Wrestling In The 80's Part 1
A look back at Wrestling in the 80's from The NWA to the WWF. Part 1 The AWA
Back in the 80's you knew you were in for something special when you attended a wrestling event. Whether it came from the smell of beer , sweat and smoke , the screams of pain or just from the jeers and cheers of the crowd. It was a time when wrestling was still considered a sport and not yet sports entertainment. Much like Santa and Christmas time a young child could still stand there wide eyed and expectant hoping to see some of the in ring magic. An ohhh from the crowd as body slams , suplexes and clotheslines entertained all around. They would yell and scream along with their parents , friends and numerous fans at their favorite grappler. It was a time before the true nationalization of the global product that would become The WWE. Numerous territories were to be found throughout the country with many comprising The NWA ( National Wrestling Alliance ) including Georgia Championship Wrestling ( Paul Jones ) , Jim Crockett Promotions/Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling ( Jim Crockett , Jr. ) , The Continental Wrestling Association/Mid-Southern Wrestling ( Jerry Jarret ) , World Class Championship Wrestling ( Fritz Von Erich ) , EMLL ( Chavo Gonzales ) , All Japan Pro Wrestling , New Japan Pro Wrestling ( Antonio Inoki ) , The St Louis Wrestling Club ( Sam Munchnick ) and Mid-South Wrestling ( Bill Watts ). In the North-East United States you had the then WWF ( WWE as of May of 2002 ) which was led by Vince McMahon and the Minnesota-based American Wrestling Association owned and operated by Verne Gagne. With those wrestling organizations through out the world it was a great time to be a fan of what could be still considered a sport. The magic was on that blue mat , it was inside the squared circle and it was between the ropes. When you were there you had a feeling that no matter if you were blue collar or white collar , black or white you were in for some a fun filled evening. It was wrestling in the 1980's and it would soon change to something else entirely.
The AWA was a professional wrestling association owned and operated by Verne Gagne and Wally Karbo that along with various other NWA federations broke away from The NWA , the reigning body of wrestling at the time , in 1960. It would be operated from 1960 to 1991. During the late 1970's to the early 1980's The AWA would experience a resurgence of popularity and hold shows throughout The Midwest. Verne Gagne was a former US Olympic wrestler in 1948 ( never got to compete though ) and wrestled professionally until his retirement from full competition in 1981 but would continue to occasionally perform until 1986. While his career was winding down and his retirement was looming the promotions attention would be garnered upon Nick Bockwinkle who shared Gagne's views on wrestling being of sound technical abilities versus that of simply being a form of entertainment.
Bockwinkle as AWA Champion would take on all comers such as Jesse " The Body " Ventura , Mad Dog Vachon , Adrian Adonis , Jerry " Crusher " Blackwell , Ken Patera , Greg Gagne , Jim Brunzell , Baron Von Raschke , Curt Henning , Rick Martel and Tito Santana....
But something happened in 1982. Rocky III had just been released and an AWA wrestler named Hulk Hogan had just performed as " Thunderlips " in the film. Following his role and riding on a wave of fan reaction Hogan would become a face ( good guy ) to take on the heel ( bad guy ) that was the current AWA World Champion Nick Bockwinkle. Twice Hogan was given the AWA title only to have it stripped by then AWA President Stanley Blackburn. One time it was stripped six days later and another time shortly after the match which nearly caused the fans in attendance to riot. Hogan would attack both Bockwinkle and his manager Bobby Heenan and get on the mic telling the fans to calm down. It was revealed later ( ala The WWE produced " The Spectacular Legacy of the AWA " DVD ) that Hogan was scheduled to win the title the second time but when he refused to give Gagne and his company the bulk of his earning from merchandise sales and payments from his Japanese main event performances , the title was kept from him. Soon Gagne was pushing his son Greg Gagne into the top spot. Many saw this as blatant nepotism. The nepotism coupled with the failure to use Hogan properly was causing the wrestlers and fans to lose faith in The AWA as it was losing ground in the emerging promotional war.
Then in 1983...top AWA talent would sign over to the northeast territory known then as The WWF. Wrestlers like " Adorable " Adrian Adonis , Ken Patera , Jim Brunzell , and Jesse Ventura would jump ship along with announcer " Mean " Gene Okerlund and manager Bobby " The Brain " Heenan. But no loss would hurt The AWA more than the one in December of 1983. And that happened to be the loss of Hulk Hogan to The WWF. A month later in January Hogan would acquire the World Heavyweight Championship ( more on that later ). It was a giant step towards solidifying The WWF's position as the top promotion over The AWA and The NWA.
The raid on the AWA's talent was a great loss and could've been the nail in the coffin but they weren't dead yet. Instead in 1984 one of the greatest tag teams of all time would make their mark. The Road Warriors ( Legion Of Doom - Hawk and Animal along with their long time manager Paul Ellering) had come to wrestle for them. They would feud primarily with The Fabulous Freebirds but also with numerous tag teams. That coupled with the fact that longtime heel Jerry " Crusher " Blackwell had turned face. All in all it would lead to a fairly decent year. Stars like Nick Bockwinkel , Ray "The Crippler" Stevens , "The Crusher" Reginald Lisowski , Dick the Bruiser , Baron Von Raschke , Mad Dog Vachon , and Larry Henning were still with the company and they had signed future WWF Champion Sgt. Slaughter and former WWF Champion Bob Backlund to directly compete against the rising threat. During this time The AWA would form an alliance with several of The NWA promoters. This alliance would include Jim Crockett Promotions, The UWF, Pacific Northwest Wrestling, WCCW ( Dallas ), and The CWA ( Memphis ). The new promotion was known as Pro Wrestling USA and it was supposed to compete at a national level with The WWF. Soon though The WWF would create Wrestlemania and change the future of wrestling forever. Following in the wake of Wrestlemania , Pro Wrestling USA would go on to promote their first major Super-Card " Superclash " ( 1985 )featuring The Road Warriors taking on The Fabulous Freebirds for The AWA Tag Team Titles , Kerry Von Erich fighting Jimmy " Jam " Garvin for the WCCW Texas Championship , Rick Martel facing Stan Hansen for The AWA Championship and Ric Flair squaring up with Magnum T.A. to defend The NWA Championship ( at the time the most admired World Championship ). Talk about an event for the ages. Soon though Pro Wrestling USA would crumble as Verne Gagne accused David Crockett of attempting to steal AWA talent away to The NWA specifically his promotion then known as Mid Atlantic Championship Wrestling / JCP.
Gagne was still trying to compete with the tidal wave that was Vince McMahon and his WWF. So in 1985 The AWA would release one of the first available forms of wrestling figures as well as 30 minutes wrestling videos highlighting their performs who then included Sgt. Slaughter , Steven ( William ) Regal , The Road Warriors and then AWA World Champion Rick Martel ( " The Model " ). He could see the need for exposure and would turn to cable sports channel ESPN to compete against WWF and The USA Network as well as NWA Georgia/World Championship Wrestling (on TBS) by airing AWA Championship Wrestling (1985-1990 ). But their programming would always be left on the back burner when it came to other sports programs with their product being delayed or changed at a whim. Would wrestling toys ( that came out before The WWF's classic LJN series ) , videos and a shaky cable deal be enough to hold The AWA together?
Soon The AWA was starting to fall behind both The WWF and The NWA as they became the major promotions and Gagne's vision started to falter. One thing that severely hurt The AWA in the eyes of the fans and the wrestling world in general was the championship match between then AWA World Champion Rick Martel when his nineteen month reign would come to an end with a defeat by Stan Hansen via submission. Losing a title especially a World Championship by a submission at that time was usually not done. But heading into 1986 with Hansen as Champion The AWA looked to be heading in the right direction since Hansen had been a solid performer if not technically sound. He did bring in a decent gate for Gagne's company.
And on April 26, 1986 one of the few AWA supercards titled Wrestlerock 86 would take place. It would feature future WWF's wrestlers Scott Hall ( Razor Ramon ) and Curt Henning ( Mr. Perfect ) defending their AWA Tag Titles , Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty took part in a tag match together , and also wrestling in matches were The Fabulous Ones , Rick Martel , Harley Race , Barry Windham , Mike Rotundo ( IRS ) , " Sensational " Sherri Martel , Luna Vachon , " The Living Legend " Larry Zbyszko , Verne ( in his last performance ) and Greg Gagne , The Road Warriors vs. The Fabulous Freebirds ( steel cage main event ) , " Superfly " Jimmy Snuka , " Bruiser / King Kong " Brody , Sgt. Slaughter vs .Kamala The Ugandan Giant for The AWA America's Championship and Nick Bockwinkle defeating then AWA Champion Stan Hansen ( title not lost due to disqualification ). All in all a great show for The AWA. But it was the last match as a wrestler for Gagne and also the last match in The AWA for The Road Warriors as well who were the top draw for the past two years in the organization.
Also then AWA Champion Stan Hansen was a popular gaijin ( foreign born wrestler ) in Japan as he also performed for both New Japan Pro Wrestling and then All Japan Pro Wrestling and had commitments to both companies. At this time AJPW and The AWA had a working agreement between the two companies and Hansen was being billed as The AWA Champion in Japan. Giant Baba who operated it informed Hansen not to drop the title since he had already lined up opponents for him but Gagne wanted him to drop it to Bockwinkle. The rumor was that Hansen was there on the night of June 29 , 1986 and took off for Japan with the title. Hansen was " stripped " that night of the championship and Bockwinkle was given one of the tag titles as a makeshift title since Hansen had left with it already. He would still refer to himself as AWA Champion in Japan and the AWA threatened him legally. In response to the threat Hansen would run over the title with his truck and mail it back to Gagne.
However The AWA continued to develop outstanding young talent like Scott Hall , Big Van Vader , The Nasty Boys , Madusa Micele and two young guys that would become The Rockers , Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty , then known as The Midnight Rockers all in two years from 1986 through 1987. By 1988 Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty were signed by The WWF and in 1987 Vader had left the country to perform for the next five years in Japan for New Japan Pro Wrestling and starting in 1990 with WCW.
The AWA would look inwards by 1987 to find some relief and it would come in Minnesota born and son of Larry " The Axe " Henning , Curt Henning. On May 2, 1987 Superclash II would be held at The Cow Palace in San Francisco as Nick Bockwinkle would put over Curt by dropping the title to him. For the next year Henning would defend the championship against all comers as he and his father would also engage in a long and bitter feud against Greg Gagne and his father Verne Gagne. But The WWF was knocking at the door. Would Curt answer it? Verne Gagne didn't know.
He would go from that to this...
Having still maintained a relationship with Mid Southern/CWA promoter Jerry Jarrett to the point that on May 9 , 1988 Memphis wrestling legend Jerry " The King " Lawler would take on then AWA Champion Curt Henning and pull out the victory. Henning had signed with The WWF and would go on to have one of the greatest heel runs in WWF history as Mr. Perfect. Lawler was the new AWA Champion as The AWA and The CWA merged together. Later in 1988 World Class Championship Wrestling ( WCCW ) would entered into the fold to form a new alliance with all three companies now operating as one. And together they would promote SuperClash III ( The AWA's first and only PPV event ) on December 13, 1988 from the UIC Pavilion in Chicago, Illinois. Many future and then current stars took part in the event including Jeff Jarrett , Cactus Jack ( Mick Foley ) , DDP ( as a manager ) , Greg Gagne , " Rugged " Ronnie Garvin , Luna Vachon , Sgt. Slaughter ( in a boot camp match ) , Wahoo McDaniel , Samu and Fatu ( Rikishi ) - The Samoan Swat Team , The Rock n Roll Express - Ricky Morton and Robert Gibson , Michael " P.S. " Hayes and a controversial World Title Unification Match between AWA Champion Jerry Lawler and WCWA World Champion Kerry Von Erich ( The Texas Tornado ). The main event was to make unify the two titles ( much like the unification of The WCW World Title and WWF World Title in 2001 ). The match itself was controversial over the finish making Lawler the unified champion when the referee stopped the match due to blood loss by Kerry Von Erich. Due to poor buy rates which were a fraction of what the WWF and NWA's PPV buy rates were and assumed deception over the numbers given to the public and to the owners of both The CWA and WCCW by The AWA specifically by Gagne himself. Both organizations would leave the alliance with Gagne's company ( CWA's Jerry Jarret and Jerry Lawler would buy out WCCW and rename their new company USWA - United States Wrestling Association ) and once again The AWA would be left to fend for itself. Also just like Stan Hansen had done in 1986 Lawler would do the same thing in 1988. The King wanted the cut of the ppv earnings that he was due by Gagne for his appearance and continued to promote himself as The Unified Champion throughout Tennessee , Texas and numerous independent territories as leverage. Gagne was resorted once again to using another belt as an interim tile in the wake of this while he commissioned a new one to be made , specifically the AWA International Television Championship.
By February of 1989 Larry Zbyszko who was Gagne's son-in-law ( nepotism rears its ugly head yet again ) reentered the AWA wrestling world and took part in a 18 man battle-royal for the " vacated " AWA World Championship " by finally tossing Tom Zenk ( The Z-Man ) over the top rope. Zbyszko would feud over the title with Wahoo McDaniel , Greg Gagne ( yay isn't nepotism fun? ) , Sgt. Slaughter , David Sammartino ( nepotism in a way David is wrestling legend Bruno Sammartino's son ), Ken Patera , Nikita Koloff , and Masa Saito who he would lose to in Tokyo , Japan in February of 1990. Eventually Zbyszko would earn it back in May of that same year. Around this time from October of 1989 to August of 1990 The AWA would hold what was called a Team Challenge Series or TCS that was loosely based on points and would serve as a guide for future PPV events like WCW's Battle Bowl. There were three teams Larry's Legends ( led by Larry Zbyszko ), Baron's Blitzers ( led by long time AWA veteran Baron Von Raschke ) and DeBeer's Diamonds ( led by Colonel DeBeers ). Originally The Diamonds were Slaughter's Snipers but Sgt. Slaughter had left for The WWF. The concept seemed like a new , novel and original idea that has been credited to a young wrestling executive getting his first on air exposure by numerous sources named Eric Bischoff but he has denied it as both his biography and the WWE produced AWA DVD state that it was Greg Gagne's idea. But as it came to fruition it seemed to be very loosely operated with heels and faces competing on the same team with gimmick matches which the AWA had never been known for. The first sets of TCS matches took place without a live audience which was claimed to stop others from interferring since there was a kayfabe ( fake / storyline ) one million dollar prize for the eventual winning team. But in reality it was due to poor ticket sales and lack of interest. When it was all said and done Larry's Legends had won the TCS by winning a battle royal of sorts and the points total. But did anyone notice that fact?
With Zbyszko back as champion he would stay as champion until The AWA became inactive in the fall of 1990. In December of 1990 he would leave for WCW and after he had left Gagne would strip him of the title. One of the main reasons for the failure could be attested to Gagne's leveraging of valuable property near Lake Minnetonka to keep The AWA afloat. Local officials wanted to turn the surrounding area into a park an Gagne would lose a court battle as the land was made into Minnetonka Regional Park. His assets holding his company together were now gone. That coupled with the title being vacated and attendance waning he would be forced to file bankruptcy by 1991 as Gagne would host his last show in May of 1991 and an era of Minnesota based wrestling would come to an end.
In all Minnesota wrestling led to the creation of a generation of superstars from Hulk Hogan to The Road Warriors. In the hearts of fans of wrestling in the 1980's The AWA was a fusion of old school and new. It showcased not only the rising tide the era of cable could offer but it managed to show the vast technical expertise that the likes of Verne Gagne put forth for a wrestling hungry audience.