Cocaine, Cancellations And Even More Cocaine: Herb Abrams’ UWF

Colonel Red, no one has ever done anything like this to me! I am going to get you! – Herb Abrams

On March 10th, 1991 in the Penta Hotel, an ever-dwindling New York City crowd had just sat through 22 wrestling matches of varying quality. The television taping they were attending had started late, was running long and fans were leaving in droves. Considering there were only 400 people in attendance when the night started, Herb Abrams, owner of the just launched Universal Wrestling Federation couldn’t afford to lose “droves”.

Grabbing a microphone at ringside, Abrams implored the ambivalent masses to stay for one more match, the final match of the night. Several fans seemingly took pity on the man, returning to their seats. Others ignored the request entirely, making their way to the exit. A few seconds later, “Soul Man” by the legendary R&B duo Sam & Dave began playing over the P.A. and S.D. Jones emerged from the curtain (Mr. Haiti in tow). Almost immediately, a large number of those still in attendance began collecting their things and heading for the door. Roughly 30 seconds later, the UWF owner did the very same thing.

It could be argued it was the first and last time Herb Abrams made the right decision during his 5 years as head of the UWF.

The UWF Explodes Onto The Scene (With A Whimper)

Thanks to generous financing from “Nigerian investors” (yeah, that sounds totally legitimate) Herb Abrams’ Universal Wrestling Federation (not to be confused with Bill Watts’ promotion of the same trademark-less name) got up-and-running in August of 1990, securing a television slot on SportsChannel America, which found itself in need of pro wrestling programming after dropping the much-maligned IWA. Abrams boasted a stacked roster that included the likes of Terry Funk, Big John Studd and Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat, trading on their star power to seal the deal with the channel. Granted, none of these men had agreed to wrestle for the new promotion, but Abrams knew enough to know you never let the truth get in the way of a perfectly good lie.

After a press conference that included “Dangerous” Danny Spivey and B. Brian Blair, the UWF began taping episodes of Fury Hour in September of ‘90 in Reseda, California while simultaneously (attempting) to put on live events. Truth be told, the company did have a roster filled with stars, but by 1990, names like Bob Orton, Jr., “Mr. 1derful” Paul Orndorff and Billy Jack Haynes simply didn’t carry the same drawing power in the U.S. as they had a few years prior.

Abrams also managed to get Bruno Sammartino hired, but considering the longtime (W)WWF Champion had retired from in-ring competition, what he got was one of the worst commentators of all time rather than one of the greatest wrestlers ever. Bruno’s son, David, was also signed. Unfortunately for fans, he did wrestle for the company.

Purported UWF booker, Blackjack Mulligan, wasn’t even aware he’d been hired (you know, what with him being in jail at the time for counterfeiting and all). Abrams had a backup plan, however, expressing an interest in bringing Bruiser Brody on board for the position. 

The same Brody who’d been dead for a little over two years. Ultimately, the owner named himself as booker.

Things were off to a great start for Herb Abrams’ UWF.

The “Wild Thing” Ran Wild, Um, Brother?

With a roster loaded with known quantities, albeit ones looking for a payday more than a platform to showcase their skills, there wasn’t much room (or money) left for young guys trying to make a name for themselves. With one of the available spots in this sea of grizzled vets, Abrams hired a blonde haired, 20-something former bodyguard for Hulk Hogan by the name of Steve “Wild Thing” Ray.

Ray got his start in pro wrestling in late-’87, working throughout the Midwest and competing for a few regional championships in Kansas and Missouri. The 6’3” former football player had a good look and plenty of “want to”, but the UWF started disorganized and only got worse as time passed.

By May of ‘91, a supposed divide between Abrams and Ray had grown into a chasm, leading to one of the weirder stories in UWF’s short history. Abrams, suspecting his wife of having an affair with Ray, paid Steve Williams an extra $100 to break the young wrestler’s nose during a match. When you ask a guy nicknamed “Dr. Death” to hurt someone, you typically get what you pay for. After being thrown around for several minutes, Ray turned his attention to Abrams who was climbing into the ring. He took a wild swing at the UWF owner, but ol’ Herb was able to duck it and make an escape.

The question is, was this a shoot? Steve Ray has denied it, saying it was all set up by Abrams to garner some heat and that he owes a lot to his former boss for showing him the “dos and don’ts” of running a successful business. Former UWF vice president Zoogz Rift disagrees with Ray, claiming Abrams’ anger was very real, saying, “Ray allegedly screwed Herb in a drug deal”.  Ray stands by his account, evening pointing out the end of the match where you can see Abrams whisper something to the wrestler (presumably telling him to take a swing at him). Ah, yes, the joys of pro wrestling mythology!

Nonstop To Nowhere

On June 9th, 1991, the UWF held the first (and only) pay-per-view in the history of the company. Beach Brawl took place at the Manatee Civic Center in Palmetto, Florida before 550 people. The PPV started off on the wrong foot when the opening bout, a Street Fight between Terry “Bam Bam” Gordy and Johnny Ace, supposedly ran long, throwing the rest of the show into upheaval. The main event that night was a match between Steve Williams and Bam Bam Bigelow to crown the UWF Television Champion. Williams won the match, making him the only winner that night as with a buyrate of 0.1, Beach Brawl set a record for the least purchased PPV in wrestling history.

Cancelled events and poor attendance were the norm for the fledgling promotion, often due to incompetence on the part of Abrams or unrealistic expectations from SportsChannel. Credit to the owner for hustling every step of the way, but as Zoogz Rift said, “money was always around, but he (Abrams) spent it in the wrong places”. Wrestling finishes often made no sense, a product of Abrams’ lack of experience as a booker coupled with a veteran roster that had little respect for him. Rift, who would take over booking the promotion for a time in ‘93 and ‘94, leave, then return to serve as vice president of the UWF until Abrams’ passing in ‘96, believes the company failed because Abrams was “more interested in feeding his drug addictions”.

Between ‘94-’96, several shows and events were planned to relaunch the UWF. Unfortunately, if Rift is to be believed, the money “always went up Herb’s nose”. Event in places like North Dakota and Minnesota were filmed but never released. Existing episodes of the promotion were licensed to ESPN2, several international companies were sold “exclusive rights” to the UWF catalog (yes, you read that correctly…multiple companies were sold exclusive rights), but no real momentum was ever achieved, at least where a relaunch was concerned.

Herb Goes Out With A Bang

Herb Abrams’ “final stand” took place on July 23rd, 1996 in the very same part of the world where just five years prior, he’d pleaded with a disinterested audience to stay to the end of a UWF TV taping. Having already been arrested in five states and awaiting trial for a variety of charges, including attempted rape, robbery and drug possession, Abrams was confronted by police in his Manhattan office space after a disturbance was reported. “Mr. Electricity” was found naked, covered in Vaseline and cocaine and chasing two prostitutes around with a baseball bat. He’d destroyed several pieces of furniture and was quite unwell.

Police took Abrams into custody and headed to the nearest hospital. Ninety minutes later, he had a massive heart attack due to a cocaine overdose, dying instantly.

The UWF Shot Its Shot

The legacy of Herb Abrams’ UWF is far more “ha ha” than “holy shit” but here’s the part where I try and put a positive spin on it.

Remember when Vince McMahon and Eric Bischoff made themselves evil authority figures on RAW and Nitro during an era when pro wrestling was as hot as it’s ever been? Well, Herb Abrams beat ’em to that idea by five years (albeit with far less success). Still, the man deserves a doff of the cap for being ahead of the game.

Abrams also deserves recognition for being a fan that went “all in” and tried to put out the kind of product he wanted to see. Fine, it was usually awful, but it was his to have and hold. He had zero experience to draw upon, but props to him for at least trying. In that way, he differentiated himself from the standard complaining wrestling fan, content to sit and whine.

That the UWF failed isn’t a surprise, but it shouldn’t be the only way we remember the ill-fated promotion. Instead, it should also serve as a reminder of just how difficult it is to build, grow and maintain a successful wrestling company.

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The Element Of Fear In Pro Wrestling Is A Thing Of The Past (But Bray Wyatt’s Working On It)

Anybody, anywhere who does not fear the name Abdullah the Butcher is either an insane fool or they’re lying to ya! – “Playboy” Gary Hart

The first live wrestling show I ever attended was in my East Texas grade school gymnasium. I was 8 years old and the Main Event that night was One Man Gang vs. my childhood hero, “The Modern Day Warrior” Kerry Von Erich. I don’t remember a thing about the rest of the show, but I remember this: One Man Gang beat Kerry bloody with a chain in front of a sea of children, then threatened to do the same to me and a few of my friends as he left the ring. It was terrifying; it was awesome.

Several years ago, I saw One Man Gang at a wrestling convention but I didn’t approach him. I’m a grown-ass man, pay all my bills, travel the world in search of fun and adventure, but the second I saw Gang up close, I was 8 years old again. It wasn’t that I was still afraid of the man; I just wanted to hold on to a bit of that feeling I felt as a kid watching him lay waste to my heroes.

I know times have changed regarding the manner in which professional wrestling is presented, but even as a kid I knew things were predetermined. But, you see, the magic wasn’t in One Man Gang convincing me pro wrestling is real. The magic was in him convincing me he was real.

“One, Two Freddy’s After You…”

I am not a fan of the horror movie genre, but I saw my share in my youth. As a child of the ’70s and ’80s I’m also well aware I grew up during its apex. The very year (1984) I became a wrestling fan, A Nightmare on Elm Street was released. A burned up bastard with knives for fingers, hunting you down in your dreams? Thanks for the trauma, Wes Craven.

That same year, Jason returned to the scene with the 4th installment of Friday the 13th. Sure, plenty of those movies are ridiculous, but a big-ass walking corpse with a hockey mask and a machete is gonna always be enough to tap me out.

Reality Is Scary 

Scaring the hell out of kids is a lost art in professional wrestling. One of the coolest things about hitting my stride as a wrestling fan in the mid-‘80s was the presence of so many classic “monster heels”. With the wrestling business still closely guarded at that time, young fans invested emotionally in many of the more talented characters of that era, particularly those with a sense of realism to them. Stan Hansen scared me to death when I was young. Why? Because, being a Texas boy, I could relate to a lunatic redneck, flailing wildly at everything within swinging distance. I called him Uncle Thomas. After spending a few deer camps in close proximity to a bunch of East Texas lunatics gettin’ drunk and firing off guns, buying into the Borger, Texas native hook, line and sinker was easy. 

The aforementioned One Man Gang was another wrestler capable of putting fear in young heart. Why? Because he was a massive, chain-wielding biker with a wild-ass hairdo and a surly disposition. Those dudes existed in my town! Hell, my dad, then a defense attorney, represented tons of ‘em!

Turning the volume up on characters like that, two crazed and out of control men with very little regard for social mores, just made sense to me, especially during that era of professional wrestling. Thinking about it in terms of the horror movie genre, Stan Hansen and One Man Gang weren’t all that different from Leatherface. What made that dude a scarier prospect than, say, the Wolfman? Simple: Leatherface could have actually lived on the farm next to mine! This is a messed up world, and we’ve all watched plenty of nightly news. A crazy dude wearing a dead skin mask and cutting people to ribbons with a chainsaw? For a country boy, this is a completely plausible scenario, folks!

The Madman From Sudan

Another legendary monster of that era (and the character that scared me the most as a young wrestling fan) was Abdullah the Butcher. His name made children cringe, and his entrance, particularly when he was led to the ring by the evil genius Gary Hart was perfection. Watching Abdullah rock back in forth in the corner with that hood over his head built anticipation. After Hart removed the hood and Abdullah unleashed his brand of uncontrolled madness on your favorite wrestlers, you had no choice but to believe. There was never a time in my youth when I didn’t have a subtle gnawing at my stomach before an Abdullah match.

The Butcher’s body of work with Bruiser Brody alone, whether in Puerto Rico, Japan or World Class, resulted in a decade-long bloodbath. I still remember sitting on the floor of my living room, 3 feet from the television, equal parts enthralled and horrified at the sight of Abby working that fork over Brody’s forehead. He was far from a technical wizard and Brody would just flat beat people up, but they fought all over the world for years thanks to their ability to make fans believe everything they were seeing, all while staying monsters.

The Butcher borrowed heavily from the horror film genre, his vacant eyes a window into the soul of a man who wanted nothing more than complete carnage.

“Ki Ki Ki Ma Ma Ma…Ki Ki Ki Ma Ma Ma…” 

There was no shortage of pro wrestling monsters back then. The Missing Link slammed his own head into turnbuckles that were supposedly meant to be used to harm his opponents. The Sheik hurled balls of fire from his fingertips into the eyes of popular babyfaces. The Great Kabuki was a martial arts killer sent from Japan to put an end to our beloved Von Erich family. Kamala the Ugandan Giant was an African headhunter. Yeah, a headhunter, and throughout my childhood the heads he was after were those of The Von Erichs, Hulk Hogan and Sgt. Slaughter, all “good guys”, all massive fan favorites.  

Back when Pro Wrestling Illustrated was something you could pick up at any gas station or grocery store, I can recall flipping through pages and running across black and white photos of Lord Humongous in a Mid-South steel cage against Jake Roberts. The Humongous gimmick, which is still being played sparingly today on the Indy circuit, was a great example of an unstoppable monster. The character, a take on “the Humugous” from Mad Max II: The Road Warrior, was yet another “monster heel” created to instill fear in the hearts of young fans. He wasn’t there to do moonsaults; Lord Humongous was a silent stalker of prey. A guy jumping off a ladder? That’s scary for him. The idea of never being able to get away from a masked killer, despite you moving as fast as you keep while they seem to be moving in slow motion? That’s scary for you

By the mid-‘90s, monsters just didn’t get protected the same way they did in previous decades. Overexposure is likely the main culprit, but the pro wrestling business going out of its way to hit us over the head with the word “entertainment” didn’t help either. Remember what I wrote earlier: the magic wasn’t in One Man Gang convincing me pro wrestling is real. The magic was in him convincing me he was real.

For a short while, Kane perfectly encapsulated what it means to be a “monster” in pro wrestling: silent, methodical, and single-minded in his need to destroy. The Boogeyman also had a short, scary run in WWE as well, but the company was quick to pivot into comedy with both characters. Abyss was a great monster in the early-’00s, until TNA sent him to therapy and turned him into a lawyer. 

Let Him In

Today, Bray Wyatt and his Fiend is the only guy I can think of actively trying to scare the audience on a psychological level. The months of build through his Firefly Funhouse segments have been sinister, frighteningly funny and with just the right amount of jabbing at his former self: a cult leader character with all the promise of many of the previously mentioned monsters, ultimately prostituted by WWE in the name of “putting smiles on faces”. It would nice if the company would protect the Fiend’s “fear factor” the way classic monsters like Abdullah the Butcher and The Missing Link did decades prior.

Whether WWE holds up its end of things or not, one thing is certain: Bray Wyatt is doing everything in his power to rekindle that element of terror. By worrying more about making you afraid over making you smile, he’s proving there’s still plenty of room at the top of the industry for a guy who just wants you to believe.

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Wendi Richter And The Swerve That Set The WWE Women’s Division Back Three Decades

Moolah has seen her day. They couldn’t even put her face on a can of dog food to sell it and she knows it! – Wendi Richter

Captain Lou Albano was on a plane to New York, headed back from Puerto Rico. The longtime wrestling manager struck up a conversation with the people sitting next to him on the flight, talking shop and discussing ways they could work together on something. The two people, 2-time Grammy Award Winner Cyndi Lauper (who was on the cusp of releasing the smash record She’s So Unusual) and her manager, David Wolff, enjoyed Albano’s banter and seemed interested in seeing what might come of a working relationship.

When it came time to do a video for the first single off the record, Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, Albano was cast as her stepdad. The song was massive, reaching #1 in 10 countries (including the U.S.), leading to a partnership with the World Wrestling Federation that set off the “Rock ‘n’ Wrestling” era, a boom period for wrestling seen just one other time since.

At the same time, 23-year-old Wendi Richter had just re-signed with the WWF after stints in Japan, the AWA, Mid-South and Stampede. Now a 4-year veteran of several territories, she was being brought back to the WWF, thanks in no small part to her former trainer, Lillian Ellison, aka The Fabulous Moolah, the longest reigning wrestling champion in the history of the business.

“Rock ‘n’ Wrestling”, however, was about to put the women at odds in a very big way, leading to one of the biggest feuds, and, ultimately, shoot matches in the history of North American women’s pro wrestling.

She Bop

Wendi Richter first broke into pro wrestling in 1979 at the age of 18 when she joined the Lillian Ellison School of Professional Wrestling, making her in-ring debut the same year. At 5’8” and “150 pounds of twisted steel and sex appeal”, Richter came by bookings easily (provided Moolah allowed it). At that time, women’s wrestling ran almost entirely through The Fabulous Moolah. She controlled bookings and paydays, meaning she also controlled how much money ended up in her pocket prior to the other women receiving their money. Her upfront rate was 25%, but Richter always assumed she kept more.

Wendi had extended runs in several Midwest and Deep South territories, often working with Joyce Grable, the pair twice teaming up to win the NWA Women’s Tag Team Championship. A 2-week booking in New York in the Spring of ‘82 (including a tag match in Madison Square Garden with Moolah as her partner) gave Richter a taste of the WWF. After spending the remainder of the year working all across the U.S. and Canada, the Dallas, Texas native made her way back to New York just after Christmas, finishing out the year with five tag team wins with Moolah again as her partner.

Her star on the rise, Richter signed a deal with Vince McMahon in late-’83, finished up her bookings and joined the WWF roster in late-March of ‘84, immediately teaming up with Peggy Lee, a fellow student of Moolah’s school. Three weeks later, on April 19th, she had a Dark Match vs. Moolah for the women’s title. She lost, but the message was clear: Richter was about to get pushed to the moon.

Money Changes Everything

When Richter signed with McMahon, she told him her pay was to go directly to her, not Moolah. Vince agreed, cutting off one of Moolah’s major streams of revenue. Wendi Richter was on the verge of becoming a breakout star and with the help of MTV and Cyndi Lauper, Vince McMahon had designs on making her the Hulk Hogan of women’s wrestling. Using MTV’s growing mainstream appeal, the WWF shot Richter out of a cannon, featuring her in vignettes with Cyndi Lauper promoting her July 23rd Main Event bout with The Fabulous Moolah on a show that would air on the music channel called “The Brawl To End It All”. The program drew a 9 share, meaning 9% of all televisions in the U.S. tuned in to see Wendi Richter become the new WWF Women’s Champion. The match was a massive success for MTV, the WWF and women’s wrestling. Everyone involved was ecstatic. Well, everyone involved except Moolah (despite the massive payday from Vince).

By putting Richter over, without complaint, she, according to legendary wrestling manager Jim Cornette, “got Vince McMahon’s loyalty for life”, but Richter tells a different tale. “Moolah was jealous of me because I was younger than her,” said Richter. “When I won that championship, everyone was up on their feet and cheering. Someone had finally beaten her after 28 years.”

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

Wendi and Moolah wrestled no fewer than 20 more times over the next three months with Richter winning each time. The Women’s Champion had become a household name and was a featured wrestler on WWF merchandise, reigning supreme for seven months. Richter, however, didn’t believe she was being paid like a champion. “The men were being paid far more than the women, but I was the only one saying anything,” said Richter.

“Every time I saw (Vince) I brought up payoffs,” she would later say. “I wasn’t ugly or yelled or anything like that. I always told him, ‘Vince, I need to make more. I’m not bringing home enough to justify being on the road like this.’”

McMahon, in an effort to take Wendi down a peg, took the title off her, Richter losing it to another one of “Moolah’s girls”, Leilani Kai, whom also had a hand in training Richter. The women wrestled 8 more times prior to the first WrestleMania with Kai winning 7 of the matches. Leilani, however, was not going to be the face of women’s wrestling, not in Vince McMahon’s eyes, at least. Having served her time in Vince’s doghouse, Richter (w/ Cyndi Lauper in her corner) was given another run with the WWF World Women’s Title, defeating Kai (w/ Moolah in her corner) at WrestleMania I.

Wendi again held the title for seven month, defeating Kai and Moolah on multiple occasions. She was the biggest name in women’s wrestling, but still didn’t feel like she was being paid accordingly. Without Moolah in her corner, Richter was on an island. Yes, she was talented and gorgeous and everything McMahon wanted in a women’s champion. She was also making too many waves at a time when Vince was positioning Hulk Hogan as the face of the industry. Unable to come to terms on a new contract, a decision was made to take the belt off Richter, this time for good.

True Colors

Penny Mitchell became a professional wrestler in 1982. Yet another of Moolah’s “girls”, she was booked in several territories, gaining experience and honing her skills. The WWF was one of the territories she worked, signing with the promotion on a full-time basis in July of ‘84. Less than a year into her WWF run, Mitchell was repackaged as The Spider Lady, working under a mask to conceal her identity. The new look put her on a collision course with Wendi Richter, the two women engaging in a month-long feud that reached its apex on November 25th, 1985.

Before a capacity crowd in Madison Square Garden, The Spider Lady was getting her shot at the title against the recently unbeatable Richter. In those days, heels and babyfaces still dressed in separate locker rooms. When The Spider Lady entered the ring, that was the first time Richter had seen her that day, but after having worked with her eight times prior to this night, she knew something seemed off. Penny Mitchell was the same size as the champion. The woman standing across the ring was noticeably shorter. “I knew at that time I’ve gotta protect myself,” said Richter. 

When the bell rang, Richter repeatedly went for The Spider Lady’s mask, trying to remove it. The quality of the contest sailed downhill quickly. When The Spider Lady finally got the champ in a pinning predicament, everything went off the rails. “The referee counted ‘1’, I kicked out, had my shoulder up and he counted ‘2, 3,’” said Richter. The now former champion had just been swerved, but things were about to go from bad to worse.

Knowing she’d been double crossed, Wendi Richter went for The Spider Lady’s mask, ripping it off her head and revealing The Fabulous Moolah. Grabbing her by the hair as Moolah attempted to run away, Richter went into a series of odd-looking work/shoot moves, throwing the new (old) champion around the ring, slamming her down to the mat, then hooking and pinning her in much the same way Moolah had just done her. 

Furious, the former champion left the ring and went back to the locker rooms, searching for McMahon. When no one would tell her where he was, she grabbed her things, left the arena for the airport and didn’t return to the WWF/WWE until 2010, when she was inducted into the company’s Hall of Fame.

Change Of Heart

Richter disappeared from the wrestling business for a time, resurfacing on the Independent scene in ‘87. She also worked for WWC in Puerto Rico and the AWA, winning those promotions version of the women’s title. Her feud with Madusa Miceli in late-’88/early-’89 was one of the hottest angle going in the AWA during that time. By the end of ‘89, however, Wendi Richter was all but done with professional wrestling.

It’s impossible not to wonder what might’ve been for women’s wrestling had Richter continued working for the WWF. Would she have become the Hulkster of the division? Would Hollywood have come calling the way it did for Hogan? What would a feud between Wendi and Sensational Sherri have looked like? What about Wendi and Madusa on the WWF stage?

Richter was the “chosen one”. Had she and Vince been able to reach an agreement and continued to build the division, I can’t help but think we might have been able to avoid the six and a half years (2/21/90-12/12/93, 12/13/95-9/14/98) the women’s championship title was either deactivated or simply forgotten.

Regardless, the former 6-time women’s champion is fine with how everything turned out. “It changed my career; it changed my life,” said Richter concerning her ending in the WWF. Speaking to Sean Mooney on his Primetime with Sean Mooney podcast, she would go on to say, “I started going to college and I just thank the Lord that I did that. I make far more (as a physical and occupational therapist) than I ever made in wrestling and I get to sleep in my own bed. I couldn’t have that when I was wrestling on the road.”

Oh, and what became of Penny Mitchell? She wrestled for another two years, but never again as The Spider Lady.

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Called The “Jackie Robinson Of The Wrestling Industry”, Sweet Daddy Siki Broke Down Walls And Became A Star

Ahahaha! You shoulda seen what the Cuban Assassin and I did to Archie Gouldie and Steven Pettipas last week! We beat ’em up so bad! Now they have the nerve to wanna have a street fight? Well, I’m gonna tell you one thing, Archie Gouldie: the Cuban and I grew up on street fights! – Sweet Daddy Siki

On March 23rd, 1985, Memphis television was treated to a surprise appearance by a charismatic man known around the wrestling world as Sweet Daddy Siki. A week earlier, the dastardly Tux Newman had helped Randy Savage steal the AWA Southern Heavyweight Title from Jerry “The King” Lawler; Sweet Daddy was brought in by Newman to ensure Savage held on to the belt. But a funny thing happened on the way from Point A to Point B: Newman got on the mic and referred to Siki as his “boy”.

Making his way to the interview area where Lawler, Newman and Lance Russell were arguing, Sweet Daddy turned on Tux, admitting though it might cost him his run in Memphis, no man was gonna call him “boy”. A bemused Lawler rolled with the apparent adlib, saying he’d talk to promoter Eddie Marlin and smooth everything over. Siki destroyed a contract Newman waved in his face, sending the manager running, then hopped in the ring in his street clothes and made short work of Mr. X, winning the crowd over in under a minute. Just like that, Sweet Daddy Siki, as he had in every other territory he ever worked, got himself over in a very big way.

California Dreamin’

Sweet Daddy got his start in the wrestling business in 1955 between the ages of 15-17 years old, working in New Mexico after being trained in California by Ray Ortega and multi-time regional champion Sándor Szabó. Around this time, he supposedly spent some time in the military fighting in the Korean War (calling into question his actual date of birth). The Montgomery, Texas native made his first trip to Canada in December of ‘56, foreshadowing a permanent move to the country. Still going by his real name, Reggie Siki, he spent much of the next year and a half splitting time between the Vancouver and Oregon territories, feuding with Nick Kozak for several months.

Siki made his way back to California during the summer of 1958, attending college for a time and working for NWA Los Angeles (also called NWA Hollywood). Cal and Aileen Eaton (the mother of Gene and Mike LeBell) founded the promotion under the banner of the NWA, but split from the governing body once it was discovered Cal hadn’t paid any NWA member dues since 1955. Siki was the NWA International Television Champion at the time of the renaming, holding the title for a little over three months before dropping it to Mr. Moto at the Olympic Auditorium.

At this time, Siki struggled to make ends meet. He was working, sure, but often for little to no money. He has said it wasn’t uncommon to eat from dumpsters and sleep outside due to a lack of funds.

Sweet Daddy Is Born

Shortly after his stint in California, Siki returned to Canada, working for Eddie Quinn’s NWA Montreal for a few months. This is a particularly important time in his history as it was when Reggie Siki began going by the name Sweet Daddy, the name by which he would come to be known across the wrestling world.

After a five month stay in Columbus, Ohio with the Midwest Wrestling Association, which started at the beginning of 1960, Sweet Daddy took his show on the road. Using Toronto as his base, the city he calls home to this day, Siki spent the next 19 months working in several territories, including Chicago, New York and the Carolinas. Sweet Daddy became a main event player, engaging in short feuds with legendary figures like Giant Baba, Eddie Graham and Mark Lewin, but it was a run of matches against one of the greatest heavyweight champions of all time that would send his fame into the stratosphere.

The Nature Boy

By the summer of 1961, Sweet Daddy had already had several singles and tag matches with and against the NWA Worlds Heavyweight Champion “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers. The two men had a special chemistry in the ring together and Rogers was keenly aware of this fact. Because of their in-ring spark (and each man’s drawing power), on July 15, 1961, it is believed Sweet Daddy Siki became the first black man to wrestle for the Worlds Title.

The match, however, was not without controversy. Hearing about the event, the Ku Klux Klan showed up to protest. Threats were made, but Buddy and Sweet Daddy were undeterred. It would not be Siki’s only run-in with the Klan either, as him being married to a white woman elicited multiple threats from the hate group throughout his storied career.

The match with the “Nature Boy” wasn’t a one-off. Between July and October, Siki would have three more championship matches against Rogers, and though he’d come up short on each occasion, Siki didn’t need a belt to make him look like a star. The man had become bigger than any championship he could win.

Coming Home

Sweet Daddy’s run with Rogers led him back to Texas for a string of matches throughout the state. On February 22nd, 1963, with his status as a main event wrestler now etched in stone, he defeated Rip Hawk in Houston for the NWA Texas Heavyweight Championship. The two men wrestled again two weeks later at the “World Famous” Sportatorium in Dallas, this time in a Two out of Three Falls Match. Again, Sweet Daddy came out on top. This set up a run with the strap that lasted the entirety of his time in Texas (a little over two months), dropping it to his sometime tag partner Sailor Art Thomas before returning to Canada in April (but not before wrestling a 90 minute draw in Dallas against Lou Thesz, then the NWA Worlds Heavyweight Champion).

Coming Home (Again)

Back in his adopted home of Toronto, Sweet Daddy planted his flag, spending much of the next two years in Canada, working for Stu Hart’s Big Time Wrestling (also called Wildcat Wrestling and Stampede Wrestling) and Frank Tunney’s Maple Leaf Wrestling. During this stretch, Sweet Daddy became the biggest name in Canada. Bleaching his hair, donning sunglasses and elaborate capes and robes, Siki turned himself into “the ladies’ pet and the men’s regret”. According to Rocky Johnson, Siki was “the guy you loved to hate. The Muhammad Ali of that era” of pro wrestling.

Yet another NWA Worlds Heavyweight Championship match took place for Siki during this era, when he battled Killer Kowalski in July of ‘64 in a Two out of Three Falls Match. Coming out on the losing end did nothing to cap his steam, however, as he remained a top draw throughout North America for the next several years, winning a handful of regional titles and feuding with the likes of Abdullah the Butcher, Bobo Brazil and Dave Ruhl. He even found time to record a couple of albums of country music hits and return to Stu Hart’s territory to wrestle a bear. The bear won both altercations.

Passing On His Knowledge

As Sweet Daddy got into his mid-forties, he began taking fewer and fewer bookings abroad, preferring to stay local and spend time singing with his country band and at his local karaoke bar. After a 2-month tour of Japan near the end of ’84, Sweet Daddy made his way to Memphis for his final big territory stay, his now infamous run in Jerry Jarrett’s CWA.

Back in Toronto, Siki had begun training new wrestlers as well. He opened a wrestling school with Canadian wrestling legend Johnny Powers called the Johnny Powers/Sweet Daddy Siki Academy of Professional Wrestling. Siki has quoted as saying, “We will teach you how to wrestle clean and we’ll teach you how to wrestle dirty”. One of his first students, Ron Hutchison, spent ’85-’86 as one of WWF’s main enhancement talents when the company ran shows in Canada. He wrestled matches against some of the biggest names of the era, including Bret Hart, Randy Savage, and “Mr. 1derful” Paul Orndorff.

With his in-ring career winding down, Siki partnered with Hutchison and opened another school called Sweet Daddy Siki and Ron Hutchison’s School of Wrestling. Even without the flashy robes and boisterous promos, he continued to give back to professional wrestling, having a hand in the training of WWE Hall of Famer Adam “Edge” Copeland. His work with Hutchison also led to the training of Christian, Trish Stratus, Gail Kim, Beth Phoenix, Traci Brooks and several others.

A Quiet (Unless He’s Singing) Legend

Sweet Daddy’s influence on the following generations cannot be overstated. His persona was everything guys like “Superstar” Billy Graham and Jesse “The Body” Ventura would emulate to becomes legends in their own right. Bret “Hitman” Hart has been open about his love and respect for “Mr. Irresistible”, saying, “When I was trying to find myself (as a wrestler), the first character I thought of was Sweet Daddy Siki.”

These days, the 80-year-old Siki is content to sing in his local karaoke bar and enjoy his “rocking years”. His bleached blonde hair remains, as do the massive shoulders for which he was famous. He’s a kind man, far more likely to give of himself than take from another, but make no mistake about it, a bigger-than-life heel remains inside of him. Throw one of his old capes around him or get him anywhere near a wrestling ring and Sweet Daddy is born again.

Death of the Territories

The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Tag Teams

Gino Hernandez’s Star Burned Bright, But His Vices Cost Him Everything

Chavo Guerrero, crying about how “I spent two years of my life away from my family to achieve winning this belt in Tokyo, Japan.” Well, Chavo, like the saying goes, “A fool loses tomorrow reachin’ back for yesterday”. So, Chavo, you’re an idiot and Paul Boesch, you’re an idiot for making me defend this title in a rematch! – Gino Hernandez

“Gorgeous” Gino Hernandez was everything a wrestling promoter could possibly want in ‘bad guy’. At 28 years old, he’d already spent close to a dozen years in professional wrestling, working in several territories as both a babyface and a heel. With “movie star” looks and charisma, coupled with a larger than personality and promos than were drenched in a brash cockiness, Gino had the look of the total package. What hid beneath the tanned exterior, however, was a man careening down a mountain at a million per hour with no control of the wheel.

I have previously mentioned that I grew up on World Class Championship Wrestling, the Dallas based promotion that harbored the legendary Von Erich family. Born in 1977, I came to know professional wrestling during a boom period for WCCW, witnessing, firsthand, the prime years of several legendary figures in Texas wrestling, including Kerry and Kevin Von Erich, The Fabulous Freebirds, “Iceman” King Parsons and the aforementioned Gino Hernandez.

I was jumping feet first into pro wrestling fandom round about the same time Gino was making his way back to WCCW from the Joe Blanchard-led Southwest Champion Wrestling out of San Antonio. Hernandez was was coming off main event runs in both San Antonio and Houston, including winning the Southwest Champion Wrestling tag team titles five times between 1981-’83 with another dastardly heel: future Four Horseman member Tully Blanchard. As “The Dynamic Duo”, Gino and Tully had bloody feuds with the likes of Dick Slater, Wahoo McDaniel, Junkyard Dog and Ken Lucas, and were the biggest draw in San Antonio.

The Neon Lights Of Dallas

When Gino resurfaced in WCCW in ‘84, he immediately made enemies of the crowd and resumed a feud with the Von Erichs that dated back to ‘78 when he warred with David Von Erich over the NWA Texas Heavyweight Championship. After David’s unfortunate death in Japan in February of ‘84, a tournament was held to crown a new heavyweight champion. Hernandez beat the “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair in the finals of the tournament, winning the championship and carrying it for 401 days. It was the 5th of his 6 reigns as Texas Heavyweight Champion.

During the last half of ‘84, he paired with Nickla Roberts (who not only had a childhood crush on Hernandez, but would go on to even greater fame as Baby Doll, the valet for his old tag partner, Tully Blanchard), the two got into a heated feud with Mike Von Erich and Sunshine, resulting in a series of mixed tag matches. This included a brawl between Gino, Nickla, Mike and Stella Mae French (with Sunshine in their corner) at WCCW’s first Wrestling Star Wars event at the Cotton Bowl on October 27th, 1984.

After dropping the heavyweight title to Brian Adias in September of ‘85., Gino concentrated on previously formed tag teams with both Jake “The Snake” Roberts and “Gentleman” Chris Adams. The three men also worked together in 6-man tag matches versus the Von Erichs, but it was the combination of Hernandez and Adams, the longtime popular babyface Brit turned superkicking bad guy, that truly captured the hate and vitriol of the Dallas crowds. Again using the name “The Dynamic Duo”, Gino fed off Adams, taking his cockiness to a whole new level. He and Adams (who previously had been embroiled in a hot feud with Kevin Von Erich) redoubled their efforts against the brothers, feuding with the family for the better part of 7 months.

The pair filmed interviews in custom suits, sitting in expensive sports cars and bragging about their extravagant lives. According to legendary manager “Playboy” Gary Hart, at least where Gino was concerned, it wasn’t an act: “Gino was the kind of guy that always drove the best cars, wore the best clothes, had the best watches and went with the best women”.

The Dynamic Duo’s time together culminated in a huge blow off at the Cotton Bowl, where they lost a Hair Match against Kerry and Kevin Von Erich. I still remember belly laughing at the sight of Hernandez being carried back into the ring to get his head shaved after he’d tried to escape. Shortly thereafter, the Dynamic Duo split, with Gino turning on Adams, ultimately blinding him with “Freebird hair cream”, a hair removal product used by “Freebird” Buddy Roberts in ‘83 during his feud with King Parsons.

Flying Too Close To The Sun

With Chris Adams a top babyface once again (and Hernandez as hot as ever as a heel), the stage was set for them to have a much needed big angle for WCCW. Business was down after David’s passing and the company needed a fresh, hot angle to goose the territory. Sadly, the feud never reached its apex. After missing a couple of house shows, several phone calls were placed to his apartment. On February 5th, 1986, after hearing nothing from Gino, booker David Manning sent World Class official Rick Hazzard to the wrestler’s apartment. After getting no answer at the door, Hazzard jumped a wall to look into a window on the bedroom side of the apartment. He saw a set of feet on the floor, peeking out from just beyond the bed. Calls were made and Hazzard, along with local law enforcement and Gino’s manager, Walter Aymen, entered the Highland Park apartment. Their worst fears became a reality; Gino Hernandez was dead. He was just 28 years old.

Initially, Hernandez’s death was treated as a homicide case. A loaded gun was found near Gino, but no drugs were found on site. Hazzard supposedly told Manning when he discovered Gino’s sugar bowl of cocaine, he flushed it before the police found it. Following the autopsy report, his death was ruled as an accidental cocaine overdose.

Telephone, Telegram, Tell-a-wrestler

In pro wrestling, however, nothing is cut and dry. Though it is true Gino’s issues with cocaine ultimately cost him his life, many within the industry weren’t convinced he’d overdosed. Kevin Von Erich has said Hernandez was convinced someone was trying to kill him, even going so far as to purchase a gun for protection. David Manning backs up Kevin’s claims, saying Gino told him he needed a gun because he was being followed.

“It wasn’t like it was a secret that Gino did drugs. From smokin’ dope to cocaine to uppers and downers; it was the ‘70s and ‘80s and we all did it (but) I never saw Gino Hernandez out of control on drugs,” said Bruce Prichard, who spent years with Gino working for Paul Boesch in Houston.

Gossip flew around with reckless abandon. One claim had Gino owing money on a gambling debt. Another rumor, and perhaps the most ridiculous, was that Chris Adams had killed Hernandez for blinding him. One rumor that seemingly had meat on the bone, however, was that Gino had gotten sideways with a Houston drug dealer. Gino’s mother, Patrice Aguirre, says she remembers when a man named John Royal came to her home and, in front of Gino’s sister said, “Gino owed me a lot of money, but don’t you worry about it. I’m gonna pay for his funeral.” Royal also spoke at Gino’s funeral, giving a eulogy Bruce Prichard has described as, “just weird”.

Furthering the suspicion of foul play, Gino’s apartment had a deadbolt on the front door which, according to Manning, Gary Hart and Aguirre, he always kept locked. Additionally, the coroner in charge of Gino’s autopsy reported the wrestler had five times the amount of cocaine in his system needed to kill him. The coroner’s report also stated Hernandez was Hispanic, morbidly obese and uncircumcised. None of these things were true. Aguirre and Gino’s ex-wife, Janice Bancroft, wondered if it was even Gino’s body the coroner had reviewed, ultimately deciding to not make waves out of fear for their families. Regardless, Aguirre maintains Hernandez’s death was no accidental overdose: “As a mother, I have a lot of questions that no one has ever answered for me.”

The Truth Will (Supposedly) Set You Free

John Royal, who in 2018 completed a 30 year sentence for drug trafficking disputes the claims he had anything to do with Hernandez’s murder, saying, “Gino didn’t owe me any money. I was with him until 1 o’clock in the morning the night he died. We were at a club and he was in a good mood, buying a lot of drinks and drinking a lot. I assume he was doing some drugs. Then he left with some airline stewardesses and that’s the last time I saw him alive.”

A fellow trafficker (who chose to remain anonymous) spoke to the creators of the show “Dark Side of the Ring” during the making of the documentary “The Mysterious Death of Gorgeous Gino”, stating he and Hernandez were part of a group of drug runners. Unfortunately, he said, he believes Gino’s own drinking and drug abuse got the best of him.

Fact is often stranger than fiction, but in this instance, odds are good Gino died exactly how the coroner said he died. Considering the times, it’s not all that shocking there are inaccuracies in the autopsy. Are Gino’s claims of being followed and of people wanting him dead legitimate? Perhaps, but it’s also just as likely he was suffering from cocaine psychosis and his paranoia stemmed from the increased drug abuse.

Are there plenty of unanswered questions? Of course, but one thing that isn’t up for questioning is Gino’s level of talent as a pro wrestler. In his short career, Hernandez main evented in Detroit, Houston, San Antonio, Japan and Dallas. Tully Blanchard has said he tried to get him to come to the Carolinas, where he undoubtedly would have found his way at or near the top of the card. He was just that good. As Gary Hart once said, “Gino was a lost soul, but was he was everything you could ever want (in a pro wrestler)”.

Randy Savage Unreleased: the Unseen Matches of the Macho Man

Getting Rowdy: the Unreleased Matches of Roddy Piper

Pre-hipster Portland Was A Pro Wrestling Mecca

The Pacific Northwest Championship is symbolic of heavyweight supremacy. Right now, I’ve got it and I’m damn proud of it! – Dutch Savage

Before Vince McMahon began his national push with the WWF, effectively killing the territory system, the Don Owen led Portland Territory was the hottest thing going on the West Coast throughout the ‘70s and early ‘80s. Loaded with deep, talented rosters, Pacific Northwest Wrestling (PNW) was the highest rated local television weekly broadcast in the Portland area, running for 38 years.

In The Beginning…

PNW was started in 1925 by former Australian world middleweight and light heavyweight wrestling champion Ted Thye, who named Don Owen’s father, Herb as his assistant. While Thye was back in Australia, Herb Owen used some creative legal wrangling to have the promotion put exclusively in his name, wresting away ownership of the territory from the former champ. With Owen at the helm, the promotion started out focusing on boxing, even bringing in the legendary Jack Dempsey. Eventually, the move into professional wrestling was made, due at least in part to Herb’s sons, Don and Elton, both of whom had come aboard and began asserting their influence on the business.

One of the early rising stars for the Portland wrestling promotion was none other than a young George Wagner, who won both the Pacific Coast Light Heavyweight and Pacific Northwest Middleweight Championships during his 5+ years (1938-’43) in the territory. He would then move on to New York and become the most famous professional wrestler of that era: Gorgeous George.

After Herb Owen passed away in 1942, Don Owen took over the Portland Territory and began promoting pro wrestling exclusively in the Northwest. In 1948, Owen became one of the founding members of the National Wrestling Alliance, which established a single World Champion and acted as a governing body for wrestling companies in North America and Japan. It was during this time that the actual ‘territory system’ was created, with Don Owen controlling the Northwest.

Thanks in large part to Portland’s dedicated wrestling fans, Owen built PNW into the most popular event in the Northwest. This led to a solicitation from representatives of the Heidelberg Brewery in Tacoma, Washington, who visited Owen at his Springfield farm and offered him a sponsorship for a weekly television broadcast for his wrestling show. They were able to reach an agreement, but their timing on that particular day could not have been worse. As Owen recounted years later: “My clothes were all dirty and covered with manure. I told these guys, ‘I’m tired; I’ve been up all night with a sick cow. I haven’t got time for you.“

Despite the poor first impression, Heidelberg Wrestling (later renamed Portland Wrestling) went on the air in 1953, an hour-long weekly television show on KPTV which highlighted some of pro wrestling’s hottest talents, including “Tough” Tony Borne, Gory Guerrero & Luther Lindsay. Thus began the show’s aforementioned 38-year television run, split between two networks (KPTV and KOIN-TV), making it, at the time of its cancellation, the longest running non-news program on television.

Mad Dogs, Buckeyes And Bockwinkels, Oh My

Throughout the ‘60s, Owen continued to promote massive shows in both the Portland Memorial Coliseum and the Portland Sports Arena, the latter of which was a converted bowling alley purchased by Owen in 1968. The Portland Sports Arena also became the primary home of the PNW weekly telecast.

WWII veteran and 1950 Rose Bowl Champion Shag Thomas was given a chance in the wrestling business thanks to Don Owen and PNW. Owen didn’t believe in segregation and backed up his beliefs by putting the Heavyweight TItle around Thomas’ waist in 1960 and ‘66. Shag spent a decade in Portland, retiring in ‘69 after winning a total of 18 championships.

In 1962, Owen gave Maurice Vachon the nickname “Mad Dog”, a moniker he would use for the rest of his career. “During a match I went outside the ring and started to turn everything upside down. A policeman tried to stop me and I hit him too,” said Vachon. Afterwards Owen told him, “You just looked like a real mad dog out there.”

Between 1963 and 1964, Nick Bockwinkel made a splash in Portland, winning both the NWA Pacific Northwest Heavyweight and Tag Team Championships. It was in Portland where the future 4-time AWA World Champion would hone his craft and become one of the very best to ever step inside the squared circle. Also making his mark in the Northwest during the mid-60’s was Stan “The Man” Stasiak, who won the first of his six PNW Heavyweight Championships in 1965, leading to a streak of popularity in Portland than lasted for more than 15 years.

Jesse “The Body” Had Time To Bleed

Several future WWF stars of the ‘80s made big names for themselves with PNW in the ‘70s. Legendary names like “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, “The Model” Rick Martel and Jesse “The Body” Ventura all held titles while in Portland, helping to make the territory one of the hottest of the era.

Portland was just the second promotion Jesse Ventura ever worked, arriving a year after leaving the Mongols, a San Diego-based outlaw motorcycle gang. Wrestling as Jesse “The Great” Ventura, the former Navy SEAL had extremely bloody feuds with 7-time PNW Heavyweight Champion Dutch Savage and “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka (another future WWF superstar), winning the Heavyweight Title on two occasions.

The popularity of the promotion during the ‘70s allowed Owen to expand into Washington, regularly running house shows promoted by Savage. The shows increased Owen’s hold on the Northwest and opened up new avenues to greater viewership and an even larger talent pool. During this era, “Playboy” Buddy Rose, one of the most underrated performers in wrestling history, began to take his place as the number one heel in the territory. From 1976 to 1985, Rose used his exceptional mic skills, coupled with his quality in-ring work, to become the most hated man in the Northwest. In addition to winning heavyweight and tag team gold a combined 20 times while in Portland, Rose was also highly respected by his peers for his ability to get them over with the crowd. In Roddy Piper’s autobiography, he credits Rose as the guy who got his name established in pro wrestling.

As the ‘70s turned into the ‘80s Rose’s hold on the Portland Territory remained strong. Between 1982-’83, “Playboy” is credited with having drawn more money than any other wrestler at any other time during the company’s long history. Not only was he wildly popular (hated) with fans, he also continued to get new talent over, working with the likes of Matt Borne (of Doink the Clown fame), pre-”Mr. Perfect” Curt Hennig, Billy Jack Haynes (before he went off the rails) & “Iceman” King Parsons. Each man had money-making runs with Rose, angles which helped them take the next step in their careers with other promotions. Concerning Parsons, a good working relationship between Owen and Fritz Von Erich resulted in the biggest run of his career, after he and “Gentleman” Chris Adams were sent to work for World Class Championship Wrestling in Dallas.

The Rise Of The Machine

Unfortunately, the ‘80s also brought the talent raids perpetrated by Vince McMahon, who, after purchasing the WWF from his father, was hellbent on taking his flashier brand of pro wrestling nationwide. To do so, McMahon needed to substantially beef up his roster and introduce new, younger faces to the masses. The talent raids accomplished this goal while simultaneously weakening the territories, making McMahon’s takeover that much easier. The loss of so many top talents made it virtually impossible for the territories to remain on top, especially with WWF’s improved production value and overwhelming global reach.

Owen continued to run shows, even creating a few new stars along the way in Brian Adams (Crush of WWF fame), Art Barr and Scotty the Body (who would go on to much greater fame in ECW, WCW and WWF/E as Raven), but declining attendance (along with WWF’s national expansion and the loss of Tom Peterson’s, their main television sponsor) forced the Owen family to sell PNW to Sandy Barr in 1992. The Don Owen-owned PNW’s final television broadcast took place in December 1991. Shortly thereafter, it was replaced on KPTV by syndicated WWF programming.

Years later, Don Owen spoke about the end of his run, saying, “It was hard to end that tradition. But it was time to close up and get on with something else. And the talent pool was getting smaller with the big boys (WWF and WCW) taking it all.”

After The Fall

Sandy Barr continued promoting for five more years, before shutting down Championship Wrestling USA in ‘97. He retained the rights to the name until 2007 with various incarnations of the promotion, fronted by names like Len Denton, Don Coss, Ivan Kafoury and Roddy Piper, popping up here and there. None of them, however, were ever able to recapture the magic of the original PNW. Luckily for wrestling fans in Oregon and Washington, several independent promotions have since carved out a name for themselves, most notably DEFY Wrestling (est. 2017) and DOA Pro Wrestling (est. 2008).

Don Owen treated fans in the Northwest to more than six decades of entertaining pro wrestling, but likely got out of the wrestling game at the perfect time. At almost 80 years of age at the time of Sandy Barr’s acquisition of PNW, Owen knew the wrestling business was changing, quickly. After years away from the industry, he was asked his thoughts concerning the then-current pro wrestling product. Unsurprisingly, Owen was less than complimentary, saying, “Today’s wrestling really pains me. There’s no wrestling, just a lot of screaming and flying around.”

Portland Wrestling Vol. 4

Portland Wrestling Vol. 1

In Your Face: 1970s Portland Wrestling Documentary

Hulk Hogan And The Death Of The AWA

I am the people’s champion! They saw me beat Nick Bockwinkel! Just when I was ready to clamp down and take it home, Bobby Heenan interfered! Payback is due! – Hulk Hogan

By the late ‘80s, after years of declining interest, subpar rosters, and an inability to change with the times, the American Wrestling Association (AWA) was all but dead in the water, ultimately shutting down in 1991.

Did it have to be that way? Had Verne Gagne, rather than digging in his heels, gotten with the times (or hired someone to get with the times for him), would the AWA have had a puncher’s chance at not only surviving, but thriving into the ’90s and beyond?

When The AWA Thrived

From the early ‘60s into the late ’70s, the AWA was a very successful wrestling promotion. Verne Gagne, an amateur wrestler and alternate on the ‘48 U.S. Olympic Team not only ran the promotion, but was its most recognizable champion. From August 1960 to May 1981, Verne held the AWA World Title 10 times for a total of 4,677 days (almost 13 years), feuding with legendary names like Gene Kiniski, Larry “The Axe” Hennig and “The Crippler” Ray Stevens.

During that era, Gagne took his promotion from a local Minnesota show and expanded into several large markets, including Chicago, San Francisco, Denver and Las Vegas. His success in these areas made the AWA an extremely popular ticket, and his live shows regularly brought crowds by the thousands.

“I Want My MTV”

Then the Eighties happened. The “everything, all the time, right now” generation had no time for a long time. Don’t wanna sit through a 12 round fight? “Iron” Mike Tyson knocks everyone out in under three rounds! NBA games too slow? Have no fear, the “Showtime” Lakers are here!

Gone were the days when you could keep a kid’s attention for more than three minutes; Nintendo, Coca-Cola and Hostess made sure of that.

In the Sixties and Seventies, pro wrestling venues were smoke-filled, darkly lit and full of an older demographic. When the mid-’80s rolled around, young, loud and stuffed to the gills with cocaine and TV dinners, Verne wasn’t prepared.

Prior to Vince McMahon’s talent raids, the AWA boasted some of the biggest names in the business. Consider that in 1984, WWF’s number one babyface (and arguably the biggest draw in the history of the industry), Hulk Hogan, number one manager (and the greatest manager of all time), Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, number one color commentator, Jesse “The Body” Ventura, and number one announcer, “Mean” Gene Okerlund had all been, just a short time prior, under the employ of the AWA.

What if Verne had worked with someone capable of marketing Hogan the way Vince and the WWF were able to do for the better part of a decade? What if he’d played ball with Hogan on merchandising, rather than trying to strong-arm or steal from him by selling his shirts at shows while Hulk was away on a Japanese tour? What if he hadn’t gone out of his way to keep the belt off Hogan, actually going so far as to say he wasn’t good enough to carry the AWA Title? Finally, what if Verne hadn’t angered Hogan enough to where, once Vince came calling, he was more than willing to not only jump ship, but do so without finishing up his scheduled dates with the AWA, effectively killing most of the territory?

How much different does the first WrestleMania look without Hogan in the main event? Does WrestleMania I even take place without Hogan on the WWF roster?

Greg Gagne Wasn’t The Answer

Verne’s stubborn nature (Greg Gagne’s words, not mine) cost the promotion dearly when it came to the acquisition and retention of marketable talent, forcing the promotion to rely on burly animals like The Crusher and Mad Dog Vachon, men who could draw a promotion all kinds of money for much of the previous two decades, but were dinosaurs in the eyes of the glitzy ‘80s pro wrestling fan. Beer bellies and cigar breath simply wasn’t gonna cut it anymore.

Sure, the AWA still had a contingent of die hard wrestling fans, many of whom attended every local show possible, but selling a guy a program and a beer is a far cry from selling a guy a program and a beer, while selling his kids t-shirts, action figures and foam fingers. This is where I believe Gagne was greatly in need of someone to put a fresh set of hands on his product, and by ‘someone’ I don’t mean his son, Greg. If you need history to be told through the eyes of a blind man, call Greg. Otherwise…

Hulkamania Ran Wild…Away From Verne

Consider that had Hulk and Verne been able to work together the way Hogan ultimately did with Vince, the AWA would have been all but set (creatively, at least). In Nick Bockwinkel, Larry Zbyszko, Col. DeBeers and later, Curt Hennig, the AWA was loaded with main event level heel talent, all of whom had quality promo skills and could work circles around most in the ring. Hogan was a superhero, his job was to look unbeatable. Surrounding him with these four pros, men capable of bumping all around the ring for him while retaining every last bit of their heat, would have carried the promotion for years. And let’s not even get into the next wave of guys (Shawn Michaels, Scott Hall, Leon White aka Vader) that ultimately left the AWA for greener pastures…

Without Hogan, did Vince have the leverage to buy off television stations, preventing them from airing other promotions’ shows? Who was Vince’s second choice had Hogan not gone to New York? Would he have stayed in-house and tried to go national with Jimmy Snuka or Sgt. Slaughter? Would he have looked to another promotion, possibly WCCW and Kerry Von Erich? Neither Snuka nor Kerry had Hulk’s promo and Sarge didn’t have the jacked, “bigger than life” look Vince so coveted. Whatever he would have decided, the WWF roster would have looked (and sounded) decidedly different.

What Might Have Been For The AWA

If WCW taught us nothing else, it was that the market would bear two successful promotions. Even ECW, using mostly smoke and mirrors (and a lot of Vince’s kickback money) was able to thrive in the Nineties as a somewhat viable third promotion. Certainly, with proper management and greater attention to what fans wanted to see, the AWA could have just as easily been in this mix. Fans like having options, and history has proven time and again that with competition, all involved up their game making for a better overall product.

There is no doubt Verne Gagne should be remembered for all he did for professional wrestling. Not only did he run a successful promotion for more than 30 years, he also trained some of the biggest names the industry has ever known, including Iron Sheik, Ricky Steamboat, Curt Hennig and “Nature Boy” Ric Flair. His immense contributions to wrestling cannot be overlooked.

That’s what made his inability to move with the changing climate rather than becoming resistant to it so frustrating. Verne’s knowledge could have been useful to so many other future performers. Unfortunately, for him, for the fans, for the industry as a whole, it wasn’t meant to be.

WWE Hulk Hogan Hulkamania Authentic T-shirt

Odd Sox Men’s Hulk Hogan 360 Socks

WWE Hulk Hogan Whatcha Gonna Do Brother? T-Shirt