Winning a world championship in professional wrestling is often considered a significant achievement and a prestigious accolade despite being a scripted honor. Becoming the world champion is often a testament to one’s skill, dedication, and ability to entertain audiences. That lofty rank usually elevates a wrestler to a more prominent position and, most of all, leads to better financial opportunities.
But that wasn’t the case for Stan Hansen after he won the American Wrestling Association (AWA) World Championship in 1985. Instead, his experience as the top man in the company was the opposite, which led to grave consequences for the AWA and its championship belt.
Before getting into professional wrestling in 1973, Stan Hansen was a standout football player at West Texas A&M University, where legends Terry and Dory Funk had gone to school. It’s also where Hansen met his future friend and longtime tag team partner, Bruiser Brody.
After failing to catch on in the NFL after college, Hansen, in a 2016 interview, said he turned to teaching, where he was making less than $500 a month. Realizing it was time to do something else, Hansen took Terry Funk up on an offer to get into wrestling.
Less than five years later, Hansen was headlining shows against Bruno Sammartino for the WWWF (now WWE) Championship in Madison Square Garden. During one encounter, Hansen accidentally dropped Sammartino on his head and broke his neck. The incident led to a feud upon Sammartino’s return, which Bruno won.
But Hansen was the real winner. His finishing move, a clothesline named The Lariat, received credit for breaking Bruno’s neck, which added legitimacy to Hansen’s most potent strike. He also gained extreme notoriety in the wrestling world for hospitalizing a legend.
That fame led the future WWE Hall of Famer to Japan and its booming wrestling scene, where Hansen would enjoy his ultimate success. But in 1985, AWA owner and retired wrestler Verne Gagne approached Hansen about coming to work for his company, which was losing ground to WWE and the National Wrestling Alliance. The two worked out a handshake agreement, and Hansen soon began performing regularly for Gagne between trips to Japan.
A career challenger who preferred chasing world titles rather than winning them, Hansen was surprised when Rick Martel, then the reigning AWA Champ, informed him that the company was putting its world title on him. On the Stories With Brisco And Bradshaw podcast in 2021, Hansen said:
“First of all, I never dreamed (of being world champion), didn’t want it, wasn’t even thinking about getting the heavyweight belt. I mean, I only need to go after the belt, not have the belt.”
As champion, Hansen was expecting a big push and counted on being in major storylines that would lead to bigger paydays. But as he told Gerald Brisco and John Layfield, the company did nothing with him.
“But then after about a month or six weeks, they’re just giving me these squashed jobs on TV, and there’s nothing,” said Hansen.
Though he was still working in Japan, where he was raking in the yen, the AWA’s poor promotion of him as champion frustrated Hansen. And it’s why when Gagne told him to drop the title to Nick Bockwinkel, Hansen balked because he had several ideas for programs that he believed would be financially rewarding for him and the company.
Gagne, however, was persistent and, according to Hansen, got in his face and ordered him to drop the title. In an interview with former manager and current podcaster Jim Cornette, Hansen sensed things might get ugly. He said Hulk Hogan told him Gagne got physical with him over something similar.
But Hansen stood his ground, physically and morally, by shoving Gagne before storming out of the arena and heading back to Japan as scheduled, taking the AWA title with him.
Upon returning to the States, Hansen received a letter from Gagne threatening legal action if Hansen didn’t return the belt. Upset by the news, Hansen, as legend has it, ran over the belt several times with his tractor before mailing it back to Gagne. Over the years, Hansen, who never denied the incident, has downplayed the story, telling Brisco and Bradshaw, “(The belt) was a piece of shit to start with,” adding:
“It was an old belt that they had had, and from what I understand, that some kind of convicts made it in a prison and gave it to (Gagne), so that had a little history and everything. But anyway, it was beat up. I sent it back, and it was beat up a little more than it was when I got it.”
Following his time in the AWA, Hansen resumed his career in Japan, where he was the top champion for All Japan Pro Wrestling several times. In 1989, Hansen appeared in Hulk Hogan’s movie No Holds Barred. Hansen then briefly went to work for World Championship Wrestling in 1990, where he defeated Lex Luger to win the United States Championship.
And despite his disappointing world title reign in America, Hansen’s time with the AWA wasn’t a complete bust, as it produced a memorable yet exaggerated promo that explained his motivation for being a professional wrestler:
“I’m not in a big ego rush. I’m not after all the bright lights and the little women. I got a big fat wife and nine kids at home, and I gotta feed ‘em!”