Once upon a time, not so long ago, the wrestling world had not one, not two, but three major wrestling organizations. They were collectively known as the “Big 3.” The Big 3 consisted of the NWA/WCW down south….the WWF up north and the AWA (The American Wrestling Association ) in the middle.
The AWA was owned and operated by a man named Verne Gagne….a wrestler himself…who believed that wrestlers should wrestle gimmick free. Their talents inside the ring should be the selling point…substance over flash. The AWA became a breeding ground for some of the biggest names in the sport. He had an eye and a knack for developing young stars like Leon White ( Big Van Vader ) Curt Hennig, Ken Patera, Madusa Miceli and countless others….The AWA sold out arenas and stadiums across the mid-west. As a matter of fact, the AWA’s “WrestleRock” card in 1986 at the Metrodome in Minneapolis, Minnesota drew over 22,000 fans….outdrawing the 2 infamous Crockett Cup shows at the Louisiana Superdome combined. The AWA also has a national syndicated TV deal with ESPN.
So what happened? What went wrong? Two words….Verne Gagne. The man who ran the company and brought it to prominence, was also the man who brought it down. It wasn’t so much greed that was his downfall, but his unwillingness to adapt to a changing, evolving sport…..and his own paranoia. For example, Verne Gagne was not a big fan of pairing up the young upstarts Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty. He just didn’t get it….or refused to get it. Below is a list of reasons that I feel ended the extraordinary run of the American Wrestling Association…
1. Hulk Hogan
Hot on the heels of Hulk Hogan’s appearance in the hit movie Rocky III, Verne never fully capitalized on the young wrestler’s momentum. Verne Gagne refused to put the AWA title on Hogan because he wasn’t necessarily a legit wrestler. Instead, he did a series of screw job finishes where he would tease a Hogan title win…but would later reverse the decision. Despite the the AWA fans clamoring for Hogan as champion…Gagne reused and the Hulkster finally walked away to the WWF…..where a month later, would become WWF champion.
2. Loyal to a Fault
Instead of investing into the future of the AWA with pushing younger talent…Gagne was satisfied with sticking with older talent he trusted. Nick Bockwinkle, Baron Von Raschke, Ray “The Crippler” Stevens, Larry Hennig and Mad Dog Vachon were used over younger, hungrier talent and their age showed.
3. The Pro Wrestling USA Collaboration
This was Verne Gagne’s attempt at going head to head with the WWF juggernaut in the mid 80’s. Verne put aside his his ego and pride and collaborated with Jim Crockett to form a large national organization. Their first act was to counter the initial success of Wrestlemania 1 with their own super card called “Super Clash.” The show was somewhat of a success, but according to Verne himself… he caught David Crockett trying to poach the AWA’s roster and jump ship to Jim Crockett’s Promotion. Truth or paranoia….the alliance was soon quickly dissolved
4. The Scott Hall Project
Verne finally realizing his huge mistake of letting Hulk Hogan walk…decided to cultivate his own version of Hogan…he chose a young man named “Big” Scott Hall. Hall was slowly and methodically built up to be the heir apparent to the AWA world title. One problem, Hall was not a fan of cold weather….and the AWA’s main territories had brutally cold winters…so Hall quit…leaving Gagne with a serious void.
5. Choice of AWA champions
Aside from his “go to” champion when all else fails…Nick Bockwinkle….Verne had a bad track record of selecting who should win and carry his title. From Stan Hansen who refused to defend the title …and even allegedly ran over the belt with his truck….to his son-in law Larry Zbyszko who couldn’t draw flies…to Verne Gagne himself…just because he trusted himself more than anyone else.
6. Super Clash III
Verne Gagne’s first and only trek into the pay per view market. On paper it seemed like a great idea…a “Super Show” featuring stars from different wrestling promotions including the AWA, World Class, CWA and PWOW. The problem of course was no promoter wanted their guy to job and look weak, so infighting and a screwy finish to the AWA/ WCWA world title unification match between Jerry Lawler and Kerry Von Erich led to a horrible show.
These were just some of the misfirings of the AWA that led to its ultimate downfall. In an ironic twist of fate, the promotion that put on some of the finest wrestling matches….was reduced to doing a TV taping in an empty studio with Colonel DeBeers wrestling jobber Jake “The Milkman” Milliman in a Turkey on a pole match….SPOILER ALERT….Jake won the raw turkey.