Back To The Territories:AWA Review

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When it comes to legitimate world championships, there are a select few within the history of pro wrestling that actually hold enough prestige to elevate the notoriety of title holders or a particular promotion. While there were several booming territories during the golden era of the business in the United States, it was extremely rare that a belt was considered a world title. Of course, there was the original NWA World Heavyweight title with its lineage going back to Gotch vs. Hackenschmidt in 1905 and the concept of a traveling champion added to the coveted 10 LBS of gold. Along with the NWA, there was the WWWF title that was established by McMahon Sr. through Capital Sports when he amicably stepped away from the National Wrestling Alliance to stake his own claim in the north east. Interestingly enough, McMahon Sr. actually remained on the NWA board of directors for years after his started his own promotion because he was respected among those in the business. The WWWF and NWA dominate so much of the history books because of their expansive reach during their heyday, as well as the WWE becoming the global entity that it is today, but was there another world title during the classic era in America?

Kayfabe Commentaries, the premier video producer of shoot style titles, recently released a new edition of their “Back to the Territories” series, which focuses on the historical impact of different promotions. Hosted by a czar of wrestling knowledge, Jim Cornette, the newest edition sits down with Greg Gagne, the son of the legendary Verne, to discuss the origins of the American Wrestling Association. In my opinion, the true totality of the AWA often gets overlooked for some reason and this production really gives some insight into how successful the promotion was before it eventually became a causality of the national expansion of the 80s.

The combination of Cornette and Greg offer a vast amount of knowledge throughout this presentation and they trace the beginning of Verne’s wrestling career back to when he was an alternate for amateur wrestling in the 1948 Olympics. After his time on the amateur mat, Verne was brought into the pro game by promoter Fred Kolher, the producer of a wrestling program on the Dumont network in Chicago. The value of TV exposure, which propelled the careers of Gorgeous George and Bruno Sammartino in the north east, was also the key for Verne’s career in the mid west. It’s extremely interesting to hear just how popular Verne was in the 1950s and how his salary ranked among his contemporaries at the time. Originally cast as a light heavyweight, you will hear the details on Gagne’s bouts with Lou Thez and how those matches ultimately led to the formation of the AWA a few years later.

So, how did the AWA title become a world championship?

Despite his tremendous popularity from his time on the Dumont network, Verne wasn’t given the chance to move up to top tier status within the NWA so he formed his own promotion in 1960. Pat O’Connor was the reigning NWA champion and Verne challenged him to a bout for the newly created AWA title. When O’Connor didn’t accept the challenge, Verne declared himself the champion and his legitimate amateur background gave the title instant credibility.

As the decade progressed, Verne added more TV markets to his Minnesota-based organization and this presentation will illustrate the often overlooked expansive reach the promotion had running shows further west in multiple states. You will also hear the gory details of a tag team bout that aired on TV in 1971 that saw the legendary “Mad Dog” Vachon bleed buckets post-match during a confrontation with The Crusher and it propelled the AWA’s tag teams to the top of the card. True to his name, Vachon growled and ranted with his noticeable French-Canadian accent in interviews to promote battles against The Crusher following the bloody segment. You will also hear Greg Gagne tell a story about an occasion when a slightly intoxicated Mad Dog decided to get rid of some of the luggage during a flight after an event. The details of Vachon opening the plane door and tossing anything he could find while they were flying should be heard to be believed. That said, Vachon was one of the true characters of the wrestling business and certainly earned his spot in the WWE Hall of Fame when he was inducted a few years ago.

Speaking of tag teams, you will get a perspective on some of the solid teams and the array of talent that worked in the AWA, even before they made their way to the WWF. The High Flyers, the combination of Greg Gagne and Jim Brunzell, who became one of the Killer Bees later in his career, are a tremendously underrated team. The duo could work with anyone and had a memorable feud with The East-West Connection, Adrian Adonis and Jesse Ventura. It’s not clear why, but Greg doesn’t seem to want to credit Ventura much during the discussion. This is just my two cents on the topic, but Adrian, who is extremely underrated, and Ventura were a perfect combination, as they covered all the bases for a successful team. “The Body,” representing the sunny beaches of California, ranted about challengers while Gene Okerlund, who Jesse originally called “Mean Gene,” tried to direct the verbal chaos. For his part, Adonis, normally clad in New York Yankees apparel, did some good promo work as well, but really excelled in the ring with innovative offense and great bumps. If anyone is unfamiliar with the High Flyers/East-West Connection series of matches, I would recommending finding them on YouTube as both teams provided entertaining bouts.

You will also hear Greg’s take on if he thinks Verne should’ve retired as champion in 1981 and the draw that the card generated. The common criticism of Verne is that he wasn’t going to change his philosophy as the business evolved and booking himself as champion at the age of 55 might’ve been an indication of it. The early 80s were a pivotal time for the AWA and the pro wrestling industry as a whole. Nick Bockwinkel, who many consider the competitor that defined the role of the AWA champion, was placed as the top heel in the promotion and could work with any challenger. At the same time, Hulk Hogan was surging in popularity and was assumed to be the next hero champion for the company. Greg Gagne offers an explanation as to when Hogan was supposedly told he would win the title, but it seems like a counter argument could be made that if Verne directly told Hulk about his plans that maybe he wouldn’t have jumped ship to the WWF. According to Greg, Andre The Giant set up a deal for Hogan to sign a contract with the WWF while wrestling on a tour of Japan and when Hogan returned to the United States, he sent a telegram to give his notice to the AWA, despite already being advertised for upcoming events. While Greg might have a biased view of the way Hulk left, is anyone surprised that Hogan no-showed events when he signed for more money elsewhere?

When McMahon signed the star he wanted for the national expansion, he began buying TV slots for his program and Greg details how the AWA was essentially outbid on time slots in several markets during the wrestling boom of the 80s. Hogan’s departure also put the AWA in the position of searching for a new champion and more star power to attempt to keep the group afloat. Greg gives his thoughts on Rick Martell, Stan Hansen, Bruiser Brody, Curt Henning, and The Rockers working the territory during its fledgling years. A side note about Bruiser Brody, aside from being one of the greatest performers of all time, he was one of the few names that could boost the box office for the territories that were trying to survive the national expansion of the WWF. Around the same time, Verne signed a deal with ESPN and while it might have seemed like expansion at the time, the money from the contract is essentially what kept the group in business. On a lighter note, the origins of the “Wrestle Rock Rumble,” which has become known to an entirely new generation because of Youtube, is discussed as well. As the decline and ultimately the bankrupt of the promotion is mentioned, Greg Gagne talks about a deal that was on the table that could’ve brought Hulk Hogan to the AWA again for a lucrative contract in 1991. I don’t think there was any realistic chance that Hogan would’ve signed a deal with Gagne again, but it was interesting to hear the background of the story.

Greg’s post-AWA role in the business is also discussed and just from an outside perspective, you have to question the validity of some of his claims from his time working in the WCW offices. According to Greg, the contract that he signed to work for Turner wasn’t the terms he agreed to previously, but somehow he continued working there. Another major claim is that Greg was the person that told WCW vice president, Eric Bischoff that he should sign Hulk Hogan. Interestingly, Mike Graham claimed credit the suggestion to hire Hulk in the Kayfabe Commentaries, “Guest Booker” series. Gagne also makes a subtle attempt at trying to take credit for the NWO angle, but Bischoff himself said that he got the concept from the UWFI invasion of New Japan.

Aside from some of Greg’s more questionable claims, which might seem valid from his point of view, this is an extremely informative and entertaining interview.

Until next week

-Jim LaMotta

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You can follow me on Twitter @jimlamotta

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