The $500,000 Gimmick: Glacier, WCW’s Big Bet On A Bad Idea

Twenty years later, the man who played Glacier looks back on one of pro wrestling's most infamous gimmicks

Illustration: Tara Jacoby
Feb 22, 2017 at 1:25 PM ET

A revolution was the promise offered by a series of cryptic promos that aired on WCW broadcasts 20 years ago. The vignettes premiered as the Monday night ratings war between WCW’s Nitro and WWF’s Raw had tilted in the upstart WCW’s favor. Mood lighting, whirring mechanized armor, streaming Japanese characters, karate chops, a twirling staff, and glimpses of a blue-lensed eye were the scant hints offered to viewers.

“Our world is about to change,” the ads went. “Blood runs cold.”

The seemingly endless ad campaign ran during the spring and summer of 1996 and became an ever-escalating joke among hardcore fans and industry dirtsheets. The punchline arrived after five months of buildup in the form of Glacier, an obvious knockoff of Mortal Kombat’s Sub-Zero, sans the ability to actually manipulate ice to his will.

The character was played by Ray Lloyd, an amiable 32-year-old southern Georgia native from a law enforcement family. Billed as a martial arts guru who trained at Japan’s Shorinji Temple, Lloyd’s competitive martial arts experience amounted to a stint in the World Karate Association that saw him win the United States Southeastern Super Heavyweight title. Still, wildly exaggerated biographies are a known part of pro wrestling’s role as the realm of absurdity and melodrama. On that front, no one could beat Glacier’s drawn-out hype cycle, which was topped only by easily the most elaborate entrance in the history of pro wrestling.

For each match, Glacer would stride to the ring in a dimly lit arena to pulsing synthesizer beats complemented by strobing lasers and darting blue-tinted spotlights, followed by fake snow flurrying from the rafters. Then came the ceremonial removal of a purportedly 400-year-old samurai helmet that was perhaps the most understated part of his ancient warrior outfit: an ice-colored balaclava replete with a left-shoulder pauldron, iron-bar face mask, and triangular face paint framing a blue contact lens in his right eye. A choreographed kata of chops and kicks would follow, ending with a guttural roar and leap from the top turnbuckle into the ring.

Clearly, WCW was all-in on making Glacier into a star, even if their plans didn’t match what Lloyd understood as wrestling stardom.

Despite all the karate master hype, Lloyd actually trained under traditional trunks-and-boots veterans like Fred Avery, Wildfire Tommy Rich, Mr. Wrestling II, Bullet Bob Armstrong, and the legendary Lou Thesz, one of the biggest stars in pro wrestling history and a pure no-nonsense performer.

As the now 52-year-old Lloyd tells young fans at wrestling seminars, “You never know when your break’s going to come, and you never know how your break’s going to come.

“Do any of you guys think I used to walk around dreaming of wearing a half-mask and armor?”

All that pomp and circumstance came with a steep price tag. Lloyd said he was told by WCW producer Keith Mitchell that his entrance cost WCW $400,000 with an additional $10,000 bill for three specialist technicians who had to be flown in every time the full entrance routine was deployed. The reported $35,000 bill for Glacier’s costume seems paltry by comparison. However, money alone is no guarantee of a successful pro wrestling gimmick.

“Ray could never live up to the hype of what we provided,” AFX Studios owner Andre Freitas, who created the outfit and entrance, said. “Eventually I came up with the idea for the lasers and the snowfall and all the show because I’m thinking like a special-effects movie guy. I’m not thinking like ‘Ray’s sort of a mid-card guy, and I’m giving him an Undertaker-type entrance.’ I had no concept of that. I didn’t know all the politics of wrestling. I’m thinking, I want to make my character as cool as possible.”

Even Lloyd had his misgivings. So much so that he phoned a mentor from his time with the Union of Wrestling Forces International, a Japanese promotion that Lloyd moonlighted for while holding down a teaching job. (He was a middle school health and P.E. teacher in Marietta, Georgia at the time and jokes about wanting an “I’m huge in Japan” t-shirt.) After the premise of Glacier had been presented to him, Lloyd, a self-proclaimed pro wrestling traditionalist, called on Thesz for advice.

“Lou, I never expected my break to come like this, and I don’t know if I want this,” Lloyd told him.

“Ray, pro wrestling is never going to go back to what you and I want it to be,” Thesz replied. “This is your opportunity. Go make your money.”

Long before WCW came knocking, Lloyd was a scholarship football player at Valdosta State, where he was friends and teammates with future Falcons Pro Bowl linebacker Jessie Tuggle. Lloyd played center and had some long-snapping skills, which prompted a call from a buddy—who had signed with an NFL team during the 1987 strike—encouraging Lloyd to tryout. That friendly referral has morphed into “a chance to enter the NFL” in his Wikipedia bio, which Lloyd said is “misconstrued” and has proven challenging to correct. (“You’ve got to get an act of Congress to pull something off of there,” he said.) His real chance at making it would come in pro wrestling, and he got his start with his linemate, guard R.D. Swain, as his first tag-team partner.

Lloyd, who earned a master’s degree in education, bounced around wrestling’s independent circuit but kept teaching, though he resettled to the Atlanta area in 1990 to pursue wrestling as a career. He joined Main Event Fitness, a Marietta gym owned by then-WCW superstars Lex Luger and Sting that served as a nexus for up-and-coming wrestlers. Lloyd competed in the North Georgia Wrestling Alliance along with other future WCW signees Scotty Riggs, Buff Bagwell, and Disco Inferno. It’s also where he befriended soon-to-be WWE Hall of Famer Diamond Dallas Page.

Over mall food-court pizza just before Christmas of 1995, Lloyd told Page that he planned to incorporate his martial arts training into his wrestling. His friend replied something to the effect of, “Bro, that’d be great if you knew some of that stuff.” Much to Page’s astonishment, Lloyd was a karate black belt who enjoyed regional tournament success as a teen. WCW boss Eric Bischoff was himself a taekwondo aficionado, so Page brokered a meeting.

Over a three-hour steakhouse dinner, Bischoff grilled Lloyd and ultimately offered him a contract on the spot. Bischoff then leaned forward and said he’d pay Lloyd to disappear from the indie circuit so long as he kept his disappearance secret. Lloyd agreed to the deal.

As his former college football trainer Jim Madaleno, now the director of sports medicine at Kentucky, once told him, “Life’s not always about what you know or who you know. It usually comes down to who’s willing to say they know you.”

That’s largely why Lloyd became one of wrestling’s FOPs—Friends of Page—who benefited from Page’s friendship with Bischoff.

“I have learned,” Page said, “that, if you give me talent, luck or timing, I’ll take timing every time.”

Sub-Zero, Lloyd thought, looked “like a space-age cop,” which lent itself well to a man whose mother, father, and twin brother were all in the Georgia State Patrol. His father’s badge number, 126, was etched into Glacier’s armor. It was the one personal flourish of Glacier’s persona that Lloyd brought to the table, otherwise preferring to remain the humble rookie despite his outsized role.

Still, Lloyd was cognizant of what his reception might be, confiding in Page, “Man, I’m going to have so much heat in the back. Here I am, to most people on the national level, a no-name, and I’m coming in and I’m getting this entrance that’s the biggest and most elaborate thing that’s ever been in wrestling.”

Page replied, “Bro, that’s one of the many reasons why you’re the right guy for this: your personality. You’re likable, you don’t wear it on your shoulders, you won’t get a big head.”

Big head or not, the sense of mystery surrounding the gimmick did not sit well with some in the industry, since Bischoff, Page, and the other wrestlers involved in the Blood Runs Cold storyline were the only ones privy to its details. Some of the bookers—who set up matches, help decide outcomes, and craft the basic storylines—apparently did Glacier no favors.

“There was some animosity,” Page said, suggesting that some of the bookers set Lloyd up to fail, who rarely wrestled out of mid-card slots and did so without a fractured and shifting backstory that poorly explained his feud with the other Blood Runs Cold primaries, Mortis and Wrath.

Even Bischoff, who championed the vaguely supernatural, martial arts-driven gimmick, thwarted its momentum with a competing storyline that pushed all others down the card. (Bischoff declined comment for this article, claiming he’s “already a bit over exposed.”)

Lloyd and Chris Kanyon, who wrestled as Mortis, had been scheduled to appear at Bash at the Beach on July 7, 1996 to tease their forthcoming arrival, but those plans were suddenly scrapped. The pair, ever the loyal employees, watched the event on television as Hulk Hogan turned heel with the nWo and changed WCW’s creative direction permanently. Kanyon turned to Lloyd and drily said, “Well, there goes our push.”

“Nobody really understood that [the nWo] were going to change the fucking business,” Page said. “We knew it would be great. We knew we would be able to stick it to the WWE at the time. But we didn’t know it would do what it did. It literally eclipsed everything.”

While Glacier’s debut ended up pegged to a Monday Night Nitro feud with Big Bubba Rogers, that bout would not be his televised debut. Instead, just one week prior, he faced an undercard jobber named The Gambler to work out the kinks of his entrance and performance, which inexplicably aired on WCW Worldwide, a syndicated low-profile show. (His bout with The Gambler isn’t even logged at the Internet Wrestling Database.)

“That is a perfect example of why WCW is not in business anymore,” Lloyd said, before adding: “I taped that one along with probably three, four, five other dark matches that were never supposed to see the light of day, at least that’s what was told to me. They were spending all this money, somehow building all this stuff up for this big debut on Monday Nitro, and of course Big Bubba had come on board who had just come from a great run with Hulk Hogan in WWF.”

When it came time for his previously scheduled debut on Nitro—the first time he knew he’d be broadcast—Glacier said he was sick to his stomach most of the afternoon. Some counsel from Bubba helped calm him, and when the match was over, with a quick pin victory in his favor, he was buzzed on adrenaline for hours afterwards, telling himself, “I survived it, I survived it.”

Glacier didn’t survive much longer. Despite going undefeated for nearly a year at the start of his WCW tenure and remaining a mid-card regular well after that, Lloyd was repackaged in 1999 as Coach Buzz Stern, a play on his time as a high school teacher. Meanwhile, the nWo crew consisted of renegades wrecking shop in jeans and t-shirts. The biggest solo superstar of that era, Goldberg, was a behemoth in a classic, minimalist outfit. With two failed gimmicks on his résumé, Lloyd was released by WCW in November of 1999 as part of a broader cost-cutting strategy owed to WWF reclaiming pro wrestling primacy. For his part, Lloyd remains unbothered by his time with WCW.

“I never really hung my hat on the costume of Glacier,” Lloyd said. “What I hung my hat on was what I did from bell to bell, and I will put my matches up against anybody of that era—even now.”

Recently, a friend mentioned seeing a new article about him, and Lloyd replied, “Let me guess, the Glacier character was on a list of top-10 worst gimmicks or top-20.” One fan’s e-book, “The Worst Of WCW Volume 2: We’re Taking Over,” labeled his character “easily the most famous bad gimmick” and snarked, “To say Glacier’s debut was underwhelming would be doing a disservice to the word underwhelming.”

“Does it affect me? I wouldn’t be human if it didn’t a little bit,” said Lloyd, who now does acting and stunt work and is an online admissions guide at entertainment-focused Full Sail University. “But here’s the thing, man—Google any wrestler’s name and then ‘worst gimmick.’ Almost always, something will come up where somebody doesn’t like who they were. You have your fans and your critics. You’ve got to have thick skin in this business, period, but think about it: it was a video-game character. Not everybody was going to like that.”

Many still did. Glacier may have been set up to fail, but that didn’t stop him from winning over some of WCW’s fans. Renowned sports performance coach Chip Smith—who met Lloyd through the karate world and later hired him as a fitness director at the prestigious Atlanta Athletic Club just before his wrestling career took off—remembers pulling into a gas station with Lloyd, who was immediately swarmed.

“You forget, but at the time they were huge,” Smith, who has trained more than 1,000 NFL players, said, noting: “I could mention one of those [football] guys’ names, and it didn’t really impress. But I could say Ray Lloyd or Glacier, and people would be like, ‘Really? You know Ray Lloyd?’”

As for Glacier’s present perception, Lloyd brushes it off and says there are really only two types of people: those who hate wrestling and those who love wrestling. The same can probably be said about Glacier. As ever, Page lands in the latter category.

“Ray might have just been a forgotten guy. But he’s not. The character and what they did with it is memorable,” Page said, adding: “He never got to the heights that he was destined for—and deserved. Ray Lloyd put the time in. He paid the dues and is literally the nicest human being in our business. He still got a good run.”