“May you live in interesting times” Ã¢â‚¬â€œ Ancient Chinese curse.
In the days before Extreme Championship Wrestling was half-heartedly declared by followers of the business to constitute the third part of the “Big Three”, there really was a Big Three, and the race was very close indeed. Up until the mid-80s, the players in the game that was wrestling were upstart Vince McMahon Jr’s WWF, Jim Crockett Jr’s steadfast WCW/Mid-Atlantic territory, and the reliable workhorse that was Verne Gagne’s AWA. With a long and storied history equaling that of Crockett and McMahon’s promotions, Verne Gagne seemingly had everything needed to follow Vince Jr. into the 21st century: A national TV deal, a loyal fanbase, talented workers, and, most importantly, the services of the wrestler who was rapidly becoming the buzzword in Hollywood and wrestling in general Hulk Hogan.
By 1991, Verne was reduced to running spot shows in Minnesota for 150 people, and eventually filing for bankruptcy at the beginning of 1991 and making false claims about the monetary worth of his tape collection to avoid losing every cent that he had. Amazingly, the seeds of Verne’s destruction had been sown 8 years earlier, and in the end he had no one to blame but himself for the end of the third-largest wrestling promotion in America.
1. The Background:
As is the case with most things in wrestling from before 1980, the AWA was founded as a result of a dispute over who exactly the NWA World champion was. The National Wrestling Alliance, from it’s official formation in 1948, had become the single most powerful entity in professional wrestling, unifying several of the top promoters across the country with a common champion to promote. However, as with any gathering of power (and hence ego) as large as this, complications and cracks in the unity eventually started showing through. The first major one occurred in July 1957, as Eduardo Carpentier defeated Lou Thesz for the NWA title in a two-out-of-three falls match. However, since one of the falls was a DQ, a dispute arose amongst the promoters as to whether or not Carpentier should rightly be recognized as the champion. The NWA’s official decision was that the title was to be returned to Thesz, and indeed that occurred shortly after. However, several “renegade” promoters, led by Wally Karbo of Nebraska, continued to recognize Carpentier as the NWA World champion, and in fact sanctioned passing the title from Carpentier to former NWA Junior champion Verne Gagne in August 1958. With one group of promoters recognizing Gagne as NWA champion and the other recognizing Thesz, it became apparent that some sort of unification match was needed but it never came.
By 1960, after unsuccessfully lobbying the NWA for a match between Verne Gagne and the NWA World champion to rejoin the titles, Wally Karbo (with Gagne holding the true power behind the scenes) split off from the NWA and formed the American Wrestling Association. As a last-ditch “peace offering” (in reality a cynical political ploy), the newly formed AWA recognized current NWA World champion Pat O’ Connor as their first champion, and gave him 90 days to defend that “title” against #1 contender Verne Gagne or be stripped of it. And as you might expect, the NWA ignored this challenge, and Verne Gagne was awarded the AWA World title in August of 1960, a title change which the NWA further ignored, and as a result there were now two officially recognized World champions for the first time since the formation of the NWA: The NWA and AWA versions. And most of the time, that AWA version was around the waist of Verne Gagne.
2. The Seventies.
The period of the late 60s until 1980 saw only two people wearing the AWA title: Verne Gagne and Nick Bockwinkel. Wally Karbo maintained his presence in the NWA despite representing another promotion and recognizing a different champion, and the AWA continued it’s national expansion, although staying mainly in the mid-west and Winnipeg, as Gagne defended his title in NWA mainstay cities against former NWA champions. And for the better part of those 10 years, not much else happened of note in the AWA: Bockwinkel’s title victory over Verne Gagne in 1975 was the first one in 7 years, and he would proceed to hold the title until 1980. The AWA established itself as a solid, if unspectacular, alternative to the NWA and the growing WWWF, featuring an emphasis on the mat wrestling of Gagne over the showmanship of the WWWF. By 1980, however, it was becoming rapidly more obvious that the wrestling world was changing. Whereas the 70s had actually seen matches between the World champions (with WWWF champion Bob Backlund meeting AWA champion Nick Bockwinkel on at least one occasion), the more competitive TV decade which was dawning ended the cooperation between the promoters, almost for good. And no one did more to encourage the end of that cooperation than Vince McMahon Jr. Especially since Verne Gagne had something that Vince wanted very, very badly.
In 1979, a blond-haired, but fairly untalented, power wrestler named Sterling Golden debuted in Memphis. While he didn’t impress many with his scientific skills, his charisma and huge stature couldn’t be denied, and Vince McMahon made the first grab for him, bringing him into the newly-renamed WWF in 1981 as heel Terry Boulder, then later Hulk Hogan, and matching him up against Andre the Giant, a strategy that proved to be moderately successful. Hogan left for a very successful tour of Japan later in 1982, and returned to the US to work dates for Verne Gagne as a newly turned babyface, and a popular one at that. So popular, in fact, that by 1983 it was becoming rapidly apparent that Hogan’s charisma had connected with the fans in a way no one expected. Hollywood came calling, casting him as “Thunderlips” in Rocky III, a role which earned Hogan immediate mainstream attention and recognition as someone with acting skills in addition to wrestling skills. Hulkamania was indeed running wild, and it seemed that the final step was a mere formality: Putting the World title on Hogan and using his star power to expand the AWA past the boundaries of the mid-west.
Verne Gagne, however, had other plans. And that’s when it all started to fall apart.
The essential problem was this: Gagne was stubborn. He believed in “sports” over “entertainment”, as was evidenced by his matches in the 70s featuring extended wrestling holds and counters that would span 40 or 60 minutes. Verne, however, was not sold on the more circus-like atmosphere of the WWF, and felt that his way of thinking, the traditional athletic competition of wrestling, was the way to keep making money, since it had always made him money before. He felt that aging stars like Mad Dog Vachon, The Crusher, Baron Von Rashke, and even Nick Bockwinkel could continue to be used effectively in the upper card, while the new breed of power wrestler such as Ken Patera, Scott Hall, and even top draw Hulk Hogan, were more of a side attraction to be used to build to Bockwinkel’s title defenses. Verne’s ego was another problem: He won the AWA title from Bockwinkel in 1980 (his ninth total), despite his obviously advanced age and deteriorated physique, and actually retired for the first time, still as champion, in 1981. This sort of inexcusable ego-stroking lead to a major break in the lineage of the title, with Bockwinkel being awarded the championship following Gagne’s retirement. Even worse, Verne insisted on pushing his untalented son Greg beyond the boundaries of all sanity. Despite showing no remarkable flair inside the ring, or head for the business outside the ring, Greg Gagne was turned into one of the biggest attractions in the AWA from his debut in the late 70s until his retirement in 1989. Verne even tried several times to put the World title on Greg in the mid-80s, with several promoters nearly quitting in protest to prevent the move. But still, Verne was convinced that Greg, not Hogan, was the babyface of the future for his company.
The match that summed up the growing problems of the company occurred April 24, 1983, as Nick Bockwinkel defended the World title against Hulk Hogan at “Super Sunday”, the AWA’s first real true “supercard”. Hogan pinned Bockwinkel to win the title, but the result was disputed, as Bockwinkel had been thrown over the top rope earlier in the match and thus AWA President Stanley Blackburn reversed the decision on the spot and gave the belt back to Bockwinkel. The arena nearly erupted into a riot as a result. That same hackneyed “Dusty Finish” had been used by the AWA several times in the past to reverse an unwanted title change, but the more youthful and exuberant crowd brought to the arena by the lure of Hulk Hogan was unwilling to accept a ridiculous finish such as that, indeed one that Gagne had been doing with Hogan and Bockwinkel for months leading up to that match. This was becoming the era of the cartoonish babyface who won the big match cleanly, something that Gagne’s old school mentality couldn’t properly grasp.
And it cost him, big.
Hulk Hogan, after basically being told that the World title was not coming his way, left for the World Wrestling Federation by the fall of 1983, and never looked back. Vince McMahon put *his* World title on Hogan almost immediately after Hogan’s entrance into the WWF, and as a result of years of clean pinfall victories for Hogan over his challengers, gave the upstart WWF title the kind of credibility that Bob Backlund could never bring to it. The war between the Big Three suddenly looked very different, with the WWF on top of the world, Jim Crockett struggling to find his identity, and Verne Gagne vainly trying the same tricks that worked in 1975 in an effort to maintain his suddenly-shrinking fanbase and talent base against the onslaught of the MTV generation.
5. Desperate Measures.
In an effort to win back the fans who were increasingly migrating to the more “cool” WWF product, Verne entered into an agreement with the NWA, which pretty much marked the first time in more than a decade that the two groups were willing to work together in any significant fashion. The end result was Superclash in Chicago, putting 21,000 people in a baseball stadium to witness both the NWA and AWA titles being defended on the same show. It was a novel idea that drew some pretty good attention from the general wrestling fanbase, but the NWA stars on the show clearly eclipsed the AWA ones, and as a result the tentative agreement fell apart fairly quickly.
Verne also entered into another cross-promotional agreement, this one with Shohei Baba’s All Japan Pro Wrestling. However, this one would prove much more costly to Verne. The AWA World title was rapidly losing prestige due to ridiculous backstage political maneuvering (such as Otto Wanz reportedly paying Gagne $50,000 in exchange for a title reign) and Nick Bockwinkel’s generally stale act. As a show of good will, the AWA title was put onto top Japanese draw Tommy “Jumbo” Tsuruta in 1984, which was completely the wrong move to make in order to win back fans in the more important United States. Further, Verne had the idea of making bland Rick Martel into his top babyface, and so he put the title on him during a tour of Japan. His reception upon returning to the States with the title was lukewarm at best. Finally, needing a dominant heel to carry the promotion while he found someone to fill his babyface role, the title was moved to the unstable and undependable Stan Hansen, killing Rick Martel’s credibility in the process due to a humiliating submission loss, and Gagne decided to stop and regroup.
This would prove to be the beginning of the end for the promotion.
6. Things Fall Apart
In 1986, Verne decided to try Nick Bockwinkel as a babyface champion, and turned Bockwinkel by using a confrontation with Larry Zbyszko as the catalyst. Gagne asked Hansen to job the title to Bockwinkel in June of 1986. Hansen, a longtime employee of Baba’s AJPW, considered himself to be Baba’s champion first and Gagne’s second, and so asked Baba for his okay on the title change. It was not given, so Hansen simply took the title back to Japan with him on the next tour and defended it there against challengers of All Japan’s choosing. The AWA stripped Hansen of the title and awarded it to Bockwinkel, with the no-show being the official reasoning, and Hansen was to be effectively blackballed from the US for four years as a result.
By 1987, things were looking somewhat up for Gagne. He was developing young talent in Curt Hennig (son of longtime AWA associate Larry Hennig), along with the Midnight Rockers (Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty), a team discovered in Texas. Curt Hennig was first established as a top babyface, then turned heel to prevent him from eclipsing Greg’s popularity. He was given the AWA World title in April 1987, and Nick Bockwinkel retired soon after at the hands of Larry Zbyszko. 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 reign was only interrupted when the biggest threat to Gagne emerged: The talent raids by the WWF.
Indeed, the AWA was rapidly becoming Vince McMahon’s personal wrestler shopping center. From 1986-1991, Vince took, practically at will, every major (and minor) star developed or signed by Gagne until finally entire title reigns were being dictated by the whims of the WWF and how soon they were likely to sign away the champions at a given time. Curt Hennig left in 1988, The Rockers followed soon after, along with Ron Garvin, Rick Martel, Sherri Martell, Boris Zhukov, Baron Von Rashke, Bobby Heenan, Ken Patera and anyone else that the WWF felt like signing away to a big money deal. Buddy Rose was even claimed for no conceivable reason other than to rub it in Verne’s face.
By the midpoint of 1988, Gagne was left with only his loyalist supporters within the promotion, a World champion ready to depart for the competition, dwindling attendance, and a TV deal that needed new shows every week. He strayed into the world of the ridiculous gimmicks, creating Nord the Barbarian (from Norwegia), various cartoonish Russian figures, and a series of teen-idol heartthrob wannabes to replace the departed Rockers, but nothing clicked for the more old-school clientele that he was catering to. So now becoming increasingly desperate and running out of money, Verne once again made a cross-promotional deal.
7. The Unification of Nothing.
In May of 1988, the AWA World title was put on longtime contender and AWA sympathizer Jerry Lawler, who just happened to own the Memphis-based CWA and all it’s talent. Lawler began challenging anyone from any promotion, and his first test came in the form of Terry Taylor, who was working for Fritz Von Erich’s World Class Championship Wrestling at the time. And thus was a three-way alliance formed between the AWA, CWA, and WCCW. Lawler began a heated feud with WCCW World champion Kerry Von Erich over who was the “real” champion (never mind that both titles were considered to be bush league by most of the casual fans at that point), and the payoff was the AWA’s first ever pay-per-view, Superclash III in Chicago. The titles were to be unified there into one, with the AWA and WCCW thus becoming a single entity in the process.
And then everything went completely wrong.
To start, the building held thousands, and even with months of hype and promotion the paid attendance ended up being a little over 1,000 people. So the event was already a huge money-loser from the start. The buyrate wasn’t terribly impressive, doing about Ã‚Â¼ of the business that the NWA and WWF were doing at the time. And the backstage planning sessions were plagued with political squabbling between the major promoters, none of whom wanted to end up looking the least bit bad when all was said and done. In the end, Jerry Lawler was awarded the decision over Kerry Von Erich due to blood loss, a bogus cop-out booking decision if there ever was one. But for a week or so, at least, there was peace and harmony as Lawler began defending the so-called “Unified World title” mainly in Memphis.
Two problems became apparent: Firstly, now that Lawler had what he wanted, he seemed reluctant to fulfill the dates set forth by the AWA. Secondly, World Class was rapidly running out of time and money, and needed the funds from the PPV to stay alive. Thirdly (and most importantly), Verne lied about the revenues from the show, keeping most of them for himself, and ended up stiffing the promoters who had contributed talent to his big show.
In early 1989, everything hit the fan, as Lawler refused to defend the title in AWA territories from that point on until his share of the PPV revenue was paid. It was never paid to him, so the CWA pulled out of the deal altogether. As a result, the AWA stripped Lawler of the AWA title, leaving him as the World Class champion, and leaving the AWA with no champion. Then World Class quickly declared that THEY were no longer financially solvent, leaving Lawler to bail them out and merge the CWA and WCCW into the USWA, thus turning the Unified World title into a meaningless hunk of tin in the span of a month. This was a new record for self-destruction, even by wrestling’s lofty standards. Lawler wouldn’t even give the AWA title belt back, leaving Gagne the task of having a new one made and using the TV title in the interim.
The AWA panicked and put the title on the one guy who had stuck with them through all the chaos: Larry Zbyszko. Back from a brief stint in the NWA, Larry won the AWA World title in a battle royale over Tom Zenk, which was just about the worst possible way they could have passed the title onto a new champion. Larry had no credibility and the crowd continued to dwindle. Desperate for some new talent, they turned longtime jobbers Wayne Bloom and Mike Enos into the new #1 tag team, the Destruction Crew, and even loaned them out to the NWA under masks as the Minnesota Wrecking Crew II in exchange for cash, but the WWF machine stepped in again: Pat Tanaka, Paul Diamond, the Destruction Crew, Kokina Maximus and even the announce team fled to the WWF, and the signs were pointing to the end faster than wrestling pundits could point fingers.
By 1990, the situation was unsalvageable. Larry Zbyszko dropped and regained the title from Mr. Saito in an effort to build interest, but none was there. They were finally going to put the title on Sgt. Slaughter, who was at least known in the mainstream, but then the WWF signed *him*, too, and that fell apart. Left with a TV deal with ESPN and no talent, Verne allowed junior announcer Eric Bischoff into the production end of things, and the AWA’s last gasp for life came about: The Team Challenge Series. The TV shows became completely focused on three teams fighting each other in a series of gimmick matches for points, and the team with the most points would be declared the winner after some undefined time period. The results were chaos, with no one keeping track of the results to any great degree, and crowds were finally so embarrassingly small that the only feasible way to keep from going broke was to film everything in a closed studio with no fans.
In late 1990, in a fitting end to the Series and the AWA, longtime jobber Jake Milliman won a “turkey on a pole” match to claim the victory for his team on the last original episode aired of AWA wrestling on ESPN. World champion Larry Zbyszko, left with no dates to work, signed with WCW immediately following this, leaving the title belt behind him as an afterthought. No replacement was ever crowned, and in early 1991, with no contracted wrestlers left, no more TV deal, and no more money, Verne Gagne filed for bankruptcy and folded the AWA after 30 years of existence.
Perhaps it’s fitting that a promotion as quiet and unassuming as the AWA would go out with a whimper rather than a bang, leaving no more ripples in it’s wake than a few disgruntled stars leaving for rival promotions, but many people did mourn for the loss of the only true competition for Titan and Turner, and indeed that was considered the greater loss. Although Verne Gagne’s promotional methods were stale and outdated by the time of expansion in 1983, he did provide a necessary counterpoint to the circus that was the WWF and the mismanaged hellhole that the NWA, replete with Dusty Rhodes and Ole Anderson’s inept booking strategies. The nepotism displayed by Verne was no worse than anything seen in just about any promotion in the history of wrestling, yet sadly that seems to have become his greatest legacy as a promoter.
Indeed, as WCW enters the next century making many of the same mistakes that Gagne did, one has to wonder if the same fate can possibly befall them, as it did the AWA years before. The same arguments were made back then: Verne has too much money, and too much support from ESPN, to let his promotion slide into bankruptcy. Most felt that he’d pull it out, somehow, even as the promotion lay on it’s deathbed like a cancer victim. I think that’s what saddest about the passing of the AWA: Many people did care for it deeply and enjoy the straightforward, less-is-more philosophy it put forth, a throwback to the days when steroid-monster quasi-athletes weren’t necessary to make money in the business.
The AWA truly lived in interesting times, but in the end, it just wasn’t interesting enough to keep up with them.
(Thanks to Hisaharu Tanabe’s excellent title histories page for much of the factual information contained above).