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PWTorch.com Nostalgia: AWA History: The Rise, The Fall and the Legacy

Feb 4, 2008 - 2:22:04 PM
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Brian Hoops, PW Torch.com Nostalgia Specialist

PW Torch.com Nostalgia Review
The History of the American Wrestling Association
By: Brian Hoops, PW Torch.com Nostalgia Specialist

My favorite wrestling organization of all time is the American Wrestling Association, or the AWA as it is better known. The AWA was the wrestling organization I grew up watching in the days before cable TV and wrestling’s national expansion. The AWA was based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and was a successful wrestling territory from 1960 through 1991. The AWA promoted wrestling in the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Southern Canadian cities such as Thunder Bay and Winnipeg; and eventually expanded promotions into such cities as San Francisco, California; Denver Colorado; and Las Vegas, Nevada. Verne Gagne, owner and co-founder of the AWA ran the promotion. Gagne grew up in Minnesota and attended Robbinsdale High School, excelling in football, baseball and wrestling; winning district, regional and state championships in high school wrestling, as well as being named to the All-State Football Team. Gagne attended the University of Minnesota, where he played football and was named to the All-Conference Team. However Gagne excelled at wrestling at Minnesota, winning four Big Ten conference titles, two NCAA titles, as well as being an alternate for the U.S freestyle wrestling team at the 1948 Olympic Games. In 1949, Verne decided to wrestle professionally, starting his career in Texas. In 1950, Gagne captured the NWA Junior Heavyweight title.

In 1953, Gagne won the Chicago version of the NWA United States Championship. Verne became one of the most well-known stars in wrestling during the golden age of television, thanks to his exposure on the Dumont Network. On June 14, 1957; Edouard Carpentier defeated NWA Champion Lou Thesz in Chicago. The NWA later overruled the decision of the referee in Chicago and gave the title back to Thesz. However, certain wrestling territories of the NWA, including Nebraska refused to go along with the decision and continued to recognize Carpentier as champion. In August of 1958, Carpentier lost his title to Verne Gagne in Omaha, Nebraska; making Verne Gagne the recognized NWA world champion in the NWA territories that had continued to recognize Carpentier as champion. Gagne held this disputed version of the NWA world title until Gagne and Wally Karbo decided to form the AWA in 1960.

In 1959, Verne Gagne and Minneapolis promoter Wally Karbo purchased the NWA territory in Minneapolis from Dennis Stecher; which operated as the Minneapolis Boxing and Wrestling Club. From 1959 to 1960, Gagne and Karbo tried unsuccessfully to promote a NWA “unification” match between the NWA Champion recognized in the upper Midwest; Verne Gagne and the NWA recognized Champion Pat O’Conner. Unable to secure a unification match, Gagne and Karbo broke away from from the NWA entirely and formed the AWA. The AWA recognized current NWA World champion Pat O’ Connor as it’s first champion, and gave O’Conner 90 days to defend that "title" against #1 contender Verne Gagne or be stripped of it. The NWA ignored this challenge, and Verne Gagne was awarded the AWA World title in August of 1960.

Gagne would book himself as the babyface champion from the inception of the AWA until 1975, defending and occasionally losing the title to different heel challengers to keep things fresh and interesting and to build business as the popular babyface chasing the heel champion. By August 31, 1968; Gagne was a nine time title holder of the AWA and would then go on one of the longest title reigns in history, holding the AWA World Heavyweight Title from August 31, 1968 until losing the belt to Nick Bockwinkel on November 8, 1975. Gagne was in his mid-40’s by this time and rarely wrestled in any cities other than Minneapolis. With Bockwinkel as a touring champion, AWA house show business began to flourish again with the World Title belt defended more regularly. Verne Gagne regained the title from Bockwinkel in Chicago, Illinois on July 18, 1980. Gagne, then retired from wrestling and Bockwinkel was awarded the belt once again in May, 1981.

During the 70’s; Gagne began a wrestling training school in a barn located on his farm in Chanhassen, Minnesota. Much of the AWA’s and Gagne’s success and contributions to wrestling history will include the wrestlers that were trained at Gagne’s farm and the superstars that were created in the AWA. The list is literally a who’s who of wrestling. The following wrestlers either were trained by Gagne or wrestled in the AWA:
Adrian Adonis, Tony Atlas, Badd Company (Paul Diamond & Pat Tanaka), Ox Baker, Red Bastien, Crusher Jerry Blackwell, Nick Bockwinkel, Bruiser Brody, Jim Brunzell, The Crusher, Col. DeBeers, The Destruction Crew (Mike Enos & Wayne Bloom), Derrick Dukes, Bobby Duncum, Earthquake Ferris, Big John Studd, Fabulous Freebirds (Michael Hayes, Terry Gordy & Buddy Roberts), Greg Gagne, Verne Gagne Jimmy Garvin, Scott Hall, Stan Hansen, Curt Hennig, Larry Hennig, Hulk Hogan, Sheik Adnan El Kassey, "Mr. Magnificent" Kevin Kelly, Kokina Maximus (Yokozuna), Jerry Lawler , The Long Riders (Bill & Scott Irwin), Jerry Lynn, Rick Martel, Wahoo McDaniel, The Nasty Boys (Brian Knobbs and Jerry Sags), Steve Olsonoski, Midnight Rockers (Shawn Michaels & Marty Jannetty, Nord the Barbarian, Original Midnight Express (Dennis Condrey & Randy Rose), Ken Patera, Harley Race, "Mr. Electricity" Steve Regal, Brad Rheingans, Road Warriors (Animal & Hawk), Billy Robinson, Buddy Rose, Masa Saito, Ronnie Garvin, Chavo Guerrero, Mando Guerrero, Hector Guerrero, Stan Hansen, Eddie Sharkey, Scott Hall, Sgt. Slaughter, Superfly Snuka, Doug Somers, Ray "The Crippler" Stevens, The Trooper (aka The Patriot), Soldat Ustinov, "Mad Dog" Vachon, "Butcher" Vachon, Jesse Ventura, Baron Von Raschke, Leon White (Big Van Vader, Larry Zbyszko, Tom Zenk, Boris Zukhov, Buck Zumhofe, Candi Divine, Sherri Martel, Judy Martin, Madusa Miceli, Wendi Richter, Vivian Vachon, Eric Bischoff, Andre The Giant, Bob Backlund, Lord James Blears, Gary DeRusha, Paul E. Dangerously, Bobby Heenan, Lee Marshall, Larry Nelson, Gene Okerlund, Dallas Page, Ken Resnick, Rod Trongard, The Iron Shiek, Ric Flair, Chris Nelson, Ricky Steamboat, Blackjack Mulligan, and Blackjack Lanza. I am sure there are others that I am missing.

The period of 1980-1985 may have been the largest drawing era of the AWA. House show business was strong and Gagne had assembled a very deep and talented roster of wrestlers, managers and announcers. One of the first major supercards the AWA promoted was held on April 24, 1983. The show was commonly referred to as “Super Sunday”. The show was held in the St. Paul Civic Center, drawing a sellout of over 22,000 and another 5,000 fans at the St. Paul Auditorium watching on a closed circuit TV. Nick Bockwinkel was the heel champion and his challenger was Hulk Hogan. Hogan had come to the AWA as a heel, bad guy. However, due to Hogan’s role in the movie Rocky III and his charismatic personality, Hogan became the hottest commodity in wrestling. Apparently, Hogan and Gagne could not reach a financial agreement that would have allowed Hogan to become AWA World Heavyweight Champion so Bockwinkel kept his title by disqualification on this night. Hogan and Bockwinkel would sell out arenas throughout the AWA territory in 1983 in Hogan’s quest to gain the AWA Title.

In December of 1983, Vince McMahon Jr. was in the early stages of his quest to take the WWF to a national level. Reportedly, Vince McMahon Sr. knew of Vince Jr.’s plans for national expansion and told Wally Karbo to sell his stock in the AWA to Gagne. Karbo followed this advice and sold out of all his stock by 1985 to Gagne. Based on Hogan’s unparalleled popularity, McMahon believed Hogan was the man to lead the WWF in its national expansion plans and made a huge financial offer to Hogan, Gene Okerlund, Jesse Ventura and Bobby Heenan also agree to leave the AWA and join the WWF. Hogan was given the WWF World Heavyweight Champion in January, 1984, only one month after leaving the AWA.

Despite the loss of Hogan and several of its top stars, the AWA actually had a more profitable year in 1984 than it had in 1983. A babyface turn by Jerry Blackwell, led to incredible house show business in a feud with Bruiser Brody and Sheik Adnan El Kassie. However, by 1985 the AWA was beginning to feel the loss of its major talent and the WWF was beginning to surge ahead of the AWA and the NWA in terms on national recognition and popularity. Wrestlemania I was a huge success and McMahon used his windfall profits to secure more national television outlets for his syndication network and more top talent from the regional territories.

Gagne was undeterred and continued to try to run the AWA, despite falling further behind the WWF and even the NWA in terms of popularity, production and even in ring wrestling product. Gagne secured a national television contract with ESPN and could now air AWA TV on a national network similar to what the WWF was doing with the USA Network and what the NWA was doing on TBS. The problem Gagne had was as soon as he developed talent, they would leave for the WWF or the NWA. Gagne and the NWA even teamed up in September, 1985 to co-promote SuperClash I from Chicago, Illinois. The show was well attended, drawing 21,000 to Cominsky Park. Ric Flair defended the NWA World Heavyweight Title on the card against Magnum TA in a very good 26 minute match, while the AWA World Heavyweight Title was a quick double disqualification between Rick Martel and Stan Hansen.

In 1986, Gagne returned the belt back to Nick Bockwinkel. Bockwinkel was a trusted friend to Gagne and Gagne believed Bockwinkel could return the AWA World Title to national prominence. Stan Hansen was the champion at the time and refused to lose the belt to Bockwinkel the night before he was leave for a tour Japan as the AWA World Champion. So, Hansen took the belt with him and Gagne stripped Hansen of the title in Denver, Colorado and awarded the title to Bockwinkel. Also in 1986, Gagne was developing a strong group of young talent that included; Leon White (Big Van Vader), Curt Hennig, Scott Hall, and a talented young tag team called the Midnight Rockers (Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty).

By 1987, Curt Hennig was an established baby face and was given the AWA World title in April 1987, defeating champion Nick Bockwinkel with the help of Larry Zbysko. This effectively turned Hennig heel and Bockwinkel face and Bockwinkel ventured into retirement from active ring duty. Hennig proved to be by far the most marketable and popular heel champion that the AWA had seen in years, and he enjoyed a long title reign until losing the title to Jerry Lawler. Hennig was jumping to the WWF in another talent raid by the WWF, but dropped the title before leaving.
Not only did McMahon take away stars from the 1983-1986 era that included, Hulk Hogan, Bobby Heenan, Jesse Ventura, Gene Okerlund and Jim Brunzell among others; the WWF also signed young stars in the 1986-1991 era that included; Curt Hennig, The Rockers, Sherri Martel, Tom Zenk, Rick Martel and many others. With the loss of talent, attendance at house shows; still the main source of income for the AWA, fell dramatically. Soon running house shows and TV tapings were too expensive for the AWA and new programming for ESPN was replaced with re-runs. ESPN would eventually stop running AWA programming altogether.

In a desperate final attempt on a national level with the WWF and the NWA, Gagne formed an allegiance with the CWA from Memphis and the WCCW from Dallas, Texas. Lawler was the owner and booker of the CWA as well as AWA World Champion and unification match was to be held on PPV in December of 1988. This would the first and only attempt that the AWA would make into the world of PPV. The plan was to unify the WCCW World Championship and the AWA World Championship, however no one could agree on who would end up the champion. Jerry Lawler, the AWA Champion eventually won the match due to ref stoppage over the WCCW Champion, Kerry Von Erich. The match itself was ok, however the PPV was a financial disaster, not the windfall that Gagne was hoping for. Only 1,500 fans attended the show in Chicago and the buy rate was very small. Lawler, claiming he never was paid for his appearance on the PPV, refused to defend the AWA title, so the AWA stripped Lawler of the title in January of 1989 and held an over the top rope battle royal to determine the new champion.

Larry Zbysko, son in law of Verne Gagne won the battle royal in St. Paul, Minnesota; last eliminating Tom Zenk in front of less than 2,000 fans to become the AWA World Heavyweight Champion. Sadly, Zbysko would also be the last champion as the Gagne was facing bankruptcy by this point. The AWA tried to run a few spot house shows in 1990 in Minnesota, but without television to promote the shows, attendance was spotty. With little to no income from the PPV, the loss of the ESPN television contract, and virtually no revenues from house shows; the AWA was forced to shut down operations. Zbysko and Tom Zenk left for the WCW in 1990, Mike Enos, Wayne Bloom, Pat Tanaka and Paul Diamond and others went to the WWF, while others went to independent promotions. Gagne filled bankruptcy in 1991.

From 1999 to 2002, a series of AWA-related pay-per-views were produced. Titled “AWA Classic Wrestling”, the PPV’s featured compilations of old AWA footage, hosted by Greg Gagne and Todd Okerlund (son of Gene Okerlund), with occasional appearances by Verne Gagne. The pay-per-views ceased following the acquisition of the AWA tape library by World Wrestling Entertainment for a reported 3 million dollars.

The legacy of the AWA is one of the greatest territorial promotions in the history of wrestling. The AWA produced tremendous wrestling action; that was based on athletic and hard hitting contests. The AWA failed to expand and compete with the WWF when it went national and slowly faded away before closing its doors in 1991. It was a sad ending to a wonderful wrestling organization; that produced so many wonderful memories to wrestling fans in the Midwest.

I hope you enjoyed this week’s look back at wrestling nostalgia. If you have any questions, comments or suggestions; please contact me at bhoops@iw.net.


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