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This Day in Wrestling History (Apr. 27): The Smackdown Pilot

this day in wrestling history

60 years ago today in St. Louis, Missouri, June Byers & China Mira defeated Penny Banner & Bonnie Watson. It is believed to be the first women's tag team match ever held in the United States.

36 years ago today in Augusta, Georgia, Tommy Rich defeated Harley Race to win the NWA World Heavyweight Championship.

30 years ago today in Memphis, Tennessee, Austin Idol defeated Jerry Lawler in a hair versus hair steel cage match to win the AWA Southern Heavyweight Championship. As a result of the loss, Lawler also had his head shaved.

A little DYK: Tommy Rich, who hid under the ring for the entire day with a six-pack of beer and an air mattress, helped Idol defeat Lawler. Fans were so irate with the outcome, they grabbed and shook the cage. The bout was one of the most infamous in Memphis wrestling history.

25 years ago today at a WCW Saturday Night taping in Atlanta, Georgia, Barry Windham defeated “Stunning” Steve Austin 2-1 in a best of three falls match to win the WCW World Television Championship.

18 years ago today, WWF taped the pilot episode of Smackdown (WWE Network link) from the New Haven Coliseum in New Haven, Connecticut.

The show, airing two days later, was the first WWF show on network television since Saturday Night's Main Event in 1992.

Intended as a one-time only special, the show scored a 5.8 rating and UPN would pick it up as a series just four months later. It would remain on UPN for seven years before UPN and WB merged to form the CW Network, where the show would follow. It moved to MyNetworkTV for two seasons before finding a home on Syfy. In January 2016, the show moved to USA Network, the longtime home of WWF's flagship show, Monday Night RAW.

Smackdown being greenlit had an unintended consequence: it would play a part in writers Vince Russo and Ed Ferrara leaving the WWF for WCW in September (the extra show meant longer work hours, but no increase in pay).

Oh, and there was a wrestling show and such. In fact, this here wrestling show had the formation of the Corporate Ministry.

  • The Blue Blazer defeated Val Venis.
  • The Big Show defeated Test in just 47 seconds.
  • D'Lo Brown defeated Droz.
  • X-Pac & Kane defeated The New Age Outlaws (Mr. Ass & Road Dogg) to retain the WWF Tag Team Championship.
  • Ken Shamrock defeated Bradshaw in a no holds barred street fight.
  • Mankind defeated Big Boss Man in just 95 seconds.
  • Stone Cold Steve Austin & The Rock defeated The Corporate Ministry (The Undertaker & Triple H).

15 years ago today in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, The Amazing Red & Eddie Guerrero defeated the Spanish Announce Team (Jose and Joel Maximo).

It was one of Eddie Guerrero's last independent appearances, as he had recently re-signed with the WWF.

14 years ago today, WWE presented Backlash (WWE Network link) from the Worcester Centrum in Worcester, Massachusetts. About 10,000 were in attendance, with 345,000 homes watching on PPV. That's down from 400,000 homes for the 2002 event.

Of note, those in attendance were handed out one of four different surveys as they entered the building. One of those surveys asked if fans were willing to buy RAW-only or Smackdown-only PPVs. The seemingly positive response gave WWE the green light to produce brand-exclusive PPVs beginning that summer.

  • In a Sunday Night Heat preshow match, Scott Steiner defeated Rico.
  • Team Angle (Shelton Benjamin and Charlie Haas) defeated Los Guerreros (Eddie & Chavo Guerrero) to retain the WWE Tag Team Championship.
  • Sean O'Haire defeated Rikishi.
  • Rob Van Dam and Kane defeated The Dudley Boyz (Bubba Ray and D-Von) to retain the World Tag Team Championship. Chief Morley was the special referee.
  • Jazz defeated Trish Stratus to win the WWE Women's Championship.
  • The Big Show defeated Rey Mysterio.
  • Brock Lesnar defeated John Cena to retain the WWE Championship.
  • Triple H, Chris Jericho, and Ric Flair defeated Kevin Nash, Shawn Michaels, and Booker T.
  • Goldberg defeated The Rock. This would be The Rock's final match until Wrestlemania XX.

10 years ago today, The Condemned starring Stone Cold Steve Austin, opens in theaters.

The first ever movie from WWE Films (renamed WWE Studios in 2008) bombs both critically and financially, with a 15% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and just $3.8 million at the box office in its opening weekend, and $7.3 million total after four weeks.

The movie bombs internationally too, taking in only $1.2 million in limited release. The film loses $15.7 million, but would make it all back when the film is released on DVD later in the year (as of October 2009, it's made over $22 million in DVD sales).

9 years ago today, WWE presented Backlash (WWE Network link) from the First Mariner Arena in Baltimore, Maryland. 11,277 were in attendance, with 200,000 homes watching on PPV. That's up from 192,000 for the 2007 event.

  • In a dark match, John Morrison & The Miz defeated Jimmy Wang Yang & Shannon Moore.
  • Matt Hardy defeated Montel Vontavious Porter to win the WWE United States Championship.
  • Kane defeated Chavo Guerrero to retain the ECW Championship.
  • Big Show defeated The Great Khali.
  • Shawn Michaels defeated Batista. Chris Jericho was the special referee.
  • Beth Phoenix, Jillian Hall, Layla, Melina, Natalya, and Victoria defeated Ashley, Cherry, Kelly Kelly, Maria, Michelle McCool, and Mickie James.
  • The Undertaker defeated Edge to retain the World Heavyweight Championship.
  • Triple H defeated Randy Orton, John Cena, and John Bradshaw Layfield in a fatal four-way elimination match to win the WWE Championship.

9 years ago today in Osaka, Japan, Keiji Mutoh defeated Shinsuke Nakamura to win the IWGP Heavyweight Championship.

8 years ago today, WSOC-TV in Charlotte reports that Reid Flair would be facing felony charges after being arrested and charged with driving while impaired and driving with a revoked license.

The felony charges will stem from Reid possessing heroin (police found some in his car at the time of his arrest). Though Reid posts bond, the arrest virtually ends Ring of Honor's relationship not just with Reid, but with his father Ric.

3 years ago today, TNA presented Sacrifice from the Impact Zone at Universal Orlando.

  • The Wolves (Davey Richards & Eddie Edwards) defeated The BroMans (Jessie Godderz & Robbie E) & DJ Z in a no disqualification handicap match to win the TNA World Tag Team Championship.
  • Mr. Anderson defeated Samuel Shaw in a Committed match.
  • Kurt Angle & Willow defeated Ethan Carter III & Rockstar Spud.
  • Sanada defeated Tigre Uno in a to retain the TNA X Division Championship.
  • Gunner defeated James Storm in an "I Quit" match.
  • Angelina Love defeated Madison Rayne to win the TNA Knockouts Championship.
  • Bobby Roode defeated Bully Ray in a tables match.
  • Eric Young defeated Magnus to retain the TNA World Heavyweight Championship.

2 years ago today, Laverne Clarence Gagne, or Verne Gagne to millions, died from complications of Alzheimer's disease or possibly chronic traumatic encephalopathy in his home in Bloomington, Minnesota. He was 89.

Born February 26, 1926 in Robbinsdale, Minnesota and growing up on a farm in Cocoran, Minnesota, he was a three-sport athlete in high school, but his best by far was wrestling (he had won district, regional, and state titles in high school wrestling). A member of the All-State football team in high school, he was recruited to play for the University of Minnesota and made the All-Big Ten Team three times.

Gagne enlisted with the Underwater Demolition Team after his freshman year, a Special Forces Naval unit, but ultimately returned to the University of Minnesota. He would be a two-time NCAA champion in wrestling and was an alternate for the US freestyle wrestling team at the 1948 Olympic Games.

Gagne was drafted in the sixteenth round of the NFL Draft (145th overall) in 1947. But with Bears owner George Halas not exactly approving of Verne being both a footballer and a wrestler (Bears great Bronko Nagurski went a similar route), Verne had to make a choice. He went with wrestling. In a 2006 interview, Verne's son Greg said that wrestling paid much better than football during that time.

In 1949, Verne turned to professional wrestling. He started in Texas. In his pro debut, he defeated Abe Kashey (in a bit of trivia, former world heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey was the referee). Success came quickly for Gagne, as he would win the NWA Junior Heavyweight Championship in November 1950. In 1953, he added the NWA United States Championship (Chicago version). His superior technique made Verne a hit with home audiences in television's early days. It's speculated that Verne during this time made about $100,000 a year (nearly $1 million in today's dollars).

In August 1958, Gagne defeated Edouard Carpentier for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship. This was a bit of a dispute, as some territories still considered Lou Thesz as the champion. Gagne dropped the title just three months later to Wilbur Snyder. With more than enough money in the bank, Gagne tried his hand at promoting.

In 1960, Verne formed the American Wrestling Association (AWA for short) and became its top star. Then-NWA champion Pat O'Connor was its first champion, but after the NWA put the kibosh on a Gagne-O'Connor title match (as in they pretty much ignored it), Verne awarded himself the title. Gagne's basis for the AWA was a technical, grapple-based style as opposed to a flashy sports entertainment style that would be popularized in the 1980s. Gagne would hold the AWA world championship ten times; his ninth reign lasted from August 31, 1968 to November 8, 1975, a span of 2,625 days (not just the longest ever, but longer than the next two longest reigns combined).

Gagne wrestled as a face his entire career, feuding with the likes of Gene Kinski, Dr. Bill Miller, Fritz Von Erich, The Crusher, Ray Stevens, Mad Dog Vachon, Larry Hennig, and Nick Bockwinkel. Gagne not only wrestled and promoted, but he also trained wrestlers on his farm in Cocoran, Minnesota. He would have a hand in training nearly 100 wrestlers including his son Greg, Larry and Curt Hennig, Gene and Ole Anderson, Ric Flair, Bob Backlund, The Iron Sheik, and Baron Von Raschke.

Verne's insistence on not embracing sports entertainment would come to haunt him in the 1980s. Hulk Hogan, at the time the company's biggest draw (thanks in part to his cameo in Rocky III), was not seen as championship material as he had a powerhouse style. That was pretty much the opposite of Gagne's booking philosophy. Hogan did get to feud with then-AWA champion Nick Bockwinkel, but refused to concede revenue from merchandise sales and what he made from his bouts in Japan. Late in the year, Hogan left Gagne's AWA for the World Wrestling Federation. Verne was none too happy about it, as he tried to bribe one of his trainees The Iron Sheik to break Hogan's leg (both Sheik and Hogan confirm this allegation).

Despite a mass exodus of talent from the company, the AWA was ahead of most every other promotion outside of the WWF in expanding nationally. They got a five-day-a-week timeslot on ESPN, AWA Championship Wrestling. But the show was hardly a priority for the sports network as it often was either pre-empted for live sports events or moved around the schedule with little or no warning or advertising. As over-the-top, charismatic performers took over the wrestling landscape, the AWA lagged further and further behind in the minds of wrestling fans. With live attendance and ratings virtually nonexistent compared to the WWF and the rechristened WCW, the AWA shut down in 1991. Gagne himself would file for bankruptcy in 1993.

In April 2006, Verne Gagne was inducted by his son into the WWE Hall of Fame. Gagne is just one of six men inducted into the WWE, WCW, Professional Wrestling, and Wrestling Observer Newsletter Halls of Fame.

In 2009, Gagne, at the time 72, got into an altercation with 97-year old Helmut Gutmann at a nursing home in Bloomington, Minnesota. The altercation resulted in a fall of some sort. Neither man had recollection of the incident (Gagne suffered from Alzheimer's disease or CTE due to numerous head injuries), and Gutmann died of his injuries a few weeks later. The death was ruled a homicide. However, Gagne was not charged as it was ruled he did not have the mental capacity necessary to have harmed Guttman intentionally.

Verne continued to make public appearances with his son Greg in his final days. On April 27, 2015, Gagne passed away at his home in Bloomington, Minnesota. He was 89. At the time of his death, he was survived by four children and six grandchildren.

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