Arn Anderson was never designed to be among a young child’s favorite wrestlers.
Growing up in small town Michigan in the 1980s, I came to pro wrestling as most children my age did, at least in my neck of the woods. Hulk Hogan was the rampaging hero of the World Wrestling Federation in my first memories of watching wrestling, which start somewhere in 1986. One of my earliest clear memories is me in the kitchen, pleading with my grandmother to get the “paper view” for WrestleMania III in early 1987. I turned five a couple of weeks before that show.
Hogan was, of course, a larger-than-life superhero character, incredibly powerful and robust, but also somehow finding himself fighting from underneath in pretty much every match he had. The Hulkster had the incredible advantage of going bald on top at a young age, which he could use to play into the ham-fisted emotion of his selling. There before you, groaning in pain and desperately clawing for the will to survive the next nerve hold that came his way, was not the towering mountain of muscle Hulk Hogan so much as a feeble old man, sweat pouring from his skin, which was the hue of a basketball dribbled too often on cracked concrete.
It worked. It worked more than anything had ever worked in the history of wrestling to that point. Hogan’s style played to the cheap seats and those at home who could lose interest at any time. It was corny, but he was a master of what he did, and his unbelievable charisma and screaming promos talked you into watching in the first place.
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My location didn’t have much for local wrestling or even local wrestling tradition. The closest city was Chicago, and I didn’t see the bright lights of the Windy City until my first middle school field trip to the museums, but I was lucky enough to have basic cable, and with that came TBS, where you could watch Atlanta’s Braves and Hawks, John Wayne movies, and another wrestling program starring all kinds of different people.
The TBS show was undeniably “smaller” in presentation, but something about it struck me in a way the WWF didn’t. I liked both shows, and I liked them for different reasons.
World Championship Wrestling is where I was introduced to Arn Anderson.
Arn was a bad guy. He ran with Ric Flair, Ole Anderson, and Tully Blanchard as The Four Horsemen. The Horsemen were different. They were a bona fide gang, four guys (and manager J.J. Dillon) who always had the back of the others, and it made them near-impossible to actually beat. You might win a DQ, but the Horsemen taught me a lot about the champion’s advantage in pro wrestling.
Arn quickly became the guy I was most drawn to on TBS. There was just something about him – the look, the way he spoke, the way he carried himself, the way he moved in the ring. Everything he said, it felt like he meant it. Yeah, he would raise his voice, but he wasn’t bug-eyed and screaming unless something had truly gone against him, and even then, it wasn’t anything like Hogan or his buddy Flair. There was more of a controlled, seething anger.
The look reminded me of a lot of the grown men I’d seen in real life. I wasn’t going to walk by anyone who looked like Hulk Hogan or Andre the Giant or The Road Warriors, but I’d seen some guys who looked kind of like Arn. He had that workmanlike, blue-collar appearance. You could envision Arn Anderson popping a cold one with your old man and doing some work on a lawn mower.
Efficient and Mean
In the ring, Arn was serious, efficient, and mean. There was a ruthlessness to the way he worked over opponents, whether singles or in tag team bouts with Tully Blanchard, and he just seemed clever. If you got an advantage on him, it didn’t last long. Usually he was cheating to get it back, and I was supposed to hate that, but I didn’t.
He was a meat-and-potatoes wrestler, but everything Arn did looked like it had been perfected. Even the way he’d drive an elbow down to a bent over opponent when they’d made the cardinal mistake after sending him to the ropes, or the form on his stomps to a downed foe. His spinebuster was and is my favorite move in wrestling history, and to this day, I won’t use that as the name for any move that isn’t executed in the style of Arn Anderson.
All of the detail of my thinking is with the benefit of considering these things for decades now, of course; I wasn’t thinking of it in these terms as a kid, but in hindsight, I can see the reasons I was drawn to Arn Anderson, and the ways he captured my imagination.
When Arn and Tully showed up in the WWF in 1988, I was amazed. Like many jumps between the two promotions, it was strange for me to get used to, but it was also always exciting when it happened. The Brain Busters’ work in the WWF was rock solid, though the run was relatively short-lived, as they were out of the company by the end of 1989, in action for just over a year.
Arn’s return to what was about to fully, officially become WCW was meant to be. He picked up the TV title in short order, forming a new Four Horsemen group and working as a babyface, at least in that he was often matched with the heels of Gary Hart’s J-Tex Corporation, who had been hounding Flair for months.
That didn’t last, but it also showcased another element of what made Arn Anderson so appealing to me, and why I think his career holds up so well to this day. Whether his alignment at the time was “heel” or “face,” Arn Anderson was always the same guy, and you got to see a lot of that through the remainder of his career.
His 90s work isn’t as celebrated as what he did in the 80s, but Arn lacked no quality in the new decade. He was a key member of The Dangerous Alliance, which may have been pound-for-pound the best and most talented wrestling stable ever put together, and while the 90s Horsemen groups didn’t touch the 80s versions, Arn was always doing good work in every one of them. In Horsemen lore, it’s Arn Anderson who is the glue, the right-hand man, “The Enforcer.”
On the microphone, Anderson had developed into one of the true greatests of all-time. In 1995, when he feuded with Flair, the two of them put on weekly promo master classes while Hulk Hogan and the dorks in the Dungeon of Doom offered up some of the worst wrestling television ever produced.
When the New World Order ran roughshod in WCW, it felt like the Horsemen were going to be a key to WCW fighting back. They were not the typical heroes, but the typical heroes couldn’t handle the task. WCW needed the Horsemen. It didn’t really work out that way, and in retrospect, it makes sense; those weren’t really the Horsemen of legend, and their days of dominance were long over.
Injury cut his career short in 1997. At 15 years old, having watched the man wrestle as long as I could remember, I had a tear in my eye as he retired on Nitro. Less than five years later, I shouted and pumped my fist when he hit the ring to drill Undertaker with one more classic Double-A spinebuster at WrestleMania X8.
Arn Anderson was special, one of the pure best to ever do it. I have to figure many of those who became lifelong Arn fans got there the way I did, which is that you simply watched him wrestle and listened to him talk. He was real. He was reliable and consistent. And he never had any bold shift in character. Whether they were booing or cheering, Arn was Arn, and for my money, there was nobody around him who was any better a professional wrestler.
I liked Hulk Hogan because his whole act was created for me, a little kid. I loved Arn Anderson because he was Arn Anderson.