Old School ‘Rasslin’ Recap – AWA Championship Wrestling on ESPN Classic (Larry Zbyszko, Sgt. Slaughter, The Patriot, Nikita Koloff)

Oh, ESPN Classic, how you take me back…
My DVR starts recording a minute before a show’s scheduled start time, so I always get a minute of whatever sports programming from days gone by they are airing before these AWA shows and for this episode, I get a snippet of an Andre Agassi interview from when he was in full-blown power mullet and streaks mode. Good times…good times.
And speaking of “good times, “Welcome to AWA Championship Wrestling on ESPN,” says Lee Marshall and oh crap! It’s time for some “death bed” AWA action. It’s always easy to tell when it’s going to be one of those shows, because we get young pretty-boy Eric Bischoff for the opener from the studio. So, this puts us at very late 1989 or very early 1990. With Easy-E this week is some douche with a perm named Ralph Strangess. No familiar with his work, but boy is he pumped for today’s action!
And why wouldn’t he be? I know I am, because today we’ll be seeing (and I’m not making this name up) the first ever “Iron Man Survivor Battle Royal,” which it turns out is also a part of the much-ballyhooed Team Challenge Series! Between Larry’s (Zbyszko) Legends, Baron’s (Von Raschke) Blitzers, and Sarge’s (Slaughter) Snipers. I’m pretty sure Sarge was actually just about done in the AWA at this point, soon to be headed to the WWF for his impending run as an Iraqi sympathizer and WWF Title run, but anyway…
What is an “Iron Man Survivor Battle Royal,” you ask? Well, I’ll give you the official explanation in a minute, but the short version is it’s the Royal Rumble (with about half the guys, virtually no talent and no real reward for winning). Armed with that knowledge, I’m going to peg this as January 1990 as Verne and Company seem to be trying to trick people or something with the “Not” Royal Rumble.
Bischoff promises the World Champion will be in action tonight! And before you get too excited wondering who that might be, just stop right now, because it’s Larry Zbyszko.

Commercials

We’re back, and it’s time for our first match

Match #1 – W.T. Jones vs. “The Olympian” Brad Rheingans

Jones is already in the ring and gets a pretty decent round of boos for a nobody jobber. Rheingans comes out to a decent chorus of cheers, but that might be due to Lee Marshall announcing the fact that he’s from Minnesota louder than he says Rhinegans’ name. And can I just say that some of these last names are ridiculously spelled and hard to type.
Anyway, for the lowdown on Brad, he was a legitimate Olympic wrestler 20 years before Kurt Angle. No medal for Brad, though, as he finished 4th in the 1976 games, and sadly, missed out in ’80 because of the famous boycott. He actually had quite a career as a trainer as Wikipedia credits his charges as Vader, JBL, the Nasty Boys, Brock Lesnar, and Joe Hennig, among others.
Rhinegans puts on a pretty nice amateur-esque clinic with headlock reversals, arm drags, and some mat work. It’s not really a squash, though, as Jones (who reminds me of George Wells if you’re familiar with him) gets some offense, calling his spots pretty blatantly. After a while, though Brad reverses an Irish whip and executes a very crisp and believable rolling cradle for the three count. The crowd approves. The graphic below Brad insultingly refers to him as the Olympic “Great.” (their quote marks, not mine).

Grade: C+ (perfectly acceptable TV match)

Commercials

The announcers hype the pending arrival of Col. DeBeers. The DeBeers character was, in my opinion, pretty edgy for the time – that of a South African pro-Apartheid white supremacist “mercenary” that would occasionally refuse to wrestle non-whites.

Match #2 – Col. DeBeers vs. Mike Braham

No problem tonight, however, as Braham is only a shade darker than Sheamus, and he kind of resembles Shane Douglas or Curt Hennig if you want some kind of reference. DeBeers comes to the ring to “Welcome to the Jungle,” but noboy tell Axl, because he’s liable to sue. DeBeers certainly looks the part, with his jacket and medals and such, and he had an awesome piledriver, which we’ll probably see here directly. I can see why Vince wouldn’t want to touch this character, but I’m surprised WCW didn’t pick him up (although sadly, the boys down here in the South might have made him a face).
And no sooner do I get through with the above paragraph, when DeBeers hits a knee to the face and then nails the face-first piledriver. That’s all, folks.

Grade: D (just a squash, really, but the piledriver was nice)

We go back to “AWA Studios” or whatever, where Eric is standing by with one of my least favorite tag-teams of all time, “Mean” Mike Enos and “Something” Wayne Bloom, The Destruction Crew. The Crew are AWA World Tag-Team Champ here, by default more than anything else. They won the belts in a battle royal. Just a brief title lineage to show you how quickly things dropped off for the AWA…The Midnight Rockers dropped the belts to Badd Company (who are awesome!) on their way to the WWF. Badd Company held the belts for more than a year before Pat Tanaka left to be in the Orient Express in the WWF. He and partner Paul Diamond lost the belts to The Olympians, the aforementioned Rhinegans and Ken Patera, who were both pushing 40, but at least had some name value. Well, Patera ends up with a career-ending injury and the belts were vacated, won by Bloom and Enos in the battle royal. As a point of trivia Diamond and Greg “Daddy’s Boy” Gagne were the runners-up.
They were the penultimate champs incidentally, as they left to go be the Beverly Brothers in McMahon land and the Minnesota Wrecking Crew in Turner town, but did the courtesy of losing the belts to the powerhouse team of DJ Peterson & The Trooper (more on them later).
Enos is nursing a shoulder injury of some kind, but Bloom says it doesn’t matter. They’re tough and ready for all comers. Weird bit as every time Enos goes to talk Bloom cuts him off with “I got this!” or “Let ME tell ‘em how it is!” while Enos just kind of shrugs it off, reminding me of Eric Young in a way. They say it doesn’t matter if it’s the Lumberjacks or the Texas Hangmen or whoever (more on them later), no one can handle the Destruction Crew.

Commercials

We’re back. Just a note that there are actually people in the crowd. Not a lot, but enough that they have the lights on for the whole lower section – something that would not be the case in a matter of months. Time for another match…

Match #3 – “Pistol” John Pistulka vs. “America’s Hero” Sgt. Slaughter

Pistulka, who makes early Sean “X-Pac” Waltman look like Hulk Hogan, tries to get the crowd behind him, but it’s a no-go. It becomes obvious why very quickly as Sarge’s music hits and the “crowd” goes “wild.” Okay, to be fair, Slaughter does get some enthusiastic cheers as Bischoff points out Sarge’s continuing but fruitless efforts to get the AWA belt off of Larry the Legend. I wonder how different things might have been if Verne had put the belt on Sarge and he hadn’t gone to the WWF and had the big Wrestlemania showdown with Hogan (and ending the Ultimate Warrior’s title reign, I might add)?
For some reason a very ancient Ox Baker is at ringside, apparently getting ready to build a stable of wrestlers for him to manage. I don’t think this ever went anywhere. The camera man seems to be quite enamored though, as every time Sarge goes to a rest hold (which is quite ofter), they cut to Ox. Eventually Slaughter nails the Cobra Clutch for the win.

Grade: C- (pure meh)

Afterwards, Bischoff tries to interview Slaughter, but Baker comes over and tries to recruit Slaugher. Baker comes off, and I mean absolutely no offense here, as extremely gay. To that end, Slaughter seems to react very creeped out when Ox touches him. Slaughter turns down Baker’s managerial services and walks of, calling Baker a maggot, of course That was weird.

Commercials

We’re back, and for some reason we’re joined in progress…for the World Title match.

Match #4 – AWA World Championship Larry Zbyszko (c) vs. DJ Peterson

Peterson is having a pretty good go of it, countering all of Larry’s shenanigans, and Larry’s running scared. Peterson hits a gutwrench suplex and a powerslam, wherein the ref is bumped. DJ continues to pound the champ and then, even though he is clearly aware that the ref is out, applies a small package. Of course that goes nowhere, so they brawl some more. Just as the ref is regaining consciousness, Zbyszko trips Peterson up and pins him with the feet on the ropes to steal the win.

Grade: B- (the crowd was admittedly hot for DJ)

Oh, that was a replay from last week, apparently, and now it’s time for another match.

Match #5 – George Anderson vs. DJ Peterson

Anderson could not be more bland-looking. He’s like a Ken doll or something. The most remarkable thing I can say about him is he has a really weird looking stain on his right shoulder/pec. Peterson looks incredibly used up and drugged out. (checks Wikipedia) He’s 30 at this point, but he looks like it’s been a rough 30 years. He’s got the moves, though, hitting a lot of suplex variations and power moves, kind of Scott Steiner-y in a way. Nice clothesline of the top rope knocks Anderson face-first onto the mat, allowing Peterson to apply the Indian Deathlock for the submission. (I did not see that coming). Strangess calls it the “Scorpion Deathlock” which it clearly was not. Peterson’s ring music is AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds” by the way. Also of note, I’m pretty sure Mondo Guerrero is working security at this show.

Commercial

We’re back for a tag bout. The jobbers are already in the ring and don’t even get graphics during their introduction.

Match #6 – Mike Rob (?) & Steve Berg (?) vs. The Texas Hangmen (Psycho & Killer)

Quick facts: I don’t have a clue who the jobbers are, but Steve is billed from Little Rock, so “Represent, yo!” and all. The Hangmen are also known as Bull Pain and Mike Moran, if you’ve heard of those guys. In this incarnation, however, they look like Demolition meets Stan Hansen.
I don’t know which one is which, but they appear to have the same moveset (punch, kick, body slam, repeat). One of them does pull out a nice swinging neckbreaker and a scoop slam. Uh-oh, their handy bullrope becomes a tool of cheatery as Killer (or Psycho) distracts the ref while Psycho (or Killer) chokes Rob (?) out, leaving him virtually dead on his feet. Psycho (says Eric) makes the tag and hits an elbow smash and a pretty vicious DDT. He then takes out Berg (?), and just to drive the plagiarism point home, they finish the job with a Demolition Decapitation for the three-count.
To add to the humiliation, they threaten to hang the jobbers, but they bail.

Grade: C- (pretty formulaic tag-squash, but acceptable)

Now it’s time for the all-important Team Challenge Series update with Lee Marshall (complete with graphics that look like they were done on a Commodore 64). I love the little “tm” next to Team Challenge Series as if anyone would want to swipe that super-cool concept. You know, the one that ended with a Frozen-Turkey-On-A-Pole match. Up to the minute standings in the race for the “$1 million prize” see Baron’s Blitzers with a 9-point lead over Sarge’s Snipers and Larry’s Legends with “only a few weeks left in the series” (and only a few more weeks left in the promotion’s existence).
I almost missed an inadvertent bit as Lee says 11-point lead not once but twice as the graphis clearly shows the totals as 40-31-31. sigh…

Commercials

We’re back with hype for the (Not Royal Rumble) Battle Royal, with champ Zbyszko out to rant about the blatant bias against Larry’s Legends. Basically, with time running out, Larry says he’s taking matters into his own hands and going out to pick up some points for his team. That leads directly to our Main Event…

Match #7 – Team Challenge Series Iron Man Survivor Battle Royal (Rumble)

Marshall explains the rules, and actually says, “now let me explain as best I can how this is going to work” to the crowd. I’ll summarize for your benefit…
12 men, 4 from each Team Challenge Series team, starting with one from each team. Every 30 seconds a new participant will enter the match. The only way to be eliminated is to be thrown over the top rope. Is this sounding familiar to anyone?
The first three men are Texas Hangman Psycho, “Yukon Lumberjack” John Nord, and “Rock & Roll” Buck Zumhofe.
The bell rings, and Buck is gone in about 2 seconds, practically eliminating himself. Man, he was my pick to win! #4 Mike Enos is in quickly, and he and Psycho double-team Nord with little success. #5 is “The Russian Nightmare” Nikita Koloff, about a year or so removed from a time when anyone would possibly care. Before he can make it in, though, “Yukon” John eliminates himself as well, trying to deliver a big boot to Psycho. Man, he was my pick to win! You know it’s “Crappy Koloff” because he’s got hair. Nikita wails away on Psycho and “Mean” Mike. #6 is The Russian Brute, whom I have never heard of. He arrives just as Koloff and Psycho eliminate each other. Man, I was sure Koloff was the favorite! Brute and Enos scuffle and it’s not too long before #7 comes out, and it’s Larry Zbyszko. Larry and Mike dump the Brute, but #8 is Curtis “The Cat” Hughes. A three-way brawl breaks out and before you know it it’s time for another entrant. #9 is The Trooper aka The Patriot aka Del Wilkes. Bischoff refers to him as “arguably the top contender” to the World Title. Hughes and Enos square off while Trooper goes after Larry Z.
#10 is Texas Hangman Killer and he promptly dumps Hughes, who was Ralph Strangess’ pick apparently. Bischoff acknowledges the longevity record being established by Enos, having managed to last an amazing four minutes! #11 is “The Illustrious One” Jonnie Stewart. The Trooper is now being victimized by all of the heels. Zbyszko heads up a spike piledriver attempt, but #12 Scott “Flapjack” Norton arrives in the nick of time to make the save. Yay! Boom! Out goes Stewart. Boom! Out goes Larry Z!
Your “Final Four”…at the five-minute mark: Enos, Killer, Trooper, and Norton.
Big back body drop and a clothesline from Norton and Enos is done. Norton and Trooper have their way with Killer for a minute or so and then he is mercifully dumped, leaving Norton and Trooper to battle it out for –
Wait! They’re both on the Baron’s Blitzers team, so they are declared co-winners, thus collecting four valuable Team Challenge Series points. Just like I called it!

Grade: B (it was weird, but fun. I might’ve gone higher if there had only been one winner)

Bischoff interviews the winner(s), and boy does Wilkes sound like a hick. Norton is pretty good on the mic and reminds me of Darrell from “Storage Wars” here. They are gunning for all the n’er-do-wells in the AWA, so watch out!

End of show.

Summary – Wow, that was actually a lot of action for one hour, even if it was the AWA on the last swirl of the final flush. I don’t think there was really anything that was going to happen that could have saved the promotion at this point, but they were giving it the ol’ college try with the TCS and building a mix of young wrestlers and what veterans they could scrape together to build a show. Sadly, by the end of the year the promotion was all but gone. Still, fun for a look back.

And then what happened?

W.T. Jones – Like most of the jobbers on this show, not even Wikipedia knows what happened to this guy. He’s probably coaching high school football or selling insurance in Minneapolis these days.

Brad Rhinegans – As I mentioned above, Brad went on to have a pretty good run as a trainer, something he continues to this day.

Col. DeBeers – Continued the Apartheid gimmick until the AWA’s doors closed and beyond, popping up in the short-lived-but-awesome Global Wrestling Federation. He apparently retired to the Portland area in the mid-90s.

Mike Braham – (see W.T. Jones)

Sgt. Slaughter – As I already touched upon, despite already being in his early 40s, Sarge left soon after this show (maybe even the next day) and popped up in the WWF in time to win the WWF Title at the 1991 Royal Rumble (with a bit of help from Randy Savage of all people). He then dropped the belt to Hulk Hogan at Wrestlemania VII. That feud lasted until SummerSlam that year, before Slaughter returned to his American Hero deal. He faded away into semi-retirement and behind-the-scenes roles with WWF/E, including a stint as Commissioner, running afoul of the original DX. He was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2004.

“Pistol” John Pistulka – (see W.T. Jones)

DJ Peterson – Peterson and The Trooper have the distinction of being the last AWA World Tag Team Champions. After the AWA folded, Peterson made a go of it in the independents before being killed in 1993 in a motorcycle accident.

George Anderson – There are a ton of George Andersons on Wikipedia. None of them are this guy.

The Texas Hangmen – Like I mentioned earlier, this is Bull Pain and Mike Moran. They left the AWA and spent some time in World Class and in Puerto Rico. I don’t know what Moran ended up doing, but Pain had a stint in WCW and the GWF and made somewhat of a name for himself in ECW via some bloody brawls with Axl Rotten. He also had some matches in IWA Mid-South. Most recently, he has been a part of the Insane Clown Posse’s JCW promotion.

Mike Rob & Steve Berg – shut up.

I’m not going into all of the Battle Royal guys, but –

Larry Zbyszko – Larry Z was the last man to hold the AWA title. He was actually already in WCW by the time Verne (his father-in-law, by the way) got around to closing the doors. Ol’ Larry Z still had some gas in the tank, having a WCW tag title run with Arn Anderson and a WCW TV title run in 1994. He stayed with WCW as a part-time wrestler and commentator until the promotion closed in 2001. He then spent some time on the independent scene and had a role in TNA for several years before returning to his old stomping grounds and the outlaw “revived” AWA.

The Trooper – Wilkes evolved into the Patriot in the GWF and captured that promotion’s North American Title in 1991. As the Patriot, Wilkes also made a name for himself in Japan. In 1994, Patriot and Marcus Bagwell won the WCW World tag titles twice. Patriot made his way to the WWF in 1997 and had what would eventually become Kurt Angle’s ring music. His peak came with a WWF title match against Bret Hart. These days, Wilkes is retired and working as a car salesman.

Nikita Koloff – “The Russian Nightmare” seemed to have unlimited potential in the late 80s, but the death of his wife from Hodgkin’s disease took a lot out of him. After the AWA folded, Koloff returned to WCW, but never really regained his momentum and certainly never reached the main event scene. Retired from full-time competition since 1993, Koloff still makes an occasional appearance.

John Nord – Huss! Huss! (If you don’t know, Google it) I don’t know how this guy didn’t fill the void left by the death of Bruiser Brody.

Scott Norton – Developed his skills and a reputation as a tough guy after leaving the U.S. for Japan, enjoying a great deal of success in the tag-team scene with a number of partners before heading to WCW in 1993. His biggest achievement during that run was being a part of the red-hot nWo angle, as a part of the “B-Team.” He finished his career back in Japan.

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