Sgt. Slaughter on Edward Snowden, Discovering The Undertaker, and Real American Heroism

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As Sgt. Slaughter climbed into the ring to face the Iron Sheik in a professional wrestling match in 1984, there were at least two American presidents watching.

"When I met Presidents Reagan and Nixon later on," Slaughter tells Cultist, "both said they had seen it and had stood up and did the Pledge of Allegiance with me."

It should be noted that, unlike Sgt. Slaughter, neither man ever had his own action figure that sold in the millions.

Nearly 30 years after that first of nearly six dozen confrontations with his arch rival, Sgt. Slaughter (USMC, Ret.) still wrestles in 12 to 15 matches a year, despite being months away from eligibility for full social security benefits. The tidy mustache is exactly where you remember it being. He shaves his head clean now but he still wears camouflage fatigues and a collegiate wrestling singlet. When he competes in charity golf tournaments as part of his role as World Wrestling Entertainments' global ambassador, he wears combat boots with golf spikes on the soles.

"Being sent somewhere to play golf was the last job I ever thought about doing," he says. "I could body slam you or put you in a Cobra Clutch, but golf was never one of my specialties."

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Once, when throwing out a first pitch at a baseball game, Slaughter realized he might not be able to reach the plate after having injured his shoulder in a match not long before.

"So I did it Sgt. Slaughter style," he says. "I acted like the ball was a grenade and pulled the pin out with my teeth. Then I lobbed it up high to the catcher. The place went wild."

Robert Remus really was a Marine drill sergeant before he became a professional wrestler. He really was known as "Sgt. Slaughter" by his Marines. These days, however, that's how most everyone knows him.

"If they yell 'Robert,' I'm not sure if they're talking to me," he says. "But if they say 'Sarge,' I know exactly who they want."

Before he was a G.I. Joe action figure, before he was defending democracy from oiled-up men in bulging Speedos, Slaughter was just a Marine home on leave in Minnesota.

"On my last leave from the Marine Corps, I was with one of my friends, a sportswriter," he remembers. "He was doing a story about a pro wrestling training camp not far from where we grew up. So I went with him.

"It was in an old barn on a farm and there was a ring in the middle and a little light bulb swinging overhead. Chickens were walking around. Some of the guys in the ring, three or four of them, I recognized from high school football, wrestling and baseball."

Slaughter recognized them because he "used to be them all the time." One of the wrestlers was Ric Flair, who would also go on to be one of the biggest professional wrestling stars of all time. At the time, however, Slaughter remembered him from little league.

"And our high schools always played baseball, football and wrestled against each other. And we always beat them," Slaughter says. After the trainers realized that Slaughter had wrestled, they asked if he would volunteer to get in the ring.

"Anyone who ever served in the Marines knows that 'volunteer' is not a word that is not very good to hear; it means you're in trouble," he says.

Dutifully, Slaughter got in and allowed the other wrestlers to practice their holds on him. After having his fill, Slaughter said, "If you won't let me defend myself, I'm leaving."

The trainers were confused and he explained that he didn't realize he was allowed to fight back.

"You want to try?" they asked.

And so Slaughter quickly beat the first three wrestlers, one after the other. Finally, he got to Flair, who Slaughter says tried to talk his way out of the match.

"I've got a bad arm, coach," only got Flair the chance to start with Slaughter already in a hold.

"So I pinned him," Slaughter says. "Next they put a pro against me. I went on all fours and he threw his shin against me in a way that I knew he was trying to break my leg.

"It was 'the mud and the blood and the beer.' We went at it pretty heavy until the match was stopped and they took me outside the barn. One of the trainers, who'd been a world champion, asked me where I'd learned to fight like that. So we talked and he gave me his number."

The trainer asked Slaughter if he'd ever thought about being a professional wrestler. He hadn't but the trainer said to call him.

Slaughter said, "I don't want to wait that long. I want to get the guy who tried to break my leg."

Much of Slaughter's time these days is spent visiting children's and veterans' hospitals. When he is not working in an official capacity for WWE as an ambassador or performing in their Legends program, he says, "I'm allowed to do my own thing. I work with a few charities like the Special Olympics and Make-a-Wish. The Cancer Society I like because my mom passed away from cancer. A lot of work for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, one of my favorites. It's gratifying to see that you're character means something to people and can help them."

He recalls a recent Special Olympics event, when he was awarding medals to the athletes.

"One girl, when I put it around her neck, started crying like a baby. And I was so happy for her. She had worked so hard to earn that position on the podium," he says. And then he seems to marvel: "They want you there."

What's curious about it is that there is not much of a chance that a child today would have seen Slaughter wrestle at the peak of his fame. Frankly, small children should be afraid of 6'4" strangers named Sgt. Slaughter, even if they don't know that he buys his toothpaste with money earned by body slamming people. No matter the hours he continues to put into his work, today's children are not the same generation that collected proofs of purchase and called special hotlines as were necessary to get the limited edition Sgt. Slaughter action figure. He has not been involved with the recent live-action G.I. Joe movies, because they were made by Hasbro and the WWE has an exclusive deal with Mattel.

When he attends conventions like Florida Supercon, where he'll appear from through Saturday to meet fans and sign autographs, he greets "kids who can't see over the table. They don't know who I am but all they've heard is someone important to them has said, 'Sgt. Slaughter, he was my hero when I was your age.' Not once has a child been afraid of me."

It can't be as simple as that. And it can't be respect for the uniform, because few winners of the Congressional Medal of Freedom accept the award in a XXL leotard. There is something in the center of all the pageantry and showmanship of the Sgt. Slaughter character that is so indefatigably genuine that Robert Remus can't help but be magnetic in whatever form he takes. He genuinely loves his country. He genuinely loves helping people. Instead of his high and tight jarhead cut, he could have had long blonde hair. He could have been a villain instead of a hero. Actually, that's how Robert Remus was for about a decade before he began popping up on lunch boxes and teaching generations knowing is half the battle.

"With my first character," he says, "my thought was to be the opposite of myself. My sister, who was a beautician, blonded it. It wasn't me."

Sometimes fans ask him to sign photographs of that era's Robert Remus.

"I laugh and get a big kick out of it. I finally saw the light and went back to the buzz cut."

And he would go back to his nickname from the Marine Corps, Sgt. Slaughter, too. One night, while trying to figure out what to do with his villain character, he was watching a Jack Webb movie on TV called The D.I. about a drill instructor.

"I thought, 'Why didn't I think of that?' Anyone knows the drill instructor is the meanest guy in the world, even if his job is to make sure you stay alive."

So he went down into his basement and got some of his old gear out of his lock box.

"Some of it fit, some of it didn't," he says. He had his wife take pictures of him in the uniform and when he saw them, Sgt. Slaughter the wrestler was born.

Slaughter started wrestling in the mid-1970s and joined what would become the WWE in the early 1980s. He connected with the meanest parts of his drill sergeant days and made for a perfect wrestling villain: preening, angry, arrogant. He was the sort of character who would choke an opponent like Jay Youngblood on the ropes when the referee was not looking and then later would brag to the cameras, "It makes me feel good. Every time I pass by a cemetery, I think of Jay Youngblood."

Hardly the words or deeds of a Real American Hero. But then the international heavyweight champion did a second tour of duty. And that's when Remus and Slaughter seem to have become one.

"When I came back, we had the war going on, Iran with the hostages," Slaughter says. What was then known as the WWF was run by Vincent McMahon, Sr., whose son Vince McMahon, Jr. is now CEO of WWE.

"The McMahons were welcoming me back," Slaughter remembers. "Sr. said, 'You're the best villain I've ever had in my company.'"

But Remus returning to the Marines had shifted his perspective on what he and his uniform should represent.

"You should see me as a hero," he told McMahon, Sr. The way Slaughter saw it, there was already a wrestler called the Iron Sheik, from Iran, who would make for a perfect foil.

"He was an Olympic wrestler and former bodyguard of the Shah. I thought it would be great to bring me back to fight that guy," he says. "Vince thought it was the greatest thing but Sr. thought I was too good as a villain. So Vince said, 'Don't worry about pops; I'll work on him.'"

About a month later, McMahon, Jr. asked Slaughter if he was ready. He was.

The plan would unfold during a three-hour taping in Allentown, Pa. In the first hour, Slaughter would return as a villain. In the second hour, viewers would see the Iron Sheik in a match.

"Then in the third, the Iron Sheik was going to be out there, mouthing off. And Vince said, 'Whenever you feel the time, you come out and interrupt him.' Nobody knew what was going to happen but the element of surprise is the best thing you can have, as we say in our business."

And so there was the Iron Sheik, mouthing off as arranged.

"All the sudden, the Marine Corps hymn played and the crowd goes silent. It was like, here come the Marines," Slaughter says. His voice swells, as though what he were describing was not two adults hugging in their underpants but a proxy war for the conflict between America and Iran. "I ended up getting in the ring and doing the Pledge of Allegiance. He was putting down America! And now everyone went crazy."

That everyone, as you may recall, apparently included Richard Nixon and the sitting president of the United States of America. It also included Hasbro and the writers of the G.I. Joe animated series.

"The next thing you know, I'm up in the Hasbro office having a meeting with them," Slaughter says. "At that time, I had a camouflage limousine. So I stepped out of the car and everyone for miles knew that Sarge was in the building. It stirred up quite the commotion."

When the Hasbro executives asked Slaughter for his thoughts, he replied, "I'm the real life G.I. Joe. I'm the one you've been animating all these years."

Slaughter says was not even halfway home from the meeting when Hasbro called his attorney to sign him up.

"It was a happy day. But when I told Vince, he said, 'That's great but I can't let you go."

Meetings upon meetings. Finally, Slaughter was given a decision to make:

"Be a WWF Superstar or a Real American Hero. I had to tell him, 'I can always be a wrestler but I can't always be a Joe."

The rest is Real American history. There were "a few bad vibes" that led to Slaughter missing the first six Wrestlemania events. "But as soon as I got out of my contract, my phone rang. It was Mr. McMahon saying, 'I want you in Wrestlemania VII, in the main event.'"

McMahon and Slaughter have always had an unusually close relationship, with McMahon placing a great deal of trust in Slaughter. Aside from his duties as a character, Slaughter has become an important talent scount and creator of story lines.

"Being a wrestling superstar," he explains as though he were talking about what it's like to have played pickup basketball, "you're always looking for the person who can take that place when you have to step down. Part of my job is to find new talent."

Some of the wrestlers he has found have been at local independent shows, others came to him through letters sent.

"You never know who is out there, who has the same heart as you," he says.

One of his greatest discoveries was from a videotape.

"He was a wrestler already, but stuck in a no man's land. I saw his tape and took it to Vince McMahon and said, 'I think this is someone you should look at.' He said to me, 'I believe in you, sign him up for a shot."

The wrestler's name was Mark Calaway, better known now as the Undertaker.

"He had real short red hair," Slaughter remembers. "Tall guy, almost 6'9" and from Rochester, N.Y. I brought him in for a tryout and said, 'Welcome, find a locker, go to catering, we'll tape your match. It won't air but we'll see how you do against an opponent.'

Calaway's match was the first of the night. Slaughter was watching from the the production truck, wearing a headset next to the director.

"Halfway through the match, I hear Vince's voice going, 'Where'd you find this guy? Send him to my office when his match is over.' And I was worried that I had done something bad. But then Mark came out of the office after 20 mintues with a smile on his face and told me, 'He wants me to come again tomorrow night.'

After the matches, Slaughter would attend meetings with McMahon to do a postmortem on what when right and wrong.

"Did anyone see the young wrestler Sarge brought in?" McMahon asked the room, according to Slaughter. "I think we should call him The Pallbearer and give him a manager called The Undertaker."

"I tossed and turned all night," Slaughter says. "It didn't sit right with me. The next day, I said to him, 'Sir, can I have a word with you?' and told him that the names needed to be switched."

"I'll take that under advisement," McMahon told him.

In addition to the Undertaker, Slaughter also claims Yokozuna, Diesel and Razor Ramon as his finds. But aside from being a central figure in professional wrestling since before its acceptance as mainstream entertainment, Sgt. Slaughter represents something else to at least two generations of Americans. He comes from a time when good and evil were felt clearly divided, when most Americans could reasonably feel that being one of the good guys was part of their birthright.

Sgt. Slaughter predates Al-Qaeda and WikiLeaks. It was more than 15 years after his first heavyweight championship that Lindsay Lohan would star in The Parent Trap. Few outside of Colorado and Connecticut had ever heard of Littleton or Newtown when Slaughter and the Joes were delighting children by shooting their laser guns at C.O.B.R.A.

Even if you disagree with his unconditional patriotism, there's something honest about it. This is a man who either plays his character because he believes in him or has played the character so long that he believes what the character believes. But either way, the man we spoke to (and in our conversation, Slaughter/Remus would sometimes appear to conflate his own biographical details with those of his character's) seems to believe in America.

It's an odd thing to ask a professional wrestler for his thoughts on foreign policy and espionage. Slaughter, however, was the World Heavyweight Champion quite a few times. Even so, does even Hulk Hogan care what Hulk Hogan thinks about Ed Snowden?

And so we asked Slaughter what he felt about America in light of the revelations about the NSA's surveillance programs. He was reluctant to answer and in any way connect his personal beliefs with those of the WWE. So instead, we asked him to just talk about America and why it's important to him. Here is his response:

"We're the greatest country in the world. We're allowed to voice our opinions. In other places, they'll cut your hands off, cut your tongue out, cut your head off if you voice an opinion they don't like.

"We've been fighting a long time. Soldiers have been fighting and dying for that freedom of speech, so we can have that freedom, as long as it is by the law.

"We go through these hills and valleys in America. We went through it in Vietnam. What were we doing there? Sometimes I wonder. But basically, we were helping another country that was being taken over by communism. We were trying to help.

"Sometimes, we take our country for granted and take for granted that everything is going to work itself out. But we have to be Americans. And some things we are not in control of. If something happens and it's bad, then we fix it and it doesn't happen again.

"Look at Boston. Who would have ever thought that someone would do something like that? Now it has everyone thinking. I'm not sure I'd want to be at the dropping of the ball in Times Square, but I'm sure it will be very well protected and might be one of the safest places to be.

"I can't stop anyone from voicing their opinions. Until you've served, until you've been in that position, until you know what they're complaining about -- if they're doing it of their own free will, that's one thing. But I just enjoy being an American every day. And I'm glad people have fought to let me do that."

As we celebrate our country's origins this weekend, Sgt. Slaughter will not be alone in his reflection on what it means to be an American and what it has cost us all for that right.

He is spending the holiday weekend at Florida Supercon, where he is eager to meet his fans.

"It's the one chance we get to talk face-to-face. To find out what their names are," he says. When fans bring him old memorabilia to sign, he is touched "to know they've had it all these years and that it means something to them and that they are going to take it back to their homes."

For the Sarge, "it's an honor that each one of them has waited in a line to see me. I'm always disappointed when they say time is up. I try to stick around until I can give as much time to the last person on line as to the first."

Before Sgt. Slaughter dismissed us, he concluded by shrugging, "I prefer it over a chair shot to the back of the head any day."

Sgt. Slaughter will appear at the Florida Supercon, held at the Miami Airport Convention Center from July 4 through 7. The Sarge, however, will only be there through July 6. Duty calls. For tickets and schedules, visit FloridaSupercon.com.

Follow Cultist on Facebook and Twitter @CultistMiami.

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