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.”

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