The Life & Career of Joe Laurinaitis a.k.a. Road Warrior Animal

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Joe Laurinaitis, who was one-half of the iconic Road Warriors tag team, has died at the age of 60 with TMZ reporting that it was due to natural causes.

The tag team of The Road Warriors became a template with many knockoffs aspiring to replicate their muscle-bound and kick-ass demeanor with a package that included a look, music, and promo style that forced you to take notice of them as they jumped through the television screen.

It was early in Laurinaitis’ career that he was paired with journeyman Mike Hegstrand, who would be forever known as “Hawk”. The two met prior to their wrestling days when they bounced at the Gramma B’s bar in Minnesota that also employed future performers Rick Rude, Barry Darsow, Scott Norton, and John Nord.

In The Road Warriors: Danger, Death, and the Rush of Wrestling, Laurinaitis noted that he got into steroids right before wrestling, citing the use of Dianabol.

Laurinaitis, originally from Philadelphia, began his career under the name, “The Road Warrior”, wrestling for Georgia Championship Wrestling in 1982.

Between stints in Georgia, Laurinaitis was back in Minnesota at Gramma B’s when Ole Anderson was there to meet with his trainer Eddie Sharkey. Anderson saw a photo of Hegstrand and paired them together. He also added Paul Ellering as their manager and thus, the team of the ‘80s was born.

They were brought into Georgia on June 11, 1983 and given the NWA National tag titles after former champions, Afa & Sika had left the territory. The story was that the Road Warriors had won a fictitious tournament and held the titles until December.

June 11, 1983…..Georgia Championship Wrestling……the birth of The Road Warriors

— Kris Zellner (@KrisZellner) September 23, 2020

Their third and final reign as champions ended on July 4, 1984, losing to Ron Garvin & Jerry Oates right as Vince McMahon took over control of the WTBS timeslots that month.

Their next territory was Verne Gagne’s AWA. The pair defeated The Crusher & Baron von Rashke for the AWA tag titles immediately on August 25, 1984.

In 1985, the team broke through internationally after their matches began airing in Japan on World Pro Wrestling. The easy-to-digest style of hard-hitting matches coupled with their unique look made them an instantly desirable tandem for the Japanese audience to gravitate toward.

The duo began working for All Japan in early 1985 after coming in to face Jumbo Tsuruta & Genichiro Tenryu with Ellering in their corner. The Warriors would defeat the pair for the NWA International tag titles several years later on March 12, 1987 in Sapporo, holding them for over a year until June 1988 where they lost by disqualification to Tsuruta & Yoshiaki Yatsu to unify their titles with the PWG tag titles. It shows you the protection of the Warriors that even with a prestigious unification, they got away with a disqualification to avoid being pinned.

On the domestic front, they made their largest splash wrestling for Jim Crockett Promotions beginning in 1986. They had been working dates for the AWA and Crockett before working strictly for Crockett in the U.S.

They were part of the inaugural War Games Match at The Omni on July 4, 1987, teaming with Dusty Rhodes, Nikita Koloff & Paul Ellering to defeat Ric Flair, Arn Anderson, Lex Luger, Tully Blanchard & J.J. Dillon. It was one of the greatest gimmick matches that Rhodes created with follow-up matches inside the two-ring steel cage on July 31st and another one in Chicago.

While the team had several reigns as NWA Six-Man tag champions with Rhodes, the Warriors didn’t win the NWA tag titles until 1988 when they defeated The Midnight Express (Bobby Eaton & Stan Lane) in New Orleans on October 29.

Due to a resistance to beat the Road Warriors, it became difficult coming up with ways to defeat them. A fast-count was used by referee Teddy Long to have the pair lose the titles to Mike Rotunda & Steve Williams at the Clash of Champions card on April 2, 1989.

With Jim Herd running WCW in 1990 and cutting costs, The Road Warriors departed WCW and left for the World Wrestling Federation. On paper, it seemed like a perfect place for the team.

They were re-branded as The Legion of Doom, which was a moniker they had previously utilized and wasn’t a drastic switch for the two. The story they were given was that their name would cause confusion with WWF champion, The Ultimate Warrior.

They won the WWF tag titles at SummerSlam 1991 defeating The Nasty Boys at Madison Square Garden. The title loss occurred in February 1992 on a house show in Denver, Colorado to Money Inc. (Ted DiBiase & Mike Rotunda). The title loss never aired on television with the Wrestling Observer Newsletter citing that after the house show loop, Hawk was informed he had failed a drug test and was suspended for six weeks. This led to the Legion of Doom returning for an interview segment at WrestleMania 8 in April where they re-introduced Ellering as their manager.

Things fell apart after a disastrous match at SummerSlam that August at Wembley Stadium where they defeated Money Inc. In later years, Laurinaitis revealed Hegstrand was inebriated during the match. Hawk disappeared after the show, leading to Laurinaitis teaming with Brian Adams. This lasted through October when Animal went down with a broken tailbone and didn’t wrestle for over three years while obtaining a Lloyds of London policy.

During the break, Hawk re-emerged teaming with Kensuke Sasaki in New Japan as The Hell Raisers, a team similar in presentation to The Road Warriors. It was initially pitched to Hawk that they could be “The New Road Warriors” and he turned it down. There was a rift during this era between Hawk and Animal, although things were patched up teaming with Sasaki in 1996 at the Tokyo Dome several months after Animal returned to wrestling.

In early 1996, they began working for WCW while Hawk still had his agreement with New Japan. Their WCW run was a minor one that lasted several months. One of the only notable things from this run was Hawk and Animal wrestling each other during the Lethal Lottery tournament at Slamboree on May 19 that paired Animal with Booker T. and Hawk with Lex Luger. The match resulted in a double count-out, begging many to wonder why it was booked.

After leaving WCW at the end of the year, the duo resurfaced in the WWF in early 1997 for their last major run.

After nearly a five year absence, The Legion of Doom had their first match back in the WWF on the February 24, 1997 edition of Raw, taking on The Headbangers. The timing of their return coincided with that year’s WrestleMania taking place at their (storyline) hometown of Chicago, where they teamed with Ahmed Johnson to defeat The Nation of Domination in a Chicago Street Fight.

In July, they headlined one of the most well-remembered pay-per-views in company history at the In Your House: Canadian Stampede card. The main event was a ten-man tag where Bret Hart, British Bulldog, Owen Hart, Jim Neidhart & Brian Pillman defeated Steve Austin, Ken Shamrock, Goldust & The Legion of Doom in one of the most heated matches of that era during the height of The Hart Foundation’s feud with the U.S.

Their last major title win occurred in October 1997 when they finally defeated The Godwinns for the titles at a Raw taping in Topeka, Kansas. However, the team was being shifted to the role of grooming younger teams for stardom. The WWF’s top project was a makeshift team of struggling talent in Brian James & Billy Gunn, who would later become the New Age Outlaws.

They defeated L.O.D. for the titles on November 24, 1997. The teams would feud into 1998, when an angle took the Legion of Doom off of television in February.

They were re-branded as L.O.D. 2000 when they were re-introduced as the mystery team in the WrestleMania 14 battle royal, which they won. They were also given a new manager in Sunny. The new look of the team gave new life to their feud with the New Age Outlaws, but it was clear they were there to make the younger team and not vice versa.

By the summer of 1998, they introduced Darren Drozdov as a third member of the team that culminated with a tasteless storyline that made Hawk’s real-life addiction issues a part of his character. The angle climaxed with a scene where Hawk fell off the TitanTron as Drozdov was reaching out, leaving viewers to wonder if Drozdov had pushed him.

Animal and Hawk got back together but were afterthoughts in the WWF’s tag division. During a battle royal on Sunday Night Heat, they were just one of several tag teams eliminated, allowing D-Lo Brown & Test to receive a tag title shot later that night on the WrestleMania 15 pay-per-view. The next night, Hawk & Animal lost to tag champions Owen Hart & Jeff Jarrett in less than three minutes in what was their final match during this run with the company.

The pair teamed sparingly over the next few years including a stint together in World Japan. They also popped up on an edition of NWA-TNA in January 2003. Their last match ever for the WWE occurred as a surprise on the May 12, 2003 edition of Raw in Philadelphia, losing to Raw tag champions Kane & Rob Van Dam.

After Hegstrand died in October 2003, Animal continued doing independent dates and had one last run in the WWE in 2005-06 where he was paired with Jon Heidenreich and managed by Christy Hemme in another attempt to reinvent The Road Warriors. This ran its course and Laurinaitis exited the company in 2006.

In June 2007, Laurinaitis teamed with Rick Steiner in a losing effort to Team 3-D at TNA’s Slammiversary pay-per-view. Animal’s final match was a surprise appearance on Friday Night SmackDown in July 2012 pinning Heath Slater, who was getting destroyed by a different legend each week.

In 2011, the Road Warriors and Ellering were inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame and the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame based in Amsterdam, New York. That same year, Laurinaitis released the group’s biography The Road Warriors: Danger, Death and the Rush of Wrestling with co-author Andrew William Wright.

Cameo appearances by Animal included walking out with Ken Shamrock at Bellator 138 in June 2015 when Shamrock lost to Kimbo Slice. Animal was also in attendance for All In in September 2018, introducing the show to the crowd at the Sears Centre.

The Road Warriors were the subject of an episode of Vice’s Dark Side of the Ring this past spring.

He was re-married on September 22, 2017. Sadly, this same date marked his in 2020.

Laurinaitis leaves behind his wife Kim and three children. He had two younger brothers including John Laurinaitis.

With notes from the Wrestling Observer Newsletter (November 3, 2003)