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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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.

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.