Every week, the Masked Man, Deadspin's pro wrestling correspondent, honors the sport's fallen and examines their legacies — famous and obscure alike. Today: Michael Hegstrand, aka Road Warrior Hawk, who died in 2003 of a heart attack. He was 46.
There's something to be said for the dramatic properties of elevation, particularly when there are monsters involved. King Kong scaled the Empire State Building and found himself on top of the world — and thus a target for military attack. At that great height, he was at once expressing dominance and exposing himself to harm. It's the former part that makes him a monster, and the latter part that makes us care.
Elevation carries its own special thrill in professional wrestling, lending to the proceedings both a superhero aspect (Look! Up in the sky!) and an element of unfakeable danger. Wrestling has certainly seen its fair share of high-wire acts: Snuka leaping from the top of the cage; Shawn Michaels's WrestleMania XII zipline entrance; ECW's various balcony spots; Mick Foley's masochistic Hell in a Cell tumbles; and of course the late Owen Hart's tragically ill-fated entrance as the Blue Blazer.
At Starcade in November 1986, something superheroic was certainly in the air. They called it Night of the Skywalkers, and though Joseph Campbell certainly would have appreciated the Star Wars reference, the scene was more like something out of a comic book. The Road Warriors, Hawk and Animal, were facing their archrivals, the Midnight Express, in a scaffold match, which meant that the teams were to brawl two stories above the ground — a shockingly real sort of brawl, where life and limb were indisputably on the line. It must be said that scaffold matches were, in retrospect, real almost to the point of boredom. The wrestlers were so consumed with safety — both their own and that of their opponents — that most of the combat took place in prone positions, and the punches and kicks were decidedly low-impact. But 20 or 25 years ago, through the still-credulous eyes of the pre-modern wrestling fan, those matches were stunning. To win the match, you had to knock your opponents — allow me to italicize — off into the ring below. You can see the kids and adults in the audience standing in awe, necks craned. The act was one part monster and one part Marvel Comics, and plainly very, very dangerous: No suspension of disbelief was necessary.
I watched Night of the Skywalkers belatedly, on a homemade VHS compilation tape a buddy of mine had put together. The rolling lines of static only served to up the ante: I felt like I was watching a bootlegged copy of Faces of Death, despite the Sports Entertainment imprimatur. It might not have been much of a match, but it took place 30 feet in the air, and it ended with the nefarious Midnight Express duo falling from the scaffold into the ring (each was hanging from the underside of the platform, monkey-bars-style, to minimize the distance of the freefall, as was the norm in these matches). They were followed in their plummet by their insufferable manager, Jim Cornette, who had climbed the scaffold after the match to escape the Warriors' manager, "Precious" Paul Ellering. Only years later did I learn that Cornette — nowhere near the experienced stuntman that his Midnighters were — blew out both knees when he landed in the ring.
Oh, and Hawk wrestled the match with a broken leg and never let on. But that's less surprising. The Road Warriors were forces of nature in the ring and two of the sport's true tough guys outside of it, muscled to their ears and notorious for working "stiff" in matches — wrestling parlance for not easing up on their various punches, chops, and stretches. Needless to say, they weren't the most popular team to go up against, but you can't tell a monster to take it easy — and you don't mess with that kind of popularity.
Michael Hegstrand — who would come to be known the world over as Road Warrior Hawk — was a big kid from Minneapolis who fell into the tutelage of pro wrestling trainer Eddie Sharkey, who trained a metaphorical murderers' row of wrestlers: Hegstrand, Curt Hennig, Rick Rude, Barry Darsow (aka Krusher Khrushchev, Smash of Demolition, and the Repo Man), and, of course, Joe Laurinaitis, who would become his tag-team partner.