first started in the wrestling business, a lot of their peers felt they were one dimensional. And maybe they were, because they were very green with a small move set. But they had that great look, the great music, the great costume and stage attire.
“They never quit working on their game. Quite frankly, they were so over, so they were so popular, that they could’ve kept earning money even if they wouldn’t have improved their wrestling skills. They were big athletic guys who didn’t want to be perceived as less than great. I always had great respect for them for that.”
Accompanied by their manager, Precious Paul Ellering, The Road Warriors bounced from territory to territory. Georgia, Charlotte, Minneapolis, Japan.
Wrestling critics often referred to Laurinaitis and Hegstrand as “the tag team of the 1980s.” Later, after huge runs with WCW and WWE, they were dubbed as the best tag-team in history.
Beard, the referee and Laurinaitis’ close friend, said working Road Warrior matches was one of the highlights of his career.
“I’ve worked with some of the best ever,” he said. “I’ve never been intimidated or nervous in the ring. But there were a small group of guys that, when their music hits, and you know they’re coming, you get that rush, like ‘Wow, this is really cool.’ You’re standing there in the ring, watching them walk down the aisle, and you just feel something. That’s what it was like standing there waiting on them. It was special.”
Once the match was over, though, and the face paint and costumes were removed, Ross said Laurinaitis and Hegstrand simply reminded him of “two jocks from the football team, learning the wrestling business and having the time of their lives.”
Hegstrand was the wild, unpredictable half of the duo; Laurinaitis was known as more level-headed. Still even though they had their share of falling outs — including one argument that caused a split — it was clear how much Laurinaitis and Hegstrand valued each other’s friendship.
Friends said Hegstrand’s death in 2003 was something from which Laurinaitis never fully recovered. Evan Husney is the executive producer of “Dark Side of the Ring,” a documentary series that examines tragedies in the wrestling industry. Husney and his crew grew close with Laurinaitis during the filming of an episode about The Road Warriors, which aired last spring.
Husney remembers eating lunch with Laurinaitis after recording a four-hour interview. He seemed rattled and shaken.
“Those interviews are a heavy experience for everyone,” Husney said, “because they are basically reliving the most difficult times of their lives. All of those memories and emotions come flooding back.
“For Joe … his persona and who he was was all tied to that tag team. He felt like he lost his identity after Hawk passed away. Even though they had a very tumultuous relationship toward the end, and at different moments, those two relied on one another. That partnership was who they were. It was their livelihood. It was an (inner) struggle for Joe after that was gone.”
At least when it came to the wrestling business.
Outside of the ring, Laurinaitis was a born-again Christian, a loyal friend, a loving husband — he sent a “happy anniversary” tweet to his wife just hours before he passed — and a proud father. His son, James, was an All-American linebacker at Ohio State and was selected in the second round of the 2009 NFL draft by the St. Louis Rams. He played for them for seven seasons, and Joe moved to St. Louis to be close to his son.
“It was a beautiful relationship to see evolve and develop,” Ross said. “When you saw them together, it was unmistakeable that they had this father-son love that you just can’t manufacture. It couldn’t be faked. Their relationship was real. James was as proud of his dad as his dad was of him.”
And make no mistake, Laurinaitis was proud of his accomplishments in wrestling.
Husney was taken aback when Laurinaitis approached him at a hotel bar in Las Vegas last year about producing a “Dark Side of the Ring” episode about the Road Warriors. A fellow Minnesota native, Husney jumped at the chance and flew all of the former bouncers-turned-wrestlers back to Minneapolis for the filming.
“He helped set up the whole thing and was so helpful,” Husney said. “It was like a big reunion to him.
“He was down to earth,” Husney said. “I’d only known the gimmick version of him, this huge larger-than-life warrior from another world. Watching them as I was growing up, with the shoulder pads and the spikes, coming out to “Iron Man’ and being these post-apocalyptic heavy metal warriors … to this day, it’s the coolest thing I can possibly imagine. And here he is coming up to me, saying he’s a fan of my work and telling me he wants to take part in my show. We talked for hours that night. It was such a meaningful moment for me.”
Up-and-coming wrestlers SWE Fury, an independent promotion based in Texas, got to see the warm side of Laurinaitis, too. The final few months of his life were spent mentoring talent and offering feedback after their matches.
Beard, who owns the company, said he initially brought in Laurinaitis as a one-time attraction to take pictures and sign autographs with fans. But then he asked Beard if he could become more involved. Laurinaitis began booking matches, planning finishes and critiquing wrestlers. Beard said Laurinaitis was particularly helpful during a recent “training camp” in Missouri.
“Joe and I sat there right there at ringside and took notes,” Beard said. “After every match he’d get up and follow the guys back to the locker room and give them critiques. It wasn’t just lip service with him. He had a real passion for it. He was giving back.”
Beard said his promotion will honor Laurinaitis at its next event in Dallas. As wrestlers continue pay homage on social media, you can bet plenty of people will be re-watching Husney’s documentary, “The Last Ride of the Road Warriors,” in the coming days, weeks and months.
“I always looked at the Road Warriors as guys who lived by their own rules,” Husney said. “They weren’t tied down by one federation. They were renegades making the rounds on their own with their shoot manager, Paul Ellering, doing whatever they pleased. They were like a traveling rock band.
“And they brought the house down wherever they went.”