It’s the First Day of #VarsityClubWeek. In celebration of this month’s Survivor Series, we’re taking a look at famous stables from the wonderful world of wrestling. This is the tenth installment in our patent-pending Juice Make Sugar Wrestler of the Week series. As always we’ll start with A Stable You Should Probably Know Better, then give you the finer points of their oeuvre tomorrow with some Essential Viewing. On Wednesday, we’ll be asking Some Serious Questions. After Hump Day, we make our “Amazon.com on steroids” dreams come true with “Juice Make Sugar Recommends…“. before finishing everything off on Friday with a Difference of Opinion (where JMS HQ erupts in a Letterman-jacket-fueled civil war.)
The last two years have seen an unprecedented return of powerful factions to professional wrestling. The Wyatt Family, The Shield, and Paul Heyman’s Guys have been among the most pushed and praised acts in the WWE over that time span, and TNA, while less successful, has also been built around Aces & Eights and EGO. Wrestling fans today are being treated to a renaissance of an idea that worked for decades: the heel faction.
The Varsity Club, who ran roughshod over Jim Crockett promotions as it morphed into WCW, are a perfect example of the deepness from the great era of heel factions, and the pervasiveness of the official WWE version of wrestling history.
Since they didn’t have any historically important performers (for the E, at least) they have received short shrift in retellings, mainly surviving as historical footnotes in WWE-produced documentaries. And with their pretty unfortunate timing — the JCP-to-WCW transition is pretty much the most confusing, ill-understood shift outside of the National Wrestling Association disbanding to make way for an Alliance — they are placed firmly in the blindspot of most millennial fans.
For the uninitiated, the gimmick was simple: they were jocks — mean jocks. They were the guys who picked on you in high school. They strutted around wearing letterman’s jackets and insisting upon their credentials as great athletes and, more importantly, their credentials as men. The part that made it work was that it was true – or at least mostly true (which is as true as anything needs to be in wrestling) – they were tremendous athletes. Nobody in the group was ever going to lose a fight in a bar. They were tough. Real, mean, scary tough.
Above all, The Varsity Club embodied the top role of the legitimate athlete in NWA-style professional wrestling. Wrestling, as guided from Vince McMahon, has strayed so far from sports in favor of “sports entertainment” that it’s almost impossible to contextualize The Varsity Club to a modern audience. Ask a wrestling fan under twenty-five to tell you about wrestlers who are great athletes –They will start by telling you about Brock Lesnar (legit), then the next names on the list will probably be Shelton Benjamin and Charlie Haas. The correct response to this answer is to invite them to the bar for a drink, offer them a ride, open the car door for them, and then slam it on their hand as soon as they start to get in.
Although Kevin Sullivan didn’t have the stature and athleticism to be a top-flight sports star, he was tough as nails (as any short Irishman who grew up in 1960s Southie would be) and could talk a crowd into a building to see him get his ass kicked. For most of the 80s, Sullivan had been the evilest heel in Florida, leading his Satanic “Army” against the Grahams, Dusty Rhodes and other top babyfaces in the territory. While Sullivan’s previous gimmick was in a different hemisphere than the dead-serious, sports-oriented Varsity Club, his time leading The Army had prepared him well to guide a group of a different kind of monsters – monsters who could actually tear you limb-from-limb, not just pretend tear you limb-from-limb. Fans today know about The Army in Florida and “The Taskmaster” in mid-90s WCW, but not to understand the importance of Kevin Sullivan’s time in The Varsity Club is a sin against wrestling history. Sullivan was the hub to which all the spokes of the wheel were lashed, the straw that stirred the drink.
Sullivan’s original Club members were young studs Rick Steiner and Mike Rotunda, tremendous wrestlers out of big time programs (Michigan and Syracuse, respectively) . On top of their legitimate wrestling records, Rotunda and Steiner both looked the part of no-nonsense, killer jocks. Rotunda was big as a house, a quality that served him well even when he was awkwardly forced into a button-up shirt and red suspenders. He looked like a guy it would take you a week to walk around.
Steiner, while short for a main event-level pro wrestler, emoted the single-minded intensity of a competitive athlete as well as anybody ever. He looked like the guy who would have beat you up in the hallway for bumping into him. They weren’t the kind of monsters Sullivan had managed in Florida – they were real monsters. Fans admired The Varsity Club for their legitimate accomplishments, but found them utterly hateable as braggart, bully jerks.
Steiner and Rotunda each had long — if unspectacular as singles competitors — runs in both WCW and the WWF; and while they would settle into different gimmicks as their careers matured, fans always recognized both men as members of The Club. They were presented as real at a time when wrestling was becoming increasingly cartoony. Compare The Varsity Club to the top WWF stable of the day, The Heenan Family: Heenan’s goons, while legendary, seem like kids’ stuff comparatively.
As time went on, Steiner was spun out of the club as a babyface (a move that made him and his brother Scott a massive amount of money as one of the premier tag team attractions of the early 90s), causing “Dr. Death” Steve Williams and “Dangerous” Dan Spivey to be added in order to prop up Sullivan and The Club.
Steve Williams was the utter embodiment of The Varsity Club, perhaps more so than any of its original members. The eventual Dr. Death was terrifying to look at – a legitimate football and wrestling star from The University of Oklahoma, a football and wrestling school. Williams seamlessly bridged the gap between monster heel and super athlete; a natural fit to team with Kevin Sullivan. The two won the United States Tag Titles (JCP/WCW’s tag title at a time when the NWA Titles were still national), and Rotunda and Williams later won the NWA World Tag Titles from The Road Warriors [trivia note: a fast-count in this match led to the heel turn of then-referee Teddy Long, playa’!].
Pause for a minute and consider this: Steve Williams and Mike Rotunda beat the Road Warriors in 1989. This victory speaks equally to two important points. First, The Varsity Club were great. To put a team over The Road Warriors, even dirty, was a huge deal at the time. The Road Warriors were tag team wrestling in the late 80s. They had the best look, they had the best finisher, and they were the most over act. The idea that WCW believed there was more money to be made with the straps on The Varsity Club than The Road Warriors proves how over their act was and what a respected faction they were within the industry.
The second important message that can be gleaned from this moment is that wrestling fans should know far more about this group than they do. Maybe they are discussed and written about so little because they worked for the opposition during the Hulkamania era, that they were the replacement for the beloved Four Horsemen, or even because internet wrestling fans have so much invested in the “Kevin Sullivan killed Chris Benoit” lie (Editor’s note: “Kevin sullivan killed Chris Benoit” returned 40,900 search results on Google.) Either way it’s clear to see that The Varsity Club were a massively important part of wrestling in the late 80s, both in terms of story lines and culture.
The Varsity Club was the ultimate anti-McMahon faction. Legitimate athletes who were tough in spite of not looking like bodybuilders. Led by a short, decidedly unsexy manager, they didn’t need gimmicks and barely needed title belts. Their letterman’s jackets and their attitude were all they needed. They were the guys who pushed you into lockers, who slept with your girlfriend, who acted like they were better than you. They were real heels.