Every day is a good day in my day job, but there are some days which are especially interesting.
Saturday night, while covering a minor league baseball game in Connecticut for the newspaper Brad and I work for, I got the chance to meet Sgt. Slaughter, who was at the New Britain Rock Cats game as part of the team’s ceremonies for Military Appreciation Night.
We did an interview about his days as a real life marine and his love of the military (as well as his impressive knowledge of the New York Jets, and no, he doesn’t like the Revis trade), but I couldn’t resist slipping in a couple of old-school wrestling questions.
I meant them to be quick questions with one-line answers, but it turns out Slaughter, whose real name is Robert Remus, was way too insightful for that.
I knew this interview was going to be better than I expected when he told me about how he entered the business. I had asked him about how being a real-life marine before he ever got into wrestling made Military Appreciation Night mean more to him than most people.
He agreed, then kept going. He was talking about his last leave as an instructor for future drill instructors, which led to a story which would lead to 15 minutes worth of more stories.
“I went to a pro wrestling camp with a friend of mine who was a sportswriter,” Slaughter said. “I saw some fellows that were going through some pretty tough calisthenics, like a boot camp. Four or five of them I recognized from wrestling against and playing high school football against. One of them was Ric Flair. I looked and I saw Ric Flair, and he’s trying to be a professional wrestler. I thought ‘I used to beat him all the time. I might as well take a look at this.’ When I got out of the military I ended up in a training camp. I’ve been doing it ever since.”
That was in Minnesota. For years, Slaughter, like every wrestler of that generation, barnstormed through various territories. Little did anyone know wrestling would become the global phenomenon it is now. Though if anyone did it was Slaughter because he knew the man who would make it happen.
“When I first started I never expected it to be like it is, until I met Vince McMahon,” Slaughter said. “He was doing interviews for his father for the then-WWWF, the WorldWide Wrestling Federation. I got to meet him and became friends with him. He told me what he would like to do if he took over his father’s company. That’s when I realized it could be what it is today.”
After four decades with McMahon, Slaughter now believes the business can expand even further.
“I still think we’ll have a match on the moon or a WrestleMania on Mars someday the way he looks at it,” Slaughter said. “Nothing is impossible to him.”
He saw McMahon put more than 80,000 people into MetLife Stadium for this year’s WrestleMania. More impressively, he became aware of the possibility that Vince McMahon might control the weather.
“The whole week before was horrible weather. It was breezy and cool for WrestleMania week but the rain stayed away,” Slaughter said. “And the week after was horrible. It’s almost biblical what he does.”
Slaughter has done plenty of his own impressive things. His 1981 Alley match with Pat Patterson at Madison Square Garden, which he regards as among his favorites, helped create the “hardcore” wrestling genre, whose height would be another decade away. Paul Heyman, perhaps the most important figure in the birth of that type of wrestling, was in the crowd that night, and the sport was never the same.
He was a star, at one point the biggest in the industry, but Slaughter didn’t get to participate in the first six WrestleManias because of a decision he made to become a different kind of star.
“I left the WWE to go do GI Joe and Hasbro. It wasn’t the best thing for Vince, who told me at that time I was more popular than Hulk Hogan. Hasbro came along and offered me the chance to be the first living GI Joe character in their history. He said it was great ‘but I can’t have you do both because I have a different toy company.' I decided I could always be a wrestler but I couldn’t always be GI Joe. So I went with Hasbro, so for the first six years I couldn’t be in WrestleManias.”
Wrestlemania VII, however, was a different story. When Slaughter’s Hasbro deal ended, McMahon sprung into action.
“I had just sent him a note on the production of WrestleMania VI saying what a great job I thought it was,” Slaughter said. “I didn’t mention the Hogan-Warrior match or anything else on the card, I just mentioned the production. He called me a month later and said ‘I need you for WrestleMania VII’.”
Not long after he was over McMahon’s house, where the legendary promoter presented him with a completely different idea than what Slaughter had envisioned.
“I thought he was going to take me to the top of being a hero not only for the WWE but the country,” Slaughter said. “He had other ideas. He needed an opponent for Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania and wanted to keep Hogan as the hero. So he asked me if I would consider me being an Iraqi sympathizer. I had to think long and hard about it. It was hard because red, white and blue runs through my veins. There were a lot of situations where I had to forgive myself and I hoped everyone would forgive me.”
His own background as a marine made his run in the early 1990s personally challenging, but it was his most successful in many ways. He won the title from the Ultimate “Puke” as he still calls him to this day, which validated his decision and set up perhaps his most memorable feud with Hogan.
“Winning the world championship from the Ultimate Puke [who the rest of us know as the Ultimate Warrior] was a great reward,” Slaughter said. “You never win championships, you’re chosen to be champion depending on how well you do and what kind of respect they have for you.”
Hogan would get a fireball from Slaughter, who said he actually burned Hogan slightly in the angle, but Hogan would win the title at WrestleMania VII, which was moved indoors from the planned site of the LA Coliseum in part because of threats made against Slaughter.
When Operation Desert Storm began just before WrestleMania, Slaughter was done with the angle.
“When the war started I said that’s it. There’s lives being lost,” Slaughter said. “We were just entertaining, this was real.”
“I asked for my country back in I believe Lowell, Mass. I went out with Gene Okerlund and asked for my country back. People weren’t real sure, then I sang God Bless America in the Sgt. Slaughter voice. It brought a tear to a glass eye. They accepted me and cheered me.”
Slaughter was once again what he always was, a real American Hero (yo Joe). He remembers the highlight of his run as a patriot, when he beat the Iron Sheik in 1984, again at Madison Square Garden, in a boot camp match where the winner got to hold up his flag.
“I won and said the Pledge of Allegiance, and everyone there joined in with me,” Slaughter said. “I’ve met seven presidents, and three of them said they saw that match, stood up and did the pledge.
So while many remember Slaughter as an Iraqi sympathizing heel, he should be remembered as a pioneer of both merchandising and extreme wrestling.
I’ll remember him as a guy with a million stories to tell.