Wrestle Review Wednesday: Wrestling’s Mad Max Fixation

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The commercial and critical success of 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road and the planned expansion of the franchise brought renewed interest to the original Mad Max trilogy.

Now, if only Max influence were to reach the professional wrestling world, then history would truly be repeating itself.

The Australian film series left an indelible imprint on 1980s wrestling. Some of the more noteworthy examples are fondly remembered today. Other instances are mostly forgotten.

On the surface, the marriage of an over-the-top action movie franchise and the larger-than-life world of pro wrestling makes sense. After all, what is wrestling if not an action-adventure played out in real time?

However, wrestling and cinema crossovers have been somewhat rare. The few instances typically produce disastrous results.

Both the former WWF and WCW tied main-event storylines into movies, with Zeus of the 1989 vehicle No Holds Barred appearing on WWF television to challenge Hulk Hogan. This was a murky blurring of the line between movie-fiction and wrestling-fiction, which exist on two separate planes of existence.

WCW’s promotion of Ready to Rumble star David Arquette to world champion was the shameless desperation of a dying company in need of mainstream attention. It didn’t work for either WCW or Ready to Rumble, though it did lead to Courteney Cox and Kurt Russell both appearing on “Monday Nitro.”

Wrestling’s had other flirtations with the cinematic world, outside of the former’s futile attempts to flourish in the latter. Those often go about as well as federations’ attempts to promote their own films. The most noteworthy example has to be Robocop appearing on a WCW show in 1990 to rescue Sting from the Four Horsemen.

So, yeah. Wrestling tagging with movies has historically created some of the most cringe-worthy material ever aired by a medium that specializes in cringe-worthy. The wrestling industry’s collective fascination with Mad Max is an exception.

Widely regarded as the greatest tag team ever, the Road Warriors debuted in 1983 — two years after the film of the same name, and the second installment in the Max saga.

The movie inspired the duo’s presentation, from the spiked shoulder pads; to the face paint; and even their signature name, the Doomsday Device, which tips the hat to Mad Max‘s post-apocalyptic themes.

Much as film inspired the Road Warriors, the tag team has, in turn, influenced college football. Animal’s son, James Laurinaitis, was an All-American at Ohio State and donned his dad’s signature look on the cover of Sporting News; a group of Georgia Bulldogs sport the Road Warrior shoulder pads in the Sanford Stadium student section every year

Sport-imitating-art-imitating-another-kind-of-art.

Irony of the tag team adopting the nickname for Mel Gibson’s titular character, however, is that their gimmicks more closely resemble the villainous Dogs of War Rockatansky battles in the film. In fact, the various wrestling characters derived from the Mad Max have all spun off from villains in the series. The closest example of an effort to emulate Rockatansky came a full decade after Beyond Thunderdome, the final installment in the series. That was Fit Finlay wearing a jacket very much similar to Rockatansky from the second and third films — and Finlay was a heel character.

Not every Max gimmick had the lasting impact of the Road Warriors, either. Leader of the Dogs of War Lord Humongous is one of the most iconic cinematic villains of the ’80s.

Humongous combined intimidating brawn with the charismatic cunning necessary to lead a band of marauders like the Dogs of War. His trademark hockey mask provided the template for the symbol of slasher horror in the 1980s, Jason Voorhees. Jason didn’t don his hockey mask in the Friday the 13th series until 1983, two years after The Road Warrior.

A year later, in 1984, Lord Humongous debuted as a wrestling character in the Memphis-based Continental Wrestling Association. The character made sense for wrestling: a hulking behemoth with cult-leader charisma. A huge star of the 1990s also got his break donning the mask, the eventual Sycho Sid/Sid Vicious.

However, Lord Humongous failed beyond being a regional territory gimmick because it was a direct remake of an original character — not a well-crafted homage, as was the case for the Road Warriors.

In an interesting twist, that hockey mask-wearing villain of 1980s cinema was also portrayed in pro wrestling rings. Jason The Terrible was a test-of-copyrights character in various territories, primarily Calgary and Japan. The former stint produced an all-time classic photo that underscores the silliness of wrestling.

Much like the direct copy of a Mad Max character had limited staying power in the squared circle, a combination rip-off of both Max characters *and* the most successful Max-themed gimmick was destined for failure. WCW introduced the Master Blasters in 1990, five full years after the character of the same name appeared in Beyond Thunderdome.

The film version was a monstrous man who carried a tiny campaign on his shoulders. One operated as brains, the other as brawn. Certainly the concept has potential for a wrestling tag team, and the pairing of 6-foot-10, former Tennessee Volunteers basketball center Kevin Nash with a smaller partner could have generated fan interest.

However, Al Green wasn’t much smaller than Nash at around 6-foot-3, and the dynamic of the Master Blaster character from Beyond Thunderdome was never really explored. In reality, it was a copy of the team that was a copy of The Road Warrior‘s chief antagonists.

Aside from the Road Warriors, the most fondly remembered Mad Max influence came not in the form of characters, but in a match.

In the summer of 1987, the National Wrestling Wrestling’s flagship, Jim Crockett Promotions, staged a series of events headlined by a never-before-seen spectacle: WarGames.

Though sharing a name with the 1983 Matthew Broderick film, the WarGames match owes its inception to the title venue from Beyond Thunderdome.

The steel structure is a post-apocalyptic gladiator’s stadium, with simple rules.

WarGames wasn’t quite as basic as this — and its rules became increasingly convoluted as it devolved into the second half of the 1990s — but it borrowed its premise from the Thunderdome concept. Two teams stepped inside a double-steel cage. In a move match creator Dusty Rhodes credited to Beyond Thunderdome, WarGames could only end once a member of one team submitted.

“Death is listening, and will take the first man who screams,” is how the film puts it.

The WarGames concept produced some of the most celebrated bouts of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

We’re unlikely to see a new wave of Mad Max-inspired gimmicks for a variety of reasons. WWE chief Vince McMahon is notorious for his disconnect from pop culture; an oft-cited example is that in 2006, he was absolutely befuddled by wrestler Paul Burchill debuting a character derived from Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean.

The No Holds Barred co-writer is unlikely to have seen Fury Road, so don’t expect to see any of WWE’s talented women in the developmental program to debut with Imperator Furiosa gimmicks. The closest connection is Australian actor Nathan Jones’ portrayal of Rictus Erectus. Jones had a cup of coffee in WWE in 2003.

Perhaps the time’s come for the independent wrestling scene to borrow inspiration from Mad Max. After all, Matt Hardy became a sensation last year with a look similar to Toecutter.