THIS SECTION REFERS ONLY TO THE ORIGINAL AWA.
FOR AWA MERCHANDISE RELEASED THROUGH WWE, CHECK OUR WWE SECTION.
The AWA, like most wrestling promotions of the 1950s and 60s was once a member promotion of the NWA, the National Wrestling Alliance, which, during its prime years, was the governing body of all professional wrestling. In fact, Omaha, Nebraska promoter Wally Karbo (a future partner in the AWA with Verne Gagne), was associated with Tony Stecher in 1948 when the NWA had its first convention. Stecher hosted the meeting in Minneapolis and became a charter member of the Alliance. Stecher had promoted wrestling in Minneapolis since 1933 through his Minneapolis Boxing and Wrestling Club, and in 1952, sold a one third interest in the Club to his son Dennis, and Wally Karbo. When Tony Stecher died on October 9, 1954, the remaining shares passed to Karbo and Dennis. In 1959, Dennis Stecher sold his majority stake to minority shareholder Karbo, and Verne Gagne, which would be the basis for the AWA.
The AWA formed in 1960, after breaking away from the National Wrestling Alliance. The factors leading up to the dispute and later secession from the NWA involved a contested title match between Edouard Carpentier and NWA Champion Lou Thesz in Chicago on June 14th, 1957. In those days, all Championship matches were "best of three falls" contests, and according to NWA rules (which are still in effect today), a championship cannot change hands on a countout or a disqualification. Carpentier, who won the bout, was awarded the title belt, but the NWA Board of Directors overruled the referee's decision and returned the title to Thesz, as one of the falls was won by disqualification. This controversial decision, (along with Verne never receiving the chance to challenge the NWA World Champion), was the last straw for Gagne and his supporters. At the time, Gagne was ranked among the top ten contenders for more than five years, and frequently found himself ranked the number one contender, yet had never been granted a title shot. Karbo would lead the territories that refused to acknowledge the ruling, continuing to recognise Carpentier as World Champion until he eventually lost to Verne Gagne in August, 1958. This was one of several controversies that would splinter the NWA Championship lineage, as well as damage the power of the NWA as a whole. Of course, in pro wrestling, things are never as simple as wins and losses, and the true power in the National Wrestling Alliance lie in the Board of Directors, whose membership consisted of wrestling promoters from all the member territories. A shift in the Champion would also mean a shift in influence to the promoter of the territory where the Champion currently wrestled.
Karbo, a supporter of Gagne, had been working for several years after that event to arrange an NWA title unifcation match for Gagne (who was the current World Champion recognised by the promoters who had seceded from the NWA) in Gagne's hometown of Minneapolis (one of the seceded territories, along with Karbo's territories in Omaha and Chicago, among others) against Pat O'Connor, (the officially recognised reigning NWA World Champion at the time).
In 1960, Karbo called a meeting of the promoters from the splintered territories, who agreed that unless Gagne was given a shot at unifying the fractured NWA Championship, then the NWA World Championship would be meaningless, because to have a true "world" champion, they must defend their title against the very best challengers from all over, and Gagne was certainly well-qualified. These promoters formed the American Wrestling Association, recognising O'Connor as AWA and NWA Champion, and insisting O'Connor (via the NWA Board of Directors, who controlled the Champion and his matches) sign a title unification match with Gagne within 90 days, or else lose recognition as AWA Champion. Predictably, the NWA ignored Gagne's request, refusing to even acknowledge Gagne's title, and when the 90-day period elapsed, the AWA stripped recognition from O'Connor and crowned Gagne the AWA World Heavyweight Champion.
Although owned by Verne Gagne, being affiliated with other promoters due to the disputed NWA territories joining the AWA, enabled the AWA World Heavyweight Champion to defend the title throughout these disputed territories, and having a working agreement with Japanese promotions, created a World Champion closer to what Gagne, Karbo and the other promoters who shared their opinion envisioned. Verne would go on to become a ten-time AWA World Champion, a record in wrestling at a time when titles changed hands with far less frequency than today. He also had one of the longest World Title reigns in wrestling history during his ninth reign, holding the AWA Title from August 31, 1968 until November 8, 1975, for a reign of more than seven years, when he finally lost the belt to Nick Bockwinkel. The duration of Gagne's title reign would be the third longest in wrestling, behind notable names Lou Thesz and Bruno Sammartino. The prolific Gagne also operated a wrestling school where he would train or assist in the training of such stars as his son, Greg; Ric Flair; Hulk Hogan; Ricky Steamboat; Larry & Curt Hennig; Lars, Gene, & Ole Anderson; Bob Backlund; Buck "Rock and Roll" Zumhofe; Scott "Flash" Norton; "Cowboy" Bill Watts; "Playboy" Buddy Rose; Dick the Bruiser; The Nasty Boys, Knobbs & Sags; Sgt. Slaughter; The Iron Sheik; Ken Patera; Jim Brunzell; Tony (Ludvig Borga) Halme; Baron von Raschke; Brad Rheingans; Bill & Scott Irwin; The Blackjacks, Mulligan & Lanza; "Bulldog" Bob Brown; "Precious" Paul Ellering; and "Boogie-Woogie Man" Jimmy Valiant being some of the most recognisable graduates. Many Gagne trainees would go on to train other superstars of wrestling. Verne retired from active competition in 1981 during his tenth reign as AWA World Champion, becoming one of the few wrestlers to retire as the active World Champion. The vacant title was awarded to Bockwinkel, the previous Champion.
Part of the decision to return the belt to Bockwinkel was due to Bockwinkel's longevity in the company, but it was also due to Verne's mentality that only wrestlers with strong amateur credentials, like himself, a former amateur wrestling champion who had earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic team during the 1948 Summer Games, should be the top draws of a professional wrestling company. That mentality had been what the NWA had always been about, and certainly the AWA thrived under it for the past twenty years. Unfortunately, Verne was unable to adapt to the changing landscape in professional wrestling. The time of amateur style holds and extended matches were no longer what attracted fans to the arenas in the wake of Vince McMahon's new style of the flashy and colourful World Wrestling Federation (WWF) "SuperStars", where style reigned supreme over substance.
While the AWA continued to promote and thrive with new stars entering the company, very few captured the attention of fans in a major way...except one...a tall, blond muscleman with plenty of charisma, but limited actual wrestling skills who went by the name Hulk Hogan.
While Hogan was no rookie (he had débuted a few years earlier in 1979, and had also wrestled for the WWF in 1981 and Japan the year after), he was a new and popular face in the AWA, and thanks to an appearance as "Thunderlips" in the movie Rocky III, he was clearly a true crossover and mainstream star that pro wrestling in general, and the AWA in particular, needed...bad.
While Hulkamania was still a few years away, Hogan's popularity with the fans was not. With the AWA suffering due to not having any young and popular stars to build the future of the company around, the most logical choice was to have AWA World Champion Nick Bockwinkel wrestle Hulk Hogan, and have Hogan cleanly defeat Bockwinkel to carry the AWA to the next level. Unfortunately, it didn't work that way. Since Hogan was not truly a wrestler, but merely an "entertainer", Verne was reluctant to put Hogan up as the top draw of a company that had focused so long on strong amateur wrestling (six time former World Heavyweight Champion Lou Thesz would comment in an interview for The Unreal Story of Professional Wrestling that "I would give him a 9 or a 10 for the marketing. For the wrestling, I would give him a 1 or a zero.").
Not only did Gagne feel that his company would lose credibility without a "real" wrestler at the helm, but even if Verne decided to go with an unproven wrestler at the top of the card, he felt that his son, Greg, should be the one to be the future of the company, as Verne was its past. The problem was that Verne Gagne was publicly known as the owner of the AWA, so when Greg Gagne started to be seen more often towards the top of the card, many fans saw it as favouritism by the owner (not that nepotism was anything new or unheard of in professional wrestling). Additionally, Greg's lean, slender, athletic build was seen as unbelievable by fans, who were now used to seeing bigger, massive, over-the-top muscular physiques, especially as the decade of the 80s began, when wrestling fans were being conditioned to only accept huge bodybuilder physiques as being "worthy" of being a top-calibre wrestler, regardless of any actual wrestling ability. Greg seemingly didn't possess the size fans were willing to accept. Worse was that the person fans did want to see, Hulk Hogan, was not the AWA Champion. Verne would later admit he felt it would be enough for the fans to have Hogan as the top fan favourite chasing after the title held by the rulebreaking Bockwinkel. Sometimes the thrill of the chase can be exciting. Wrestling fans have always been excited by seeing their hero chasing after the championship or the hated rulebreaker. Entire shows have been based on that premise, both in and out of wrestling. That premise only works, however, when the fans truly believe that on any given night, their hero can defeat the champion and walk out with the title. In the case of Hogan, fans were slowly being conditioned (however inadvertently) to realise that it would not be the situation here.
That's not to say Hogan did not receive title shots, or victories in title matches. On the contrary, on at least two separate occasions Verne Gagne would tease AWA title wins for Hogan, only to return the title to Bockwinkel via technicalities. The first title tease was on April 18, 1982 where Hogan would defeat Bockwinkel with the help of a foreign object that Bockwinkel's manager, Bobby Heenan, used in the match. After the three count, the belt was awarded to Hogan and he was announced as the new Champion. However, Heenan pointed out to the referee the use of the object, and although the referee would question Hogan about it, the blood on Hogan's face was evidence that whatever was used, it was used on Hogan and not by Hogan. As such, the referee stood by his decision and Hogan left the arena as the new AWA World Heavyweight Champion. However, six days later on AWA television, AWA President Stanley Blackburn would overrule the referee's decision and negate the title change, returning the belt to Bockwinkel.
The second such occasion was on the "Super Sunday" card in St. Paul, Minnesota on April 24, 1983. "Super Sunday" was the AWA's first real "supercard". Hogan again pinned Bockwinkel, was awarded the belt and announced as the new champion. This time, President Blackburn came to the ring moments after the match and tried to have Hogan disqualified for throwing Bockwinkel over the top rope a few minutes before the pinfall. However, this match had been a no disqualification match, so Blackburn simply stripped Hogan of the title and once again handed it back to Bockwinkel. This would occur on at least two other occasions -- once prior and once after the aforementioned incidents -- where Blackburn simply handed the title to Bockwinkel with no match. The crowd, who had exploded in cheers when Hogan appeared to have won, almost rioted when the decision to nullify the title win was announced. An upset Hogan attacked Bockwinkel and Heenan, and would have to get on the microphone to calm the audience. Although the same type of finish was had been used by the AWA several times in the past to reverse an unwanted title change, this time the younger crowds, drawn to the arena by the charismatic Hogan, would refuse to accept Hogan as anything less than the AWA World Champion, something Gagne clearly refused to do. On the DVD The Spectacular Legacy of the AWA, Verne Gagne revealed he originally planned to have Hogan win the belt that night, but only if he would give Gagne the bulk of the revenues Hogan was earning from merchandise and periodic main event performances for Japanese promoters. Hogan refused, so Gagne kept the belt from him.
Since it was clear that the AWA World Championship was not coming his way, Hogan had no problem accepting Vince McMahon's offer to jump to the WWF in the fall of 1983, especially when McMahon let Hogan know it was his intent to put the WWF Championship belt on Hogan.
With his top draw and his backstage interviewer (Hogan and "Mean" Gene Okerlund, respectively) having jumped ship to the WWF, with several others poised to leave, and knowing that McMahon had his eye on even more talents in the AWA, Verne Gagne had to make some changes to keep the crowds he had. He moved the title off Bockwinkel and on to Austrian wrestler/promoter Otto Wanz, who had the bodybuilder physique, but was a virtual unknown in the U.S. His reign was short, with Bockwinkel defeating Wanz in the rematch. Gagne then attempted to gain more international exposure through his partnership with Shohei Baba's All Japan Pro Wrestling by having Japanese wrestler Tommy "Jumbo" Tsuruta win the belt. Unfortunately, Tsuruta was not well-known in the U.S. either, which he needed to be, and after a short reign, Tsuruta lost the title to the handsome and popular Rick Martel, who held it for more than a year and a half.
During Martel's reign as Champion, the AWA entered into an agreement with the NWA and Fritz Von Erich's Dallas-based World Class Championship Wrestling (WCCW) in an attempt to compete with the WWF's growing national influence. The end result was a new national promotion called Pro Wrestling USA. The apex of this joint venture resulted in Superclash, which ended up as the AWA's flagship event (similar to the NWA's Starrcade or the WWF's WrestleMania, which drew a respectable 20,000+ to Chicago's Comiskey Park in late September, 1985, and saw the first real cooperation between wrestling promotions in years with the AWA, NWA and WCCW all being defended on the same card. Unfortunately, the partnership fell apart shortly after SuperClash due to financial squabbles among the promoters.
In September 1985, the AWA aired weekly programming on ESPN, giving the promotion the national exposure already enjoyed by the WWF (airing on USA Network) and the NWA's Georgia/World Championship Wrestling (airing on TBS). Unfortunately, as would be the case later with Extreme Championship Wrestling on TNN (now Spike TV), AWA shows were not treated with any priority, sometimes being delayed, pre-empted, or having their time slot change without prior notice, making it difficult for fans to tune in on a regular basis. Before the year ended, co-owner Wally Karbo would sell back his stake in the promotion to Verne, leaving Gagne in sole control of the company.
Stan Hansen would eventually defeat Martel after several months of feuding, and his reign was a great boost for the AWA at first, as Hansen had a recognisable presence in both the U.S. and Japan. Unfortunately for Verne, Hansen considered himself to be All Japan promoter Shohei Baba's champion first, and Gagne's second, so when Hansen was to drop the title prior to an AWA tour in Japan, he asked for Baba's blessing first. Baba wanted any title loss on the part of Hansen to take place in Japan, so Baba could promote it (and make money from it), not to mention that in Japan, Bockwinkel was not nearly of the same star calibre as Hansen, so a Japan tour with AWA Champion Nick Bockwinkel would be less of a draw than AWA Champion Stan Hansen, so Hansen took the title belt with him to Japan and continued to defend it according to what would have been his scheduled dates. The AWA stripped Hansen of the title, awarding it to Bockwinkel, with Hansen's no-show given as the official reason. With Hansen posessing the physical belt, a new AWA Championship title belt had to be created for Bockwinkel's newest reign. Behind the scenes, Verne threatened Hansen with legal action unless he returned the title belt. Hansen eventually complied, mailing the belt back to Gagne...after allegedly running over it with his truck.
Nick Bockwinkel would hold the Championship for nearly a year before he would lose it at SuperClash 2 (an AWA exclusive event) to an up-and-coming Curt Hennig (son of longtime AWA wrestler Larry "The Ax" Hennig), who had previously tasted gold when he held the AWA Tag Team Championship with Scott Hall. Popular Hennig turned his back on the fans when he accepted the assistance of Larry Zbyszko, who handed Hennig a roll of coins during the match, which he promptly used to smash Bockwinkel in the face in order to win the title.
"Cool" Curt Hennig (along with manager Madusa) became one of the most popular AWA Champions in a long time, despite his arrogance, as fans responded positively to the youth movement that was finally taking place in the AWA, with Hennig and the Midnight Rockers (Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty), among others. Unfortunately for Verne Gagne, Hennig's popularity meant that sooner or later, the WWF would come calling for him (as well as for The Midnight Rockers, who would become The Rockers), and they did. By this time, the WWF was using the AWA as their personal wrestler shopping centre, signing virtually every major (or minor) star developed by, or signed to, the AWA at will, leading Verne Gagne to consider teaming up with other promotions again.
Gagne renewed his former partnership with WCCW and also teamed with Memphis' Continental Wrestling Association (CWA, owned by Jerry Jarrett, the father of former WCW and WWF wrestler and Total Nonstop Action (TNA) founder Jeff Jarrett) and the all-female promotion, Powerful Women of Wrestling, POWW, an offshoot of Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (GLOW), both owned by David McLane.
With the WWF signing Hennig, Memphis star (and CWA co-owner) Jerry Lawler defeated Hennig for the AWA Championship in Lawler's hometown of Memphis, with another Memphis legend, Jackie Fargo, as the referee. As AWA Champion, Lawler vowed to take on any wrestler from any promotion, which paved the way for WCCW wrestlers to step up to the challenge. With the AWA and WCCW both in severe financial distress, they pooled their talent and resources into pay-per-view with SuperClash III, from Chicago's UIC Pavilion in December, 1988. Unfortunately, just like the circumstances that led to the formation of the AWA, there were disagreements on the outcome of the matches, with no promoter wanting his wrestlers to look bad on such a big event, especially since WCCW and the AWA were intending to have a title unification match as the headlining bout. The unification match ended up with both AWA Champion Lawler and WCCW Champion Kerry Von Erich covered in blood, and the (AWA) referee awarding both titles to Lawler, having deemed Von Erich unable to continue due to blood loss. However, just because the event was over, the behind-the-scenes infighting was not. The UIC Pavilion could hold nearly 10,000, but the paid attendance for the event was only a little more than 1,500, meaning that the event, which had a lot riding on it for all the parties involved, lost money. Also, new unified Champion Jerry Lawler had a series of disputes with Verne Gagne regarding contracted dates as AWA Champion and also his payoff from the show, which led to not only the CWA pulling out of the partnership, (which also meant that the WCCW Championship went with it, since Lawler held both titles), but since he claimed he was never paid for the event, he kept the AWA title belt as collateral (which Lawler claims to still have to this day). This new partnership ended about as well as the previous one, with promoters claiming Verne Gagne used the revenue from SuperClash III to pay his own debts.
With their Champion gone, the AWA (as it had done in similar situations prior) stripped Lawler of the title, and held it up in a battle royale, which Larry Zbyszko won. Zbyszko held the title for a year before dropping it to Japan's Mr. Saito in his home country, but he didn't even hold the title for two months before Zbyszko won it back at what would be the final SuperClash, SuperClash 4, held April 8, 1990.
The final idea to keep the AWA afloat was The Team Challenge Series, where three teams were formed by a random draw, with the drama that wrestlers who were hated rivals were forced to work together for the greater good of a one million dollar prize awarded to the winning team at the end of the series (although when the series actually ended was never actually announced), with each team gaining a certain number of points for their matches. In this concept, winning was not the only way to score points. Even a loss (including a loss by disqualification) could score points. The teams were captained by Larry Zbyszko ("Larry's Legends"); Baron Von Raschke ("Baron's Blitzers"); and Sgt. Slaughter ("Sarge's Snipers"). Unfortunately for the AWA, Sgt. Slaughter would be re-signed to the WWF midway through the series, and was said to have "gone AWOL" by the AWA to explain his departure. Slaughter's enemy Colonel DeBeers would take over as the team captain for the Snipers and rename the team "DeBeers' Diamondcutters".
Unfortunately, the Team Challenge Series went on for longer than it probably should have, as the roster was severely depleted from talent being signed away, and also because while the concept was seen as unique by fans, some of the vignettes were perceived as kind of silly, and the AWA had always prided itself on more straightforward wrestling without a lot of gimmicks.
The end of the AWA came in 1991, when the state of Minnesota claimed eminent domain on a parcel of land Verne Gagne owned. This property would eventually become Lake Minnetonka Regional Park. Although Gagne fought the decision for several years, he eventually lost the case, and thus the financial resource he was leveraging money against to continue running shows in the face of dwindling crowds and talent that kept being signed away as soon as they gained any sort of momentum, leaving Gagne no choice but to close the promotion after more than thirty years. Gagne would file for bankruptcy in 1993.
The AWA Champion, Larry Zbyszko, was technically stripped of his title eight months after winning it, on December 12, 1990, when he signed a contract to WCW, but the AWA was, at that point, inactive, having taped their final show the month prior. A new Champion was never crowned, leaving Zbyszko as the final AWA World Heavyweight Champion.
Even though the promotion was gone, the legacy continued. In 1999, the AWA aired a series of shows hosted by Verne and Greg Gagne, called AWA Legends of Wrestling, which spotlighted one wrestler at a time from the AWA, showing various matches as well as classic and current interviews with the wrestler, and from 1999 to 2002, a series of AWA pay-per-views titled AWA Classic Wrestling aired, hosted by Greg Gagne and Todd Okerlund (son of former AWA announcer Gene Okerlund), with occasional appearances by Verne Gagne, featuring compilations of AWA footage. The pay-per-views ceased following the acquisition of the AWA tape library by World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) in 2006, the new name of the former WWF.
On April 1, 2006, Greg Gagne would induct his father into the WWE Hall of Fame, on the eve of WrestleMania 22; one of only six to be in the WWE Hall of Fame, WCW Hall of Fame, Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame, and Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame (the others being Lou Thesz, Harley Race, Dusty Rhodes, Terry Funk, and announcer Gordon Solie). On April 30, 2006, it was announced that Greg Gagne would be working for WWE as full-time as a Road Agent (retired wrestlers who act as advisers for younger wrestlers), starting at Backlash. He also worked at WWE's (then) training camp Ohio Valley Wrestling (OVW), but was released shortly after, with the belief by the company that Gagne's views on pro wrestling did not fit with WWE's vision of sports-entertainment.
Former AWA partner Wally Karbo passed away of a heart attack in 1993. He remained involved in professional wrestling after leaving the AWA, working as the commissioner for the all-women promotion, Ladies Professional Wrestling Association, LPWA. Verne Gagne died of complications from Alzheimer's Disease on April 27, 2015. He had been previously living in a nursing home, but later moved to his daughter's home following an altercation with another nursing home resident.
Verne Gagne's AWA has no relation to the 1996 promotion run by former AWA wrestlers Dale Gagner (under the name Dale Gagne) and Johnnie Stewart known as AWA Superstars of Wrestling, implementing a territory/franchise system similar to the NWA. This promotion infringed on the AWA trademark owned WWE, and Gagner & Stewart were sued by WWE in April 2007, as WWE now owned all American Wrestling Association properties due to their acquisition of the AWA. In a move to sidestep them, Gagner and Stewart trademarked the name "American Wrestling Alliance" instead. However, the United States Patent and Trademark Office later indicated the request was abandoned in February 2008. In October 2008, the court ruled in favor of WWE, prohibiting Gagner and Stewart from use of the AWA name or any other derivatives.