The SmarK DVD Rant for The Spectacular Legacy of the AWA
Originally published on November 25, 2006
- I’m such a sucker for these things, and in the grand scheme of things I think it’s actually better that the WWE controls all the AWA footage, rather than the AWA themselves, leaving it less likely that someone will accidentally tape over something important with the new episode of Lost or something.
- This one was actually a pleasant surprise for me, as one of my friends in WWE was sending me the Brian Pillman DVD in exchange for some books, and sent this along as an extra.
- We start with some history, as we get a brief explanation of the territory system and the formation of the NWA.
- Naturally, we meet Verne and Greg Gagne first, getting Verne’s personal history and wrestling background. Greg calls him “the Hulk Hogan of his day,” which I suppose is accurate as far as being just as bald, but COME ON. He never even won the NWA title.
- The lack of the big belt is explained as a conspiracy against the Chicago promoters, so Verne breaks away from the NWA and makes himself AWA World champion.
- We get a series of employees diplomatically letting us know what a hard-nosed jerk that Verne was. They also talk about the faulty logic behind the owner of the promotion naming himself the champion, which was a slight credibility problem. However, in the end, he was the only one guaranteed not to walk out on the promotion, so there it was. See also Jarrett, Jeff.
- Onto the big feuds of the early years, like Billy Robinson v. Verne and Nick Bockwinkel v. Verne. Bockwinkel’s character was of course way ahead of its time, acting as the precursor to the “smart heels” like Ric Flair, Ted Dibiase and JBL.
- So things were good, TV was working, money was flowing, everyone was getting laid, etc. Verne even made a movie called “The Wrestler,” which was what it was. I mean, hey, laugh at it if you will, but it’s not like “The Marine” or “See No Evil” was exactly an evolution of the medium.
- We move onto the training camp, which produced an insane amount of future stars. Although then we transition to a group of people who were not trained in the AWA, like Mad Dog Vachon, The Crusher, Baron Von Raschke, Rhodes & Murdoch, Ray Stevens, Bobby Heenan, the High Flyers, Mean Gene, Superstar Graham and Jesse Ventura. Greg of course stops to mention how much money he drew against Ventura and Adonis. Thanks, Greg.
- Bockwinkel talks about his rivalry with Verne, and Hulk Hogan comments that they were almost in bed together given how much they changed the title between themselves.
- Best part of the DVD thus far: Greg Gagne talks about how Hulk Hogan was despondent about not being able to make it in wrestling, but Greg talked him into giving it another shot. And possibly taught him the legdrop too, I’m not sure. So they taught him how to be Hulk Hogan and he drew them lots of money, which led to the infamous title match against Bockwinkel. Hogan notes that Verne wanted him to take the title, but Hogan turned him down because of his Japan commitments. This is a notably different account of things, but that’s Hulk for you. Either way, this was the turning point for the promotion and wrestling in general, as the constant screwjob finishes started killing cities, and Hogan departed for the WWF and changed history.
- They talk about merchandise sales, which makes me want one of those Buck Zumhoffe t-shirts they show, and they spin Hogan’s 50% demands as unreasonable and a reason for his departure. Greg and Verne spin things as Hogan leaving on short notice and screwing them, although they admit that they knew he was leaving and they admit airing interviews that were taped weeks in advance to cover his departure. This would be one of the rare occasions where I side squarely with Hulk on something — Verne got arrogant and should have just given in to whatever ridiculous demands Hogan was making, because they were printing money off his back and whatever “unreasonable” things he was asking for would be more than made up by revenues from TV and houses.
- And so the exodus begins, with Mean Gene, Bobby Heenan, Jesse Ventura and pretty much everyone of worth jumping ship. They all point out that Vince was paying and Verne wasn’t. Interesting story as apparently Vince Sr, hurt about getting kicked out of the business by his own son, tried to buy the AWA from Verne.
- Things get a little catty, as Greg and Verne whine about losing their timeslots to the WWF, and Vince notes that all the old-time promoters never had competition and didn’t know how to deal with it. Vince notes he wasn’t coming after Verne personally, but Minnesota was just a “stop along the way.” Verne took this personally and tried going to New York, which Vince diplomatically notes wasn’t a great idea. That’s putting it mildly.
- So after everything had quieted down in 1984, Verne was still drawing good with the old guard, and he started getting complacent. Funny bit with “One moment you’ve got Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant, and the next you’ve got…” and then an introduction of some jobber.
- Onto Rick Martel as champion, which everyone notes was a good step, but wasn’t the answer. This leads us to a discussion of Greg Gagne and some gentle criticism of his neverending push.
- 1985 brings us Super Clash, a cross-promotional show with the AWA and NWA. The reason was simple: Desperation. And in less of a shock, all the promoters backstab each other and it breaks down after one show, as David Crockett tries to sign AWA stars backstage while the show is going on. That’s awesome. Who knew David had those kind of big hairy balls on him?
- Onto the Stan Hansen story, as Bockwinkel notes that “there was a very good chance” that he would drop the title that night, which leads to a clip of his brilliant “I’ve got a big fat wife and nine kids to feed” promo and a discussion of his jump to Japan, which was pretty much the last nail in the coffin for the AWA title as a serious World championship.
- Things go downhill fast, although they get onto ESPN in 1985, playing to smaller and smaller crowds while trying to alter the product to fit with the WWF model. So let’s meet The Road Warriors, The Midnight Rockers, Sherri Martel, Scott Hall, The Nasty Boys, Eric Bischoff (who got his job because his predecessor was arrested on a DUI), and of course Curt Hennig. Hennig was the closest thing they had to a guy who could have carried the promotion on his back, had he not done the inevitable jump. This leads to a discussion from Jim Ross about how all those people were essentially using the AWA as a springboard. Crumble, crumble, crumble, says the Baron.
- Rock bottom begins with Jerry Lawler winning the title from Hennig in Memphis. Sadly, that match is only included as a clip and not on the extras. Lawler holds no illusions about the reasons for the title change, however, as Hennig was in the WWF the next week.
- In yet another attempt at consolidation, the AWA teams with World Class for Super Clash III, and Vince brushes it off by noting that Jerry Jarrett and Verne Gagne couldn’t agree on ordering a cup of coffee together, let alone promote together. All the talent was gone, and both Lawler and Von Erich had to protect their images, so needless to say it ended up a political nightmare, to say the least. The match was really good, however, despite a horrific bullshit finish.
- Lawler was given a full slate of dates to wrestle, but no money, so he didn’t show up to defend the belt. Greg spins it as Lawler backing out because they wanted him to drop it. Yeah, that Lawler, what a prima donna. Lawler has never been paid and kept the belt to this day. Verne kept all the money.
- Everyone talks about what a huge flop the show was, and Greg adds “The numbers weren’t that bad.” Ah, snark via editing. So the remaining midcarders and hasbeens fight for the title in a battle royale, and Larry Zbyszko, married to Verne’s daughter and thus the most trustworthy guy left, ended up with the title. Fun fact: He kept the belt when he left for the NWA, too.
- Welcome to the end of the line, as the Team Challenge Series kept the promotion limping along long after it should have died, and in 1990 with no more money or talent left, they finally shut the doors. Eric Bischoff denies all connection with the idea, despite appearances. Duly noted, Eric.
- Eric notes that Verne was so stubborn that he would have spent his way into bankruptcy had he not closed up when he did.
- And finally, everyone admits that Vince didn’t kill the AWA, because Verne likely would have stagnated and died on his own anyway. There’s many cases you can make of Vince destroying a territory, but this was not one of them.
Overall, a shockingly fair and even-handed documentary, and probably one of the best ones I’ve ever seen them do. They missed out a couple of things, but for a two-hour documentary they covered pretty much everything you could ask for and didn’t skew history any way that I’d call unreasonable, and it ended up being a respectful look back. Except for Greg’s delusional additions, but he was always was the comic relief anyway.
- Disc one is all interviews and promos, including…
- Jim Brunzell talks about getting ribbed by Pat Patterson at the airport, and then sabotaging his underwear in retaliation.
- Michael Hayes tells a story about getting scouted in 1978 while wrestling in Mississippi, and then a story about leaving the AWA in 1985 because Verne didn’t understand the babyface reactions for the Road Warriors.
- Nick Bockwinkel talks about the Crusher and tells a story about improvising when needing to turn an arena on him.
- Another story from Bockwinkel about talking with a young Ric Flair (just a fan at the time) and a lesson on not jumping the rail.
- More from Bockwinkel, this time about Bobby Heenan pulling a rib with a Hustler magazine in place of a wrestling magazine during a live interview and cracking up the whole crew.
- Continuing with Bockwinkel, as he talks about a meeting with Lou Thesz in the old days and pissing on his leg…literally.
- Yes, more Bockwinkel, as he relates a story about wrestling on a supercard in Houston in two different hour-long matches because Harley Race showed up late. Yikes.
- Finally, his favorite match was of course against Curt Hennig in Las Vegas, as they did an hour-long bloodbath and hit ***** with it.
- Onto Uncle Eric, as he tells a story about developing a game called “Ninja Star Wars” with Sonny Onoo and learning the harsh realities of the retail business. This led to him buying time with Verne to market his game directly, and eventually he became part of the AWA team and the rest is history.
- Eric talks about being kept out of kayfabe even after being an employee for more than a year, because Verne was so damn old-school about the whole thing. His first interview was with Larry Z, who immediately cracks up and breaks the tension. This appeared to be the end of his announcing career, but his replacement was even worse and he kept getting dragged back on camera again until his suckitude became acceptable enough to them that they didn’t hire anyone else.
- A series of guys talk about Verne and Wally Karbo’s “Flying Coffin,” a corporate plane flown by a crazed pilot who enjoyed flying through thunderstorms. This leads to a funny story about Mad Dog getting drunk and throwing everyone’s bags out the door while in mid-air, as Baron does his Vachon imitation and comments “Nice day for a walk, eh?”
- Greg tells a story about his dad selling out in Chicago.
- Verne and Nick tell a story about doing a match in Chicago and narrowly avoiding getting shot when a gunfight erupts in the audience.
- Baron tells a story about Johnny Valentine and a pair of cheap pants.
- Superstar Graham talks about his feud with Wahoo McDaniel, which began with an arm-wrestling match.
- We get the classic Mad Dog Vachon interview, where he builds a big pine box to hold the corpse of Crusher Blackwell once he’s done with him. Now that’s some quality trash talk.
- Another classic interview, this time a Bobby Heenan promo from 1981 directed against Tito Santana.
- And finally, Jesse Ventura & Adrian Adonis from 1980, doing what they do best and talking shit about people.
Coming up: A whole disc of bonus matches! Stay tuned.