Shining a Spotlight 12.01.06: The Rise, Fall and Legacy of the AWA
Posted by Michael Weyer on 12.01.2006
A look at the DVD The Spectacular Legacy of the AWA and how it shows the highs and lows of one of the most influential promotions in wrestling history.
It's hard for the younger generation of fans to truly understand how vastly different the wrestling landscape was just twenty years ago. Instead of the WWE dominating and only smaller guys like TNA and ROH around, you had over a dozen promotions that could be labeled big all over. World Class, CWA, Mid-South/UWF, Pacific Northwest, Florida and more. There were three major ones recognized as the top three: WWF, NWA (mainly the Jim Crockett part) and the AWA.
Most don't know about the American Wrestling Association, no surprise given how it went out of business fifteen years ago. Which is a shame because at one point, the AWA was truly the biggest and most influential promotion in the wrestling landscape, pulling in ratings that actually beat out most regular network shows. While mostly dominating the area around Minnesota, they did spread out around the country and were seen as the place to be. The list of stars who got their big breaks in the AWA is a who's who of wrestling: Nick Bockwinkel, Larry and Curt Henning, Scott Hall, Shawn Michaels, Larry Zybsko, Sgt. Slaughter, Baron von Raschke, the Crusher, the Bruiser, the Road Warriors, Medusa Miceli, Sheri Martel, Jesse Ventura, Adrian Adonis…and Hulk Hogan.
However, many have overlooked the AWA's influence and legacy and instead have spoken of the problems that led to the company's demise. Now, WWE has brought all that to light with its latest DVD, The Spectacular Legacy of the AWA.
You have to admit, a great bonus of Vince McMahon having a monopoly on past wrestling materials is the ability to string together great programs like this. But a true surprise is how fair-minded this DVD is, giving the AWA credit for their massive success but not pulling punches as to how it fell apart. It benefits from owner Verne Gagne and his son, Greg, doing interviews along with many other former AWA stars and behind-the-scenes people. It also dispels many of the myths about the promotion that have become reported as fact over the years (such as Eric Bischoff coming up with the Team Challenge Series). While the DVD case says the promotion suffered "its demise at the hands of WWE," the program itself shows that this is one promotion you can't blame Vince for putting out of business.
The story of the AWA begins with the NWA. I plan on touching on it more in a future column but in 1948, the seven major promoters of the time decided that working together would get them more money than competing and formed the NWA. The Alliance worked well for a while with the advent of television giving wrestling new life. One of the bigger stars to emerge was a Minnesota native named Verne Gagne.
A former Marine who had won numerous wrestling awards in high school and college, Gagne was a pretty big star for the NWA, even being the first wrestler to do merchandise stuff, hocking health foods on TV shows. While some can criticize Verne today, the DVD shows he was one of the highest-drawing workers of that time and it seemed inevitable that he would be NWA champion. However, the majority of the NWA promoters didn't want that to happen as they knew Verne was backed by Wally Karbo and other Chicago-based promoters and didn't want the power shifting to them.
So in 1957, Gagne and Karbo made a move that, for its time, was simply huge. They announced that they were breaking away Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Dakotas into their own separate organization, the AWA, the first major split in the organization's short history. Pat O'Connor, the current NWA champion, was recognized as the first AWA champion. I should say, he was recognized as such by the AWA but the NWA refused to even acknowledge the AWA as a separate group. In 1960, the AWA sent notice that O'Connor would have to defend the title against the top contender or be stripped of it. Naturally, the NWA ignored this and so the AWA championship went to the number one contender who just happened to be Verne Gagne.
We'd better make it clear that the head of a promotion making himself a champion is not new in wrestling. It's happened before, it will happen again. Fritz von Erich in Texas, Bill Watts in Mid-South, Jerry Lawler in USWA, Jeff Jarrett in TNA. Hell, Vince McMahon has all but admitted that if he'd had a wrestling physique, he'd have run with the belt a while (hell, he did hold the WWF title briefly). The reason, which is mentioned on the DVD, is that the owner is the one guy who you could count on never leaving and thus was the most dependable. Verne was still a major star and big draw, thus it wasn't a total case of ego as he helped build his company up.
Throughout the 1960's and ‘70's, the AWA grew and soon established itself as a true wrestling powerhouse. Their house shows in St. Paul and St. Louis were almost always sold out and their TV ratings grew so high they even beat out almost everything but 60 Minutes in the Mid-West area. Verne even made a movie, The Wrestler, which is arguably the best movie about the business ever. Verne himself ran a tight ship, old-school to the extreme. He never gave any hint the sport was fake, had heels and faces always travel and stay in separate hotels and was always making it clear he was the final word on everything. His training camp, set at his farm in Minnesota, could give Stu Hart's Dungeon a run for the money when it came to hard times and produced stars like Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat among others.
The AWA had its own great selection of stars like the wild Mad Dog Vachon, the rough and ready Bruiser and Crusher, the sly Bobby Heenan, easy-going announcer Gene Okerlund, Billy Robinson who was basically the Chris Benoit of his time and more. Verne's own son Greg teamed with Jim Brunzell to form the High Flyers, who would feud with the East-West Connection (Jesse Ventura and Adrian Adonis) for the tag team titles in wild matches. Superstar Billy Graham and Dusty Rhodes got their first exposure with the AWA, bringing in the era of the wild talkers. The final major star was Nick Bockwinkel, a classy and ultra-arrogant worker who broke the mold for the "smart heel" persona that would be used for Flair, Ted DiBiase and JBL.
Bockwinkel would feud with Verne over the AWA World title which brings to light a problem that would be the first sign of big trouble for the company. From the organization's start to 1980, the title would invariably be around Verne's waist, a total of ten reigns. While that was good when the company started, his utter domination of the belt as he grew older was a bit much. He would drop it only to a limited number of old-time workers like Maurice Vachon, Bruiser, Crusher and Bockwinkel who ended his seven year reign in 1975. Bockwinkel would lose it to Verne in the 54-year old's final match in 1980 but be awarded the belt when Verne immediately retired. To many, this seemed to be a bit too much "keeping it in the family," not to mention the wrestlers hoping to make a big break in the AWA.
One such wrestler was Hulk Hogan. A surprise on the DVD is that, after years of seeing Hogan and Vince argue as to which of them was responsible for creating Hulkamania, it's now said that it was Verne who helped Hogan become Hogan. Verne encouraged Hogan to flex and preen for the cameras, improved his talk and gave him the push against smaller wrestlers. This of course turned Hogan into the super babyface and major star. However, Verne simply would not pull the trigger on letting Hogan win the title, instead booking several matches where Hogan appeared to beat Bockwinkel only to have the decision reversed. Despite the sell-out crowds and the way they responded to Hogan, Verne thought a more traditional wrestler should be the company's main person.
It all built up to the infamous 1983 match in St. Louis, part of "Super Sunday" card. Hogan appeared to beat Bockwinkel after a tough match, sending the crowd into a frenzy. Hogan paraded around with the belt for a while when it was announced that the referee had seen Hogan throw Bockwinkel over the top rope earlier and the decision was reversed. The crowd almost literally rioted, which should have been a sign. The story has long been that Verne was using yet another bait-and-switch move and never intended for Hogan to be champion. What the DVD reveals is that Verne was indeed going to give Hogan the belt that night but they had a falling out due to merchandising. In what was another first for the business, Hogan's popularity had led to the AWA becoming the first company to really sell shirts and caps with wrestler's names and such. Verne felt that if Hogan was the champ, Verne would get all the money from Hogan's merchandising as well as his Japan tours. Hogan argued that he deserved at least a 50/50 split so Verne kept the belt off him.
Regardless of how you feel about Hogan, you have to admit he was pretty right on this. The AWA was making more money than ever with him and anything Hogan demanded could easily be balanced out by what he'd bring in revenue in house shows and TV ratings. But Verne was used to running the show his way and felt it was only right Hogan do what he wanted, which meant giving Verne more money rather than the guy responsible for brining in the crowds. Hogan decided instead to go to McMahon and the rest is history.
Verne still holds that "we didn't need Hogan. We were still drawing." That may have been true but it was costly. CBS was approaching the AWA for a prime-time wrestling program which was something even McMahon didn't have. But after Hogan left, so did CBS' interest as it was Hogan they wanted to showcase. Verne simply couldn't get that Hogan was the future and that was one of the key mistakes that led to his downfall.
(It should be noted that the DVD does not mention the long-standing story the Iron Sheik has told that Verne offered him $100,000 to break Hogan's leg and come to the AWA with the WWF title which makes one wonder if that is really valid now.)
Hogan was not the only case where Verne's old-style ways stood against good business. An extra on the DVD is Michael Hayes talking about how he suggested to Verne the Freebirds should feud with the Road Warriors, then the tag team champions. To Hayes, it made perfect sense as the Freebirds were Southern wild men and the Warriors were Northern-based bad-asses, a classic culture clash that would lead to big money. Gagne, however, refused, arguing "you can't have two heel teams wrestle each other!" Hayes was stunned that Gagne actually still considered the Warriors heels, not noticing how they were getting bigger pops than any of the company's faces. When the Freebirds were ready to leave the AWA, Gagne did decide to give them a match against the Warriors at Superclash in 1985 and as Hayes predicted, the crowd was wild for it. Gagne tried to backtrack, telling Hayes point-blank they couldn't leave but it was too late. The Freebirds went back to Texas and the Warriors would end up leaving too, thus Gagne let a perfect moneymaker slip out of his hands. This was an even better example of the mentality that would lead the company to its end: to Verne, the idea of the audience cheering for men he meant for them to boo was just not possible as he was always right on who was pushed and how.
Gagne's stubbornness, his refusal to understand audience demand and the favoritism of his booking, were all major factors in the AWA's slow collapse. The bigger one, however, was that like all the territories, Gagne failed to understand what Vince McMahon was doing in 1984. Vince himself points out on the DVD that the old-style promoters never had competition and didn't know how to deal with it. The key reason Vince was able to succeed as well as he did when the expansion started was that the vast majority of promoters simply didn't think he could do it, a fatal mistake. The DVD openly states that Vince was doing everything the old-style promoters like Verne had been against, with over the top characters and less wrestling action. Instead of doing the smart thing and trying to find a fill-in for Hogan, Verne just kept on promoting like he always had and once again, he suffered.
Another key mistake the vast majority of promoters made was their assumption that the loyalty of workers would outweigh any money Vince offered. Verne certainly believed that, not even bothering to sign some wrestlers to long-term contracts. The fact he could be a bit stingy with money hardly helped matters. Seeing how Hogan was taking off in the WWF, the exodus of AWA stars began with Ventura, Adonis, Brunzell, Heenan and Okerlund all leaving for the WWF. There was a fun bit with Vince saying he always encouraged talent to give notice before coming over while it's stated only Heenan bothered to finish out his AWA dates first. Verne also took it far too personally and figured that if Vince could do shows in Minneapolis, Verne could do shows in New York. I'll be charitable and say that didn't work out very well.
So Verne, facing a depleted list of workers, tried to reach out for some new ways to strengthen the company. Unfortunately, his efforts led only to more backlash. He had a brief alliance with some European workers with Otto Wanz having a brief reign as champion (unsubstantiated is the claim Wanz paid $50,000 for the title). In 1984, he made a deal with All Japan Pro Wrestling and tried to sweeten it by having Jumbo Tsuruta win the World title. Needless to say, this did not set business afire in the States and after only a few months, he dropped the belt to Rick Martel. Now, Martel is an excellent worker but this was still early in his career before he became the arrogant "Model" character. Thus, he came off rather bland and nowhere near the charisma or ability to sell tickets that Hogan and Ric Flair possessed.
At the same time, Verne gave his son Greg a singles push, necessary after Brunzell left for the WWF. It quickly became clear to everyone that as talented as Greg was as a tag team wrestler, he just didn't have that same skill as a singles star. Not to mention he was even less charismatic than Martel, almost monotone in his promos, which did little to endear the fans to him. However, he was the son of the boss and thus would be pushed hard. Another unsubstantiated rumor is that the only reason Greg was never World champion was because every time Verne tried to do it, every promoter under him threatened to quit. Verne seemed to be the only person who couldn't accept that Greg was not the future of the company but kept on going because such moves had made him successful before.
Still, the AWA did make some good moves in 1985. One of the biggest was Verne managing to strike a deal with ESPN to get a weekly show to give the AWA more exposure and promotion. He also managed to put aside the years of bad blood to agree to co-promote a show with the NWA. The first show was SuperClash in Chicago in September and was meant to give both promotions a push with cooperation helping them survive against the growing WWF. However, it all fell apart after that one show as Verne and the Crocketts got into arguments over which promotion would get the main event and longer matches. It was hardly helped by the fact the NWA stars eclipsed those of the AWA. Let's face it, who's a Chicago-based crowd going to root for, Rick Martel or Ric Flair? The final straw was when Gagne learned that David Crockett was trying to sign away some of the AWA stars in the middle of the show. The partnership died after only one night.
In December of 1985, Gagne finally realized that Martel just wasn't the right person to carry the promotion (and it only took him nineteen months to figure it out). So he had Martel lose the belt to Stan Hansen, who made Martel submit to the Canadian's own Boston Crab move. Now there were several reasons why putting the belt on Hansen was a big mistake. The first is due to Hansen's well-earned reputation for being…let's see, how to put this…insane. The man's unstable rep made making him a World champion a huge risk. The bigger problem was the fact that Hansen didn't need a title as he was a huge star in Japan, making more money than most NBA or NFL stars at the time. This would lead to a huge mess in June of 1986 when Verne decided to have Bockwinkel turned into a face (despite the fact the man was an awesome heel) and beat Hansen for the belt. Now there are several versions of what happened but the basic gist is that Hansen considered his loyalty more to All-Japan than to the AWA and when All-Japan president Giant Baba didn't want to let Hansen go of his Japan dates, Hansen left the building with the AWA title. Bockwinkel was announced as the champion but an ugly mess followed as Hansen took the belt to Japan, still declaring himself the champion. The AWA threatened legal action so Hansen mailed the belt back to them...after running it over with his car, the mud tracks still on it.
1986 had the company starting to bounce back a bit with Colonel DeBeers and Sgt. Slaughter and some emerging talents like a young Scott Hall and Curt Henning. Sheri Martel became a dominant female wrestler and managing the tag team champions, Doug Sommers and Buddy Rose. Best of all, Verne found two young Texas wrestlers named Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty and put them together as the Midnight Rockers, who quickly became one of the hottest teams around. After months of chasing, the Rockers beat Rose and Sommers in early 1987 to win the tag team titles. Their reign would be short, however, as Verne was never pleased with their reputation for partying hard the night before big cards, something that unsettled the old-styled man. When he heard the two were being approached by the WWF, Gagne, fearing a repeat of the Hansen mess, had them drop the belts to Boris Zukhov and Soldat Ustinov. As it turned out, the two had planned to stay with the AWA but after being made to drop the belts, went to the WWF. However, they only lasted a week before being let go, bouncing around before coming back to the company and briefly holding the belts again in December. When they dropped them in early 1988, they left for good.
1987 had some big moves for the company as Curt Henning beat Bockwinkel for the title at SuperClash 2. However, the match was marred by Henning punching Bockwinkel with a roll of quarters handed to him by Larry Zybsko. The title was held up for review for a while but went to Henning who began the arrogant heel persona he would carry over as "Mr. Perfect." However, Gagne was still losing talent to the WWF and the crowds dwindled with it. What Gagne could not understand was that his way of doing things was vanishing against this new generation of fans. No longer was the AWA the promotion to be in; it was now seen as merely a way to make your name before going to bigger pastures in the WWF. For every star the AWA managed to bring out (the Nasty Boys, Paul E. Dangerously), they'd lose more and more with those new stars eventually jumping ship too.
By this point, Gagne had forged an alliance with the Continental area, owned by Jerry Lawler. Lawler and long-time friend Bill Watts even had a reign as tag team champions as talent would be traded a bit between areas. This would play out big-time in 1988 as Gagne realized Henning was getting ready to leave for the WWF as well and decided to strengthen that bond with Lawler. On May 9th, in a great match in front of a sold-out crowd in his Memphis hometown, Lawler beat Henning to win the title. Immediately afterward, Lawler decided to issue an open challenge to any other promotions to fight him. This led to a series of matches against the workers in the CWA but then the big move came: Lawler traveled to Texas to defend the AWA title against wrestlers from World Class. True, all three promotions were bush league against the NWA and WWF but seeing them all go at it was pretty exciting to watch.
The highlight was Lawler feuding with World Class champion Kerry Von Erich. The matches were all good, Lawler beating Von Erich a few times to win the World Class belt. Von Erich would manage to get a few wins to get the World Class belt back while the AWA title stayed with Lawler. It was all building up to Superclash III in December, a huge event that would have talent from all three areas going at it. The main event would be Lawler and Von Erich unifying the two belts into one with the plan to have World Class and CWA basically fall under the AWA banner, giving all three promotions the chance to stand strong against the dual expansion of WWF and NWA. It would also be broadcast on pay-per-view, the first such card to come from someone other than the Big Two. Lawler, Von Erich, Gagne and Jerry Jarrett were almost salivating over the money they'd be making.
And then came the night of the card itself.
It was probably doomed from the start when they announced it would be in Chicago. The Von Erich-Lawler feud had been hot in Texas and Tennessee so having the card take place thousands of miles away, to an area where the three promotions did not have much coverage or fan support. The result was that barely over a thousand people filled the arena for the show. Superclash III is a prime example of why there could never be a big inter-promotion supercard. As Vince puts it on the DVD "these guys couldn't order a cup of coffee together, let alone plan together, promote together and run a big show together." The big problem was deciding who would win…or to be more precise, who would lose as none of the promoters wanted to have their guys looking bad. The result was the card was a wild mess salvaged a bit by the main event where Lawler and Von Erich had a wild bloodbath of a match. It was so much of a blood bath that the referee ordered it stopped and the unified title given to Lawler because of Von Erich's blood loss. It was a lousy finish but at least they had that unified title.
And that's when everything went straight to hell in a handbasket.
The basic problem was that Lawler wanted to keep to his dates in Texas and CWA while Gagne insisted he do the AWA dates. The situation was hardly helped by the discovery that what money had been made off the PPV, Verne pocketed for himself to pay off his own bills. Lawler felt he had leverage as he had the AWA title and surely Verne could not be so stupid as to mess up the man who had given the AWA more good press and credibility than it had seen in years?
Yep, he sure was. Verne had puppet president Stanley Blackburn strip Lawler of the belt and ban him for life from the AWA. Lawler refused to give the belt up until he was paid the money owed, which he never was so Lawler still has the original AWA title belt with him today. Gagne followed that up with another bad mistake which was putting the title up for grabs in a battle royal. Instead of someone with a recognizable presence like Sgt. Slaughter, they instead put the belt on Larry Zybsko. Why a man who had been with the NWA over the last year and, despite his great mike presence, wasn't as much in the ring? Because he was Verne's son-in-law and thus Verne knew he wouldn't be jumping from the company. However, Zybsko just didn't click as well and the talent exodus was getting even worse. Even some announcers left and thus it fell to Eric Bischoff to do the announcing for the company, which Bischoff himself will admit he was horrible at.
As 1990 dawned, Verne tried to get interest in the title by having Zybsko lose it to Mr. Siato and get it back months later. But it mattered nothing to the dwindling crowds. By this point, Verne was so desperate, he tried one of the worst ideas in the history of wrestling: The Team Challenge Series. The basic idea was to have the company's talent formed into three teams, each captained by Sgt. Slaughter, Baron von Rashke and Zybsko (Slaughter would leave the AWA before the TCS ended and be replaced by Col. DeBeers). The teams would go at it in various matches with points awarded for the winners. Whatever team had the most points at the end would win a million dollars.
As I said, not a bad concept. However, the matches and the way the Series worked were so convoluted, even Vince Russo couldn't figure it out. Far too many of them were gimmick matches that included the infamous "Great American Turkey Hunt" where lifelong jobber Jake "the Milkman" Mulligan pulled a turkey off a pole to win. Due to dwindling crowds, the AWA announced that "to enhance security," they would be holding most of the matches in an empty studio with pink walls. Even the announcers had no clue what was going on or who was ahead. Finally, they had a real arena for the last match, a battle royal with Milligan eliminating DeBeers to give Zybsko's team the million dollars.
For years, it's been reported as fact that Bischoff came up with the TCS. But in the DVD, as in his autobiography, Bischoff denies having anything to do with the idea or any of the booking. Indeed, Bischoff says that he was working with the company for a year before Verne would even break kayfabe and let him know what was going to happen. Frankly, this should have been apparent to people a long time ago as Verne was always running things. Given Verne's old time thinking, it does seem strange he'd hand control of the company off to some young rookie.
The final nail in the coffin was in early 1991 when the state of Minnesota claimed eminent domain on a parcel of land Verne owned. In order to pay the legal hassles, Verne was forced to sell off the AWA and its tape library. After 34 years, the AWA died out with a whimper overnight. The Apter mags (the only ones paying any attention to the AWA by this point) made up the story that Zybsko pocketed the TCS money for himself before going to WCW. Verne and Greg would pretty much stay out of the business until 2006 when Verne was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, getting a good laugh from the crowd with his deadpan line on Vince "I never liked the guy either."
Today, a small independent AWA exists but it is a shadow of the great powerhouse that once was. The legacy of the company is something that should be remembered as it was a great old-style wrestling promotion which was a good antidote to WWF and NWA. As the DVD showcases, the AWA was once the biggest and best promotion around. However, Verne could not accept the changing tastes of audiences, refusing the flex with the times and that ended up costing him everything. He was so used to doing things his way and having that meet with fan expectations, he couldn't understand when those fans and what they wanted changed. As noted on the DVD, Verne would have run the company all the way into bankruptcy before letting anyone else take control and try to steer things around. The expansion and the talent raids by WWF played a big part to be sure. But in the end, it was Verne Gagne, the man who created the AWA, who helped steer it into collapse.
Which is a damn shame as the AWA was a wonderful promotion with great values, top-notch action and a respect for both the sport and the fans which is sadly lacking in today's wrestling landscape. The litany of wrestlers who got their big break there is a Who's Who of the business and it was a good counterpoint to the other promotions of the time. I highly recommend the DVD, which gives a surprisingly well-balanced and detailed look at the company and shows how, in ways good and bad, the AWA's legacy is truly spectacular.
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