I should have known better. I should have known that ranking every member of the nWo would lead me down some dark paths, and here I am watching WCW Monday Nitro circa 1997, the wrestling I grew up on. Here’s what I know, deep in my bones: Rey Mysterio Jr. is incredible, watching Ric Flair and Arn Anderson try to sell Steve “Mongo” McMichael’s promos is utterly delicious, and “The Total Package” Lex Luger is the greatest wrestler of all time.
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This runs contrary to everything most people believe about Lex Luger. A two-time world champion who once traveled the desolate wasteland of America on a bus named for himself, the image of Luger that persists in wrestling is that of a guy who had all the tools but never quite made it, a man who never seemed interested enough in wrestling to make anything of his innate talent. We are to remember him for Vince McMahon’s aborted attempt at turning him into a Hulk Hogan for the 1990s, as evidence of the bloat that killed World Championship wrestling, and as a wrestler unable to complete simple tasks like taking off his t-shirt.
All of those things are true, but wrestling being the kind of art where it’s possible for completely atrocious acts to catch fire, it’s also true that Lex Luger’s 1997 is appointment viewing, a triumphant horn blast hinting at the greatness he would have been capable of had his moment arrived at a better time, like if WCW fans accepted him in Flair’s absence, or if McMahon pulled the trigger on the Lex Express before the crowd took a shine to Bret Hart, who was also forced into the background by the dying breath of Hulkamania.
The Total Package.
Wrestling is a sport of bodily extremes, the aesthetics of which dictate that wrestlers who are fat are very fat, that wrestlers who are hot are unbearably hot, and wrestlers who are shredded are ridiculously shredded. Luger’s a physical freak, a character in a video game where every customization slider is pushed to MUSCLES. When Vince McMahon hired him away from WCW, it wasn’t to wrestle—it was to be the marketable face of his fledgling bodybuilding organization, the WBF. Luger was injured and never competed there, but his first character in the WWF was way different than the one he won the WCW Championship with. He became a man called “The Narcissist,” who spent a lot of time admiring his physique in a mirror. When he went back to WCW, he kept hyper awareness of his physical perfection as part of his gimmick.
I find bodybuilding pretty boring as a sport, but I love how it’s applied to wrestling. I love big, cocky, impossible slabs of meat who spend as much time flexing as they do wrestling. And Lex Luger was very good at flexing. Like, dude came to the ring every week popping his titties hypnotically to one of the greatest theme songs of the era.
So picture this: It’s 1997, you’re nine years old, and out walks this living action figure, pyro exploding behind him, every muscle oiled up and ready to flex, a guitar screaming through the arena with reckless abandon. Who’s standing across the ring from him? Well, on a normal night, a big dude with terrible gear and a name like ROAD BLOCK. The Road Blocks of the world are imposing because of their size—all they can do, really, is club the hell out of their opponent. But when you’re watching Lex Luger and every punch or bump he takes is accompanied by an earth-shattering “UGH” or “YEOW,” being big is all that’s required. The point of men like Road Block is to demonstrate the sheer, terrifying strength of Lex Luger, who will ultimately finish off those men by lifting them up onto his shoulders and (theoretically) bending their back over his body, the Human Torture Rack.
You may not believe this, but trust me: it’s enthralling. I’m a 32 year old woman, and I often have wrestling on in the background while I’m going about the business of my day. When I hear Lex Luger’s theme, when the guy playing the guitar starts hitting the whammy bar, I perk up. It’s an almost Pavlovian response. It’s not that I want to see Luger rack somebody—I need it.
How the world came to love Lex Luger.
I was nine years old when Lex Luger won the WCW World Heavyweight Championship, and watching the Summer of Lex as an adult, I’m stunned by how much of it works. 1997 was a magical year for professional wrestling in the United States, a year where, until Survivor Series 1997’s Montreal Screwjob and Starrcade 1997’s cosmically terrible conclusion to the Sting vs. Hollywood Hogan feud, everything seemed to be working. I decided to watch the Clash of the Champions event where the hosts of Dinner and a Movie joined the nWo, and was truly amazed at the outpouring of love for Luger. I had to see if that was consistent throughout the year, or if it was a one-off occurrence.
Y’all—people loved Lex Luger. More than that, with the nWo fucking up Nitro every Monday, people loved everyone who stood half a chance at beating someone repping the white and black. The Giant, the Steiner Brothers, Rey Mysterio, Dean Malenko, DDP, Mongo McMichael—WCW fans were genuinely invested in these characters, even if they sucked, even if they spent years eating shit before wrapping their ribs up in ACE bandages as their Nirvana ripoff theme song hit.
Lex Luger was the fulcrum of all of this, which makes a certain amount of sense if you think about WCW history. When he re-debuted in the company on the inaugural of Nitro, it was as a traitor in a frilly shirt, a WWF-turncoat returning to where the big boys played with his tail between his legs. He played a tweener, someone who was simultaneously Sting’s friend and a loose associate of Jimmy Hart and the Dungeon of Doom, cheating to win his matches under Sting’s nose and plotting the end of Hulkamania. It’s certainly one of the few highlights of that era of WCW, and the dissension between Luger and the rest of WCW made it hard for anybody to trust each other when Hall and Nash made their debut and started causing chaos.
The Outsiders promised a third member of their faction, who wound up being Hulk Hogan, but the WCW team of Sting, Luger, and Randy Savage went into Bash at the Beach not knowing if they could trust each other. That mistrust continued into a War Games cage match later that year, as the nWo hinted that Sting was joining the group. When they trotted out a bogus Sting, the real Sting emerged to beat up the nWo before disappearing, and when the dust cleared Sting, wounded by his friends’ belief in his betrayal, said he’d be stepping away from WCW for awhile. Elsewhere in the company, the Dungeon of Doom continued to exist, snaring Ric Flair in its goofy net, and Roddy Piper returned from retirement, but less for WCW and more because he had about 100 different ways of calling Hulk Hogan gay that weren’t appropriate in 1985, when Hogan was a face.
Someone had to carry the banner while Sting, always WCW’s franchise, brooded. That someone was Lex Luger.
The Summer of Lex.
From August 1996 to December 1997, Hollywood Hogan had the WCW World Heavyweight Championship in a stranglehold. As more and more people joined the new World order, the odds of a Hogan match or title defense ending in a clean finish diminished. Watching it now with the benefit of hindsight, this makes the whole angle a little tiresome. Just when someone gains the advantage on Hogan (or Hall or Nash for that matter), twelve dudes hit the ring, beat down the face, and the fans throw garbage and full drinks with startling accuracy while chanting “WE WANT STING.” Sometimes Sting shows up. Sometimes he doesn’t. Until Sting takes the title in December, it’s the way WCW presents the defenders of its brand, the purple and gold, that matters. So you have the issue between Macho Man and DDP, the Steiner Brothers eternally chasing the Outsiders, and the (now rendered brutally uncomfortable to watch) endless blood feud between Kevin Sullivan and Chris Benoit. And then there’s Lex Luger, Hulk Hogan, and the WCW Title.
Luger’s title win is built to and achieved exquisitely. The whole WCW vs. nWo feud operated on the basis that WCW was too fractious, too built around the idea of individual success to join together and fight off the invaders. Luger’s rise was proof of the opposite. To start the year, he tagged with The Giant, chasing after Hall and Nash’s tag titles. Both men were redeemed heels, not necessarily the easiest figures to rally around, but they hated the nWo and were strong and powerful enough to do something about it. Their marriage of convenience became an honest friendship, to the point that Giant gave Luger the win in a fatal four way match with a shot at the title on the line.
That’s a rare outcome in wrestling—situations where a massive babyface should be gracious in defeat tend towards the babyface being a huge, whiny dick about it—but it demonstrated the unity WCW needed (but never quite found). I loved it, and loved that, unlike most WCW wrestlers, Luger was capable of fighting off multiple members of the nWo at once, sometimes even winning his matches by pinfall or torture rack despite the interference. It’s incredibly well done—just as things start to feel hopeless, here’s a hero who will be there every week. On the other side of the ring you’ve got Hollywood Hogan, a guy so focused on Sting that Luger is barely on his mind.
It’s not quite an underdog story—Luger is too shredded to be the underdog—but it’s effective nevertheless in building a believable challenger and mounting pressure from week to week. Luger making Hogan submit to the rack in a non-title match opens the door to the idea that Hogan’s unending black cloud of a reign might end, setting the template for what that loss might look like without discounting the possibility that the nWo will once again protect Hogan. Watch a few months of WCW television from 1997 like I’ve inexplicably done, and it’s impossible to not root for him.
Honestly, his title win is one of the best of its era by a face, eclipsed by Steve Austin, Mankind, and Goldberg, but only because it didn’t have the emotional heft of Mick Foley’s childhood dream or the sea change of the Austin and Goldberg eras. It’s all about how it upsets the nWo formula. Luger kicking out of Hogan’s leg drop brings out the big guns, and the fans, expecting a clusterfuck DQ finish, start throwing garbage. Only Luger starts tagging everybody as they try to get into the ring and the referee isn’t calling for the bell. He clears the ring, signals for the rack, lifts Hogan into the air, and we’ve got a new champion.
Lex Luger is frequently accused of not being genuine, but that’s not what his win that night suggests. People bought into him then, and I buy into him now. He’s not the man—he can’t be, not with Sting in the rafters—but he’s the right man for his time, a release valve for the collective emotion of a crowd asked too often to wait until next week for something like closure. It’s not the most glorious role in the world of professional wrestling, but it’s an incredibly valuable one. I love Lex Luger because I live for moments like his, moments that somehow are buried by the time and context they define. That and the way he makes his titties dance, but mostly the moment.