By Mike Mooneyham
Sept. 2, 2001
Watching the “Minnesota Wrecking Crew” work in a ring was like staring at the face of professional wrestling. From their rugged looks and their machine-like precision to their ability to stir crowds to a state of frenzy, Gene and Ole Anderson were the proverbial “well-oiled team” by which future mat combinations would be judged.
That’s why I was more than a little surprised when arguably the greatest team in the history of the business was recently overlooked for the wrestling hall of fame.
This year’s balloting for the prestigious Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame produced five new inductees. The list included four Mexican wrestling figures – Lizmark, El Satanico, Black Shadow and Diablo Velasco – and Japanese women’s star Bull Nakano. More than 20 other deserving candidates – among them Wahoo McDaniel, The Freebirds, The Rock and Roll Express, The Fabulous Moolah and Arn Anderson – all failed to garner enough votes for induction. The Undertaker, Shawn Michaels and Chris Benoit, three of wrestling’s top performers of the past decade, narrowly missed the cut, but likely will be selected within the next two years. Gene and Ole Anderson finished dead last in the voting, behind Wilbur Snyder, Volk Han, Pedro Morales and Jesse Ventura.
[ad#MikeMooneyham-336×280]More than 150 men and women have been tapped since the hall was started five years ago. The list reads like a who’s who of professional wrestling greatness. It includes mat legends like Ed “Strangler” Lewis, Lou Thesz, The Funks, Jack Brisco, Ricky Steamboat, Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes, Hulk Hogan, Bruno Sammartino, Superstar Billy Graham, Verne Gagne and Andre The Giant, and current-day WWF stars Steve Austin and Mick Foley. It also includes promoting geniuses like Vince McMahon Jr. and Sr., Sam Muchnick and Jim Barnett, announcers such as Gordon Solie, Jim Ross and Lance Russell, and managers like Bobby Heenan and Jim Cornette. The Fabulous Kangaroos and The Road Warriors head the elite tag-team category. But nowhere on that list are Gene and Ole Anderson.
Ole Anderson, whose last stint in the business was as a WCW booker before being fired by Eric Bischoff, was unimpressed with the list and said he didn’t even recognize any of the names in the recent class. “They sound like Mil Mascaras remakes,” said Anderson, “but none of whom any where near as good as Mil Mascaras was.”
Anderson, one of wrestling’s last true, old-school tough guys, said he also couldn’t understand Wahoo McDaniel being omitted from any hall of fame list.
“Take a look at any one of the so-called nominees for this year, and compare them to Wahoo, who played over 10 years in the NFL. Which one was an All-American at Oklahoma? Which one was an athlete since the time he was 10 years old? Or are we talking about modern wrestling, where there is no wrestling or any semblance of wrestling or any pretense to do any wrestling? It’s all bullshit.”
“Gene’s dead and can’t voice his opinion, but I’m alive and it doesn’t make a damn to me,” he added.
But it does to a legion of followers who remember just how great these two were at inciting passion and mastering their craft. To many of those fans who were weaned on a colorful territory that nurtured the likes of a young Ric Flair and featured characters like Johnny Valentine, Wahoo McDaniel and Black Jack Mulligan, the Anderson Brothers will live on in wrestling lore.
There were, of course, different incarnations of “The Andersons” -Gene and Lars, Gene and Ole, Ole and Lars, Ole and Arn. (Although none were related and Gene was the only true Anderson in the group, their styles and features were strikingly similar, and the other three were even listed in an obituary as “survivors” when Gene passed away nearly 10 years ago.) Any combination of Andersons, however, could make believers out of their audience.
Selection to the Observer Hall is based on criteria such as ring performance, drawing power and historical significance, and voters include wrestling historians, reporters, “legends” and current stars. Those who voted against the Andersons cited such factors as working ability and lack of national exposure or, in the case of the Andersons, staying in one territory too long. Those arguments, however, fail the litmus test.
Gene and Ole Anderson defined tag-team wrestling. 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.
The Anderson legend started in the mid- ’60s when Gene, a former wrestling standout 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 during the ’60s was a hotbed of tag- team wrestling and produced such quality duos as George Becker and Johnny Weaver, George and Sandy Scott, Rip Hawk and Swede Hanson, Skull Murphy and Brute Bernard, The Kentuckians, The Bolos, The Red Demons, The Infernos, Aldo Bogni and Bronco Lubich, Mr. Wrestling and Sam Steamboat, and Nelson Royal and Paul Jones.
When former Colorado football player Al “Rock” Rogowski came in as Ole Anderson in the late ’60s and later replaced Lars, the team didn’t miss a beat. Like Lars, 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 trainee from Minnesota who Ole brought in as an Anderson “cousin.”
They were the perfect heel team. There was no canned crowd heat when the Andersons hit the ring. Whether working as heels 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.
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.
That they 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?” asked Anderson. “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 St. 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?”[ad#MikeMooneyham-468×15]
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 made 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,” said Anderson. “With everybody else, you had to make a little move somewhere.”
The rest was history.
Ole Anderson was bringing in $32,000 in 1968, 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?”
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,” said Anderson.
The Andersons’ success was not limited to the Carolinas and Virginia. Gene and Lars were top acts in Georgia in the mid and 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 Terry Bolea, 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.”