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Have You Heard Of The AWA?
The AWA, American Wrestling Association, is among the oldest and most successful wrestling organizations to have operated in the United States.
It ran from 1960 to 1991 and some of the stars of the promotion are still household names among wrestling fans even today, such as Shawn Michaels and Hulk Hogan who both started their careers in the American Wrestling Association.
However most wrestling fans hardly recognize the acronym AWA anymore but this was not the case in the 70's and early 80's when a huge number of wrestling stars were under the banner of AWA and in fact they had the best rounded, most balanced and deepest wrestling roster compared to all the other wrestling promotions of that time.
So how did the turn of events take place that has left American Wrestling Association a poor cousin to the prestigious WWE?
In the 1950's, like most of the wrestling territories, the AWA was also a territory under the NWA (National Wrestling Alliance), and had been since 1933, as the Minneapolis Wrestling and Boxing Club.
After the owner of the promotion, Anton "Tony" Stecher, died in 1954 it was taken over by his son and Wally Karbo and the company continued to operate as other wrestling promotions under NWA.
During this time Verne Gagne was a rising wrestling star in the world of NWA but was not being given the world title he deserved due to the backstage politics in the NWA.
Frustrated and ambitious Gagne bought the shares off Dennis and became co-owner of the territory along with Karbo and as the dispute with the NWA grew Gagne announced the formation of an independent promotion, the American Wrestling Association, along with a few other territories in 1960. Thus AWA began its more than 30 years long run under the guidance of Gagne.
In a rather shrewd and "Attitude Era" type move the AWA named Pat O' Connor the NWA World Champion, their World Champion, and gave him 90 days to defend the title. Although O' Connor didn't appear to defend his title the prime motive to gain publicity was achieved and after the passing of 90 days O' Connor was stripped of the title, but to this day he is profiled as their first World Champion. After O' Connor was stripped Gagne was awarded the World Title.
While behind the scenes Gagne operated the AWA in the traditional way with technical wrestling promoted over the flashy wrestling style of modern times. The AWA also continued to train new wrestlers so that fresh pool of talent was always available as Gagne revolved the promotion around him becoming a ten time World Champion during his lifetime, while also wrestling against most of the major talents available to him like Fritz Von Erich, The Crusher, Ray Stevens, Nick Bockwinkell and many more before he finally decided to retire as an in-ring performer in 1981. However he continued to work within the promotion booking and hiring talent and in short running the company on his shoulder for another decade.
During this period American Wrestling Association was among the most successful wrestling territory in the United States and toured all the major cities in the Mid-West region. With everything going right for him, Gagne had the chance to make American Wrestling Association the biggest wrestling promotion in the United States especially when they got Hulk Hogan as a rising face star in 1982.
In fact the handling of Hulk Hogan can be considered the point where Gagne lost it and the downfall of his monstrous promotion began.
Despite the fact that Hogan was the most popular wrestler with the fans at that time Gagne refused to give the world title to him, first arguing he wasn't technically good enough and later that Hogan was better chasing the world championship rather then being the champion. In fact they even teased Hulk Hogan's world title reign on a couple of occasions but never pulled the trigger.
It is believed that despite all the reasoning behind not giving Hogan a world title reign that Gagne had a personal vendetta against Hogan, and it was later revealed that Hogan was not willing to handover the bulk of revenues from merchandising and occasional pay per view appearances for Japanese promoters. Whatever the reasons may be it resulted in Hogan signing up with WWF in December 1983 and his time with the WWF is now the stuff of wrestling legends.
The problem became worse as not only Hogan defected, but other stars like Jesse Ventura, Ken Patera, "Mean" Gene Okerlund, Bobby "The Brain" Heenan etc joined him as Vince, in an attempt to make the WWF a national promotion, raided several other stars from rival wrestling promotions including the AWA.
Despite this American Wrestling Association had one of its best years ever with rising stars like the Road Warriors and the fact that most of the AWA stars still stayed with American Wrestling Association.
But the wrestlers were not getting any younger and the years of hard work had taken a toil on their bodies and many of them were retiring or close to retiring, so in order to compete with the WWF (who had just held their first Wrestle Mania, creating even more pressure on the other promotions) Gagne worked with several other promotions to start a new promotion known as Pro Wrestling USA.
However despite their best efforts American Wrestling Association continued to lose audiences and after sometime even the Pro Wrestling USA was disbanded due to distrust between the owners of different the promotions.
The following years saw the AWA's position as a major wrestling promotion continue to suffer and go down with crowds disappearing and revenues falling, but Gagne's eye for talent remained as he still introduced talents such as The Nasty Boys, Scott Hall, Shawn Michaels etc.
In an attempt to keep the company going Gagne tried everything, even striking a deal with Jerry Jarret (Father of Jeff Jarret) to put the AWA world title on Jerry "The King" Lawler but Gagne also had problem with him and eventually they also stopped working together.
One crowning achievement was the in the hiring of Eric Bishoff, and making him a regular interviewer and commentator, by Gagne. Of course, any wrestling fan knows the impact Bishoff had on wrestling in the 90's.
In a last attempt to salvage the promotion Gagne invented an innovative series of matches called the Team Challenge Series for nearly 8 months, from 1989 to 1990, where all the roster was divided into three teams who would fight each other over a series of matches and the team winning in the end would take a million dollars home.
Though the idea sounds innovative for the time it became an overly gimmicked and stats ridden show which never appealed to the fans and they were often forced to tape matches in empty arenas due to the lack of tickets sold.
Eventually the company became inactive in the fall of 1990 and though Verne Gagne several times teased about a return of the promotion, nothing ever worked out and one last commercial tape release was the AWA's last activity as an independent promotion.
Verne Gagne was inducted into the WWE hall of fame in 2006 and today all of the footage of American Wrestling Association is owned by WWE who have since released a DVD of the history of American Wrestling Association called "The Spectacular Legacy of the AWA".
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