I conducted a phone interview last week with Joe “Road Warrior Animal” Laurinaitis to discuss his recently released book, “The Road Warriors: Danger, Death and the Rush of Wrestling,” and other topics. (Note: It has been reported that an announcement about The Road Warriors being inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame will be made on Raw Monday night, but when asked about the HOF, Laurinaitis coyly said that he hadn't heard anything about it.)
What can fans expect from your book?
I tried to hit the masses. Of course, the main audience is sports fans and wrestling fans. But I think even if you’re not a wrestling fan, at some time or another, whether you were walking by a magazine rack or it was on television somewhere – whether it was USA Network or TBS or Spike or whatever – you’ve seen Hawk and I somewhere. My thought process was: This is a book about two guys just like in any sport or any kind of entertainment business that seemingly went it there at the bottom and made it to the top – and stayed at the top for a long time. That’s what I was trying to portray. It’s a chronological time line of our career. Some of the stories in there are definitely appropriate for all ages. I don’t get really graphic in any of my stories. I think it’s some of the stuff that a true wrestling fan or someone who isn’t even a wrestling fan would want to read about the ins and outs of the wrestling business [such as]: Who decides who wins and loses; what kayfabe means in our business; or what it’s like going over to Japan where there’s definitely a language barrier.
Speaking of Japan and the language barrier, I often wondered how Americans such as you and Hawk were able to call spots in the ring when facing Japanese wrestlers.
I’ll let you in on a little secret. Almost every Japanese referee can speak English. And they were the biggest help – from Tiger Hatori to Joe Higuchi, who were two of the main guys that refereed forever there in Japan – they were absolutely phenomenal. I would be looking at my opponent [and] I would say something to the referee like I’m yelling at him, and he would go translate it to the Japanese wrestler. And there was still stuff lost in the translation.
You go into detail about the ups and downs you had with Hawk over the years and his battles with substance abuse. Is being in a tag team a lot like a marriage in that you’re together for better or worse?
Well, that’s why the wrestling business probably doesn’t have too many tag teams today, and when they do have them they don’t last long. I don’t think they want to put that kind of stock in the teams anymore because there’s always one member of the team that – for whatever reason – just falls apart. With The British Bulldogs, it was Dynamite Kid. With us, it was Hawk. With almost every team, there’s somebody or something where there’s drinking or somebody goes crazy – especially with the top teams. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because you work a little bit more and you’re a little bit more in demand and you definitely take a pounding different when you’re a top guy to make the match what you need to make it. It’s probably why tag teams are not in the main event like they used to be.
Unlike a number of your peers, you’ve been able to avoid the pitfalls of the business. Your family is intact and you haven’t had personal demons to overcome. What do you attribute that to?
Let me tell you something: This is a very evil business, and I by no means was an angel. I had the best friend in the world in my wife, who was an unbelievable trooper through it all – ups and downs. She was both mom and dad while I was gone on the road and she kept our marriage together. Sometimes you get crazy on the road with “Nature Boy” [Ric Flair] you know what I mean? [laughs] But my family was always first and foremost. And when I came home, Animal went on the shelf and Dad was there. And the kids knew that. Dad was the coach; Dad was at the parent-teacher meetings; Dad was helping out coaching football and baseball and hockey. I didn’t even know how to skate; I taught myself how to skate so I could coach hockey. Later on in my career my faith changed from a Catholic faith to a Christian faith – it’s non-denominational. I don’t Bible-bang anybody to death, but I will listen to people and I will help them out if they need any advice in any area. I’m no expert, but it’s pretty much common sense. Things happen for a reason, and good people will prosper and bad people will have pitfalls. It’s not rocket science.
In reading the book, it seems like the real tragedy regarding Hawk is that he finally started to turn his self-destructive life around – he met a good woman and he became born-again – and then he passed away.
I hate to say it, but it was almost too little, too late. I think that his liver had the damage from the interferon treatments that he was taking and I think his heart was just worn out – his ventricles were just stressed out to the max. He tried to do it – he had the right frame out mind. I kind of wonder how much he was totally 100 percent clean anyway at the time, but I think he pretty much was. He faced the grips of the Grim Reaper probably 15 times and he lived through it. He definitely left behind a legacy.
A lot of top tag teams – even brother combinations – seem to end up facing each other in a singles program. Why was there never an Animal-Hawk feud?
I really think that the promoters really respected what we did for the business – and we were not really for it either – and they didn’t force it upon us. That was important to us. We so protected the gimmick and what we were building over the years that I just think it would have been an insult to us if we would have been just like everybody else and fought each other, no matter how much money it would have made or it would have been cool to see or whatever.
You were with Jim Crockett during the glory days of the promotion when it was very competitive with the WWF. In any wrestling war, however, there has to be a winner and a loser, and as we all know, Crockett ultimately lost. In retrospect, could Crockett have done anything differently?
I don’t know, man. Probably could have been a little more cost-effective. We probably didn’t need to have the private planes, which cost a lot of money. One of them was $10,000 to take off, $10,000 to land. That’s $20,000 a day; you do a double shot, that’s 40 grand just in flights.
Baltimore, despite being a traditional WWF city, was a big town for Crockett back in the day. Any memories from your many trips to Baltimore?
Baltimore was one of my favorite cities – it still is. I used to love going to Baltimore – not only good gyms and the people were great, but the food. I spent more time down in Little Italy at Sabatino’s. I must have eaten six orders of clams casino every time I went in there besides my dinner. I’d get in there at about 315 pounds and leave there at about 325. We went into Baltimore at first with Georgia Championship Wrestling – a guy named Gary Juster was the promoter. Then Verne Gagne and the AWA guys got mixed in and then Crockett took it over. We had such a jump on that area and it was very successful.
I don’t know how much you see of TNA these days, but what are your thoughts on what Ric Flair is doing there?
I have to admit that I don’t watch any TNA. That’s probably because of the fact that I was supposed to get called back and they don’t ever call back or e-mail back, so I couldn’t care less what they do [laughs]. But, you know, “Nature Boy” is “Nature Boy.” He’s going to be known in the wrestling business as the greatest world champion of all time and one of the greatest performers ever. You will never find another “Nature Boy.” You’re never going to find another Hulk Hogan; you’re never going to find another Road Warriors. I think you could take anybody and make them an Ultimate Warrior – you just go out and bust up your guy, shake the ropes and run around. I’m not saying that to be disrespectful. I’m just saying that there are a couple entities in our business like a Shawn Michaels, like a Stone Cold, like a Rock, like The Road Warriors, like Hulk Hogan, like Flair, like Undertaker – there’s a handful – that you’re never going to be able to make again.
Your younger brother, John, is the executive vice president of talent relations in WWE. You mention in the book that you helped break him into the business, and years later he ended up being the one to tell you that WWE was letting you go. What are your thoughts on him becoming one of the most powerful figures in the business?
You know, more power to him. I guess I’m a little bit envious in a way because I know this business like the back of my hand and I think with the right opportunity – it doesn’t have to be in what John does; it could be in a different area of the wrestling business – I could be equally as successful, because it’s a business that I’ve grown up in and I love. Other than that, I don’t feel anything negative, no ill feelings. Hey, he’s my brother and I love him. More power to him. I know the guys like to stir up a lot of crap sometimes: “Oh, geez, how come you’re not there? Your brother’s up there, [he’s a] main guy.” What can I say, man? It is what it is. It’s one of those doors I’ve quit knocking on. I didn’t feel bad. My brother had to do a job at that time. If I had to do it at the same time, I’d have let my brother go. You’re hired to do a job, and it was probably a test from Vince [McMahon] to see if John fires Joe.
What are your thoughts on the business today?
I think it’s evolving like the way the wrestling business will always evolve. I know people say good and bad about it. I think that we got to get back to a little bit more of the basics. I think they’re doing the right thing – they’re bringing some of the guys who are legends back as guest hosts, which they should be doing, because the legends still draw a lot of money for the company. People still want to see guys like myself, and [Paul] Ellering and other guys that have been successful in the wrestling business, like an Arn Anderson or a Shawn Michaels – you have to bring back the legend guys in some kind of role, some kind of aspect. I think the product’s great. They have a lot of young, great talent, and I just think as soon as they learn the ins and outs of the business they’re going to be just fine. They’re developing some growing pains right now, no different than any sports franchise.
With the NFL labor situation being what it is, some players are trying different things. For instance, Tom Zbikowski of the Ravens is boxing. If your son, James, of the St. Louis Rams, wanted to get into wrestling, what would you think about it?
Well, I don’t think it’s going to come to that because the NFL knows they stand to lose billions of dollars if they don’t fix this thing, and they’d be stupid not to. But, hey, if James wanted to do it and football was done, I’d say more power to him, because he is very natural at it. He can talk on the mic great. Charisma on the microphone is something you’d don’t have to worry about teaching him, and that’s one thing that separates the top guys from the great guys in our business – the ability to talk and do a promo. I think he’s got that down, and he can wrestle. He’s strong enough, he looks good enough. I tell you what, he’d be the biggest second- or third-generation guy there now. He definitely has the biggest size for sure – he’s just muscular as heck.
What keeps you busy these days?
I’ve gone from being Road Warrior Animal to being known as James’ dad [laughs]. I’m at all the practices. What’s cool about it is that most of the guys see I’m still in shape and they go, “Man, James, suit up your dad.” And I got my book tour going on. The book is doing very well – it’s made it to the top of the Amazon list. I’m hoping with the support of the fans it’ll be a New York Times best-seller very soon. I’m excited about it.
If there’s one thing you’d like for people to take from the book after reading it, what would it be?
These guys did a lot for the wrestling business, and these guys were entertaining and they were undoubtedly the best. That’s what I want the people to take away from it. The book brings back memories for them to enjoy of the times we had, and being the only tag team that won almost every tag team title available is something that separates us from everybody. For the fans, it’s good for them to have something like that. Without the fans, the Road Warriors would have never been the Road Warriors – and we appreciate that.