A Brief History of the AWA

Today, August 16, 2010, marks the fiftieth anniversary of the formation of the American Wrestling Association.

The AWA was and is a vital part of pro wrestling lore. The company was a juggernaut through the ‘60s, ‘70s and early ‘80s. It produced literally dozens of wrestling superstars, showcased a more reality based, hardcore mat wrestling action than its major competitors of the WWF and the NWA and provided another alternative for wrestling fans and wrestlers alike. At its height it was the home promotion for such major markets as Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Chicago, Omaha, Winnipeg, Denver, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Winnipeg, Canada and was the major wrestling outlet for fans throughout the entire the Midwest region of the United States.

I just a young six year old boy when the AWA folded in 1990 so I’m not an authorized figure to go through the entire of the company. But on its fiftieth anniversary here is a brief synopsis of what the AWA was and what has meant to this industry that we love so much.

The pro wrestling group based out of Minnesota was founded by wrestling legend Verne Gagne in 1960. Gagne was a legit superstar amateur wrestler in his early life and made the transition to pro wrestling during the incredibly profitable time in the 1950s when pro wrestling was all the rage on the DuMont Network.

Gagne was certainly good enough in the ring, charismatic enough and a big enough star to become the traveling NWA World Heavyweight Champion but boardroom politics and various promoters kept him away from the Championship.

In 1959, Gagne and long-time Minnesota promoter Wally Karbo gained the majority stake in the Minneapolis Boxing and Wrestling Club. The next year, in 1960, Gagne and Karbo became fed up with the politics and pulled their territory out of the NWA. They created the American Wrestling Association and named then NWA World Champion Pat O’Connor the first AWA World Champion. They gave O’Connor 90 days to defend that Title against Gagne or he would stripped of the Championship. Naturally O’Connor didn’t show and Gagne became the first reigning and defending AWA World Heavyweight Champion on August 16, 1960.

From there the AWA was off and running with Gagne ruling with an iron fist behind the scenes and as its biggest star on screen. The AWA was based on traditional, no nonsense technical mat wrestling with less emphasis on “sports entertainment,” comedy and over the top characters. Throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s the AWA featured a veritable who’s who of pro wrestling superstars that come through its doors. While Gagne was the company’s main star he surrounded himself with a top notch cast of great pro wrestlers and characters, including The Cruiser, Dick The Bruiser, Ray Stevens, Nick Bockwinkle, the masked Dr. X, Dr. Bill Miller, Mad Dog Vachon and Billy Robinson among many others.

In the early half of the ‘80s, the AWA was still riding high as they were able to mix in their technical wrestling stars with a new cast of characters including Hulk Hogan, Curt Hennig, Jesse “The Body” Ventura, Adrian Adonis, Greg Gagne, Jim Brunzell, The Road Warriors, Crusher Blackwell, Baron Von Raschke, Sgt. Slaughter, Col, DeBeers and Sheik Adnan Al-Kassey’s revolving army of hired goons.

Gagne was able to invest in his future by producing many, many stars under his own watch. Thanks to his own training center that he set up on his farm in Chanhassen, Minesota, Gagne was able to train a whole generation of wrestling stars, including men like Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat, Ric Flair, The Iron Sheik, Ken Patera and nearly a hundred more people who gained some level of fame in the wrestling business.

Unfortunately by the second half of the ‘80s, the AWA business started to fade. Gagne himself retired in 1986 and many major stars like Hulk Hogan, Mean Gene Okerlund, Jesse Ventura, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan and others had migrated north to the World Wrestling Federation. He was able to persevere and thrive with young stars like his son Greg, Curt Hennig, Scott Hall, Boris Zhukov, Nord The Barbarian, The Midnight Rockers (Shawn Michaels & Marty Jannetty) and Badd Company (Pat Tanaka and Paul Diamond.)

In 1988, the company formed a working arrangement with Jerry Jarrett & Jerry Lawler out of Memphis and Fritz Von Erich’s World Class Championship Wrestling to exchange talent. The partnership allowed for SuperClash III, the only pay per view produced by the company. The show was held in December 1988 and featured talent from the AWA, CWA, WCCW and POWW. The main event featured Kerry Von Erich defend his WCCW World Title against Jerry “The King” Lawler’s AWA World Championship in an unification match. Lawler beat Von Erich via referee’s stoppage due to Von Erich’s blood loss. Not surprisingly the partnership between the companies fell through and Lawler was stripped of the Unified Championship shortly thereafter.

As the AWA went into its last days in 1990, the company created the Team Challenge Series. This divided the roster into three teams regardless of good guy/bad guy alignment with the winning team earning bragging rights and a check for $1 million. By this point the talent roster and the crowd attendance had dwindled to awful numbers. Larry Zbyzsko, Gagne’s son-in-law, was the company’s reigning World Champion and young stars The Destruction Crew (Wayne Bloom & Mike Enos) were the company’s top tag team. The rest of the roster featured young unknown stars, past their prime veterans and AWA loyalists like Buck Zumhoff, Baron Von Raschke, Col. DeBeers and Brad Rheingans. Plus a young Eric Bischoff was in front of the screen as its announcer, interviewer, commentator and all around pitch man.

The last television taping for the company was shot on August 11, 1990 in Rochester, Minnesota. The company limped along until December 1990 when Zbyzsko jumped to World Championship Wrestling and he was stripped of the AWA World Title. Gagne officially filed for bankruptcy in early 1991 as reruns of their programming aired on their syndicated show and their weekly ESPN timeslot.

As a current native of Minneapolis, Minnesota, the memories of the AWA and the Gagne wrestling legacy still lingers strong throughout the Twin Cities and the entire state of Minnesota. Countless independent organizations and wrestlers young and old still compete across the state in arenas, bars, armories and VFW halls across the state. The major groups like WWE and TNA Wrestling draw well when their touring brings them through the area. In celebration of the milestone look for more AWA and Minnesota wrestling themed pieces throughout the rest of August.

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