Ever heard of the Battle Royal? It's a popular pro wrestling attraction in which a dozen behemoths try to heave each other over the top rope and the last man standing in the ring wins. The wrestler book market is starting to feel that way. Ric Flair, Shawn Michaels, Hulk Hogan, Mick Foley, Brett Hart, Bruce Hart, Gary Hart, the Rock, Stone Cold are all duking it out. Chris Jericho apparently has led a double life because he's just published a second autobiography, and Brock Lesnar, at 33, is due out in book form next month.
Edina's Joe Laurinaitis has pitched himself into this melee with "The Road Warriors: Danger, Death and the Rush of Wrestling," which chronicles his experience as half of "the greatest tag team in the history of wrestling." Laurinaitis was Animal; his partner, Mike Hegstrand, was Hawk and together they paved a path of destruction through several of the top wrestling leagues before Hegstrand died in 2003. Laurinaitis dedicates the book to his family and to Hegstrand.
These days, Joe faces the struggle of falling to No. 2 on the Most Famous Laurinaitis List. Son James starred at Ohio State and is a top linebacker with the NFL's St. Louis Rams. It's likely a draw right now. When Joe and his wife, Julia, fly down for every Rams home game, James often asks him to entertain players and guests.
"Most of the guys in the NFL know me, they're big fans and it's easy to get on the field and talk with those guys," said Joe.
Laurinaitis might have made the NFL as a youngster but he had to leave college upon the birth of his first son, also named Joe, and took work cracking heads at Gramma B's in Minneapolis. There, a scrappy former wrestler named Eddie Sharkey offered to train the big guy along with several other bouncers. Laurinaitis and Hegstrand teamed up with a gimmick that suited them perfectly: post-apocalyptic madmen who borrowed a name from the movie "Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior." During a two-decade career, the Road Warriors won championships in the AWA, NWA and the WWF.
As happens with many wrestlers, the final years weren't so much fun for Laurinaitis. He didn't like what the geniuses upstairs were doing with his character; then, after Hegstrand died, Animal didn't have a partner. At 50, Laurinaitis has slimmed down to 260 pounds and says he could wrestle now if he wanted to. Ric Flair, at 62, is still making a spectacle of himself.
"Flair is like a Timex watch who has taken a licking and keeps on ticking," Laurinaitis said. "Ric Flair is one of the best performers in our business, and there's no reason to worry because he controls every move he makes in the ring.
"Now could I do that? Absolutely. Do I want to do it? No. I don't want to have that legacy of staying in the business too long."
Laurinaitis makes personal appearances, signs autographs and speaks often to Christian groups and youth football teams. His message? Don't give up on your dreams; there are no shortcuts to success and drugs will hurt you. He saw it happen among his mates.
"So many guys have died under the age of 50, and most of it's drugs," he said. "That's where Hawk and I butted heads. He was a man's man, wanted to do what he wanted to do and I wasn't that guy."
Pro wrestling has long pulled the curtain back to reveal its entertainment aspect. Story lines dictate the outcome of matches, and the soap opera backstage takes on as much importance as the ring action. Still the action takes a toll. Asked if he has any aches and pains, Laurinaitis quickly said no, he's feeling pretty good.
"I have a right shoulder that's bone on bone," he said. "But other than that, I don't have -- well, every once in a while because I had lower lumbar surgery I get a little stiff now and then.
"But the worst thing that bothers me is that Rick Steiner gave me a power slam years ago in Japan and I have a chip out of my C6 [vertebrae] and I've not gotten it fused together and fixed. That's the problem."
How about his orbital rim, broken in 1988, when the Warlord fell on Animal's head?
"That doesn't bother me. Sometimes it does. It deadened the teeth on the left side of my mouth because they cut the nerve and eventually I'll have to get veneers. But that's it."
Laurinaitis isn't bothered either by the fact that "you got every Tom, Dick and Harry writing a book" on their wrestling days. His Road Warrior fame foreshadows decent sales.
"We've got an excellent response, and it's a good solid read," he said. "It's not boring."
Hard to believe it would be.
Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299