Welcome to the Newest Chapter & Incarnation of “Re-Writing the Book” here at the Crap.
While I’m fairly certain I’ll never fill the shoes of Jed (I wear a Nike, size 8), I’m here nonetheless. Rumor has it by default. That’s right, Crappers: There are apparently plenty of fans but not enough writers to go around.
De Fault; the 2 sweetest words in the English language.
Nevertheless, I’ll try to make Jed, RD & the rest of The Crap Crew proud.
In fact – in a roundabout way – my story is a testament to the very crap-fabric of pro wrestling.
You see, if certain things had gone differently in the history of pro wrestling, I might not be a fan; the WWE might not be the juggernaut that it is today and even the Gobbledy Gooker (or at least the yearly-award ‘round these parts) might not exist.
Such is the hypothesis of this Re-Writing the Book.
The premise is simple; the repercussions are not:
What If Hulk Hogan Was Never Lured Away From the AWA?
(NOTE: I realize in this day & age, that many people are not fans of Terry Bollea and even fewer will proudly proclaim themselves former Hulkamaniacs. This “What If?” scenario doesn’t require you to be either. It simply asks you to envision the ripple effect on an entire industry & its system if Vince McMahon never acquired the services of the Golden – okay, Orange – Goose.)
Love or hate him, Hulk Hogan was (thanks to merchandise, PPV’s, mainstream popularity & constant PR) THE face of pro wrestling for a long time. His persona was larger-than-life and he became bigger than the sport itself.
Fair? Who’s to say? There are (and were, at the time) certainly more talented, technical wrestlers deserving of the push Hogan received. From a charismatic standpoint, few could match him & life isn’t about fairness.
Also, this isn’t a pro-Hogan diatribe. This is simply a story of how an entire INDUSTRY would have changed had Hogan’s path been just a little bit different.
But first, you must understand why one change like my proposal would have such massive consequences. So, I offer…
A (VERY SHORT) HISTORY LESSON
From the late 1940’s to the early 1960’s the NWA (National Wrestling Alliance) acted as a governing body for nearly all individual wrestling territories & promotions in the United States and parts of Canada. Being a member of the NWA added an instant legitimacy to an organizations roster and titles.
In the simplest of terms, each territory had its own recognized champions (Heavyweight, Tag, US, Southern, Women’s, etc.) and one-man was chosen to reign as the national champion; a figurehead of sorts; a champion of champions. That belt-holder could be brought into any territory to start or end a feud and all other wrestlers could travel a circuit, never wearing out their welcome at any box office, (hopefully) ensuring their pocketbooks & gimmicks.
And while territory promoters respected agreed-upon boundaries and would not run their shows in someone else’s backyard, Cross-promotion matches (Champion vs Champion) were still big money-makers, as fans would line up to see their favorite stars from one company battle favorites from another.
Some promoters in these territories paid well, some stiffed their workers in more ways than one. But if a wrestler wasn’t happy with a payday or the quality of one area’s ring rats, he could just drive from St. Louis to Memphis to Minnesota, from Dallas to Seattle, from to New York to Georgia to Florida and so on.
The reality of the business was protected fiercely as it was thought that if your average fan knew the match conclusions were pre-determined, they would stop buying tickets.
Besides, many pro wrestlers had high school, collegiate & Olympic wrestling championships (or other sports) in their backgrounds. This was not a prerequisite, but most champions of the day (and many fans) didn’t think someone who had little or no wrestling “mat” experience would be believable as long-reigning title-holders, nor did many of the men who were, or had been, athletes want to “lose” to someone who didn’t know an arm lock from an arm rest.
For decades, word-of-mouth, advertising and a tireless work schedule filled armories & fairgrounds with fans through the 1940’s. The 1st Golden Age of Professional Wrestling came about in the 1950’s due to television.
TV stations needed cheap-to-produce, attention-grabbing programs and pro wrestling fit the bill perfectly with technical wrestlers like Lou Thesz, high-flyers like Bobo Brazil & flamboyantly cartoonish-characters like “Gorgeous” George.
Suddenly, wrestling was more popular than ever and coliseums and stadiums became second homes to many in the business.
By the time the 2nd Golden Age of Wrestling (the 1980’s) arrived, many smaller promotions had either been sold or had merged with bigger, neighboring promotions. Others were still chugging along, oblivious or envious of the ever-changing landscape.
The 5 most powerful, profitable & successful organizations in 1980 were the AWA (American Wrestling Association) the then-WWF (World Wrestling Federation), the NWA, WCCW (World Class Championship Wrestling) and Jim Crockett Promotions – a precursor to the WCW.
For those of you who don’t know what happened to a territorial system that had thrived for 100+ years and would disappear within the next decade, here’s the gist:
One company, the WWF (now WWE) went national, then international, expanding rapidly by raiding the talent of other promotions, building a Pay-Per-View industry centered around “Supercards”, streamlining travel schedules, acquiring TV time on multiple networks & ignoring time-honored traditions and other proven ways of doing business.
Back-stabbing, lying, corruption, drugs, piles of money spent smartly & frivolously & a million other little things were ever-present & contributed to a fundamental change that will last forever.
I’m not here to lament if that’s good or bad. Only to say that it could’ve been much different for all involved, if even one of those million variables had fallen on the other side of the fence.
In 1981, the AWA (owned & operated by Verne Gagne, who still wrestled as his promotion’s champion) was arguably the biggest wrestling promotion in the country. By this time – locally, in Minnesota – the AWA’s All-Star Wrestling had already been on TV for 20 years.
But Verne was getting older and so, he retired that year. His title was given to the #1 contender, Nick Bockwinkel – a man Verne had just beaten so he could retire as champion.
Bockwinkel had been a football player in college & entered wrestling after an injury.
The fans hated that their beloved icon (Verne had wrestled as a babyface for decades) was gone, but they hated his replacement even more. Bockwinkel was a good-looking, arrogant, skillful champion and the audience couldn’t wait for someone to take him down a peg.
In the NWA, Ric Flair, Harley Race & Dusty Rhodes were all battling in bloody cage matches & time-limits draws over the Heavyweight Championship as they had done for the better part of 18 months. The fans were still eating it up.
Down in Texas, The Von Erichs were reigning supreme in their dad’s promotion, WCCW.
Jim Crockett Jr. was now the president of the NWA & was in the process of expanding his empire through cable & jump-starting another promotion in the South.
Over in the WWF, Bob Backlund was wearing the Gold.
(At this time, only the AWA had broken away from the umbrella of the NWA’s recognition & cooperation, yet they still did not run shows outside their own area, unless it was a cross-promotion event.)
Hulk Hogan had just left the WWF because Vince McMahon Sr. didn’t want him taking the role of “Thunderlips” opposite Sylvester Stallone in Rocky III.
When Hogan went to Hollywood anyway, Vince Sr. fired him, so Hogan took his newfound fame and went to the AWA. He was billed as a heel, but his recognition from the movie made the fans loved him and soon, he was tapped to right the wrongs in the world of the AWA.
Hogan climbed the ladder in the AWA, squashing opponent after opponent in his quest to unseat Nick Bockwinkel as the champ. As his popularity exploded, so did merchandise sales of t-shirts bearing his likeness. His entrance to the ring was accompanied by the theme from Rocky III, “Eye of the Tiger”.
Sure, others wrestlers had t-shirts and headbands before him, but Hogan’s face & 24-inch pythons were selling thousands of dollars-worth of merchandise in a night. That just didn’t happen in 1981 for anyone, period.
Of course, other men (and women) had come to the ring with music blaring through the speakers, though not many. But Hogan’s theme was inspirational and current. There was a revolution in the air.
Then one night – in a 6-man tag match – Jumpin’ Jim Brunzell tore Hogan’s shirt off him before the opening bell & the building erupted. Hogan turned his ear to the crowd. The genesis of Hulkamania was at hand…and it was spreading.
Hogan was now wrestling short, immensely profitable tours in Japan as well. Money was pouring in from any and everything Hogan-related.
Verne Gagne – knowing a good thing when he saw it – having helped create the success Hogan was now experiencing, wanted to lock the Hulkster down to a long-term contract.
Most of the wrestlers in the AWA were there on a handshake and if they weren’t happy, they were free to leave at any time. All Verne ever asked was 6 weeks-notice so storylines could be changed to accommodate an empty spot on the roster or a title could change hands if necessary.
Besides, was Hogan even thinking of leaving? Why would he? Everything was on the upswing. If things were this good for Hogan, Verne & the AWA now, imagine what they would be like when Hogan finally won the heavyweight championship from Nick Bockwinkel!
And Nick wasn’t scared; he was looking forward to their match. He wanted to prove that he deserved to be the champ. It never set well with him that he won the title because Verne had retired. Sure, Bockwinkel was the #1 contender, but that doesn’t make you #1, at least not in the eyes of the fans. No, for that, he needed a piece of the Incredible Hulk.
The only problem is that someone else wanted an even bigger piece of Hulk: Vince McMahon Jr.
Check Back Next Week for the Next Chapter in the Re-Writing the Book Saga!
Shane Jeffries is a writer, pro wrestling fan & pop culture junkie. He created & writes hilarious reviews for 2 beloved 80’s sitcoms @: www.FamilyMattersReviewed.com & www.GoldenGirlsReviewed.comHis 1st book came out Jan. 10th & can be purchased at: www.NostalgicForDeath.com