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Incredibly Talented & Largely Forgotten: The Tale of Adrian Adonis

In wrestling, usually being absent makes the heart grow fonder. When The Rock went away for a while, it made the fans realize what a great piece of talent he truly was, and is.

While Hulk Hogan was doing his thing in TNA Wrestling, the WWE Universe thought he was away from sports entertainment completely, and when he returned to WWE in 2014, he was greeted with unbelievable praise.

Some stars are not so lucky.

Adrian Adonis was one of the most talented wrestlers of the 1980’s. Despite the fact he never worked out, and weighed between 300 and 400 pounds, he had amazing agility for a man his size, and could bounce around the ring like he was on a trampoline.

During Adonis’ heyday, which was around 1981-1987, he was one of the main contenders for all the major titles in pro wrestling. In the AWA, he held the World Tag Team Championship with Jesse Ventura. During their reign, “The East-West Connection” feuded with many great teams within the organization, including “The High Flyers”-Jim Brunzell and Greg Gagne, “Mad Dog” Vachon and Verne Gagne, and Ray Stevens & Pat Patterson.

While Jesse “The Body” Ventura was a tremendous talker loaded with charisma, his wrestling skills left a lot to be desired. Much like his idol “Superstar” Billy Graham, he was a power wrestler who made his name on his physique and interview ability. The AWA was catered more towards technical wrestling, so Adonis made up for it by being able to showcase great wrestling and a knack for making his opponents look good in the ring.

“We’re the best”, Ventura once told interviewer Mean Gene Okerlund. “We’re the best of the 80’s”.

After a successful run in the AWA, Adonis & Ventura went to the World Wrestling Federation in late-1981, where they competed both in singles competition and in the tag-team ranks. Adonis challenged then WWF Champion Bob Backlund for the belt for the early part of 1982, even scoring a victory over him due to blood loss at Madison Square Garden in January of that year. He also got Intercontinental Championship matches against then-champion Pedro Morales, and both Adonis and Ventura took on the Strongbow Brothers for the tag belts as well.

Soon after his first run in the WWF was up, Adonis wrestled in the St. Louis territory for Sam Muchnick, and back in the AWA. After short stints in both areas, Adonis went to San Antonio in 1983 for Southwest Championship Wrestling, and he would leave a short but big impact on the area.

Southwest Wrestling was trying to make a name for themselves, having just gotten on cable television on the USA Network. One way they did this was to create their own version of a World Champion.

They held a tournament to crown a new champion, with former NWA Champion Lou Thesz in attendance to present the belt and also a version of his 1940’s World Title as a gift to the new champ. Adonis won that tournament, beating “Cowboy” Bob Orton in the finals. Even though the title was never recognized officially as a World Championship in any of the main wrestling magazines, it was a nice achievement that could be put on Adonis’ impressive resume.

His run in Southwest Wrestling was brief, and pretty soon afterwards, he found himself in Japan, teaming with Dick Murdoch. The two were great as a tag team, with both showcasing fantastic technical abilities mixed in with brawling.

Vince McMahon took notice of this, and brought the two to the WWF in late 1983. A couple months after, they dethroned Tony Atlas and Rocky Johnson for the Tag-Team Championship. For most of 1984 and into 1985, Adonis and Murdoch dominated the WWF tag-team scene, feuding with the likes of The Wild Samoans, Sgt. Slaughter & Terry Daniels, and Jack & Jerry Brisco.

In early 1985, with Murdoch planning to go back to the NWA and Mid-South Wrestling, both he and Adonis dropped the belts to a new team-Barry Windham and Mike Rotundo. Pretty soon, Murdoch was out of the WWF, and Adonis focused on singles competition.

At first, he was managed by Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, but Adonis continued to toil in the mid card. Finally, in late 1985, he was paired with Jimmy Hart, and his career was about to take a dramatic turn.
For most of his career, Adonis wore a leather jacket, and biker hat to the ring, much like Marlon Brando in “The Wild One”. He specialized in being super tough, all the while showcasing wrestling acumen that was just as good as anybody in the business.

However, Vince McMahon had other ideas.

“Exotic” Adrian Street was a big star in the Southern United States, and his gimmick was that of a glam effeminate wrestler who played to the homophobic fears of the male fan of the day. He had a valet, Miss Linda (who was his real life wife), and his pre-match ritual involved prancing around the ring, and getting his hair brushed by his lovely valet.

To say it was racy would be an understatement.

Realizing that such a character might draw the ire of the audience, McMahon decided to change Adonis’ character completely. Gone were the leather jacket and biker hat. In were a dress, makeup, bleached blonde hair and pink tights.

On an early 1986 edition of Piper’s Pit, Adonis appeared, showcasing his new look, and retiring his biker jacket to Piper.

“I’m gonna live the way I wanna live”, Adonis remarked. “I guess you would say I jumped out of the closet, and there was no brooms behind me”.

At first, it was reported that Adonis hated the gimmick, given the fact he had a wife and kids, and wanted to stay true to his tough guy gimmick. Some say it was McMahon punishing Adonis for his ballooning weight, and drug issues. Whatever the case, Adonis decided to turn chicken-you-know what into chicken salad.

Nowadays, gay rights groups would be enraged that such a gimmick was created. But this was still the mid-1980’s, and people were not as kind to gay folks. Whatever the reason, whether it was a threat to one’s masculinity, or the media coverage of the AIDS fear inside the gay community during that time, people weren’t as comfortable with homosexual lifestyles as they are now.

It was a different time in America.

Putting all his reservations aside, Adonis worked hard to make the gimmick work. When Roddy Piper left briefly in 1986 to film the movie “Body Slam”, Piper’s Pit was replaced by the Flower Shop, a set decorated by all different styles of roses, petunias and other beautiful flowers.

The Flower Shop was the set-up for the Hulk Hogan-Paul Orndorff feud. Adonis would constantly pester Orndorff, telling him he was “Hulk Jr.”, and he would always live in Hogan’s shadow.

After a while, Orndorff had enough, and turned on the Hulkster during a tag-team match against King Kong Bundy & “Big” John Studd, setting up a huge program between Hogan and Orndorff that would sell out across the country. Adonis even had title matches against Hogan during this time, playing to packed houses wherever they wrestled.

Adrian Adonis had hit the big time.

Pretty soon, Roddy Piper had come back to the WWF, ready to take his show back. However, those plans went awry. He discovered that Adonis had taken over his segment, and even enlisted the services of Piper’s former bodyguard, “Cowboy” Bob Orton.

Both Adonis & Piper decided to have a debate on television, and to find out if people wanted “Piper’s Pit” or “The Flower Shop”. This in turn, turned Piper from the WWF’s top villain, to one of their most popular wrestlers. You might even say, he was just a smidge under Hulk Hogan in terms of popularity.

With Wrestlemania 3 set, the match was made. “Rowdy” Roddy Piper would take on “Adorable” Adrian Adonis in what was promoted was Piper’s retirement match. (In reality, Piper was taking time off to film the movie “They Live”.)

Another stipulation was put into the match. Whoever lost would be forced to have their head shaved bald.

In terms of fan interest and heat, the match was captivating. When it seemed like Adonis had Piper beat, the tides had turned, and Piper beat the Adorable one with a sleeper hold.

After the match, Brutus Beefcake, who had just been double crossed by his tag team partners Greg “The Hammer” Valentine and Dino Bravo, came down to the ring, and helped Piper cut the blonde locks from Adonis’ head. This was retaliation from an incident that occurred a few weeks before on television, where Adonis had accidentally cut Beefcake’s hair during a six man tag team match against Rick Martel, Tom Zenk and Lanny Poffo.

With his head shaved bald, Adonis resembled Curly from the Three Stooges. A program was put in place for Beefcake and Adonis to feud. However, for whatever reason, Adonis didn’t want to work with “The Barber”, and was soon gone from the WWF.

In need of a gig, Adonis split his time between Japan, and a return to the AWA with “Cowboy” Bob Orton. During this time, he feuded with Tommy Rich and Greg Gagne, and even enlisted the services of a young Paul Heyman as manager.

At this time, even though Adonis could still go in the ring, his weight got out of control. In his early days, he stayed around 250-260 pounds. However, by 1987, he had gained over 150 pounds, and topped the 400 pound mark.

Deciding he was in need of a life change, he went back to his home in Bakersfield, California, and trained with ex-wrestling manager Bobby Davis. After a few months, Adonis dropped nearly 100 pounds, and was looking more like the Adrian Adonis that challenged Bob Backlund in the early 80’s. He even teamed up with his ex-partner Dick Murdoch, dropped the drag gimmick, and went back to his tough guy image, competing in Japan for the early part of 1988.

However, Adonis’ comeback was cut short.In July 1988, while on a tour of Newfoundland, Canada, he was involved in car accident involving three other wrestlers. He died instantly.

It’s truly a shame that a talent like Adrian Adonis has been erased from existence. In an era where the WWE caters more to kids, the younger fans don’t know who he is. In fact, a lot of the Attitude Era audience probably never heard of him either.

Maybe in a few years, WWE will induct him into the Hall of Fame. He was a big star during the boom period of the mid 1980’s, and sold out arenas in his feuds with Hulk Hogan and Roddy Piper. He was also a star in the AWA, and made a pretty entertaining tag-team with Jesse “The Body” Ventura.

If you get a chance, check out some of his stuff on You Tube. He was very similar to Ric Flair in the way he took bumps, and wrestling ability.

I guess you can say he was incredibly talented, and largely forgotten.

And that’s a crime.

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Jacob Hamar

You can reach Jake Hamar at [email protected] or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/newrock.jake

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