#AWAWeek: Better Know a Promotion

After having so much fun with the stables last month in celebration of the Survivor Series, we’ve decided to turn this December — and all Decembers in perpetuity — into Promotions Month. This week we have Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association. This is the First Day of #AWAWeek, the fifteenth installment of our (patent-pending) Juice Make Sugar Wrestler of the Week Series. As (almost) always, we’ll start by making AWA a Promotion You (Should) Probably Know Better. Tomorrow, we’ll give you the finer points of the company’s oeuvre with some Essential Viewings. On Wednesday, we’ll be spending some time with Lies the WWE Told Us. After Hump Day we’ll be quenching your thirst for Listicles with a Juice Make Sugar Top 10 List, before summing everything with a “Difference of Opinion” that will likely be closer to a “Difference in Levels of Understanding”. 

The importance of Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association is the list of stars who came up through the territory on their way to big money and national stardom in the WWE: The (Midnight) Rockers, The Road Warriors, The Iron Sheik, Jesse Ventura, Curt Hennig, Gene Okerlund, and Bobby Heenan are only the first few names in a list that ends with “The Immortal” Hulk Hogan. In the last ten years of its existence, the AWA became little more than a breeding ground for talented wrestlers destined to be poached by Vince McMahon, but throughout the 60s, 70s, and the first half of the 80s, the AWA was a vibrant territory that had characters and matches that were at least as good as anything happening in the NWA or the WWWF.

But to truly “know” the AWA, you have to understand its founder/owner/biggest star Verne Gagne. Gagne was a talented amateur wrestler in an era when that really meant something in the professional wrestling world. He was a star struck from the Lou Thesz model: a broad-chested, no-nonsense mat wrestler whose connection with the fans was born out of the fact that he looked and spoke just enough like them so that they could identify with him, while he also embodied a level of athleticism and excellence that they could only aspire to.

Gagne was a huge draw in the U.S.’s northern states, especially the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, and his profile nationally was enhanced when he was featured prominently on the DuMont Network’s wrestling programming at a time when DuMont was one of the country’s big three networks along with NBC and CBS. Gagne and his promoters, the Stecher family, reasoned that the only thing Gagne was missing in order to become one of the most profitable stars in wrestling was the NWA World Heavyweight Title. Gagne was certainly talented and over enough to carry the Traveling Championship, but the highly-political NWA felt Gagne was too headstrong and not malleable enough to be their standard-bearer.

While Gagne surely felt that the NWA’s refusal to make him champion was a personal slight on some level, he and promoter Wally Karbo felt that the best way to make money was to start their own promotion with Gagne at the helm. In an era where title changes were extremely rare, being labelled as “World Heavyweight Champion” was a profitable marketing tool that nothing else could substitute. They withdrew from the NWA in 1960 to turn the Minneapolis Boxing and Wrestling Club (which they had acquired from the Stechers a year earlier) into the American Wrestling Association, and quickly crowned Verne Gagne the AWA World Heavyweight Champion.

Gagne and Karbo were right — The AWA, built around “local nice guy and spectacular athlete” Verne Gagne was an incredibly profitable venture. Gagne held down the title for the majority of the ‘60s, feuding mostly with heavily-accented foreign heels like still-a-Nazi Fritz Von Erich and the recently-deceased Mad Dog Vachon. Between 1960 and 1970, Gagne held the AWA World Heavyweight Championship nine times for over 1,300 days and Vachon totalled five title reigns for over 750 days. In a move almost incomprehensible today, Gagne held the title from 1968 straight through to 1975. This booking sent two distinct messages, the first mostly understood by fans and the second mostly understood by wrestlers: (1) Verne Gagne was a tremendous wrestler who deserved respect and admiration and (2) The AWA was Verne’s territory, and it was pointless to have any ambitions of being a top guy unless he really wanted to make you.

 

Stylistically, the AWA of the ‘60s and ‘70s was all about wrestling. The territory was famous for long, dramatic matches that frequently went over forty-five minutes or even an hour. Much of what was done in the AWA was mat-based, matching the amateur style of its avatar Gagne. With that said Gagne, and by extension the small army of wrestlers he trained, were masters at punctuating long stretches of mat holds with short flurries of spectacularly exciting action. For example, Gagne himself was known for his great dropkick (a high-flying maneuver in his day), a spot that he used masterfully to get fans off their feet and build anticipation for his wins.

In 1975, Gagne, then nearly 50, put over Nick Bockwinkel as the next AWA World Heavyweight Champion. Bockwinkel was a smooth mat wrestler like Gagne, but also played a slick, desperate, big-bumping heel character that would be imitated by Ric Flair in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Bockwinkel could wrestle as well, if not better than, Gagne, and could also cut condescending, heat-generating promos as well as any heel. Bockwinkel’s act was further enhanced by his manager, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan. Heenan was, or course, a brilliant heel promo, and capable of generating so much heat — and taking outsized bumps he had no business taking– that he often stood in for Bockwinkel at shows he could not make and made the babyfaces look just as good. Together, Bockwinkel and Heenan became perhaps the most successful champion-manager combination of all time.

From 1960 to 1980, the AWA had been extremely successful largely based on the charisma and intelligence of Verne Gagne. However, the aging Gagne seemed to lose his promotional magic wand as the 1980s opened. The first bad misstep was having one last 300-day run with the World Heavyweight Championship, culminating in his retirement 1981 retirement match against Bockwinkel. The nearly unbelievable part? Gagne won his own retirement match and walked away as champion. It was a sensational act of mindless self-indulgence and a sign that the hard-headed confidence that had caused him to create the AWA twenty years earlier might still lead to him closing it.

In spite of Gagne’s misstep, he scored a tremendous coup in 1981 when he secured the services of rising star Hulk Hogan. Hogan had been on a main event trajectory in the WWF before a falling out with Vincent J. McMahon over his appearance as Thunderlips in the movie Rocky III (at the time, McMahon considered it an unforgivable blow to kayfabe that a wrestler would take on a transparently “fake” role by appearing in a movie). Gagne wanted Hogan to be his top heel, but Hogan’s incredible look and undeniable charisma forced Gagne into allowing him to be a babyface.

To AWA fans who’d been raised on Verne Gagne’s athletic-but-average look and long matches filled with holds on the mat, Hulk Hogan was something so fantastically fresh that he popped the territory in a huge way. Hogan quickly rose to being its most popular star, eliciting such loud reactions from the crowd that people began to call it “Hulkamania.” Hogan could have made Gagne and the AWA successful beyond their wildest dreams, but there was a problem — Gagne and Hogan both had unfathomably big egos.

Maybe Verne didn’t appreciate the idea that someone in his territory was suddenly more popular than he was. Maybe he didn’t appreciate that Hogan wasn’t a great in-ring technician, something that he had emphasized to a fault. Maybe he didn’t appreciate that Hogan was from a generation that refused to be controlled by conservative old farts. Whatever the reason, Gagne wanted to make money off of Hogan, but he also felt the need to show Hogan who the boss was in ways that wound up killing the golden goose.

For one thing, Hogan was a massively over star in Japan. Most Americans had to portray evil westerners to succeed over there, but Hogan was different. His size, look, and charisma made him a hero on par with even Antonio Inoki. Verne saw the success Hogan was having in Japan, and he wanted a piece of it. Gagne wasn’t just content to make money off of Hogan in the AWA, he wanted to effectively be Hogan’s agent, pimping him out to Inoki and Baba and taking money off the top of Hogan’s paydays. Hogan didn’t like that.

For as easy as it is now to criticize him for any number of things, Hogan was also a visionary in terms of wrestling merchandising. He had Hulk Hogan t-shirts made at his own expense and would sell them at AWA shows, which turned out to be side business that sometimes eclipsed his actual payoffs for wrestling. Verne saw the success Hogan was having with t-shirts, and he wanted a piece of it. Gagne tried to tax Hogan for selling shirts at events that he promoted, and, according to Hogan, even tried to hide sales of shirts he’d made while Hogan was away in Japan so as to avoid paying the Hulkster his cut. Hogan didn’t like that.

Business issues aside, Gagne also refused to take care of Hogan creatively. Clearly, the money was in Hogan winning the World Heavyweight Title from Bockwinkel and Gagne setting up heels for him to knock down. However, when Hogan began his feud with Bockwinkel, Gagne employed a series of Dusty finishes to keep the title on Bockwinkel. The situation was eerily similar to that of Daniel Bryan in 2013, with the fans clearly wanting a Hulk-Hogan-based promotion, but the higher-ups refusing to give it. Ultimately, frustrated with Gagne on both a business and creative level, Hogan left for the WWF in late 1983 and subsequently became the biggest wrestling star of all time.

Hogan’s jump to the WWF began a mass exodus of AWA talent leaving the territory for New York. Some of them left because Vincent K. McMahon was offering more money. Many of them left because they saw the way Verne and treated Hogan and thought “If he can do that to Hogan…” Many more of them left because they had caught a glimpse of Hulkamania and knew that the big money was going to be wherever Hulkamania was. AWA mainstays like Ken Patera, Adrian Adonis, and Jim Brunzell (who was the tag team partner of Verne Gagne’s son Greg) made their way to the WWF, but the biggest brain drain was amongst non-wrestlers. The WWF poached “Mean” Gene Okerlund, who became their number one interviewer, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, who became their top heel manager and later their top color commentator, and Jesse “The Body” Ventura, who became the definitive color commentator of all time in the WWF.

Being stubborn and confident, however, Gagne refused to acknowledge that the AWA was any worse off without the talent that left, who he considered money-hungry traitors. With most of his “prime-years” stars gone, Gagne restructured the AWA using aging stars of his own generation like Baron Von Raschke, Mad Dog Vachon, and Larry “The Axe” Hennig alongside young, raw wrestlers like The Midnight Rockers, Scott Hall, and Curt Hennig. In lieu of Hogan, Gagne put young Canadian technician Rick Martel over and made him the AWA’s babyface champion. Everybody knew that mismanaging Hulk Hogan had been a huge blow, but it seemed that the AWA could survive, at least in the Twin Cities area, as a modestly successful regional promotion.

Unfortunately, another big creative blunder hurt the AWA World Heavyweight Title in the form a big, bad Texan named Stan Hansen. Hansen, who had made his name in wrestling by legitimately breaking Bruno Sammartino’s neck, was a pantheon-level star in Japan, who at the height of the Japanese bubble economy was making as much money as any wrestler in the world, including Hulk Hogan. The AWA thought they’d be making a splash to make such a big international star their World Champion, but Gagne forgot to ask himself one important question: Would Stan Hansen rather be AWA World Heavyweight Champion at decent money, or would he rather work in Japan for huge money? Hansen wanted the huge money, stopped making his AWA dates, and backed over their title belt with his truck before mailing it back to them. It was the kind of ordeal that kills a title.

In a move of utter desperation, Gagne’s AWA joined World Class Championship Wrestling and the Jarrett/Lawler owned Continental Wrestling Association to form Pro Wrestling USA in the mid-80s. This was the ultimate lashing together of sinking ships, as Vince McMahon’s national expansion was too much for the once-great regional promoters to go up against. PWUSA promoted a national supercard, titled Superclash in an attempt to compete with the WWF’s Wrestlemania. The project was a miserable failure (which we here at JMS will one day cover in far greater depth) and eventually led to the AWA World Heavyweight Title (the quintessential northern title) being held by Jerry Lawler (the quintessential southern wrestler).

Shortly after Lawler’s title win, Pro Wrestling USA promoted Superclash III which saw Lawler defeat Kerry Von Erich in what is perhaps one of the worst big-match finishes of all time (once again, we’ll cover that when we bury Pro Wrestling USA). The kicker? Gagne, who held the purse strings for Superclash III never paid anybody for their appearances. It was a blow to the names of Gagne and AWA from which neither ever recovered.

Thanks to a television deal with ESPN who were desperate for some first-run programming, the AWA stayed alive into the early 90s, but it was a shell of a shell of a distant memory of itself. From 1960 to 1980, the AWA had been an industry giant, on par with the WWWF and the NWA, but the ‘80s were a slow, gradual fall from the penthouse to the basement. The fascinating part of AWA history is that there was one big reason for its huge success and its colossal failure: Verne Gagne. Maybe Gagne could have dealt differently with Hogan and Hansen and McMahon and somehow kept the company’s head above water, but on the other hand, the company would never have been successful, or even existed, without him.