25 years ago today, Sgt. Slaughter and Hulk Hogan continued their WWF Title feud with a wild, red hot brawl inside Madison Square Garden. The bout was dubbed a “Desert Storm Match” and was basically a no holds barred, weapons filled slugfest between two veterans. Of course, the Gulf War had ended back in February, even before their WrestleMania showdown, but the WWF kept the spirit alive because they had shows to run and tickets to sell. That Mania match was really good. But it also felt like the very natural conclusion of the feud. Slaughter had a fun run as champion thanks to some killer promo work and well generated heat, but he wasn’t really a legit main event player at this stage in his career. Certainly not enough of one to continue to a World Title feud around the horn for five months after he initially lost the gold and most definitely not enough to carry the second biggest PPV of the year. But… if the company was hellbent on keeping things simmering, this match was the perfect choice to do so. They didn’t agree.
Once Sgt. Slaughter upset the Ultimate Warrior for the the WWF Title at the Royal Rumble, the writing was pretty much in the sand, pardon the pun. A little over 90 minutes later, Hulk Hogan won the PPV’s titular match and was set up to challenge Sarge for the gold and for American pride in Los Angeles. The feud escalated quickly and built up a lot of heat, mainly thanks to Slaughter and his manager General Adnan burning a Hogan shirt and constantly referencing the support of Saddam Hussein. Hussein had even sent Sarge a pair of old school hooked boots that he could use to kick Americans to pieces in late 1990 and Sarge wore them with pride. Just days before Mania, Sarge’s entourage expanded to include the legendary Iranian Iron Sheik, who was now freshly minted as Iraqi sympathizer Colonel Mustafa. It was an interesting move that signified Slaughter’s relevance may not be quickly discarded post Mania. Why would they double down on Adnan’s stable and give Slaughter back up if he was losing and shuffling down the card?
The crowd in the LA Sports Arena was red hot come March 24 and cheering Hogan to victory in a surprisingly feisty match that still holds up to this day (we here at PTBN had it just outside the Top 50 Mania matches of all time). Hogan won the match clean and in a vacuum it certainly felt like Slaughter was cooked to those watching on PPV. However, two days later on Prime Time Wrestling, we saw some surprising footage: in the locker room after Hogan’s win, Slaughter attacked him, threw fire in his face and assaulted him with a chair. The feud was far from over. And the fire and chair showed that Sarge was still playing by his infamous “Slaughter Rules” with the now looming question: how would Hogan combat the ruthlessness? By bending the rules himself, of course.
Over the next three months, Hogan and Slaughter waged war in 18 Desert Storm matches across the country. Some were short and others edged longer, but the gist was the same each time: brawling, weapons and powdery substances. While a couple of these did eventually make VHS compilations, the most revered edition was the bout emanating from Madison Square Garden on June 3. It was their best outing together and the match crackled, bringing back memories of the legendary Slaughter vs. Sheik and Slaughter vs. Patterson blood soaked wars from nearly a decade earlier. Before we continue, I will pass the baton to Chad Campbell for his review of this match:
Hulk Hogan and WWF in 1991 is a weird enigma. The bloom was certainly off the rose of the Rock ‘N’ Wrestling era but the switch back to Hogan as the top man from the failed Warrior title run felt like a begrudging announcement of defeat instead of an evolution of the Hulk Hogan character. Still within the timeframe of 1991, Hogan did start to create new sustainable tinges to his character in ring to keep things working. Was this the pressure from having someone like Ric Flair come in? Was this him knowing that the eight minute main event wasn’t going to be accepted as the standard after the WWF has come to the markets repeatedly? Whatever the case, there is a huge disconnect between the at best in poor taste Gulf War angle and the shockingly good in ring results that it created.
The crown jewel of this debate is in the Desert Storm match. The fireball angle to close out WrestleMania amped the stakes between these two and a really heated blowoff was necessary. Add to that an MSG crowd that is accustomed to Alley Fights and Boot Camp matches from Sarge and the prospect of Hogan rising to the occasion in this environment can seem dubious. The match excels in spades. Hogan was entangled in some hate feuds throughout his WWF tenure such as with Randy Savage, Roddy Piper and Andre the Giant. In all of those occasions, the hate didn’t feel as palpable as it does here for the shear reason that Hogan was the conquering hero at the height of his powers. Heroes always come out on top and Hogan was undoubtedly at the top of the wrestling mountain. Cue up Gorilla Monsoon’s irresistible force meeting the unmovable object and roll it into one entity and out would come 1984-1989 era Hulk Hogan.
Even with the natural evolution of his aging and progression as a character on top, the shear morals of Hogan were called into question by Slaughter. Hogan lived on the ideal of being an All American. This was a slippery path that embodied Reagan politics to the core. Growing up as a five year old kid in 1991, the stuff Hogan was spewing about taking vitamins and saying prayers seemed like solid advice as I was unable to see through the veneer of insincerity to what was being preached by the Hulkster. Now that I am 30 years old and we are in the Gawker lawsuit era of examining Hogan, it is clear to see those promos and countless representations as hollow things spewed to provide a positive result on the bottom line carny business that is pro wrestling.
This Desert Storm match is different. It does have Hulk coming out in camo gear and war paint, but for once even now as I watched this match prepping for this article, I believed in this Hulk Hogan. I believed that he was shocked at the rules Slaughter was creating and the slander that was being brought against Hogan and America as a whole. Hogan starts by flat out cheating at the start of this match throwing powder in Sarge’s eyes. This was a perfect acknowledgement that was handled in a different tone from other Hulk heel characteristics over the years where he is presented as being in the right when the viewer can easily see a different viewpoint. Hogan knows that a binary effect of war is betraying certain principles that an individual has in order to bring about a greater good. Hogan is willing to creep down and play by Sarge’s rules in order to win the battle. The match from there is a wild brawl full of fireballs, violence, blood and heated action. It wouldn’t look out of place if the competitors were Dutch Mantel and Jerry Lawler in 1982 Memphis. Slaughter gives a magnificent performance with a huge blade job and his signature bumping. Slaughter is one of the best big match workers of all time and has the uncanny ability to still look credible and tough and also show an astute level of vulnerability with his bumping and selling. This is possibly the last great match of his storied career and he gives a wonderful victory lap performance in making Hogan’s attack look that much more vicious. When Slaughter is on top, there is also a great selling and vulnerability displayed by Hogan. This is not a cookie cutter main event where the light switch is going to flip on and Hogan will run through his finishing sequence to victory. He will have to earn this victory. The MSG faithful was really reluctant at first and honestly never reaches the temperament I would expect to match the tremendous in ring work occurring. They do produce more of a reaction in the ending stanza and give Hogan a genuine reaction of accomplishment when he is able to prevail this horrific encounter. Hogan won the battle but is worse for wear after the match he has just been entangled with. WWF can be hokey as hell at times but in 1991, they hit some great emotional tones at moments like the Savage and Liz reunion at WreslteMania VII. This match is a representation of another one of those moments and it shines as an in ring highlight and overarching storyline driven match for the era.
See? I told you it was awesome and well worth your time to check out. Now, from here we can go one of two ways: really put a bow on this feud and find Hogan something else to do for SummerSlam or figure out a fresh way to extend it. They went with the latter… sort of. They found a way to extend it and technically it was fresh but it was in no way interesting and there was zero degree of mystique around the eventual outcome. On July 6 it was officially announced that Hogan would team up with the Ultimate Warrior to battle Slaughter, Mustafa and Adnan in the main event inside MSG. Two weeks later it was revealed that newcomer Sid Justice would be the special guest referee. Once that announcement was made they started to sew some seeds of doubt about how Sid would act at the show. Would he join Slaughter’s corps? Or play it straight? This was solely done to add some level of intrigue. It had to be. Who in their right mind thought Slaughter’s team had any semblance of a chance in that match? Hogan had whipped Sarge all around the country and was now teaming with the the other nearly unbeatable star of the company while Slaughter was teaming with his aging manager and washed up sidekick. So, this begs the question, why even bother going this route when two other, and superior, options existed:
– Hulk Hogan vs. Sgt. Slaughter – Desert Storm Match
– Hulk Hogan & Ultimate Warrior vs. Jake Roberts & Undertaker
Both were extremely feasible and easy to book and add way more drama on top of an already well booked card. Either of those matches make SummerSlam 1991 even more of an all time classic. If you go with option A, I would have not run the Desert Storm match in MSG back in June, but rather just practiced it around the country and gave them the stage here to go wild and blow off the feud in a very satisfying way. You could still have Sid as the referee to run off Mustafa and Adnan during the match. It at least gives you a title match, some slight intrigue, and a wild brawl to end the in ring portion of the night.
The second option was easily doable as well if they just scooched up Jake Roberts’ heel turn a few weeks. The blueprint was completely laid out to still have Undertaker lock Warrior in the coffin, have Roberts feign helping him before turning his back on Warrior and leaving him in the snake pit. Then you have Warrior turn to Hogan (who had finished off Slaughter in MSG in June) to help him against these rising dark forces in the company. You could then easily transition to the Hogan vs. Undertaker title feud set for Survivor Series by having them brawl on the floor while Warrior finished off Roberts to win the match. It would have been a superior choice and also rewarded the suddenly hot Roberts with a nice main event slot. Instead, neither Taker nor Roberts competed at the second biggest show of the year.
Both of those matches still allow you to use the “Match Made in Hell” tagline to offset the “Match Made in Heaven” wedding and both just feel much better on paper. If you went with the Desert Storm match, you could have just run Warrior vs. Roberts or Undertaker on the undercard as well. There was plenty to work with and the frustrating part is we know what Hogan and Sarge were capable of in that setting in MSG as we saw it with our own eyes. It is the match we saw but never really got to see. And it could have brought a much more satisfying conclusion to Sgt. Slaughter’s 1991 reign of terror.
20 years ago today, the template was handed to the WWF and instead of the match main eventing one of their biggest shows of the year, but it sadly ended up washed away to the shores of Coliseum Video. The Match Made in Hell. The Match Made in Heaven. The Match We Deserved To See.