by Bill M. Walkowitz
Growing up in Chicago, we had (before Crockett, McMahon, etc.) Bob Luce's Chicago Championship Wrestling (which I'll detail at another time) and the American Wrestling Association. Long before their regular tapings at casinos in Vegas, there was that dinky, tiny TV studio. Verne Gagne and Wally Karbo made that TV studio into one of the best places for mat action anywhere. The following is a spotlight on the AWA, and what made it unique and my all-time favorite wrestling promotion.
JIMMY DOO & JAKE MILLIMAN: You knew that every time these two went to the ring, either in singles or as a tag team, they had a snowball's chance in hell of winning. But the WWF had Barry Horowitz and Crockett had the Mulkeys, so we had these two. It was always fun watching the "Milkman" try and make that comeback, get two good moves in, and always lean his head down to have his comeback squashed. I don't know which was better, watching their attempted comebacks or the facial expressions on their opponents when they got the two moves put on them.
GREG GAGNE: They say he worked hard even though he was the owner's son, but seeing him in Sgt. Slaughter's "Camp Slaughter" didn't do much for me. He was good with Jim Brunzell as the High Fliers but didn't really have the size to hold the International TV Title, and his "skip, skip, skip to my loo" across the ring when he made saves made for good laughs.
PATERA AND BLACKWELL: Indeed one of the best teams anywhere. Before Bigelow, there was Blackwell doing dropkicks and actual wrestling holds. Patera had the build and talent to make this a formidable team. I had wished Verne had pitted Animal and Hawk against them for the tag straps rather than give them to Von Rashke and Crusher; a more solid match would've been the result.
THE CRUSHER: Call me nostalgic (and what better place than WT&N to be just that, eh?), but Crusher's interviews always hooked me. When I was younger and didn't know better, I loved one of his interviews, his classic, "We're gonna murder the bums and then go up and down Halsted Street and throw people out of the bars and taverns." I called my friend Denny who lived on Halsted Street and told him I couldn't come over that weekend because the Crusher was coming, and bringing the Bruiser with him. Denny wasn't a wrestling fan, so unlike myself, he didn't buy it. But those interviews to me were what made this area so great. If Verne wanted a sellout in Chicago, just put Bruiser and Crusher on the card and the house went up every time.
WALLY KARBO: Had to hand it to him, he wanted to fine every heel who did a dastardly deed "throughout the world" on TV. Probably the funniest figurehead ever; tons better than Jack Tunney.
AL KASSIE: The Indian turned Iranian, one had to wonder what was it about AWA wrestling that he always had to be reinstated and work there (besides the fact he probably couldn't get booked anywhere else). Brody's "I work for the Sheik, and the Sheik pays me alotta money" interviews made it entertaining (especially when on Saturday nights on WCCW you'd see Brody working as a face, so you got both sides of the fence when watching him on TV). Kaissie had some of the best known heels in the business though: Abby, Mongolian Stomper, Blackwell, Kimala (for a short time) and more. He was no Bobby Heenan mind you, but then again, those shoes would always be hard to fill.
Besides the humorous individuals, the AWA also had great talent. Bobby Heenan's family had Bockwinkle, Duncum, Lanza, Mulligan, and more. The REAL Steve Regal had a feud with Buck Zumholfe that was about as long as Tommy Rich/Buzz Sawyer over that lightheavyweight title. Brody, Hansen, L.O.D., Freebirds, Wahoo, Curt Henning, Billy Robinson, and oh yeah, a steroid nut named Terry Bollea all appeared. As years went on and most left, we got other classic stuff. Buddy Rose's "217 pound" weight angle, Tommy Rich ripping off Sherri Martel's dress, Dick Slater, Tully Blanchard (both in for a short time), Adonis and Orton after Vince finished them up, as well as Manny Fernandez continuing his war with Wahoo.
From 1980 to 1983 the AWA ranked as one of the best companies in wrestling, and with a talent base like that, it's hard to argue any differently. Shortly after, Bishoff got some power and Verne didn't change when it came to promoting or payoffs, and things got bad. While we did have Zybysko and Lawler as champs, we had the Destruction Crew, Patera and Brad Rheinghans, Johnny Stewart, Derrick Dukes, as well as failed attempts to recapture that magic. The AWA started to descend to a space next to the Titanic.
Many may make wisecracks about the AWA and how they were back then, but unlike other groups going today, they didn't need to rely on constant chairshots, two dozen precut tables, excessive blading, and swear words. They had the talent to make the product work. If someone wanted solid wrestling, the AWA came through. It was done the way it was supposed to be done, by promoting the local card coming to town and running angles that meant something to those paying fans. People should get old tapes of the AWA where less made more.