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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The Night Skandor Akbar Made Me Rich

Sign the contract, put yourself in that squared circle and prepare to get mashed, mauled and maimed, because the General is coming to town with Devastation, Incorporated! – “General” Skandor Akbar

I was 12 years old the first and only time my dad took me to the “World Famous” Sportatorium in Dallas. After having seen the World Class Championship Wrestling shows on television for so many years, and having only been to one other live wrestling event, a WCCW show at my 3rd grade gym in 1985, the idea of seeing guys like Kerry & Kevin Von Erich and “Gentleman” Chris Adams live and in person had me more than a little fired up.

I wish I could remember the exact date of the show but I do remember it was in 1989, very likely right before WCCW folded and was sold off to Jerry Jarrett and the USWA Promotion. I’d always been a huge Mid-South and World Class fan, always preferred the stiffer wrestling style to the more ‘Hollywood’ style the WWF was doing at that time, and I’d been pushing for my dad to take me to a show for years.

Walking up to the Sportatorium from the parking lot was eye-opening, to say the least, as it was nothing like how it was depicted on television. Located in the heart of Dallas, off Industrial Blvd., the legendary sports arena had fallen into a state of disrepair, a fact that did not go unnoticed by any of our travelling party. Once inside, our group, consisting of myself, my dad and a couple of his buddies (one of whom was former Texas Rangers catcher Geno Petralli) picked up a few beverages and some popcorn and took our seats about halfway up the bleachers. We also grabbed some french fries while at the concession stand, a particularly funny truth considering years later it was said that once the Sportatorium was closed and the fryers were finally emptied out, several rats were found stuck to the bottom, hidden from view by years of old, unchanged cooking oil. Regardless, those were tasty fries, and hey, I’m likely impervious to rabies!

Heatseekers In The Stands

As the matches got up and running, my dad and his buddies decided to cheer for all the heels, a decision that did not go over particularly well with the hardcore “rasslin’” fans in attendance. While I only recall a few of the wrestlers on the bill that night, I can remember quite clearly the old man sitting in front of us exclaiming, “You boys are booin’ the wrong guys. That can get you hurt around here.” This was real life to those fans; they were not playing around.

Some time passed, with all of us having a good go of it, laughing and booing and messing around with some of the other folks around us, most of whom actually proved to be good sports about the whole thing. Then Skandor Akbar walked to the ring, leading his stable, Devastation Inc.

Perhaps it was his gimmick that so incited the old school fans (and/or his penchant for throwing fireballs in the face of babyface wrestlers). Maybe it was little more than all those years he’d spent on the other side of the ring from “our boys”, The Von Erichs. Whatever it was, he was as hated as hated could be with the Dallas crowd. They legitimately despised him and he played it for all it was worth. As he stalked a path back and forth at ringside, chomping away on one of his cigars, the crowd took on an entirely different energy. It was at this moment that one of my dad’s buddies, himself a stogie chewer, said to me, “I’ll give you $50 if you’ll walk down there and hand that guy one of my cigars.” $50 was a weekend of mowing lawns in the hot Texas summer. He’d barely finished his sentence before I was on my way down the bleachers, cigar in hand.

That Was A Lot Of Food!

If you’ve never seen the layout around the ring of the old Sportatorium, there were no big, fancy barricades like what you might see at a WWE show; just a single piece of rope, strung up to separate the crowd from the wrestlers. So, I’m there by the rope trying my best to get Akbar’s attention, but of course, he’s paying me no mind because everyone else is yelling at him too. As the match continued on, Akbar began to pace back and forth, finally spotting me as he turned to say something to the crowd. When my eyes met his I held the cigar out and yelled, “It’s for you, take it.“ In one motion, he tossed away his old cigar, grabbed the one in my hand, bit a piece off the end and popped it in his mouth, before turning back around to yell at the referee in the ring.

I stood there for a moment, still shocked he’d actually taken the cigar, then turned to look up at my dad and his friends. What I saw, however, was not their smiling faces. Instead, I locked in on a very angry crowd, and they were all looking right back at me. A trickle of boos became a wave, which made me laugh, nervously. After a moment, thinking the worst had passed, I went to take a step back up the bleachers to my seat, only to find that step met with a beer shower, followed by the contents of what felt like the entire Sportatorium concession stand area. I was being pelted from all sides and I was honestly loving every second of it. There I was, a 12 year old kid, and for one night only, I had become the biggest heel in that wonderfully dilapidated old arena.

After a few seconds, the food throwing subsided and I made my way back up the bleachers to my dad and his friends. They all had a good laugh. The old man sitting in front of us had a nice laugh at my expense as well. The matches from that night have long since faded from my mind, a byproduct of time (and way too many “late nights”), but that moment with “The General” and the subsequent food bath I received for my treachery remains as fresh as any memory I hold dear.

That $50 spent pretty well, too.

Today’s Heels Could Learn A Lot From Larry Zbyszko

I am Professional Wrestling’s living legend. I don’t care about you people, Billy Robinson or his Empire Championship. 1001 holds? I have 1001 records from coast to coast! I am number one! — “The Living Legend” Larry Zbyszko

I absolutely loathed “The Living Legend” Larry Zbyszko when I was a kid. He was smug, a braggart, cheated each and every time the opportunity presented itself, and topped it all off by never running out of things to say to make fans despise him. In short, he was one of the greatest wrestling heels in the history of ever and doesn’t get nearly enough credit for his genius.

Underrated Genius

I’ve been watching pro wrestling for over 30 years and during that time, I’ve seen few wrestlers I’ve wanted to choke more than Larry Zbyszko. Yet, when it comes time to start naming some of the greatest bad guys to ever lace up the boots, fans and experts alike are quick to throw out names like “Nature Boy” Ric Flair and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper.

Both men entertained me for more hours than I could ever begin to count, but as great as they were, they each retained the same redeeming quality: Ric and Roddy were hilarious. Sure, they did some awful things, but they were almost so charming in how terrible they were being, I couldn’t help rooting for them. With Larry Zbyszko, that sort of thing was never an issue. I never did anything but hate that dude and I’m quite sure he’d be pleased to know that.

No Cheering, Spudhead!

There simply wasn’t a thing about Larry that made you cheer for him. He wasn’t a cool “shade of gray”, he wasn’t trying to impress the crowd with his wit and in-ring ability; he was just a complete prick.

Watching Larry’s old matches now, I marvel at how well he worked a crowd. When I was a kid, I wanted to punch him in the face every single time he’d stall on the outside of the ring, roll back in, then roll right back out to stall some more. It was infuriating stuff.

So good was he at being a heel, I’ve heard there were even wrestlers who would get angered at his in-match antics. When you’re getting the guy in the ring with you to lose it, you’re really doing work!

Zbyszko did everything he could to be a despicable human being, and regardless of how ‘smart’ you thought you were to the business, he still found a way to reel you in.

Old School Will Always Be Cool

I’m a bit too young to have seen “The Living Legend” in the WWWF, but his feud with Bruno Sammartino is legendary. Universally abhorred (with heat as white hot as you can get it), Zbyszko really took off when he turned on the popular babyface and mentor Sammartino, attacking him with a chair, leaving him bloody and broken in front of a sea of hardcore Bruno fans. This set the stage for a feud that accounted for many sell out crowds throughout 1980, culminating in their most famous match together, the Shea Stadium Steel Cage Match in which Bruno finally got his revenge in front of more than thirty six thousand fans.

I’m most familiar with Larry Legend’s work in the AWA and NWA/WCW. As a kid growing up in East Texas, I was afforded a good many wrestling options on my television each week. Everything from World Class to Mid-South, WWF to NWA could be seen weekly thanks to superstations like USA and TBS, and a local channel out of Dallas, KXTX.

When you consider the talent those promotions sported during the early to late-80’s, it’s more than a little overwhelming. Many of the all-time greats were plying their craft at the highest of levels then, and I had the honor of seeing them all.

I got up close to The Freebirds, Jimmy Garvin, The Four Horsemen, Bobby Heenan, and countless other heels, but none of them elicited a hate from me like the hate I felt when I watched Larry Zbyszko. If you’ve never yelled at your television screen, then you don’t really know how much fun it can be to get totally taken in by a wrestling bad guy. Larry Zbyszko was that guy for me.

Larry Legend Is The Measuring Stick

I wonder, if more of today’s wrestlers were willing to go that extra mile at being a heel and placed more emphasis on being legitimately hated, could wrestling reclaim a bit of what’s been lost since fans decided it was cooler to be a jerk than to be a superhero?

I know times have changed, but I still say there’s a place for the bad guy who just wants to be a loathsome character. Baron Corbin is doing a great job being just that, although wrestling fandom has changed so dramatically, I’m not sure he’ll ever truly be appreciated for his level of brilliance.

Perhaps, it’s just a sign of the times, but I believe many of today’s wrestlers would do themselves an enormous favor by going back and watching as much of Larry Zbyszko’s work as they can possibly find.

The WWE might not ever go out of its way to tell the ‘Universe’ how amazing “The Living Legend” was, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t.