Group Six: The Wally Karbo Bracket Last night we were LIVE! baby live at the St. Paul Civic Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, the home base of the AWA in its heyday. The draw was far kinder to the fans here in the twin cities than it has been in the previous groups, as unlike the shows in St. Louis or Mexico City, our Wally Karbo Bracket features a few hometown boys, legends who are either synonymous with the AWA or who were born and raised in within the finger-numbingly cold borders of this very state.
As always, if you’re coming in late and you have no idea what the fuck is going on here, go back and read the recap of Group One action, and I swear all your questions will be answered. To briefly sum up the tournament to this point, The Rock, Ed “Strangler” Lewis, Shawn Michaels, Lou Thesz and Mitsuharu Misawa have all won their groups and advanced to the final bracket, to be contested over two nights at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Last week it was also announced that there would be several special attraction matches held each of the two final nights in New York. Already booked: Hulk Hogan vs. “Stone Cold” Steve Austin on Night One, and Bruno Sammartino vs. Goldberg on Night Two. More announcements for those cards are coming up tonight, so let’s just get on with it, shall we?
Our hosts, calling all the action from ringside, are longtime voice of the AWA Rod Trongard, and the last man to hold the old AWA World Heavyweight Title, Larry Zbyszko.
Round One Match:
“Nature Boy” Ric Flair vs. Owen Hart
Who’s this Flair kid, anyhow? He’s somewhere between a 16-time and 21-time World Heavyweight Champion, having held the top belt multiple times in the NWA, WCW, and the WWF. He’s also held dozens of secondary and regional titles, including the NWA and WCW United States Championships, the WWE Intercontinental Championship, and the Tag Team Championships in the NWA and WWE. He also won the 1992 Royal Rumble, considered the best Rumble match ever by most. Lotsa people, including most pro wrestlers working in North America today, will tell you he’s the best there’s ever been, and if they’re wrong they ain’t far off. Owen Hart is the youngest of the Hart wrestling dynasty, and has held titles in Stampede, New Japan — where he is a former IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion — and the WWF, where he is a former Intercontinental, European, and Tag Team Champion, and a winner of the King of the Ring tournament.
(Just a note on the match recaps: Since recording every match move-by-move is both incredibly time consuming and, I’d wager, a little tedious to read, I’ll be keeping them short from here on out, only beginnings, important spots, and finishes. You can thank me later.)
It’s all Hart early on, as Owen takes Flair to the mat and manages to outwrestle him to the point that Flair bails out to the floor. More mat wrestling sends Flair out a second time, and this time Owen follows him out, going airborne with a dive over the top rope, followed up with a spinning heel kick. Owen rolls Flair back in and gets a two-count. Flair reverses a whip into the corner and chop blocks Owen’s knee as he comes out, and it’s classic Nature Boy from there, as Ric works the knee mercilessly.
Despite having his knee destroyed, Owen manages to avoid the figure four leglock, even blocking an attempt and locking Flair into a Sharpshooter at one point. Owen whips Flair to the corner, leading to the Flair flip over the top onto the apron. Owen tries a clothesline, but Flair ducks and runs up to the top turnbuckle on the other side. Owen catches him, of course, and slams him to the mat. Owen heads to the top himself, but misses a diving headbutt attempt when Flair rolls out of the way. Flair tries the figure four again, but Owen rolls him into a small package! Flair reverses the small package and grabs the bottom rope — out of the ref’s view, naturally — to hold Owen down for the three-count.
(Ric Flair over Owen Hart, reversed small package —> pinfall)
The Minnesota boys are 1 for 1. They’ll have a chance to keep it going in a big way with our next first round match, which is set to start presently.
Round One Match:
Verne Gagne vs. Genichiro Tenryu
Gagne is not merely a legend of pro wrestling in Minnesota — he is pro wrestling in Minnesota. Along with Wally Karbo, for whom tonight’s tournament bracket is named, Gagne founded and promoted the American Wrestling Association. Verne is a nine (or ten) –time AWA World Heavyweight Champion, and the third-longest reigning World Champion in pro wrestling history, behind only Bruno Sammartino and Lou Thesz. Genichiro Tenryu is one of the most durable and decorated stars in the history of Japanese pro wrestling. He is one of the few to have held both All Japan’s Triple Crown Heavyweight Title, and New Japan’s IWGP Heavyweight Title, as well as a winner of the Champions Carnival and a three-time winner of the World’s Strongest Tag Team League — twice with Jumbo Tsuruta, once with Stan Hansen.
Big-time contrast of styles here, as Gagne is the ultimate old school mat wrestler, preferring a slow, methodical pace, while Tenryu is a high impact striker whose chops and kicks are mythic in their stiffness. Tenryu dominates this one from start to finish, weathering Gagne’s chain wrestling and attempts at submissions and leveling him again and again with elbow strikes and chops that echo off the ceiling of the Civic Center. A powerbomb and then a brutal DDT get Tenryu a pair of incredibly close near-falls, but Gagne manages to kick out each time and keep fighting.
Things turn around toward the end when Verne finally abandons the mat game and starts fighting fire with fire. Verne escapes a brainbuster attempt and rattles Tenryu with a trio of suplexes — a belly-to-back, a belly-to-belly, and finally a released German that gets Verne his first two-count of the bout. Tenryu takes control again after reversing a whip to the ropes and Verne catches a diving back elbow in the face. But Tenryu misses a lariat, and Verne comes back with a dropkick to the gut that doubles Tenryu over long enough for Verne to jump on top and hit a sick looking jumping piledriver. That’s good enough for the three.
(Verne Gagne over Genichiro Tenryu, piledriver —> pinfall)
And Minnesota’s 2 for 2, how ‘bout that? The fans here in St. Paul will have to use other criteria to choose who they cheer for with this next one, though, ‘cause neither guy’s from anywhere near the twin cities.
Round One Match:
Eddie Guerrero vs. Antonio Inoki
Eddie is one of the most outstanding workers of his generation, a champion in AAA, ECW, WCW, New Japan, and the WWF/WWE, where he is a former Intercontinental, European, United States, and Tag Team Champion, as well as a former WWE Champion. Antonio Inoki is the founder of New Japan Pro Wrestling, where he is a former IWGP Heavyweight Champion, WWF World Martial Arts Heavyweight Champion, and NWA North American Tag Team Champion. Inoki also faced Muhammad Ali in a boxer vs. wrestler match that ended in a draw, and holds pinfall victories over both Ric Flair and Bob Backlund, which seems especially relevant for tonight.
Inoki has a decent size advantage, and is effective as both a grappler and a striker, so Eddie keeps his distance to start, nailing a few arm-drags and hip-tosses but not sticking around to press his luck. Eddie misses a dropkick, allowing Inoki to take control. Inoki works the arm, going for a submission with a cross armbreaker that Eddie just barely escapes by making the ropes. Eddie reverses a German suplex attempt into a victory roll that gets a two-count, then counters a lariat attempt with a drop toe-hold that leads to Eddie keeping Inoki grounded and taking control of the match.
Despite pulling out all the stops, Eddie can’t keep Inoki down for the three. He nails a tornado DDT, a brainbuster, and his trademark triple vertical suplex, but can only manage a two-count on each one. Inoki reverses a whip to send Eddie into the corner, then charges in after him. Eddie dodges, flipping over the top rope so that Inoki crashes chest-first into the turnbuckles. Eddie pulls Inoki up to the top turnbuckle and dives over him, bringing him down with a sunset flip powerbomb into a prawn hold that gets about as close to a three-count as you can get before Inoki gets a shoulder up. Inoki rallies and scores big with punches, chops, and an enzuigiri that gets a two-count, but Eddie takes over again before Inoki can put him away. A Gory special puts Inoki down, and Eddie heads to the top. Inoki gets to his feet in time to prevent the frog splash that was no doubt coming. Eddie tries a flying crossbody, but Inoki catches him and takes him over with a fallaway slam! Inoki bridges for the pin, and gets the fall.
(Antonio Inoki over Eddie Guerrero, bridging fallaway slam —> pinfall)
The crowd was pretty into that one, but you could just tell they missed having a hometown boy to cheer for. Lucky for them, there’s still one Minnesota wrestling legend yet to come.
Round One Match:
“Superfly” Jimmy Snuka vs. Bob Backlund
Born in Princeton, Minnesota, Backlund cut his teeth in the AWA before moving on to the NWA and eventually the WWF, where he is a two-time WWF Champion. His first reign as WWF Champion lasted nearly six years, making it the second-longest single WWF Title reign, behind only Bruno Sammartino’s first run with the belt. Jimmy Snuka is a trailblazing high-flyer, one of the first major stars to incorporate aerial maneuvers into his moveset. He’s a former NWA United States and Tag Team Champion, a winner of All Japan’s World’s Strongest Tag Team League, the first ever ECW Heavyweight Champion, and — in something near and dear to my heart — a former Heavyweight Champion of the NWL, the promotion headquartered in my hometown of Hagerstown, Maryland (what up, John Rambo!). Backlund and Snuka know each other very well, having feuded extensively during Backlund’s first WWF Title reign. Their feud culminated in one of the better steel cage matches of the era and featured Snuka attempting (and missing) a flying splash from the top of the cage.
These old rivals keep things clean for the first few minutes, tying up and trading holds, with Backlund and his superior technical acumen winding up in control. After Backlund gets a near-fall from an Oklahoma roll, Snuka decides the hell with mat wrestling and lays Backlund raw with a series of knife-edge chops. Snuka sends Backlund over the top with a beautiful dropkick to the jaw, then goes after him with a flying crossbody from the top turnbuckle to the floor. Snuka works Backlund over with chops and a suplex on the floor, then rolls him back in for a two-count.
Sensing victory, Snuka goes back to the top and nails Backlund with a diving headbutt, but incredibly it only gets a two-count. Undaunted, Snuka plants Backlund with a piledriver. Again, only a two-count results, as Backlund is able to get a foot on the bottom rope before the three. Snuka goes for the superfly splash, but Backlund gets his knees up. Backlund pulls himself up in the corner and Snuka, stunned and furious from the botched splash, charges. Backlund steps aside, grabs Snuka from behind and hits a high German suplex. Backlund hangs on and rolls through, trapping both of Snuka’s legs, and bridges back for the pin. Ref counts one, two, three!
(Bob Backlund over Jimmy Snuka, German suplex into bridging cradle —> pinfall)
So all three Minnesota boys advance to the semi-finals! The crowd is digging that. Before we move on to the second round, we are treated to an appearance by another alumnus of the AWA, the one and only “Mean” Gene Okerlund! And he’s in the ring to introduce yet another legend who got his first taste of immortality in Minnesota — the man who will face “Stone Cold” Steve Austin in three weeks at Madison Square Garden — Hulk Hogan!
The Hulkster comes out to “Real American” and launches into a standard “You know somethin’, ‘Mean’ Gene” interview. You can probably fill in the details yourselves — “24-inch pythons”, “all my Hulkamaniacs”, “this is where the power lies”, etc. But then — what’s this — before you can say “Whatcha gonna do?” the glass breaks and out stomps none other than “Stone Cold” Steve Austin! (Hey, the match is in three weeks — the hard sell is a must here.) Austin tells Okerlund to get lost, then grabs the mic himself and goes off on Hogan. He runs down his career in WCW, his TV, U.S., and Tag Team Championships, his matches with Ricky Steamboat and Dustin Rhodes, and then how things suddenly went downhill for him after Hogan showed up in ’94. He calls Hogan “chickenshit” and accuses Hogan of ducking him during his first reign as WCW World Heavyweight Champion. “You wrestled Ric Flair, you wrestled The Giant, you wrestled Lex Luger — but you never wrestled Steve Austin, because you knew there was only one way it could end: Steve Austin stompin’ a mudhole in your orange ass, walkin’ it dry, and leaving that ring as the World — Heavyweight — Champion!”
It’s quite a promo. Unfortunately, the Hulkster is from circa 1988 and has no idea who Austin is or what the hell he’s talking about. That’s okay, though. Austin generously volunteers to introduce himself, and — kick to Hogan’s gut — Stunner! Hogan is left down in the ring, and Austin marches back up the aisle, cussing and talking shit all the way.
Referees and backstage officials help Hogan to the back, thus clearing the way for . . .
Round Two Match:
“Nature Boy” Ric Flair vs. Verne Gagne
It’s a Minnesota dream match! They actually shake hands before tying up, which draws a big pop from the fans. The live crowd is pretty evenly divided for this one, with alternating (and sometimes competing) chants of “FLAIR! FLAIR! FLAIR!” and “GAGNE! GAGNE!”
Verne takes Flair to the mat and dominates, outwrestling the very capable Nature Boy and tying him all in knots with a dizzying array of takedowns and reversals. A half-nelson cradle gets Verne a two-count, and Flair kicks out and pokes Verne in the eye. He draws a warning from the ref, but takes control of the match from there on. Flair works the leg, punishing Gagne with knee-breakers, shin-breakers, and seated sentons to the knee. Gagne is able to briefly reverse a spinning toe-hold into an STF, but Flair makes the ropes, then throws Gagne into the corner and unloads with a flurry of vicious knife-edge chops. Flair leads Gagne out of the corner, takes him over with a double-underhook suplex, and gets a two-count.
Things look up for Verne after Flair misses a knee-drop from the second rope. Verne works the back with a back body-drop, a side backbreaker, and finally a Samoan drop that gets a two-count. Verne locks on a Boston crab, but Flair guts it out and refuses to submit. Flair eventually is able to roll over and pull Verne in for another eye-poke. With Verne staggered, Flair topples him with a chop block to the worked-over knee, then slaps on the figure four. Verne hangs in there, but he’s in the middle of the ring where he can’t reach the ropes. Verne reverses, but Flair hangs on and reverses back. Finally, Verne has no choice but to submit. Flair actually wins one with the figure four!
(Ric Flair over Verne Gagne, figure four leglock —> submission)
One Minnesota boy advances to the last round. Is an all-gopher final too much to hope for?
Round Two Match:
Antonio Inoki vs. Bob Backlund
Like Snuka, Backlund has a history with Inoki, as it was Inoki who dealt Backlund his only pinfall loss during his first WWF Championship reign. Inoki won the title in Japan, then subsequently lost to Backlund in a rematch. The rematch result was annulled due to outside interference, but Inoki refused to accept the championship. Backlund returned to the U.S. following his Japanese tour and was billed at the WWF Champion from then until losing to the Iron Sheik in 1984. The WWF never acknowledged the loss to Inoki.
Inoki and Backlund both seem determined to win this, their rubber match of a sort. Backlund starts out by shooting the leg and going to the mat, but Inoki escapes and takes over with punches and kicks, driving Backlund from the ring repeatedly to escape the barrage of strikes. Inoki follows Backlund out finally, which proves to be a mistake, as Backlund dodges a punch and belly-to-back suplexes Inoki on the floor.
Gradually, Backlund begins fighting fire with fire, responding to Inoki’s chops and kicks with knees and forearms. Backlund misses a flying knee drop from the tope rope, which nearly costs him the match, as Inoki goes right after the knee, locking Backlund in an STF. Backlund is able to escape and clamp on a submission hold of his own — the Crossface chickenwing. Inoki likewise resists the pain and escapes the hold, but Backlund comes back immediately with a double chickenwing, which leads to a bridging tiger suplex, which is enough to get Backlund the three-count and a ticket to the group final.
(Bob Backlund over Antonio Inoki, tiger suplex —> pinfall)
While we take a brief intermission from in-ring action to allow Flair and Backlund (and especially Backlund) to rest up for the final, Rod Trongard and Larry Zbyszko announce two more special attraction matches for the two-night tournament finale in New York. In addition to the Vince McMahon Bracket, which will crown the first-ever Wrestling Legends Invitational Champion, and the previously announced Hogan vs. Austin and Sammartino vs. Goldberg bouts, we’ll also see . . .
On Night One: The Steiner Brothers vs. Holy Demon Army (Toshiaki Kawada & Akira Taue), and Riki Choshu vs. Sting.
And on Night Two: Dynamite Kid vs. Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat, and — in a match just booked following tonight’s results — New Japan Pro Wrestling founder Antonio Inoki vs. the first-ever All Japan Triple Crown Champion, Jumbo Tsuruta.
Whew! The tournament finale shows are looking can’t-miss already, and there will be yet more special attraction matches announced during Group Seven action next week.
Group Six Final Match:
“Nature Boy” Ric Flair vs. Bob Backlund
If you were hoping for an all-Minnesotan group final, you can’t get much better than this. Of note: Backlund’s knee, thoroughly worked over by Inoki, is tightly wrapped beneath the pad. Think Flair will notice?
The bell rings, they circle, Flair teases a tie-up and then goes right for the bad knee. Backlund backs out in time, but it’s obvious Flair smells blood in the water already. Backlund holds Flair at bay for a few minutes, leading with his good leg, tying Flair up with a hammerlock, then a front facelock. Flair fights his way up, and Backlund takes him over with a snap mare. Backlund off the ropes, Flair takes him down with a drop toe-hold and jumps all over the bad knee.
Flair attacks Backlund’s leg with surgical precision. He uses knee-breakers and shin-breakers, wrenches the knee, kicks the knee, pulls Backlund to his feet and takes him over with dragon screw leg-whips again and again. By the time Backlund is able to reverse a whip into the corner and clothesline Flair to the floor following the flip, he can barely stand. Flair comes back in with a sunset flip attempt, but Backlund sits down and hooks both legs, getting a long two-count. Backlund scores with a shoulderblock, and repeated forearms, and rolls Flair into a small package for another two-count. Flair kicks out, dodges a right hand from Backlund and kicks the bad leg out from under him, seizing back the momentum just like that.
Flair unwraps the bandage from Backlund’s bad leg, then demands that the referee check with the timekeeper for the match time — which, Rod Trongard reminds us, is his right. With the ref distracted, Flair starts choking Backlund out. Backlund gets to his knees and snap mares Flair over, however, then gets to his feet as a furious Flair charges, and clotheslines Flair with the bandage! Backlund bounces off the ropes and drops his good knee across Flair’s skull. He covers! The ref comes back in time to count one — two — Flair kicks out! Backlund’s really gutting this one out — his injured leg is virtually useless at this point.
It’s a brave performance, but it winds up just not being enough. Backlund whips Flair into the corner, and another Flair flip sends Flair running to the top turnbuckle. Backlund goes for the slam off the top, but his bad knee buckles and Flair falls across him for the pin. Hooking the bad leg, Flair gets the three-count to win Group Six.
(Ric Flair over Bob Backlund, reversed slam attempt —> pinfall)
So our final group now consists of The Rock, Ed “Strangler” Lewis, Shawn Michaels, Lou Thesz, Mitsuharu Misawa, and Ric Flair. Next week we’ll be live at the Stampede Corral in Calgary, Alberta, Canada for Group Seven: The Stu Hart Bracket. Calling all the action from ringside will be our hosts, Ed Whalen and Bad News Allen.
Only two spots in the final group are left! Competition for one of them will begin next week with the following Round One Matches:
Terry Funk vs. Kenta Kobashi
Christopher Daniels vs. El Santo
Andre the Giant vs. Chris Jericho
Jushin “Thunder” Liger vs. Dusty Rhodes
That’ll be a good’n. See you right here for the recap, including more announced matches for the two-night tournament finale, next Thursday!
Last Week: Group Five: The Jim Crockett Bracket
November 26: Group Four: The Shohei Baba Bracket
November 20: Group Three: The Salvador Lutteroth Bracket
November 12: Group Two: The Jerry Jarrett Bracket
November 5: Group One: The Sam Muchnick Bracket