Thirty summers ago, Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair ruled professional wrestling. Flair had just begun his sixth official reign as NWA world heavyweight champion. Hogan was on his second WWF (now WWE) championship reign, having emerged from the Mega Powers explosion with his 24-inch pythons intact.
The next rival in line for Hogan was Zeus, the adversary from his summer movie "No Holds Barred." On deck for Flair was Terry Funk, who could also be seen in theaters around that time in "Road House."
Zeus was an actor swept into the wrestling business for what was basically an extended cameo. In contrast, Funk was an experienced wrestling legend whose side gig in Hollywood could never replace his passion for the family business. Funk and Zeus played quite different types of heel. In their own ways, and for their intended demographics, their respective styles worked.
On its first weekend in theaters, "Road House" pulled in $6 million, falling just short of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor's "See No Evil, Hear No Evil" but decisively beating future classics like "Field of Dreams," "Major League" and a little slice of Jim Belushi heaven known as "K-9." All told, "Road House" grossed $30 million, per Box Office Mojo.
Opening two weeks later, "No Holds Barred" earned $6.3 million in its first weekend, an extremely distant second to "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" ($30.8 million). But it fizzled out much faster than "Road House," maxing out at $16 million domestic total gross. By late June, moviegoers had "Batman" fever, which along with "Indiana Jones," "Ghostbusters II" and other summer hits made everything else pale in comparison.
"Road House" starred Patrick Swayze and Sam Elliott as philosophizing barroom bouncers trying to rid a small-town bar of its violent criminal element, while a wealthy overlord (Ben Gazzara) and his horde of street-toughs destroyed anything they couldn't exploit. One of Gazzara's goons was played by Funk.
Sounds amazing, right? Not every critic thought so. I guess they thought it'd be bigger.
"'Road House' exists right on the edge between the 'good-bad movie' and the merely bad," film critic Roger Ebert wrote in his 1989 review of the movie. "I hesitate to recommend it, because so much depends on the ironic vision of the viewer."
Let's just say 1989 was a banner year for poorly reviewed movies starring pro wrestlers. Two weeks after "Road House" came out, "No Holds Barred" opened in theaters nationwide.
This film was created for the explicit purpose of making Hulk Hogan a bigger star. It showcased Hogan as a dramatized version of his wrestling character. A popular champion, hero to children and unbeatable man except by -- maybe, possibly, on a really bad day -- the most menacing rulebreaker in all the land.
In "No Holds Barred," that treacherous baddie was "The Human Wrecking Machine," Zeus. Tom "Tiny" Lister filled the role, which called for him to gain 20 pounds of muscle, wear lifts in his boots to appear taller, shave his head bald (except for a black letter Z on the side) and merge his eyebrows together into a sharply angled unibrow.
The WWF invested heavily in "No Holds Barred," promoting it on all of its platforms. It hoped for a home run.
Critics despised it. It was barely an infield fly.
"Charmless, stupid and badly made, 'No Holds Barred' makes 'Rocky' look like 'Citizen Pain,'" Richard Harrington of the Washington Post wrote.
"No Holds Barred" does have entertainment value, though usually in spite of itself. Stan Hansen's memorable role as a bar-fighting brute who punches holes in the sides of beer kegs and emasculates wimpy TV executives is one of the shining moments for pro wrestlers in cinema. Lister was also fun to watch as Zeus, the man hired to destroy Rip and boost TV ratings.
In the fantasy realm of pro wrestling, the thing Terry Funk and Zeus had in common is that they were both madmen seeking revenge. Just as in Hollywood, they played the roles they were hired to play.
In WCW, Flair had just finished a trilogy of world title matches with Ricky Steamboat so amazing that "Flair-Steamboat" became a figure of speech for an in-ring masterpiece. For Flair and Steamboat's final encounter at WrestleWar '89, WCW brought in three judges to declare a winner in case the time limit expired without one: former NWA champions Lou Thesz, Pat O'Connor and Funk. They weren't necessary. Flair won the title clean.
Then, Funk poured cold water on the warm-and-fuzzy feeling of the Flair-Steamboat classic by interrupting Flair's post-match interview with Jim Ross and asking for a title shot. Flair embarrassed him, saying he was obligated to face a top-ranked contender, which Funk was not.
Funk punched Flair in the mouth. What followed was a savage attack that saw Flair beaten on both sides of the metal guardrails and piledriven onto a table that did not break. Funk flipped the table over on top of the motionless Flair. He picked up a steel chair and smashed Flair with it.
"He has gone nuts!" Ross told the TV audience. Funk grabbed Good Ol' J.R. by the shoulder of his jacket.
"Look at him!," Funk yelled. "Look at the horse-toothed, banana-nosed jerk!"
"Horse tooth." "Banana nose." Two nouns combined to elicit a prescribed response.
Funk looked like a jealous lowlife for ruining Flair's big moment. The nearly 45-year-old Funk had already retired from wrestling multiple times. He was doing just fine in Hollywood. But the "middle-aged and crazy" Funk reminded WCW viewers many times that he wasn't interested in Flair's belt anymore. He wanted Flair's pride.
After teasing retirement, Flair returned at the Great American Bash at the sold-out Baltimore Arena. Funk matched Flair chop for chop, hold for hold, until he got himself disqualified for hitting Flair with a microphone. It was a chaotic brawl, one in stark contrast to the Steamboat NWA title feud that preceded it. And the feud was about to get even more bonkers.
Flair got a measure of revenge, breaking Funk's arm with his own branding iron. At Clash of the Champions that September, Funk cut a promo from his hospital bed, vowing to show up and attack Flair. At the end of Flair's tag team match with Sting vs. The Great Muta and Dick Slater, Funk got into the ring, put a plastic bag over Flair's head and tried to suffocate him.
At Halloween Havoc, Funk and Muta fought Flair and Sting in an electrified steel cage -- the Thunderdome, as WCW called it -- adorned with holiday decorations that somehow caught fire as soon as the match began. Bruno Sammartino was the special referee for the match, which could only end if a "designated terminator" -- Ole Anderson or Gary Hart -- threw in the towel to surrender on behalf of his team. Funk shined in the match, which gave him several opportunities to sell humorously for his opponents. His team lost, sending the Flair-Funk feud to its ultimate finale: an "I Quit" match at Clash of the Champions IX in November.
The Flair-Funk "I Quit" Match was a masterpiece. Once again, Funk's performance was spot-on. In a stunt that would've made Hollywood proud, Flair threw Funk into a table at ringside. Funk did this amazing face-down slide the entire length of the table, cracking his head into a chair on the other side. In the end, Funk lost, and that was that. Funk left WCW after a job well done, and Flair began the process of returning to his true bad-guy self.
While all of this happened in WCW, the WWF put its promotional muscle behind a Hogan vs. Zeus grudge that began on the silver screen.
Lister was well established in Hollywood by the time he appeared as Zeus in "No Holds Barred" with over a dozen acting credits over a four-year stretch. He had a regular role on the HBO series "1st & Ten" and had appeared in "Beverly Hills Cop II," "Armed and Dangerous," and on TV shows like "Perfect Strangers" and "Webster." Lister didn't necessarily need pro wrestling, just like Funk didn't necessarily need Hollywood. They were both branching out into the other's realm.
Lister's character Zeus wasn't meant to be realistic. He was a super-villain like you'd see in a comic book. He was a destroyer who seemingly felt no pain. He looked great on a poster and while staring down the camera. Nobody expected him to become a ring general. That wasn't even his role. He was here to smash Hogan with his arms, crush him with bear hugs and smile like a maniac at Hogan's feeble attempts to retaliate. Lister was given a role, and he played it as directed.
About a week before "No Holds Barred" premiered in theaters (funny how that worked out), he made a surprise appearance on NBC's Saturday Night's Main Event as an unannounced guest of manager Slick.
Hogan's opponent that night in a steel cage match was the Big Boss Man, one of Slick's clients. This, by the way, was textbook Hogan. He loved facing giants and so-called "monster heels." The harder they were to lift, slam, hurt or intimidate, the more heroic Hogan would look when he finally did it. Hogan went back to that formula repeatedly throughout his career. Zeus was the latest mountain for Hogan to climb.
Zeus stomped down the aisle, filmed from a low angle to make him appear gigantic. He climbed the steps and stood blocking the cage entrance. When Hogan came to the ring, Zeus swatted him to the ground with clubbing forearms and left him in a heap.
He was unhappy with his portrayal in "No Holds Barred," as the story went, and had come to the WWF to destroy Hogan. It was the kind of conflict you'd expect to see in a comic book, a man with a superhuman pain threshold coming to thrash the righteous hero.
The first big Hogan-Zeus match would happen at SummerSlam with Hogan teaming with Brutus Beefcake to face Randy "Macho Man" Savage and Zeus, managed by Sensational Sherri. All of Zeus' non-cinematic battles with Hogan were tag team matches, leaving Zeus -- and the match -- in capable hands in case things went sideways for the newcomer.
Left unexplained was why people like Slick and the "Macho Man" suddenly became Zeus Whisperers, finding it easy to reason with a man who would destroy anyone in his path in the movie. It was simply a matter of environment. In the WWF, all heels were co-conspirators and all babyfaces were best pals -- with very few exceptions.
At SummerSlam, Hogan finally chopped the mighty Zeus down to size. It wasn't quite as dramatic as the finish of "No Holds Barred," but then again, there were no evil TV executives milling around, either (that we know of).
Zeus returned at Survivor Series in the fall, this time on a four-man team consisting of himself, "The Million Dollar Man" Ted DiBiase and the Powers of Pain facing Hogan, Jake "The Snake" Roberts and Demolition. Zeus immediately got himself disqualified in that match for refusing to stop choking Hogan.
The final payoff came during a December pay-per-view, "No Holds Barred: The Match/The Movie." It was a full presentation of the movie, followed by a steel cage match pitting Hogan and Beefcake against Zeus and Savage. The insurmountable challenge of Zeus was, somehow, some way, defeated again. A rumored WrestleMania match against Hogan never materialized, and aside from a one-off match against Abdullah the Butcher in Puerto Rico in 1990 and an appearance as Z-Gangsta in WCW in the mid-90s, Lister left wrestling behind, grateful for the experience.
While wrestling fans remember Lister for his role as Zeus, he's probably best known these days as Deebo, the neighborhood bully from the 1995 Ice Cube and Chris Tucker classic "Friday." His list of acting credits is extensive and still growing, including "The Dark Knight," "The Fifth Element" and other major projects over a 30-plus-year career.
As for Funk, he somehow squeezed in about 25 more years of wrestling after his strong showing against Flair. That included his entire run in Extreme Championship Wrestling, a violent stint in Japan and returns to both WCW and the WWF.
They were the key antagonists in very different wrestling storylines, under very different circumstances. What Funk and Zeus helped illustrate in their 1989 programs was that neither approach to pro wrestling had to be the final answer.
Whether it was a comic book-style super-villain or a true-to-life jealous madman, there was -- and continues to be -- plenty of room for all variations of crazy in this genre.