20 Years After Retiring, Arn Anderson Delivered a Spinebuster at Starrcade

WWE revived the WCW event and put on a fitting tribute to the Carolina wrestling that birthed the Four Horsemen.

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Nov 28 2017, 3:49pm

Screen capture via YouTube/WWE

A shade over 20 years ago, Arn Anderson delivered his retirement speech on Monday Nitro. His neck was shattered beyond repair after years of bumping. His left hand didn’t work and a friendly clap on the back from a friend sent him into paroxysms of agony. His best friend both in the fiction of WCW’s storylines and in real life, Ric Flair, stood behind him, tears welling in his eyes. “Mean” Gene Okerlund blinked back tears of his own as he held the mic to Anderson. Double A retired before he was 40 years old.

Anderson always looked far older than his age, even in his best years in the 1980s. His hair was always wispy and outside the ring he had a propensity for overlarge tinted granny glasses. He liked tucked-in collared shirts, like he was secretly just back from a second job as a golf caddy. When he wrestled, he looked like the apotheosis of every stray thought about what a Southern wrestler might be: barrel-chested, hairy, obviously strong but also a little pudgy. He looked like Polo smells. He was the dad bod as pro wrestler.

He didn’t just look like the archetypal Southern pro wrestler, of course. He wrestled like the archetype, too. He was magic in the ring, a natural physical storyteller who was surprisingly nimble and strong. So many men who looked and acted like him were content to be brawlers. Not Anderson—he developed from a raw recruit in the Southeast to one of the greatest tag-team wrestlers of all time with his kayfabe uncle, Ole Anderson, and then became one of his generation’s best singles technicians.

It was that last bit that feels so unfair, still. Arn Anderson always sniffed around the upper midcard but never rose much higher. Some of that was simply because Flair was the man and it was unconscionable and frankly weird to have the long-running Four Horsemen break up for the sake of an Anderson-Flair program—though they worked a short-lived feud in the early 90s, a few years after Flair’s return from WWE, as a prelude to reforming the Horsemen with Brian Pillman and Chris Benoit. It wasn’t just that you had to be good; it’s that you had to be better, or at least seem to be better, than Flair.

Anderson was up there with Flair, but so much of his character revolved around being the second fiddle, the bodyguard, the Enforcer, as his nickname attested. For him to be an enforcer, there had to be something external to enforce, and that was Flair and the Four Horsemen’s combination of party-boy allure and in-ring fear factor. There were rules in the heelish world of Jim Crockett Promotions and (later) WCW: Flair wrote them, the Horsemen lived them, Anderson enforced them.

That’s how Anderson never became a world champion despite having every tool necessary to be a good one. He’s one of the greatest wrestlers to never be world champion, maybe the greatest. With Flair winding down and the insanity that was late WCW, a healthy Arn Anderson in his early 40s may have been in the mix. At the very least, he could’ve worked programs with the later WCW champions like Booker T and Scott Steiner, which would’ve clicked. Enough to save WCW? Never. Enough to wring out one last gasp of enjoyment from the madhouse? Probably.

It’s odd to refer to Anderson with words like "was," "looked," and "had." He’s still alive, with a comfortable gig working for WWE as a road agent. He’s still around. He shows up on television once in awhile (usually in nondescript clothes helping a kayfabe injured wrestler to the back), and seems to be doing great. For a guy who referred to the prospect of continuing his wrestling career as a "suicide situation," he is in what amounts to a sweet spot.

But we also know that’s now how sports, scripted or improvised, work. The virility of sport defines you and once you’re gone, you’re gone. You’re past it, old, used up. Which is monstrously unfair, but it also goes a long way toward explaining how the discourse of sports nostalgia works. We see the legends we grew up on, stooped and grey, occupying the spotlight one more time, even if it’s just at an autograph signing.

Which is why it was so thrilling to see the footage of Arn Anderson in the ring leaking in dribs and drabs from this past weekend’s Starrcade. Starrcade was WCW’s and JCP’s premier event, the answer to WrestleMania, and it’s been defunct since the turn of the century. WWE brought it back, albeit as a glorified house show cum tribute to Carolinas wrestling. The Rock 'n' Roll Express were there alongside the Hardy Boys. Charlotte won a cage match, as did AJ Styles. Goldust came out as Dustin Runnels, delivering a tribute to his father, Dusty Rhodes, and recalling a time in the early 90s when just having him be was enough to put him in the upper card. And then there was Arn Anderson.

Dolph Ziggler punched him. Anderson took a bump outside, and then he was in the ring, delivering his patented spinebuster to Ziggler—an excellent subject for the exchange, since Ziggler’s strongest skill is bumping like his bones are gelatin for fun. Anderson looked shockingly similar to the eternally middle-aged man he was at 29 and then 39. A little stiffer, a little grayer, but his spinebuster still looked and sounded like a million bucks.

And then he went home, leaving one more overdue memory for the Greensboro crowd, a small reminder of one of pro wrestling’s what-ifs. It was nostalgic, yes, and the question of whether an older wrestler should get one over so clearly on a younger one lingers, but that’s not really how memory works. Again and again, the motif of pro wrestling is letting the past lurk closely to the surface. Indeed, sometimes there isn’t a distinction between past and present: an old wrestler can talk, a documentary can be made, a spinebuster delivered. And we know, as the audience, that we remember the wrestler, and they know that they remember us. That’s the exchange and the ritual. For the length of one crashing move, Arn Anderson’s past and present lived in front of us again.