Inside The Dungeon of Doom: Kevin Sullivan on wrestling's wackiest group
In summer 1995, one year before the emergence of The nWo, WCW was stuck in a seemingly inescapable limbo. The era of Ric Flair’s thrilling rivalries against Vader, Sting and Ricky Steamboat was in the rearview mirror. Hulk Hogan had arrived one year prior, but he wasn’t being accepted by Atlanta crowds with the same maniacal frenzy that had stirred up WWE fans in the ’80s.
The lead producer of WCW at the time, Kevin Sullivan – a Boston-bred veteran brawler – needed to come up with something. He needed to do it fast. And what he came up with might be the single most absurd narrative that has ever unfolded in one of the major sports-entertainment organizations — The Dungeon of Doom.
A cadre of cartoonish villains that assembled in a haunted fortress, The Dungeon grew and grew to amass no fewer than 20 individual members, each more ridiculous than the next. Watching the group’s television segments today is a surreal experience and plays like a B-movie out of the mind of Troma’s Lloyd Kauffman. There were bizarre sci-fi elements like teleportation, Hogan’s turn to “the dark side” long before going Hollywood and even the first on-screen appearance of Big Show.
With the rise of YouTube, the group's run has developed a cult following thanks to its cheap production values and endlessly quotable lines like, “It’s not hot!” Fascinated by the the macabre world of The Dungeon of Doom, and the notion that its existence overlapped with the intense realism of The nWo, WWEClassics.com set out to discover the inside story. We sat down with Kevin Sullivan, the Dungeon's Taskmaster, to find out what made the group tick and why it even happened at all.
"The Taskmaster" Kevin Sullivan
WWECLASSICS.COM: Where did the idea for The Dungeon of Doom come from?
KEVIN SULLIVAN: To me, it was tongue in cheek. The reason why I did it is at that time was I needed to get [Hulk] Hogan to trust me. I saw quite early that the clientele and fanbase had changed and Hogan couldn’t fit into that style of wrestling at the time with the other guys who could really move in WCW. I wanted Hogan to feel comfortable with me. I asked myself, “What would Vince do?”
WWECLASSICS.COM: Was The Dungeon of Doom your way of recreating Hulkamania in WCW?
SULLIVAN: Hogan had wrestled these really big characters like Zeus and Big Boss Man, so I thought it would be easy for him to wrestle people he was comfortable with and end up ripping his shirt off, standing in the middle of the ring and posing.
WWECLASSICS.COM: Was the group only going to be filled with Hogan’s previous adversaries from the start?
SULLIVAN: I was going to have The Giant – who had never wrestled before – wrestle Hogan. I was trying to figure out a way to put an impact in this thing. We did these vignettes where we said it was “etched in stone” and The Giant came through the wall. I kept daring Hogan to come to my lair.
WWECLASSICS.COM: With the fanbase of WCW changing, was The Dungeon of Doom a last-ditch effort to save Hogan's status as WCW's top hero?
SULLIVAN: It was a means to an end. I knew Hogan was being booed. I knew when I saw The nWo, it was the best chance anybody had to turn Hogan. I said, “You gotta trust me.” And he did. I [agree with] Satchel Paige. “Don’t look back. Something may be gaining on you.” You can’t change the past. The end justified the means, so in that way, it worked.
"The Taskmaster" Kevin Sullivan
WWECLASSICS.COM: So it was your idea for Hogan to go Hollywood and join The nWo, and the Dungeon of Doom was your way of convincing him?
SULLIVAN: When Hogan joined The nWo, he stayed at my house the night before, because people were trying to talk him out of it. I wouldn’t let him leave my sight. I drove him to the arena right before the run in [at Bash at the Beach 1996]. That really was the cherry on top, because I had [Kevin] Nash, [Scott] Hall and The Kid [Sean Waltman]. When Hogan joined, it looked like WWE against WCW. But to get Hogan to turn, I needed to get his trust.
WWECLASSICS.COM: Where was that Dungeon of Doom set built and where did you shoot those crazy vignettes?
SULLIVAN: The set was built in Tampa at a place where they shot local commercials. We were there for a total of five days, because we were wrestling at Universal Studios at the time and coming back over at night shooting in Tampa. We had about 10 vignettes in the can before The Giant broke out of the wall, and then I didn’t need the set anymore. We could just do the interviews anywhere. I tried to take it as far to the right as I could, because on the left-hand side I was doing a best-of-seven series with [Eddie] Guerrero and [Dean] Malenko.
WWECLASSICS.COM: When you look back at The Dungeon of Doom today, does it seem too over-the-top and wacky?
SULLIVAN: Absolutely. That was the goal.
WWECLASSICS.COM: Do you have any regrets of how The Dungeon of Doom period unfolded?
SULLIVAN: A lot of people say The Dungeon of Doom was horrible. It might have been tongue in cheek, but on Nitro against The Four Horsemen, we did a 4.4 rating. WWE fans who tuned in to see those characters, whether it was John Tenta [aka Earthquake] as The Shark, Big Boss Man as Big Bubba Rogers or Jimmy Hart.
The first member of The Dungeon of Doom wasn’t Kevin Sullivan, it was The Master. Sitting on a throne in The Dungeon as if he was some kind of demonic king, The Master called for Sullivan to come find him and transformed him into The Taskmaster. He was portrayed by King Curtis Iaukea, a legendary journeyman and a former World Tag Team Champion alongside WWE Hall of Famer Baron Mikel Scicluna. He and Sullivan had previously worked together in Eddie Graham’s Championship Wrestling from Florida territory, where Sullivan created The Army of Darkness – a predecessor to The Dungeon of Doom.
TASKMASTER’S TAKE: One of the first wrestling videos ever was where I brought Mark Lewin, The Purple Haze, in from the ocean. We did it on a beach in Florida and Curtis narrated over it. King Curtis was one of the top ten talkers of all time. He was an orator from UCLA. He was a smart man and was so eerie looking with a head that looked like his brains just sitting out there and was 450 pounds. He looked like Jabba the Hutt.
Before arriving in WWE to engage in heated rivalries with Jake “The Snake” Roberts and The Undertaker, Kamala perfected his craft in Memphis, Mid-South and the Texas-based World Class Championship Wrestling. After nearly a decade performing for Mr. McMahon, The Ugandan Giant had a brief spell in WCW where he appeared exclusively as a member of The Dungeon of Doom.
TASKMASTER’S TAKE: Kamala was a guy that had wrestled Hogan in the past in WWE. I knew Hogan would feel comfortable with him. I knew it wasn’t going to be a long run for Kamala, so I put him in there. I’m not sure if it was a six-month contract or a night-by-night deal, but when his contract was up it was not renegotiated. He was impressive and worked for Hulk. I chose him myself, but he was one that Hulk really wanted. Hulk never really balked at any of them.
One of Hulk Hogan’s most dangerous adversaries, Earthquake experienced stardom as both a despised villain and lauded hero during his time in WWE. In 1992, he and Typhoon defeated the detestable Money Inc. to win the World Tag Team Championships. After WWE, the former sumo champion landed in WCW where his tenure was marred by a string of bizarre personas, including an Earthquake reboot called The Avalanche, The Dungeon of Doom’s The Shark and eventually just his given name: John Tenta.
TASKMASTER’S TAKE: Hogan had this expression, “I just rode the great white shark on Venice Beach,” so John Tenta became The Shark from the interviews where Hogan would talk about beating up sharks. Everybody knew he was part of The Natural Disasters, so there wasn’t much I could do. I could’ve called him anything, but fans would still know who he was, because he had so much exposure in WWE. John was a wonderful guy. He was happy to be in the position, because he thought he was going to get another run with Hogan, but it never really transpired because Hogan started to turn.
Brutus Beefcake was a veteran of the squared circle by the time he arrived in WCW in 1994. Hulk Hogan’s best friend never seemed to be able to settle on a persona in the Turner-owned organization. First he was referred to as Brother Bruti, then became The Butcher, The Man with No Name, The Booty Man and The Disciple. It’s a wonder the former Barber was never called The Candlestick Maker. In The Dungeon of Doom, he was Zodiac – a face-painted wildman who shouted only “Yes!” and “No!” Still, Zodiac was a far cry from Daniel Bryan.
TASKMASTER’S TAKE: Brutus Beefcake was successful as Brutus Beefcake, but without being Brutus, anything else was hard for him. But he was a friend of Hogan’s, so I put him in. Still, without being Beefcake, his interviews weren’t going to be the best. So I said, “Let’s go with, ‘Yes, no, yes, no.’ You’re just talking to yourself.” He was crazy enough when you talk to him normally, so he pulled it off. The idea for the face paint was his. He either came up with that or Hogan gave that to him.
The former King Haku in WWE arrived in WCW in 1994 with the reputation as one of the sport’s toughest men. Despite keeping a relatively low profile in the Atlanta-based company, he stuck around until two months before the organization shuttered in 2001.
TASKMASTER’S TAKE: I could put Meng in any match with anybody and he’d have a terrific match. I could put him with Eddie Guerrero, Lex Luger, anybody. I needed a stable guy in The Dungeon of Doom, and that’s not to say that the other guys weren’t, but everybody in the wrestling business knows about Meng. He was the toughest guy in the business in his day. All the stories are true. One time, we stopped in Louisiana and he put some money down to play pool for a second. The guy playing pool said, “Get out of here.” Meng goozled him and bit through the guy’s shirt. Then another guy hit him with a stick and Meng bit the guy’s nose off. I said, “I think it’s time to depart, gentlemen.”
A veteran of the squared circle, The Barbarian is mostly remembered for wrestling alongside The Warlord as The Powers of Pain, mercenaries who had memorable matches against teams like Demolition and Strike Force in WWE. Following their split, Bobby Heenan took The Barbarian on as a client, leading him to a victory over Tito Santana at WrestleMania VI in Toronto. He began teaming with Haku as his WWE tenure came to a close in 1991.
TASKMASTER’S TAKE: Meng and The Barbarian worked together great as a team, and sometimes I needed a tag team to wrestle some of the younger guys. It would be a shocking win if they beat Meng and The Barbarian, who could get a reaction just because of the way they looked. Very seldom did they lose, but when they did, it was to younger guys who people didn’t expect they would lose to. They were complete businessmen.
Big Van Vader
While not officially a member of The Dungeon of Doom, Big Van Vader still had a tremendous impact on the group. When The Dungeon became unable to dispatch Hogan in the first months of the group’s existence, Sullivan turned to the former WCW Champion to take out The Immortal One. Big Van Vader was sent to eliminate Hulkamania inside a steel cage at Bash at the Beach 1995, but Hulk prevailed with his WCW Championship intact.
TASKMASTER’S TAKE: Vader was never officially in The Dungeon of Doom. He was a hired gun for us. Vader was a star before I took over. I thought if we put him in the Dungeon, it would water him down. I started getting too many guys in The Dungeon and didn’t want Vader watered down. But hiring him elevated him. The Dungeon of Doom couldn’t beat Hogan, so we went out and got the hired gun to do it. That elevated Vader to go against Hogan.
Before climbing through the ring to assist Mr. McMahon in his 1999 Steel Cage Match against “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Big Show was a dangerous WCW competitor of Giant proportions. His first appearance came inside The Dungeon’s lair where he came crashing through a wall of stone and attacked Hulk Hogan. In his very first match at Halloween Havoc 1995, The Giant defeated Hogan by disqualification, and by the bout’s stipulation, became the WCW Champion. Earlier in the evening, the future Big Show had fallen off the roof of Cobo Hall, Detroit’s convention center.
TASKMASTER’S TAKE: Hogan found this young man who had never wrestled. We tried to pass him off as Andre’s son, which I did not agree with because Andre was one of my dearest friends. That’s nothing against [Big Show]. He’s a terrific athlete, but Andre was one of a kind. Hogan was reaching back to the past and was trying to recreate Andre, because he thought it would work again. But sometimes you can’t get lightning in a bottle twice.
Halloween Havoc 1995 was a turning point for The Dungeon of Doom, and featured its most ludicrous attraction. At the conclusion of the main event, a massive 7-foot-2 tower of a man hobbled to the ring wrapped in what appeared to be soiled bandages. This was The Yeti. What came next is perhaps the most inexplicable physical act to ever occur in a wrestling ring. With Hulk Hogan trapped in The Giant’s bear hug, The Yeti clutched Hogan from behind and began shaking and vibrating as if he was auditioning for a Miley Cyrus video. “You are seeing the end of Hulk Hogan!” proclaimed Bobby Heenan. Hardly.
TASKMASTER’S TAKE: I hated the ending of that Halloween Havoc match. That wasn’t my idea. I was given that idea by Eric [Bischoff]. [The Yeti] was a wonderful guy. Worked his butt off. But I didn’t think he needed to be wrapped up like he was in a gauze commercial. It started to get a little more out there as other people got their hands into the direction of The Dungeon of Doom. When people say to me, “Where did you come up with that idea? It was so horrible.” I always say, “Don’t you think I was the first one to know it was horrible?”
As the Halloween Havoc match descended into chaos, Randy Savage and Lex Luger – two of WCW’s top heroes – ran to the ring to instill order and gain a measure of retribution. But The Total Package attacked Savage and then hoisted Hulk Hogan up into The Torture Rack. Luger had joined The Dungeon of Doom, but he hardly fit. The chiseled former WCW Champion didn’t exactly look like the Dungeon’s other demonic and kooky personas.
TASKMASTER’S TAKE: I didn’t think Lex should have been in The Dungeon of Doom. That wasn’t my idea. That was like putting bicycle wheels on a Rolls Royce. It just didn’t work. I don’t know if there was some personal vendetta there or what, but Lex was excellent. I always got along with Lex. I never had a problem with Lex Luger at all. He was a real professional to me.
Another unexpected new addition of The Dungeon of Doom at Halloween Havoc was Hulk Hogan’s longtime ally Jimmy Hart. The WWE Hall of Famer revealed that he had put a clause into the contract for the match allowing The Hulkster’s WCW Championship to change hands on a disqualification, and then intentionally got Hogan disqualified during the bout. How could this all be legal? It wasn’t. The title was vacated and was won by Randy Savage soon thereafter.
TASKMASTER’S TAKE: Because The Dungeon of Doom was trying to destroy Hulkamania, it was Hulk’s idea to throw Jimmy in there – another WWE guy. Jimmy is in the WWE Hall of Fame and is one of the greatest managers of all time, so I couldn’t have been happier. Jimmy does his homework, he’s a hardworking guy and I was glad to have him.
One Mang Gang & Big Bubba Rogers
When Sullivan began stacking The Dungeon of Doom with Hulk Hogan’s rivals from WWE, the former Twin Towers were a no brainer. Although Akeem had reverted back to his more terrifying One Man Gang persona and Big Boss Man became Big Bubba Rogers, the Towers were as dangerous as ever. Neither was among the most bizarre of The Dungeon’s members, but the two revered veterans did add a measure of respectability to the group’s overall perceived goofiness, even if Rogers was wearing suspenders and a fedora.
TASKMASTER’S TAKE: One Mang Gang had so much notoriety as Akeem in WWE, and when we would go to the arena, fans would yell it. He fit in perfectly. He was a very good performer for such a big man. Dusty [Rhodes came up with] the name Big Bubba Rogers originally. I worked with Boss Man when he was a good guy and I thought he was one of the greatest of all time. He never got the recognition he deserved for being such a great performer. I was glad to have him. He was terrific.
When Eric Bischoff took control of WCW, he began shoving a litany of competitors into Sullivan’s Dungeon, one of which was grappler Bill DeMott. He joined with Sullivan using the ring name Hugh Morrus, but is mostly remembered for having the distinction of being Goldberg’s first victim. Several years later, he found success as the leader of The Misfits in Action and has since become one of WWE NXT’s most respected trainers.
TASKMASTER’S TAKE: The name High Morrus came from Terry Taylor. I had met Bill DeMott in Japan. He’s a great guy, a great performer, and obviously a great teacher.
It’s hard to believe that the former Max Moon and Mexican wrestling legend Konnan was a member of The Dungeon of Doom. By the time he joined The Dungeon, the group was already on its way out with The nWo on the rise. And Konnan became far more remembered for donning the red and black of the Wolfpac than for standing by the side of Kevin Sullivan.
TASKMASTER’S TAKE: I was on a tour of the Philippines when I first met Konnan. He didn’t fit in The Dungeon of Doom. He was forced into it. I think he felt he was being punished in some way, because we were the whipping boys. But he’s a fabulous performer and has a great mind for the wrestling business. He should have been on his own. Putting him with us, he just lost all the steam he had. He brought the luchadors into WCW, so he had a real effect on professional wrestling.
By far The Dungeon of Doom’s largest member, the 6-foot-11, 685-pound Loch Ness became a major star in his native England during the 1960s and ’70s. With Kevin Sullivan looking for any dominant force he could find to represent a threat to Hulkamania, The Taskmaster recruited the behemoth to join The Dungeon briefly in 1996, marking Martin Ruane’s only notable United States appearances.
TASKMASTER’S TAKE: I saw him in England and we only had him for a short time, but he drew big ratings consistently for three weeks when he was in the main event. A lot of people think wrestling is Sir Laurence Olivier doing “Hamlet,” but it’s Monty Python doing silly walks. People take it so seriously, but want to see people who are different. Loch Ness was such a big guy, he was an attraction. It was a car wreck. You couldn’t take your eyes off of him. In England, he was a huge star.
Former bodybuilder Max Muscle joined WCW in 1993 as Big Bad John, but was quickly rechristened Max Muscle when he became Diamond Dallas Page’s bodyguard in 1995. That, too, ended quickly when Muscle dropped the surname, added an “X” and became Maxx in The Dungeon of Doom as the group was fizzling away in 1996. Maxx departed WCW the following year.
TASKMASTER’S TAKE: Maxx came out of the [WCW Power Plant] training school, so he was put into The Dungeon of Doom so he could be in tag matches with guys that could really perform. He did a good job for a kid’s first time.
Braun the Leprechaun
As more and more graduates from WCW’s Power Plant training school began making the professional debuts, the former Sgt. Buddy Lee Parker – the school’s trainer – re-emerged in WCW at Hog Wild 1996 as The Dungeon of Doom’s Braun the Leprechaun. The nWo was already a force to be reckoned with and Braun’s tenure was brief as he returned to the Power Plant shortly thereafter. One of his students became Goldberg, with whom Parker later formed an alliance to face off with Totally Buff.
TASKMASTER’S TAKE: Buddy Lee Parker was the coach at the school and became Braun the Leprechaun for a short period. He was a ball of energy that was really tough and wrestled the guys that were his students. After a short period, he went back to coaching because he was needed back at the camp.
The Ultimate Solution & Z-Gangsta
The 6-foot-4, 405-pound Robert Swenson was nicknamed Jeep thanks to his truck-like build and claimed to have the largest biceps in the world. In 1987, Swenson had faced Bruiser Brody at WCCW’s Parade of Champions and had gone on to make a name for himself in Hollywood. When The Dungeon of Doom joined forces with The Four Horsemen to end Hulkamania, Swenson was brought in as The Ultimate Solution.
If there was one man who was perceived to have Hulk Hogan’s number, it was Zeus, whose cup of coffee in WWE as the villain from “No Holds Barred” became one of the greatest threats to Hulkamania’s existence. Brought to WCW alongside Swenson in the same 1996 match at Uncensored, he was renamed Z-Gangsta, but the Alliance to End Hulkamania came up short and the former Zeus was never seen in WCW again.
TASKMASTER’S TAKE: Hogan brought [Swenson] in. They knew each other from Texas, the AWA and from doing movies. He did what he was supposed to do, and did it well. He only had a one-night contract and was doing the “Batman & Robin” movie. [Zeus] was Hulk going back into the past to get lightning in a bottle again, but it didn’t work. He just did that one match at Uncensored 1996. It might have been Hulk’s idea for him to stick around longer, but Hulk saw that it didn’t work out. Too much time had gone by since the movie and his work wasn’t up to par.