Rewriting the Book: What If…Hulk Hogan Never Left the AWA, Part V
Saturday, December 1987
While scalpers outside debated the worth of being outside MSG in New York weather in late December, the people inside were busy peeling off layers as the frenetic energy inside creating a warm, inviting atmosphere.
TV cameras, spotlights, anticipation and 18,000+ fans tend to have that effect.
The Dark Match of “Flyin’” Brian Pillman VS Bad News Allen had done its job of hyping the evening. The match itself was full of top leap missile kicks, judo chops to throats and crowd-participation when Bad News got into a verbal spat with a female patron who turned out to be Pillman’s girlfriend.
To jeers, Allen won the match when the momentum of Brian’s flying bodycross off the top rope propelled Allen over and back on top of Pillman. After the match was over, Allen went outside to taunt the girlfriend and Brian dropkicked him from behind, sending him down the aisle, where Allen scurried to the back. Pillman and his lady kissed and the crowd went nuts.
While people rushed back from concessions and bathrooms, the house lights suddenly went from high beams to low, then a spotlight shone in the center of the ring. The TV cameras panned the audience, showing people screaming, kids holding up signs or official merchandise of their favorite wrestlers. The employees at the little tables that had been set-up all along the entryway aisles couldn’t take money and pass out T-shirts fast enough.
When this night went out over the airwaves on TBS and USA, the opening credits that showcased fast-moving clips of the wrestlers in action would be accompanied by its usual instrumental version of “Mony, Mony”, a Tommy James tune that had recently been brought back into the public consciousness by a Billy Idol cover.
What did it have to do with wrestling? Nothing. But it got people on their feet. It was popular and that was enough. That was more than enough.
But in the arena, as a cruel rib to a man and promotion thousands of miles away, Starship’s “We Built This City” was blaring through the speakers.
Tony Schiavone stood in the ring as Jim Ross & Jesse “The Body” Ventura sat at a table outside the ring, calling the action.
When the music died down, Tony spoke:
“Ladies and Gentlemen, Welcome to the NWA’s World Class Championship Wrestling…”
The crowd erupted.
“Welcome to New York City…”
Another round of cheers.
“Welcome to Madison Square Garden!”
To the (eventual) viewers at home, Jesse & Jim Ross began their rhetoric:
“Like the man said, welcome to Saturday Night’s Main Event here at Madison Square Garden. I’m Jesse Ventura, along with, as always and unfortunately, Jim Ross.”
“Unfortunately?” JR responded. “Well, unfortunately, I don’t have the time or inclination tonight for your jabs or pokes”—
“That’s what your mother said,” Jesse joked.
“I don’t think that’ll make it on the air,” Ross answered and they both laughed.
Ross continued: “Here in this packed house tonight, our 1st match is going to pit two men with very different styles against one another.”
Jesse: “If you call head-butting a style.”
JR: “I do. I most certainly do. Not all men who enter the ring are your Karl Gotch’s or Lou Thesz’s.”
Jesse: “I tried saying that last word fast 3 times and now I can’t pronounce my Q’s.”
JR: “I don’t know what that means, but –
The Su-Su-Superfly’s Theme Music hit and he made his way to ringside as Tony provided the introduction.
JR: “But I do know what that means. It means Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka is here and it’s time to get down to business.”
Jesse: “Wake me after the 1st headbutt.”
Jesse propped his feet up on the table, showcasing his leather boots.
Jimmy lurched forward down the aisle to a chorus of boos.
JR: “That’s quite the smell you’re bringing to ringside. Now I know why they call you, “The Body.”
Jesse: “Hey, be careful, you’re talking about real alligator hide, there.”
JR: “Yeah, I’ll be sure to ask Ric Flair how much they cost later tonight.”
Jesse: “I didn’t buy those, JR. I took ‘em off an alligator.”
JR: “Oh, yeah? Where’d that happen?”
Jesse: “3 blocks down. I don’t know why they had your mom all tied up at that bar like that, but it made for easy pickin’.”
JR: “All right! Now, I’ve had just about enough –”
Superfly leaped over the top ring and snarled at the crowd as Jesse interrupted.
Jesse: “I’ve had about enough of this crowd, too, JR. I don’t know what their problem is with The Superfly!”
JR: “Well, how about his all his rule-breaking to start with?”
Jesse: “It’s only a broken rule if the ref sees it. Otherwise it’s legal. Am I right?”
JR: “No, it’s not—
Jesse: “That was a rhetorical question, JR.”
Suddenly, “Grab Them Cakes” played and the crowd roared back to its feet, cheering.
JYD, the Junkyard Dog, ambled down the aisle, chain in hand, collar around neck.
He stood on the apron and started dancing.
JR: “The fans love JYD!”
Jesse: “I hope he loses so I don’t have to see him bring a bunch of rug rats into the ring and stink up the joint with what they wish was rhythm.”
As JYD stepped through the ropes, Snuka lunged at him and soon, Jesse’s prediction became true as the two men bashed their heads against one another with neither man falling.
After exchanging right hands, more head-butts and a shoulder block where no one went down, they locked up, with JYD backing Superfly into a corner. JYD tried for a clean break, but Jimmy poked him in the eyes as the Dog stepped back.
Jesse: “Ahh! An old favorite move of mine! Works every time!”
A few minutes later, the men spilled out onto the floor, resulting – eventually – to a double count-out.
Next up, Tag-Team Champions the British Bulldogs faced off against the Rock ‘N Roll Express in a relatively rare face vs face match.
Both teams were crowd favorites and this match had been decided by a brand new concept, where fans could (for a fee) call a 900 number and vote who the Bulldogs would defend their titles against. To the surprise of some of the old-timers backstage (and to the credit of both teams) the fans loved the match and cheered for both teams equally.
After a hard-fought, fast-paced battle that ebbed and flowed in each team’s direction, the British Bulldogs pulled off the win when Ricky Morton fell to Dynamite’s flying head-butt after having already been power-slammed by Davey Boy Smith.
The two teams exchanged hand-shakes after the bout.
Much to the crowd’s happy surprise, it looked like “Rowdy” Roddy Piper was about to submit to Lex Luger’s Torture Rack in their bout, when suddenly, Ric Flair (dressed in a suit and guest referee for the Championship Match later that night) rushed the ring and proceeded to kick the ever-loving-crap out of Lex’s midsection.
It was Piper (after recovering) who pulled Ric off Luger. Then Roddy grabbed the microphone:
Piper: “I don’t know what you’re doing here, Flair, but let me tell you something: The Hot Rod doesn’t need help from anybody.” Flair grabbed the mic.
“I didn’t do it for you, drag queen. Whooo!” Flair exclaimed, pointing to Piper’s kilt outside the ring. “I did it because Lex cost me my title and I wanted to humiliate him on national television.”
Luger grabbed the microphone, just as Tony Schiavone announced from outside the ring: “Ladies & Gentleman, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper has been disqualified due to the interference of Ric Flair. Your winner: Lex, the “Total Package”, Luger!”
The crowd applauded.
Lex: “Thanks, Flair.”
Flair lost it, yanking his tie loose and brawling with Luger. As they hit the canvas, Piper shook his head and began attacking both men.
Referees, other officials & other wrestlers rushed out and eventually separated the three of them.
The next match (The Fabulous Freebirds vs The Iron Sheik & Nikolai Volkoff) began when those four men – already in the ring, assisting in breaking up Flair, Luger & Piper – couldn’t resist starting their match a little early.
Once Flair, Luger & Piper were outside the ring, the bell rang and everyone else just cleared out.
The Freebirds picked up the win when the retired “Classy” Freddie Blassie made a surprise appearance to help his former clients, tossing The Iron Sheik his walking cane while Volkoff distracted the referee. Unfortunately for them, Terry “Bam Bam” Gordy intercepted the cane, crashed it down over Sheik’s head and Michael P.S. Hayes covered the pointy-toed foreigner for the deuce.
Nikita Koloff fought an uphill battle against King Kong Bundy in the following match. Nikita had been a fan-favorite for about 6 months, having “defected” from Russian Communist Thinking and declaring his love for the United States.
Unfortunately, Nikita’s patriotism couldn’t keep him from a corner splash from the Walking Condominium and a big elbow.
In a final move that ensured the continuance of their feud, Bundy demanded the referee count to TEN for the pin, instead of his usual insult of five. Then he yelled angrily to the crowd that Nikita was “Nothing. No kinda competition!”
Next, Randy & Lanny Savage (who were now going by the tag-team name, “Savages”) and Kerry & Kevin Von Erich put on a high-flying, technical clinic in their match against each other. The psychology of the match was beautiful as the fan-favorite Von Erich’s played it straight as an arrow until Randy slammed a chair over Kerry’s head to prevent what would have been a three-count on his brother.
The Savages were disqualified, of course, but soon, the four men were throwing wild punches, brawling to the floor.
Kevin grabbed the bell and nailed Lanny with it and then, blood was everywhere.
It took interference from Fritz Von Erich sitting ringside and a dozen referees to bring peace. The fans were frenzied. It was a crowd-pleaser.
Backstage, Greg “The Hammer” Valentine (Intercontinental Champion) grumbled to Tito that it wouldn’t be easy to follow that match. Tito agreed and when they went out, they played to their strengths with a slower-paced match filled with submission holds. In the end, a stunned audience (in the arena and certainly on television next week) saw Tito rally back from certain-defeat to win the title with a surprise small package.
Tito’s thrill of victory was short-lived however, as Greg grabbed a chair from under the ring and drilled it into Tito’s leg, then applied his signature figure-four leg lock. It took Tony Schiavone announcing to Greg (and the crowd) that he’d just been informed that if Greg didn’t break the hold, The “President of WCCW” – Nick Bockwinkel – would fine him $25,000.
Reluctantly, The Hammer released Tito and left the ring, belt hanging off his shoulder.
Tiger Mask II and The Great Muta put electricity in the air during a 15-minute match that saw more high-spots and near-falls than anyone had ever seen.
It came to a funny end when The Great Muta’s foot got caught in the ropes as he tried to re-enter the ring by leaping from the middle of a top rope and he slipped. In an instant, he was hanging from that tied-up foot, technically OUTSIDE the ring. When the referee was unable to free him and The Great Muta could not free himself, the ref felt he had no choice but to count him out, giving Tiger Mask II the odd, but official, win.
A quick Battle Royal followed as Andre the Giant made easy work out of everyone else in the ring. Only the One Man Gang put up any real defense against The Giant’s power, which was supposed to start a feud between them, as after OMG was eliminated, he complained loudly to Jesse Ventura that he’d been cheated out of a win. Jesse agreed of course, though there was no evidence of any shenanigans.
The Final Match of the Night pitted Heavyweight Champion Sting against Terry Funk, who was managed and led to the ring by former champion Harley Race.
Harley had retired as NWA-WCCW Champion only two years ago, but his love of the business brought him back in a different capacity in short order. In being a manager, he had the best of both worlds: He could still be backstage with the boys, still step into the spotlight and still, occasionally, get involved in matches.
He’d retired as a beloved figure but was now crazy Terry Funk’s manager because nearly 6 months ago at The Great American Bash PPV, there was a segment when a bunch of old-timer, previous Champions were brought out in a ceremony celebrating their contributions to the business.
Harley was introduced and hit the ring last and near the end of his short speech, Sting’s theme music began playing. The crowd cheered and Sting entered the ring, simply wanting to shake Harley’s hand, congratulate him and thank him for what he’s meant to the business. But Harley didn’t consider the interruption respectful. After Sting tried to explain that this was just a misunderstanding and held out his hand in friendship, Harley slapped him.
Soon, other current Superstars hit the ring and it was bedlam with the older, former champions taking sides, too. Funk showed which side he was on by way of piledriving Sting on the concrete floor outside the ring during the melee.
Flair then put a nearly-unconscious Sting in his figure-four leg lock just to add insult to injury. Three weeks ago on Saturday Night’s Main Event, Flair had wined, dined and presumably bribed, President Nick Bockwinkel during a taped segment so he could have the pleasure of refereeing Sting & Funk’s Title Match.
Tonight, after unmitigated interference from Harley Race on behalf of Funk that Flair not only allowed, but vocally-encouraged, Funk still couldn’t get the job done.
And when Funk piledrove Sting through the announcer’s table, dragged him back inside the ring for the pin, Flair counted fast and Sting STILL managed to kick out, Harley had a change of heart about the young, tan, neon-wearing, blonde-haired champion. In short order, Harley laid Funk out cold and threatened Flair with the same unless his hand hit that mat three times when Sting pinned Terry Funk. Flair nodded in agreement and Harley draped Sting’s lifeless body over Funk for the win.
The crowd was ecstatic, but when Sting awoke a few moments later, he wasn’t proud of how he’d won.
In the weeks to come, Nick Bockwinkel would announce that on February 6th, 1988, in Greensboro, North Carolina at the inaugural Starrcade, the Heavyweight Championship would be decided in a 4-way contest and it wouldn’t be by just one pin. Once you were pinned or submitted (there would be no disqualifications or count-outs), the remaining three men would battle for the belt, then the final two.
The Following Saturday, December 1987
At the AWA’s taping for their Superstars of Wrestling on ESPN at Madison Square Garden, Owen Hart jobbed to Verne Gagne’s son Greg for what seemed to Owen to be the millionth time in the opening Dark Match.
The Road Warriors pinned Tully Blanchard (partnered with Arn Anderson) only to have the win invalidated when Verne (still the owner of the AWA and on-screen President) disqualified them for having thrown Tully over the top rope earlier in the match (the referee had been temporarily knocked unconscious) thus robbing Animal and Hawk of their shot at the tag titles at Superclash in New Orleans the following March.
Wahoo McDaniel & Dick Murdock fought to a double count-out during the next match, while “Mean” Gene Okerlund and Lord Alfred Hayes provided ringside commentary.
Jim Cornette and his tennis racket helped his team The Midnight Express from losing their Tag-Team Belts to Barry Windham and Mike Rotunda, The US Express.
Jake “The Snake” Roberts DDT’d Ted Dibiase nearly out of existence in what would be remembered as a classic encounter. And though Jake was the heel, the AWA couldn’t deny The Snake’s fans and their chants for his finishing move, though they were trying.
Big John Studd and Kamala the Ugandan Giant VS The Steiner Brothers showcased the strengths of the Steiners and elevated them to Main Event Status, even though the match ended in a double-disqualification.
Hillbilly Jim was on his way out of the AWA and to another promotion and was powerbombed by Sid Vicious in record time to thank him for his loyalty to the company.
Television Champion Ricky Steamboat defeated Jerry Lawler in a non-title match. And though the crowd didn’t know it, what WAS on the line that night was Lawler’s livelihood. He hadn’t been providing his Memphis Promotion the attention it needed and attendance at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis, Tennessee during his long absence had been abysmal.
Lawler vowed to “retire” if Steamboat got the best of him this night and so he now had a few months back in Tennessee to get business booming again before making his comeback.
In a high-flying, fast-paced affair, the Midnight Rockers (Shawn Michaels & Marty Jannetty) suffered a Hart Attack – courtesy of Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart and Bret “Hitman” Hart, with their manager Jimmy “Mouth of the South” Hart yelling enthusiastically through his megaphone, pre, during and post-match.
Tony Schiavone stood back in the ring, holding the microphone.
Tony: “And now, it’s time for the Main Event!”
The crowd leaped to their feet.
Tony: “Coming to the ring…”
You couldn’t hear Schiavone due to all the boos as Bruiser Brody came through the curtain and stalked his way to the ring.
Suddenly, all the boos turned to cheers as Dusty Rhodes, The American Dream, the Original’s People’s Champion, the AWA Heavyweight Champion, walked slowly to the ring. But there was something missing in his step; intensity; soul; passion. Call it what you like, but the son of a plumber didn’t look happy.
And then, even though he wasn’t the champion, or even wrestling, Hulk Hogan’s familiar theme music “Real American” (previously used by the U.S. Express) hit and local seismologists checked their charts, then their calendars – which reminded them that Hogan was in town and there really wasn’t an earthquake hitting midtown Manhattan.
Hogan sauntered down the aisle wearing black boots, black pants and a white shirt with the arms torn off and a black cross on its front.
When the cheers had mostly subsided, Hogan checked each man for foreign objects, brought Dusty & Brody to the middle of the ring to tell them he wanted a good, clean bout and then sent them to separate corners until the bell rang.
When the bell did ring, it was an all-out brawl. The match went as planned, with Hogan not taking sides and not giving slow or fast counts. And the longer the fight lasted, the angrier each man grew…with each other and themselves.
Hogan had been promised the world by Verne Gagne (and turned down the universe from Vince McMahon, supposedly) and while he was rich and more popular than ever and shouldn’t complain, he asked himself what he was doing refereeing the main event of the night instead of wrestling in it.
Elsewhere in the ring, Dusty Rhodes was asking himself why he was champion but Hogan was making just as much as him on any given night (more if you counted merchandise sales) and not even having to wrestle.
And as Bruiser Brody lay in the middle of the ring at the end of the match, bleeding and defeated, he tried to tell himself that the AWA had given him a reason to justify his impending departure. The departure that even his wife didn’t know was coming.
Sure, Brody didn’t get along with most promoters because they were liars, cheats and thieves and many had given him plenty of reasons to leave in a huff, but Verne hadn’t. Verne did everything he said he’d do. And now, well – in a few months – Brody was going to just up and leave, without telling a soul.
On March 26th, 1988 at the Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana for the AWA’s 1st Annual WrestleWar, Brody was supposed to get the gold and keep it, long-term, as a heel. But Brody wouldn’t be in New Orleans that day. He’d be in Puerto Rico.
2:30 AM, 1982
For the first time, Hulk Hogan wished he was married so there’d be someone whose advice he could trust. Sure, he was engaged to Linda. But this was the kind of decision that could make a woman run from you in the other direction or stay with you for the wrong reasons.
His parents just wouldn’t be able to grasp the enormity of it all. He didn’t even know where to find his brother. Other wrestlers either wouldn’t believe him or would try and shoehorn their way in.
Finally, after an hour and a half of pacing in the lobby downstairs, Hogan went upstairs to his hotel room and woke Linda.
At first, she’d been worried that he was gone so long and hadn’t called, then she was mad, then just tired.
“Linda, wake up,” Hogan prodded his wife-to-be.
Over the next few hours, Hogan explained everything that was said, implied and left unspoken at his meeting with Vince. Then they talked about what they each wanted in their lives, where they wanted to live, how many kids they wanted, everything…because this decision would affect it all.
“Are you sure this is what you want, too?” Hogan asked Linda over breakfast that following morning.
“Yeah. And I think it’s what’s best,” Linda responded. Hogan nodded.
When they got home, Hogan called Verne and told him he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, but that he’d let him know as soon as he got back from Japan for the Summer Massacre ‘83 Tour. And he’d live up to all his responsibilities until then.
Hogan wondered about the cashier’s check that Vince McMahon said would be waiting for him when he got back. He wondered how much that signing bonus amounted to.
Three days before his return from Tokyo, Hulk placed a call, asking for Vince. The secretary told him McMahon was on a cruise, unreachable, but would be back the same day as Hogan.
“Do you have a cashier’s check there for me?”
“Yes,” the secretary responded.
“Send it to the following address, please,” Hogan said, giving her the information.
Immediately after he hung up with her, Hogan called Verne.
“Hogan, my boy. Are you coming home?” Verne asked.
“There’s a cashier’s check on its way to you from Vince McMahon,” Hogan responded.
“If I’m coming home, I’ll split the merchandise sales 50/50, but none of my Japan money and I want the company to pay for my insurance as long as I’m champion or in the main event and I want that in writing,” Hogan said calmly.
“Anything else?” Verne asked.
“Yes,” Hogan said. “I want a 30% pay increase, including the gates and I want twice the amount that’s on that cashier’s check.”
“Is that all?” Verne clarified.
“Yeah,” Hogan answered.
A long silence passed. Hogan wasn’t sure Verne was still on the line, but he was.
Halfway across the world, in cold Minnesota, Verne knew he could live with the pay increase, the insurance, splitting the merchandise money, all of it, especially since he didn’t plan on having Hogan around for more than 6-8 months, tops. The world was full of Hogans, full of people too big for their britches.
Finally, Verne spoke: “Terry, how much is the check for?”
Hogan hung up the phone, wondering that himself.
11 PM, Philadelphia Hotel, Room 814
New York City, 1982
“Never been better, Vince,” Flair answered McMahon, stepping into his hotel suite.
“Scotch?” Vince asked, pouring the drink before Ric could nod his head.
Over the next hour and a half, Vince told Ric Flair everything he wanted to hear and nothing he didn’t need to know. Then they went down to the hotel bar and got rip-roarin’ drunk and talked about living in North Carolina, women, money, the future.
Drink after drink, compliment after compliment, truth after lie.
And Ric had to admit it to himself: it sounded sweet. McMahon kept telling him how much prestige and class Flair would bring the WWF championship. How much money they’d be making. How Flair was the perfect champion, the best representation of where Vince wanted his promotion to go. How the name Ric Flair would be forever synonymous with wrestling. How, after he was finished in the ring, Ric could transition to being a conduit between management and the wrestlers. And the money. God, the money. If it all worked out like Vince wanted it to, there’d never be an end to it. Millions. TENS of millions.
At the end of the party/meeting, Vince & Flair had both drank themselves sober and were sitting in a small corner diner down the street, sipping coffee at dawn.
Vince popped open his briefcase and pulled out a contract.
“The devil’s in the details,” Flair remarked.
“The deal’s in the details, Ric,” Vince responded.
Flair held the contract close, then at arm’s length, adjusting his eyes.
“I always heard you do business on a handshake,” Flair queried.
“I do. But this is different. I’m basing my entire future, my kid’s future, hell, my grandkids future on this,” Vince stated.
Ric nodded and began reading the contract. Vince took out a legal pad and handed it to him.
“Jot down any changes or red flags. We can work those out later,” Vince said sternly.
Ric nodded and slowly, a look of confusion spread across his face. Vince noticed.
“Something wrong?” McMahon asked.
“Well, I’m not sure. The basics are all here, the money’s right, the schedule, the percentages…but…,” Flair’s voice trailed off.
“But what?” Vince asked.
“It’s just different,” Flair said, smiling. “Very different than what I thought, based on our conversations.”
“Maybe you drank too much and don’t remember the details?” Vince asked.
“No, I remember, Vince,” Flair said. “The devil’s in the details.”
Flair picked up the ballpoint pen and signed his name on the dotted line.
Later That Afternoon
(Back at the Philadelphia Hotel)
There was a knock. Vince opened his door with a smile.
“Have any trouble finding the place?” asked Vince.
“No,” the man said softly, entering the room.
The two men sat across from one another, eyeing each other warily; each with more than enough reason to mistrust the other.
“You look good,” McMahon said truthfully.
“I’ve put back on about thirty pounds, all muscle. I fluctuated back and forth for a while, been sick,” the man said.
McMahon nodding, knowing what he meant.
“But, I’m all better now and,” the man pulled his shirt sleeve up over his massive bicep. “And it’s here to stay,” he clarified.
“Good,” McMahon said, nodding. “So you’re ready to be champion again?”
“For a long time?” the man asked.
“For a very long time,” Vince said.
The man stood and Vince took a step forward and they shook hands.
“Thank you for the opportunity, Vince,” Superstar Billy Graham said truthfully.
NOTE: I was at another funeral last Monday, hence the lack of another installment. I love writing this column, which will now appear every other Monday. I hope my fellow Crappers continue to follow it. (The entries will be longer as well, on this schedule.)