“Winner Takes It All,” released in February 1987 as the lead single from the soundtrack to Stallone’s underwhelming arm-wrestling movie Over the Top, found Hagar in hired-gun mode, singing and playing guitar on a song cowritten by Tom Whitlock and disco pioneer Giorgio Moroder.
Hagar’s former Montrose and solo bandmate Denny Carmassi played drums on the track, while Moroder handled the keyboards. But the big news was the fourth member of this ad hoc group: none other than Eddie Van Halen, who played bass and coproduced.
“Otherwise, he’d have been hounding me to play guitar,” Hagar joked to Guitar Player in an October 1987 interview when asked about recruiting his Van Halen bandmate to play bass on the track.
Hagar wasn’t the first to be offered the song. “I was supposed to sing ‘Winner Takes It All’ and did, but ended up in the film with just [the track] ‘Gypsy Soul,'” Asia frontman John Wetton told Rediscoverthe80s.com. “[The movie studio] preferred Sammy Hagar’s ‘Winner.’ I still like mine better – it sounds more like Asia, more controlled, with perfect harmonies, but they liked the rock ‘n’ roll of Sammy Hagar.”
In his 2003 documentary The Long Road to Cabo, Hagar expressed more enthusiasm for the song’s video – which found him facing off with Stallone in an arm-wrestling contest – than for the actual track. “I didn’t write this song, and I’m not crazy about this song, but I think it’s a great video,” he said. “That’s because Gil Bettman, who directed me, wouldn’t let me get away with any of that silly shit.”
Watch Sammy Hagar’s ‘Winner Takes It All’ Video
At first, he wasn’t sure meeting Stallone would be a positive experience after a security team kicked everybody else out of the men’s room so the movie star could be alone. “I had a real bad opinion of him for about 20 minutes,” Hagar confessed. “And then afterwards he started talking to me and said, ‘Aww, man, ever since I did Rambo, people throw flags soaked in blood and stuff on me.’ He was totally cool. It was an awesome experience.”
Stallone also insisted on adding a surprising twist to the video: Hagar would defeat the pumped-up action hero in the climactic duel. “I wanted [him] to flip me over on the arm-wrestling thing and throw me across the room,” Hagar explained in The Long Road to Cabo. “And he wouldn’t do it! He said, ‘No, no, no, you gotta win, you gotta win.’ He wouldn’t let me do it, so he changed the ending on it. … Now, that’s acting!”
Four months after the release of “Winner Takes It All,” Hagar released a new solo album, I Never Said Goodbye, with Eddie Van Halen again serving as bass player and coproducer. Hagar was contractually obligated to record and release the LP in return for Geffen Records allowing him to leave his solo contract and join Van Halen.
After focusing exclusively on Van Halen for the next seven years, Hagar agreed to record two new songs for the 1994 solo greatest-hits collection Unboxed, a decision that angered his Van Halen bandmates and contributed to his 1996 departure from the group. He resumed his solo career the following year with Marching to Mars.