Sgt. Slaughter remains beloved wrestling figure

05/13/17 By Gary M. Baranec Former professional wrestler Sgt. Slaughter acknowledges the applause from the crowd before throwing out the first pitch at the Altoona Curve's game with the New Hampshire Fisher Cats Saturday at PNG Field.

One of the legendary heel turns in professional wrestling occurred when real American hero Sgt. Slaughter started portraying an Iraqi sympathizer in 1990, a bit that was so convincing and made some fans so irate that the wrestler actually started getting death threats.

“They took it serious because I was taking it serious,” Sgt. Slaughter, real name Bob Remus, said. “I was performing as best I could and as bad as I could to be an Iraqi sympathizer. I enjoyed getting them worked up.”

Remus made an appearance at Saturday night’s Curve game at Peoples Natural Gas Field, throwing out a first pitch and signing autographs.

One of the most unique wrestlers ever, Sgt. Slaughter’s back story is that of real-life marine drill instructor Remus, to initial wrestling heel, then hero, then G.I. Joe character, then Iraqi sympathizer, and finally back to good guy and hall of famer.

The Sgt. Slaughter wrestling character was so popular in the early 1980s that Hasbro reached out to Remus to make him a character in its G.I. Joe toy brand. Only problem was, WWF boss Vince McMahon told Remus that the wrestling organization was contracted to a different toy company, so Remus couldn’t stay on board with the WWF and be a G.I. Joe character.

“I had to make a decision: Do I want to be a wrestler or be G.I. Joe?” Remus said. “I decided I could always be a wrestler, so I went with G.I. Joe for about two years.”

Sgt. Slaughter eventually returned to wrestling with the AWA, then one day in 1990 he got a phone call from McMahon.

“I picked up the phone and I heard, ‘Sarge, this is Vince.’ I said, ‘Oh, hey Vince,'” Remus recalled. “He said, ‘I know that your contract is coming up with G.I. Joe. Would you think about coming back to work with the WWF?'”

There was a catch, though. Instead of being hero Sgt. Slaughter, McMahon wanted the character to do a heel turn as an Iraqi sympathizer.

“I came back, and everybody was expecting me to be back to where I was in the matches with the Iron Sheik,” Remus said. “But here I came back with a nasty taste in my mouth saying that the United States was weak and how could they let a small country like Iraq take over Kuwait.”

As wrestling fans know, characters frequently switch back and forth between good and bad guys. But what made Sgt. Slaughter’s heel turn different was that his gimmick had him turning against the United States, sometimes in very vivid ways, such as singing happy birthday to Saddam Hussein in the ring.

Unable to separate the gimmick from reality, some fans turned on Sgt. Slaughter in a way that became dangerous.

“When I won the (WWF heavyweight) title from The Ultimate Warrior at the Royal Rumble in Miami, that’s when everything started to boil over,” Remus said. “As soon as I got to Philadelphia the next day, they asked me to call my wife, and she didn’t answer.

“I called Vince McMahon, and he said, ‘Have you talked to your wife?’ I said, ‘No, is there something wrong?’ He said, ‘Well, I’ve tried to take care of her. We just got a call this morning that someone was going to kill you and kill your family and kill my family and blow up our houses and blow up the studios.’

“He said for precautionary reasons he called my wife and asked her if she could go somewhere for the night until I got some security at your house. So when I called my wife, she said, ‘I told you that was not a good idea to do this Iraqi sympathizer.'”

When Remus got home, there was an RV parked outside his house with full security detail that would guard his family and property 24 hours a day, taking the kids to school and his wife to the grocery store.

One thing Sgt. Slaughter refused to do was burn an American flag, which certainly would have made things even more difficult for him. He did burn a Hulk Hogan shirt, which furthered the feud being built up between the two.

The threats continued against Remus, but Sgt. Slaughter remained an Iraqi sympathizer trying to hype up a huge match against Hulk Hogan for the WWF heavyweight title at Wrestlemania VII in Los Angeles. Hogan won the bout, pretty much ending the Iraqi sympathizer era for Sgt. Slaughter, who became a good guy once again shortly thereafter.

Remus was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2004 and continues to travel making appearances as Sgt. Slaughter. Despite being seen as anti-American and getting threats for a while during his career, he remains very popular and beloved by wrestling fans.

“This business is a real tough business, and you have to be very passionate to be in it. It’s not for everybody,” Remus said. “It’s always been a fun business for me because I get to meet so many different people around the world.”

He’s even seen by many as a hero, and his Sgt. Slaughter costume includes a G.I. Joe patch on his left chest.

“There’s nothing better than going to a veterans hospital and seeing a gentleman laying there, and him crawling out of his bed to give you a salute,” Remus said.