Pro wrestling fandom is my cross (and occasionally Ashley’s) to bear, not yours, but just bear with me. This is going somewhere.
In the early 1980s there were three major wrestling promotions in the United States. Each had enjoyed regional success for decades, and now each was covetously eyeing the new frontiers of cable television and national syndication, and looking for ways to expand business outside of their traditional back yards. There was the World Wrestling Federation in the Northeast; the National Wrestling Alliance’s premiere territory Jim Crockett Promotions in the Southeast; and the American Wrestling Association, in Minnesota.
Today, even non-wrestling fans are familiar with the World Wrestling Federation, today the WWE, currently the only American pro wrestling company to regularly promote shows nationwide. Though it no longer exists, Jim Crockett Promotions eventually became nationally known as World Championship Wrestling (WCW), after it was purchased by Ted Turner and given plum primetime exposure on Turner’s TNT and TBS cable channels. The one that most non-fans have probably never heard of, or heard of only in passing references, is the American Wrestling Association. That’s because the AWA went out of business in 1991, to the notice of virtually no one. By 1991, that fate was pretty much unavoidable; Vince McMahon’s WWF had staked out such a large claim on syndication, cable, and pay-per-view, not to mention live shows, that for a time there was barely enough left over for WCW, nevermind the poorer, smaller, Minneapolis-based AWA. But it wasn’t always that way.
The owner and head booker of the AWA was Verne Gagne, who in his day had been one of the best technical wrestlers in the world. In his prime, the guy could wrestle 90-minute draws with Lou Thesz. Imagine a 90-minute pro wrestling match today — with no falls. By 1982, Verne was 56 years old and well past his prime. After finally retiring to a mostly behind-the-scenes role, Verne put the AWA’s World Heavyweight Title on his friend and old in-ring rival, Nick Bockwinkle. By this time, Bockwinkle was getting pretty long in the tooth himself. Never an especially dynamic performer even in his youth, Bockwinkle’s matches as champion were long, slow moving technical exhibitions. Lots of takedowns, reversals, and rest-holds like headlocks and armbars. Fans of the AWA were accustomed to this more technical, cerebral product, so most of them didn’t mind Bockwinkle as champion. Watching the AWA back then was like watching wrestling at the Olympics, if the wrestlers wore less, were about twenty years older, and the matches each lasted half an hour. But this wasn’t the sort of thing the rest of the country was interesting in seeing.
Luckily for Verne, the AWA happened to have that, too. A young wrestler named Hulk Hogan had come to the AWA after a falling-out with his boss at the WWF over his role in Rocky III. Hogan was a big brute with long blonde hair, charismatic but without much technical ability. He was booked as a heel, and Verne obviously never had any intention of letting him near the top of the card. Then lightning struck. Rocky III opened successfully in theaters, and Hogan’s brief role as arrogant wrestler Thunderlips, who nearly defeats Rocky Balboa in a charity match in the film’s opening scenes, catapulted him to superstardom. Fans at AWA events cheered Hogan so insistently that Verne was obliged to turn the guy babyface. It soon became obvious that the only match AWA fans wanted to see was Hulk Hogan vs. Nick Bockwinkle for the AWA World Heavyweight Title.
Verne was smart enough to give them the match, but too stubborn to give them the finish they all wanted. He had no choice but to acknowledge Hogan’s popularity, but was too tied to his traditional view of the business to pull the trigger and make Hogan the top man in the company. Twice, Verne teased Hogan pinning Bockwinkle for the title, only to reverse the decisions and return the championship to Bockwinkle. The second time Verne pulled that trick, at a card dubbed Super Sunday, held in St. Paul in 1983, the crowd nearly rioted. Bockwinkle and his manager, Bobby Heenan, were obliged to flee the scene, and Hogan was asked to speak to the crowd over the public address system in order to maintain order.
Hogan never won the AWA World Heavyweight Title. A few months after the fiasco at Super Sunday, he returned to the WWF, now owned by Vince McMahon Jr., the son of the promotion’s founder and a man eager to move away from the sort of traditions Verne Gagne was struggling to preserve. McMahon booked Hogan to win the WWF Heavyweight Championship before the ink on his contract had had time to dry, and proceeded to ride that fucking horse for the remainder of the 1980s, redefining pro wrestling (for the worse, many would argue) and making millions and millions of dollars for himself and Hogan in the process.
Meanwhile, Verne Gagne had gotten the message too late. He tried putting his World Title on guys like Rick Martel or Curt Hennig, who were younger and more exciting performers, but who still possessed solid skills as technical wrestlers, but all elevating them did was encourage McMahon to steal them for his own use in the WWF. Verne found some national TV exposure with a weekly show on ESPN, but by the mid-80s all of his stars were gone, most to the WWF, a few to Crockett/WCW. The ESPN show went off the air in 1990, and when the current reigning AWA World Champion, Larry Zbyszko, jumped ship to WCW in 1991, that was all she wrote. The AWA’s roots, as an independent territory, then as a member of the NWA, then as the independent AWA under Verne Gagne, stretched back to 1933. Less than ten years after failing to give the people what they wanted to put Hulk Hogan over the top, it was out of business.
Failure to strike while the iron is hot. That’s what I’m getting at, I guess, in a long-winded, self-indulgent sort of way. I’m sure most of the men and women working for the Democratic Party leadership know little of the death of the AWA, but they should learn its lesson well, especially those who count themselves in the murky, much-whispered-over category of super delegates. Hillary Clinton is Nick Bockwinkle, guys. Yes, she’s familiar, she’s “so smart,” she’s the easy and obvious choice. She’s also the wrong choice, not merely for this country, but for this moment.
She’s tired, she’s old, she’s had the belt too long. Much as it pains me to make the comparison, Barack Obama is like Hogan in 1982 (sorry, Barack). He’s big, he’s charismatic, he’s exciting. He puts the asses in the seats, and out to the polls. He’s untested, as Hillary’s campaign reminds us incessantly. Nominating him would be taking a chance. Fine, then it’s a chance the party has to take. If it wants to win, if it wants to survive, it has to take the chance on Obama. It has to pull the trigger. The people look like they get it, for their part. The tide seems to finally have turned in Obama’s direction. The only question that remains is whether or not the super delegates, who are not bound by the primary results, will follow suit.
If they don’t want their party to wind up like the AWA, they will. If not, I’m sure John McCain will have kind thoughts for them as he takes the oath of office. And somewhere, old Verne Gagne can shake his head and smile. This time, he’ll have seen it all coming.