clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Wrestling with the Past: Super Sunday and Pro Wrestling's Turning Point

Very quickly the AWA went from the biggest, and, in my opinion, best promotion in the US, to being an empty shell of itself, limping around until finally going out of business in 1991. And all of that was the result of a decision made thirty years ago yesterday.

~ Co-written with

Thomas Nash

"Professional wrestling... has no history, only a past."

- The Phantom of the Ring


"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

- John Ford

Most people hold a fatalist view of history; that the outcomes of many of the events that have unfolded over the ages were inevitable. The American Civil War is an example of this. That due to the preponderance of manpower and wealth possessed by the North, nothing less than a Union victory was possible. While it is a fact that the Union did possess these advantages, it is not a fact that the war was decided even before it started. No, it took six whole months for a rather small incident to guarantee that outcome.

In September 1861, Major General Leonidas Polk of Tennessee, acting on his own accord, made the fateful decision to invade Kentucky. His goal was to force the - then - neutral state into the ranks of the Confederacy. Needless to say, it did not go as planned as Kentucky instead called for Federal aid to help repel Polk's troops.

Polk's blunder, often overlooked when discussing the war, had far-reaching consequences. Not only did Kentucky soon join the Union, adding tens of thousands of soldiers to the Yankee Army along with giving the North control of important railroad junctions and the upper Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, but also it removed the buffer that had existed between Tennessee and Ohio, opening up a second theatre in the War. The capture of New Orleans, the rise of Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman, the conquest of the Mississippi River, the whole of the Western Theater. All key events, which were directly impacted by Polk's decision, and without which a Union victory, would be a much, much more difficult proposition. Perhaps, even impossible.

Thirty years ago professional wrestling witnessed its own such history changing decision, when on April 24th, 1983, the American Wrestling Association held one of the most important events in professional wrestling's history: Super Sunday.

Back in 1983, the business of professional wrestling was very different from what we have today. Instead of it being dominated by a single promotion running shows across the country, and the globe, North America was divided into territories. Each of these territories was owned by a promoter who ran and protected it as his own private fiefdom. Most of the territories worked together under the umbrella of the National Wrestling Association as a cartel to keep the peace and keep out competition, but there were a pair of promotions big enough and strong enough to have foregone the NWA and strike out on their own. The World Wrestling Federation, which ran the prime East coast metropolitan areas of New York City, Philadelphia, and Boston, was one. The other was the American Wrestling Association.



Founded in 1960 by former Olympic hopeful turned pro-wrestling star Verne Gagne and long time promoter Wally Karbo, the AWA was centered in the wrestling hotbed of the Twin Cities, Minnesota. From there it spread out over much of the Midwest, and beyond, making it the largest of the wrestling territories. Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Chicago and Northern Illinois, Colorado, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Winnipeg and Southern Manitoba were all part of the AWA's demesne. In addition, it had a strong contingency of allied promotions, so that wrestling fans in Southern Illinois, Indiana, San Francisco and Northern California, Salt Lake City, Memphis, Houston, San Antonio, and Phoenix, were all familiar with the AWA and its stars. And what stars they had.

Verne Gagne, Nick Bockwinkel, Bobby "the Brain" Heenan, Sheik Adnal-El Kassie, the High Flyers (Jim Brunzell and Greg Gagne), Wahoo McDaniel, Jesse "The Body" Ventura, "Mad Dog" Vachon, Adrian Adonis, and the Incredible Hulk Hogan were all part of the AWA's roster at this time (along with some of the greatest jobbers as well: Jake "The Milkman" Mulliman, "Sodbuster" Kenny Jay, and "Puppy Dog" Peloquin).



It was also a promotion ahead of its time. Before the WWF conceived of WrestleMania, even before Jim Crockett hosted his first Starrcade, the AWA was hosting the first such super show of the decade. It was titled "Super Sunday...Running Wild" and was held on April 24 at the St. Paul Civic Center (the Medina of professional wrestling to Madison Square Garden's Mecca). Major names such as Jesse "The Body" Ventura, Ken Patera, the High Flyers, Wahoo McDaniel, Jerry Lawler and Wendy Richter (as well as unknown talent like the future Brutus Beefcake, Eddie Boulder) filled the card.

The main event was a tag team grudge match in which the Sheiks - Sheikk Adnan Al-Kassie and Sheik Ayotolla Jerry Blackwell (somehow I doubt Blackwell truly studied the hawza) - took on AWA cornerstones and former enemies now allies, Verne Gagne and "Mad Dog" Vachon. But, this match was the main event in name only. The real draw for the night was the contest right before it in which current AWA heavyweight champion Nick Bockwinkel defended his belt against the Incredible Hulk Hogan. It was because of this match that Super Sunday even existed. In addition, it is because of this match that eventually the WWF would conquer the business and the AWA would close its doors. But I'm getting ahead of myself.



In Hogan, the AWA had struck gold. He had been transformed into a face after entering the promotion in 1981, and following his appearance in Rocky III as "Thunderlips", he was the hottest thing in all of wrestling. They capitalized on this by booking him into a feud with their champion and number one heel, Nick Bockwinkel, and his manager, Bobby "The Brain" Heenan.

Sadly forgotten by most of today's WWE-raised fans, Bockwinkel was one of the true greats of the sport. No man could project the aura of legitimacy and respectability while simultaneously drawing the fans' ire the way Bockwinkel could. Where Hogan represented a new generation of wrestlers, capturing the desire of 1980s American public for bigger-than-life super-heroes like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, Bockwinkel represented the old guard. The pre steroid, pre sports entertainment, pre Hulkamania world of wrestling. And he let Hogan and the fans know the contempt he had for them. It was the perfect rivalry.

For over a year Hogan chased the title, but always fell short as Bockwinkel and Heenan ran, cheated, and lied their way to keep the belt while the AWA toyed, teased, and played with the fans' desire to see Hogan crowned champ. During this time the blueprint for much of Hogan and the WWF's story lines for the 80s were laid out, as Hogan's feud was limited to not just Bockwinkel but with the whole Heenan family. At one point Hogan even drafted Andre the Giant as an ally, who himself would continue to feud with Heenan over the next few years.

After more than a year milking this rivalry, it was finally time to bring it to an end. Fans, long suffering in their wait to see Hogan crowned champ, were growing frustrated. It was the perfect time for a final blow-off match to settle it. And make Hulk Hogan the new AWA champ in the process.

A match was set for Spring of '83 at the St. Paul Civic Center, but the demand for tickets was so great that Verne immediately recognized what a financial opportunity he had here. Gagne postponed the contest until April 24, building a super-card around this and his own feud with the Sheiks, and then doubled the ticket prices. Nick Bockwinkel would take the blame for this price increase, as the AWA "claimed" that Bockwinkel had refused to meet Hogan unless he was paid "the largest purse in professional wrestling history". Fans took it as a sign that Bockwinkel was afraid to face Hogan and, as impossible as it is to believe, was now even more disliked.

Even with the increased ticket prices, the event sold out in just three days. The demand was so great that not only did they cram 20,000 to 25,000 into the Civic Center, but also another 10,000 paid to watch the show on closed circuit television at the St. Paul Auditorium. Despite the word "Super" in the title, fans had to sit through a rather uneventful card save for a couple noteworthy matches (Joyce Gable and Wendi Richter vs. Judy Martin and Velvet McIntyre for the AWA Ladies Tag Team title, and a six-man tag team match between Jesse "The Body" Ventura, Ken Patera and Blackjack Lanza vs. The High Flyers and Rick Martel). But the other matches were merely a diversion for the fans were there to see Hogan win the championship from Bockwinkel.



The "Hulkamaniacs" got what they paid for as Hogan beat up and then pinned Bockwinkel in the center of the ring to claim the title. The arena erupted as he was finally awarded the belt...

And then mercilessly booed when it was taken away by AWA President Stanley Blackburn, who ruled after the bell that Hogan was to be disqualified for throwing Bockwinkel over the top rope. To say the fans were disappointed would be a gross understatement. For over a year, the fans had faithfully followed Hogan in his quest for the Championship, only to helplessly watch as it was cruelly taken away at his moment of glory.

The reasons for this outcome, like everything in pro-wrestling, depends on who you ask. It has been widely reported that Hogan was supposed to not only win that night, but also keep the belt. Verne claimed he kept Hogan from the belt because he felt that the fans were more interested in the chase. But others claim his decision to keep the belt away from Hulk was either because Verne Gagne didn't like the idea of a non-wrestler holding the belt or because Hogan refused to give up 50% of his merchandising money. No matter what the reason, Nick remained champ.

The AWA's decision proved to have immense consequences. By the end of the year Hogan frustrated by his treatment in the AWA had signed with Vince McMahon's WWF, where was almost immediately crowned champ. The WWF would go on to also nab many of the AWA's other biggest stars. Jesse "the Body" Ventura, "Mean" Gene Okerlund, Bobby "The Brain" Heenan, and others were all poached as part of Vince's plans for expansion. While this was a blow, it wasn't a fatal one for the AWA who soon reloaded with a new group of stars, including Curt Hennig, the Freebirds, and the Road Warriors. What did prove fatal is what happened next.

With Hogan and his former AWA companions in the vanguard, the WWF started running shows right in Gagne's own territory. A key turning point was on Thanksgiving night of 1985, a day when the AWA traditionally held one of their biggest cards of the year; the WWF had the temerity to host their own show at the Minneapolis Met Center. A plethora of AWA fan favorites were on the card, including Jesse "The Body" Ventura, Andre the Giant, "Mad Dog" Vachon, "Mean" Gene Okerlund and Bobby "The Brain" Heenan. And it was headlined by a Hulk Hogan title defense against "Macho Man" Randy Savage. Paid attendance would top 20,000.

Weakened by the WWF's invasion, a body blow was delivered when the Jim Crockett Promotions poached the Road Warriors. Soon the NWA was making incursions into AWA territory. Chicago, Winnipeg, and eventually even the Twin Cities were hosting the National Wrestling Alliance while the WWF took over the Medina of Pro Wrestling, the St. Paul Civic center. Even Jim Watt's UWF joined the feeding frenzy, by holding his own show in the Twin Cities. The AWA had lost their own hometown.

And thus, very quickly the AWA went from the biggest, and, in my opinion, best promotion in the US, to being an empty shell of itself, limping around until finally going out of business in 1991.

And all of that was the result of a decision made thirty years ago yesterday.



Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Cageside Seats Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of all your pro wrestling news from Cageside Seats