“Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff Deserved To Kill Hulkamania
Hulk Hogan was a sanctimonious jerk and had it coming all along.
By 1985, the World Wrestling Federation’s plan for global sports entertainment domination by fueling the American zeitgeist with a double fisted shot of Anabolic awesomeness was well under way. The then 33-year old professional wrestling organization had made Hulk Hogan — Rocky III movie star alongside Sylvester Stallone — with bulging biceps and American and Japanese pro wrestling roots, its poster boy. Surrounding him as his on-screen rivals were a cadre of top-tier bad dudes from all over the pro wrestling universe, now all under the Vince McMahon-led WWF banner. However, though many may look at Andre the Giant’s work in 1987 or Randy Savage’s brilliant work in 1988 and 1989 as being tremendous (and it is), none of them were better than “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff. It’s in analyzing how absurdly honest and humanly he played his role as a Hogan antagonist in 1985 and 1986 where one gets the sense that maybe Hogan wasn’t exactly as ideal of a top star as he’s oftentimes perceived.
Paul Orndorff was a Tampa, Florida-born journeyman wrestling star who signed with the WWF in November 1983, just prior to Hulk Hogan becoming the World Wrestling Federation champion on January 23, 1984. Physically, Orndorff was in phenomenal shape, his vascular and sculpted bodybuilder frame a different look than Hogan’s Popeye-as-superhero-esque physique. Orndorff was also a highly skilled wrestler too, and with a decade and a half of experience, was twice as far along as a professional than Hogan. In fact, Orndorff was paired with a similarly more experienced than Hogan “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, and by March 1985, the villainous duo headlined the inaugural Wrestlemania versus Hogan and TV star Mr. T. in a memorable bout.
Post-Wrestlemania is where we pick up our story and where the greatness of Paul Orndorff as a pro wrestling performer and character actor become quite obvious. After losing to Mr. T and the Hulkster at Wrestlemania, Orndorff and Piper split as a pair. Simultaneously, Hulk Hogan had become the target of enormous heels like manager Bobby “The Brain” Heenan’s tandem of Big John Studd and King Kong Bundy. Studd was the “self proclaimed one true giant of professional wrestling,” and Bundy was oftentimes referred to as “the human refrigerator,” and actually headlined Wrestlemania II on April 2, 1986 versus Hogan in a steel cage. Clearly, Hogan needed assistance, and it was none other than the veteran Orndorff who rushed to the superstar’s aid.
Here’s a good point to stop and discuss characters and their motivations, because when you break down Orndorff and Hogan’s storyline, it’s one of the most coldly adult and human stories ever told in a medium oftentimes aimed at creating warm and fuzzy moments meant for children.
Paul Orndorff’s character was that of a self-aggrandizing bodybuilder who was clearly only in pro wrestling for fame and money. He had a moment of pathos when he saw Hulk Hogan being attacked by people twice his size, but at the end of the day, he’s still a glory-hound hustling for a payday. Thus, when Hulk Hogan, the World Wrestling Federation champion, suggests that they team up to wrestle other main event wrestlers, there’s the moment when any pathos Orndorff likely originally had for Hogan is superseded by the idea that he’s about to achieve his character’s ultimate goals.
Let’s compare Paul Orndorff’s 1985 character to Hulk Hogan’s in the same era. Hogan was altruistically “good,” but at the same time, was wholly self-aware of his status and excellence at all times. As well, he was almost aware to the point of being unaware of anyone or anything else existing in his world. He may be one of the few characters in the history of anything whose real life grandiose self directly impacted his on-screen grandiose success, and vice versa. Thus exists the idea of Hogan having a “tag partner” being the most absurd idea ever, because on what level would this “larger than life” man need a body-building bounty hunter to help him dispose of two, albeit giant-sized, arrogant windbags?
The lynch pin upon which the Orndorff/Hogan storyline is built is in Orndorff’s incredibly highly aggressive pursuit of being on Hogan’s level. We’ve already mentioned that as a wrestler, Orndorff was further along than The Hulk as a technician. However, as well in this era, Paul Orndorff really attempted to turn it up to 11 in the charisma department too. It’s even possible that if he weren’t paired with a guy who was on everything from Saturday morning cartoons to commercials and the evening news, he’d have accentuated his presentation to a point wherein he’d be deserving of arguably Hogan’s level of acclaim.
Therein lies the rub. Here’s Paul Orndorff, the self-aggrandizing and cash-hungry wrestler presented with a situation wherein he’s trying to blend his pathos for Hogan with the realization of his sole commercial goal for being in wrestling, alongside the fact that he’s working harder than he ever has before, but to the end of likely only being number two because he works in a company that has allowed Hogan as the top guy to supersede, both as a character and in real life too, all other performers in the WWF combined.
It’d be a different thing if at some point, Hogan as a character had stopped, and maybe brought Orndorff along to the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, or had insisted that he gain co-billing on the Rock and Wrestling cartoon show. It’d be a different thing if Hogan had acknowledged that Orndorff’s desire to make lots of money maybe didn’t align with his morality, but that he was appreciative for his help. However, neither of those things happened, and on July 19, 1986, Orndorff’s “surprise” beatdown of Hogan during a tag team match between Hogan/Orndorff and Studd/Bundy made sense. Ultimately, Orndorff was annoyed and had enough of Hogan’s unintended slights.
On August 28, 1986, because Paul Orndorff had put in the work and Hulk Hogan had (character-wise backhandedly and unknowingly) disrespected him, Orndorff deserved to win the WWF Championship in front of 64,000 fans, an outdoor attendance record at the time, at The Big Event in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. However, he didn’t, and one of what could’ve been one of pro wrestling’s best arcing storylines was lost forever.
Imagine the “shock” of the “great” Hulk Hogan losing to Orndorff, and his displays of dramatic pathos, sans WWF Championship, all over mainstream worldwide television. Of course then as well, imagine the triangle of terror of Orndorff flanked by Studd and Bundy (managed by Bobby Heenan) being the dominant bad guys over the WWF for the remainder of 1986 into 1987. Orndorff’s key bone of contention all along? The idea that he’d want Hogan to apologize to him, which he’d state that Hogan was “too proud” to even consider.
Of course, by Wrestlemania III on March 29, 1987, the idea of Hogan and Orndorff reconciling, due to say, maybe Heenan bringing in Andre the Giant as a replacement for a Paul Orndorff-as-character losing his edge, could be ideal. Andre putting the WWF title he’d likely defeat Orndorff for (with the aid of Studd and Bundy) on the line in a rematch of the 20-man over-the-top-rope Battle Royal he won at Wrestlemania II would’ve been an amazing draw for its time. As well, Hogan and Orndorff in a grudge match rematch versus Studd and Bundy could’ve been potentially HUGE as a main event draw, with Hogan having a much more human presentation likely allowing him to make infinitely more money.
“Macho Man” Randy Savage, “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase, and Andre the Giant were terrific as uniquely motivated villains chasing Hulk Hogan. However, there’s something about the struggle of a star journeyman grappler just wanting his best success that could’ve created the most compelling storytelling ever. A 1986 WWF Championship reign by “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff would’ve allowed for yes, a legitimate Andre the Giant title run, plus expanded the already massive success of Hulk Hogan, and by extension, the WWF.
Instead, after being plagued by a freak bicep injury, Paul Orndorff retired from professional wrestling in 1988. Though he returned in 1990, he was never the same level of competitor ever again.
Oh, but to think about what could’ve and should’ve been…