The sensational history of the AWA
WWEClassics.com takes the WWE Universe on a guided tour of one of the most beloved promotions in sports-entertainment history, the AWA.
The American Wrestling Association was a uniquely Midwestern institution. Established by WWE Hall of Famer Verne Gagne and promoter Wally Karbo in 1960, the Minnesota-based promotion brought unforgettable competitors like Baron von Raschke, The Crusher and “Mad Dog” Vachon to flickering RCAs in frozen suburbs from Fargo to old Milwaukee. The most successful wrestling company in the United States at the height of its popularity, the AWA filled massive stadiums like Chicago’s Soldier Field with fans clamoring to see old school greats like Nick Bockwinkel and Billy Robinson battling for the coveted AWA Title.
The American Wrestling Association’s glorious years in the ’60s and ’70s gave way to struggle in the 1980s as Verne Gagne battled it out with Mr. McMahon for sports-entertainment supremacy. It’s obvious now which side won, but the AWA’s fascinating history is still a story that deserves to be told. Here, WWE Classics recounts the rise and fall of a professional wrestling organization that was, in a word, sensational.
Aug. 9, 1958
A Lack of Entitlement
Minnesota wrestling hero and former Chicago Bear Verne Gagne defeats NWA Champion Edouard Carpentier in Omaha, but there’s a problem. The National Wrestling Alliance had already redacted Carpentier’s title victory over Lou Thesz due to disqualification. Still, Gagne never receives an official championship match despite his victory. The slight leads Gagne and promoter Wally Karbo to form their own organization — the American Wrestling Association — in order to give Verne the recognition he deserves.
Aug. 16, 1960
The AWA is Born
Throwing down the gauntlet to the NWA, the newly formed AWA recognizes NWA Champion Pat O’Connor as their first official champion. The legendary grappler from New Zealand is then given 90 days to defend the AWA Title. When he fails to do so — as expected — Verne Gagne is awarded the championship. ( MORE ABOUT VERNE GAGNE)
July 4, 1964
Cruising for a Bruising
The AWA’s first big holiday show in Minnesota’s Metropolitan Stadium is main evented by a two-out-of-three-falls showdown between Gagne and Dick the Bruiser. A former Green Bay Packer, the cigar chomping Bruiser is a dirty fighter, but the agile Gagne manages to outwit his foe to hang onto the title. In the years to come, Dick the Bruiser becomes one of the AWA’s most recognizable faces.
Oct. 20, 1964
Mad Dog Unleashed
A former amateur wrestling associate of Verne’s by the name of Maurice Vachon resurfaces in the AWA as the vicious Mad Dog. Relatively small, but as mean and nasty as a pitbull, the gravel voiced terror from Montreal defeats Gagne for the AWA Title in Minneapolis and becomes the organization’s dominant champion over the next three years. ( MORE ABOUT MAD DOG)
Sept. 1, 1972
One Giant Leap
The fans in Chicago’s Soldier Field don’t know it at the time, but the man they are watching will go on to become one of sports-entertainment’s greatest icons. Then billed as Jean Ferre, the imposing behemoth from Grenoble, France defeats both “Butcher” Vachon and “Pretty Boy” Larry Hennig singlehandedly with relative ease. In the years to come, Ferre will become legend under the name Andre the Giant. ( MORE ABOUT ANDRE)
Feb. 19, 1974
Often derided by critics for being stubbornly old school, Verne Gagne proves that he has some sharp entertainment ideas when his motion picture, “The Wrestler,” debuts. Chronicling the build to a title match between characters played by Gagne and British great Billy Robinson, the film stars Ed Asner and features appearances by wrestlers like Dusty Rhodes and Dick Murdoch. A follow-up match between Gagne and Robinson based on the film draws 22,000 fans to Comiskey Park that September.
Nov. 8, 1975
Sensation of the Nation
For the better part of the AWA’s 15-year existence, Verne Gagne has been the promotion’s predominant champion, but that changes when an erudite technician by the name of Nick Bockwinkel dethrones him. Managed by the legendary Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, Bockwinkel calls himself the “smartest wrestler alive” and proves it by bringing an end to Verne’s seven-year reign. The new face of the AWA holds the title for the next five years. ( MORE ABOUT BOCKWINKEL)
June 12, 1976
In order to hype up his famous boxer versus wrestler match against Antonio Inoki, Muhammad Ali competes in a series of matches for the AWA, taking on Kenny Jay and Buddy Wolfe in Chicago. The wild brawls later air on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” with the great Howard Cosell calling the action of Ali’s victories.
April 24, 1983
A powerful and charismatic grappler by the name of Hulk Hogan defeats Nick Bockwinkel for the AWA Title in front of a fiery Minneapolis crowd. The celebration is cut short, however, when AWA President Stanley Blackburn reverses the decision on account of Hogan throwing Bockwinkel over the top rope — an illegal maneuver — and returns the title to the champion. ( WATCH) Frustrated over the company’s unwillingness to get behind his surging popularity, The Hulkster exits the AWA and debuts in WWE that December.
June 27, 1985
Breaking into Television
Striving to expand nationally in order to top Mr. McMahon’s WWE, AWA links up with ESPN to produce the weekly "AWA Championship Wrestling" show. Not yet the powerhouse it would become, the sports network broadcasts the events from casinos in Atlantic City and Las Vegas for the next five years, but the organization's shallow talent pool has an adverse effect on the quality of the bouts. Still, AWA matches air on ESPN to this day.
April 20, 1986
In order to promote their WrestleRock ’86 event, the AWA produces the “WrestleRock Rumble” music video with talents like Scott Hall, Jerry Blackwell and even Verne Gagne rapping challenges to their upcoming opponents. Most of the competitors involved in the debacle embarrass themselves with stilted deliveries, except for Nick Bockwinkel who flows like a veteran MC with lyrics like, “I’ve got the brains and I’m not humble / I’ll take the belt back and do the WrestleRock Rumble!” Decades later, the video finds popularity through sites like YouTube.
Jan. 27, 1987
Although the AWA has lost many of their big stars to WWE by now, the promotion finds hope in a crop of exciting young talents. In St. Paul, the popular Midnight Rockers of Marty Jannetty and future WWE Hall of Famer Shawn Michaels finally dethrone Buddy Rose & Doug Somers to become the tag champions. Three months later at SuperClash 2 on May 2, Curt Hennig defeats Nick Bockwinkel to win the AWA World Title after the soon-to-be Mr. Perfect socks the champion with a handful of quarters. ( WATCH)
May 9, 1988
A Royal Champion
The sports-entertainment landscape changes very quickly the late 1980s. The AWA moves south from its Midwestern roots, breaking into Memphis. Jerry “The King” Lawler welcomes the challenge of the newcomers, defeating Curt Hennig in his hometown to capture the AWA World Title. Lawler’s victory is also symbolic of a new alliance between the AWA, Jerry Jarrett’s CWA and The Von Erichs’ WCCW territories as they try to combat WWE’s rapid national expansion.
Dec. 13, 1988
When Worlds Collide
Looking to get a piece of the burgeoning pay-per-view industry, the collective of the AWA, CWA and WCCW stage SuperClash III in Chicago’s UIC Pavilion. Headlined by Jerry Lawler defeating Kerry Von Erich to unify the AWA and WCCW titles, the event marks a new low for the organizations as many of the performers go unpaid. The King protests the snubbing by refusing to compete for the AWA. Lawler is never paid and is eventually stripped of the title, but he still possesses the physical championship to this day.
April 8, 1990
Last of a Dying Breed
With the AWA on its last legs, Gagne’s promotion stages SuperClash 4 on its home turf — St. Paul, Minn. The main event sees Larry Zbyszko challenge Mr. Saito for the AWA World Championship. “The Living Legend” emerges victorious, winning his second title. By the end of the year, he leaves for WCW. The vacant championship is never filled. Larry Zbyszko goes down in history as the final AWA World Champion.
Aug. 11, 1990
The End of an Era
By the middle of 1990, AWA crowds are dwindling. The company briefly moves its TV tapings into an empty pink room, allegedly to prevent interference in matches. The AWA makes a last-ditch effort to drive interest, launching the Team Challenge Series, splitting the roster up into three squads, with a $1,000,000 prize at stake. Unfortunately, ill-conceived stipulations like a Turkey on a Pole Match don’t bring the fans back, and the AWA is out of business by December.
The WWE Classics team would like to thank WWE Hall of Famers "Mean" Gene Okerlund and Jim Ross for their invaluable help in compiling this timeline.