This is a strange week as I had a full column planned out but then some news broke earlier this week that meant things needed to be changed. Therefore, this week is going to something I don’t like having to write that often: a farewell to someone who I didn’t realize I respected as much as I did until not so very long ago. He earned every bit of the respect that he had and it has already been a bit difficult to accept that one of the best ever is actually gone.
The week changed in a hurry on Monday, as Paul Orndorff passed away at 71 years old. The news was not the biggest surprise as a recent video had shown Orndorff in rather bad shape, but it was still a hard one to take. Orndorff is one of those guys who I grew up watching and it is going to be hard to imagine him gone. Today we’re going to take a bit of an overall look at his career, which will by no means be exhaustive.
The first thing I (and many others) will think of for Orndorff is that he headlined the first WrestleMania. While Hulk Hogan, Mr. T., Roddy Piper and Muhammad Ali receive most of the attention from that match, Orndorff is right there with them. That was a pretty big spot in one of the most important shows in history and Orndorff not only wrestled on the card, but headlined the show.
Consider the WWE roster at that point. Bobby Heenan was there with the Heenan Family, Big John Studd was a major heel, and Bob Orton Jr. was there on the outside of the main event. Who gets the spot though? Orndorff, because he was that good. You could throw a lot of people at Hogan, but did anyone really believe that Piper was going to beat him? Probably not, but that piledriver might be able to do it. Orndorff was the evil muscle in that match and he made Piper all the more important. That is a crucial role and Orndorff did it well.
Speaking of well, Orndorff had his own huge moment and angle the following year as part of one of the highest profile feuds the WWF had ever seen. After turning on Hogan (dang a lot of people did that over the years), the two of them set off on a white hot feud, with the high point being the Big Event in Toronto, with a modern WrestleMania sized crowd on hand for their showdown. One person drew more people with Hogan and that was Andre the Giant. Orndorff vs. Hogan was such a big deal that Orndorff was the official backup for WrestleMania 3 if Andre was unavailable.
Much like the main event of the first WrestleMania, the huge feud with Hogan was a case where the theory may have been “anyone could do that with Hogan”, but Orndorff was the one who actually did it. You don’t get that kind of a spot through luck or happenstance or being in the right place at the right time. A wrestler is put into that spot because they are the right person for the job and are talented enough to have earned it.
While the Big Event match was the one that gets the most attention, there is another pretty famous one on Saturday Night’s Main Event #9 in January 1987. This was the first ever cage match on network television and again, Orndorff gets the spot. The WWF was heating up at this point and WrestleMania 3, the biggest show ever, was in two and a half months. That is quite the spot to get some attention and it is Hogan vs. Orndorff in the big featured match. Not too bad, again.
The cage match itself isn’t exactly a masterpiece, as it features a false finish with both men’s feet hitting the floor at the same time (I’m still not sure what Jesse Ventura is talking about when he insists that Orndorff’s legs being straight means that he wins) but it was one of those matches that was absolutely a huge deal. Also, any match that features the heel coming out to the face’s music (that is a good angle that you never see these days) and the line “Hogan would not be the champion if Mr. Wonderful was bald” is absolutely worth a look (which I gave it less than a week ago for some scary timing).
We’ll jump ahead a good bit to a particular match which caught my attention a few months ago. I was taking a look at SuperBrawl 1993, which featured a Falls Count Anywhere match between Orndorff and Cactus Jack. Now on paper, that might seem like Jack’s specialty and something where he would have had to take the lead and guide Orndorff, who is not known for his hardcore abilities, through the match. That wasn’t quite wonderful enough though and it went a bit of a different direction.
These guys beat the fire out of each other, with Orndorff hanging with Jack every step of the way, if not being ahead of him for a good chunk of the twelve minute match. Orndorff changed his style and brawled with Jack the whole way, even busting out a bunch of weapons to make it feel more like something that felt like the good parts of ECW. Do you know what it took to beat Orndorff here? Jack HIT HIM IN THE FACE WITH A SHOVEL. It took a shovel to the face to put Orndorff down and I’m surprised that’s all it took.
We’ll go in a different direction now and go to….the Universal Wrestling Federation’s Beach Brawl. If you’ve never heard of the promotion or the show before, just trust me when I tell you how bad it was. The show, which took place in 1991, was mainly centered around stars from the 1980s, which means Orndorff was pretty much perfect. The match not so much, but there was something that stood out to me. Well actually two things.
The important thing here though was Orndorff putting in an effort. Anyone watching the show could have seen that this was a nothing event (with 560 people in attendance in a building which held about 4,000) put on by a crazy money mark who was in over his head. Orndorff was in a strap math against Colonel DeBeers and put in the same effort and intensity that you would see from him at any major show in his career.
That is the kind of dedication that you do not see in many wrestlers. How many times have you seen a big star show up to get a paycheck and leave with the minimum effort put in? Orndorff’s match only ran 3:17 but he was out there working hard and trying to make something out of it. That is a level of professionalism that makes me think something of you, as the promotion wasn’t going to go anywhere and was more of an embarrassment than anything else, but here is this big name actually trying to make something happen in his spot. Throw in coming out to U Can’t Touch This and it was just cool all around.
If I had to sum Orndorff up in a single phrase, it would be the complete package. He looked great, he could wrestle a good match with anyone and he could talk, while also feeling like a threat. I’m not sure if there was a hole in his game and you do not find someone with that kind of talent and overall package every day. Orndorff was someone who could do just about anything asked of him and it was rare for him to not make it work.
Orndorff is someone who I did not really appreciate growing up but he has grown on me quite a bit over the last few years. That is a sign that he really was as talented as people give him credit for and it is nice to see him being so well remembered. This one hit me a bit more than usual, and that is one of the few un-wonderful things about Orndorff.
Thomas Hall has been a wrestling fan for over thirty years and has seen over 50,000 wrestling matches. He has also been a wrestling reviewer since 2009 with over 5,000 full shows covered. You can find his work at kbwrestlingreviews.com, or check out his- Amazon author page with 30 wrestling books.
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