#AWAWeek: Essential Viewing

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 Day Two of #AWAWeek, the sixteenth installment of our (patent-pending) Juice Make Sugar Wrestler of the Week Series. As (almost) always, we started by making AWA a Promotion You (Should) Probably Know Better. Today, we give you the finer points of the company’s oeuvre with some Essential Viewing. Tomorrow, we’ll once again be discussing Lies the WWE Told Us, before quenching your thirst for Listicles with a Juice Make Sugar Top 10 List on Thursday. Finally we’ll sum everything up on Friday with a “Difference of Opinion” that will likely be closer to a “Difference in Levels of Understanding”. 

For thirty years, Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association provided a platform for superior wrestlers to ply their craft. The territory was known both for high level in-ring work and compelling, character-based promos. One of the key reasons for the AWA’s success was the standard set by Gagne himself. As a wrestler and a character, Verne did everything it took to get the fans behind him.

Gagne’s most frequent opponent, Billy Robinson, was never portrayed as a serious threat to Gagne’s title, but he had favored nation status in the AWA because he could make Verne look absolutely incredible in the ring. Gagne and Robinson’s work was at least a decade ahead of its time, and this particular match clearly illustrates some of the ways in which Verne influenced the style of future stars like Curt Hennig and Shawn Michaels.

Of course, the presence of heels who could draw strong heat was just as important to the AWA success as Verne Gagne’s hometown hero act. In the golden era of the heel manager, there was no greater heel manager than Bobby Heenan, and he plied his trade in the AWA. Heenan managed top heels Nick Bockwinkel, The Blackjacks, and Ray Stevens, all of whom were constant agitators of both Verne Gagne and his son Greg.

Heenan was the all-time master of making the fans boo and jeer him, but even more importantly, he could make them explode into cheers by taking just one bump or showing his cowardly side after weeks of bragging and acting like he ran the place. The number one way AWA fans would show their disdain for Heenan was by calling him a weasel,  which never failed to work him up into a lather.

Another heel who helped make the AWA great was Jesse “The Body” Ventura. Ventura is now better known as the WWF’s innovative color commentator of the Hulkamania era than he is for being a wrestler, but he was a formidable competitor in his day. Like Superstar Billy Graham before him, Ventura wasn’t a great in-ring worker, but his incredible look and over-the-top personality made him a great wrestler without being, well, a great wrestler. Ventura was a tough, cool heel, and every match he had or promo he delivered felt big time.

While his limited wrestling ability prevented Ventura from reaching the heights his promo skills could have easily carried him to as a singles star, Ventura was part of fantastic tag team in the AWA – The East-West Connection. The Connection was comprised of Ventura (from California) and Adrian Adonis (from New York). While the two men looked and wrestled very differently, there was an over-arching tough guy credibility that made the team work brilliantly.

Like Gagne, and most performers in relatively smaller territories, The Connection faced off against opponents frequently, putting on particularly well-worked matches with The High Flyers (Greg Gagne and Jim Brunzell). None of the four men involved were complete packages, but they came together to form a near-perfect tag team feud. The East-West Connection had incredible tough-guy credibility based on Adonis’ physical in-ring style and Ventura’s great promo ability, while The High Flyers could move and sell, and, equally importantly, had the anointed blessing of the Gagne name.

For all the greatness of Ventura and Heenan and Gagne, nothing could compare in terms of sheer overness to the birth of Hulkamania. Hogan’s rise as a main event babyface in the AWA caused fundamental shifts in that wrestling world that everybody seemed to see — except for Verne Gagne. In spite of the politics and screwy booking that were impeding Hogan’s rise, his connection to the crowd was powerful and undeniable.

This video does a spectacular job showing everything that was right and wrong with Hulk Hogan’s run in the AWA. Bockwinkel, the shorter, self-aggrandizing, big-bumping heel cuts the perfect promo to set up the intense, emotional babyface effort from Hogan. Their match is a strong, worthy main event effort, and Hogan’s post-match promo hints at the greatness he would reach during his prime in the WWF. Unfortunately, the booking of the finish gets in the way of this match (and Hogan’s AWA run in general) reaching the heights it could have, but still, it’s impressive to see that Hulk Hogan was so, well, Hulk Hogan-y before he ever set foot in the WWF.

After missing the train on Hogan, the AWA began undeniably, slowly dying. With that said, the promotion still had many talented stars and put on many great matches. Rick Martel, the babyface who got the run that Hogan should have had, was a far better worker than Hogan, but lacked the Hulkster’s considerable charisma. With that said, it’s largely unfair to compare any wrestler’s star power to that of Hulk Hogan, and Martel was a tremendous wrestler in his own right.

Martel held the AWA World Heavyweight Title for nearly 600 days, playing the technical babyface to the hilt before he ran up against big, bad Stan Hansen. This match is a well-executed clash in styles with the roughneck Hansen and the artistic Martel putting together an exciting contest. The finish of the match contains some especially good storytelling, as Martel works for several minutes, trying to break out of his own finishing hold.

By 1986, nearly all the real stars had abandoned the AWA for greener pastures in the WWF or Jim Crockett Promotions. Even so, the AWA chugged along, promoting matches between a mixture of young guys who would work for little money and older guys who couldn’t make any money. The once-great promotion died an ugly, low-rent death.

However, it’s unfair to say that the AWA’s last years were fruitless. There was still plenty of quality wrestling happening, and waiting in the wings, in a tag team that was a ripoff of a popular tag team that was a ripoff of a popular tag team was one of the top four stars of the 1990s…