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CIRCA
Sgt. Slaughter: Patriotic Before
Patriotic Was Cool...
June 2, 2004

by Denny Burkholder
Courtesy of WrestleLine.com

 

Patriotism in pro wrestling has been a staple of many a gimmick and storyline. With his gigantic chin leading the way, Sgt. Slaughter rode that trend all the way to legend status.

In the 1980s, Slaughter was among the few pro wrestlers that could claim to be a household name (in households that weren't already inhabited by wrestling fans). As Slaughter traveled the territories, from Georgia to New York to Minnesota, he built his name into a very marketable one. Long since retired from in-ring action save for the occasional one-shot WWE appearance Slaughter is more than a wrestling legend. He's a trivia question. He's a collectible action figure. He's synonymous with 1980s wrestling.

Slaughter is also the only pro wrestler to ever become a G.I. Joe action figure. That might sound like a backhanded compliment, but the G.I. Joe franchise is an American tradition. Slaughter's deal with G.I. Joe was huge, in that it was another case of a pro wrestler transforming his ring persona into a marketable mainstream commodity. Slaughter became the only walking, breathing, real-life G.I. Joe character, in an era when wrestling was being marketed heavily to kids. There was the Hulk Hogan's Rock-N-Wrestling! cartoon, WWF action figures by LJN and AWA action figures by Remco. One look at the wording on the back of the WWF's Topps trading cards with phrases like "Leggo My Head!" indicates that those, too, were geared toward children.

Slaughter didn't have the juggernaut of press behind him that Hulk Hogan had Slaughter was one of the few wrestlers that actually left the WWF for the AWA in the mid-1980s, while Vince McMahon pillaged the rest of Verne Gagne's roster for any wrestler worth having. His work against Pat Patterson and The Iron Sheik had given Slaughter a lot of exposure in the WWF before he left for Minnesota. Hogan picked up where Slaughter left off as the WWF's top "American Made" babyface, and Slaughter was left to salvage whatever popularity he could in Verne's struggling AWA. The G.I. Joe deal deserves a lot more credit than it gets for helping Slaughter bolster his mainstream visibility during that time.

Plus, you just couldn't forget the guy. The huge chin, the dark sunglasses, the hat, the baton, and the loud, gravely bellows of "LISTEN UP, MAGGOTS!" set him apart from others. There were other wrestlers with soldier gimmicks, loud promos, odd physical features and prop attire, but Sgt. Slaughter stood out from the rest. The WWF proved that to themselves when they tried to create a newer, younger soldier character in Corporal Kirchner. Kirchner was big, camouflage-clad, and pro-American. He was everything Slaughter was on a surface level, plus he was younger, but it still didn't catch on the way Sgt. Slaughter did. What Kirchner was missing was Slaughter's charisma, which was the key ingredient to making people care about him. Fans came for the chin, but they stayed for the performance.

In the ring, Slaughter wasn't a technical master, but he got the job done. His Cobra Clutch finisher was a lot more potent than the usual big guy fare, like the clothesline or the powerslam. Also known today as the "Million Dollar Dream," the Cobra Clutch was a modified sleeper hold that added a touch of credibility to Slaughter's soldier gimmick. Slaughter worked your basic "big guy" offense the entire match, and then finished off his foe with a sleeper variation that looked as though it could have been learned in boot camp. There was a smartness to the Cobra Clutch as a finisher. The hold is applied when the opponent's back is turned, and thus, while he is prone. It didn't matter how big the opponent was, because there was no lifting required. In a pinch, it could be applied from the mat, although it's much more dramatic when standing upright. With the Cobra Clutch, Slaughter made his entire offense (which was otherwise bland) seem much more dangerous.

Charisma was Slaughter's real strength, though. Whereas he was average as a grappler, he was better than most at working the crowd. Slaughter's fiery babyface comeback was basically the same shtick as Hogan's "hulking up" or Jerry Lawler dropping the strap, and when Slaughter had had enough, the fans responded. All Slaughter had to do was furiously mess up his thinning hair and shake his fists, and the fans knew that meant the other guy's ass. Simple, but it worked.

Promoters lined up stereotypical foreign heels, and Slaughter knocked them down. The Iron Sheik in the early 1980s WWF. South African bigot Col. DeBeers in the AWA. Sheik Adnan-Al Kassie in several territories. Pro-American "good vs. evil" was a Sgt. Slaughter trademark. Slaughter would kiss American flags on his way down the aisle. Post-match, he'd invite large groups of children into the ring to say the Pledge of Allegiance.

Slaughter magnified his babyface status by being an accessible star outside the ring, and a true helping hand to those in need through charity work. In the late 1980s, it was common to find Slaughter working the main event of charity wrestling shows promoted by Captain Lou Albano, to benefit the Multiple Sclerosis Society. Even in the past few years, Slaughter has reached out to help with charity work, promoting his Sgt. Slaughter Celebrity Golf Invitational to raise money for a good cause. Fans gave Slaughter a good living, and he returned the favor by helping those less fortunate.

Slaughter's only WWF World Title was sort of a mixed blessing. Although it was an honor for Slaughter to get the strap, it happened at the expense of compromising his gimmick and turning heel as an Iraqi sympathizer, with longtime rivals Iron Sheik and General Adnan (Al-Kassie) as his partners. It's a bit unfair that Slaughter's career is often remembered for this blemish, as Slaughter himself wasn't entirely comfortable in the gimmick. WWE also downplays the storyline, which indicates that nobody involved looks back on it fondly. But alas, it was Sarge's one reign atop the WWF. Sarge bit the bullet and morphed into the hated turncoat heel, as a vehicle for Hulk Hogan to return to his ultra-patriotic roots and unseat Slaughter at WrestleMania VII. WWE pitted two of the biggest babyface wrestlers of the 1980s against each other, but stripped Slaughter of his identity in the process.

Regardless, Slaughter is remembered as the quintessential patriotic pro wrestler. He can still pop a crowd. He's a respected member of WWE's road crew. And he was recently inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, along side contemporaries such as Jesse "The Body" Ventura, Greg "The Hammer" Valentine, and The Junkyard Dog.

Much like the late JYD, Slaughter is a character of wrestling lore that fans from the 1980s will always look back on as one of their favorites.

Corporal Kirchner? Not so much.

E-MAIL DENNY
BROWSE THE CIRCA ARCHIVES


  
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