By Mike Mooneyham
Oct. 24, 2003
The wrestling world is mourning the loss of two legendary figures who, in entirely different ways, helped shape the course of the business.
Stu Hart, whose impact on the profession was felt for more than half a century, was 88 when he died Oct. 16 after a bout with pneumonia, a stroke and failed kidneys. Mike Hegstrand, who along with Joe Laurinaitis helped revolutionize the wrestling industry during the 1980s as The Road Warriors, passed away in his sleep at his home in Seminole, Fla., Oct. 19 at the age of 46.
A CANADIAN ICON
A farm boy from Saskatchewan who survived a hardscrabble youth to become one of western Canada’s most revered figures, Hart lived it all and saw it all in his 88 years.“I don’t think anyone can really comprehend how much Stu Hart’s contributions were and will continue to be through generations of generations,” said WWE owner Vince McMahon, one of about 500 mourners at Hart’s funeral service Thursday. “To a certain extent, in our world at least, he put Calgary and I daresay Canada on the map. Without Stu Hart, so many of our fans all over the world would have missed out on many precious moments.”
One of Hart’s greatest contributions was making his hometown of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, a mecca for wrestling during the 60s and 70s, with his annual Calgary Stampede drawing some of the top names in the business. Hart also left his mark on the profession as revered patriarch of one of wrestling’s most famous families, along with having a hand in the development of a number of top stars, ranging from Superstar Billy Graham, Abdullah The Butcher and Junkyard Dog to Brian Pillman, Chris Benoit and Chris Jericho.
Hart stretched hundreds of aspiring grapplers at The Dungeon, the fabled training room in the dark basement of the family’s rambling 20-room, twin-gabled mansion on a hill, where Hart would make the toughest, most macho of men squeal like children, begging for escape from one of his excruciatingly painful holds. Those same students and wrestlers were also made to feel part of his grand family.
Hart’s vice-like handshake, growly voice and gruff exterior belied a loving father and a compassionate soul who would open his home to friends and strangers alike, a man quick to assist others down on their luck. The Hart house, a Calgary landmark for almost 100 years, was often filled with pets and invited strangers who had an affinity for wrestling and an interest in Stu’s never-ending stories.
To many renowned stars over the years, the gentle tough guy was a mentor and a father figure.
“He was a rough and tough old guy who was as good as good could be to a lot of people,” recalled former NWA world champion Harley Race.
Among Hart’s top students were members of his family. He and his wife had eight sons and four daughters, and all were involved in wrestling. To current fans, Stu was perhaps best known as the father of Bret and Owen Hart as well as the father-in-law of Davey Boy Smith and Jim Neidhart.
“As kids, we all learned to wrestle in the dungeon,’ Owen told the Calgary Sun in a 1996 interview as he recalled the sometimes painful introductions to the family craft. “Dad would take us down there, stretch us with his big hands and teach us wrestling holds. If he got his hands on you, you were done.”
“That house was right out of The Munsters,'” Superstar Billy Graham once recalled. “Stu liked to make you moan and groan when he got you down there. I was a bouncer in a lot of bars and I dragged a lot of drunks out by their feet, but I was never before in positions where I couldn’t hear anything but groaning from my guts.”
Stu, though, was forced to endure a string of tragedies in recent years. Owen died during a botched ring introduction in 1999, which led to family squabbling that helped polarize the Hart family. Stu’s wife, Helen, died in November 2001. His 13-year-old grandson, Matthew, died from a flesh-eating disease. And on May 19, 2002, Hart’s son-in-law, “British Bulldog” Davey Boy Smith, died suddenly at the age of 39.
Bret Hart told the Calgary Sun last week that he couldn’t help but feel the family’s glory days are past.
“It’s like we were a raging flame and we’re now just a burning coal or ember we’re remembering what kind of big fire it was.”
A TRUE WARRIOR
At 46, Mike Hegstrand’s run in the business was much shorter but no less influential.
Along with Minnesota high school buddy, bodybuilding partner and fellow bouncer Joe Laurinaitis, The Road Warriors (Hawk and Animal) set the bar for tag-team wrestling during the 1980s and revolutionized the business with their biker boots, spiked shoulder pads, colorful face paint and jacked-up physiques. More than their muscular builds and Mohawks, the larger-than-life monsters’ no-sell, overpowering ring style placed them at the apex of tag-team wrestling throughout the decade, their painted mugs on millions of TV screens across America.
The Warriors had their own trademark battle cry, “We snack on danger and we dine on death,” followed by Hawk’s piercing, gravely-voiced “Oooohhh, what a rush!” Entering the ring to the distinct sounds of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man,” they inspired a generation of face-painted musclemen including The Blade Runners (the future Sting and Ultimate Warrior), and were prototypes for teams such as Demolition and The Powers of Pain.
While the official cause of Hegstrand’s death has yet to be determined, the 6-3, 280-pound wrestler had suffered from a heart ailment in recent years and had other health problems. Several years ago, Hegstrand became ill while wrestling in Australia. According to a 2001 article in the Orlando Sentinel, Hegstrand was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy, a form of heart disease that attacks the muscle fibers. It was discovered that the ventricle wall of his heart was so stretched out that it had half the thickness it should have. The condition, doctors told him at the time, was life threatening.
Close friends noted that 20 years of hard living caught up to “the Hawk Man,” although in the past two years he had completely turned his life around. A born-again Christian, both Hegstrand and Laurinatis had spent considerable time working with wrestler-turned-evangelist Ted DiBiase’s wrestling-themed church productions.
“I was no saint,” Hegstrand told the Sentinel. “For years I put a lot of stuff in my body that I shouldn’t have. Now it’s just the God-made stuff. I’m eating healthy and feeling stronger.”
Sadly, though, his death represented the latest in an alarmingly growing number of pro wrestlers have not survived beyond their 40s. Hegstrand is the fourth wrestler from the Minneapolis area to die in recent years. In 1998, Dean Peters, who graduated from Robbinsdale High School in 1976 and wrestled under the name Brady Boone, died in a car accident while driving to his home in Tampa. A year later, Peters’ high school classmate and fellow pro wrestler, Rick Rude (Rood), died of heart failure at 40.
Earlier this year, Curt Hennig, another Robbinsdale classmate, was found dead in a hotel room in Tampa. Investigators said Hennig, 44, died of a cocaine overdose.
Hegstrand’s battles with drug and alcohol abuse were well chronicled. Hawk had survived a head-on collision with a semi-truck, several overdoses, and nearly drowned while drunk as well.
Hegstrand eventually returned to the ring working independent shots with Animal, but he was never truly the same in the ring. Hegstrand also fought off a bout with hepatitis as well. The wear and tear of his health and the business had put a massive chink in the once-seemingly invincible armor of the Legion of Doom.
Hegstrand and Laurinaitis had a WWE tryout match last May but weren’t Hired. The powerful duo looked sluggish as their age and eroding skills were apparent.
Dr. Tom Prichard, WWE road agent and wrestler, recalls the loss of his friend.
“Hawk lived life to its fullest, and I don’t think he had too many regrets. In the ring, the Road Warriors were unstoppable. It was a magic combination of charisma, physicality and talent that made Hawk and Animal legitimate superstars.”
“He was wild and crazy at times, but had a heart of gold,” Prichard wrote on wwe.com. “He was one of the nicest guys in this business.”
The Road Warriors, who also were known as The Legion of Doom, had reunited with longtime manager Paul Ellering on a Chicago show in June to celebrate the group’s 20th anniversary as a team. They also appeared on a WWE Raw show earlier this year, but were not signed to a contract.
Cowboy Bill Watts, who helped put the team together in 1983, reflected on a performer that had changed radically over the years.
“They had hearts as big as their bodies, and were such a pleasure to be involved with initially – then, as fame and fortune became more a part of them, as in so many pro athletes’ – living on the edge’ takes control. Athletes are always looking to get an edge’ and taking performance-enhancing drugs, so often, is just the next step. Then, when they get there, they want to stay there so they take more stuff.” “Without a doubt, my most memorable occasion of being with them was this recent trip to Scottsdale, Ariz., at a pro athletes Christian conference, to see them after they had accepted Jesus Christ as Lord – to see the joy and happiness in their demeanor – what a change!”