First off, if any of you are Jimmy Snuka fans, I’m just going to go ahead and tell you this article has nothing to do with Tamina’s daddy. Let me explain…
My wife and kids were out of town over the weekend, so with the TV all to myself, I hopped on Netflix to see what was available wrestling-wise. This led to me spending several hours watching things like “The Spectacular Legacy of the AWA,” “The Triumph and Tragedy of World Class Championship Wrestling,” and “The History of the WWE Championship,” among other offerings.
Now being the history nerd and the wrestling nerd that I am, and seeing as how this was wrestling history, I was quite excited. Having lived through a lot of this stuff and picked up some other things over the years via books and the Internet, I started thinking about things.
I mentioned my predilection with history, and one of my favorite aspects of it is counterfactual history, also sometimes called alternate history, point-of-divergence history, or just “what if?” history. Take one or more events and ask “what if ‘x’ had happened instead of ‘y?'” and go from there. These can be large-scale broad questions like, “What if the South had won the Civil War?” to very specific, “What if Lee Harvey Oswald had missed JFK?” This is also tied to a phenomenon you’ve probably heard of called the Butterfly Effect. The Butterfly Effect is not just an Ashton Kutcher movie, it’s the idea that a single incident reverberates in all directions over time having a potentially exponential effect over a lot of different things (or something like that…I think you get the idea). So, history + point of divergence + cause and effect + wrestling = “The Superfly Effect” – what might have happened if very plausible things had gone just a little bit differently.
April 24, 1983 – The cocky and arrogant heel Nick Bockwinkle, having had a virtual stranglehold on the AWA World Heavyweight champion since 1975, is challenged by the red-hot challenger Hulk Hogan. Hogan has recently become the focus of a media sensation thanks to a well-received minor part in Rocky III, and the rise of “Hulkamania” has made Hogan an easy pick to be the one for the aging Bockwinkle to pass the torch to. The problem: Hogan has also been making good money in Japan and on Hulk-related merchandise, and in exchange for the AWA belt, AWA owner Verne Gagne wants Hogan to give up a share of his Japan money and merchandising. In the meantime, Hogan has been getting attention from Vince McMahon, Jr., who has recently begun a national expansion out of his WWF home base in the Northeast.
Seeking the security of steady pay, the notoriety of being a World Champion, and a deal to give only 5 percent of his outside earnings, Hogan signs a long-term deal with Verne, and in front of a rabid crowd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Hulk defeats Bockwinkle, despite the effort’s of manager Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, and becomes the new AWA World Heavyweight Champion.
In the ensuing months, Hogan’s celebrity status only grows. He appears on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, “Saturday Night Live,” and “The A-Team” with Rocky III co-star and friend Mr. T. After a licensing dispute with Marvel Comics, an agreement is struck to allow Hogan to be referred to as “The Incredible” Hulk Hogan. In exchange, Marvel is paid an annual fee and AWA wrestlers including Hogan, Mad Dog Vachon, Baron von Raschke, the Crusher and even Mr. T star in a well-received Marvel Comics mini-series, featuring a “Hulk vs. Hulk” battle.
Having failed to woo Hogan to the WWF, McMahon plots his next move. He feels longtime WWF Champion Bob Backlund lacks the necessary charisma to carry his promotion on a national level. He considers other regional stars, such as “Nature Boy” Ric Flair, but Flair is in the midst of having the torch passed to him by Harley Race as the NWA Champion and standard-bearer. Greg Valentine is considered as well as a long-term heel champion. A few other names are touted as well, including trying to nail down Andre the Giant or bringing back “Superstar” Billy Graham, but ultimately Vince makes his decision.
December 26, 1983 – The reviled Iranian strongman The Iron Sheik wins the WWF World Heavyweight Championship from Bob Backlund when Backlund’s manager Arnold Skaaland throws in the champ’s signature towel as Backlund is trapped in the Sheik’s camel clutch submission hold.
The Iron Sheik begins a reign of terror in the WWF, with manager Freddie Blassie in tow, Sheik disposes of a few minor challenges from the likes of Pedro Morales, Tito Santana, and others. Blassie and the Sheik begin to build the Foreign Legion, which includes Nikolai Volkoff, Killer Khan, Ivan Putski, and the Cuban Assassin. A particularly crushing blow comes when Backlund receives a rematch on February 14, 1984. Skaaland turns on Backlund in the middle of the match and joins the International-themed Legion. The entire heel stable then storms the ring, giving Backlund a heinous beating, as well as destroying every wrestler who comes to the ring to try and save the former champ. It becomes known as the “Valentine’s Day Massacre.”
Captain Lou Albano and his charges, the Wild Samoans and Kamala the Ugandan Giant join the Legion as well. Volkoff wins the Intercontinental Championship from Tito Santana in March after Santana, who had just won the belt a month earlier, refused to join the Foreign Legion. In April, the Samoans regain the Tag Titles from Tony Atlas and Rocky Johnson.
In a segment of “Rowdy” Roddy Piper’s “Piper’s Pit,” Piper is interviewing singer Cyndi Lauper, who mentions that Captain Lou had a role in her video for “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” Albano crashes the interview, bringing along the Samoans. The trio intimidate Lauper and Piper, when Piper tries to protect Lauper, the Samoans beat him down and destroy the Pit setting. Piper is left bleeding and Lauper tends to him.
This sets up a segment that airs on MTV, wherein Lauper and Albano have a war of words. Albano threatens to become physical, but Piper, bandaged and on a crutch with a wrapped knee, comes to her rescue. The Samoans arrive, and it looks bad for Piper and Lauper, but Barry Windham and Mike Rotunda, the U.S. Express, make a dramatic save, attacking the Samoans and running them off.
To capitalize on the publicity, the WWF and MTV hold a special event on July 23, called “The Big Brawl,” airing live on the music network from Madison Square Garden. Three matches are shown. Nikolai Volkoff successfully defends the I-C title over Tito Santana, losing by disqualification when Koloff hits Santana with the Soviet flag. The Iron Sheik defeats Rocky Johnson in a WWF title match. And then in the Main Event, The U.S. Express w/ Cindy Lauper and Roddy Piper in their corner defeat the Wild Samoans, with Albano and Blassie in their corner, to win the WWF tag-team championship.
However, after the match, the entire Foreign Legion storms the ring and commence a massive beat down. Suddenly, a rock and roll version of the “Marine Hymn” begins to play, and Sgt. Slaughter bursts through the curtain. He single-handedly turns the tide and vanquishes the Legion, save for the Iron Sheik. The two briefly have a stare-down, before the Sheik is dragged out of the ring.
August 2, 1984 – Hulk Hogan successfully defends his AWA World Championship against Jesse “The Body” Ventura before more than 45,000 fans at Soldier Field in Chicago. The undercard features a steel cage match in which the Crusher and Dick the Bruiser take on the Road Warriors in an epic brawl so bloody the Bruiser has to have a transfusion after the match. The Warriors, who had officially been heels in the months since their debut, are cheered rabidly by the fans. They soon appear in their own Marvel Comics mini-series and engage in an epic series of matches with the Fabulous Freebirds throughout the late summer and fall. Freebird Terry Gordy and Hogan also engage in a well-received feud. Eventually, on Halloween night, before a sell-out crowd of more than 60,000 at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, Hulk Hogan and the Road Warriors defeat Michael Hayes, Terry Gordy and Buddy Roberts in a six-man “Thunderdome” match, taking the name from the new Mel Gibson movie, fitting since the Road Warriors took their name from another Mad Max movie. An influx of talent from other promotions, including the NWA, bolsters the ranks of the AWA as Gagne begins plans for a huge card, similar to the Starrcade event the NWA put on the previous year, he plans to call it “SuperClash.”
November 24, 1984 – Again airing live from Madison Square Garden, the WWF and MTV co-promote a super-card of their own, dubbing it “Rock N’ Wrestling Mania.” The AWA, having trademarked “Hulk-Mania,” threatens to sue over the name, so Vince renames the show the “Rock N’ Wrestling Rumble.” While the event will eventually be shown for free on MTV, the live broadcast is available nationwide on closed circuit. Millions pay to watch the event unfold in theaters across the country. On the card, Big John Studd defeats “Playboy” Buddy Rose in a record 9 seconds, Tito Santana defeats Kamala, the Wild Samoans defeat Rocky Johnson and Ricky Steamboat, the U.S. Express defeat Greg Valentine and Brutus Beefcake, and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper wins the Intercontinental title from Nikolai Volkoff. Piper and Lauper kiss in the middle of the ring after the match, but Piper insists they are “just friends.” And in the Main Event, Sgt. Slaughter defeats the Iron Sheik with the Cobra Clutch to win the WWF Championship. The event is notable for an appearance by Van Halen, Billy Martin, guest referee Muhammad Ali, and “Dr. J” Julius Irving who shares an interview with Studd to sell the big man’s height. Slaughter’s title run includes decisive wins against all the members of the Foreign Legion. A huge wave of patriotism smack in the middle of the Reagan Era makes Sarge a popular guest on many TV shows, much like Hogan. In fact, there develops a great deal of debate among wrestling fans about who is more popular. In the year-end issue of “Pro Wrestling Illustrated,” Hogan wins “Wrestler of the Year,” but Slaughter wins “Most Popular Wrestler,” while incidentally, the Road Warriors-Bruiser/Crusher match wins “Match of the Year.”
December 26, 1984 – “SuperClash” takes place in Las Vegas, airing live via closed-circuit. The numbers will show that while Vince’s Wrestling Rumble generated more revenue, Verne’s show sold more tickets. In the months leading up to the show, the AWA held a battle royal to determine who would face the champ at the Clash. Bruiser Brody won the event and immediately attacked Hogan at the next AWA show. AWA President Stanley Blackburn suspended Brody for his actions, but Hogan demanded to have him reinstated, with the stipulation that the two not appear at the same event before SuperClash. Two weeks before the big show, Hogan was attacked by a mysterious masked man calling himself Red River Jack. It was clearly Brody, but no one was able to prove it. However, Hogan was badly beaten and looked vulnerable going into the show.
At SuperClash, the “Magnums” Terry Allen and Scott Hall won a 20-team Tag-Team “Jackpot” Battle Royal to gain a shot at the Road Warriors, who battled Ivan and Nikita Koloff to a double-disqualification on the card. Ivan is “forced to retire” due to injuries sustained in the match, and he begins grooming Nikita for singles competition. Curt Hennig defeats Greg Gagne in the finals of a tournament to crown the first AWA Americas Champion, intended to serve as the promotion’s answer to the WWF Intercontinental Championship. Although Hennig and Gagne are both faces, a skirmish between their fathers, Verne and Larry “the Axe”, who have accompanied their sons to ringside, kicking off a slow heel turn for Hennig that eventually leads to a tag match between the Hennigs and the Gagnes.
In the Main Event, turned into a “Las Vegas Death Match” at Hogan’s request, Hogan is bloodied and battered by the wild Brody as the two brawl all over the Showboat Sports Pavilion, but the Hulkster eventually wears Brody down and nails him with a series of chair shots until Brody can not answer a 10-count.
Okay, I could seriously go on forever here, and I didn’t even touch on the NWA, which I would love to do, but you get the idea here. Now, I honestly don’t know how close Hogan actually came to staying in the AWA, but it certainly would have had a tremendous effect on how the 1980s would have gone. It’s hard to imagine what today’s wrestling scene would be like if that had happened.
If you’ve never seen it, here’s a massively clipped version of the Hogan/Bockwinkle match that served as the inspiration for my point of divergence from which this particular “Superfly Effect” originated.
So, the common denominator here is that the business of professional wrestling can change instantly but the lasting repercussions can only be seen in hindsight. In recent years, other events have changed the direction of a promotion or the sport as a whole. The death of Owen Hart is a good example. What if Owen’s harness hadn’t malfunctioned? How might the fate of WCW have been different if Kevin Nash hadn’t booked himself to end Goldberg’s streak, or if Goldberg hadn’t scrambled Bret Hart’s brains at Starrcade 1999, or the Radicalz hadn’t jumped to the WWF? What if the Undertaker had lost a match at Wrestlemania 10 or 15 years ago before anyone had thought of a “streak?” On a similar note, more recently, Sting was apparently very close a time or two to jumping to the WWE which would have been a huge deal despite his advancing age and surely led to a big dream match with ‘Taker. The list goes on and on.
Tags: awa, Bob Backlund, Hulk Hogan, Roddy Piper, WWE