Welcome Back Heroes! The Satellite archives have initialized and a we are on course into a Black Hole to furthest reaches of the inter-webs where no wrestling site has dared cover. The viewing deck of the Satellite has completed scanning the vintage files and today our journey takes us to the year 1986. During our time here we will witness a once dominant wrestling company on the brink of annihilation from a relentless competitor. Their glory days are heralded…their final hours stand largely undocumented. Today we will review the final days of The American Wrestling Association.
Begin Transmission: 07/08/2016
Anyone who knows me knows I am “That guy who likes wrestling”. To some that may be a good thing, to others they may not admit to knowing me at times but I digress. I have watched Pro Wrestling passionately since 1986. I was a huge WWF (World Wrestling Federation aka WWE for todays fan..did I just do that?) mark, but as my wrestling passion grew I took a strong liking to the NWA (National Wrestling Alliance aka WCW in case you didn’t know!) Hell I watched everything I could at the time which was not much with our weak cable lineup. I managed to get WWF, which had two shows a week and if we were real lucky we got a Saturday Nights Main Event every now and then! With NWA you managed to get it sporadically when ever one of the cable networks got a local clearance. Usually it aired late night Saturday Night well into the witching hour! I also absorbed a brief run of UWF (Universal Wrestling Federation ran by Bill Watts!) Sunday afternoons for a short period just prior to its NWA acquisition. Living in Canada I was treated to Stampede Wrestling Saturday Mornings for 2 hours! On top of all this I caught up with all the other promotions on a Wrestling Highlights show called Pro Wrestling Plus hosted by Stampede Announcer Ed Whalen! One show however caught my imagination and despite it being in its final years as a viable promotion The American Wrestling Association was a favorite of mine every Wednesday evening on TSN!
AWA began as a Minnesota based wrestling territory in 1960 bleeding off the National Wrestling Alliance banner in the South. The AWA under the guidance of owner Verne Gagne and Wally Karbo. The AWA for those of you who didn’t have the pleasure of watching it boasted a massive roster of stars and future stars that would one day transform wrestling as we knew it in the 80s. Names like Hulk Hogan, Jesse The Body Ventura, The Road Warriors, Rick Martel, Stan Hansen, The Freebird’s, Mean Gene Okerland, Bobby The Brain Heenan and a ton more would hit the big time after departing the company for greener pastures in the WWF and NWA and become the biggest stars in the industry. Sustaining losses of this magnitude left the AWA scrambling to keep its spot among the top of the best wrestling promotions in North America. It was the birthplace of Hulkamania long before the WWF turned him into a household name. How did a promotion who had the biggest available roster of talent as well as the single biggest young star just breaking in the business simply implode upon itself? The answers are not as clear as you would think!
The Gagne Problem:
Verne Gagne who booked the promotion was certain to protect his business. The cartoon circus atmosphere of the WWF was the exact opposite of what he thought wrestling should be, however that’s what the audience of the mid 80s were clamoring for. The Rock and Wrestling Era was born and Verne’s ideals were being left behind in the dust. Despite people talking in his ear, Gagne wanted to present straight wrestling. He didn’t value the musical entrances, the flashy costumes and the over the top cartoon gimmicks. Verne maintained a firm belief that HIS idea about pro wrestling was strictly wrestling in the squared circle. The Gagne’s were in essence cementing their companies grave. The territory system of wrestling had a defined set of rules were promoters all around the United States followed the age-old handshake agreement not to interfere with the business of another territorial promotion. Championship reigns were discussed and the local scene was highly regulated…until the World Wrestling Federation broke all the rules of engagement. Gagnes old school mentality was about to be shattered. Agreements and unspoken rules were ignored and broken as a result the grim reaper was looming and its next victim would be the AWA. The AWA would not go quickly to its grave however it survived from late 1986 to its last hour in the early 90s. A company set in its ways was about to get a lesson in “Changing With The Times”a battle in which Verne Gagne would be dragged kicking and screaming until it was too late.
Many would argue that the glory years of the promotion were over midway through the 80s and the remaining years are rarely mentioned in discussions on the AWA. I had quite a fondness for this era as a kid and like everything I watched back then. I was hopelessly hooked! Sadly the Hulk Hogan’s were replaced with Curt Hennig, The Road Warriors and The Freebirds were replaced by The Midnight Rockers and Playboy Buddy Rose and Doug Summers. Mean Gene was now replaced by Larry Nelson,Lee Marshall, and a young brash Eric Bischoff. Yes..times changed but little did we know that despite the apparent diminished roster (Not in this writers opinion!!) we were also witnessing the birth of a whole New Generation of wrestling stars.
The first televised AWA TV show that was stuck in my memory featured one of my faves Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka (Pre-Murder Charges) feuding with Col. Debeer’s a wrestler with a racist South African Militant gimmick. Snuka was pushed off the top rope to the concrete floor and that was followed up with a series of piledriver’s to the concrete floor busting Superfly horrificaly wide open . This was NOT Saturday Morning WWF Superstars Of Wrestling..this was dead serious wrestling. It was a train wreck I couldnt look away from. Tuning in week after week I was introduced to a whole new world of talent ….and others not so talented.
The Last Act.
Any discussion in this era cannot begin without discussing one of the AWAs hottest exports The Midnight Rockers. A team obviously “Inspired” by the success of NWA’s Rock N Roll Express. Shawn Micheal’s and Marty Jannetty were a level of excitement that was hard to explain. To my childhood eyes The Rockers were “cool” and I mean really cool. They were built better that the Express, they dressed better and wore great sunglasses. Plus even in those days you could tell that Shawn and Marty were more than a little special. They drop kicked higher, and were over like no one else on that show. Bottom line the Midnight Rockers were electric! With a depleted tag scene the Rockers came at just the right time! Their long-term opponents were the make shift team of Playboy Buddy Rose and Pretty Boy Doug Summers who were managed by Sherri Martel. Rose and Summers at the time were the AWA Tag Team Champions and in my 11-year-old mind I never understood why. Rose was seriously out of shape and Somers was a shade above jobber status and not in shape either but they could bump and magically played well off of their popular polar opposites The Midnight Rockers.
It would be a lesson in psychology as it was the first time I got to digest “The Chase” as The Rockers could not take the belts away from these heels and often came up short-handed. It was not until months later the Rockers finally won a title shot in a very bloody Steel Cage match in December of 1986! The Rockers would win the tag straps just a month later and I was super excited. This in my opinion, was the best wrestling outside of the WWF or at least comparable! I had not experienced the glory days so I had no idea that this was the worst product the AWA had produced for years. Then something happened that would be repeated time and time again for AWA’s final years…the WWF came knocking for Shawn and Marty. This would play out with the AWA champions time and time again as you will soon see and as a result winning a title was basically your ticket OUT of the AWA and for viewers..that sucked.Then came the Russians..
As a fan, I did not get to enjoy The Midnight Rockers as Tag Team champions as they dropped the straps abruptly to a less than stellar Russian tag team of Soldat Ustinov and Boris Zhukov. I could really tell that this Russian team were not top calibre performers. Soldat Ustinov didnt look anymore Russian than I was and paled in comparison to a “Real” Russian that I watched every week on WWF TV, Nikolai Volkoff! The other half of the AWAs Russians was Boris Zhukov a very strange looking wrestler with a giant head however Boris managed to look “Russian” enough to pull off the act. These guys had no business beating The Rockers and even as a kid I felt something was up but I was still too young to figure out what politics were transpiring behind the scenes in the wrestling world.
The “Cool” Curt Hennig Era
While the Tag Team situation was very cloudy The Heavyweight singles division was about to experience its final bright period. Nick Bockwinkle was multiple times the AWA’s champion and it was evident that change was coming to fight the rushing tide of the WWF. Bockwinkle as good as he was represented the old guard and the company had to freshen things up at the top of the card. Bockwinkle to me seeemed older but surprised me how good he was on the mic and with bumping in the ring! Bockwinkle rarely defended on televisionwith one fatal exception…The Nick Bockwinkle vs.Verne Gagne retirement match! I knew this as his match inside and out as it was shown over and over ad nauseam. In this much ballyhooed match Gagne defeated Bockwinkle to win the strap..only to give it back to him later by default as Gagne officially retired.I always felt this not only devalued the AWA title but also Bockwinkle to simply accept a belt after LOSING!!? As we will learn AWA straps in this era would hold very little value. The title switched back and forth between Slick Nick, Otto Wanz, Jumbo Tsuruta, Rick Martel, and Stan Hansen just to name a few but always came back to the warm hands of Bockwinkle who booker Verne Gagne trusted with the prestigious championship.The only problem was that on two occasions Nick was simply “Handed” the title without winning any match? This would only be the start of the issues with the official lineage of the AWA title!
Nick Bockwinkle’s character had transformed in this period from a distinguished intellectual heel who used big words on ever occasion to smooth confident face champion. Bockwinkle, who was famously paired with Bobby “The Brain” Heenan in a dynamic heel duo, was now solo as Heenan had been swept to the greener pastures of the WWF . Gagne was watching the early stages of his companies fall from grace. Nick was a great technician and one of the most aired matches of the AWA TSN show was a match against a young upstart named Curt Henning.
Hennig was very good at this time. He was no rookie and had tenure in the ring in AWA and WWF and was also fresh off a tag team run with Big Scott Hall...(yes that Scott Hall) who had also left the AWA for the NWA. Nick would accept Hennig’s challenge on AWA TV only to go to a time limit draw which I bought hook line and sinker. Hennig had come so far and with this match and had “proven” with his time in the ring he was “ready’ Curt was given a rematch at AWA’s Superclash 87. This was a pivotal match for the company as it was not only Bockwinkle’s unofficial exit from the company but also began a serious heel turn for Hennig. Curt Hennig won the AWA World title with some controversial help from long time AWA heel Larry Zybysko and an infamous “Roll Of Dimes”. Curt went on to be a great heel and a real stand out for the AWA! Hennig’s earnest baby face promos were replaced by a new “Cool” Curt persona and as the weeks went by Hennig began showing the seeds of his future role in the WWF as Mr. Perfect. It is fair to say Curt “Perfected” his future role in the AWA!
Finally the AWA’s woman’s division was also barely alive at this time but as with everything else in the company it too was reeling from the effects of the WWF’s national expansion. Not even the ladies were safe from Vince McMahon’s deep WWF pocket book. Longtime AWA female competitor and champion Sherri Martel, was a big part of the AWA’s fabric. Not only was she AWA women’s champion but she was also manager to Somers and Rose and Mr.Magnificent Kevin Kelly just to name a few. Martel was a very gifted wrestler and a great manager. Sherri brought the best out of everyone she shared the spotlight with. She was a legitimately tough lady who was a weird mix of leather tough and unusually sexy. She was the center piece to their makeshift women’s division and a big part of the men’s scene as well. The WWF loomed over this division as well stealing the very talented Martel for own women’s division. Thankfully the AWA was given a present…as Martel exited another talent emerged in the form of Madusa Miceli! Madusa was a very raw wrestler who seemed to have not only the look of a champion but carried herself like a bona-fide star in the ring. Miceli was the key to keeping the women’s division on life support as well as filling the role as Martel’s impromptu replacement with talent. Madusa formally took over Martel’s role as valet for Kevin Kelly. Martel would leave the AWA without dropping the women’s title thus leaving the title vacant. (Title Vacancies Haunted The AWA during this period) After a title tournament Micelli defeated longtime division stalwart, Candi Devine to win the AWA Women’s title. Madusa would throw herself into the main event scene managing the newly minted heel champion Curt Hennig.
Despite the massive losses incurred, the AWA had its own new generation of stars with Hennig, The Rockers and Madusa at the top of the card. As a new fan I loved this version of the AWA. I connected with all these new stars. Maybe..just maybe, the AWA could survive the onslaught of Vincent Kennedy McMahon Jr. and his national expansion talent purchases. Many of the wrestlers who got WWF contracts went on to big money contracts and national exposure that would keep them employed years after their performing years were over. The WWF took care of their performers financially like no other company had before and as a result when Vinnie Mac called..you went! McMahon was a visionary at that time, and looked at wrestling through a new lens. He adopted popular mediums at the time such as music and entertainment and carefully weaved it into a wrestling tapestry. What Vince was doing was creating the future of the industry while others like Verne Gagne and many inside the AWA battled hard to keep away from their company. A costly error in hindsight. Sadly this would be the last hope the AWA had to stay relevant and the seams of the company would come undone near the end of 1987 at the height of the WWF.
The next year things would begin to sink in. The Midnight Rockers left the AWA for a very brief stint in the WWF re-minting themselves as “The Rockers” in effect desolating the AWA Tag Team scene. As Verne Gagne was looking at life after the Rockers, a partnership with Jerry Lawler and The CWA (Championship Wrestling ) in mid 1989 looked to cross promote events and utilize new talent on both promotions TV. The idea was sound but the execution showed pure desperation. To make matters even worse the talent raids had spilled into the latter end of the undercard too as WWF took the AWA Tag team champions again just months after taking their previous tag champions. It seemed like every time a champion was crowned the WWF was there waiting to scoop them up! This time however they came for one half of the Russians Boris Zhukov leaving Soldat Ustinov alone. The decision was made to place him with Doug Somers who as well lost his partner Buddy Rose to the WWF as well.
The cracks were widening and maybe the CWA partnership could slow the bleeding. I was a huge wrestling magazine fan as well a fan of Pro Wrestling Plus so I was aware of the Memphis Territory and had seen a small dose of their product which was very good. I had read all about The King Jerry Lawler and when Bill Dundee and The King won the tag team straps in October of 1987 I was excited again see him finally on my TV screen! ! Lawler was magnetic on the mic and his promos were very well done..and I had something to celebrate. So with zero storyline background on screen, Lawler and Dundee appeared on AWA TV with belts in hand!
Trying to stay relevant, the AWA always tried to appear unharmed in the face of extensive roster losses so CWA manager Paul E Dangerously made his AWA debut touting his new team The Midnight Express!! I was shocked. One of my favorite tag teams of the day was the NWA’s Midnight Express consisted of Beautiful Bobby Eaton and Sweet Stan Lane!! Instead the AWA produced “The Original” Midnight Express Loverboy Dennis Condrey (Who could lay claim to being a Midnighter in my eyes as he was in the first version of The Express that I had watched prior to the Eaton/ Lane pairing.) and Ravishing Randy Rose.
Both Condrey and Rose were well past their prime by the time they debuted in the AWA but were held up by Dangerously and his exceptional promos skills. Only little over two weeks of being on AWA TV as the tag team champions The Midnight Express defeated champs Lawler and Dundee for the AWA straps and the Memphis legends returned to their promotion. Even as a young fan I felt the instability.
The Age Problem
Meanwhile on The Heavyweight Front, AWA Champion Curt Hennig was tearing it up! Hennig was now partnered with Madusa Micelli and was well into his cocky heel persona. The Heavyweight scene was littered with a sprinkling of wrestlers well past their prime and thus some of the match pairings did not add up to quality matches. The likes of Baron Von Rashke, Col. DeBeers, Wahoo McDaniel, Sgt. Slaughter, and Crusher Jerry Blackwell filled time on AWAs TV show and it was apparent that things were quickly falling. Jerry Blackwell at the time was almost immobile and slowly drifted from TV after a feud with Sheik Adnan Al-Kaissey and his cronies Debeers and The Iron Sheik!.
Wahoo McDaniel was still very much over with AWA TV audiences embroiled himself with younger talent at the time against Curt Hennig for the belt as well later with Larry Zybysko always chasing the title but never capturing it! Wahoo’s strap matches aired often on AWA’s tv show and he remained a beloved character on the show! His matches were still at that time workable. Wahoo was smart enough to pair himself with up and coming heels like Hennig and The Destruction Crew in the ring and as a result gave them a rub while masking the age factor.
Baron Von Rashke was one of the worst examples of the “Age Problem”. In 88 he had become unreliable in the ring and unable to bump or able to piece together a sensible match like he did in his heyday! In the NWA years prior or even as short a time as 4 years back when he was the AWA Tag Team Champion with The Crusher, The Baron was a solid competitor but the ship had long sailed on his days as an active competitor. He still did his bizarre promos but looked very visibly aged in the ring and was a shining example of the AWA’s unfortunate pruning by Vince and his growing national powerhouse the WWF.
Sgt. Slaughter was another story. Slaughter, whom had a great run early in his run with the AWA in the mid 80s, returned in 88 for another run. He was heavily pushed with his G.I.Joe “Americas Hero” gimmick. He was heavily financially sponsored by Hasbro the toy company riding high off the success of The G.I. Joe toy line and cartoon!. He was an immediate hit battling Sheik Adnan Al-Kaissey cronies The Iron Sheik (Who he feuded with extensively in the past) and Col. Debeers.Slaughter had gained some weight and was older but was very much still serviceable in the ring. He would end up riding out his AWA meal ticket almost to their final days and being a viable main event star for the remainder.
Create A Star
The unfortunate reality at the time was that the AWA’s roster was heavy with aging wrestlers who were nearing the end of their careers as in ring performers. The AWA’s main event roster was aged out and it seemed whom ever the AWA would build into a viable star, the WWF was fast to sign them. Verne Gagne who was resistant to change and slow to adapt to the changing landscape of wrestling that the WWF was now in control of shaping. Finally listening to reason the AWA broke down and began giving new acts a chance.Results were varied.
Leon “Bull Power” White. The man who would be Vader made a brief appearance in the AWA as the Baby Bull (Later Bull Power) after his career in football ended. White was literally a baby faced rookie who was extremely green in the ring. Leon used a very basic moves set but had an unusual look that made him unique. White did not connect with the fans during this run and his value as an in ring performer was in question. His time was short-lived in the promotion but in 87 with his one career highlight was fighting Stan Hansen for the AWA title. It would be Hansen who stormed out of the AWA Belt in hand for Japna who also gave White the connection to move to Japan and find fame as Big Van Vader! Nuff said!
Jammin Mitch Snow and Steve O. Two white bread baby faces who were Gagne’s attempt to bring in some good-looking high-flying talent and he rolled the dice with Mitch Snow or Steve O. The earnest Mitch Snow seemed to always be on TV and in the middle of doing something special then pulled back before he hit any kind of stride in the win department. Most of his matches, no matter who they were with, were time limit draws in a weird sort of twist. His early pairings were against Madusa’s charges Kevin Kelly and Nick Kiniski! However Snow never caught on with the crowd who were clearly exhausted with the lackluster product and it was obviously not fertile ground to grow new stars. Eventually he teamed up with AWA midcard job guy turned marginal midcarder Steve Olsonoski or Steve O for short. If they weren’t fighting each other they were on the losing side of a tag team match most notably The Nasty Boys. With very few wins and limited TV time, both men when back into wrestling purgatory.Both men were decently talented and did their duty getting acts over.
Mr. Magnificient Kevin Kelly was a 6 foot 5 inch tall Minnesota native and was the definition of jacked in his time with the AWA. Mr. Magnificent was managed originally by Sherry Martel, and his one stand out moment in the AWA would be his feud with a newly arrived Wildfire Tommy Rich. One of his most famous angles was his Arm Wrestling Challenge for 10’000 dollars that was answered by Tommy Rich which catapulted their feud. In fact, a large stretch of his tenure late in his AWA career was dedicated to his feud with Tommy Rich.Kelly was stiff as a board in the ring, he bumped awkwardly and his offense looked very light. It would be years later in the WWF as Nailz that he would finally get a break in wrestling.With bear hugs, sleepers and chokes, Kelly was not going to be their answer to staying alive despite a strong feud with the popular Rich.
The Cast Offs
Then there were the cast offs.Many names who’s usefulness expired in the big two of the NWA and the powerhouse WWF, landed for brief stops in the AWA and were given instant pushes despite having little AWA credibility. Desperate for star power the AWA took several “Names” and hoped it would lead to a turn around or a reverse exodus away from the WWF which was becoming the wrestling equivalent to a vacuum.
The aforementioned former NWA wrestler the popular Tommy Rich had fallen out of favor with the NWA after winning their world title only to lose it as quickly. Rich had gotten more out of shape and his name value had plummeted but he managed to make a feud out of Kevin Kelly something no one else on the roster managed to accomplish.
One of the saddest cast off was Adrian Adonis who had a falling out with WWF after Wrestlemania 3 due to his ever-increasing waistline. By the time he surfaced in the AWA Adonis looked nothing like the Adonis who teamed with Jesse Ventura to make the East West connection in the companies prime years. Adrian was still an effective heel. He was managed by Paul E Dangerously and the two were a very effective combo. Adrian got into a short series of matches with Tommy Rich and showcased that despite his enormous size he could still bump incredibly well. Adrian even advanced to the finals of a TV title tournament the AWA put together only to come up short against Greg Gagne. Adonis AWA career came to an end after an unfortunate ankle injury took him out of his job.
Ronnie Garvin also surfaced in the AWA for a brief time with a very unusual heel persona but lasted mere weeks on TV before he mysteriously vanished.Garvin got into a feud with the Promoters son and long time AWA Vet Greg Gagne. The two battled over the TV title. WWF was still picking the scraps of the AWA and signed Garvin out from in under the Gagne’s and as a result Garvin’s belt was “Held Up” and had to be decided on the big Super Clash 3 show!! Garvin seeing the lure of WWF paychecks would not lose clean which allowed Gagne to win the Title back via count out further killing the legitimacy of the AWA.
The Iron Sheik, after bouncing from The WWF to The NWA after his Drug Suspension found his way as mentioned previously in a very short deal with Al-Kassie to feud with Slaughter.The pairing was successful ad Sheik fit with the cast of heels however like many others the NWA and the WWF came back to collect the Iron one leaving a gaping hole in Al Kassie’s camp.
Ken Patera also showed up for another AWA run with another Olympian Brad Rheingans and went on to form the championship team The Olympians!! The Olympians were a great fill in the blanks team that filled TV time while
The Rise of the Young Lions.
Despite its diminishing roster depth and annihilated event attendance, the AWA seemed to go for one last shot at going toe to toe with the WWF at their own game and began building a new foundation.
The Midnight Rockers Return…and leave again. Shawn and Marty’s first run with the WWF was very brief as the duo made a horrible reputation for themselves with their wild partying ways and came crawling back to the AWA who to their defense didn’t put them right back on TV right away..they actually sent them to Lawler and the CWA before they earned their spot back on the main roster. The Rockers were never favorites of Verne Gagne so while it looked like it was creative restraint there was more at play than simply disciplining talent. When they were given the green light The Midnight Rockers returned to the AWA as returning heroes and defeated the Original Midnight Express. Their time on TV would be very short as they figured their time in the WWF had increased their worth. The Gagne’s didnt bend and forced their hand and that left Shawn and Marty out of a job with the AWA permanently. Their swan song was losing the belts they had just won to a brand new tag team in the AWA ..Badd Company.
Badd Company were cool. The team of Pat Tanaka and Paul Diamond were originally part of the CWA/AWA cross partnership but the AWA adopted Badd Company permanently and paired them with a Rookie manager. DDP was just breaking into the business and where ever Diamond Dallas Page was, he was always flanked by the Diamond Dolls. Badd Company wore Flamboyant multi-colored almost dress jackets and tights and with Page as their mouth piece this team really came across as something special.
Pat Tanaka was exceptional in the ring. What he lacked in size he more than made up for in speed, high-flying , and an exceptional bumping ability. Diamond was his perfect counter point as he had a serviceable mat game and had the size and strength to compete with larger opponents. Of course there was Page who seemed bigger than both guys and charismatic as the day is long.
In their first few appearance on AWA TV Badd Company defeated the Midnight Rockers for the Tag Team titles and began a year-long run with the belts! The energy that came from Badd Company from the time they entered the ring to the strains of “Bad Company”by the band Bad Company you knew that AWA found something they could finally be proud of. Feuding with The Rockers, The Guerreros, The Olympians and Badd Company delivered in the ring which at the time was not happening in the AWA. Badd Company would drop the straps to the Olympians ( Brad Rheingans and Ken Patera). Badd Company would later split and feud sending Diamond on a face singles run with the company as Tanaka would be swooned by the WWF to join another AWA alum Akio Sato to form the Orient Express. It would be months later that Diamond would be called up the WWF to replace Konnan as Max Moon which would be short-lived but he had a second more successful run as well when he replaced Sato in the Orient Express as Diamond took on the masked personal as Kato being billed from Japan under the tutelage of the devious Mr. Fuji. Badd Companies time in the AWA was memorable but they were another victim of the WWFs grand purge of the company!
Tom Zenk a former AWA wrestler in the early 80s returned to the fold after a brief appearance in the warm lights of the WWF. The loose cannon member of the very popular Can-Am Connection with Rick Martel walked out of the WWF out of the blue leaving everyone to wonder what happened to Zenk! Tom Zenk resurfaced in the AWA and was able to make an impact. With a sculpted physique and good baby face looks, the AWA had a star who looked very credible in the ring. Zenk had recently left a high paying gig with the WWF to jump to the AWA after a financial disagreement and was able to score big points with the AWA fans! Zenk exploded with an out of the gate feud with Kevin Kelly, and then his former friend Curt Hennig who was still champion at the time! Zenk would always just come close to winning the strap but always put on a good effort leading fans to think he was the top dog to be the next AWA Champion. Zenk’s flashy style consisting of drop kicks, head scissors and arm drags were fun to watch in a company of mostly grounded retirees.When Henning dropped the strap to Lawler, Zenk set his sights on winning the strap in a Battle Royal as a result of World title controversy but coming up short yet again. Zenk never claimed the AWA strap but stayed until the dying days of the company and the fans enjoyed his chase for the gold.
Some talent benefited from the mass exodus brought on by the WWF. Now new talent got more air time and made careers for themselves they would otherwise not have had the opportunity previously. One of those acts were the Nasty Boys. Jerry Sagg’s and Brian Knobb’s were TV enhancement talent who were paired together originally as a jobber team. The Nasties first run as a team was in Memphis as a foil to The Rockers. By the time they debuted in the AWA they stood out from the moment they walked through the curtain. With a punk rock look complete with Mullets and spiked hair , long black trench coats and one hell of a bad attitude The Nastie’s were a real treat to watch. On the mic the Nastie’s were rude, crude and abrasive. When the Nasty Boys spoke..you listened. In the ring they were straight on brawler’s. Nothing was safe, tables, chairs, guard rails and even announce tables, the Nasties used them! Their sloppiness in the ring was hidden under the sheer onslaught of their ring game. It almost made their act more realistic and hardcore before hardcore was cool. The Nasty Boys were one of the biggest breakout acts born of the AWA during their down period and went on to accomplish multiple championship runs in a number of companies most notably WWF and WCW but seeing their roots in the AWA was a big deal to this writer!
Then there were the Lumberjacks. Yukon John Nord and Flapjack Norton comprised the team of the Lumber Jacks. Nord a former World Class wrestler re-debuted in the AWA with a full on Bruiser Brody gimmick complete with fur boots! Nord came to the ring to “Bad Moon Rising” from CCR and I was actually a fan! He was a bombastic interview and seemed like a true powerhouse in the ring however Nord never seemed to find his niche as a singles competitor. Nord found common ground with another competitor who was on the AWA treadmill a young Scott “Flash” Norton. Norton on the other side was a former arm wrestler who managed to barely piece together a match with a few clotheslines and a bear hug. He was very green in ring and to hide his weaknesses AWA paired him with Nord to develop him as a competitor. Hence was born The Lumberjacks. Dressed in flannel and jean shorts and with axe handle in hand, Nord and Norton gained ground as a fan favorite team! They had a short-lived feud with The Texas Hangmen. Both Members of the team went on to good futures with Nord becoming The Berserker in the WWF and Scott Norton establishing himself in Japan and WCW partnered with Buff Bagwell in the NWO.
Their arch nemesis, The Texas Hangmen (aka the Disorderly Conduct WCW) Were two journeymen who with the help of a mask and a bullrope noose became Texas baddest team..or at least the AWAs. Killer and Psycho were a serviceable team and took bumps very well for heavyweights. Rick Gantner and Mike Moran, two enhancement talent for the AWA were suddenly a competitive force to be reckoned with! The Hangmen were short-lived and even wrestled singles matches near the end of the AWA but Killer and Psycho left their mark in the short time in the AWA rings. As good as they were their future would not be as bright s our next young lion…
Next came The Trooper. Del Wilke’s, the man who would become known as The Patriot in Global, WWF and WCW was first a green as the grass Football star turned pro wrestler known as the Trooper. The gimmick itself was AWA’s attempt to cash in on WWF’s “Occupational” gimmicks that were all the rage in the late 80s. So Del Wilke’s became a State Trooper style character who passed out police badges to kids at ringside and wrote citations to his opponents after he defeated them. Sounds stupid right? Well it WAS however Wilkes earnest personality and demeanor on camera got you invested in him and he seemed to grow on fans with every appearance in ring. He went from clunky headlocks, clotheslines and football tackles to a nice mat based style with a splash of high-flying. Wilkes developed an outstanding drop kick and flying clothesline. The Trooper is mostly recognized as the final World Tag Team Champion ever to hold an AWA Tag Strap (Along with Journeyman DJ Peterson) on the final AWA Televised show. Wilke’s would go on to great success in Global as their Heavyweight Champion but now under a mask and calling himself The Patriot. He also had a brief but memorable run in the WWF under the same gimmick but more so the WCW with multiple Tag Team championships with Marcus Alexander Bagwell!
The Destruction Crew. AWA job guys Wayne Bloom and Mike Enos were paired up with a “Construction Worker” gimmick complete with orange work vests, matching constructon orange tights and sledge hammers to became the Destruction Crew. What looked like a bad idea turned out to be a pretty good concept as Bloom and Enos gelled as a team and were quickly in Tag Title Contention. With Ken Patera and Brad Rheingans as the Tag Team Champions “The Olympians”, The Crew then storyline injured Patera in a Car lifting competition which resulted in the Olympians being stripped of the Tag Team titles. The Destruction Crew went on to capture the vacated world tag team championships in a tournament final over Greg Gagne and Paul Diamond. Bloom and Eno’s individually were sound in the ring together they worked very snug together. From their entrance with sledgehammers, to the raucous chords of Queens “We Will Rock You”, to their awesome Destruction Ball (Doomsday Device ala LOD!) finisher the Crew were stars on the rise. Both men were very effective heels with Wayne Bloom a very effective promo and Mike Enos his Igor to Blooms Doctor Frankenstein. The Bloom /Enos Dynamic was interesting as Bloom was the dominant voice in the group always putting Enos in his place and doing the talking with the classic “I got this one Mike” to which Enos would bow down and let Bloom do the talking. They would also be the final wrestlers to wrestle on AWA TV in a note a little later!
The King Takes The Throne..
One of the high spots that made me very happy as a wrestling fan was the night of May 8th 1988 when Jerry The King Lawler upset Curt Hennig to win the AWA Heavyweight Championship in his hometown of Memphis with his long time idol Jackie Fargo as the referee that night!
The aforementioned partnership between The AWA and The CWA came into play as Verne Gagne put his trust in Jerry Lawler to hold the crown in Hennig’s place as the WWF came calling for their future Mr Perfect. Lawler would indeed bring a degree of prestige to the AWA belt! Now wrestling magazines and televised shows featured Lawler in their pages and on their screens giving the AWA some additional exposure that had slipped away in recent years. As Hennig departed the King ran with the title all over Memphis TV but ironically not much on AWA TV.
The Highlight of the Lawler’s Championship reign was AWAs final major Supercard, SuperClash 3 on December 13, 1988. The AWA partnered with Lawler and his wealth of connections to create this multi company Supershow. With an already strong partnership with CWA the show would also include POW (Powerful Women Of Wrestling) and the former World Class promotion WCCW now The WCWA. The main event would feature AWA World Champion Jerry “The King” Lawler vs.WCWA Heavyweight Champion Kerry Von Erich. The AWA made sure to build this on their shows even though Lawler was not wrestling much per say for them as the champion on their TV but they built the match as a big deal complete with an official contract signing.As a kid in the 80s..this looked and felt like a happening you could not miss. For a few moments I felt the AWA had legs that were steady. The match itself was not up to expectations with Von Erich not “Present” mentally in the match due to some alleged recreational concerns as well as getting injured before the match began accidentally with a blade he had smuggled into his wrestling gear to draw blood late in the finish of the match. Instead Kerry sliced the inside of his arm accidentally and brutally much to the horror of booker’s who saw their show dying in front of them. Kerry pulled through enough to have a passable match which ended ironically by design with a blood stoppage with Von Erich appearing to have beaten Lawler with the Claw only to have the officials stop the match to declare Lawler the Undisputed Champion! It was controversial and the AWA fans turned sour very quickly on a now heel Lawler.
In what looked on paper as a great financial partnership, the Lawler / AWA relationship would fall apart. Lawler had a falling out with Verne Gagne who at this point was very frustrated with his company’s fate and the financial disaster that was SuperClash 3. As with far too many times before the AWA World title was further tarnished when yet another champion vacated the title and the AWAs main title belt was held up yet again. The writing was on the wall for the company…and it wasnt good. Who could keep the boat above water for the Gagnes? Who could they trust? Everyone they had put in position to represent their company inevitably was swallowed by the WWF and the NWA during the national expansion boom. Verne and Greg turned to family
Welcome To Larryland..
Larry Zybysko, a long time WWWF (Not a spelling error!) and AWA competitor most famous for his feud with the Legendary Bruno Sammartino. Larry had frequented the rings of the AWA over the years and after losing Lawler as their champion Verne Gagne had serious trust issues with his talent who seemed to be abandoning him at every turn. Zybysko was a part of the Gagne family by marriage and was one of the very few that the Gagnes felt comfortable giving the belt to so on Feb. 7th, 1989 Zybysko won a Battle Royal, last eliminating a popular Tom Zenk, to capture the AWA world title. Zybysko was a great heel. I always loved his interviews. Zybysko created Larryland a fictional amusement park that in the vein of Ric Flairs Space Mountain. Zybysko had an ego the size of a mountain and could speak very well on the mic. His interactions with Larry Nelson, Lee Nelson and Eric Bischoff were hilarious. Not since Hulk Hogan and Mean Gene has an act had so much chemistry.
Zybysko was also decent in the ring. The self-proclaimed “Martial Artist” often wore Karate apparel and even had his own Ninja present at times! Despite being the king of a broken kingdom, Larry played the role of champion like he was the WWF champion. He was that good at his role. Everything else around him was falling apart but Larry basked in his role as The Champ! Zybysko would often appear to “Drop The Belt” only to snatch it back on a legality.His matches against Sgt. Slaughter were controversial in that Slaughter appeared to win the belt only to have the decision over turned. Mr. Saito, a Japanese star the AWA co-Opted frequently, actually won the strap on a rare tour of Japan only to very quickly lose it again stateside as to make it appear that Larry didn’t lose at all. The win was acknowledged so it was counted as a title change. As mired in shame as the AWA titles were the AWA looked for the next big concept to pull them back to the safety of the shore before they drowned.
The Team Challenge Series
That concept was dubbed the infamous Team Challenge Series! In what maybe the poorest executed concept in wrestling history The Gagnes, mainly Greg had become frustrated with the decline of the family company. For the sake of a better idea he literally handed over the creative reigns to an individual who would define wrestling in the late 90s Eric Bischoff. Bischoff at the time was a third string announcer for the company but fiercely loyal and aggressive and full of creative ideas..this wasnt one of his good ones. The concept would divide the roster into three teams..each one Captained by a Legendary wrestler. We had Sarges Snipers Captained by Sgt. Slaughter himself. Barons Blitzers also made their entry into the series headed up by Baron Von Rashke.Finally Larry Legends was the champs team in the fray!
The overall concept involved Team Challenge Series matches on every show where the winner of the match collected points for his or her said team. Matches were NOT all standard wrestling matches..instead they were gimmicked sports competitions like The Great Turkey Hunt (Turkey On A pole Match), a Football Clash, a Beauty and the Beast match, a Knock Down match where the object was to simply knock you opponent down!!?? There was a great Hands Tied Behind Your Back Match, a Meat Grinder match and a Behind the 8-Ball match. Of course there was a sprinkling of standard matches and Battle Royals that added up for more points.The Series was such a low point that by the time the Series was under way attendance had slipped so much some matches were filmed in an empty building with a camera crew.
A pure humiliation for a once proud wrestling organization.The Series came to a merciful hault with a Million Dollar Battle Royal won by Larry’s Legends team member and long time AWA Jobber but fan favorite Jake “The Milkman” Millman. I can still picture the scene as Jake Millman, full of pure joy celebrated like he had won the Super Bowl shouting to the dismay of Larry and the rest of the team “We won the million dollars ..We Won the Million Dollars! Millman must have used his riches wisely as I didnt see or hear of him after this victory! The Team Challenge Series was over and much of the talent was gone…so was all hope for the mighty AWA.
Larry Zybysko stood tall amongst the ruins after he survived matches against Greg Gagne,Tom Zenk and Wahoo McDaniel and many more and held on to that strap until he parted ways with the company as was the legacy of the AWA strap.Larry would be the last official champion on record in the history of the AWA. Zybysko committed the last crime against the AWA when he arived in WCW while still the AWA Heavyweight Champion. By that time the jig was up. There would not be another Tournament or Battle Royal to crown a new champion. The reaper had arrived for The American Wrestling Association..it had one final hour left in the tank.
The Final Episode
The final match on the final show of the AWA was ironically a Tag Team Title match between The Destruction Crew versus The Trooper and DJ Peterson. The Destruction Crew were very elusive and held tightly on to the tag team titles and the makeshift team of Trooper and Peterson didn’t figure into being new champs. Ironically the last images of the AWA onscreen were a great moment as the challengers pulled off an upset win to capture the AWA tag team championship!! I remember popping huge at the win and could not wait for the next week to see the follow-up! Yes despite the monumental losses of talent and a seriously depleted roster I was still an AWA fan who loved wrestling and little did I know this would be the last new material that would ever air on AWA TV.
Many remember what their favorite era of wrestling was and when it comes to the AWA these were my favorite years and shamefully this period is rarely talked about. It is for this reason why I needed to put this out there as a tribute to the men and women who stayed until the lights went out. Fortunately most on the roster in the dying years went on to bigger and better opportunities in the WWF, NWA and Japan.Seeing the final hours of the AWA allowed me to see the last days of some aging vets as well as a host of future talent. It depends on perspective I guess..you love what you grew up with and that’s really what this little blog is all about. People can like what they like, but what really matters is remembering what put a smile on your face as a kid!
Thanks for reading Heroes, the Archives are now closing. everyone return to their seats and strap in…I have a feeling the next coordinates we punch could be very entertaining!
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