Colonel DeBeers Was A Lot Of Things, But A Shade Of Gray Wasn’t One Of Them

I wanna get to the heart of my complaint against dirty sports in America: the use and abuse of anabolic steroids by Scott Hall! The man has obviously overstepped his bounds and he is dirty, filthy and eaten up with anabolic steroids! – Colonel DeBeers

On November 12, 1988, WCWA Heavyweight Champion, “The Modern Day Warrior” Kerry Von Erich put his title on the line against the hated AWA heel, Colonel DeBeers, in Las Vegas, Nevada. At some point during the match, DeBeers managed to lock onto Kerry’s right boot, and as he’d done hundreds of times before, the colonel gave the babyface opponent’s leg a nice twist. However, when Von Erich’s boot came completely off, revealing nothing but a stump below his ankle, DeBeers knew this was something entirely different from all the other times he’d applied an ankle lock. Immediately, he turned his confusion towards the referee while Kerry rolled under the ring and reattached his boot. 

Two and a half years prior, Von Erich had been involved in a horrific motorcycle accident that, ultimately, resulted in the amputation of his right foot. A prosthetic was made which allowed him to continue to wrestle, but virtually no one in the business knew of his amputation. Based on his reaction, Colonel DeBeers was most certainly not one of the few people “in the know”.

Almost surprisingly, this would not be the craziest thing Colonel DeBeers would be involved in during his 20+ year wrestling career.

What’s A Wiskoski?

I’ve previously written about the American Wrestling Association and the wealth of top tier heel wrestlers the company had its disposal in the ‘80s and early-’90s, scribbling at length on their greatness and need for a transcendent babyface to keep the company relevant as Vince McMahon went national and began steamrolling over the ‘Territory System’.

Casual fans of pro wrestling know names like Nick Bockwinkel, “The Living Legend” Larry Zbyszko, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan and The Nasty Boys. Bockwinkel became the face of the AWA, while the other men I’ve mentioned spent large swaths of time on the national stage with the WWE/F and/or WCW. One heel that often falls through the cracks when discussing AWA heels, however, was regional bad guy, Colonel DeBeers, who, during a time when pro wrestling was fighting to become more “kid friendly”, doubled down on “evil” to the point where some have argued he went too far.

DeBeers got his start in 1973 and was trained by Lord Littlebrook and Harley Race. Wrestling under his real name, Ed Wiskoski, he spent several years working in Florida and the Midwest, winning several regional titles, including the NWA Central States Championship in ‘75. As champion, he turned himself into a big enough draw around Iowa, Kansas and Missouri that it landed him an opportunity to face Terry Funk, then the NWA World’s Heavyweight Champion in a Two Out of Three Falls Match. He came up one fall short, but Wiskoski was off and running. 

After a month-long tour of Japan with AJPW, Wiskoski moved on to the Northwest, working the next two years (summer of ‘77 – summer of ‘79) for Don Owen and his Pacific Northwest Wrestling promotion. There he formed a formidable tag team with “Playboy” Buddy Rose, winning the PNW Tag Team Titles on several occasions. He also added two PNW Heavyweight Championship reigns to his wrestling resumé, feuding with Portland legend Dutch Savage.

In close proximity to San Francisco, Wiskoski also worked for Big Time Wrestling, winning the NWA San Francisco U.S. Title and tagging with Rose and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper to capture the NWA San Francisco World Tag Team Championships three times. 

During the five years that followed, Wiskoski went on a territory-hopping tour that would land him back in the Midwest and Florida, and also New York, Mid-South, Canada and Germany. He even found his way back to Portland for another main event run, working part of the time under the name Mega Maharishi Imed, but in February of ‘86, he joined the AWA, taking on the new name and character that would make him more infamous than famous.

The Face Of Evil In The AWA

In the mid-’80s, the race-related political unrest in South Africa was a regular topic of discussion on the nightly news. The apartheid system enforced racial discrimination, separating people based on their race and features. Wiskoski, assuming the name Colonel DeBeers, the “heir to the De Beers Diamond Mines”, became the pro wrestling embodiment of everything that was appalling about the racial segregation that had been a fixture in South Africa for centuries.

For the first few months in the AWA, he wrestled against the likes of The Midnight Rockers, Brad Rheingans and Wahoo McDaniel, earning the hate of every last fan that watched him wrestle. But it was his blood feud with the legendary “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka that turned him into the most hated man in the Minnesota-based promotion. In July of ‘86, Snuka was one of the biggest babyfaces in pro wrestling. Having worked all across the U.S., Jimmy was known far and wide and for a time in the mid-’80s was widely considered the most popular WWF wrestler not named Hulk Hogan.

Dialing up his hateful rhetoric, DeBeers tapped into something beyond heat, grabbing the fans hook, line and sinker. Snuka would prevail in their series of matches, but the colonel turned himself into pro wrestling’s face of racism, a heat-seeking endeavor that not only kept him in the wrestling magazines (then a primary method for a fans to learn about wrestlers outside their region), but also under the employ of the AWA for over four years.

Goin’ Goin’ Back Back To Cali

Shortly after the demise of the AWA, Herb Abrams’ California-based UWF came into existence. Flawed as it was, it was still a place to work and DeBeers was one of the veterans signed for the first series of television tapings. The first televised show from Abrams’ UWF aired on September 24th, 1990 and the pro-Apartheid heel wasted no time in infuriating every last person possible. After spending close to two decades in the wrestling industry, the man was an expert on garnering attention from a crowd, and the brand new promotion for which he was employed needed just that.

Entering the ring prior to his match with Billy Jack Haynes, DeBeers turned his attention to referee Larry Sampson, a black man, and bellowed, “I will not have a black man refereeing my matches”! Just like that, everyone in the building hated the Colonel’s guts. This led to even more heat with fans after he tried to attack the very same referee a few shows later, leading to a short feud with another major regional name of that era: “Iceman” King Parsons. Though the UWF’s run was marred with failure, the colonel remained one of the few bright spots. He was detestable and reviled; he was everything he was trying to be.

Smart, not “smart”

Over the years, it’s been debated that Col. DeBeers went too far with some of his promos and actions. Some say he did more damage with his words than he did good in trying to parody this type of evil character. In my youth I watched Baron Von Raschke goose-step around a ring, Randy Savage damn near murder Ricky Steamboat by crushing his windpipe and Abdullah the Butcher carve up every last babyface hero I ever had. All these men worked to make you and me feel something more than that which can be expressed by simply booing. They needed our hearts.

DeBeers went down the same road as these men and when such a road is traveled, there are likely going to be times when a line or two is crossed. Did he go too far? Perhaps, but I miss the days when promotions thought enough of their fans to know we’d be smart enough (no, not “smart” enough) to hate the right wrestlers. The color gray is as boring as can be. The Colonel DeBeers character was a lot of things, but it was never a shade of gray.

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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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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)”.

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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

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