January 25, 2011
The Warlord was the right body at the right time
By MARSHALL WARD - SLAM! Wrestling
During a 1987 episode of Jim Crockett Promotions' World Championship Wrestling, currently airing this month on WWE Classics on Demand, manager Paul Jones warns of an ominous new threat, soon to be joining his nefarious army that already included Ivan Koloff and The Barbarian.
"He's a big, powerful man," Jones boasts.
He wasn't kidding. The big powerful man to whom Jones was referring was The Warlord, a bona fide monster at 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds.
"Fans appreciated my size, not only because I was big, but because I was big and in shape," The Warlord, whose real name is Terry Szopinski, recently told SLAM! Wrestling from his home in Pompano Beach, Florida. With an upcoming appearance at WrestleReunion 5 in Los Angeles this weekend, Szopinski is looking forward to seeing his fans, who remember him both as a singles competitor, and as half of the formidable tag team The Powers of Pain, with his partner The Barbarian.
"The fans today tell me that I should have been pushed harder in the WWF, but I just tell them that it's a business, and I appreciate everything wrestling has done for me," said Szopinski. "I had a lot of fun as The Warlord, and it all felt really good -- right from the start."
Szopinski got his start in wrestling during a workout one day in 1986. "I was training in a gym, simply called The Gym, in Plymouth, Minnesota -- that's where (Road Warriors) Animal and Hawk trained at -- and Animal comes up to me and says, 'Y'know Terry, you got to try professional wrestling. Ya got to give it a shot," Szopinski recalled. "Animal (Joe Laurenaitis) has a book coming out, and I have a big piece in that where I talk about this stuff, 'cause he wanted me to be a big part of his book.
"I was living in Minnesota, and The Road Warriors, along with Nikita (Koloff), Rick Rude, and Curt Hennig, they all came out of Minnesota about five years ahead of me. So I just kept training, and Joe kept on buggin' me, 'til one day he had some professional photographer take some pictures of me. Joe gave those pictures to Dusty Rhodes and Dusty liked them a lot.
"Then Animal sat me down and said, 'Well, we got to come up with a name for ya,' We started cranking out various names when all of a sudden we came up with Warlord. Me and him just kind of looked at each other and said, 'Wow -- that's it! That's the perfect name, right there!'"
And so The Warlord was born, and Dusty Rhodes -- who worked as a booker for NWA territory Jim Crockett Promotions -- invited Szopinski to Charlotte, North Carolina after some initial training with Road Warrior Animal.
"My very first match was against George South on TV, and not only had I never been on TV before, but I had only been in a ring twice before," Szopinski said with a laugh. "I went into that match, did a few things that George South talked about beforehand, pressed him over my head and boom! One, two, three. The next thing you know they're doing an interview and making you into a star.
"I was a lucky person, because it was only a short time before that I was being trained to wrestle in a gym at 8 o'clock in the morning, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. We didn't have a ring, so we'd just have a wrestling match on the concrete floor, slammin' each other and everything on the god dang concrete!"
Szopinski looks back fondly on that early stage of his career, wrestling for Jim Crockett Promotions. "Those were the best shows, I tell everybody," he said. "We only had 50 people in the audience for those TV tapings, but everybody was watching across this whole country. And it was incredible, the little things you did on television -- the promos, the matches -- would get over so strong and powerful because we were on TBS. And it all happened in this tiny little (studio). The NWA was a great company. It really was."
It was in the NWA that Szopinski would join forces with another wrestler by the name of Sionne Vailahi, a.k.a. The Barbarian. "Yes, that's where I met Barb," said Szopinski. "I was training in a gym called Living Well in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Barb was training there. He was always the biggest person around, y'know, and here I come in and Barb would kind of stare at me, and I'd stare back at him.
"Then I'd see his wife come in carrying this basket that had a kid in it, with the kid's legs hanging over the god dang side. 'Oh my God -- How big is this kid?' I wondered to myself," he said with a laugh. "And it was his first son Joey -- he was a monster kid! It was really funny, y'know.
"When I got to know Barb, I came to know him as one of the best big time workers that ever has been. He was strong as an ox, but he's also a great person, and has a big, big heart."
Ross added, "Because pro wrestling, on varying levels, can be a coarse business on occasion, it almost seemed that Warlord was too nice a guy to make it in the often-times 'cutthroat' world in the territory era of pro wrestling."
It was during that era, wrestling for the NWA, that the team of The Warlord and The Barbarian got the name The Powers of Pain, thanks to a brainstorming session with Road Warrior Animal. The duo feuded with The Road Warriors and captured the NWA World Six-Man Tag Team Championship with their partner Ivan Koloff. "Getting to work with legends like Animal and Hawk was incredible. They were the best tag team of all time, and always will be. They forever changed tag team wrestling," said Szopinski.
"No one had ever seen guys that size -- with the spikes, and make-up, and music -- and they were intimidating. Then me and Barb, as The Powers of Pain, were the first guys to be bigger than them, and we actually put them down one time. Until then, no one had ever seen The Road Warriors sell for anybody -- I mean, they beat everybody up.
"And working with Ivan, we called him 'the machine' because he was non-stop -- he was a machine -- and a funny, funny man as well. Between him, Barb, and Animal, they taught me a lot."
It was Road Warrior Animal, in 1988, who supported The Powers of Pain in their decision to leave Jim Crockett Promotions for the WWF. "The WWF called Barb, out of the blue," said Szopinski. "Barb was told that Vince would like to meet with us, and wanted us to fly to Atlanta -- but we weren't to say a word to anybody. So, the only one we talked to was Animal, because we talked to Joe all the time. Joe just said, 'Do it guys. Do it!'
"So we flew in and there was a limo waiting for us that took us to a hotel. We get up to this room and there's sitting Vince [McMahon], Pat Patterson, and Hulk Hogan at the table. Wow, y'know! So we sit down and they go through this spiel, and said they would like us to start next Monday. Then Barb, who never spoke, goes 'We be there.' And I never knew Barb to talk, especially in that environment.
"So, we flew back into Baltimore and had this incredible match with The Road Warriors. Then afterward, later that night, Barb goes up to Dusty and he says, 'Dusty... we go to WWF on Monday. Thank you. Goodbye." Just retelling the story makes Szopinski burst out laughing. "And they were like, 'What?!' cause they had all these things planned for us."
Those "things" included a series of scaffold matches pitting The Powers of Pain against The Road Warriors. "Joe said to me, 'You know, if we're going to do those scaffold matches, you're going to be the ones falling off that scaffold night after night, and how long do you think your knee is going to last?' Barb and I knew that at our size, we could blow a knee out falling off that scaffold. So Joe just said to us, 'Guys, go. Go now!' And that's what we did."
After their arrival in the WWF, The Powers of Pain would engage in heated rivalries with the likes of Demolition and The Bolsheviks. "But our favourite tag team was The Rockers," said Szopinski. "Like The Road Warriors, we really gelled with them and had incredible matches. Marty [Jannetty] and Shawn [Michaels] knew how to really work as they flew around the ring and made these spectacular comebacks against us.
"I remember Hogan came in to the locker room one time and said, 'Brother, you guys are going on at the end of the night, 'cause I can't follow you guys."
As singles competitors, their images were revamped. The Warlord took off his make-up and shaved his head completely. During his entrances, he donned a cyborg-like half-mask and carried a staff. "I thought it was a lot of fun to know how to wrestle both tag teams and singles, when Barb and I went in our own separate directions. Not a lot of wrestlers can wrestle both, but we can do either one," said Szopinski.
Though he tangled with the likes of Jimmy Snuka, "The Texas Tornado" Kerry Von Erich and Tito Santana, The Warlord's finest matches, Szopinski said, were against The British Bulldog. "I loved wrestling Davey Boy Smith -- he was great. Now there's a guy who could wrestle both tags and singles. Davey and me, I thought, went hand in hand as we were two big guys built the way we were -- it was just meant to be.
"Bret Hart is another one who I had great matches with. Nobody wanted to follow those matches either, as we had to go on last every single night at shows. He could work with anybody, just like Curt Hennig and Arn Anderson -- they could make you look like a million dollars. I feel very lucky to have come up in that era with those guys, given the opportunity to wrestle all over the world."
While wrestling in New Japan Pro Wrestling, Szopinski was offered the Big Van Vader persona, eventually made legendary by Leon Allen White. "A lot of people don't know this, but yeah, Antonio Inoki offered me the Vader outfit first. It's a true story," he said. "They had me fitted for that outfit, but for me at that time, I just wasn't prepared for that. I had worked so hard on my physique that I just didn't want to have my whole body covered up with the outfit. Whereas Vader had a totally different build than me, and I thought the outfit worked perfect for him. Also, I wanted to go back to America."
These days, Szopinski still travels periodically and wrestles on the indie circuit overseas. "I was just over in Africa working with Shelton Benjamin, a great kid, touring with Barb's own UPWF (Universal Pro Wrestling Federation)," he said. "He just called me back the other night and said we're going back in April, and then June again." The tour will take The Warlord, along with other big names like Booker T, Charlie Haas, Tatanka, and Big Daddy V, to countries like Ghana, Botswana, Lagos, and Zimbabwe.
Szopinski added, "We're also going to Barb's homeland of Tonga -- then Fiji and Hawaii. Wrestling is huge overseas, because the WWE has never been to Africa and people there are just dying for it. And we get in with the people who run the governments and they have money, oil money -- a lot of it, and they love wrestling."
One name Szopinski would be thrilled to see join their overseas tour is Batista, who wrote in his book that The Warlord was his favourite wrestler. "Yeah, people had told me that he said that," said Szopinski. "I consider him a legend in this sport, and to have somebody of his stature say something like that -- that's just one of the biggest honours you could ever have.
"I don't know if he wants to do anymore wrestling, but I would be honoured if he'd like to work a singles match on our overseas tour sometime -- I would really love that."
Szopinski said he is always moved to hear that fans remember The Warlord. "People today, even MMA guys come up to me and bow, and it makes me feel great. To this day, I still train really hard and I'm probably in the best shape of my life," said Szopinski, a grandfather of four with a fifth on the way. "I'm going to be 50 years old pretty soon, and this summer I'm going to be doing some bodybuilding shows.
"Most guys who do these reunion shows don't look anything like they used to, only a couple guys do, like Tito Santana and Tatanka who are in great shape, but all the rest of them have let themselves go. Whatever (excesses) they were doing when they were wrestling, they couldn't stop when they left. And y'know, if you don't take care of yourself the body ages very quick.
"That's why when fans take a look at a picture of Barb and me, that we autograph at these conventions, the people say, 'God dang! Wow! You guys look exactly the same as you did 20 years ago!' And it's because Barb and I take care of ourselves, stay in the gym and eat right. I'm a firm believer in that."
Szopinski also believes the era in which he wrestled, is one where wrestlers were unique both physically and stylistically. "Look at the guys today -- they're all just clones of each other," he said. "They all wear shiny black tights and have a million tattoos. They all talk the same, and even work the same -- everyone of them doing the same kind of interview. When I was in the WWF and NWA, everyone had their own style -- whether it was Kamala or 'Macho Man' Randy Savage or Jake Roberts -- and they could all find a way to work with each other, which made it very unique.
"Now, you can tell the guys all come from the same place, and you can't even tell who the babyface is and who the heel is. There's no stories anymore. And what Barb and me are trying to do with these overseas tours is bring the old school and the new school of wrestling together -- and gel those two worlds, because we believe that's what the fans want."
And for those fans who feel The Warlord was deserving of a more prominent role in the WWF, Szopinski said he has no regrets. "Hey, I'm just lucky I came up in an incredible era -- an era, I believe, that can never be touched. I'm just grateful The Warlord could be a part of it."
Jim Ross concluded: "One can argue that Warlord, with that memorable physical presence, might have been a wrestler that never achieved the greatness that he likely should have. I've always considered Warlord an 'attraction' type of wrestler who was best utilized when not regularly seen on weekly TV and kept special. The big guy was reliable, dependable, and never an issue in any locker room of which I am aware.
"He was always professional and pleasant and was far from the menacing, ring villain he often times portrayed. Great qualities that are still viable today."
The Warlord, along with The Barbarian will be appearing at WrestleReunion 5 in Los Angeles, CA from January 28 - 30, at the LAX Hilton, 5711 West Century Blvd. Over 40 stars scheduled to appear, including Roddy Piper, Bob Orton Jr., Paul Orndorff, Tito Santana, Mr. Fuji, Mr. Saito, Terry Funk, Mike Graham, Ken Patera, Tatanka, Val Venis, Barry Orton, Vampiro, Shane Douglas, Hurricane Helms, Torrie Wilson, and a "first time ever reunion" of The Hart Foundation: Bret Hart, Jim Neidhart, Jimmy Hart, and Danny Davis.
Vendor guests include Mil Mascaras, Dos Caras, Harley Race, The Iron Sheik, Sunny, Shelton Benjamin, Charlie Haas and many more. For more information visit WrestleReunion.com.
Marshall Ward is a visual artist and weekly columnist with the Waterloo Chronicle in Waterloo, Ontario. Email is welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.