At the beginning of 1983, Vincent Kennedy McMahon was in the formative stages of taking over his father’s World Wrestling Federation, which was successful despite suffering from the retirement of it’s biggest star in 1981 when Bruno Sammartino chose to finally leave the ring for good. One has to believe that VKM had to realize that his father’s core roster was aging and sluggish and new blood would be needed to eventually replace Afa, Sika, Chief Jay Strongbow, Mr. Fuji, Ivan Putzki, Pedro Morales, Ray Stevens (making a rare run with the promotion) and others who were better served in a reduced role given their age.
Pedro was serving as Intercontinental champion and Chief Jay was one half of the World Tag Team champions alongside former AWA enhancement talent Jules Strongbow.
The World Champ was Bob Backlund who was already champion for nearly four years but his drawing ability during the period is still hotly contested. Some feel he was just a propped up part of the WWF machine who kept the title because of Vince Sr.’s ability to keep him in line and others see past his “Howdy Doody” looks and feel Backlund the workhorse wrestler was the reason for Bob’s success.
Much of the promotional juice that kept the WWF a success during Vince’s ‘83 planning stage was delivered by Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka and Don Muraco who were both on top of their games and involved in a memorable feud. Two of Jim Crockett Promotion’s hottest acts were brought in mid-year as Sgt. Slaughter and Don Kernodle came in following a mega successful feud with Ricky Steamboat – Slaughter was shot to the top of the card and Kernodle wasted away in the mid-card and never saw the heights he enjoyed with Slaughter again even after returning to JCP and aligning with Communist Russia. Andre the Giant was of course still a staple of the WWF and headlined many events as well. In fact 1983 would prove to be the last year that Andre was allowed to travel to other territories before becoming exclusive to the WWF and New Japan.
In late 1983 the wrestling world felt the first shots of the wrestling war that was to come as Vince McMahon put his sights on the American Wrestling Association. If modern interviews are to believed, Vince saw the AWA’s impressive roster and giant territorial boundaries that stretched from the mid-west to California down to Arizona and up into Canada and attempted a buyout (Stories vary but some claim a 6 million dollar offer was made and Verne and Greg Gagne were offered jobs as part of the deal). However Verne Gagne had been a success in pro wrestling for over 30 years by this point and had millions in the bank that made Vince’s offer seem absolutely ludicrous. Vince retaliated for this snub by taking Verne’s top babyface Hulk Hogan and making him the WWF’s ace immediately. Mean Gene, Ken Patera, David Schultz, Jesse Ventura, Mad Dog Vachon, Jim Brunzell and others were snagged from the AWA over the next few months and by the Summer of ’84 Vince was in Minnesota promoting cards that heavily featured the very talent that Vince had just taken from the promotion.
Vince’s onslaught never really wavered as he spent years blocking out Verne from TV stations, arena contracts and messing with Gagne whenever possible – including trying and having Jerry Blackwell banned from wrestling due to medical ailments prior to big AWA cards – doing the same thing to Kerry Von Erich prior to the AWA’s ’88 PPV that Kerry was headlining. Along the way Vince kept plucking talent from Verne no matter what drawing value they would or wouldn’t have in the WWF machine – this included Brad Rheinghans, Steve Regal, Boris Zhukov, Ken Resnick and other marginal talents. By 1988 even Baron Von Raschke and Da Crusher were on the WWF pay roll despite not being used as in ring talents.
Verne did offer a solid defense at first, as he convinced his geriatric former top babyface Da Crusher to try another run on top of the AWA. Gagne also signed the Road Warriors who were a hot act in Georgia Championship Wrestling. The Fabulous Freebirds set World Class Championship Wrestling on fire in 1983 and brought their flare to the AWA rings. Jimmy Garvin was also a charisma machine in WCCW during that period and he too came to the AWA and enjoyed a headlining run. The Fabulous Ones had been ultra popular in Memphis and were plucked right into the AWA upper card and were reputedly booked to win the AWA tag belts before Hawk and Animal vetoed the move. Abdullah the Butcher was already a legendary wildman and Verne brought him and Bruiser Brody in to give Sheik Adnan El Kaisee’s Army some dangerous new blood.
Prior to Vince’s invasion in the summer of ‘84 Verne was still promoting loaded cards despite the WWF’s talent plucking. Thus the AWA was still drawing big audiences like this April card that drew 17,000 fans to Chicago:
April 29, 1984 – Rosemont Horizon – Rosemont, IL
1. The Fabulous Ones defeated Steve Regal and Kevin Kelly
2. Billy Robinson defeated Larry Zbyszko
3. Blackjack Mulligan defeated Ken Patera
4. Harley Race vs. Jim Brunzell, no contest
5. The Road Warriors defeated Curt Hennig and Ron Garvin
6. Nick Bockwinkel defeated Jumbo Tsuruta by disqualification
7. Dick The Bruiser, The Crusher, and Baron Von Raschke defeated Jerry Blackwell, Mr. Saito, and Jesse Ventura in a steel cage match
However Verne’s most significant move in 1984 would prove to be transforming Jerry Blackwell into a babyface, a move that brought the masses into the arena more than any other act during the era. Blackwell would eventually be paired with WWF cast off Sgt. Slaughter and the pair headlined a number of AWA events.
Verne of course made his share of mistakes along the way. Firstly, after losing Hogan Verne took the belt off of Nick Bockwinkel and placed it on Jumbo Tsuruta after a “bribe” from Giant Baba. Jumbo was a great worker, but no one in the AWA markets knew of him and he was booed in a jingoistic manner by the AWA faithful. After Jumbo had a few months on top Rick Martel won the title from him in May of ’84, supposedly to keep Martel from jumping ship to the WWF. Martel lacked the flashy promo skills to talk the fans in the building that his counterparts Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair and that along with the AWA becoming a perceived third rate promotion behind the NWA and WWF led to 1985 being the last year the AWA was able to offer up a punch.
Let’s take a brief look at what AWA TV from this period looked like:
- An intro featuring Chris Taylor in action, despite the fact that he died in the late 70’s.
- A Best 2 out of 3 falls match with jobbers against the combined age of over a 100 tag team of Da Crusher and Baron Von Raschke
- An amateur match with 2 teens rolling around the ring (WWF did this at least once in this era with Backlund coaching the kids up, but overall this isn’t the best use of time when your territory is under attack.)
The WWF was also using pop music for cut scenes and entrance themes and they also had a far better on screen graphics display.
The AWA did align with the NWA and other groups to create “Pro Wrestling USA” in late 1984 featuring a mix of the best talent that Vince had yet to sign as well as former WWF draws that had quit for various reasons (Tonga Kid, Slaughter, Backlund). This group did have some good cards (full results here: http://www.thehistoryofwwe.com/pwusa.htm) like the February “Star Wars” card in New Jersey and a loaded September show in Chicago
The NWA would end up signing the Road Warriors away from the AWA and slowly the ultra-popular Roadies started having fewer and fewer AWA shots until they went to Crockett exclusively, taking another solid draw away from Verne. The Warriors dropped their AWA titles to Jimmy Garvin and Steve Regal, hardly a legendary tandem.
1985 also saw the AWA achieve a deal with ESPN to air their shows frequently. The AWA chose to tape many of these events in Las Vegas and that seemed to kill the ambiance of the crowd as Vegas was far away from the once rabid Midwest fanbase that may have given these cards a needed spark.
Verne ended the year of 1985 by taking another payoff from Baba – this time it was Stan Hansen who was to be given the World title. By early to mid-1986 the AWA had very few talents on the roster that weren’t either part timers (Road Warriors, Slaughter, Brody, Hansen, Blackwell etc) or green workers just trying to get experience and TV time so they could jump to the bigger promotions. The AWA tried to make Scott Hall and Curt Hennig into the next top guys but before they could be elevated to the top of the card, Hansen and Verne had a falling out and a well into his 50’s Nick Bockwinkel was rewarded the AWA title when Hansen refused to lose it in the ring at a house show prior to leaving for a tour of Japan. This event took place in Denver and if I remember correctly – that was the third Denver card in a row to have somebody no show that was to be in the main event. The first two cases were Brody vs. Blackwell matches where injuries and whatnot got in the way. The AWA couldn’t afford to kill a town at this point with so many line-up changes.
If eternal strife and the WWF invasion wasn’t enough to rock the AWA as it was, JCP started to promote shows in Minnesota as well in ’86.
Bockwinkel at least had a stabilizing effect on the title and he held it until May of 1987 when he was defeated by Curt Hennig under questionable circumstances after Larry Zbyszko interfered. Bockwinkel called it a career almost right after. Hennig was given a run to prevent him from jumping to the WWF. Hennig’s reign may have had some potential but the AWA didn’t have the money to keep a consistent roster around so some upper card angles that had potential (such as Bob Orton Jr. and Dick Slater being Hennig’s heavies) didn’t have a long shelf life.
The roster was certainly falling apart in the later stages of 1986 and into 1987. Buddy Rose was fired by Verne for working an independent show too close to the AWA’s base and thus the promotion lost another upper card attraction that could work and cut promos. Adrian Adonis was another piece of talent that had been working quite a bit in the AWA as he worked himself back into shape in hopes of getting back to the WWF – however fate intervened and Adonis was killed in a car wreck up in Canada while working for another promotion.
The talent level bottomed out in ’87 with the AWA barely being able to claim 12 guys on their full time roster and that included duds like Teijo Khan, Soldat Ustinov, Rocky Mountain Thunder and Yuri Gordyenko. Boris Zhukov was one half of the AWA tag team champions and chose to leave for the WWF without dropping the belt. With so few bookings for the AWA regulars, other promotions started to book the AWA talent and even put themselves over for AWA titles without permission. Thus in the record books it gives Dr. D and Hector Guerrero credit for winning the AWA tag belts in Memphis for a week in late ’87. The Rockers also did an angle in Memphis in early ’88 that saw them have the belts stripped and held up during a match with the Rock and Roll Express in Memphis. The Rockers reclaimed them in the rematch but for whatever reason this isn’t recognized as another reign for Shawn and Marty.
Meanwhile in Portland, Hennig had a controversial match with the Grappler and the local Portland promotion claimed the AWA title was held up pending a rematch and at about the same time, Greg Gagne beat Hennig in a cage match and was thought to be AWA champ until it was revealed the cage match wasn’t a sanctioned title match. So if you read the Apter magazines at this point, the AWA had 3 claimants to the AWA title.
Hennig was finally ready to head to the WWF in Mid-88 so Verne once again put the AWA title on a guy he didn’t have under contract when Jerry Lawler defeated Curt Hennig for the belt in Memphis. Vince next scooped up The Rockers and by year’s end the NWA would pick up Paul E. Dangerously and “The Original” Midnight Express. The AWA roster was reduced to Wahoo McDaniel, Manny Fernandez, Pat Tanaka, Paul Diamond. Greg Gagne and a plethora of green guys. Verne partnered with Jerry Jarrett and other promoters to help fill out his TV time and try and build interest in a World Class/Memphis/AWA PPV supercard slated for late 1988. Much of the PPV consisted of rematches of bouts we had already seen several times on national TV and house shows in the months leading up to the event and the end result was pitiful attendance and a non-existent buyrate. Verne was accused of hoarding the “profits” and since the non-AWA guys didn’t get paid, the cross promotion was over.
Jerry Lawler was stripped of the title on AWA TV and kept defending the “Unified” World title as part of the USWA until that promotion finally went out of business in the late 90’s. The AWA World title was put up for grabs in a battle royal featuring Akio Sato, Steve Ray, Wayne Bloom, Derrick Dukes, Mike Enos, Tommy Jammer, Pat Tanaka, Tom Zenk, Paul Diamond, Greg Gagne, Ken Patera, Ricky Rice, Larry Zbyszko, Wahoo McDaniel, Manny Fernandez, Sgt. Slaughter, Col. Debeers, and Mike George. Since he was married to Verne’s daughter, had at least a fairly decent name value (having just come off a NWA mid-card run), was a solid worker and an above average promo, Larry Zbyszko was booked to win the battle royal and claim the World title. The finish saw a controversial ending with Tom Zenk, but Zenk was gone soon after without a resolution. Zbyszko worked with a variety of opponents as the AWA would bring guys like Nikita Koloff and Harley Race in for one taping and try and make it seem like Larry was taking on all comers.
Meanwhile the tag titles went from Pat Tanaka and Paul Diamond to WWF cast offs (and former AWA stars) Brad Rheingans and Ken Patera. Both men had been doing job duty for months on end on WWF TV prior to their AWA return. A few months later Wayne Bloom and Mike Enos “injured” Brad during a car lifting challenge and subsequently the “Destruction Crew” of Enos and Bloom won the mini-tournament to capture the AWA tag team titles. Mind you that only a few months earlier Bloom worked the AWA PPV as a jobber and Enos was a ref on the same card. To help get them over, they gave Bloom and Enos credit for “ending Wahoo’s career” when they injured his eye.
1989 also featured the infamous “AWA Team Challenge Series” which accidentally gave birth to some concepts that the WWF would promote as “revolutionary” years later. The series consisted of gimmick matches between the AWA’s rotating talent base and in between some insipid matches, the AWA actually promoted a 3 way match- a concept that ECW would push hard in 1993 as revolutionary, WCW wouldn’t use till 1994 when they had a quasi-triangle match with Vader vs. Guardian Angel vs. Sting at Fall Brawl, and the WWF wouldn’t use till 1997 (Without looking it up it was either HHH vs. Goldust vs. Owen Hart on RAW or Sid vs. Bret vs. Shawn on a house show.) The AWA also booked an inter-gender tag match (not a new wrestling concept as WCCW had done it for sure and I’m sure there are lots of others) however the WWF booked an inter-gender match for Wrestlemania 6 in 1990 and played it up big as the first time they’d booked such a thing.
The rest of the notable undercard talent by the end of 1989 were Sgt. Slaughter, Scott Norton, Del Wilkes (The future Patriot in Global, WCW and the WWF), Kokina Maximus (Yokozuna), Jerry Lynn, Diamond Dallas Page, Pat Tanaka, Akio Sato and Paul Diamond. Even John Nord and Masa Saito returned to the promotion at the end of 1989. All would make it to either the WWF, ECW or WCW after their AWA run. Some made it to all 3. 4 would be World champions.
After 1989, the AWA just sort of limped to a finish. In 1990 Masa Saito and Larry Zbyszko traded the AWA title and eventually the bookings basically dried up and Saito drifted back to New Japan, Zbyszko went to WCW, Greg Gagne worked a few scattered AWA shots in 1991 and went on to become a WCW road agent, Verne ended up in bankruptcy court (which given how those laws work could mean he still had a lot of money tucked away) and then apparently briefly tried to start a Sumo wrestling circuit in America in 1992. He apparently just retired at that point.
So at the end of the day what final conclusion can we ascertain for why the AWA went belly up? Verne had a large fan base, a healthy rainy day fund, plenty of experience in promoting, was aggressive in re-stocking his roster after Vince pillaged it, had an action figure line and a T-shirt line, a national cable deal on ESPN, and was reportedly a good pay off man for his wrestlers.
Simply a matter of being penny wise and dollar foolish perhaps? For example Jim Brunzell said in his shoot interview that Vince promised him $90,000 a year to work for the WWF and Verne refused to match it. For Vince, Jim was a talented mid-carder for 3 years, helping to bring some fast paced diversity to Vince’s show filled with many steroid freaks. For Verne however, Jim was an upper mid-card guy who could rotate into the main event scene against the Sheik’s Army or other heels when called upon and with that in mind, let’s say Verne ran 200 shows a year – that only breaks down to 450 dollars a show to keep a valuable utility man around and help stop the perception that all your name brand stars are leaving for the WWF. To me that seems like a worthwhile investment. Of course with Vince running 3 shows a night and having a much more dynamic merchandising base, it is easier to promise 90K a year to a guy than what Verne could with his more traditional promotional approach.
The most correct response is probably a combination of many factors – the age of his top guys, talent raids, pushing smaller guys like Hennig and his son Greg at the same time as Vince was pushing gigantic cartoon characters come to life like Hulk Hogan and Andre The Giant. The East Coast bias working against him, the marketing division paling in scope to the WWF machine, sticking with a traditional in ring style for too long, and perhaps most importantly- deciding that trying to snag a portion of Hulk’s Japan pay offs and cheating him on merchandising deals was a better plan than keeping your top draw happy.