Moving Pictures
Jan 13, 2021, 05:57AM

Tommy “Tiny” Lister Played a Wrestler, For Real

Lister achieved his greatest fame on the big screen, but had an oversized impact during professional wrestling’s most colorful and muscle-obsessed era.

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Tommy “Tiny” Lister, a glowering cinematic powerhouse who loomed and scowled larger than life throughout so many of our childhoods, died earlier this month at the age of 62. Lister was best known as an actor, associated most closely with the role of  “Deebo” in the first two films of Ice Cube’s Friday movie trilogy, but he landed his highest profile roles only after scoring a big break playing the wrestling antagonist opposite Hulk Hogan in the Vince McMahon-produced campy 1989 box office flop No Holds Barred. In an era characterized by cartoonish theatrics and muscular excess, Lister, playing the wrestler “Zeus,” ended up with a short if memorable career as the “real” Zeus, bent on avenging himself against Hogan for overshadowing him in the movie. It was, in some ways, the performance of a lifetime, and he played it to the hilt.

Lister’s early life, his life before he ended up playing and then becoming a pro wrestler, mirrored those of many performers who wind up entering the squared circle. He was born with a detached retina in his right eye, which rendered him partially blind. He grew up in straitened circumstances in Compton, California, and, as he matured and became larger and stronger, found solace in track and field, where he specialized in the shot put.

“I love the shot put because you win or lose by yourself,” he told Grantland in 2014. “Either I get exposed or I dominate. I always dominated because I trained to dominate.” And dominate he did, first at Palomar Junior College and Long Beach City College and then at Cal State Los Angeles, where he won the 1982 NCAA Division II national title with a recorded throw of 59’11 ¾”, an impressive mark that would, according to former Fort Hays State All-American hammer thrower Mitchell Sahfield, still qualify Lister for D2 All-American status two decades later. He would also achieve a throw of 61’8” during a meet earlier that same year, a Cal State LA mark that stood until 1997.

To Lister, this collegiate athletic career constituted the defining highlight of his life. “Everyone knows that my track and field career, my time at Cal State L.A., is more important to me than my movie career,” he remarked while visiting the campus in 2010. “It’s here that it all started for me.”

Lister’s size—6’5” and at times 300-plus well-defined pounds—set him apart, and after throwing the shot in the low 50’ range at Long Beach City College, strength training at Cal State Los Angeles gave him the body for which he became famous. Lister, having dealt with partial blindness since birth, learned the fundamentals of powerlifting from Cal State Los Angeles’ strength and conditioning coach Bob Wieland, who’d lost his legs to a mortar mine explosion while serving as a combat medic in Vietnam. Wieland completed several marathons and Iron Man events using only his hands while serving as the Green Bay Packers’ strength coach, and was one of the strength marvels of the 1980s, and succeeded at unlocking Lister’s potential. “I learned how to be strong from a white man in a wheelchair... I learned that I could be a champion,” Lister remembered. And he stuck with “Tiny,” his incongruous but memorable nickname, because it simultaneously disarmed and amused the disabled kids for whom he served as a summer counselor at this time.

Lister was one of the national track and field stars of his era, raising his personal best shot put throw to 64’ while training after college. But his own heyday overlapped with the golden age of heavy performance enhancing drug use, both in the Olympics and pro wrestling, and Lister’s best work was a far cry from the then-world record of 73’ set by East German shot putter and admitted steroid user Udo Beyer.

And while Lister was pumping iron in the gym—he ended up making an actor out of himself, after badgering a friend at his gym to introduce him to his agent father—Hulk Hogan, that tan technicolor titan with whom Lister’s fate would become entwined, was juiced to the gills on steroids himself. “It was all about finding the right cocktail that worked for you, and once you hit the correct combo, the results were fast and furious,” Hogan wrote in his second autobiography, 2010’s My Life Outside the Ring. “There was always a base of testosterone—it could be 1 cc, maybe more. You just went by feel. Then there was ‘Deca,’ Deca-Durabolin, an oil-based steroid, and you’d take that once or twice a week. Then there were pills, like Anavar and the aforementioned Dianabol, which I know now is actually very toxic—it’s like an androgen that makes you hold fluid. I took pills every day and shot up about every third day. The results were incredible, so I just kept going.”

Lister had immense size on his side, and it was because of his bulk that acting jobs started to trickle in—small character parts as heavies, owing to his awe-inspiring size and fearsome visage. This was good, because he didn’t qualify for the US Olympic team and failed to crack a roster in the upstart United States Football League. As important as pro sports had been for him, these final failures represented the end of the line.

But like Hogan before him, who’d impressed Sylvester Stallone when he decked the “Italian Stallion” during an audition for Rocky III, Lister’s physique and power represented lightning in a bottle, the sort of god-given presence that helped him land the role of Zeus in No Holds Barred, the movie that was supposed to launch Hogan’s career as a Stallone-level action hero and Vince McMahon’s run as a big-time movie producer. Neither happened, but Lister, perhaps the meanest of mean muggers, made an impact on the two men nevertheless. Before the audition, long-time Hogan friend and one-time Zeus opponent Brutus Beefcake wrote in his autobiography Struttin’ & Cuttin’, Beefcake recalled that Lister “drew the Z’s on the side of his head, taped up his arms with black tape, and oiled up his whole body... did a hundred pushups and smashed open Vince’s door with no shirt on… [after which] Vince hired him on the spot.”

Hogan claimed in his first autobiography, 2002’s Hollywood Hulk Hogan, that he and McMahon took a copy of the incoherent script submitted by credited writer Dennis Hackin and spent three days in a hotel room together, furiously revising it. Hogan claimed they struggled to pad the movie’s tissue-thin plot, but attributed its climactic scene, featuring Zeus’ most ferocious attack, to Hulkamania-infused afflatus: “I ran out of the bathroom and told Vince how it was going to go down, from Zeus coming into the ring to his attacking me to his ripping the ring post in half to his trying to use it like a sword against me.”

The resulting effort was strange, even by the standards of other wrestling movies like the 1986 Roddy Piper film Body Slam or the 1974 Ed Asner/Verne Gagne collaboration The Wrestler. Those two films, threadbare though their plots might’ve been, were essentially campy plots sandwiched around wrestling action, featuring cameos from other wrestlers of their respective eras. But perhaps owing to its loftier ambitions—the desperate need to elevate both Hogan and McMahon into the Hollywood firmament—No Holds Barred was something completely different.

Viewed in retrospect, it’s three movies in one. The first is a character study of sleazy, hate-filled network executive “Brell,” played by Kurt Fuller, whose lust for Hogan’s “Rip Thomas” character leads him to contemplate kidnapping and murder in retaliation for that “jock-ass” Hogan refusing to appear on his television station. “Every time that jock-ass decides to strip down to his sweet nothings and wallow around with some sweat hog, we eat it!” Brell shrieks to a room of frightened junior executives. His two yes-men, “Ordway” (Charles Levin) and “Unger” (David Paymer), hang on their histrionic boss’ every word, save for when they’re accosted by tough guy “Neanderthal” (legendary super heavyweight wrestler Stan Hansen) in a biker bar, who spends several seconds standing behind them at urinal before telling them “it isn’t worth it” —“it” presumably meaning sexual assault—because they have “tiny weeners,” a claim with which the two executives agree nervously.

The second part of the film focuses on “Rip,” Hogan himself, who’s exceedingly soft-spoken except when he’s “hulking up,” and always shot like a supermodel, with lots of super-saturated, heavily backlit close-ups in which he appears to glow. He has a budding romance with Joan Severance, who’d been a supermodel at one time, but in a scene recalling 1930s rom-coms like It Happened One Night, Severance is wearing high-waisted panties that come up well past her midriff while a glistening Hogan does push-ups behind a blanket that separates the two of them. When Severance peeks behind it, we’re treated to a fulsome shot of Hogan’s posterior in a g-string while he huffs and puffs, doing the shitty, partial-rep push-ups seen in nearly all Hollywood productions. What isn’t seen in most movies, but is seen here, is Hogan’s huge, beaming face as he turns around to wink at Severance and tell her that he won’t be having sex with her under any circumstances. Their relationship is never consummated or even resolved; the film ends with a hulked-up Hogan having caused a fearful Brell to stumble back into an electronic console, whereupon he’s electrocuted, after he has already tossed Zeus into the ring from high atop the arena stands, where the villain likely dies in the center of the collapsing ring.

All of this is important in order to understand the third plotline of the film, which concerns Lister’s Zeus, whose nearly wordless essence is so monstrous, so depraved, that when Rip’s trainer discloses that he abandoned training Zeus after his former protege killed another wrestler, we aren’t the least bit surprised. The surprising thing, in fact, is that Zeus, who skyrockets to fame by winning a “Battle of the Tough Guys” mixed martial arts-event—almost certainly based on the actual “Battle of the Tough Guys” events staged in Pittsburgh by promoters Bill Viola and Frank Caligiuri during the 1970s—doesn’t kill all of the blue-collar steel workers and hillbillies he fights. And that’s another curious bit: all of the men Zeus dispatches with no wrestling moves aside from chokes, double shoulder chops, and blows from objects like steel pipes, aredepicted as hideous monsters. Stan Hansen hams it up as a depraved, tobacco-spitting redneck; 400-pound bodybuilder-turned-wrestler Jeep Swenson (as “Lugwrench Perkins”) is clad in bib overalls; and 6’7”, 350-pound wrestling “giant” Claude Ouimet (as “Rebar Lawless”) is covered in grease and dirt.

These cinematic showdowns, strange as they might be, also constitute the most compelling part of the movie. Lister, using acting chops rather than athleticism, does more with less. He makes an art out of no-selling every move; has anyone ever no-sold everything so well? About the only thing he didn’t no-sellwas a wayward punch from Hogan—usually adept at throwing pillow-soft punches rather than “potatoes”—that broke Lister’s nose. And although No Holds Barred flopped at worst (the Siskel & Ebert review buries the film, giving it two thumbs down and noting the strange repetition of the “jock-ass” insult and the extended bathroom sequences with Hansen) and faded into pop culture oblivion at best (Beefcake recalled that it “pretty much broke even after distribution fees”), it set the stage for a storyline that consumed the bulk of 1989, either the last or at least the penultimate year in the steroid-abetted “muscle era” of WWF wrestling.

Here was the twist that kept Lister in the spotlight: Vince McMahon decided to make a real feud out of the fictional feud at the heart of No Holds Barred, having Lister appear on WWF programming as Zeus, demanding redress for the cinematic humiliation of being required, per the script, to “lay down” for Hogan. Years before Vince Russo’s endless “worked shoots” during the twilight era of WCW, this was wrestling at its most meta, especially when one considers that the man claiming to be the superior wrestler was merely an actor cast as a wrestler who lacked any prior background in the sport at all.

Brutus Beefcake understood the economic calculations at play here. “Wrestling angles seemed to always go better when it was a black man versus a white man, more so than just two white guys against each other, or two black guys,” he wrote. “Using the racial tendencies of some fans against them to take their money was something that really worked.” And Lister, as Zeus, was tall enough and muscular enough to stand toe-to-toe with Hogan, which he did in both the movie and their subsequent wrestling matches, no-selling all of his offense.

Vince, according to Beefcake, amped up the menace presented by Zeus, who proceeded to attack Hogan prior to a steel cage title defense against the Big Boss Man on Saturday Night’s Main Event and before assaulting Beefcake during his match with Randy Savage— both interventions serving as a way of getting back at Hogan for receiving top billing on No Holds Barred despite Zeus being the superior fighter. The preparations for Zeus’ surprise appearance were intricate: McMahon, recalled Beefcake, had “leaked to the Enquirer and other magazines that Tiny Lister was a former gang member who had murdered three people, and had beat his wife… [and when he was] on the road, Vince made Tiny stay in his hotel room and never leave—no unnecessary flying back and forth to home, either.”

The feud’s first payoff came at SummerSlam ‘89, when Beefcake and Hogan teamed up to battle Zeus and Savage. The match is workmanlike, with Hogan and Beefcake doing plenty of selling before the big comeback, Zeus no-selling his heart out and applying plenty of theatrical chokeholds and bear hugs, and Savage and his valet Sherri Martel scrambling around to find ways to cheat using Sherri’s “loaded purse” while keeping Zeuscalm and focused on the match. The match was defined by no-selling: Hogan no-sold the Savage elbow drop and Zeus no-sold almost every attack until a strike to the head with the loaded purse that Miss Elizabeth, Savage’s real-life wife but estranged from him in the storyline after his heel turn, had tossed to Hogan in the midst of a wild exchange at the end of the match. This softened up Zeus for Hogan’s famous leg drop and the actor’sfirst loss as a professional. Beefcake, Hogan, Savage, and Lister all recalled getting nice paydays for the event, with Lister earning a tidy $56,000 for fifteen minutes of work.

The Hogan-Zeus feud would take on another dimension at Survivor Series a few months later, with Zeus joining “Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase and the enormous heel tag team the Powers of Pain. Hogan would be supported by Jake Roberts, who was feuding with DiBiase, and Demolition members Ax and Smash, who had beaten the Powers of Pain and their manager Mister Fuji in a handicap match at WrestleMania V earlier that year.

This bout was another brief Zeus affair: the man-monster ran wild for three minutes before pushing the referee and being disqualified, pocketing a $40,000 check for his labor. And it represented the height, pun intended, of the WWF’s most size-obsessed era. Jake Roberts and Ted DiBiase weren’t built like Adonises, but both were tall, heavy, and skilled in the ring. Bill Eadie, who was wrestling as Demolition Ax, was a huge, lumbering worker who had wrestled under many gimmicks, even appearing as Hogan’s opening opponent “Jake Bullet” in No Holds Barred. Barry Darsow, Demolition’s Smash, had once  been an up-and-coming Minnesota powerlifter and friend of the Road Warriors before breaking into pro wrestling and cycling through a number of big-guy gimmicks, from the lumbering Krusher Kruschev to the Repo Man to the truck-driving Black Top Bully in WCW. Then there were the Powers of Pain: Sione “Barbarian” Vailahi was a 300-pound Tongan who trained in sumo wrestling before becoming a pro wrestler, even appearing as a bad guy in the Piper film Body Slam; and Terry “Warlord” Szopinski, a huge powerlifter discovered by Road Warrior Animal while working out at Animal’s gym and quite possibly the most muscular WWF wrestler, at 6’5” and 330 pounds, of an entire muscle era that can be said to have officially ended with McMahon’s 1993 federal indictment for allegedly distributing steroids to his wrestlers.

In other words, Lister was front and center in a match that was all about mass. He and Hogan were the big dogs, the main attractions, but the hulking Warlord, arguably the least mobile man in the ring, even counting Lister, was also the largest. And it worked well, in terms of maximizing the talents of the workers: Zeus exits immediately when he pushes the ref, Ax and Smash get pinned thereafter due to some underhanded shenanigans from their foes, the Powers of Pain are jointly disqualified for double-teaming Hogan, Roberts is eliminated via outside interference from DiBiase’s bodyguard Virgil, and then DiBiase and Hogan rekindle some of their WrestleMania IV-era heat before Hogan hits “the Million Dollar Man” with the leg drop and wins the match.

Of course, fans still didn’t get to see Hogan score a clean pinfall on Zeus, which wouldn’t come until a month later at No Holds Barred: The Match/The Movie, a combination event that offered those who purchased the event the chance to watch the movie in its entirety followed by five matches, including a cage match pitting Hogan and Brutus Beefcake against Zeus and Randy Savage. The steel cage was where the WWF had traditionally “blown off,” or concluded, most of the company’s highest-profile feuds: Bob Backlund against Pat PattersonBruno Sammartino against Larry Zbyszko, Don Muraco against Jimmy Snuka, and Hulk Hogan against King Kong Bundy at WrestleMania 2, just to name a few. Behind high steel bars, spectators received a sense of finality, of closure, and occasionally—in the case of Backlund and Patterson fashioning one of the most realistic epics of the genre, or Snuka launching himself off the cage at Muraco—highlight-reel moments for the ages.

There would be no such highlights in this cage match, but Zeus again worked a competent match defined by his excellent acting and ring psychology. All four wrestlers were in the cage at once, and both partners had to either leave the cage or pin their two opponents to win. Confusing victory conditions, to be sure, but the quartet made the most of it. Zeus rampaged about the ring, doing his usual chokes and bearhugs, but he’d periodically get distracted by his uncontrollable fury and have to be redirected into the match by Savage. Savage did all the high spots, coming off the cage with textbook grace. And Sherri Martel, a fine wrestler in her own right, had a nice spot dangling by the stomach across the top bar of the cage, trying to hand Savage a chain with which to attack Hogan and Beefcake. Eventually, Beefcake dragged Savage out of the ring, clearing the deck for Hogan to “Hulk up,” drop the leg, and finally score a clean pinfall over the rival who had tormented him for much of 1989. Lister bagged a quick $17,000 for nine more minutes of wrestling, and then would disappear from the sport for the next seven years after engaging in a wild brawl against Abdullah the Butcher in Puerto Rico in 1990.

Those seven years were productive, with Lister building on his role in No Holds Barred with notable appearances in The Meteor ManUniversal SoldierDon Juan DeMarco, and Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead. These movies have largely disappeared from the collective pop cultural memory, perhaps rightfully so, but his turn as Deebo Samuel in the movie Friday turned heads. There, Lister, channeling his recollections of Compton gang leader Eugene “U” Henley, fashioned another menacing character, beset by bouts of indiscriminate rage, that jarred viewers awake when he appeared on the screen. It was acting; it was high art.

But Lister wasn’t done with wrestling, nor was wrestling done with him. The massive man who helped close out the “muscle era” in the WWF would do so for the second Hulkamania era in WCW, the promotion’s last notable stretch before it became dominated by nWo storylines and matches. Lister appeared alongside his No Holds Barred opponent Jeep Swenson on an episode of WCW Monday Nitro in 1996, this time billed as the “Z-Gangsta”—avoiding thorny trademark issues with the intellectual property-obsessed WWF, and perhaps a more appropriate name anyway given his then-recent work in Friday. Swenson, an ex-boxer even more pumped up than he was in 1989, was a year away from a notable role as steroid-inflated bad guy Bane in Joel Schumacher’s campy Batman & Robin. He was initially given the name “The Final Solution,” which for understandable reasons drew an immediate viewer backlash, only to be rechristened “The Ultimate Solution.”

Kevin Sullivan, who was booking WCW at the time, had been milking Hulkamania for every last drop of its dwindling worth, drawing on his own “Taskmaster” cult leader gimmicks to assemble legions of monstrous men to pit against Hogan. The resulting plotlines and feuds are too strange and complicated to recount here, but suffice to say that the grand “Alliance to End Hulkamania” he’d assembled for the Uncensored ‘96 pay-per-view represented the ne plus ultra of all his faction-driven endeavors. Inside an enormous “Doomsday Cage” with multiple locked rooms separated by trap doors and stairs, Hulk Hogan and his erstwhile enemy turned “Mega Power” ally Randy Savage would face Ric Flair, Arn Anderson, Meng, The Barbarian, Lex Luger, and Sullivan himself, before confronting Z-Gangsta and The Ultimate Solution.

If this sounds insane, it was: no one could take bumps inside the cramped cage because the floor was nothing but sharp mesh wire, Arn Anderson showed up wearing a black sweatsuit, cameramen struggled to film the unfolding spectacle behind all the wire, and most of the action consisted of slow-motion punches as Hogan and Savage wound their way through the cage, at the end of which the Ultimate Solution and Z-Gangsta lumbered from the locker room to the throw punches and apply chokeholds and bearhugs to the weary heroes. While Hogan and Savage were slugging it out the bottom, Brutus Beefcake—now in the WCW and working as the rear end-obsessed “The Booty Man” after a stint as a main event foe of Hogan, controlled by Sullivan—showed up to give frying pans to the pair. The winning conditions for the match were never entirely clear, and neither the Solution nor Z-Gangsta were properly engaged in the match, but at some point Lex Luger struck teammate Ric Flair and Savage covered him for the pinfall after 25 credibility-straining minutes in the “Doomsday Cage.”

It was the perfect ending for Lister the wrestler: all mass and menace, signifying everything with a look and a snarl, main eventing every WCW and WWF in which he’d participated and also losing every one of those matches. There in that “Doomsday Cage,” filled with huge men like the Barbarian, Meng, Luger, and Jeep Swenson, wrestling became just about as big, slow, and strange as it ever got. Lister, a sportsman by training, had transcended sport through acting; he’d become pure spectacle, a giant capable of offsetting limited performances with theatrical muscleman mannerisms. “Boy, could he act,” wrote Brutus Beefcake. “He was a natural. You really believed that he was a big huge freak of nature that was out there, ready to kill someone. In reality, that just showed how talented he really was.”

That talent would be turned entirely to moviemaking, with Lister appearing in 100 more films before passing away last week. He was always doing the work, always making appearances to promote this or that event, even as setbacks like a conviction for participating in a million-dollar mortgage scam led to his pleading guilty, performing community service and paying restitution for the approximately $1.2 million in home equity he cashed out of mortgages he secured with fraudulent paperwork, then allowed to enter default. But even then, the man whose powerlifting form had been perfected by a strength coach who ran marathons on his hands remained upbeat. “You live and learn,” he told a Grantland interviewer in 2014.

But at the end of his life of living and learning, it seemed like everything about Lister was known. Whether as Deebo, Zeus, or Z-Gangsta, he was the consummate villain. What else was there to say? When I asked Ian Douglass— co-author of wrestling autobiographies of Dan SevernBuggsy McGraw, and Hornswoggle—if he knew anyone who had anything they could share about Lister’s wrestling career, his response surprised me.

“A lot of my Black classmates loved him,” says Douglass, who grew up in Detroit and is himself Black. “He was the Black counterpoint to Hogan. He was presented as being powerful and muscular on the same level as Hogan in a way no one else had been during that era. He was aesthetically appealing in the sense that he had the body of a superhero. No joke... a lot of my classmates found it appealing that there was a Black wrestler that could absorb Hulk Hogan's best shots while being every bit as muscular as the Hulkster was. It was all about power. Zeus was the Black guy who could go toe-to-toe with Hogan.”

In other words, for Black wrestling fans who were, in Douglass’ words, “dying for a representation of power on the level of Hogan in mainstream wrestling,” Tommy Lister had another important role to play, perhaps the most important of his wrestling roles, yet one overlooked amidst so much discussion of his ability to play a convincing bad guy. Lister was a hero to many Black fans, just like he’d once been to those young kids, all coping with disabilities just like he was, who were coming to the summer camp at Cal State Los Angeles, whereupon he immediately put them at ease by allowing them to call him “Tiny.” And when Lister did choose to star as the good guy, it goes without saying that he came across as larger than life.  


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