The Lost Team Challenge Pilot

AWA Team Challenge Pilot

In the American Wrestling Association’s dying days, the company, faced with rapidly declining revenue and an exodus of stars, settled on a long-range booking plan called the Team Challenge Series, in which the entire roster was split up into three teams that competed against each other for points, with the eventual winners receiving a “million dollar prize”.

A sound concept on paper, the Team Challenge Series allowed the promotion to continue its storylines and feuds without having to rely on any individual wrestler, who could very well jump ship to WCW or WWF at any time.

In reality, though, the Series devolved into a string of absurd gimmick matches like the infamous Turkey-On-A-Pole match before the promotion closed up shop for good.

Conventional wisdom holds that AWA ultimately failed because its owner and booker, Verne Gagne, refused to keep up with the times. But by 1989, even Verne could see that the present was the wave of the future – or something. Hence, this newly unearthed, never-before-seen pilot episode of “The New AWA”, just added to the WWE Network.

The show gets off to a rocky start, with a cheesy synth tune that utterly clashes with the cheers of “Hey hey hey for the AWA!” by a group of swimsuit cheerleaders. While it’s pretty cool of AWA to use a theme song in 7/4 time, there has never, ever been a cheer in 7/4.

But if you mute the sound, you get the impression that this is going to be an awesome 39:33 of youthful excitement.

Rock music!

Foxy boxing!

Cheerleaders in bikinis!

Verne Gagne and his dog!

After teasing – or threatening – a comeback to the ring, old Verne explains how the AWA will now use modern technology to bring fans right into the ring! He then hands off the hosting duties to his youthful announce crew.

Fans are then greeted by… this.

“This” is Ralph Strangis, AWA’s Pettengill-esque (i.e. annoying) commentator, who joins Verne’s 41-year-old son Greg in a small production room called a “satellite base”.

Greg Gagne is very subdued as he promises the fans that they’ll get to feel exactly what he felt for 16 years in the ring.

I think he means embarrassment.

Ralph Strangis, on the other hand, has an undeniable smarm – I mean, charm – his voice locked in permanent DJ mode as he promises the best in wrestling and rock music (which is nowhere to be found, perhaps due to licensing issues on the WWE Network).

Five years late to the Rock ’n’ Wrestling Connection, you would think that the AWA would have learned a little bit from the WWF on how to incorporate MTV culture into a wrestling program, such as the use of celebrities (of which there are none on this show) or entrance music (of which there is also none on this show).

It turns out, there’s no need to get the crowd pumped up about the upcoming match, as there is no crowd at all. Instead, there’s a simulated audience consisting of canned footage of fans mugging for the camera, displayed on either side of the simulated aisle, moving at double-speed for simulated excitement.

The effect is, uh, not convincing.

Regardless of the phoney set-up, Tommy Jammer, who likely owns a copy of Cheers To You!, plays to his adoring fans. You’ve got to feel sorry for Tommy; the AWA probably told him not to worry about posing in front of a green screen because they would use cutting-edge technology to make it look like a packed house.

Not only is the house decidedly not packed, it’s completely empty; instead, crowd noise is pumped into the empty studio à la PGW

…but with unrelated shots of restaurant and bar patrons randomly inserted throughout the matches to fool any wrestling fans with cataracts into thinking there is an actual paying audience present.

Throughout the show, Ralph raves over and over about how the new technology at AWA’s satellite base will allow wrestling fans to see things they’ve never seen before, like slow-motion replays. And in order to activate this never-before-seen technique, Ralph has to say, “Punch the button, Greg!”, which he shouts about three times per match, usually for replays of mundane stuff like body slams and clotheslines.

I tell you what we really haven’t seen in wrestling before: Tom Burton calls time out, and the referee actually grants it to him.

Next, the cutting edge AWA airs Baron von Raschke and Sgt. Slaughter. Both men are younger here than any of the four men in the Crown Jewel main event. Raschke, who looks as much like Vizzini as ever…

…captains the Blitzers, while Sarge captains the Snipers, whose team member Col. DeBeers takes on the Blitzers’ Paul Diamond later in the show.

We then return to our hosts, who appear ready to spend the next half-hour getting us to order the Best of the ‘80s on 6 cassettes or 6 compact discs. Instead, they plug the next match featuring the new team of the Destruction Crew, whom we join live on the job.

The Crew furiously tap away with their hammerheads at the buildings, which, even with the magic of green screen technology, still look about a half a mile away. Somebody call Alex Jones, because those buildings were clearly falling down before the Beverlys even touched them. (At least the one on the right was. The one on the left doesn’t even budge)

Wayne Bloom looks especially pleased with his handiwork.

And Mike Enos? Well, I’m just glad he found a way to channel his years of pent-up rage. You can bet Mike Enos got teased a lot growing up, and not just for his giant forehead.

And as part of AWA’s relentless effort to make us not take them seriously, they slide to the ring in hard hats and orange construction gear through the magic tunnel.

By now, you’ve probably noticed that the two sets of audience members on either side of the aisle are in fact the exact same footage, just stretched in two different directions.

Managed by Luscious Johnny Valiant, the most succulent manager in all of wrestling, Enos and Bloom have their share of problems with the two local prelim wrestlers…

…before finishing them off with the Enos-and-Bloomsday Device.

The match is nothing to write home about, or even blog about, but it is slightly worthwhile to see a future world champion in action. Which one is that? Bloom? Enos? No, this guy:

Speaking of champions…

…future WCW hardcore champion Eric Bischoff and his classic coif are on hand for post-match interviews.

Next, it’s another promo for the show’s marquee match. Col. DeBeers “likes to win”, says Sarge. “He doesn’t like to lose”, and that’s why he has hand-picked DeBeers to wrestle in his place while he completes his doctoral dissertation in psychoanalysis.

Slaughter warns DeBeers not to disgrace America by representing a racist South African regime. I mean, by losing to Paul Diamond.

For the record, as a colonel, DeBeers outranks Sgt. Slaughter.

No friend of the accent-free Apartheid Era officer, Sarge calls DeBeers scum, but the Colonel must end up doing something right in this Team Challenge Series, or else Slaughter wouldn’t have ended up bringing him into the WWF as Colonel Mustafa.

I think.

Up next are the Beverly Hills Knockouts, the foxy boxing troupe that is now part of the AWA for some reason. Greg Gagne’s sad eyes all but say, “Sorry, Dad”, in stark contrast to Ralph’s pervy enthusiasm.

The Knockouts come to us “live” from Beverly Hills, meaning that instead of an empty TV studio in Minnesota, they’re competing in an empty strip club in Southern California.

But that doesn’t mean there’s a real audience present, either. Once again, we see prerecorded footage of barflies told to clap in front of a camera just to get on television. Odds are that none of these people even remember being part of this program.

That includes this mustachioed man who appears to stare right through the Knockouts’ boobs and into their souls.

Tonight’s bout pits the scantily-clad Blonde Bomber against the skimpily-dressed Slaughterhouse Shawn in a tiny ring surrounded by women who ain’t got much clothes on.

The referee, who is not scantily clad, instructs the ladies not to pull each other’s hair while wearing boxing gloves.

And then they’re off and fighting, the action made to look all the more frantic by a dizzying number of camera cuts. Kevin Dunn was working for the WWF even back then…

…but judging by his work the past few years, I’d say he’s been studying this tape pretty closely in the WWE archives.

One thing Dunn hasn’t attempted in a WWE match is these first-person perspective shots.

For all the boxing purists watching at home, Ralph explains in meticulous detail the rules for the match:

“This bout is sanctioned by the Beverly Hills Knockout Committee. Ten-Point Must System, three-knockdown rule, and you can’t be saved by the bell, only in round three!”

Seconds later, a wrestling match breaks out, leading Greg to plead total ignorance on what the rules are.

No slow-motion replay here.

At the end of round two, Slaughterhouse Shawn knocks down the Blond Bomber with a swift gust of air, but fortunately, the Bomber is saved by the bell, which, as you’ll remember, can’t happen. Nobody asked Ralph to recite the entire strip-club boxing rulebook, but since he did, the least the girls could do is actually abide by it.

Good thing they have round-card girls to provide some much-needed eye-candy. It’s a nice break from the barbarity of foxy boxing.

In round three, Slaughterhouse’s manager Mustang Sally has seen enough of the Bomber’s cheating and steps into the ring herself (getting nekkid first).

After a double knock-down, the babyface gets to her feet first, meaning that the winner is Slaughterhouse Shawn. Or Shaun? Or Sean? The closed captions don’t really help.

“You know,” says Ralph, “the AWA has always been the pioneer, always been the leader!”

Yes, he actually says that. Don’t believe me? Here’s the audio.

Still don’t believe me? Here’s a picture:

Sorry, that was a picture of Otto Wanz, the guy the AWA had win the title in 1982 instead of Hulk Hogan.

Anyway, here’s a picture:

With that said, the AWA’s newest innovation is the Team Challenge Series, where Larry’s Legends currently has a slight lead in the Team Challenge standings.

The next match in the series is a King of the Hill match, so called because it will be as exciting as four middle-aged guys drinking beer and saying. “Yup”.

Cue a promo from Paul “Hardrock” Diamond. You have to hand it to the AWA here, as you’d be hard-pressed to find any rock harder than a diamond.

In this out-of-this-world interview, the future Max Moon –

– okay, okay, point taken. Anyway, Paul Diamond appears in outer space, with what sound like flying saucers attempting to drown him out as he talks about the feelings Col. DeBeers has for him. Angry, manly feelings, that is.

The lack of oxygen must have gotten to Diamond’s head, as he claims that the upcoming match will be the first in the Team Challenge series…

…instead of, like, the 23rd or something.

Diamond enters through the magic portal as the guy in the yellow plaid shirt falls over for the third time while the woman in the blue blouse pretends not to know him.

Then comes DeBeers, greeted by the exact same footage. By now, the yellow plaid shirt man is fed up with his chronic vertigo and waves away the camera.

The rules of this match are the same as a battle royal, with the match only ending when the opponent is thrown over the top rope and to the floor. This occurs after the Colonel attempts a piledriver right in front of the ropes like a dunce and gets back-body-dropped by Paul Diamond out of the ring.

That’s one Diamond that slipped through DeBeers’s bloody clutches.

The show closes with Sgt. Slaughter (sic) taking on The Terminator. Not Arnold Schwarzenegger, of course. After John Wayne died, the AWA gave up on the idea of ever featuring an action star on their shows.

Sarge salutes his many flesh-and-blood fans…

…and even urges them to chant “U-S-A!” during his match. The Terminator, in turn, berates the same fans, but the joke’s on him, because they aren’t even real.

Slaughter manages to make a comb-from-behind victory…

…and, despite Bischoff’s concerns that the seven minute, forty second bout went a lot longer than his usual matches…

…Sarge, huffing and puffing, insists he’s in the best shape of his life.

Our hosts wrap up the program by promising even more cutting-edge action from the likes of the 55-year-old Ox Baker on the next episode.

That next episode would never come. While AWA would continue for another year holding its Team Challenge Series in empty studios, the “new” AWA, with its foxy boxing, satellite feeds, fake audiences, and slow-motion replays wouldn’t see the light of day for nearly 30 years.

Don’t worry, ma’am. You can find it on the WWE Network now.

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