Oddly Cultured: The Night Sgt. Slaughter and Pat Patterson Tried To Murder Each Other
Oddly Cultured is an occasional series in which I investigate the wild, weird, and wonderful side of pop culture.
The 1981 Sgt. Slaughter vs Pat Patterson “Alley Fight” match is largely regarded as one of the best World Wrestling Federation matches from the early 80’s. It might also be one of the best wrestling matches of all time, at least as far as the American style goes. Which makes it a shame that the match isn’t available to watch on the WWE Network, where it would certainly look and sound a lot better than the stuff on YouTube that looks like it was taped off of grandpa’s VCR. And maybe some of it was.
Not that the low quality is all bad. It makes the match that much more forbidden, like a relic from the tape trading era, where you had to be keyed into a clandestine network of wrestling nerds to find access to rare bootleg videos. Anyway, it does help add to the legend.
Slaughter and Patterson’s 1981 feud was short, but intense. And the no-holds barred “Alley Fight” match that took place on May 4th ended it in such a perfectly violent way. The match carried with it the threat of death, in a theatrical sense, at least. It was wrestling drama at its best. And it turned out to be a career peak for Sgt. Slaughter, a character created by Robert Remus in the late 1970’s. Yes, he would go on to headline WrestleMania VII in 1991, but as a performance, it paled in comparison to one crazy, bloody night in Madison Square Garden almost forty years ago.
It’s kind of a shame that kids born in the late 70’s and early 80’s, who were the target audience for the WWF when the company was in the middle of its Golden Age in the mid-80’s and the early 90’s, never got to experience Sgt. Slaughter at his best. Instead, when they finally did see him, they got a character who was either a super-patriot - which, god, how boring can you get - or an evil traitor to his country, which is just as boring but in an opposite way. In fact, most kids who grew up only watching the WWF, kids who maybe didn’t have access to the AWA or NWA, probably only knew of Sgt. Slaughter at all through his appearances as a character on the G.I. Joe animated series. A lot of these kids probably didn’t have a clue that he was even a wrestler at all until he appeared on TV in late 1990.
At least he was a bad guy when he returned. This is definitely where Remus shines as an in-ring performer, but especially in promos and interviews. Remus’s snarling, gravely voice is best when it’s spewing hatred and calling fans and other wrestlers “pukes” or “maggots.” The flag-waving Slaughter is antiseptic and dull.
But what about bad guy Slaughter in the late 70’s and early 80’s? Now that was a character. He was a drill sergeant, but his villain status didn’t have anything to do with whether or not he was pro-United States. Instead, he was portrayed as a bully, perhaps one that thought a little too much his abilities, but a bully nonetheless. The gimmick wasn’t about loving or hating America, it was about an authority figure who strong-arms his way through life, and if he doesn’t get what he wants, he lashes out. And who the hell can’t relate to being on the bad side of a mean prick in one way or another?
Remus was an actual drill instructor in real life, which makes the evil drill sergeant character that much more interesting. On the Jim and Sam Show, hosts Jim Norton & Sam Roberts asked him about his service and he said, referencing his two tours of Vietnam, “Well, I’ve never really talked about it.” And a little while after that, “I did a lot of things that I normally wouldn’t have done unless I was ordered to.” Yikes. Maybe it’s just as well that Remus wants to remain vague on the subject, though it is more than a bit troubling that it was his men who first gave him the nickname Sgt. Slaughter.
Robert Remus didn’t start out wrestling as Sgt. Slaughter. Instead, one day in the late 70’s, The DI, a film starring and directed by Jack Webb of Dragnet fame, was on TV. It’s interesting that watching this movie gave Robert Remus the idea for the Sgt. Slaughter character. The DI is about a tough drill sergeant, sure, but he’s certainly no villain. In fact, his superiors think that he’s too compassionate. He believes in a recruit that his superiors have given up on. So The DI most likely wasn’t a direct inspiration for the Sgt. Slaughter character. Rather, it probably just got the creative wheels turning, and Remus realized that people would respond well to a character that treats the audience as if they were marine recruits, stirring up their innate anti-authoritarianism and disdain for bullies. It was as if the character had gone mad and saw the entire world as recruits in a boot camp run entirely by himself. And of course the audience would chant “Gomer,” a phrase especially popular in the marines to refer to an inept or stupid officer. Gomer Pyle, that kind of thing. Slaughter did not like this at all.
The Patterson / Slaughter feud began with Sgt. Slaughter’s dreaded Cobra Clutch Challenge on one of the weekly WWF shows in early 1981. Slaughter and his manager, the Grand Wizard, offered $5,000 to any wrestler who could escape his cobra clutch, a modified sleeper hold.
Of course no one could escape it - that is until Patterson, mostly an announcer on the show by that point, decided that he couldn’t take the fucker’s bullying anymore and told Slaughter that he would take the challenge. He gets into the ring - dress pants, coat, tie and all, and lets Slaughter put the hold on him. Patterson almost escapes the hold, but Slaughter “lets go” before that can happen. Of course, chaos erupts afterward, as Slaughter attacks Pat Patterson. The whole thing ends with Patterson bleeding from his head - something that almost never happens on free TV, then or now.
The feud became red hot. Leading up to the big alley fight, Patterson and Slaughter had a match the month before where both of them abused the referee on multiple occasions, mostly pushing him here and there around the ring. It’s quite a comical affair, since Patterson, the supposed face, was abusing the referee as much as Slaughter, which, again, is odd, since good guys rarely do that. So, yeah, double disqualification on that one, seemingly because the ref wanted to wash their hands of both of them. Silliness aside, it was a good way to extend the feud without either man losing face and looking weak.
Patterson comes out to the ring going full bore on the “I love America” schtick. It’s as if he’s some sort of mutant created by some weird alien civilization trying to infiltrate America. And it’s not quite a successful imitation. He’s got the Yankees hat, cowboy boots, and of course the “I Love New York” shirt, so that he looks extra patronizing. Pat Patterson is, after all, French Canadian. Despite the strange costuming decisions on Patterson’s part, the match is great from the get-go. Announcer Howard finkle says that “one fall will win the contest,” but this is a strange statement, considering that there’s no referee to administer the three count, which is, of course, how you win a fall. In a kind of comical way, the threat of death has already been implicitly introduced to the match. After all, how else is the thing going to end?
Well, the implicit consideration of death as the only way to win the match is made explicit as Patterson almost immediately takes off his belt and uses it to choke Slaughter, after giving him a good whipping, of course. Hey, anyone who claims that professional wrestling isn’t homoerotic with a good dash of BDSM...well, they just haven’t watched enough. This is the moment of catharsis before the drama. The audience wants to see Slaughter punished for his bullying. They want to see him become the bullied. And the crowd reaction is insane. They want blood, and soon they will get it.
Naturally, things slow down a bit in the middle. We must give the audience time to catch their breath, after all. Suddenly, though, Slaughter is catapulted into a ring post, falls to the mat, and quickly uses a blade to cut his forehead. He seems to have cut a bit too deep, because there’s a lot of blood. It absolutely cakes his face in a thick sheet of red. The life force drains, and the threat of death becomes that much more real. I mean, the audience knows this is a story - but the characters that these men are playing are ignorant of this fact, as is any character in a movie or a play. And so they fight, knowing that death is an ever-present possibility.
As performers, the risk to the wrestlers themselves are great, though they’re obviously at least trying not to injure the other person. Some wrestlers have even died in the ring. But the audience doesn't want real death. They want to look down precipice while securely fastened into a safety harness.
Eventually the match is over. It’s over because Patterson has used Chekov’s gun, one of the cowboy boots he wore to the ring, slamming it repeatedly onto Slaughter’s head. Slaughter is going to die before he gives up. And so the Grand Wizard throws in the towel. He does this because he knows that otherwise his client won’t see another day.
It’s a great match, which makes it all the more puzzling that it’s not on the WWE Network. Dave Meltzer even named it match of the year in his Wrestling Observer newsletter. I can only guess as to why whatever powers behind the Newtwork don’t want the match on the app. It’s got to be intentional, right? The Network has plenty of Madison Square Garden shows in their “Old School” section. It’s impossible to say that the match is the best of everything that’s not on the Network at the moment. But it probably is, because Slaughter vs. Patterson is one of the greatest North American wrestling matches of all time. Anyone who likes pro wrestling and hasn’t seen it owes it to themselves to give it a look.
As for Robert Remus’s Sgt. Slaughter character, he would have his ups and downs as the rest of the decade and the 90’s progressed. After leaving shortly after the Patterson match, Slaughter made his return to the WWF in 1983, briefly continuing with the heel character, though shortly after he would become the super-patriot that he’s most known for these days, engaging in a feud with the Iron Sheik that led to some “boot camp” matches, which were essentially continuations of the alley fight format, except with a referee to count the fall. These matches were mostly great, though they didn’t quite equal the quality of the Patterson fight. They were often very bloody, especially on Slaughter’s side. He seemed to actually get a kick out of making himself bleed.
The babyface Slaughter, while not nearly as interesting a character as his heel drill instructor gimmick, was incredibly popular, rivaled only by Hulk Hogan, the world champion and fellow white bread patriot. In fact, Slaughter just missed being part of the first WrestleMania because of a dispute between himself and owner WWF Vince McMahon over Remus’s signing a deal with Hasbro in order to have his likeness used in their GI Joe toyline. The WWF had a partnership with LJN, who made their toys. Signing a deal with Hasbro would be a conflict of interest. Ultimately Remus decided to go ahead with the Hasbro deal, making him persona non grata in the WWF for over five years.
The less said about his 1991 heel character, the better, probably, because what can be said, really? The Iraqi sympathizer thing was simply the super-patriot in reverse. Both presuppose that if the U.S. is the greatest country on the planet, then literally any country that isn’t exactly like it is flawed. Hell, WWE has even, on several occasions, tried to make Canadians anti-American villains. Of course, we were really at war with Iraq in early 1991, and real people were losing real lives. To turn it all into a cheap spectacle was was distasteful at best. And besides all of that, it was lazy character development.
And even on top of that, as if we needed another reason to dislike this angle, Robert Remus, never really known for his startling feats of stamina, was seriously out of shape, and got completely gassed within a minute or so after the start of a match. Despite the cheap buildup, there was a lot of excitement leading up to the WrestleMania VII main event between Slaughter and Hulk Hogan. But the match itself was...not good. It was definitely not the worst WrestleMania match ever, and not by a long shot. But it certainly wasn’t a win in a creative sense. Everything that rises will fall. This is especially true in athletics and the arts. And so maybe Sgt. Slaughter peaked as a character and a performer early. But who can truthfully say that they were the best in their field, even for a day?
It’s a thing hoped for, but rarely achieved.