Thanks to Kris Zellner, Jim Zordani, Graham Cawthon, Matt Farmer, Tamalie, Dave Meltzer, Karl Stern, wrestlingdata.com, crazymax.org, prowrestlinghistory.com and the “Between the Sheets” podcast for the results and historical information I have used for this series. The Wrestling Classics and Kayfabe Memories message boards have also been invaluable in answering my questions on certain issues and angles.
St. Louis/Central States
Bob Geigel, Verne Gagne, Harley Race and the other shareholders in St. Louis continued to struggle to find a way to reinvigorate their local business. The St. Louis card on March 8th drew 2,610 fans, their second lowest attendance since World War 2. The card was headlined by AWA World champion Rick Martel defending against Nick Bockwinkel. Other action saw Greg Gagne and Jim Brunzell face off with Mr. Saito and the Masked Superstar, Crusher Blackwell downed Bob Brown, Sergeant Slaughter fought to a double count-out with Wahoo McDaniel, Mike Von Erich bested Jimmy Garvin, Scott Hall and Dan Spivey outshone Steve O and Marty Jannetty, Dick the Bruiser pounded Mr. Pogo and Rufus R. Jones beat Ken Timbs. A lot of star power, but apparently the AWA TV show was not compelling many to come out to see their stars in action.
The WWF ran St. Louis on the 14th and drew 9,000 fans to see Hulk Hogan batter Mr. Wonderful. Oddly, the main event was broadcast on the local radio with Bob Costas and Dan Dierdoff providing commentary. I want to hear this really badly! The other match of note that evening was the JYD and Andre the Giant fighting Ken Patera and Big John Studd in a Texas Tornado match.
The local group returned on the 29th, drawing 4,500 fans with Kerry Von Erich facing off with NWA champ Ric Flair. The undercard here was weak, with Dick the Bruiser facing Wahoo McDaniel in the only match of note. Harley Race and Bruiser Brody both “no showed”. Brody had warned the promoters 3 weeks earlier that he was not going to make the booking, but he was plugged anyway. Dick the Bruiser replaced Brody and didn’t even bother to put on tights, just working in street clothes for a few minutes before the match was called off. Race meanwhile no showed after getting into an argument with Bob Geigel over the direction of the company. Apparently this had something to do with the “Rock and Wrestling” angle, but Dave Meltzer is vague in his description in the Wrestling Observer.
On a final side note, Flair states in his new book, “Second Nature”, that he hated working for Bob Geigel. This was in part due to Geigel being too cheap to hire security, which led to one of Flair’s $10,000 robes being stolen from the locker room one evening. Flair chased the fan to the parking lot, but was unable to retrieve his belongings.
Championship Wrestling from Georgia
Ole Anderson and Jim Crockett Promotions teamed up for a series of events in WWF markets: Mount Holly, New Jersey was headlined by Sgt. Slaughter against Ivan Koloff, with Billy Graham, Bob Backlund and Larry Zbyszko filling out the undercard. Allentown, Pennsylvania was main evented by Slaughter and Backlund facing Koloff and Ron Bass. Zbyszko and Graham worked in the supporting cast. Altoona, Pennsylvania was topped with Bob Backlund fighting Nikita Koloff. Dominic Denucci, Graham and Ivan Koloff were all part of the undercard. They returned to Altoona later in the month with Manny Fernandez taking on Ivan Koloff in the top (lone?) attraction.
Meanwhile, Georgia TV was heavily pushing the fact that Gene Anderson was coming out of retirement to aid his “brother” in a series of tag team bouts against Ivan Koloff, Scott Irwin, Bob Roop, Ron Starr and Kareem Muhammed. Anderson also brought Buzz Sawyer back to the territory as a babyface to aid in his quest to end the heel faction.
Tommy Rich, formerly the hottest star in wrestling, was reduced to feuding with Rip Rogers, who is awesome in his own right, but had zero star power to create a buzz amongst the fans who were still watching.
At the end of the month, JCP bought the WWF’s WTBS timeslot. This began the process which brought Ole Anderson into the JCP fold a few weeks later, effectively shuttering Georgia wrestling once and for all.
It was speculated in the dirt sheets that CWG closing down would spell the end for Ron Starr’s American career as he had been widely blackballed after suing promoter Leroy McGuirk in Tulsa in 1980. Newspapers in the area reported that Starr had been promised $350 dollars a week but was only getting $250 dollars a week, and once Starr complained he was then asked to drop the NWA Junior Heavyweight title despite being told he would be given a substantial push as champ. Les Thornton ended up with the title and Starr had to head to Canada and Puerto Rico to find work. Anderson had been desperate for talent to use and Starr was picked up. Starr ended up staying active in smaller areas until the early 1990’s.
Verne Gagne signed a series of merchandising deals based around his “Pro Wrestling USA” and AWA talent. This would ultimately include action figures, stickers, books and other such novelties.
Verne Gagne and others in the AWA office privately concluded that Rick Martel was just not working as a draw. Baron Von Raschke had been challenging Jimmy Garvin on promos, with the Baron now appearing in drag as “Bertha Von Raschke” in order to counter Precious in matches between Martel and Garvin. This was to add some flair to the Martel/Garvin matches after they had already been around the horn several times over the past several months.
Martel had not exactly been booked strongly as Jimmy Garvin had been scoring illegal wins over the champion during their early matches, only for the results to be overturned. Winnipeg’s March event ended with Martel being pinned by Nick Bockwinkel, only for the ref to then realize that Martel’s leg was on the ropes. Martel then scored the actual win – with Bockwinkel getting his leg on the ropes, but the ref failing to notice, thus earning Martel a tainted victory. In addition to Garvin and Bockwinkel, Kendo Nagasaki and Jim Brunzell also received world title shots. I’m intrigued by the babyface vs. babyface match up, not only for the potential quality, but also to see how the fan’s alliances fell.
The Road Warriors brutalized Curt Hennig during a TV taping bout which saw Hennig and the Baron challenging the Warriors. Curt’s father, Larry “The Ax” Hennig came to his son’s aid. The Warriors then got into it physically with ringside fans as security tried to get them back to the locker room as the marks ran into the ring. This set up further matches with the Hennigs and the Warriors, which had already been sporadically taking place in the prior weeks.
Sgt. Slaughter and Jerry Blackwell continued their feud with Sheik Adnan’s army of the Masked Superstar and King Tonga. Larry Hennig and Da Crusher also aided Blackwell in some tag matches with the Sheik’s men. Slaughter also fought with the foreign menaces of Mr. Saito and Kendo Nagasaki, with Jim Brunzell and Rick Martel serving as his partners.
Greg Gagne and Jim Brunzell were still embroiled in matches with Mr. Saito and Nick Bockwinkel. This included a match in Winnipeg where the winner’s would face the Road Warriors for the tag straps at the next Winnipeg event. In St. Paul, Gagne and Bockwinkel were tangling for the second straight month in the Twin Cities. This time Mr. Saito got involved, aiding Bockwinkel in a two on one beating of Gagne until Verne Gagne made the save, setting up his return as part of the main event of April’s “Starrcage” special event.
After telling Verne for months that he was not interested in returning, Ray Stevens appeared at a TV taping in late March, teaming with his old partner Nick Bockwinkel. He’d remain active in a limited capacity in the AWA for the next three years.
After failing to get over as the black Superman in Mid-South, Butch Reed entered the AWA as a heel. He’d eventually be aligned with Jimmy Garvin as an enforcer.
The AWA and WWF continued their battle for the Chicago area fans, each presenting two shows. On March 3rd, the WWF fans at the UIC Pavilion saw Hulk Hogan fall via count-out to Brutus Beefcake. Tito Santana fought Paul Orndorff in the work rate clinic match of the night and the JYD failed to wrest the IC gold from Greg Valentine. Six nights later the AWA entered the Rosemont Horizon with Verne Gagne serving as the special referee for Jimmy Garvin’s challenge to Rick Martel’s AWA World title. Sgt. Slaughter and Crusher Blackwell collided with King Tonga, the Masked Superstar and Sheik Adnan in what was likely the true event that drew the fans. Greg Gagne and Jimmy Brunzell tangled with Nick Bockwinkel and Mr. Saito in another crowd pleaser.
The WWF returned to the Pavilion on the 24th, with Hulk Hogan bringing Chicago native Mr. T with him as an outside enforcer to contend with Brutus Beefcake’s manager Johnny V. World tag champs Barry Windham and Mike Rotondo downed the Iron Sheik and Nikolai Volkoff, plus Jimmy Snuka had his hand raised over Bob Orton Jr. after Orton found himself disqualified. The AWA fans came back to the Rosemont on the 30th to see AWA champ Martel defend against Bockwinkel. The Road Warriors returned to their fictitious homeland in order to battle Curt and Larry “the Axe” Hennig. Other action saw Da Crusher brawl with King Tonga and Bob Backlund wrasslin’ with Larry Zbyszko. This event drew 9,600 fans.
The WWF also went to Peoria, Illinois, where they drew 12,000 fans to see Hogan repel the challenge of Paul Orndorff. The undercard was horrible, making the attendance all the more impressive.
The Twin Cities war saw both the AWA and WWF draw roughly 5,500 fans for their shows. Martel and Garvin fighting for the World title headlined St. Paul. Da Crusher and the Hennig family partnered up to scuffle with Paul Ellering and the Road Warriors, Nick Bockwinkel and Greg Gagne had their above mentioned skirmish which set up Saito and Bockwinkel’s “Starrcage” match with the Gagne’s a month later, and Sgt. Slaughter teamed with Blackwell to face Tonga, the Masked Superstar and Saito. Considering the Civic Center could hold 18,000+, I’m fairly surprised that this card didn’t do at least slightly better. The WWF offered up Hogan facing former AWA star Jesse Ventura, with Hogan losing via count-out. Windham and Rotondo bested Sheik and Volkoff in the only other match of note.
Winnipeg remained a steady drawing place for the AWA, as they visited twice in March and drew over 5,000 fans each time. This is noteworthy to track due to events in early 1986 which saw the AWA lose the promoting rights to the city, another blow in the slow but steady decline of the promotion. I’ll cover that in depth when we get that far. There’s some interesting backstage machinations to share. The most notable events on these cards was Jim Brunzell and Greg Gagne earning a win over Bockwinkel and Saito on the first event to set up a title match with the Road Warriors at the second event. Bockwinkel rebounded from the loss well enough, as he was placed in the headline spot against Martel at the second show.
The west coast was yet another battleground location for the AWA/WWF wars as Oakland saw cards from both groups within 2 days of each other. The AWA drew 3,400 fans to see Blackwell crusade against the Sheik’s army with King Tonga serving as the soldier tasked with eliminating the “Mountain from Stone Mountain”. Martel was scheduled to defend his gold against Jimmy Garvin, but Garvin failed to make the date, placing Bockwinkel into the spot instead. The WWF charged in with Andre the Giant and the JYD hunting down Ken Patera and Big John Studd, with a poor undercard. The event drew 3,100 nonetheless.
Pro Wrestling USA
Verne Gagne is paying a steep price for his efforts to contend with Vince McMahon in the WWF’s backyard as the “Pro Wrestling USA” Saturday morning TV timeslot in New York is costing him $32,000 a month to put on the air.
Sgt. Slaughter, the center piece of the East Coast attack, is being threatened by McMahon with a lawsuit for “stealing the WWF’s intellectual property”, by which they mean the military gimmick that Sarge had been using for years.
After hyping the Meadowlands show in February and loading the card with as many North American stars as they could feasibly land, the follow up “big event” that was heavily pushed on TV was for a March 23rd card in New Haven. The main event was a battle royal, just like the month before…minus most of the stars. The TV building up the event was unfocused, with Larry Zbyszko calling out Bob Backlund and Sarge, only to end up facing the newly recruited Tonga Kid. The Tonga Kid’s TV debut was also a disaster, as he used his promo time to call out Roddy Piper and Paul Orndorff. He went on to name-drop Cyndi Lauper and Jimmy Snuka, giving Wrestlemania a free plug in a roundabout way. He used a top rope splash for his finish, which Verne tried to play up as controversial as the AWA bylaws have banned top rope moves.
Other TV highlights included Slaughter building up matches with Kamala, stemming from Sarge besting Billy Robinson and Kamala in the Meadowlands battle royal. The Sheik’s army pushed for more battles with Sarge and Blackwell. The High Flyers (Brunzell and Gagne) called out both the Sheik’s Army and the Road Warriors, and the Warriors challenged Sarge and Blackwell to fight. Sir Oliver Humperdink debuted, with Afa and Sika in tow.
Another thing that stood out for me while scanning through the weeks of TV was that the group pushed four high schools and 2 college gyms as part of their east coast tour. This struck me as making the promotion seem low rent considering that the WWF TV, which was actively competing for the same fans, was plugging the glitz and glamour of pop music stars and entertainment legends coming to the Mecca of wrestling, Madison Square Garden. I don’t believe New Haven qualified as a Medina, much less some Podunk high school in New Jersey.
Nonetheless, 7,000 fans came to New Haven to see the Tonga Kid win the battle royal main event. Jimmy Garvin fell to AWA champ Martel, Kamala found himself disqualified against Slaughter, the Tonga Kid bested Zbyszko by DQ, Backlund downed Kendo Nagasaki and the Youngbloods fought Afa and Sika to a draw.
Overall, the tour of smaller New York/New Jersey towns were full of underwhelming cards, actually worse than the AWA’s solo efforts given that they felt compelled to use different talent than their primary roster. For example, Kendo Nagasaki headlined multiple times in singles and tag matches against the likes of Backlund, Slaughter and Martel, despite being given a flat response from the live fans at the TV shows designed to get him over.
The AWA and JCP looked past their tumultuous business differences in order to put on a big show in Baltimore. Despite being a far more star laden card than New Haven, this event was not pushed on Pro Wrestling USA’s TV. The main event saw Ole Anderson, Dusty Rhodes and Sgt. Slaughter team up to tangle with Ivan and Nikita Koloff, who were joined by Krusher Khrushchev. AWA champ Rick Martel downed Mr. Saito, Bob Backlund faced the Barbarian in what must have been an absolute train wreck of a match, Tommy Rich fought Tully Blanchard to a draw, plus the Fabulous Freebirds took on the Rock and Roll RPMs.
The WWF drew 13,300 to their own Baltimore event. This saw Tito Santana fall to Greg Valentine in a “lumberjack” match, plus Andre the Giant and David Sammartino facing Studd and Patera.
Verne Gagne’s stake in Montreal helped set up a big main event for the month as AWA champ Rick Martel partnered with local superhero Dino Bravo to challenge AWA World tag team champions the Road Warriors.
I’ll be back soon with part 3, covering the southern territories and some worldwide highlights.