The American Wrestling Association (AWA) was an American professional wrestling promotion based in Minneapolis, Minnesota that ran from 1960 to 1991. It was owned and founded by Verne Gagne and Wally Karbo. The territory was originally part of the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA), becoming an independent territory in the late 1950s.
Anton Stecher was a founding member of the NWA in 1948 and had promoted wrestling in Minneapolis since 1933 through his Minneapolis Boxing and Wrestling Club. In 1952, he sold a one third interest in the promotion to his son Dennis and Wally Karbo. Stecher died on October 9, 1954 and control of the promotion passed to Karbo and Dennis. Verne Gagne, a former amateur wrestling champion, had become a well known and popular wrestler nationally in the 1950s as a result of his appearances on the DuMont Network. He aspired to become NWA World Champion, but for various reasons to do with politics inside the NWA, he never became champion. In 1959, Dennis Stecher sold his majority stake in the Minneapolis Boxing and Wrestling Club to Karbo and Gagne. They became co-owners of the promotion from that point onward.
In 1960, after unsuccessfully lobbying the NWA for a title match between Gagne and the NWA World Champion Pat O’Connor, Gagne and Karbo led certain territories out of the NWA forming the AWA. The AWA unilaterally recognized NWA World Champion Pat O’Connor as AWA World Champion and gave him 90 days to defend the AWA title against Gagne. The NWA ignored the challenge. O’Connor was stripped of the AWA title and it was awarded to Gagne on August 16, 1960. While O’Connor was considered the first AWA Champion, he never wrestled in the AWA until later in the 1960s (when he teamed with Wilbur Snyder to win the AWA World Tag Team Championship).
Gagne was a former amateur-wrestling champion who had earned a spot on the U.S. team at the 1948 Summer Olympics; he ran the AWA with a traditionalist sensibility, firmly believing that sound technical wrestling should be the basis of a pro-wrestling company. Starting in the 1970s, Gagne trained his newcomer wrestlers from his farm in Chanhassen, Minnesota.
Under Gagne and Karbo, the AWA became one of the most successful and expansive single territories in the country, promoting shows in such major cities as Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Chicago, Omaha, Winnipeg, Denver, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Phoenix and throughout the Midwest region. Relationships were also developed with existing promotions in Houston, Memphis and San Antonio. Gagne’s westward expansion into traditional NWA territories was made possible due to relationships and business partnerships he had forged for decades—more the result of other promoters struggling to survive rather than by purchase or hostile takeover by Gagne.
After Gagne’s retirement in 1981, he focused the promotion on Nick Bockwinkel Ted Baker Canada 2016, a loyal employee of several years who was a mat-wrestling technician like Gagne had been. Bockwinkel faced numerous challengers for the title during the early 1980s including eventual champions Rick Martel and Otto Wanz, former champion Mad Dog Vachon, and perennial contenders Wahoo McDaniel, and Brad Rheingans, but perhaps his most famous opponent would be Hulk Hogan. Starting in 1982 and accelerated by a role in the hit film Rocky III, Hogan rapidly caught on as a babyface with AWA fans, and became the AWA’s top draw. But even as his popularity grew to unprecedented levels, Gagne refused to make him the AWA World Heavyweight Champion, as Hogan was a powerhouse wrestler. He recognized Hogan’s showmanship and charisma and was well aware of his potential drawing power, but still believed a wrestling company should be built around one of its best technical wrestlers (e.g., himself and Bockwinkel). On the Spectacular Legacy of the AWA DVD, Gagne denied bias against Hogan and defended his actions by reasoning that he believed that Hogan’s pursuit of the title was the draw for the audience and that “we really didn’t need him to be champion”.
On two occasions, Gagne went so far as to tease AWA title wins for Hogan, only to return the title to Bockwinkel via technicalities. The first was on April 18, 1982. Hogan defeated Bockwinkel with the help of a foreign object that Bockwinkel’s manager Bobby Heenan had interjected into the match. After the three count the belt was awarded to Hogan and he was announced as the new champion. Heenan informed the referee of the object and the ref questioned Hogan about this
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, but the blood on Hogan’s face was evidence that the object had also been used on him. The ref stood by his decision and Hogan left the arena as the new AWA World champion. Six days later on AWA television, AWA President Stanley Blackburn stripped Hogan of the title and returned it to Bockwinkel.
The second such occasion was on a “Super Sunday” card in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1983. Hogan again pinned Bockwinkel, was awarded the belt and announced as the new champion. This time Blackburn came to the ring moments after the match and tried to have Hogan retroactively disqualified for throwing the champion over the top rope a few minutes before the pinfall occurred. However this match had been booked as a no disqualification match, which prevented this, so Blackburn simply stripped Hogan of the title and once again handed it back to Bockwinkel. The crowd (which had exploded in cheers when Hogan appeared to have won) almost rioted when learning that Hogan was once again cheated out of the title, and Bockwinkel later had to do damage control with the rabid crowd, telling the audience to calm down afterwards as well. Hogan attacked Bockwinkel and his manager Bobby Heenan. On the DVD The Spectacular Legacy of the AWA, it was revealed that Verne Gagne planned to have Hogan win the belt that night, but only if he would give Gagne the bulk of the revenues that Hogan was earning from merchandise and his periodic main-event performances in New Japan Pro Wrestling. Outraged at being strongarmed, Hogan refused, but nonetheless offered a 50/50 split instead. Gagne refused, and kept the belt from him.
As Vince McMahon and his northeastern-based World Wrestling Federation (WWF) attempted to end pro wrestling’s regional era in the mid-1980s (by establishing the WWF as a national promotion), Gagne made several decisions that caused his AWA to lose momentum in the emerging wrestling promotion war, including overemphasizing his son Greg Gagne in AWA storylines (which led to charges of nepotism within the company) and failing to make Hulk Hogan the top star of his company when he had the chance.
Frustrated by Verne Gagne’s business decisions, Hogan accepted an offer from rival promoter McMahon to wrestle for the WWF, in December 1983. One month later, Hogan became the World Heavyweight champion. He and the WWF soon became a mainstream media phenomenon and virtually synonymous with professional wrestling in much of the national consciousness, vaulting past the AWA and NWA as the premier promotion in wrestling. Hogan wasn’t alone in leaving the AWA. Some of the AWA’s other top talent, including announcer “Mean Gene” Okerlund, manager Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, and wrestlers Adrian Adonis, Ken Patera, Jim Brunzell, David Schultz, Wendi Richter and Jesse Ventura, also jumped to the WWF. As the AWA required talent to place a six-week notice upon leaving the company for booking and syndication-based reasons, most of the talent reportedly told Gagne that McMahon offered them more money to not work out their notices and previously-scheduled appearance dates, which has been disputed by McMahon today. Of the talent to leave AWA for the WWF in this time, only Heenan worked out his notice in good faith to the Gagne family.
The sting of the WWF expansion was not shouldered by the AWA alone. The Mid-Atlantic, Georgia, and Florida territories of the NWA also lost top stars such as “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, Greg “The Hammer” Valentine, Jack Brisco, Jerry Brisco, Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat, “Cowboy” Bob Orton, Barry Windham, and Mike Rotunda to the WWF during that same time.
Despite this talent raid, the AWA went on to have another successful year in 1984, mainly because of the arrival of The Road Warriors and an angle uniting longtime heel Jerry Blackwell with Greg Gagne and feuding with former manager Sheik Adnan El-Kaissey. Although aging, most of the AWA’s longtime core talent still remained. Stars like Nick Bockwinkel, Ray “The Crippler” Stevens, The Crusher, Dick the Bruiser, Baron von Raschke, Mad Dog Vachon, and Larry Hennig were all still active at this time despite all being in their 40s or 50s.
In response to McMahon’s expansion, the AWA forged an alliance with several NWA promoters, including Jim Crockett Promotions (Charlotte, NC), Mid-South Wrestling (Oklahoma City, OK), Pacific Northwest Wrestling (Portland, OR), World Class Championship Wrestling (Dallas, TX), and the Continental Wrestling Association (Memphis, TN). This new promotion was known as Pro Wrestling USA and came about in an attempt to establish a national presence to compete against the WWF. The AWA was also able to sign top wrestlers like Sgt. Slaughter and Bob Backlund. By 1985, however, the AWA began to lose audiences, as the WWF was gaining wrestling superiority in the wake of WrestleMania I. Later in the year, as this struggle against the WWF progressed, Wally Karbo also sold all his stock to Gagne as well. In September 1985, Pro Wrestling USA would respond to McMahon’s rising success by promoting the first SuperClash. Despite this success, the Pro Wrestling USA collaboration did not last, as Gagne accused David Crockett of trying to sign away AWA talent over to the NWA backstage at numerous Pro Wrestling USA shows.
The AWA released an AWA Remco Action Figure line with the toy company Remco and a series of 30 minute videos entitled “Wrestling Classics”, primarily featuring wrestlers such as Sgt. Slaughter, the Road Warriors, Jimmy Garvin & Steve Regal, and World Champion Rick Martel.
Despite falling behind the WWF and NWA as a major promotion throughout 1986 and 1987, Gagne still managed to find and/or develop legitimate young talent like Scott Hall, The Midnight Rockers (Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty), “Bull Power” Leon White (later known as Big Van Vader), The Nasty Boys (Brian Knobs and Jerry Sags), and Madusa Miceli during that timeframe.
With the retirement of Nick Bockwinkel, Gagne tapped Curt Hennig as his next champion and future of the company. Hennig, a talented and popular second generation wrestler, defeated Bockwinkel at Super Clash 2. The overall card was relatively weak, but the title match was a critical success, although the title change was not without controversy, involving Larry Zbyszko and a roll of dimes. After further review by on-air AWA President Stanley Blackburn, and following weeks of speculation by AWA fans, the decision was upheld and Hennig was the new champion
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. Gagne pushed Hennig and The Midnight Rockers throughout 1987 and into 1988, but the WWF came calling and all three of his top stars would soon be gone.
During 1987, in an attempt to remain relevant and survive, Gagne renewed a relationship with Memphis-based promoter Jerry Jarrett and the CWA and even allowed Mid-Southern territory legend Jerry “The King” Lawler to win the AWA World Title from Curt Hennig in May 1988. This was after the AWA flirted for months with the idea of giving Greg Gagne the belt, even awarding the belt to Gagne at a couple of house shows, only to return it to Hennig on a technicality. It was widely speculated that the idea of the younger Gagne as heavyweight champion did not play well with AWA fans, who seemed more interested in the involvement of Verne Gagne and Larry Hennig in the feud than they did with Greg Gagne actually winning the title, so Verne decided to go with Lawler instead. Michaels and Jannetty would drop the titles to Badd Company around that same time.
Facing financial trouble of their own, WCCW then allied themselves with the AWA and CWA, and Jerry Lawler would challenge WCCW Heavyweight champion Kerry Von Erich to a title unification match at SuperClash III in December. Super Clash III was the AWA’s first venture into the Pay-Per-View market and wrestling’s first collaborative PPV between several promotions. However, after months of hype, the end results were somewhat contentious and relatively unsuccessful. Following the event, the collaborative effort was over and Lawler was stripped of the title in January 1989. Lawler kept the AWA Title belt and continued promoting himself in Tennessee, Texas, and on the independent circuit as the unified World Heavyweight Champion. Lawler did this in an attempt to leverage PPV revenue from Gagne that was owed to him, but Gagne never paid him and eventually commissioned a new title belt of similar design.
In February 1989, Larry Zbyszko, a one-time employee and Verne’s son-in-law, returned to the AWA and won the vacated World Title in an 18-man Battle Royal, eliminating Tom Zenk to end the match. It was also during this time that Joe Blanchard replaced Stanley Blackburn as AWA President. Zbyszko’s first title reign would last for a little over one year. During this time he would defend the title against Zenk, Greg Gagne, Wahoo McDaniel, Ken Patera, Nikita Koloff, Brad Rheingans, The Trooper Del Wilkes, and Masa Saito. Zbyszko would eventually lose the title to Saito in February 1990 in front of 65,000 fans at the Tokyo Dome at the NJPW/AJPW Supershow. Zbyszko would regain the title in May 1990 at SuperClash IV. During 1989 and 1990, the AWA also pushed Mike Enos and Wayne Bloom as the top tag team. In early 1989, Eric Bischoff, who was performing office work for the AWA at the time, mostly in sales and syndication, was placed in front of the camera to replace Larry Nelson as interviewer and occasional commentator. The AWA was Bischoff’s first exposure to the world of pro wrestling. He would later become a dominant force in the industry, leading World Championship Wrestling to prominence in the 1990s.
The AWA would become inactive in the fall of 1990 (the last television taping occurred on August 11). As a result, Zbyszko signed with WCW. As his last official act, Verne Gagne stripped the already-departed Zbyszko of the AWA World Title in December 1990. In 1991, Gagne and his inactive promotion officially filed for bankruptcy. Gagne did promote two cards in Minnesota in May 1991, featuring the return of Greg Gagne and Wahoo McDaniel and other stars such as Baron von Raschke, Buck Zumhofe, and The Destruction Crew (Mike Enos & Wayne Bloom), but he was unable to revive the promotion. Despite this, the AWA continued re-running matches in their weekly ESPN time slot, and on their syndicated All-Star Wrestling show. The company also managed to release a commercial tape (Hulk Hogan Highlights) during 1991.
On the Spectacular Legacy of the AWA DVD, Eric Bischoff revealed that one of the main reasons the AWA shut down was that Verne Gagne was leveraging money against a valuable property he owned along Lake Minnetonka. Local officials wanted to turn the property into a park. Gagne fought the decision for several years, but eventually lost the eminent domain case, leading to the creation of Lake Minnetonka Regional Park. As a result, he lost the financial resource he was using to keep the AWA up and running and had no choice but to shut down the promotion. In an interview during the late 1990s with KARE 11, an NBC affiliate out of Minneapolis/Saint Paul, Gagne spoke of the devoted fan base in Minnesota and joked about how he may promote again some day, but nothing ever materialized.
Abroad, the AWA had working agreements with Japanese promotions International Pro Wrestling (1969 to 1980), then All Japan Pro Wrestling (1980 to 1988, although the relationship was strained in 1986 by the AWA Title debacle surrounding Stan Hansen), and, near the end, New Japan Pro Wrestling.
On June 29, 1986, in Denver, Colorado, Hansen refused to lose the AWA World Title to Nick Bockwinkel prior to a tour of Japan and left with the championship belt. Hansen argued that he was booked as AWA Champion in Japan and was therefore fulfilling his commitment. Gagne disagreed and awarded the AWA Championship to Bockwinkel, using one of the tag team title belts on a temporary basis. Gagne threatened legal action if Hansen continued to keep the belt and it was returned to the AWA as a result (although according to Nick Bockwinkel on The Spectacular Legacy of the AWA, Hansen had run over the belt with his truck before returning it).
The AWA also had a brief relationship with the European promotion Catch Wrestling Association, through which its promoter, wrestler Otto Wanz, was given a brief AWA World Title reign in 1982.
The AWA held a “Team Challenge Series” from October 1, 1989 through August 11, 1990. All of the available wrestlers were divided into three teams: “Larry’s Legends”, headed by Larry Zbyszko, “Sarge’s Snipers”, originally headed by Sgt. Slaughter, and “Baron’s Blitzers”, headed by Baron von Raschke. Slaughter left the AWA to return to the World Wrestling Federation shortly after WrestleMania VI, and Colonel DeBeers took over as the team captain for the Snipers (the team name was changed to “DeBeers’ Diamondcutters” and Slaughter was said on air to have “gone AWOL” to explain his departure).
Babyfaces and heels alike were assigned to teams, forcing bitter rivals to work together. The winners of Team Challenge matches would earn points for their team; at some unspecified point the highest scoring team would share one million dollars, within the story line. Some of the earlier TCS matches took place in a TV studio without an audience; the announcers claimed it was part of an effort to stop wrestlers from interfering, but it was actually due to poor ticket sales for arena shows. The remainder of the matches took place at the Rochester Civic Center, where the AWA taped live matches for its television program from 1989-1990.
The final match in the TCS was a Royal Rumble-style battle royal featuring Brad Rheingans, The Destruction Crew, Colonel DeBeers, the Texas Hangmen, the Trooper Del Wilkes, and several others. Jake Milliman again came away with the win by eliminating DeBeers at the end, winning the series and the supposed one-million-dollar check for Larry’s Legends.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, AWA television production was headquartered at Minneapolis independent station WTCN-TV, then owned by Metromedia. The ring announcer was longtime Minneapolis – Saint Paul sports broadcaster Marty O’Neill, who also conducted the post-match interviews. O’Neill announced the matches for the local WTCN audience. But fans watching the syndicated version of the show heard commentary provided by Rodger Kent. In the mid-1970s, during a prolonged illness, O’Neill was occasionally replaced as ring announcer by program producer Al DeRusha and interviews were conducted by both Kent and Gene Okerlund. By 1979, Okerlund had permanently replaced O’Neill, who died a couple of years later, and production was transferred to Minneapolis station KMSP-TV. During the AWA’s existence, it produced or had a hand in production of several TV programs:
In 1985, Gagne began airing weekly programming on ESPN, hoping to help the promotion compete with the national exposure already enjoyed by the WWF (on USA Network) and the NWA’s Georgia/World Championship Wrestling (although much less successful than the WWF at the time) (on TBS). However, weekly AWA shows were not treated with any priority by the cable network, sometimes being delayed, preempted by live programming, or suffering from occasional changes in time slot, making it difficult for fans to tune in on a regular basis.
On February 26, 2008, ESPN Classic began reairing AWA Championship Wrestling episodes, circa 1986-1990.
The AWA ran only one pay-per-view card, SuperClash III, during its 30-year run. However, From 1999 to 2002, a series of AWA-related pay-per-views were produced. Titled AWA Classic Wrestling, they featured compilations of old AWA footage, hosted by Greg Gagne and Todd Okerlund (son of Gene Okerlund), with occasional appearances by Verne Gagne. The pay-per-views ceased following the acquisition of the AWA tape library by World Wrestling Entertainment.
All footage of the AWA is owned by WWE. WWE released The Spectacular Legacy of the AWA on November 21, 2006. The DVD includes a documentary on the amateur and professional career of Verne Gagne, the rise and fall of the AWA over its 30-year history, along with numerous interviews and features with Gagne, Hulk Hogan, Jim Brunzell, Michael Hayes, Baron von Raschke, Greg Gagne, Eric Bischoff, Bobby Heenan, Gene Okerlund and Nick Bockwinkel.
In 1996, Dale Gagner, a former AWA employee, began using the AWA name in the state of Minnesota and formed an organization known as AWA Superstars of Wrestling, infringing on the AWA name. In April 2007, WWE filed a lawsuit against Gagner, citing trademark infringement, as WWE owned all AWA properties due to their purchase after the AWA’s closure. In a move to sidestep WWE, former AWA wrestler Jonnie Stewart trademarked the name “American Wrestling Alliance” instead. However, the United States Patent and Trademark Office later indicated that the request was abandoned in February 2008.
In October 2008, the court ruled in favor of WWE. The court ruling prohibits Gagner and his associate from exploiting or trading on the AWA name or any other derivatives. As a result, the organization was renamed to Wrestling Superstars Live.