When Lex Luger debuted in Jim Crockett Promotions in the middle of the 1980s, it was a sign that something new was coming to the southern wrestling promotion. JCP was the most influential territory in the NWA confederation which dominated pro wrestling over the 20th century; more specifically, it was a landscape dominated by barrel-chested trucker bods and solid-looking fat guys and defined by the violence they did to each other. A fair few men in the promotion even kept their body hair, like Tully Blanchard and Magnum TA, who had glorious chest rugs on their torsos.
So here comes Luger, with a sculpted bodybuilder's physique and a bodybuilder's lack of body hair, legs like tree trunks, and a glorious blond mullet. It was as if Vince McMahon's WWF had come south and set up camp. All right-thinking Southern wrestling fans were skeptical of McMahon's predilection for steroids and style over substance, and Luger might have rolled right off McMahon's juiced-up assembly line. In the context of JCP, Luger was a latter day carpetbagger, and if the screams of the women—and not a few men—over his singular physique grated, the irritation was powered not by jealousy but good old-fashioned defensiveness. The South had a style of wrestling that gave the world hard times and golden spoons; it had a language and a consciousness of its own. Luger, on the other hand, was a cartoon character. The South didn't do cartoons.
To say that Luger sucked when he was young would be overstatement, but he certainly wasn't good. He was green, mostly, and like many other guys with the physical gift of immense swoleness—whether natural or otherwise—he leaned on the physique to carry him. Famously, very early in his career he had a match go terribly wrong with '70s and '80s legend, Bruiser Brody. Brody just stopped working shortly into a cage match, leaving the young, bewildered Luger to pick up the pieces. This was an odd event, but also Luger really was just kind of a hapless goof at this stage of his career; he regularly flubbed spots or stumbled over promos.
He got good quickly. When he debuted, Luger was a cocky babyface with the nickname "The Total Package," because he was self-evidently the total package of a wrestler: skill, charisma, looks, speed, and that massive, vascular hulk of a physique. He went heel, inevitably, joining the Four Horsemen; he flourished in the new role. Then Luger left and feuded with Ric Flair for an extended program of 45 and 60 minute matches, over and over, night after night, televised and not-televised. This was the mark of whether a wrestler could hang in JCP. Flair was never going to leave the top of the card. He built JCP—hell, the modern NWA—just as assuredly as Hogan built the modern WWF/E. If you went up the card, win or lose, you had to hang with Flair; Luger, it turned out, could hang with Flair.
Luger eventually got his chance as world champion in the newly dubbed World Championship Wrestling after Flair departed for a WWF run. Once again Luger seemed to be growing into a role, learning on the job, but somehow never screwing it up. His ring work got better, he learned the nuances of promos and working a crowd. He was paired with Sting, both as partner and opponent, and the relationship that followed would define his entire career. It was a friendship which was referred to, subtly and overtly, over 20 years; in retrospect, it stands as one of the greatest longform tales in pro wrestling history.
After a mediocre run of his own in the WWF, Luger came back down to WCW and he surprised yet again. He was really good. Not in the sense that Bret Hart or Chris Benoit were, but in a way that was different and distinct. The inner goofiness that had marred Luger's earlier years hadn't dissipated but, when combined with the maturation of his physical craft, it lent his character a weird underdog quality. The Old School Wrestling Review video podcast caught an iconic moment that expressed that vulnerability and unease in their review of World War 3, a WCW pay-per-view. Luger's manager, Jimmy Hart, puts his hands up and Luger misreads it as an attempt at a hi-five. Luger is left hanging in front of tens of thousands of people, so he just waves.
Again, this is a challenging fit in a modern wrestling culture that wants wrestlers to work flawless matches immediately after cutting flawless promos. Luger had the perfect pro wrestling body, but paired it with such decidedly imperfect everything else. The resulting dichotomy, the way the mind couldn't quite process how the perfect and imperfect kept colliding in this figure, made Luger one of the most human performers of the 1990s.
How else to explain how ubiquitous he was in the 90s? If there was a big wrestling moment or storyline, he was there. How else to explain the pop when he beat Hogan for the world title in 1997? He was a superstar, wholly and completely, despite his limited moveset and the way he slurred and stumbled over his promos even when sober. Luger should be in the WWE Hall of Fame, and his accomplishments, in raw numbers, make an airtight case: two WCW World championships, two WCW Television championships, five WCW United States championships, three time tag team champion, one time Royal Rumble co-winner (in 1994, with Bret Hart).
So why isn't he? Two things cast a pall over his career.
The first is the more trivial: his WWF run was very lame. He debuted as The Narcissist, a bodybuilder who stared at himself in a full-length mirror. That didn't last long, and soon Vince McMahon tried to turn him into the second coming of Hulk Hogan. Luger was given a bus (the Lex Express) and American flag attire; he slammed Yokozuna on the deck of an aircraft carrier, and generally seemed to be ready to turn into the family-friendly, red-white-and-blue muscle hero that McMahon loves so dearly, and wouldn't find again until John Cena.
The problem was that the zeitgeist had moved past flags, apple pie, and pure feats of strength by then. McMahon wanted all three, regardless of whether Luger could offer more by just being himself. Five years prior, he might've caught fire. In 1993, in the early days of Clinton, grunge, and ECW, there was just no way through. Despite being in the world title scene and that Royal Rumble win in '94, Luger's run was fallow.
His relationship with Miss Elizabeth, prior to her death from a drug overdose, is a darker chapter. She had divorced Randy Savage years prior and fallen in love with Luger during the waning days of WCW. Both had vicious and persistent drug problems. Luger was present when she died, and he was charged with felony possession of anabolic steroids and painkillers. Elizabeth's death was ruled accidental and there's absolutely no reason to suspect otherwise, but it's clear that some hold Luger responsible as enabling her drug abuse. And there's almost no question that her death nearly broke him—he kept using, and he suffered a spinal stroke in 2007 that left him paralyzed for years. He walks with a cane today.
Maybe worse still, given wrestling's obsession with image, is that Luger is very open about how rough the drug use in pro wrestling was. In a shockingly candid interview with ESPN shortly after his stroke, Luger lays it all out.
"With my generation, there was no accountability," he says. "We left the building at 11 o'clock, and you lived dual lives on the road. We were like a big dysfunctional family. We fed off each other. And then we go home and sober up. But unfortunately, drugs are drugs. And the guys let that spill over into their home lives. And if the families didn't get intervention and stuff, a lot of us died."
This, one suspects, is the decisive and unstated reason that Luger isn't in the Hall: he talks about using, but also he talks about everyone using, and that honesty can only be countenanced from the biggest characters in pro wrestling. Luger, marginalized as he is long after his glory days, can't quite pass the muster for honesty which Nash, Hogan, and Angle can. And certainly Luger's transgressions, whatever they were, don't surpass Fabulous Moolah's or Jimmy Snuka's; wrestling is a dark business and nearly everyone in its Hall of Fame is a Ty Cobb, at best.
Still, there are signs of a thaw. Luger has featured in WWE's 2K video game series for a couple of years now, which is usually a sign of imminent acceptance back into the fold. His videos are on WWE's site, and he's even voiced himself on an episode of Camp WWE, the WWE Network's attempt at an Adult Swim style adult cartoon.
So Luger is around, and that's a start. It's time for him to get in and be welcome back, fully, into the wrestling fold. He was so great because he was so goofy, and was as unique a combination of the invincible and the vulnerable as the sport has seen. That may be one of the rarest things left in pro wrestling, and one of the most valuable.