By Mike Mooneyham
January 18, 2004
Second of a two-part series
They were, quite simply, the proverbial “well-oiled” tag team. Today they are the standard by which other teams are judged.
Gene and Ole Anderson, respectfully known as “The Minnesota Wrecking Crew,” helped define the art of tag-team wrestling during the ’60s and ’70s. Working over one part of the body, tagging in and out, and the blocking technique were all Anderson trademarks. Their timing, precision and ring psychology were impeccable. And their “working” ability, according to many of their respected peers, was beyond reproach.
Ole Anderson, who’s not one to throw around compliments, heaps plenty of praise on his late partner in his new book, “Ole Anderson: How Corporate America Destroyed Professional Wrestling,” co-written with Scott Teal. One of the more interesting dynamics of the book revolves around the relationship between Ole, whose real name is Al “Rock” Rogowski, and pseudo-brother Gene, with whom he teamed from 1968-81. “I’ve never known anyone to be as faithful and devoted a friend as Gene was,” says Ole. “He was just one hell of a guy.”They were friends, to be sure, but they didn’t necessarily socialize with other wrestlers, or with each other for that matter. Ole even admits that he doesn’t think Gene’s family was ever at his house, or that Ole was ever at Gene’s house. They were, however, together seven days a week, 24 hours a day, for long stretches during their tag-team run. “It was almost like being married … but without sex,” Anderson notes in his book. “Wait a minute,” he adds. “That was like being married.”
The Anderson legend started in the mid-’60s when Gene Anderson, who had wrestled at North Dakota State, joined forces with “brother” Lars, another ex-college standout and AAU champion by the name of Larry Heiniemi. They were immediate sensations in the Carolinas and Virginia, which at the time was a hotbed of tag-team wrestling and home base for a score of highly touted duos such as George Becker and Johnny Weaver, George and Sandy Scott, Rip Hawk and Swede Hanson, Skull Murphy and Brute Bernard, The Kentuckians, The Bolos (Assassins), The Red Demons, The Infernos, Aldo Bogni and Bronco Lubich, Mr. Wrestling and Sam Steamboat, and Nelson Royal and Tex McKenzie.
When former Colorado football player Rogowski came in as Ole Anderson in 1968 and later replaced Lars, the team didn’t miss a beat. Like Lars and Gene, Ole was a Verne Gagne trainee and a polished amateur. Eventually adding even more luster to the Anderson team was the addition of a young Ric Flair, another Gagne product from Minnesota who Ole brought in as an Anderson “cousin.”
Ole, who had attended college with Lars at St. Cloud State University, had known Gene since his high school days in Minnesota. While Gene was a grade ahead and three years older than Ole, they competed against one another in football, wrestling and track.
They were the consummate heel team. There was no canned crowd heat when the Andersons hit the ring. Whether working as bad guys or in a very rare babyface role, Gene and Ole commanded respect. There were no catch phrases. They spoke volumes by working the most believable, realistic matches this side of Johnny Valentine.
A UNIQUE KINSHIP
The Minnesota Wrecking Crew didn’t have to resort to jumping off ladders and crashing through tables in order to get a pop. They did it the old-fashioned way – by wrestling. They twisted necks, wrenched arms and locked legs with every bit of painful artistry as today’s high-spot stars.
But the Andersons did it practically every night of the week.
“We just did one thing better than anyone else – we wrestled,” says Anderson, now 61 and one of wrestling’s last true, old-school tough guys. “We tried to make wrestling as real as we could make it. Gene used to say that we want to shoot, but we don’t want to hurt anybody. Beat the hell out of the guy, but try not to remove any teeth. We didn’t get quite that bad, but in some cases we did. When we did, there were some guys who said they didn’t want to hang around for this. On a couple of occasions, guys packed their bags and we never saw them again.”
Ole began his career wrestling as many seven times a week, working sometimes nine times a week in the Carolinas and later as many as 14 times a week in Georgia with several double shots included. He honed his craft through on-the-job training, learning what the people liked and what they didn’t. Gene proved to be the ideal sounding board for his younger partner. “He must have taught me 90 percent of what I knew. He was so loyal to me,” says Ole. “Gene would always tell people that he had the greatest talker, the greatest worker, as a partner. He would always voluntarily take second place. He just put me over all the time. It was almost like competition, since he put me over almost as much as I put myself over.”
Ole would make most of the business decisions, while the more subdued and low-key Gene would routinely go along with him. “Gene, what do you think?” Ole would often ask. “Whatever you want to do,” Gene would mumble.
The two would alternate driving the long stretches of road that connected one wrestling town to another; Gene would drive one week, Ole the next. Ole, though, preferred being behind the wheel.
“Gene used to sleep almost all the time, all the way up, all the way back,” recalls Anderson. “He used to smoke, but he wouldn’t smoke around me, in the car or in a room I was in. I used to reach over while he was sleeping and ease his cigarettes out of his shirt pocket and throw them out the window. We’d get to the next stop, and get gas or something to eat, and he’d look and had to go back and buy another pack of cigarettes. Well, a couple of hours later, he’d be sleeping again and I’d ease that pack of cigarettes he’d just bought back out of his pocket and throw them out the window. He never said a word. He knew I didn’t like cigarettes, and he wasn’t going to argue about. He’d buy another pack, and that would be it.” To say Gene Anderson was a man of few words would be an understatement of epic proportions.
“He wasn’t emotional in any way that registered so you could see it,” says Ole. “Once Lars poured soda down his back while he was driving, and he just said to Lars, Don’t do it again.’ Lars did it again, and Gene simply grabbed an ice scraper, reached back and swatted him. Lars grabbed his head, bled a lot and didn’t say another word the rest of the trip. That was Gene. When you talk about emotion, you might get a little smile on his face on occasion, but that was about it.”
There was little time for fraternizing or socializing outside the ring.
“We never socialized at all, but how would you when there was no time. We had a unique situation in that we had a town we were going to week after week after week, and it required a hell of a lot of preparation and thought to make the thing work. And as a result, there wasn’t a lot of time to wash your car, go to the restaurant, have a beer, shoot the bull. That’s why I didn’t have a phone, because I didn’t want anybody interrupting me.”
Gene was the mechanic of the team, taking most of the bumps, says Ole. Damage to his neck caused him to constantly twitch. “He was never in a frame of mind to get the doggone thing looked at by doctors, so he suffered with it all of his life,” says Ole. “He had a lot of problems. Like all of us, he had taken a lot of bumps and had done a lot of damage to himself as a result. Being a heel was tremendously tough on the body. He just ignored everything; he was just a tough son of a gun.”
Ole recalls listening to a report on the radio listing the three most harmful things you could put into your body: chocolate, caffeine and cigarettes. He looked over at Gene, who was eating a box of chocolate doughnuts, drinking a cup of coffee and smoking a cigarette. “What else could you possibly do to shorten your life any more,” he asked.
His health deteriorated over the years, and Gene Anderson died of a heart attack Oct. 31, 1991, in Huntersville, N.C. He was only 52 years old.
Although not actually blood relatives, Ole was listed as a surviving brother in Gene’s obituary in the Charlotte Observer. “I just couldn’t go (to the funeral),” says Ole. “It wasn’t that I was in denial, although maybe to some degree I was, but having known him like I did for so many years and having been together like we were, I just didn’t want to look at the guy dead. I just couldn’t. Had someone like Flair, Wahoo or Paul Jones called me and told me to get up there, I might have, but I suppose most of them thought I was going to be there automatically.”
Anderson says his sons still keep in touch with Gene’s son, Brad, who wrestled briefly, but he has lost touch with Gene’s daughters.
“After we wrestled, Gene went his way and I went mine. After we wrestled, there was nothing left, except to go wrestle again. So our families were never close. Gene and I were close, but in a unique kind of way.”
PERFECT WRESTLING MARRIAGE
That the Anderson Brothers didn’t headline in numerous territories was a testament to their drawing power. Most wrestlers went from territory to territory for one of two reasons – either they weren’t good enough to stay in any one area, or they didn’t want to wear out their welcome.
“What would be the reason a wrestler would go from territory to territory?” Anderson asks rhetorically. “Because he wants to incur the expense needed to make this move back and forth? Or because he wants to uproot his children and have them go to a different place? Or because he wants to take his whole family wholesale out of Apartment B on 182 Elm Street and move to Dallas, Texas, so he can be in another apartment on Elm Street? Do you think that was voluntary or do you think that was necessary? Unless they didn’t like the place and weren’t making any money, or else they got stuck in Nashville, Tenn., or Calgary (Canada), why would anyone want to?”
Anderson vividly remembers what Carolinas mat baron Jim Crockett Sr. routinely told his performers: “You can buy a house here as long as it has wheels under it.”
“Nobody came into Jim Crockett’s territory with the expectation of staying there more than three to four months,” says Anderson. “That was it. When I first came down in the summer of 1968 to be with Lars and Gene, I was ready to pack my stuff in a few months. I was going to leave, they were going to leave and everybody was going to leave. Lars wanted to go back to Minneapolis, and I wasn’t ready to go back since I had already been through one winter up there that would last me a lifetime. So when the summer was over, I was ready to go, but I didn’t know where I was going.”
Anderson, who had been in the business for less than two years, had an offer to move to Georgia and form a team there with the talented Paul DeMarco.
“I liked Paul, and he was a pretty good performer,” said Anderson. “He was cocky, and that fit my criteria.”
Before Ole could make a decision, however, Gene gave him an offer that he couldn’t refuse.
“All he had to say was, Well, what do you want to do? If you want to stay and be partners, we can just stay and be partners.’ Paul DeMarco was far flashier, but Gene was going to be the solid guy. He thought the world of me … maybe not that first year and not even the second year, because there were times he wanted to kill me in between. But he knew that I could do the talking and carry my end of it, he could do the rest, and we’d make money and everybody would be happy.”
Ole was right. It was a perfect wrestling marriage, and that fact didn’t escape the elder Crockett, who knew a good thing when he saw it. The Andersons realized their real worth when Crockett brought them into his Charlotte office in 1970 and told them: “You boys can stay here as long as you want.”
“He had never said that, to my knowledge, with the possible exception of George Becker and Johnny Weaver,” says Anderson. “With everybody else, you had to make a little move somewhere.”
The rest was history.
Ole recalls working out in the basement of a YMCA in North Carolina. The Andersons had lost the night before to Becker and Weaver. “Here I am at 270 pounds and Gene is 255 pounds, and I’m benching over 400 pounds and Gene is doing 350. Becker didn’t weigh as much as half of the bar that I was lifting and was working out with a five-pound dumbbell like the girls, and we’re having to job to them. A guy comes up to me and asks, How did you guys lose to Becker and Weaver?’ The guy had brought a newspaper clipping with George wrestling back in 1932 or something. What are you going to say? I simply said, Size isn’t always the determining factor in professional wrestling. It’s knowledge, and George Becker has a lot of knowledge about wrestling. That’s how he’s able to beat people who are bigger, stronger, younger.’ But boy, that was hard to say.
“Weaver was like a guy who was on the wrong planet altogether. I looked at wrestlers more like the type who were like Gene and myself, The Bruiser and The Crusher. You look at Johnny Weaver, and you could almost put a dress on him. Maybe not quite that bad. But he was a great babyface because he knew how to sell and he knew how to get the sympathy of the people. But you knew that he wasn’t going to go down to the gym and blow you away. That’s all I’m referring to.”
“But taking bumps for George Becker put me in training for Dusty Rhodes,” jokes Anderson.
Working with Becker and Weaver, who also served at different times as part-time bookers, ensured that they would make “as much as there was going to be.” But when George Scott took over the booking in the early ’70s, the Andersons took it to an even greater level.
“That’s when they brought in some people who would really qualify for a wrestling hall of fame – Johnny Valentine, Don Jardine, Wahoo McDaniel,” says Anderson.
Anderson was bringing in $32,000 in 1968 after his first full year in the business, not bad money for that time and more money than any member of the infamous “Purple People Eaters,” the Minnesota Vikings’ All-Pro front four. “Where would I have gone to make more?”
The Andersons’ success was not limited to the Carolinas and Virginia. Gene and Lars were top acts in Georgia in the late ’60s, as were Gene and Ole during the ’70s, when Ole eventually became part owner of Georgia Championship Wrestling, garnering national exposure on Ted Turner’s SuperStation.
Ole also headlined in Florida and Omaha. “I started in Minneapolis and went to Omaha, which meant I also worked in Chicago and had I stayed there long enough, would have made it out to Denver and San Francisco and all kinds of places. But when I made it out to Georgia, for instance, from the standpoint of pay, I made over two hundred thousand dollars a year. And that was big money.”
Anderson remembers attending the annual NWA convention in 1977 when Verne Gagne approached him.
“You can probably make 80 or 90 thousand dollars a year up here,” Gagne told Anderson, who had already made $140,000 at that point.
“Verne, I can’t afford to take the pay cut,” Anderson told Gagne. “He didn’t believe me. Jim Barnett came in the room and was more than glad to tell him: Oh, yes, he makes a lot more than that already.’
Barnett was gloating because he was able to pay that kind of money, but I wasn’t the only one. Gene, Mr. Wrestling No. 1 and 2, Tommy Rich, Dick Slater … all those guys traveling in this little territory could make a hundred grand.”
Anderson remembers bringing Sterling Golden (Terry Bollea), the future Hulk Hogan, into Georgia in the late ’70s.
“The guy was horrible. Horrible. I found out later that he had been in a band or something. That even didn’t disqualify him. What in my mind disqualified him was that we were running towns on a weekly basis, and we had to go back and draw money. We weren’t going to be able to take a guy like Terry Bollea who couldn’t do a damn thing except stand there. Maybe he was good at taking steroids and lifting weights, but there was nothing he could do to benefit a territory that had to run on a weekly basis. Had I put him in a situation where he would beat everybody, people would have seen through that in about two days. Had I had somebody beat him, it wouldn’t have done any good because people would have asked how could a big guy like him get beaten so easily. Yet he couldn’t wrestle for more than three minutes because he couldn’t wrestle.”
A DIFFERENT BUSINESS
Anderson stands firm in his belief that wrestling is in much worse shape now than it was years ago. He points to the fact that employment opportunities in the business are at an all-time low. According to Anderson, cable TV didn’t cause pro wrestling to nosedive. It was, he maintains, due to a lack of ability by the wrestling talent to perform and entertain, while at the same time, suspending disbelief.
“If more people were able to go see it, I’d say it was better. If more people were making money from it, then I would say it’s better. If more people had an opportunity to participate in it, I’d say it was better. But none of those things are true,” says Anderson. “At one time, Georgia Championship Wrestling had five towns running wrestling every night. If someone thinks it’s more popular today, then they just don’t have any idea what’s going on.”
Anderson, whose last stint in the profession was in 1994 as a trainer in WCW, has no problem making some far-reaching assumptions about the wrestling business today. He downplays Hulk Hogan’s financial impact on WCW and dismisses former Four Horsemen mate Ric Flair as simply a good worker with a good gimmick. Is there underlying jealousy or some hidden agenda? Not according to Anderson.
“Could I find another Hulk Hogan? Sure. Could I find another Road Warriors? Sure I could. You couldn’t find another Bill Watts, you couldn’t find another Verne Gagne and you couldn’t find another Ole Anderson so easily. Somebody once told me we couldn’t even find one more Ric Flair. I asked, Who the hell is looking?’ There’s no question in my mind that I could find another Hulk Hogan, I could find another Bill Goldberg, I could find another Ric Flair, another Randy Savage. Those people are just talent that go into the ring. The people like Watts and Gagne had the ability to make that talent work and direct that talent in a way that would make money.”
The embodiment of what of a pro wrestling “tough guy” was supposed to be, Anderson clearly has little respect for those in the business with limited wrestling ability. He came up the hard way, at a Verne Gagne tryout in 1967, getting “stretched” by the likes of the great Danny Hodge. “I didn’t wrestle Danny Hodge; I was the sacrificial lamb for Danny Hodge,” he jokes. Then Gagne had Anderson work with college standout Dale Lewis. The ring was surrounded by men such as Johnny Valentine, Maurice “Mad Dog” Vachon, The Crusher, The Bruiser, Larry Hennig, Harley Race and Joe Blanchard.
“It was a who’s who of wrestling,” he recalls. “All of them had either a legitimate amateur background or had drawn money in the wrestling business. That’s how we determined who a guy was in the business, because he had been on top and drawn money.”
Anderson rails against today’s “wrestler,” a term he says he uses loosely, who “paints by the numbers, rather than creating a match.” Diamond Dallas Page, for example, “would spend two hours talking about and planning a two-minute match. We never, ever rehearsed a wrestling match.”
Nor were they ever told what to say or how to say it. They ad-libbed, says Anderson, who claims to have done a hundred or more promos in the course of an afternoon. And, although he’s no stranger to salty language, Anderson laments the fact that many of today’s interviews are laced with profanity. “It would have never made it at Turner 20 years ago, it would have never made it on Bob Caudle’s TV on WRAL-TV in Raleigh, Eddie Graham’s TV or any other promoter. I fired Joe Laurinatis (Road Warrior Animal) because he made some kind of comment on TV. I told him we couldn’t have it, that’s it, you’re gone. He went to Crockett for a little while, went back home and that’s when I picked him and Mike (Hegstrand) up as The Road Warriors. He was a good kid and I didn’t want to penalize him forever, but it was something that we just couldn’t tolerate.”
Anderson says he’s not sure if pro wrestling is a reflection of popular culture today, because he doesn’t follow today’s trends nor does he have any desire to.
“We’ve dumbed down America to the point where it’s almost impossible for anyone to have an intelligent conversation, and the overall IQ of the population is dismal at best,” he says. “We’re just getting by.”
Anderson’s book provides an insightful look at how the territories were booked and how woefully mismanaged WCW was from the very beginning.
“WCW was just giving money away. It wasn’t necessary. When you make a guy a star – through no fault of his own – and then reward that guy because you gave him some particular honor, all of a sudden he commands this big salary.
“When Diesel (Kevin Nash) came down, he said they weren’t sure that they were going to hire him. I wouldn’t have hired him. What was he going to do? Vince wouldn’t have taken him. Let them run to Vince. Hunter (Hearst) Helmsley came in and had this resume with all this garbage that he had done, and when he said he was negotiating with Vince McMahon, all of a sudden they couldn’t let him go. I said let him go.”
Ole Anderson wrote the self-published “Inside Out” along with Whatever Happened To …? magazine editor Scott Teal. The book can be ordered for $19.95 (plus $3.85 postage) through Teal at P.O. Box 2781, Hendersonville, Tenn. 37075, or go to the Web site at www.1wrestlinglegends.com.