In the dying days of the AWA, a desperate Verne Gagne saw his once-powerful promotion bereft of most of its big-name talent and bleeding red ink thanks to soft house show attendance. To counter the growing dominance of the then WWF, the AWA had to do something different that would again capture wrestling fans’ hearts and minds. Thus, the AWA Team Challenge Series was born.
It caused a whirlwind of confusion and shortly later vanished along with the AWA itself.
AWA Team Challenge Series and the AWA’s Fall From Grace
If you were to take a glimpse at the AWA roster in late 1989, it would hardly look familiar to the significant player that it once was. Gone were the likes of Hulk Hogan, Curt Hennig, Stan Hansen, Jimmy Snuka, Ricky Steamboat, Ric Flair, The Rockers, Baby Bull/Bull Power (Vader), Andre The Giant, The Road Warriors, Rick Martel, Bobby Heenan, The Fabulous Freebirds, Tommy Rich, Wahoo McDaniel, Tom Zenk, Jesse Ventura, Ray Stevens, Adrian Adonis, and even announcer Gene Okerlund.
They were now with the WWF or NWA.
Even AWA pillar Nick Bockwinkel was mainly retired by this point.
This mass exodus of stars weighed heavily on the AWA. The once-thriving organization that began in 1960 had lost much ground to Vince McMahon’s WWF, and they were searching for ways to survive.
In 1989, the AWA was limping badly after the financial disaster that was SuperClash III. It is said that after the AWA’s only pay-per-view, many top talent wrestlers refused to work for Verne Gagne’s promotion again due to refusing to pay them. Jerry Lawler became one of his harshest critics as a result.
Now devoid of name wrestlers, the AWA could not bank on their young and upcoming talent such as Todd Becker, The Russian Brute, The Trooper (Del Wilkes), The Destruction Crew (Wayne Bloom and Mike Enos), Paul Diamond, Tommy Jammer, The Terminator, Derrick Dukes, Jake “The Milkman” Milliman, Larry “The Butcher” Cameron, DJ Peterson, and “Illustrious” Jonnie Stewart.
Verne Gagne — an amateur wrestling champion who represented the United States in the 1948 Summer Olympics — was a long-time preserver of kayfabe and tried presenting wrestling more as a legitimate sport rather than as entertainment like the WWF was doing. However, times were quickly changing, and the AWA was falling behind in favor of a glitzier and better-produced product.
Fans wanted bigger-than-life stars, outlandish storylines, and memorable characters. The AWA was growing stale, and its relevancy was declining. To turn the tide, the AWA looked to innovation and technology to compel fans to tune in once again.
Gagne was struggling to keep his company afloat with his own money and had pulled away from the talent-sharing arrangement he had established with the other promoters during their failed Pro Wrestling USA venture.
Drastic times call for drastic measures, and the AWA would soon try to rebrand itself into the “Brand New AWA.” Their best idea?
The AWA Team Challenge Series.
For years, footage of this show stay behind locked doors. Many feared for the unearthing of this infamous chapter of the AWA, but it has now finally seen the light of day, and we’re here to tell you all about it.
The AWA Team Challenge Pilot
Throughout history, wrestling has often resorted to gimmick matches with often outlandish stipulations to attract crowds and keep fans interested. Three-out-of-two falls matches, matches in cages of various colors and sizes, lumberjack matches, first blood matches, scaffold matches, coal miner’s glove matches, wrestling bears, blindfolded, handicap matches, TLC, many forms of hardcore matches, deathmatches, the list goes on. Wrestling has probably tried it (or soon will)!
But traditionally, the AWA was so strict with rules that the wrestling they presented was dating itself. Verne Gagne seemed to fear change even with the wrestling world around him in the mid-’80s being a far cry of the product in the ’60s and ’70s during the AWA’s glory years.
Would they be able to innovate enough to stem the tide that threatened to crush them? Or would they be up the creek without a paddle?
“In all my years of professional wrestling, I’ve never seen anything like this!”
– Greg Gagne
Looking like nothing the AWA or anybody in wrestling had done before, the AWA Team Challenge pilot sure tried its best to be different. The basic premise was three teams vying for points in various gimmick matches.
The teams were: Baron von Raschke’s “Baron’s Blitzers,” Larry Zbyszko representing his “Larry’s Legends,” and “Sarge’s Snipers” led by Sgt. Slaughter.
When Slaughter left (fled?) the AWA before the conclusion of the series, his team renamed itself DeBeers’ Diamondcutters, with babyface Col. DeBeers at the helm. The team would “win” a cool $1 million at the end of the year.
The pilot begins with a shot of a large American flag on a pole waving majestically in the wind. For a short moment, patriotism is pumping through the viewer’s veins. Yes, America! Stars and stripes!
Then, you’re abruptly interrupted by a floating AWA logo, and, almost immediately, you hear the beckoning call of spirited, cheering women, like something you’d hear at a football game, not a wrestling show.
What is this? Why, they’re scantily clad cheerleaders sporting 1984 hairdos (in late-1989), each with pom-poms exalting their allegiance to the AWA (see photo above). They can do splits too! We also see quick cuts of highlights for the upcoming show accompanied by energetic but generic synthy and repetitive background music.
We then get the man, the legend himself, a content Verne Gagne (not like someone who was losing his company) sitting on his dock accompanied by a dog on his lap. Why? Before we get an answer, he introduces himself and wants us all to know that he’s been retired after 35 years of wrestling.
Verne excitingly talks up the awesomeness of the upcoming AWA Team Challenge Series and explains that it’s “an ongoing team competition with standings, determined by a point system. A first for professional wrestling!”
He also remarks that the AWA “brings you, the wrestling fan, directly into the ring” with their new television technology!
Gagne then cheerily exclaims that he might even come out of retirement one more time! And even though he says he’s kidding, deep down, you know he’d love nothing more than one more run with his championship belt!
We then transition to an overly enthusiastic youth (who would later become a 7-time Emmy Award-winning NHL play-by-play broadcaster) named Ralph Strangis and Verne’s son Greg Gagne in a place they call “Satellite Base” (WTCN-TV, now KARE-11, an NBC affiliate).
They promise the viewers an unbelievable show with The Beverly Hills Knockouts (who were actually oil wrestlers/dancers from a local gentlemen’s club). With an overly eager smirk, Ralph tries selling their charm by spouting, “Wait ’till you see what these ladies can do in the ring!”
And if women who box in strip clubs isn’t your jam, they also assure “hot, new, exciting rock and roll to help us usher in a whole new era of wrestling.”
In turn, Greg Gagne, the wrestling virtuoso of the two, tries to bring the viewer back down to earth and will strive to provide insight into the matches. He promises that they’re going to feel real for the viewer, as real as it was for him in the ring.
They both claim, “This is the beginning of the Brand New AWA.”
The Brand New AWA
Well, this all looks pretty encouraging now. And so, the eager Ralph Strangis then hollers, “Hang on and strap in,” and seems almost unable to contain his excitement before getting into the first colossal match featuring Tommy Jammer versus Tom Burton.
We immediately see that the sizzle is much more enticing than the gristly steak. A shiny apple, only to be rotten inside. Yes, the wrestling itself isn’t half bad, the fundamentals are there from Jammer and Burton, but it’s middle of the road at best. Even in 1989, it IS something you had seen plenty of times before and assuredly didn’t have Vince McMahon’s WWF shaking in their boots.
Some of the wrestlers make their entrance in a green or red hallway that looks like something from the movie Tron (1982), with pre-recorded footage of people on each side at what looks like a generic sports bar. All the matches intermittently cut to this bar scene, with viewers demonstrating varying levels of enthusiasm. The footage is sped up, and it is all very strange.
The announcers promise the innovation of slow-motion replay. It’s a nifty addition to the matches that get old fast and at times seem to slow down the show.
What’s worse and explained later in this article is that Verne Gagne was very upset by how much the wrestling business was exposed by breaking down these wrestling moves in plain sight and for all to learn.
After a decent “Claw Master,” Baron von Raschke and Sgt. Slaughter promo, we cut to “Mean” Mike Enos and Wayne “The Train” Bloom of The Destruction Crew (later The Beverly Brothers in the WWF). They’re seen holding sledgehammers as they unconvincingly destroy two buildings projected on a green screen behind them.
It’s all in good fun, but not as cutting edge as professed almost ad nauseam by everyone who’s spoken so far in the program.
They’re then accompanied by manager “Luscious” Johnny Valiant as they go through the red Tron-like hallway filled with the same cheering people whose video is obviously on a loop.
Ricky Rice and Jerry Lynn face them in another decent but unspectacular bout. And, of course, more slow-motion footage of wrestling moves.
After the match, a young Eric Bischoff (sporting a peculiar hairdo) gets in on the action and interviews Johnny Valiant. He is demonstrative as always, and it’s nice to see a real wrestling legend on a lackluster show.
After another promo by Sgt. Slaughter and then Col. DeBeers, Ralph Strangis and Greg Gagne proudly present the Beverly Hills Knockouts, “sanctioned” by the Beverly Hills Knockout Committee. (Sure, they were!)
The Blonde Bomber and Slaughterhouse Shaun (or maybe it’s Sean or Shawn. They don’t specify) hit the ring and land some very good worked punches. Mustang Sally is frequently seen outside the ring protesting anything and everything. The other ladies, all looking like part of the big hair club, surround the ring serving as eye candy, wearing nothing more than lingerie, bikinis, and short shorts.
There is a lot of emotion in this foxy boxing melee, which entertains for a while. Still, to the absolute delight of the commentators, it quickly turns into a messy wrestling fray as both ladies begin brawling. You’d think that all they needed now was for the ladies to wrestle in either oil or mud.
Before long, we get another taste of the AWA’s impressive “new television technology,” with camera shots showing a first-person perspective of the knocked-out ladies looking upward towards a counting referee.
Sean Waltman and Jerry Lynn have claimed that they helped the girls train for these matches.
After everything goes to heck, we are again shown how the three teams are doing points-wise, but no explanations other than that are given. Does it matter anymore?
The pilot goes on like this. To the chagrin of all, it doesn’t get much better.
In total, the show mercifully clocks in at under 40 minutes. Not even an appearance of a ripped Paul “Hardrock” Diamond towards the end of the pilot in front of an outer space backdrop could save the show.
The notoriously odd pilot never aired and was only recently available for viewing on the WWE Network/Peacock under WWE Hidden Gems.
The concept of the Tag Team Challenge Series did move forward, and a team sports aspect was infused in the matches that took place in an empty pink studio with no fans. They seemed to combine traditional pro wrestling with what was hot at the time. Shows like American Gladiators and Roller Games were all the rave. Why not attempt adding elements of these shows to wrestling?
Sadly, fans were subjected to ridiculous stipulations like a turkey on a pole match, neck pulling contests, something called a meat grinder match and a match with Yukon John Nord and Col. Debeers battling each other with one arm tied behind their backs. This was the AWA at its most creative?
The AWA Team Challenge Series died a slow death by August 1990, and soon along with it, the AWA closed its doors in 1991.
Perspective From People Who Were There
Eric Bischoff is often wrongly blamed for the idea of the AWA Team Challenge Series pilot and subsequent matches that it set in motion. However, he was not involved in a management capacity during his stint with the AWA. Instead. he was employed solely as an on-air interviewer and commentator.
“Mike Shields (production) was working with a guy out of Chicago by the name of Bob Syers (syndicator), and his company was representing the AWA in the national television market, meaning ESPN.
“I think it was Bob’s idea more than anyone else’s to try and come up with a format that allowed Verne [Gagne] to camouflage the fact that he couldn’t put any people in arenas. Kind of the same problem WCW had when I got there. It’s the same problem TNA had… you know if you can’t draw a crowd, how do you make your television product feel important?
“If you place yourself in the shoes of a viewer who’s just a passive viewer, not a hardcore fan, and if you’re just an average fan, a passive fan, and you turn on your television and see this action going on inside of the ring and you see 40 to 50 people sitting at ringside, it sends you a message that what you’re watching really isn’t very important or viable. And that’s where Verne was.”
Bischoff continued, “His house show business was horrible. There wasn’t any real talent there anymore. All the main talent that had been the driving talent for Verne’s business were all gone. The only people left were brand new talent nobody had ever heard of before.”
He further revealed that the producers wanted to use a new technology called Chroma Key, used in visual effects and post-production. The idea was to substitute a live crowd and instead have them “chromakeyed” for their studio recordings at a local Minneapolis television station.
It became an earlier and crude version of what WWE’s Thunderdome became in 2020 when they could not have live crowds for their Raw or SmackDown shows.
But the 1989 technology wasn’t up to snuff to do as they envisioned. So, the final version for the AWA Team Challenge Series pilot saw this technique used only for the wrestler’s ring entrances where they’d be walking in a green screen environment reacting to people around them who weren’t physically present.
The people had been pre-recorded at a local bar/restaurant and were persuaded with drinks to appear in the experimental AWA show.
This is further explained by former AWA videographer “Polish” Joe Ciupik, a guest on the 6:05 Superpodcast, with Brian Last and Jim Cornette.
“That to me was a cluster ‘f,’ and you know the rest of the letters. We went to a TGI Fridays or an Applebees. Some bar/restaurant near the AWA studios in Minneapolis. And I’m thinking they’re going to have something set up, people there that we’re going to be able to direct, ‘Here’s what we’re doing, and here’s what I need you to do.’
“We go there, and I meet Nick (outside producer, non-AWA employee), and he says, ‘Okay, go ahead and ask people to start cheering and so forth and tell them what this is for.’
“I looked at him and went, ‘What?! This isn’t like set up? We don’t have people or a cast that knows what we’re doing?’
“‘No. We just have a bunch of people here. I just figured we’d ask them to do it.’
“I was like, ‘Okay. Oh, joy. This is going to be fun…'”
Ciupik further explained that more people said ‘no’ than ‘yes,’ and even though the restaurant patrons were offered drinks, their reactions were minimal and not very enthusiastic.
“In the back of my mind, I was like, ‘I don’t blame you, dude. I don’t want to be a part of this, either!’ But I was getting paid and doing what the boss was telling me to do.”
The producers went to any table regardless of who was there and tried coaxing them to be on camera. Nick, the outside producer, even tried to direct some of the kids for the shots.
Ciupik thought, “Are you kidding me? These kids barely know the alphabet or how to count to ten, let alone know what the hell you’re talking about!
“Anyone who’d be willing to be on camera, we’d shoot. More people said, ‘no’ than ‘yes.’ They did not want to be on camera!”
Ciupik now distances himself from the project by stating that he was just a videographer and didn’t take blame or credit for the AWA Tag Challenge Series pilot and clarifies that post-production was done out-of-house. But he was there every step of the way of the process.
According to him (he prefaces by saying that all this was thirty years ago), it was Greg Gagne’s concept. Greg wanted to do something different in professional wrestling by adding a sport or team element into the business.
The overall look and feel of the show was the responsibility of an outside producer whose first name was Nick (the last name couldn’t be recalled by Ciupik), someone Ciupik does not believe was a wrestling fan, just familiar with the generalities of the business.
“He tried and quite frankly succeeded in presenting professional wrestling in a way that hadn’t been done before,” Ciupik offered, “and probably not been done since for a variety of reasons!”
He estimates that it took about three to four months from concept to taping.
“At the time, I was intrigued by it as I look back for no other reason than the AWA was a sinking ship and trying to grasp at anything, to try and keep the ship upright.
“To his credit, [the producer] tried something different. It didn’t work, but he wanted to do something completely out of the norm for professional wrestling in the hopes of throwing something against the wall and hoping it would stick. Not only did it not stick, but it bounced back and hit us snap dab in the forehead!”
Reactions From the Powers That Be
So how was the AWA Team Challenge Pilot series received by Verne Gagne and the powers that be in AWA?
According to AWA videographer “Polish” Joe Ciupik, “It was an utter disaster for the business. It went from being presented as a live event sport, to a movie. That’s what it felt like. Suddenly a 7 to 8-minute match took half an hour to shoot.”
When the edited pilot was presented to Verne Gagne and others in AWA for the first time, he remembers minimal reaction aside from faintly remembering Verne Gagne slapping his forehead and going, “Oh, geez!”
“He actually did it a few times during the show and a harder slap at the end of it,” Ciupik remembers.
He believes that the first slow-motion demonstration to the viewers on how to take a body slam is when Verne went, “Oh, geez,” the first time. It seems that the slow-motion shots overexposed the business too much for his own comfort.
When asked by Brian Last of the 6:05 Superpodcast, “What good came out of [the AWA Team Championship Series]? What did you see while you were working on this that you were able to apply in a positive manner to future AWA broadcasts?”
“The end of it,” answered Ciupik after a brief pause.
“Not the end of the AWA, but the end of the Team Challenge Series. I mean that in a lot of seriousness.
“The concept I guess had a touch of viability, in that again, it was something different. ‘Let’s just give it a shot,’ because what was being done, wasn’t working.
“Really looking back at the whole TCS escapade, I really can’t pinpoint one particular thing that came out of it that still exists to this day.”
Although the AWA Team Challenge Series is often viewed as an awkward footnote in wrestling’s illustrious and rich history, the AWA gave it an honest shot. They tried to bring to the table something that had never been seen before by wrestling fans.
It worked on some levels but is mainly considered one of the last unfortunate failures of a once-grand wrestling promotion.
Would something like this work today? Or is the AWA Team Challenge Series better off left buried and forgotten?
It was pretty fun, though. Right?
Watch the AWA Team Challenge Series Pilot:
These stories may also interest you:
- Verne Gagne and the Rise and Fall of the AWA
- Stan Hansen and the AWA Championship Belt Fiasco
- A Ghost Story: How a Long-forgotten Territory Still Haunts WWE
- Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling – When Wrasslin’ Shifted to Entertainment