Pulse Wrestling’s Top 100 Wrestlers of the Modern Era: #78 – Lex Luger

78. LEX LUGER

Real NameLawrence Wendell Pfhol
AliasesThe Narcissist; The Total Package
DebutedSeptember 1985
Titles HeldWCW World Heavyweight; WCW United States; WCW World Tag Team; WCW Television
Other Accomplishmentsco-winner of 1994 Royal Rumble with Bret Hart; Jim Crockett Sr Memorial Cup winner in 1988 with Sting; former member of the Four Horsemen

A messy personal life, bad attitude and generally unpleasant air surrounding just about everything he has done since entering professional wrestling have more or less forever tarnished whatever legacy Lex Luger had a shot at and have made him the favorite pariah/punching bag for every documentary style DVD or WWE 24/7 program that Vince McMahon will ever produce. A bit of a shame given that, love him or hate him, Luger is unquestionably one of the bigger names to come out of wrestling in the 80s and 90s and was actually not a bad worker at one point in his career. Certainly regardless of how you might feel about the guy as a human being, you must concede he’s one of the top 100 wrestlers of the modern era.

If he had his druthers, the man born Larry Pfohl would be remembered today as a great football player, but despite brief stings in the CFL, USFL and as a member of the NFL’s Green Bay Packers in the early 80’s, injuries put an early halt to hopes of a lengthy career on the gridiron. At a loose end as far as how to utilize his impressive physical assets to put food on his table, Pfohl hooked up with veteran professional wrestler and trainer Hiro Matsuda, the intensely disciplined man who had prepared Hulk Hogan for a career in the mat game, and decided to try his hand in the squared circle.

Pfohl, rechristened “Lex Luger” in a play on the name of Superman’s archnemesis Lex Luthor, debuted in the National Wrestling Alliance’s Florida territory in 1985 and, despite a lack of pure wrestling skills, became a top star based almost entirely on his incredibly toned physique. Within months of his first match, Luger defeated the legendary Wahoo McDaniel for the Southern title and not long after that was facing NWA World champion Ric Flair when he toured Florida. Despite drawing money for the promotion, Luger quickly became unpopular backstage, reportedly lacking enthusiasm or respect for wrestling given his football background and generally displaying arrogance and disdain for his fellow performers. In one infamous steel cage match, noted legitimate tough guy Bruiser Brody broke from the script and began to attack Luger for real, leading the younger star to flee the ring in genuine fear.

In 1987, Luger migrated north to Jim Crockett’s mid-Atlantic territory, the hub of the NWA, where he joined Flair, Arn Anderson, Tully Blanchard and manager J.J. Dillon as the first non-charter member of premiere heel stable the Four Horsemen, replacing founder Ole Anderson. While the still green Luger and his straightforward power wrestling stood out as a stark contrast to veteran ring technicians Flair, Anderson and Blanchard, he provided the Horsemen with a youthful energy and intimidating look. Luger gained valuable experience and began to mature as an in-ring competitor paired with his new stablemates, capturing his first of four NWA U.S. titles from Nikita Koloff in a solid match at the Great American Bash. It was also around this time that Luger adopted the nickname “The Total Package” and began using the Human Torture Rack backbreaker as his pet finisher.

Luger’s tenure as a Horseman lasted less than a year before he broke away from the group desiring individual glory beyond being another henchman for Flair and blaming Dillon’s interference for various losses, including dropping the U.S. title to Dusty Rhodes. Luger became one of the most popular wrestlers in the NWA and the top contender to Flair’s World title throughout 1988. He was briefly joined on his crusade against the Horsemen by fellow Florida alumni Barry Windham, with whom he teamed to defeat Anderson and Blanchard for the NWA World Tag Team titles, but the duo split violently after Windham turned against Luger in the rematch and became a Horseman. Luger rebounded to find a new ally in Sting and they won the prestigious Jim Crockett Sr. Memorial Cup tag team tournament. Unfortunately for Luger, he wouldn’t find the same luck against Flair, having one World title match at the Great American Bash stopped controversially due to a cut on his forehead and then dropping a rematch at Starrcade. While Luger may have come up short against Flair, he was gaining a reputation for being more than just a cocky musclehead and as a guy who could actually work a match.

His World title aspirations dashed for the time being, Luger decided to kill two birds with one stone in early 1989, gaining revenge on Windham and reclaiming the U.S. title in one fell swoop. However the year took a different kind of turn for the newly re-crowned champ when he turned heel, quite probably to fill the void left by Flair turning face. For the remainder of ’89, Luger had one of his best stints as an in-ring competitor, putting together hot matches with Ricky Steamboat and Brian Pillman and actually hearing cheers from the crowd despite his underhanded tactics.

For the NWA, Luger’s resurgence in popularity couldn’t have come at a better time as their top babyface, Sting, had just gone down to injury, and once again they required Luger to step into his familiar role as virtuous challenger to the once again villainous Flair. Luger again unsuccessfully chased Flair for the World title until Sting was ready to return and claim it for himself, then went back to the undercard, defending the U.S. title against the likes of Mark Callous (the future Undertaker) and engaging in a brief but violent feud with veteran Stan Hansen (ironically an old partner of Luger’s one-time real life tormentor Bruiser Brody).

In 1991, the remnants of Jim Crockett’s NWA promotion officially changed its name to WCW to signal the official transition of ownership to media mogul Ted Turner and kick off probably the most tumultuous year of Lex Luger’s career. New WCW head Jim Herd wanted Ric Flair to at last drop the World title to Luger and ride off into wrestling’s sunset, but Flair disagreed with his new boss on this and many other matters of import. As a result, Flair departed WCW in the spring, leaving the organization without a champion and depriving Luger of the big win he’d waited three years for. Instead, Luger defeated Windham for the vacant title at the Great American Bash then nonsensically turned heel once more after the match amidst a chorus of boos and chants of “We Want Flair!”

Many say Luger never truly recovered from his big first World title win not coming against the legend he had chased for years and instead against a last minute replacement. To a lot of the average fans, it seemed Luger was a guy who could never really get the job done unless it was on a fluke, and that image haunted him the rest of his career.

Luger carried the World title from 1991 into 1992 racking up a string of forgettable defenses against Ron Simmons and others, but the Flair situation and several years of feeling like he was spinning his wheels deflated the little enthusiasm for the business the wannabe football star had built since his auspicious debut. At Superbrawl II, Luger dropped the World title to Sting and then left WCW to ponder his next move.

That next move proved an unexpected one to wrestling fans, but one that allowed Luger to finally make a run at breaking the tether to an industry he had little true passion for. Luger signed a contract with World Wrestling Federation head honcho Vince McMahon not to wrestle, but instead to be a cornerstone of the fledgling World Bodybuilding Federation. Luger’s tremendous fitness combined with his existing notoriety among the wrestling fans McMahon hoped to draw over to the WBF made him an irresistible draw to the promoter. Luger appeared on the WWF’s Wrestlemania VIII—the same event where old rival Flair would defend the WWF World title ironically enough—in a satellite interview to promote his impending debut in the WBF, however that would be the last fans would see of the former “Total Package” for nearly a year as he injured his arm in a motorcycle accident short after, putting him out of action.

When Luger was ready to return at the dawn of 1993, he found the WBF long since gone out of business but contracted expectations to Vince McMahon still hanging over his head, meaning he had no choice but to return to wrestling via the WWF. At the Royal Rumble, Bobby Heenan introduced the world to Luger’s new gimmick “The Narcissist,” a self-obsessed “modern day Adonis” who spent a lot of him posing in front of mirrors and wasn’t much different from Luger’s typical heel persona save for new tights with fringe on them. As “The Narcissist,” Luger put together a decent feud with WWF veteran Mr. Perfect and was set to move onto bigger fish in the form of former World champion Bret Hart, but as had been the case so often in his career, the departure of another star led to a change of plans.

After nearly a decade as the WWF’s top star, Hulk Hogan departed for Hollywood and beyond seemingly for good in the spring of ’93, leaving McMahon scrambling for something familiar and rather than promoting the popular Hart as Hogan’s heir apparent, he latched on to the closest tanned, blond muscleman: Luger. McMahon abruptly yanked Luger from the “Narcissist” gimmick—which had slowly been gaining traction—and shoehorned him into the role of All-American challenger to devious World champion Yokozuna, having his new top babyface show up to bodyslam the 500 pound monster onboard the U.S.S. Intrepid on the 4th of July (just in case folks didn’t get the point).

Luger toured America in a star-spangled bus called the “Lex Express,” but while some fans cheered, most recognized him as a second rate Hogan at best, and an uncertain McMahon allowed his super patriot a countout win over Yokozuna at Summerslam, but not the World title. As 1993 turned to 1994, the fans made it clear they preferred Hart and Undertaker to Luger and thus he was transitioned out of the main event picture—though rumor had it he was scheduled to win the World title early in the night at Wrestlemania X only to drop it to Hart later and plans were scuttled after a drunk Luger spilled them to a reporter the night before—and into a mid-card feud with Tatanka and the Million Dollar Corporation.

By the middle of 1995, Luger was losing tag team matches partnered with Davey Boy Smith and clearly not loving life. No longer enthused about his role in the WWF and with his contract set to expire, Luger sent feelers out to Eric Bischoff over at WCW, who was handing out big contracts seemingly like candy to former WWF stars like Hogan and Randy Savage in order to bulk up the talent roster for the debut of Monday Nitro, WCW’s prime time television answer to the WWF’s Monday Night Raw. Initially, Bischoff wanted nothing to do with Luger, but Sting stood up for his old friend and convinced the WCW boss to offer him a contract, albeit one offering less money than his existing WWF deal. Luger signed on the dotted line literally at the 11th hour of his WWF tenure, wrestling at a house show for the company over the weekend and then flying to Minneapolis as a major surprise for the live debut of Nitro without giving McMahon any notice and making a powerful enemy for life with his unprofessional actions.

Back in WCW, the powers that be seemingly had little idea what to do with Luger following his explosive debut. Throughout the rest of 1995 and into 1996, one week Luger would be a heel allied with Jimmy Hart and feuding with Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage, the next he would be a babyface teamed with Sting with the duo even holding the World Tag Team titles for several months. It wasn’t until the historic New World Order invasion began in the summer of ’96 that Luger found a stable role as just about all of WCW became de facto good guys and “The Total Package” settled into being the fallback number two babyface behind Savage, Roddy Piper, The Giant, Sting or whoever was hot at the time. Luger actually won the World title for less than a week in 1997, going over the now evil Hogan in what once upon a time would have been considered a dream match, but quickly dropped the belt back and spent most of his time taking on secondary NWO members like Buff Bagwell and Brian Adams.

Luger experienced a slightly renewed babyface push when he joined Sting, Kevin Nash and other in the Wolfpac faction—the “good” NWO—and got another title reign of under a week, winning the U.S. title from Bret Hart, but his role was quickly reduced to background player as somebody at WCW realized that Luger couldn’t be more of the antithesis to the cool, hip hop image the Wolfpac was trying to project. When the Wolfpac regrouped with the rest of the NWO as a rejuvenated heel group at the start of 1999, Luger became a bad guy again, but a bicep injury put him out of action for most of the year.

When Luger returned in the fall, the NWO was gone and WCW was once again in a state of flux, with Bischoff being transitioned out of power and former WWF writer Vince Russo being ushered in as his successor. In the midst of the chaos, Luger was given one last run as a top heel, going under the moniker The Total Package full-time and taking on real-life girlfriend Miss Elizabeth as his valet. Luger picked up wins over Hart and Sting, but never got within sniffing distance of the World title and saw his push stall out after being steamrolled by Hogan in the 2000 edition of Superbrawl.

Creative differences pitting Luger and Liz against Russo behind the scenes led to the duo being banished from television for much of 2000 and the old “attitude problem” stigma began to swirl again. When the erstwhile Total Package returned in the fall, his hair was short for the first time in his over 15 years in the business and his age was beginning to clearly show. Luger and Bagwell formed a tag team which they rode through 2001, but became evident to anybody paying attention that the Package’s best day were behind him.

In March of 2001, the ailing WCW closed its doors and its assets were sold off to none other than Vince McMahon, more or less guaranteeing that Lex Luger’s career as a major player in professional wrestling had come to an end.

Luger made a brief return from semi-retirement in 2002 wrestling several dates in Europe with the touring World Wrestling All-Stars promotion. Sadly it would not be wrestling that kept Luger’s names in the headline as in May of 2003, Elizabeth was found dead in his home from a drug overdose. Police searched the house and found a plethora of illegal drugs, leading Luger to be charged with possession. The incident put a permanent black eye on the one-time star as many to this day blame him for Elizabeth’s death—an opinion supported by an unflattering story chronicling the event on WWE’s Confidential program.

Trying to put the Elizabeth incident behind him, Luger made a pair of appearances on Total Non-Stop Action pay-per-views later in the year, but didn’t stick around beyond that. He returned to TNA at Sting’s side in 2005, but looked every bit of his 47 years and clearly not happy to be standing in a wrestling ring. In 2006, Luger claimed he had found religion in large part thanks to Sting, a noted born again Christian. Today, Luger makes ends meet wrestling on the independent circuit, an ironic fate for a man who never wanted to be a wrestler to begin with.

Regardless of all the negativity surrounding his life and career, Lex Luger was a top performer during wrestling’s two biggest boom periods, and thus earns a place on our Top 100.

The entire Top 100 Wrestlers feature can be found here.