HomeWrestlingWrestling: Biggest Mistakes Made By The AWA

Wrestling: Biggest Mistakes Made By The AWA

Although not as heralded as it once was, during the 1980s, the American Wrestling Association was regarded within the top 3 wrestling promotions in North America. Founded by Verne Gagne and Wally Karbo in 1960, it would last for over 30 years before slowly dying out in 1991. In this time however, it managed to produce some of the biggest stars of its day – Verne Gagne, Nick Bockwinkel, Hulk Hogan, Shawn Michaels, Scott Hall, Curt Hennig. Rick Martel, Ray Stevens and Harley Race – and that’s not even mentioning the other wrestlers who passed through! 

However, there was a reason the AWA never quite managed to stay in business or could never match the NWA or WWF for popularity and here we will break down the biggest issues plaguing Verne Gagne’s beloved promotion. 

Too Much Verne

Generally, wrestling fans do not approve of wrestling bookers trying to make themselves the top star even if this was less-known in the 1980s. Although the likes of Dusty Rhodes, Vince McMahon and even Cody Rhodes to a point have made themselves the top focus, none have been more egregious than Verne Gagne.  

Full Career Retrospective and Greatest Moments for Verne Gagne | Bleacher  Report | Latest News, Videos and Highlights
(Photo Credit: Bleacher Report)

Verne booked himself to win the promotion’s world title 10 times. With a combined stretch of 4,677 days, fans have since commented on how Verne stroked his own ego in the company he created.  

Rather surprisingly, he was not the inaugural AWA champion with that honour going to Pat O’Connor in 1960 after having previously been the NWA titleholder. Gagne would go on to become the 2nd, 4th, 6th, 8th, 10th, 12th, 14th, 22nd, 24th and 26th champion. He would even retire whilst active champion in his mid-50s. 

The formula for these reigns were all pretty similar: win the belt and hold for multiple months, lose for a short while before regaining – with the average reign lasting over 15 months. This is likely aided by a 2,625 day reign (7-year) stretch from 1968-1975. 

From the CBC archives: Verne Gagne and other pro wrestling greats in  Winnipeg | CBC News
Verne wrestled deep into his middle-age (Photo Credit: CBC.ca)

Even in the 80s, Verne tried to mould the promotion around himself, still staying in the limelight and trying to push son Greg off from the legacy Verne had left. An endless smothering at the hands of Gagne, the purely self-serving push he gave himself – sometimes to the determent of others – was so polarizing throughout the 60s and 70s. Even coming out of retirement to get back into wrestling, it seems that Verne would have happily continued to hold the belt until he died had that been a possibility.  

Not Adapting To A “Sports-Entertainment” Format

When watching old AWA tapes today, you could be forgiven for thinking that any of the matches are much older than you think. Generally, the company always functioned on the idea that it was a traditional, pure wrestling company where their Southern-based style of grappling was what made them special. 

American Wrestling Association: Championship Wrestling (08-30-1986)  Midnight Rockers (Marty Jannetty & Shawn Michaels) vs. Buddy Rose & Doug  Somers | Blue Thunder Driver
A 1986 match pitting The Midnight Rockers vs Buddy Rose and Doug Somers (Photo Credit: Blue Thunder Bomb)

Whilst the company did have some of the best technical workers on the planet come through its doors from Nick Bockwinkel to Steve Regal (“Mr Electricity”, not William Regal), it was not enough to keep them afloat when compared to the more vibrant, modern and character-based WWF, or even the NWA for that matter.  

The AWA failed to capture the imagination of kids as much. Whilst the WWF had The Ultimate Warrior, Randy Savage, Tito Santana, Big Boss Man, Akeem, Ted DiBiase, Andre The Giant, Bam Bam Bigelow and of course Hulk Hogan – who we will get to later – the AWA had more down-to-Earth, real-life, traditional wrestlers which failed to pick up interest in an entertainment art that wrestling had now become.  

S6E7: Nick Bockwinkel vs Curt Hennig w/Genevieve Gearity — This Is Awesome?
Nick Bockwinkel and Curt Hennig facing off (Photo Credit: This Is Awesome? A Wrestling Podcast)

The AWA always seemed to believe fans watched wrestling for the wrestling – but the truth is a lot of fans don’t. The fans often prefer other aspects such as the entrances, finishing maneuvers, promo packages, attires, wrestler gimmicks, promos or the sense of community rather than the nuts-and-bolts, bricks-and-mortar wrestling. Ultimately, it does seem a dedication to real, timely rasslin’ over anything else is one of the factors that drew the AWA away from the heights of the WWF or NWA. 

Not Making Hogan Champion

hogan awa | Pro wrestling, Hulk hogan, World heavyweight championship
(Photo Credit: Pinterest)

If we were to pinpoint a particular moment that killed off any confidence in the AWA, it would be releasing Hulk Hogan – thinking he was not a top draw. 

After a run in the WWF as a heel, Hogan would jump to the AWA where he would soon become a top face when battling The Heenan Family, more specifically Nick Bockwinkel. An immensely-popular face, his feud with AWA World Heavyweight champion Bockwinkel saw him propelled to new heights.  

Hogan even beat Bockwinkel in a title match in 1982 but both men used objects so the result was overturned. Hogan would against beta him in 1983 however was again stripped of the title, almost causing a riot from the rabid Hogan-supporting fans who reacted with extreme passion to his win. Verne did eventually want to put the AWA belt on Hogan but as long as Gagne got most of Hulk’s income and earnings from his time in New Japan Pro Wrestling. Hogan would propose a 50/50 split so Verne withheld the title belt from him.  

AWA Hulk Hogan promo for CWF 10-08-1983 - YouTube
Hogan cutting a backstage promo in 1983 (Photo Credit: YouTube)

Having not been given the title despite his vast popularity, Hogan left the promotion for the greener pastures of the WWF where he would go on to become one of the biggest draws in wrestling history. Like Eric Bischoff letting Steve Austin slip through his hands, we can only ask what would have happened had Hogan stayed with Hulk’s popularity helping elevate the WWF’s popularity during the 80s boom. 

A WWF Talent Raid

Hulk Hogan’s departure was not the AWA’s only major loss during Vince McMahon’s monopolising of the wrestling business in the early 80s.  

In addition to the WWF’s purge of Mid-Atlantic, Georgia and Florida NWA territories of the era, they took significant AWA talents. Along with Hogan came Gene Okerlund, Bobby Heenan, Jesse Ventura, Adrian Adonis, Wendi Richter, David Schultz, Jim Brunzell and Ken Patera. Furthermore, Vince McMahon allegedly paid them handsomely enough so they did not have to fulfill their multi-week notices. This earl-80s would bolster the WWF roster whilst also hindering the AWA’s talent.  

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Okerlund, Heenan, Ventura – all of whom were snatched up by, and were important parts, of the WWF (Photo Credit: superluchas.com
Tape Machines Are Rolling — WWF MONDAY NIGHT RAW #8 (March 8, 1993)
Perfect and Martel: 2 AWA World champions who left for the WWF (Photo credit: Tape Machines Are Rolling)

This meant that Bockwinkel had a long stretch as the always-reliable titleholder whilst needing outsider opponents such as Jumbo Tsuruta and Jerry Lawler. 

The new AWA talent would form essential parts of the 80s WWF such as Bobby Heenan’s commentary, “Mean” Gene’s presenting and of course, Hogan’s run prompted the WWF’s success through the first WrestleMania. 

The WWF would only take more talent through the 80s such as Mr Perfect, Rick Martel, Ken Resnick, Kamala, Marty Jannetty, Shawn Michaels, Boris Zhukov and even AWA faithful Nick Bockwinkel – who took to an office job.  

Stan Hansen As World Champion

On paper, Stan “The Lariat” Hansen is a perfect choice for a dominant world champion. Besides being a monster hoss, he also gives legitimacy, credibility and name value to a promotion. However, his AWA run was marred by a less than amicable relationship.  

Context is important for this, so let’s start there. In May 1984, Rick Martel won the AWA title from Jumbo Tsuruta having been a popular star in the company since debuting in 1982. The former WWF World Tag Team champion would hold the world title for 595 days – a near-19-month reign that saw Martel on top with the promotion, sharing posters with Ric Flair and Hulk Hogan and being billed as just as big of a star. The Canadian had a certain boy-next-door charm that made him a reasonable pick for longest-reigning AWA champion of the 1980s.  

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During his own reign, Martel was a world champion alongside Flair and Hogan (Photo Credit: Tumblr)

Unfortunately for Martel however, he would drop this strap after Christmas 1985 to Hansen via Boston Crab, showing a move away from workhorses faces to powerhouse heels. In June 1986, Stan no-showed a title defence against Nick Bockwinkel. Hansen would allegedly call up AJPW booker Giant Baba to ask if losing was alright as Hansen was also a hugely protected star in Japan. Baba vetoed a loss so Hansen refused the loss to Nick and was stripped of the belt.  

See the source image
(Photo Credit: Pinterest)

Having the belt prized off him, Hansen would (á lá Ric Flair in 1991) continue holding onto the physical belt. Newly-awarded titleholder Bockwinkel had to make do with one of the tag belts in the real world title’s absence. Despite not being champion, he would “defend” the belt in AJPW, to which the AWA threatened legal action. Hansen simply responded by running over the belt with his truck and mailing the broken remains back to Verne with mud tracks still on as it lay in hundreds of pieces. 

Not only did Hansen make the AWA look bad, it had further ramifications for the company. Not only did it make Bockwinkel look like he could not beat Hansen so given the belt out of sympathy but it ruined nearly 2 years of booking. Martel was supposed to be toppled by the promotion’s next top guy but was instead beaten by someone the company had to cover for, gloss over and eventually not have within a year’s time. 

WrestleRock Rumble

Whether it is WCW trying to do monster truck fights or WWE trying to make you care about random celebrities guest hosting Raw – the wrestling world has a rocky relationship with pop culture. Perhaps none are as brilliant though as 60-year-old Verne Gagne capitalising on the newly emerging rap scene. 

The Wrestling Insomniac: AWA Wrestlerock 1986
Promotional material for the event (Photo Credit: The Wrestling Insomniac)

Urged on by son Greg, Verne went about creating a show based on the rapping premise. It also featured a Waylon Jennings concert after Willie Nelson showed little interest – yes, a RAP show called WrestleROCK with a COUNTRY musician playing. 

As for the wrestling itself, it is very much of its era. A show featuring a paedophile, murderer, an American pretending to be Ugandan, midgets, a close friend of Saddam Hussein and a wrestler whose gimmick was that he ethnic hated minorities – it certainly is packed! There are of course some big names on the card from Japan’s Tiger Mask and Giant Baba to Jimmy Snuka and The Road Warriors. A 16-match card with 5 non-finishes, it certainly is of its time.  

Although a wrestling supercard, it is more iconic for something else entirely… 

Yes, the SuperBowl Shuffle inspired rap! Featuring terrible, offbeat rapping from Sheik Adnan El-Kaissie, Ken Resnick and The Midnight Rockers amongst others. Noticeably the big stars do not get too involved because they have good foresight, I guess. The highlight is the 60-year-old Verne Gagne reading his rap section off of a script with lines too long per bar making it all sound completely off-sync.  

However, there is some effort made by Scott Hall and Curt Hennig as they take a bump into a pool and from Larry Zbyszko but the best rapper amongst them is the middle-aged Nick Bockwinkel whose flow is easily the most admirable. 

Despite Nick’s best efforts, the whole thing falls in on itself as wrestlers prove why they are not rappers. I guess Bockwinkel could not salvage everything – with this song proving what The West Texas Rednecks would sing many years later: Rap is crap.  

Griffin Kaye
Griffin Kaye
Griffin Kaye is a contributing writer for TWM. He is a life-long pro wrestling, comedy and music fan. He can be reached by e-mail at GriffinKaye1@hotmail.com, on Twitter @GriffinKaye1, as well as on Instagram at @TheGriffinKaye, @NoContextQI, @NoContextHaveIGotNewsForYou, @NoContextMilesJupp and @WrestlingInTheYears.
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