Mention the top tag teams in pro wrestling history, and the name Road Warriors will invariably make the short list.

Some pundits will even argue that The Road Warriors deserve to be at the very top of that elite category. And they have a good case.

The Warriors, Hawk (Mike Hegstrand) and Animal (Joe Laurinaitis), helped revolutionize the business when they first burst upon the scene in the early ‘80s. So dominant was this duo that they captured the NWA tag-team belts in their first match together.

Regarded by many as the most influential team of that decade, The Warriors held tag titles in nearly every major company, including the NWA, AWA, WWF and the major Japanese promotions.

Their muscular, tough-guy image would help usher in the era of the big man in pro wrestling and spawn a slew of imitators over the years.

The Warriors, though, were the originators.

The “Monsters of the Midway” were forces of nature in the ring and even had their own trademark battle cry, “We snack on danger and we dine on death,” followed by Hawk’s piercing, gravely voiced “Oh ... what a rush!” Entering the ring to the pulsating beat of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man,” donning outfits straight out of a post-apocalyptic nightmare, they inspired a generation of face-painted musclemen including The Blade Runners (the future Sting and Ultimate Warrior), and were prototypes for such teams as Demolition and The Powers of Pain.

Their fascinating story is told by Laurinaitis, with Andrew William Wright, in “The Road Warriors: Danger, Death and the Rush of Wrestling” (Medallion Press, $24.95). It’s a riveting memoir that pulls no punches and is every bit as powerful as the pair that once dominated the wrestling scene.

Hegstrand, Laurinaitis’s “brother in paint,” died in 2003 at the age of 46 of a heart attack.

Bodybuilding partners and nightclub bouncers from Minnesota, Laurinaitis and Hegstrand set the bar for tag-team wrestling during the ‘80s with their biker boots, spiked shoulder pads, studded dog collars, colorful face paint and jacked-up physiques. More than their muscular builds and Mohawks, the larger-than-life monsters’ no-sell, overpowering ring style placed them at the pinnacle of the tag-team hierarchy throughout the decade, their painted mugs on millions of TV screens across America.

The Road Warriors were a team of destiny.

The two were trained by Minnesota-based journeyman Eddie Sharkey in the cold basement of a church that served as Sharkey’s “wrestling school.” They learned to take bumps in an old, broken-down boxing ring with a sheet of plywood and canvas covering the top of it.

Sharkey, a grizzled veteran who by that time was working as a bartender at a club where Laurinaitis and Hegstrand were employed as bouncers, saw the potential in his budding protégés. They would become members of a metaphorical murderers’ row of wrestlers he helped train that included Curt Hennig (Mr. Perfect), Rick Rood (Ravishing Rick Rude), John Nord (Nord the Barbarian and The Berzerker) and Barry Darsow (Krusher Khrushchev, Smash of Demolition and Repo Man).

After a few months of knocking heads, working on cardio and learning the ropes, Laurinaitis and Hegstrand were on their way. A meeting Sharkey arranged between his students and Minnesota native Ole Anderson, who was booker of Georgia Championship Wrestling at the time, put into motion a series of events that would forever change the face of the sports entertainment industry.

“Ole Anderson was a big part of The Road Warriors,” says Laurinaitis, who adds that Anderson initially sent him to the Carolinas, a move that nearly finished his career before it even started.

Making chump change and surviving on a half-gallon of milk and a bag of pretzel sticks, he says, wasn’t his idea of the big time.

“I wanted to kill him at first because I starved there. Jim Crockett was paying me a hundred bucks and I was working eight times a week. The Carolinas are absolutely gorgeous, but when you’re in that much misery and can’t afford anything, it can be real tough.”

Laurinaitis eventually was brought back to Georgia, paired with Hegstrand, and the rest is history.

“Ole was very instrumental,” says Laurinaitis. “You should have seen the look on his face when Hawk said, ‘Hey ... what if we have Mohawks? Animal will have a normal Mohawk, and I’ll have a double Mohawk, and then we can bend over and plug our heads into one another.’ Ole looked at us and said, ‘You guys just aren’t right ... but you’re perfect for this business.’”

The two just may have reminded Anderson of another tough and ruthless team a decade or two earlier dubbed “The Minnesota Wrecking Crew.”

“The Anderson Brothers weren’t right in the head either,” jokes Laurinaitis. “Ole was hardcore. But we liked it.”

Seek and destroy

The Warriors were guided in the ring by wrestler-turned-manager “Precious” Paul Ellering, a Wall Street Journal-wielding mastermind who later became their real-life business manager, and whose skills at the bargaining table made the trio very wealthy men.

The formula for the no-mercy monsters’ success was simple: Destroy everything that moves.

The Warriors, still untested rookies, were given a big break by being allowed to work short squash matches to mask their inexperience. The mammoth duo never lost clean, no-sold their opponents’ offense and looked like unstoppable monsters.

It was at the insistence of Anderson, though, that The Roadies showed no pain but delivered it in convincing and realistic fashion. It what’s the fans wanted to see, and Anderson desperately needed a team that would draw big at the box office.

As a result, the two experienced some resentment from their babyface foes, many of whom balked at having to lay down for a pair of relatively green workers.

“Not many said it to our face,” says Laurinaitis. “We heard some rumblings later on down the line, years later, when some of the guys came out with their own books. But I think most of the guys realized that it was needed for the business. It goes in cycles like that, and somebody has to do it. We just happened to be the guys who were doing it.”

But their popularity, hard-hitting style and deafening crowd pops were undeniable, and they were bringing in tons of money for promoters.

What made it easy for the two was that they practically lived their gimmick.

“We did 24/7. And a lot of it in the beginning wasn’t a gimmick. We were two hard-nosed kids out of a bar. We weren’t bullies by any means, but we didn’t take any crap from anybody either.”

It was the beginning of a new era in wrestling, and The Road Warriors were leading the charge.

“We were definitely in the forefront of something,” says Laurinaitis. “We came in right at the tail end of ‘give the guy 50 bucks and a 12-pack of beer and he’s happy.’ Everybody wore wrestling tights and singlets. And we come in, one bodybuilder and one power lifter, and change things.”

Laurinaitis relates in the book that he and his partner were just “two big dummies trying to figure it out.”

“In the beginning it was a tough row to hoe,” he says. “We were so different in interviews. I was a straight shooter and he was off the wall. It was stuff you can’t teach. We were just different from everybody else.”

He also describes in the book how his career could have gone either way.

Not far into his wrestling gig, Laurinaitis writes, he crossed paths with Roddy Piper and asked the veteran if he thought he would make it in the business. Piper told him, quite bluntly, “No way.” Years later when Hawk and Animal were headliners in WWE, Laurinaitis had a chance to ask Piper that same question again. “You did good, kid,” Piper replied this time around.

The addition of Ellering as manager, says Laurinaitis, was the boost the team needed to get over the top. Not only did he work in their corner, Ellering took on the extra duties of booking their matches, lining up their flights, setting up hotel reservations and keeping track of their expenses.

“I think the best thing that happened to us was to have Paul Ellering with us in the beginning. He was a genius. He put everything together,” says Laurinaitis. “It was also being able to get in the ring with guys like Ric Flair, Arn Anderson and Tully Blanchard, the Four Horsemen. They were great teachers of the wrestling business. And us, being willing students and wanting to learn the wrestling business, were able to learn from all these second- and third-generation guys who were trying to teach us.”

Ellering, who wrote the foreword to the book, attempts to explain the phenomenon that was The Road Warriors.

“Promoters, being human, naturally balked. They tried to mold us, not understanding that conventional wrestling theory was flawed.”

But, he adds, his charges moved forward with courage and confidence and became “the greatest attraction in the business.”

Bigger and stronger

Their oversized physiques and outsized personas made them superstars in this country and abroad. Eventually, though, their gimmick would no longer be novel, as WWE owner Vince McMahon would exploit the fans’ desire for bigger and stronger bodies with a seemingly endless supply of chemically enhanced behemoths.

Laurinaitis, who began using anabolic steroids at the age of 22, is quick to downplay the role that steroids played in his career.

“Back then you have to understand that everything was legal and was under a doctor’s supervision,” says Laurinaitis, who sported 24-inch arms. “I was a power lifter who had just gotten into the wrestling business. I still had goals that I wanted to achieve. I wanted to see how big I could get my bench press. I also wanted to see how much I could squat. It was hard being on the road 250 days of the year, but I still wanted to reach those goals.”

“You ask any sports doctor, and they’ll tell you that steroids aren’t the bad boys they’re perceived to be,” he adds. “The thing about anabolic steroids is that they work and they heal you up. I don’t think there are any documented cases of anybody OD’ing on steroids or dying from steroids. It’s always something else that’s contributing to that problem.”

Laurinaitis, whose top weight reached 320 pounds, says he and his partner both quit when the muscle-enhancing drugs were cast as a controlled substance in 1991 and WWE began testing.

“Back then guys just had to be smart. Some were and some weren’t. Fortunately we were smart,” says Laurinaitis, who bench-pressed more than 600 pounds in his heyday. “We got blood tests and if one level was off one way or the other, the doctor would tell us to get off them. And it wasn’t like we were on them year-round. The guys who take them all year-round are stupid. I’ll be the first one to tell you that. Once they became illegal we stopped. I had no problem with that. I was a 260-pound guy to begin with. It really didn’t affect me. A lot of guys couldn’t tell whether I was on or off. I was still a 500 pound-benching guy.”

Hawk and Animal would have several runs in WWE, but as The Legion of Doom and not as The Road Warriors, since McMahon already had one headliner using The Ultimate Warrior moniker (Jim Helwig).

The imitation teams didn’t bother Laurinaitis.

“Imitation is just a form of flattery. There were many imitations ... but no duplications. That’s just part of the game. I never got mad at Demolition. Barry Darsow (Smash) was one of my good friends. More power to them.”

Death of a Warrior

The book provides a revealing look at Hegstrand’s longtime struggle with drugs and alcohol. Laurinaitis discusses those issues in detail, describing how they affected the team, along with memorable fights the two waged with one another.

Laurinaitis, who dedicates the book to his family and to Hegstrand, talks about his fond memories of his late partner as well as his frustration. Hawk was a hard-living wildman who overdosed several times. He had survived a head-on collision with a semi-truck and had nearly drowned while drunk as well.

The two were like brothers. But sometimes, says Laurinaitis, Hawk was his own worst enemy. He constantly pushed his life to the extremes.

“Some of it was due to the fact that we were on the road 80 straight days, and something was always ready to snap, You’re together every waking minute of the day. It was such a helpless feeling because I couldn’t help him and he couldn’t help himself. We couldn’t do anything about it.”

But there also was another side to Hawk. That side, says Laurinaitis, was kind, generous and a friend to the end who became a loving uncle to his kids. He may have been wild and crazy, but he had a heart of gold.

“Mike was a great guy. He was a guy who’d give you the shirt off his back. He was a good, fun-loving guy, probably too fun-loving at times. But that was him, and he wasn’t going to change for anybody.”

The wear and tear of their health and the business eventually would put a massive chink in the seemingly invincible armor of The Road Warriors.

Laurinaitis would stay out of the wrestling ring for nearly two years due to a bad back while collecting on a Lloyd’s of London insurance policy.

Years of hard living would finally catch up to Hegstrand. But not before he was able to turn his life around.

Born-again Christians, both Hegstrand and Laurinaitis spent considerable time working with wrestler-turned-evangelist Ted DiBiase’s wrestling-themed church productions.

The Road Warriors’ incredible 20-year ride ended for good in 2003 with the passing of Hawk at the age of 46 of a massive heart attack. The man with wrecking-ball biceps had been diagnosed two years earlier with a heart condition known as cardiomyopathy. Years of abuse had created a tear in his heart.

Like many of his peers, including Rick Rude, Davey Boy Smith, Brian Pillman, Terry Gordy and Curt Hening, Hegstrand’s body finally succumbed to the excesses he indulged in for most of his adult life. It was a rock-n-roll lifestyle that took no prisoners.

“Life for Mike was a circus and the Fourth of July all rolled into one,” wrote Ellering. “It’s why everyone liked him. Joe and I learned forgiveness being around Mike.”

Change of heart

The turnaround in Laurinaitis’s life began when longtime friend Nikita Koloff gave him a book he had written titled “Breaking the Chains.” It was a handbook for Christian living that chronicled Koloff’s personal transformation.

“He had given the book to me a couple of times. The first time I just threw it in my bag, and it sat there for about a year. The second time it stuck to my fingers and I read it.”

Before he knew it, says Laurinaitis, he was beginning to see a change. Not long after, while working out at the gym, he was approached by six members of The Power Team, a group of Christian evangelists who incorporate their preaching with displays of strength and martial arts. One of the members asked him: “Hey, Animal, you got Jesus in your life?”

The wrestler was stumped at first, but honestly answered, “I don’t know.”

“I didn’t know what to think about that,” he says.

Laurinaitis was then invited to attend an event at the Living Word Christian Center in Minneapolis where nearly six thousand people watched the team go through their feats of strength.

“They saved me a seat,” recalls Laurinaitis. “Little did I know they were going to save me a seat in the front row. They saved seats for my whole family. All the cameras are shooting from behind, so all you could see on the big screen was this big, fat head with a Mohawk.”

Laurinaitis initially was unimpressed as he watched the squad go through its act.

“I’m thinking I could do a lot of this stuff. I could break a bat or twist a frying pan. I could do that.”

Then came time for the altar call.

“Now if you want to confess your sins in front of everybody in the church like you’re supposed to, ask the Lord for forgiveness and say the Sinner’s Prayer, you’re a Christian,” says Laurinaitis.

That’s when the grappler started really sweating while bouncing the notion around in his head.

“Do I want to be hypocritical and be like other guys who have done it and used it for gain in the business?” he asked himself.

That’s when he says he got an answer.

His son James, then 12 years old, nudged him and said, “Daddy, let’s go.” The rest of the family followed.

“The Holy Spirit worked through James, and we all went up there,” says Laurinaitis.

It still resonates with him today.

When a teacher in a high school leadership class asked her students to bring in two items important to them, James chose an action figure of his father, and his pocket Bible.

“Since that night, James has read a chapter of his Bible almost every night,” says Laurinaitis. Though separated by miles, he says, James still sends his sister passages of scripture through e-mails.

“I have God to thank for everything,” he says.

All-American family

In addition to being a pro wrestling superstar, Laurinaitis also is a devoted husband and proud father, the latter two attributes ranking higher in his book than the former.

The Laurinaitis clan truly is an All-American family.

Youngest son James is a Butkus Award-winning linebacker from Ohio State University and current St. Louis Rams standout. Oldest son Joey is an Iraq war veteran and a police officer in Dayton, Ohio. Daughter Jessica is a college freshman who excels at ice hockey and softball.

Wife Julia is no slouch herself when it comes to athletics. The fitness model was an accomplished hurdler and swimmer in high school and went on to become a record-setting power lifter — dead-lifting 305 pounds in the 123-pound weight class — and competitive bodybuilder.

Laurinaitis’ younger brother, Johnny Ace (Laurinaitis), is a former wrestling star and current WWE Executive Vice President of Talent Relations. Another younger brother, Marc Laurinaitis, also wrestled professionally.

Joe takes his position as husband and father seriously.

“You can’t replace being a good dad. But I give my wife all the credit. She was both mom and dad when I was on the road 250 days a year. She’s my best friend.”

Laurinaitis had custody of his son, Joey, from a previous relationship, yet he says his wife would drive his son back and forth from baseball practices. She set the tone for the household when her husband was on the road.

“We adopted Joey before my son James was born. Joey and James became buddies and they never knew the difference. They were brothers and they’re good buddies to this day.”

Today, he says, his family remains Christian and is all the better for it.

“That’s the beauty about being a Christian. God doesn’t expect you to be perfect. To this day I’ll still slip up, I’ll swear and do things like that, but I still ask the Lord for forgiveness. As long as you’re earnest and you really care about the forgiveness part of it, it’s all about your personal relationship with God.”

Joe, who was an All-American guard and linebacker at Golden Valley Lutheran College in Minnesota, always made sure he was home to coach his kids. He even learned how to skate so he could coach their youth hockey teams.

“I was always a coach. I was baseball coach, football coach, hockey coach. That’s one of the things where I made an agreement with Jim Crockett in the Carolinas and Vince McMahon in WWE. Whoever I wrestled for, I had to be home to coach at my kids’ games.”

Laurinaitis says he realized how valuable that time together was. He may have been a big-time wrestling star, but when he came home off the road from wrestling, he left “Animal” at the airport.

“You can’t get that time back later. I wasn’t going to be a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ type of dad. By no means was I perfect, but I tried as best I could. I was there when all of my kids were born. I made the important things, and hopefully they learned a thing or two about being humble.”

Laurinaitis, 51, is equally proud of all his children. And it’s obvious that he loves being a dad. He can now take a back seat and revel in James’ success on the gridiron.

James, he jokes, excelled at football as soon as he was old enough to strap on a helmet. He set a club rookie record with 144 tackles for the Rams.

“You can only hope that your kid not only does better than you as a father, but at least does to the maximum of his ability. He kind of blew it out of the water at Ohio State. He was the only first-team, three-time All-American at Ohio State. There’s a short list in college football ... there’s only five guys who have done that, and James is one of them. Now he’s with the Rams, and he’s led his team in tackles two year in a row. He’s actually had Pro Bowl numbers, but now that the Rams are winning some games, they’ll get some prime-time television exposure next year so it should be a different story. Hopefully next year he’ll be able to make the Pro Bowl.”

James’ success comes as no surprise to the Animal. His coaching, apparently, paid off with dividends.

“I coached these kids, and I coached James, and I just wanted to be the coach to make sure that they learned how to do the basics the right way. You can only give them the ball, and they have to be able to run with it. James was always a great student whether he was playing with his G.I. Joes or Hot Wheels or anything. He’d study how this thing rolled, how it worked. That’s why he was such a natural when it came time as a freshman when he had to start calling all the signals for Ohio State. As a sophomore he was calling all the signals on every down. He was the perfect guy when he went to the Rams. From day one he was put in calling signals. He was the perfect student.”

Laurinaitis also remembers James performing wrestling flips with his friends from a nine-foot loft above the living room onto a mattress below. He and his buddies would raid his father’s closet, don his tights and shoulder pads and apply his face paint before grappling on the trampoline in the back yard. As a youngster he slept in his red and black wrestling tights every night.

“James is a huge wrestling fan. He’s like a big kid. My wife did a good job when the business was particularly dark for a few years. My kids didn’t watch it at all back then.”

He also says he wouldn’t influence his son into one day getting into the wrestling business.

“It’s a rough business, it’s a lonely business, it’s a brutal business. Only the few can make it in this business. But that would be totally up to him. Hopefully I don’t think he has to worry about that. He’s got good connections if he wants to be a college football announcer or something. James is very good on the mic and does good interviews. Hopefully he won’t have to do that.”

Lasting legacy

The Mid-Atlantic days were Laurinaitis’s favorite time in the business.

“It was great working against the Four Horsemen. That was the climax of the wrestling business,” he says. “It was also exciting the first time we went to Madison Square Garden working for the WWF. That was a dream for us. We had reached another pinnacle. But I think the time in the Carolinas was probably the greatest.

And working with Flair, he adds, was “as good as it gets.”

“There’s never going to be another ‘Nature Boy,’” says Laurinaitis. “He was a great performer in the ring and was also a great guy to be around out of the ring. He definitely exemplified what a world champion should be. He always had the suit and tie, and he took pride in the belt. I think he took it very personal when the NWA went down because he was the world champion. Nobody could go an hour match like he could and wrestle the way he could.”

Laurinaitis says he would like The Road Warriors to be remembered as “good guys, easy guys to work with and get along with.”

“That is very important to us ... that we were good guys. And I think for the most part, 99 percent of the time we were good guys. Not necessarily the greatest tag team of all time, but definitely it will go down in the annals of wrestling history that there’ll never be another Road Warriors. There’s a few things in this business that you’re not going to be able to replicate. One of them is Hulk Hogan, Flair is another one, The Road Warriors are one and maybe The Rock is the other one. That’s about it.”

Laurinaitis says he decided to write the book because he wanted to share his own perspective of the business.

“I saw a few (wrestling) books that were out there ... some I really didn’t like. There were a lot of books and I just wanted to let the dust settle a little bit before I wrote this one. I think my book is written totally different. I went at it from a different angle. I was very honest about kayfabe and all the other stuff.”

He says he still does his curls with the same 50-pound dumbbells that he used when he was a bulked-up 300-pounder.

“I try to be as strong as I ever was. I just don’t do the 600-pound benches anymore because my right shoulder is pretty much bone on bone. I do what I can to maintain myself. I’ve gotten down as low as 240. I’m about 260 right now, so I’m at a good, solid weight and I feel pretty good.”

As for getting back into the wrestling game, Laurinaitis realizes it’s a much different business than the days he and Hawk ruled the roost. But he’d still like to play a role.

“I’m in good enough shape to. I just don’t know if I’m ever going to do it. I would love to be a coach or trainer someday to be help give back to the business. But who knows?”

He is sure of one thing. The Road Warriors would be just as successful today and would be paving another path of destruction.

“I still think that if Hawk and I were to come out today, we would have the same 20-year success we had then, because we were so different ... even different from the guys now.”

He also can look back at his career with no regrets.

“I thing we did things the only way they could have been done at that time. Probably if Hawk were alive and he could go back again, he would have taken more account of some of the consequences I had to serve because of his actions. I did get a thousand apologies from him all the time. It was a revolving door. But it’s part of life, and life’s going to give you ups and downs. It’s all about how you bounce back from it and how you continue on.”

-- Old School Championship Wrestling will present “Caged Carnage 5” tonight at the Hanahan Recreation Center gym at 3100 Mabeline Road. Raven will headline in a three-man cage match. Bell time is 6 p.m. For more information, call 743-4800 or visit www.oscwonline.com.