AWA Wrestling on ESPN: 9/3/1985

A look at ESPN’s early days on national TV. What could they have done better to keep up with the WWF machine?

My intention was to review the debut episode of the AWA on national cable TV, much like I did for JCP’s move to 6:05 Saturday night. However, the internet appears to have been purged of that particular episode.  I was saved by youtuber bwilliamswyn25 who uploaded several months worth of early AWA on ESPN episodes…except the first one. Nonetheless, here is the second ever chance the AWA had to appeal to a mass audience and draw some eyes away from the WWF’s star laden circus:

The AWA opens with a terrible picture of the Tropicana hotel, from which they are taping these shows.  I’m not sure why they decided to go with an aerial, blurred effect there.

The Tropicana “arena” is smallish, with bleachers in front of the hard cam and the walls not too far off from the ring.  It’s much bigger than the TBS studio show, but a far cry from the WWF’s arena presentation.

Larry Nelson is with Nick Bockwinkel, who does a brief career bio and speaks of wrestling Lou Thesz when he was a mere teenager.  Bockwinkel plugs today’s AWA mat classic with Verne Gagne and himself, which we will see later on.  Larry Nelson is actually too big for an interviewer, as here he is looking eye to eye with Bockwinkel, and towers over some of the other workers.

“Rock and Roll” Buck Zumhofe vs. Jim Londos

Zumhofe, the incestual creeper, is wearing his Elvis jumpsuit and sporting greasy, slicked back hair. Londos, who is not related to the famous wrestler of the same name, at least is acting excited to get down and grapple. Some prelim guys show zero emotion, Londos is ready to upset Zumhofe and move up the ranks.

Buck has to bring his own boombox yet as the AWA has not adopted theme music for most of their workers. (I say that in jest, as I realize the boombox had been Buck’s gimmick for years). The men have a good back and forth scrap featuring many holds and counters.  Zumhofe actually resembles a slightly smaller Joey Ryan. Despite the solid action, some in the crowd scream “boring”.  Zumhofe almost misses a splash and lands on Londos’ lower area for the win. This was a perfectly acceptable little match.

Larry Zbyszko plugs his upcoming interview with the Road Warriors. Zumhofe runs in to plug his match next week with Steve Regal. I am glad they are building things up. It gives the viewers something to invest in. In this case it just happens to be a creepy, rapey, boombox wielding, greaseball fighting for a title. They can’t all be Bockwinkel vs. Thesz.

Blue Max  vs. “Gorgeous” Jimmy Garvin

Garvin is one of my guilty pleasures. He looks like a star here, with ZZ Top playing as he struts in with his sequin green outfit.  Precious looks very 80’s hot in her leopard top.

I am not sure what a “Blue Max” is supposed to be.  Is his name Max? Is he blue to the Max? Is he depressed? Is he a restaurant on “Saved By the Bell”? If he were around today ol’ Max would come out to Eiffel 65 and be a cult hit.  There was actually a WWF jobber named Max Blue. I have no idea if it’s the same guy.

As I try to crack wise, Max whips out a flying head scissors in a flash! Garvin alluded during his entrance to this marking his return to the AWA after being away for much of the summer.  Garvin had actually worked a WWF show shortly before this was taped, as Vince McMahon had taken over Montreal, but some of the wrestlers there finished up their dates before fleeing.

I wonder what effect the AWA’s insistence on longer jobber matches had on the audience’s view of their stars?  Here Garvin takes over 5 minutes to dispose of Blue with a brain buster. On WWF TV, a 3 minute squash would be a rarity, much less one that was almost double that. I understand wrestling fans turn on wrestling TV to watch wrestlers wrestle (TM Jim Cornette), but the crowd here is a little restless watching the geeks being battered for minutes on end.

Garvin and Precious talk to Larry Nelson. Nelson towers over him, which makes Garvin’s demands for a world title match seem a little less threatening for champion Rick Martel.

“In this Corner” with Larry Zbyszko: Larry introduces a Road Warriors music video that is gloriously bad, as the Warriors “sing” threats of violence as we see clips of them from Memphis.  Despite being AWA World tag champions, the Warriors had been gone from the AWA for pretty much the whole summer, minus a few dates. They turned babyface over that time and had been building towards matches with the Freebirds and Long Riders. The Warriors were heading for JCP, and didn’t even bother showing up for this ESPN TV taping, which caused chaos as the show was dragged on while the AWA waited for their arrival. They would come back to the AWA in order to drop the titles in St. Paul, but spent the rest of September taking bookings for Jim Crockett and Florida.

Despite the babyface turn, Paul Ellering and the Warriors cut a heel promo here. They even share some love with Zbyszko. The AWA would have been better off showing a studio squash, assuming they had any on tape since the Warriors had turned face.

Mat Classic: AWA World champion Verne Gagne vs. Nick Bockwinkel

Joined in progress, with “Mean” Gene on commentary. Verne was a spry 55-years old here. He bends Bockwinkel’s legs in unnatural directions. Gagne was bald for decades, but the baldness combined with his flabby old man abdominals really is not a good cosmetic look for a new fan who discovered wrestling through the spectrum of Hulkamania who is now checking out this alternative show.

The ref is bumped, and we get a false finish. Gagne whiffs on a dropkick, but Bockwinkel flies for it anyway. Bockwinkel tries a piledriver to end this, but no dice. The men collide and both go down. Another piledriver is reversed into a bridge and I bought that as the finish. The men exchange sleepers. Gagne slips out and hits a back suplex for the pin.

I am not sure I would have shown one of my top heels being beaten here on national TV, even if it was from years earlier and against “the best of all time”.  Had the (then) modern day announcers tied it into the current Bockwinkel/Greg Gagne storyline that had been raging for most of 1985, then it makes a bit more sense. Perhaps the AWA did not feel the need to spoon feed the fans so blatantly? I would have gone with a video package to catch new viewers up to speed on the Gagne/Bockwinkel angle, then shown this to show how long the feud has been simmering.

Kevin Kelly and Larry Winters vs. The Long Riders

Kelly, the future Nailz, looks very impressively physically here, making it easy to see why they groomed him for stardom to some degree. Winters stuck around the business long enough to work the early ECW shows.

Kelly scrapes with the big biker heels, but Winters is much smaller and thus is easy cannon fodder for the bad guys. Kelly gets the “hot” tag and briefly rallies his team before being smacked down. Winters tags back in and gets beaten up more. The announcers declare this a “great” match. Bill Irwin hits a heck of a high side slam, and Scott finishes things with a superplex.  Winters took the bump on his hip instead of his back and seems to be legit aching after the match.  That was a hot finish. The Long Riders call out the Road Warriors to FIGHT. Since the Warriors were heels twenty minutes earlier, this makes little sense for a new fan.

AWA World champion Rick Martel vs. Terry “Bam Bam” Gordy

The Freebirds entrance is not shown, and Martel is already in the ring as well. Eliminating the “Freebird” music and Hayes’ pre-match schtick sort of removes the aura of the squad for anyone seeing them for the first time. Their pageantry would have seriously overshadowed Rick Martel though.

Gordy bumps around well for the significantly smaller champion. Gordy is trapped in a head scissors and bridges himself up and over onto Martel in an impressive moment. Gordy is working pretty cleanly in the early going, perhaps trying to tell the story of resisting his dark side to avoid a DQ in this major title opportunity.

Over five minutes in and Gordy is still mostly having a reactive fight, with Martel controlling the pace with moves designed to ground the beast. Gordy finally drops Martel with a nice looking back suplex to take advantage. Gordy follows that out with a snap suplex, which also looked beautiful.  A side slam drives Martel into the mat. Gordy then switches up to some wear down holds intermingled with multiple more side slams.

The ring announcer declares we have one minute left. Instead of Gordy using this as a sign to push for the win, Martel flips out of a side slam attempt and delivers a number of dropkicks and other moves as he fires up. A suplex to the big man comes too late as time expires. The Freebirds apparently run in for a beat down, but this recording of the match cuts that part out.

Martel challenges the Freebirds to a tag team match in the future, then Verne Gagne has to close the show talking about how he wishes he could still get in the ring but is admittedly too damn old.

Final thoughts: The AWA had a lot of problems with their roster and who on it was still loyal, young and healthy enough to push. Money issues with Slaughter and the Road Warriors, and health issues with Jerry Blackwell would prove to help torpedo the AWA in the wrong direction over the next 6-8 months.  By April they had enjoyed their last major success with “WrestleRock”, which had a strong roster of talent that largely vanished right afterward.

This national TV deal ultimately just put the AWA’s issues out in front of hundreds of thousands of more eyeballs instead of letting the promotion die a more dignified, abrupt death. The stigma from those last years has ruined the AWA’s reputation and made guys like Greg Gagne far more a source of degradation than they deserve.




Written by Andrew Lutzke

The grumpy old man of, lover of wrasslin' and true crimes.