Making the Case for Adrian Adonis
My first exposure to Adrian Adonis was near the end of his WWF run in ’86-87 and I can’t say he left much of an impression on me as a kid. Even as I and my generation of young wrestling fans went to our video rental stores to check out as much wrestling as we could on tape, there wasn’t much I can recall of Adrian Adonis on those tapes. The conventional wisdom on Adonis is that he was a great worker who was saddled with a crappy gimmick near the end of his career as punishment for getting out of shape. I had only recently started to rethink Adonis and what I have found on him is really quite good. So I am here today to not only make the case for my he belongs amongst your Top 100 Greatest WWE Wrestlers of All Time but I am also going to perhaps get you to rethink your position on the “Adorable” gimmick and his late run in WWF. Using the NJPW grading system and some choice cuts I have found while doing research, I hope to convince anyone who is on the fence that Adrian Adonis deserves a spot in your Top 100 List.
Adrian Adonis’ run with WWF was longer than most people remember. As best I can find, he had a few matches on and off in ’81, including a match in Portland, Maine with him and Jesse Ventura facing Tony Garea and Rick Martel which I doubt made tape but would have loved to see. Adonis appears occasionally in WWF, splitting time with New Japan and AWA through ’82 and ’83 until settling in WWF, more or less, with Dick Murdoch in ’84. I wonder if Verne Gagne wanted a piece of his New Japan deal like he allegedly did for Hulk Hogan. Aside from the occasion tour in New Japan, he stays in WWF until just after WrestleMania III.
It appears Adrian Adonis did come in with Jesse Ventura in ’82 but it would seem that many of those matches didn’t make tape. As singles run go, he worked most of the top talent in the territory at the time and was pretty high on the card. There are matches with him against Bob Backlund, Pedro Morales, Tony Atlas, and Andre the Giant. Upon coming back with Murdoch in ’84, they almost immediately became World Tag Team Champions and had a decent run with the belts. Even after the team with Murdoch was over, Adonis continued to work the mid to upper mid card until given the “Adorable” gimmick at the end of ’85 going into ’86.
The much maligned “Adorable” Adrian Adonis run of 1986 is mostly remembered for the Piper feud. But in all actuality, this may have been the highest he was working on the card since the ’82 run with Backlund and Pedro. Adonis had a house show feud in the Main Event with Hogan. He teamed with Savage on occasion in some pretty big matches. He was working Tito Santana, Junkyard Dog, and other top babyfaces throughout the year. The common perception is that this was the nadir of his career. In terms of position on the card and overness as a heel, it may have actually been his peak.
Here is one of the Hogan matches I could find and some of the promos.
I couldn’t find the segment itself clipped but the Flower Shop starts at 27:55. The time frame lines up with some of the Hogan vs Adonis house show matches during that summer (editor’s note, Youtube removed this)
Point being, as to the question of longevity, he had close to a five-year run with the company. For most of that time he was working against some of the top faces in a pretty good position or he was a Tag Team Champion. Also remarkable is that for someone who physical condition deuterated before our very eyes, it doesn’t look like he was sidelined with injuries through his entire run with the company. You would think that carrying as much extra weight as he was, he would have blown out a knee at the very least, especially when you consider how he bumped and that he liked to work a spot where he would get caught going up to the top rope.
For flexibility, you may deduct some points because he worked heel the whole time. He was quite over as a heel and I don’t think the fans of the era felt the need to cheer for Adonis, Adorable or Golden Boy. As for who he could work with, he worked with guys who had many different styles and could make their offense look like a million dollars just by how be bumped and sold.
I think he even got a pretty decent match out of Swede Hanson in ’85.
Intangibles are always hard to measure. I will say that from everything I have watched, the crowd loved to hate him. Sometimes that said more about the crowd than it did about Adrian, such as is the case with this Tony Atlas match in Philadelphia right after the change in character. Dick Graham and the Philadelphia faithful say some things about The Adorable One that wouldn’t be allowed in polite company in the current year.
Here is an example of how he could get the crowd turned against him. In this Pedro Morales Intercontinental Title Match, to start to match the crowd doesn’t really seem to give a crap about either guy. Even Kal Rudman goes off on a tangent, humorously mentioning John Facenda doing local radio news when he was a child. John Facenda, for those who don’t know, was the classic announcer for NFL Films highlight packages back in the day. Just think “Oakland Raiders” or “Green Bay Packers” in a deep voice and the image is coming to mind. I hope he had the same bravado when commenting on traffic accidents. No matter. In this match, Adonis gets the crowd into the match and has Cal Rudman besides himself by the end. Of course, the finish doesn’t do the rest of the match justice.
Jump Up Factor
Adrian Adonis’ undisputed biggest moment was working Piper’s “Retirement” match at WrestleMania III. This was what most fans remember when they remember Adrian Adonis. I find no reason to link to the match because I am sure everyone has seen it and it’s not hard to find. I will link to what I feel is a very superior match that they had in Toronto before WrestleMania III. With how much the referee lets go, it’s basically a Hardcore Match that somehow ends in a DQ. What exactly got Adonis disqualified is beyond me but it is worth a watch if you feel the Mania match was underwhelming. I couldn’t find the match isolated but this looks like a pretty good card that could go far in terms of research on other wrestlers. It starts at 33:43 (editor’s note YouTube removed this).
What I did not know is that the change in character to “Adorable” Adrian took place on Piper’s Pit at the beginning of ’86. I also didn’t know until now that he gave his old leather jacket to Piper. At a certain point, I want to say ’89, Piper started wearing a leather jacket basically for the rest of his life. Was this some sort of tribute to Adrian? A bit farfetched but Piper has always spoke glowingly of Adrian in shoot interviews. His omnipresent leather jacket could be interpreted as a tribute to Adrian and this moment.
Other big moments would include his tag title run with Dick Murdoch and his championship matches with Backlund and Pedro. I couldn’t isolate a storyline to the Murdoch/Adonis title run aside from that they were bruisers who held the tag titles and squared off with other bruisers like The Wild Samoans. Even the Backlund Matches didn’t seem to have a storyline aside from Backlund is the Champ and Adonis is willing to get into bloody brawls with Backlund to become the Champ. That being said, it probably is Adonis’ best match that I have seen.
I rather liked this match that Adrian Adonis has with Lanny Poffo.
I don’t know if this is a peak moment but it was quite remarkable. The ring falls apart in this match and the participants, including Adonis, have to figure out what they are going to do in this match with a broken ring. For as memorable as the Big Show fake ring breaks supposedly are, I think this is noteworthy.
There is a lot of good stuff in the North/South Connection title run. This match against Backlund and B. Brian Blair is probably one of my favorites. I do think it is sad that the crowd seems to have turned on Backlund but maybe it’s just my imagination.
One final match is from The Wrestling Classic Tournament against Dynamite Kid. The Corporal Kirchner match against Adonis is also on this clip if you feel like watching it. The ending of the Dynamite Kid match is a bit abrupt but I feel like Adonis did a good job keeping up with Dynamite Kid in the beginning and end of the match. It starts at 53:37.
Promo and Character Work
Adrian Adonis from ’82 to ’86 had a character that can best be described as a New York thug. He looked like the kind of guy who would snatch an old ladies purse or beat up a tourist in Time Square around this period of time. While in the early days, there wasn’t a ton of opportunities to show nuance in his character, given the nature of the product ’82, Tuesday Night Titans changed all of that. Mean Gene takes a tour of New York’s seedy side with Adonis and Murdoch. Adonis seems to be having fun with the segment and it helped add a little color to the character of the World Tag Team Champions. They also take a visit to Dick Murdoch’s ranch which is also fun.
The elephant in the room in terms of character work is the change from New York thug to Adorable Adrian. For starters, it was a change in character. Looking like someone who had just been arrested on Barney Miller had run its course. By 1986, Vince was looking for more colorful characters. At this period of time characters like Outback Jack and The Missing Link started showing up. “Adorable” Adrian Adonis was a pivot in direction that lead to the cartoon wrestling characters you would see later in the 80’s. Was Vince McMahon punishing Adrian for putting on too much weight? Maybe. But he did give Adonis a pretty big push for someone he was supposedly punishing. Of course, Vince’s own commentary in this Saturday Night’s Main Event Match with Paul Orndoff is pretty revealing.
Was the character offensive? I can’t tell you what you find offensive or not. Having watched the footage, I don’t find the character offensive so much as I find the reaction to the character offensive. Vince McMahon’s previous mentioned commentary along with clips I have linked to from Dick Graham, Lord Alfred Hayes, and Gorilla Monsoon, the announce team was not very tolerant of Adrian’s change in character. Jesse Ventura didn’t seem to have much to say about the gimmick aside from referencing their past as a tag team. From what I can gather, the Adorable character was pretty much a rip off of Gorgeous George. The bows, the preening, the ribbons, the mannerisms, all of it was lifted from Gorgeous George years prior. The makeup was probably a take on Boy George or any number of androgynous males who were on MTV at the time. In Adrian’s promos, the meat and potatoes of the character is that he was at a place where he felt comfortable to be himself, dress how he wants to dress, act how he wants to act, and he didn’t care what other people thought of that. It’s kind of a brave character when you look at the context of what Adrian is saying about himself and this change in directions for him. Of course, I would stop just short of calling it empowering considering how Vince, Dick Graham, and the Philly crowd react to this heel character.
In closing, here is some clips of The Flower Shop vs Piper’s Pit feud. It is some great character work all around from Piper, Adonis, Bob Orton, and Jimmy Hart. Even Don Muraco gets in on the act, although I am not sure he knew where he was. If I didn’t know any better, I would say this character was created specifically for a Skirt vs Kilt feud with Roddy Piper.
I don’t think Adrian Adonis’ workrate can be called into question. The way he bumped, sold, and all around worked is spectacular. He moved so smooth for a guy his size. The matches I have linked to so far I believe tell the story. From the struggle in the Backlund title match, to keeping up with Dynamite Kid, to bouncing around for everyone and making their offense look like a million bucks. If I have any criticism, it’s that his offense is a bit lacking. His punches were really good. He seemed to like arm psychology in many of his matches and was quite good at it. As for offense, he has elbows, a sick looking DDT, the bulldog, and the sleeper. Modern audience may watch these matches, and the many more that are out there, and think that he really wasn’t much of a moves guy. I think that kind of misses the point of what wrestling was back then. I doubt you will have a video labeled Top 55 Moves of Adrian Adonis but that doesn’t really negate that he was an amazing worker with a top notch workrate.
There is the case for Adrian Adonis. The evidence this there to be viewed. There should be no doubt that he was an excellent worker. As for the Adorable gimmick, whatever you think about it, much like Dusty Rhodes and the Polka dots, Adrian Adonis made it work and got it over. Depending on personal preference, I believe you could rank him as high as the 60’s. Regardless of where you come down, I hope that the case I have laid out will convince some of you sitting on the fence that Adrian Adonis has a spot on your list.
– Michael DeDamos