Road to Wrestlemania: Hanging at the IHOP with Sergeant Slaughter_lowres

Veteran wrestler Sergeant Slaughter will be among the attractions at Wrestlemania in April.

Sergeant Slaughter is in that rare group of professional wrestlers who've broken through into broader popular culture. As a Wrestlemania headliner, former WWE champion, and Hall-of-Famer, he's battled a who's who of professional wrestling. Simultaneously, in a decades-long parallel career as a G.I. Joe character, Sarge has saved the free world from the forces of Cobra in comic books, cartoons, and the imaginations of kids who owned his action figure.

When Wrestlemania 30 comes to New Orleans April 6, one of the events accompanying it will be Wrestlemania Axxess, a four-day-long meet-and-greet at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. Axxess, a gala fanfest featuring live matches and elaborate memorabilia displays, provides a chance for autographs, photos and conversation with today's top WWE Superstars as well as Hall-of-Famers like the Sarge.

As a child, I saved proofs-of-purchase and mailed them in to get the special G.I. Joe Sergeant Slaughter action figure, so on Friday it felt slightly surreal to join Sarge, in person, for lunch at an IHOP out by Causeway Boulevard in Metairie. Sitting across from me in the booth, still trim and intimidating, was a man I've seen win the highest honors of professional wrestling, blow up Cobra Island, and, on an unforgettable live-shot VHS my neighbor owned, fight the legendary monster truck Bigfoot to a draw in a tug-of-war and then jam out on a guitar shaped like a Budweiser logo.

Mostly retired from both wrestling and truck-pulling, Sarge these days works a busy schedule as a WWE goodwill ambassador. "I love doing it," he said. "I visit a lot of children's hospitals, veterans' hospitals, and visit our troops, across the country and overseas. I really enjoy charity work, for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, for Make-a-Wish. I feel honored to be asked so many places."

[jump]Rubbing shoulders with other athletes, he's gotten a kick out of seeing professional wrestling's popularity in the broader world of sports. "I've witnessed Ray Rice from Baltimore, Thomas Davis from the Panthers, [David] Ortiz, MVP of the World Series, all carrying replica WWE championship belts." In the run-up to the Superbowl, Sarge feels we've seen another clear example of a pro wrestling influence. "The way [Seattle Seahawks player Richard] Sherman did that promo, that interview after the last playoff game, I'm sure he watches wrestling," Sarge said. "He let them know, in kind of a heel, villain type way: try to put that ball past me. He got himself a lot of publicity, and now people are going to be sure to tune in, to see if he can back it up."

Unsurprisingly for someone with such a storied career, Sarge has plenty of Louisiana memories. "I wrestled Andre the Giant here in New Orleans," Sarge said. "It was unforgettable." Sarge, a legit 6'5", towers over most mortals. Andre, due to a genetic condition, was 7'4" "He was a huge, huge guy. He could make your night easy, or hard. It was up to him."

In Baton Rouge, in 1976, Sarge faced wrestling icon Danny Hodge in what turned out to be Hodge's last match before the car accident near Monroe that ended Hodge's career. On a more cheerful note, our region's all-time top wrestling icon, Junkyard Dog, the man who sold out the Superdome, was himself a Sergeant Slaughter fan. "Sylvester hadn't gotten into the business yet when I first met him," Sarge said. "He would approach us when we came through town, come backstage and hang out." Sarge has been here in non-wrestling capacities, as well. In June 2006, he was the keynote speaker at the 10th annual International G.I. Joe Collectors' Convention, one of the earliest conventions to take place here after the failure of the federal levees.

During his years working for WWE behind the scenes as a talent scout, he helped bring men who went on to be some of the industry's biggest stars, names like The Undertaker and Daniel Bryan, to the attention of WWE management. His in-ring legacy also remains alive and well: for instance, Sarge's brain buster submission, in which he presses his knuckles into a victim's temples, has been lately seen in the arsenal of the massive, mask-wearing monster Erick Rowan, a member of the sinister Wyatt Family.

"I happened to be at Boston for a live event a couple months ago," Sarge said. "[Rowan] came by and started talking to me. He said, 'I'm from Minnesota, I know you're from Minnesota; I watched you as a kid.' We just started talking about the business, how he enjoyed watching me all those years and what an influence I was on him, and he asked if he could use that. I said, 'It'd be an honor. And it fits your character.' It's something he would use, as a member of the Wyatt Family. It's not that my moves are trademarked, but that's good professional courtesy, to ask me first. The guy's so huge, and it was good to see that he was so educated, to hear his interest and life-long passion for wrestling. It shows me he's not just someone who walked into a training camp because of his size."

Though he's now a beloved and avuncular figure, during most of Sergeant Slaughter's time at the top, he was someone crowds loved to hate... and when Sarge was hated, he was hated with great passion. Often when a disliked wrestler is defeated, that catharsis more or less exhausts the crowd's animosity. By contrast, in a match from 1983 I recently rewatched, Sarge leaves the ring limping, bloody-faced and ignomiously defeated, but is still so powerfully despised that police have to hold the crowd back from attacking him. On the tape's scratchy audio, members of the audience can be heard threatening to catch him in the venue's parking lot. I asked Sarge how someone could bear up, day-to-day, under that kind of venemous anger.

"It's something you want out of 'em," Sarge said. "When you lose the match, all beaten up, lose the title, it's all over with, and they still want a piece of you, you know you did your job well. That's a medal to put on your chest." Over the years, Sarge proved a durable villain. "Whatever's best for business, whatever management needed, I would work into. There were times I wished I hadn't done it- a lot of rough moments, death threats, bomb threats, all those things. But it was satistfying, that you could take an arena full of fans and keep them in the palm of your hand. The main thing you want to see behind your name is not how many world championships you won, but how many arenas you sold out. That's the big thing for us."

In light of the controversial and newsmaking Royal Rumble last weekend, I had to ask Sarge for his thoughts on pro wrestling's current state of affairs. After all, it was at the 1991 Royal Rumble that Sarge began his run as the WWE's top title-holder. His was an unpopular reign: in the midst of the first Gulf War, Sarge had publicly turned on the USA and begun coming to the ring wearing a keffiyeh and waving an Iraqi flag. When, at the Royal Rumble, he took the title from the Ultimate Warrior, a manic mesomorph wearing red, white and blue body paint, fans were mightily displeased. The booing now bedeviling Batista, who just returned from a four-year hiatus to win last week's Royal Rumble, becoming the title challenger at Wrestlemania 30, is mild compared to the savage censure Sarge suffered as a treasonous turncoat.

"He's a plus to have back," Sarge said of Batista. "I think he would be a deserving champ, but he's been away for a while, and the business has changed since he's been gone. He's gotta step back and breathe a little bit, sift through the business and catch on as he was, and I'm sure he'll do well, but he's gotta watch his back." Sarge stirred his bowl of grits. "Some superstars need a championship, others don't."

This sounded to me like a sly reference to Daniel Bryan, the scrappy-but-unglamorous crowd favorite. A redoubled groundswell of support for Bryan among WWE live audiences- what the corporation calls the WWE Universe- has intensified buzz about Bryan's possibilities heading into Wrestlemania 30. Sarge has been an outspoken Daniel Bryan supporter in the past, and I asked if he felt good about Bryan's future.

"Yeah, I'm excited about it," Sarge said. "The first time I saw Bryan, on an indie show, I knew he had the potential. And being that he was trained by [Hall-of-Famer] Shawn Michaels, you know he's been shown the right direction. All along, he just needed the opportunity. Because of his size a lot of people bypassed him, but he didn't let it stop him, and right now he's on a road to wherever he wants to go. He's in command. He's fighting some odds, but as long as he has the WWE Universe behind him, how can he lose? For a couple weeks there he was getting a lot of no, no, no, but I think it's finally understood that his calling is to be with the fans, and it should be a great Wrestlemania for him."