Most fans are very familiar with the "Monday Night Wars" that pitted WCW versus WWE in the mid-’90s through 2001 but what often gets overlooked is one of the most pivotal times in the history of the sport where betrayal, disloyalty, and mob tactics ran rampant in The Battle for Atlanta.
Ann Gunkel, the NWA, and The Battle for Atlanta
To this day, fans and wrestling historians speculate how wrestling would be today if Ted Turner’s WCW would’ve come out the victor instead of collapsing from within. WWE was trounced 83 weeks in a row in the ratings by Teddy’s company and had Vince McMahon scrambling for solutions for almost two years until the Steve Austin angle kicked into high gear. To the victor went the spoils. After WCW closed, WWE bought the rights and is now inarguably the largest wrestling/sports entertainment company in the world.
But in 1972, the largest wrestling governing body in professional wrestling: The National Wrestling Alliance, was having to deal with an "outlaw" promotion in one of its territories. This promotion was lead by Ann Gunkel, the widow of Ray Gunkel, former wrestler, and part-owner of the Georgia territory. Here is the story of how the NWA finally crushed her and the "outlaw" promotion she created.
"The NWA was going to take it all. What they wanted to do was push Ann Gunkel out and steal the territory. If anybody says anything different, they’re either a liar, or they don’t know what they’re talking about."
Ray Gunkel was considered Atlanta’s top babyface in the 1960s and led a resurgence of popularity of the sport in a struggling territory before his arrival. He tragically died after a match with Ox Baker in Savannah, Georgia, on August 1st, 1972, when suffering heart trauma after receiving a combination of stiff forearm shots to the chest area. Ray had been diagnosed with arteriosclerosis (hardening and plaque build-up in the arteries) before that. He had just taken a shower and was toweling himself off while talking to promoter Aaron Newman at the time of his death.
When Buddy Fuller (son of promoter Roy Welch) came into Atlanta, he and Gunkel formed a tag team that lasted, off and on, for eight years. In the ring, they were quite popular with the wrestling fans, but when it came to business decisions, it was said that Ray always kept a close eye on Fuller. As a matter of fact, the word is that by the time Ray died, he and Fuller were not even on speaking terms, despite the appearance in public of being best friends and partners.
Gunkel had become a minority owner of the Georgia territory, with 41% with business partner Don McIntyre owning the same percentage until Don decided to sell his share to Buddy Fuller. Paul Jones (not "Number 1" Paul Jones) owned the rest, which is calculated at around 10-13%. Paul Jones was the "front" of the operation but was more of the PR guy. Unfortunately, Gunkel and Fuller did not get along outside the ring, which seemed to bleed into not wanting Ann to be involved once Ray died.
The powerplay and conspiracy to rob Ann Gunkel of what was rightfully hers
Jody Hamilton, in his book "Assassin: The Man Behind The Mask," remembers, "An hour or so after Ray’s funeral was over, Tom (Renesto) called to let me know who was there. His first words were, ‘The vultures are beginning to descend on the carcass.’"
Hamilton continued, "On the afternoon of the funeral, Buddy Fuller, Eddie Graham, Lester Welch, and Paul Jones were in Ray’s office, plotting their plan of action. The following day, they closed down Ray’s company, ABC Booking, and started a new company, Mid-South Sports, Inc. (sanctioned by the NWA for the Georgia territory ). The four of them had majority control and ignored the fact that Ann Gunkel, as Ray’s survivor, owned Ray’s percentage points. In fact, they neglected to put those percentage points into the new corporation. They never offered to buy her out or suggested any other deal. It was a powerplay and a conspiracy to rob her of what was rightfully hers. Ann knew that Buddy Fuller, Eddie Graham, Lester (Fuller) Welch, and Paul Jones all hated Ray Gunkel. When I say hated, I mean it was a real, passionate feeling of disdain. They were not going to do anything to support Ray’s family. In other words, even though they were all in business together, when he died, they weren’t going to recognize any member of his family as being a part of it."
Promoter Jerry Jarrett recalls, "Ted Turner suggested the boys try to work with Ann. Lester Welch, who is Buddy’s uncle, was much more easy-going in personality than Fuller. Eddie Graham, a power broker in the NWA, suggested that Lester and Fuller trade wrestling interest. This meant Lester became Ann’s partner, and Buddy got Lester’s interest in Florida. But Lester had no luck getting along with Ann. In fact, it got much worse. Roy Lee, Lester’s son, changed the locks on the office, and this was the final straw."
"[Ann’s] reaction was pure fury," daughter Pam Gunkel remembers. "[Ann] later said that she hopped into her Cadillac and drove to the cemetery in a blinding rainstorm. Her husband’s gravesite was not yet fully tended, and in the rain and the muck, she dropped to her knees and pledged, ‘As God is my judge, Ray, I will never let the Welch’s win."
Although the promotional skirmish occurred in the NWA’s Georgia territory, the different players vying for power akin to when a mob boss dies came from all over the United States where a turf war broke out, and each one tried to get a bigger piece of the pie.
The Battle for Atlanta and how Ann Gunkel aggressively attacked the NWA
The Battle for Atlanta officially began on November 20th, 1972, when Ann aggressively attacked the NWA with a three-pronged approach. First, she persuaded Tom Renesto (Former Assassin #2 and Ray Gunkel’s booker) to join her. From there, they were able to hire away 25 wrestlers and even announcer Ed Capral from Paul Jones and Lester Welch, who were only left with two wrestlers, Bullet Bob Armstrong and Derrell Cochran. Next, she was able to get local promoters in six Georgia cities (Athens, Augusta, Savannah, Statesboro, Carrollton, and Waycross) to work for her and not the NWA. Lastly, she told Ted Turner she wanted her show on his WTCG-TV channel 17 (later TBS). When Ray Gunkel was alive, he made the deal to move his Georgia TV wrestling show from channel 11, an ABC affiliate, to the small UHF station owned by Ted Turner.
He accepted Ann’s proposal. For a while, they were slotted back-to-back with the NWA show, which made for a very uncomfortable situation between the wrestlers who had resigned from the NWA and the wrestlers still loyal to the wrestling collective. This compromise occurred after the NWA said that they were going to file a lawsuit with the station. At first, Ann had arranged exclusivity for her promotion on Turner’s station.
WATCH: Tommy Seigler vs. Dick Steinborn from January 16th, 1973, at the Atlanta Municipal Auditorium on Ann Gunkel’s All-South Championship Wrestling.
All-South Wrestling Alliance or ASWA (Gunkel Enterprises) held its first show on November 24th, 1972. Ann Gunkel’s roster was comprised of wrestlers who felt loyalty towards Ray Gunkel, some like Jody Hamilton (Assassin #1) were being offered a guaranteed $500 minimum per week (but it’s helpful is to point out that $500/week in 1972 is $3,063.91/week in today’s money). The wrestlers who decided to support this "outlaw" promotion were told from the start by Lester Welch (Fuller) that the powerful NWA owners and promoters would blacklist them if they joined Ann at All-South. According to the book "Chokehold" by Weldon T. Johnson and Jim Wilson, Wilson claims, "Later, an extensive investigation by Ann’s lawyers showed the NWA blacklisted or threatened to blacklist at least 19 of them."
Some wrestlers were stopped in their cars, confronted at airports, others received phone calls, and several were warned that certain delicate personal matters (dirt) would be exposed to the public if they continued working for Ann. Wrestlers that are known to have been warned or threatened not to work with Ann Gunkel’s ASWA also according to the book Chokehold include Tim Geohagen, Ernie Ladd, Argentine Apollo, Guillotine Gordon, Skandor Ackbar, Tomy Siegler, Jose Lothario, Cowboy Bob Ellis, El Mongol, Wayne Cowan, The Gladiator (Charles Sprott), Dick Steinborn, The Masked Marvel, Rock Hunter, and the list goes on. Tom Renesto (Former Assassin #2) was even offered stock in the NWA if he resigned as Ann’s booker.
Ann’s quick first strike surprised many, and her purging of the talent in Georgia left Paul Jones and Lester Welch (Fuller) in dire straits in need of wrestlers. This is where the NWA’s long-reaching network had an advantage over Ann’s small "outlaw" promotion.
Stars dispatched to help the Georgia territory were Junior Heavyweight Champion Freddie Blassie, Junior Heavyweight Champion Danny Hodge, Roy Shire’s United Stations Champion Paul DeMarco, and three other popular headliners that included Dory Funk, Bill Watts, and Fritz Von Erich. One week, even former boxing champ Joe Louis was booked to referee in three Georgia cities where he got paid $500 to ref the match in Atlanta, and Danny Hodge, who defended his Junior Heavyweight Championship on the same card, only got around $200.
The Ann Gunkel problem and the NWA’s urgency to continue to block her and eliminate her outlaw outfit in the Battle for Atlanta.
David and Goliath’s battle warred on and even went head-to-head for several months, splitting the market to the point where the NWA even began to slash its prices in a desperate attempt not to cede any more cities to the ASWA. The NWA partners continued to have official and unofficial meetings where the main topic was the Ann Gunkel problem and the urgency to continue to block her and eliminate her outlaw outfit. They seemed to be very organized and prepared for such situations.
According to Sam Muchnick, it was going to go down as the most difficult year in NWA history.
Ann knew that the most effective weapon the NWA had was controlling her access to talent. That is why shortly after starting her promotion, she had applied for membership into the NWA, but its boss Sam Muchnick told her that it was not possible because they were not going to allow two promotions in the same area. When she began contacting the different owners and promoters directly, she soon found out that the doors to any NWA talent had been sealed shut, proving that the owners were not going to cooperate when it came to "outlaw" promotions.
The NWA influence was so extensive that even independents like the WWA of Wilbur Snyder (who had been Ray Gunkel’s friend) and Dick the Bruiser would not help out. Verne Gagne’s AWA with Nick Bockwinkel didn’t dare help Ann’s upstart company either. Later on, towards the end of the ASWA’s two-year run, Bruno Sammartino, who was with the WWWF, was "convinced" not to hop on a plane from Pittsburgh to Atlanta by Vince Sr. and Bill Watts (NWA, also a stockholder in the Georgia territory). This caused the ASWA to refund thousands of dollars to angry customers for a show that had been publicized for weeks and had robust ticket sales.
The NWA also fought back by limiting the venues where she could hold her shows. They had powerful connections in all the cities where they began getting local officials and promoters to stop doing business with the ASWA. Some were wined and dined by the owners, while others, like Augusta promoter Steve Manderson, got his car trashed with broken eggs and its tires slashed. This was to make sure he understood the message not to do business with Ann Gunkel.
When Jim Barnett from the Australia promotion came into the picture, it was the beginning of the end for Ann’s ASWA. Now the NWA in Georgia would be known as Georgia Championship Wrestling. At the same time, Ann was hit with three lawsuits; one was for her booker Tom Renesto being sued for a million dollars and accused of stealing records and documents of Ray’s former promotion. Eventually, the lawsuits were dismissed, but Barnett continued to restrict Anne’s access to arenas all over the state and, along with his partners, orchestrated no-shows of her wrestlers to her already thinned out roster.
In later legal proceedings, Ronnie Garvin called Barnett the godfather of wrestling because "He’s the man with the money and the troubleshooters. If there’s a problem somewhere, he comes in and squashes it. He’s been known to do that for years."
With his political influences, money, and continued blocking of possible new talent, the ASWA days were numbered. The NWA was soon able to either get her wrestling program aired at odd hours of the night or cut completely as they did with the one she had been getting broadcasted on a Charlotte, North Carolina station (Turner’s) for at least six months. This one, in particular, was replaced by Eddie Graham’s product out of Florida.
In the spring of 1974, Jim Barnett and his NWA partners brought in the big guns to the Battle for Atlanta, and the city’s new Omni Coliseum was the stage where the incoming stars from around the country were showcased. Jerry Jarrett replaced Bill Watts as a temporary booker of Georgia Championship Wrestling. Heel manager Gary Hart was brought in along with the Garvin "brothers," Jerry Lawler, Dick The Bruiser against Tim Woods, (Mr. Wrestling 1), Mr. Wrestling 2, and Ron Fuller. In April 1974, the NWA gained the upper hand after Atlanta drew the largest gate in the city’s wrestling history with a card featuring the NWA champ Jack Brisco, Andre The Giant, Bobo Brazil, and Dick The Bruiser.
Jack Brisco was pivotal in the NWA, finally turning the tide. Usually, the NWA champion made appearances in major cities a couple of times a year. But with the ongoing situation with Ann Gunkel, Brisco was booked almost monthly in Atlanta, for a total of ten times that year. With the heavyweight champion came a host of other wrestlers like Ole and Gene Anderson, The Sheik, and Dusty Rhodes. Famed announcer Gordon Solie also became the voice of the promotion. Soon, Georgia’s territory had an incredible roster that the ASWA was unable to duplicate.
"For a time, we did good business," Jody Hamilton explains of Ann Gunkel’s All-South Wrestling Alliance. "There were times when I thought we had the NWA on the ropes. Eventually, even though it took the NWA two years to recoup their loss, they turned the corner and began to pull way ahead of us. Atlanta drew well, but we couldn’t make enough money from that one town to pay the rest of the bills. We did whatever we had to do to survive.
Hamilton continued, "It’s my opinion that the failure of the promotion didn’t have anything to do with the talent we were using. We had good talent. They were loyal to the company and worked hard to give the fans an entertaining show. However, the NWA strangled us by locking up any decent talent that might come our way or threatening those who might have been thinking about coming to work for us. We hashed and rehashed the talent we had in programs and angles until the fans had seen them in every type of match possible. The only time that Tom Renesto and I really disagreed on anything was when he built the territory around Thunderbolt Patterson. I have to admit that Thunderbolt was one of the big draws for Gunkel Enterprises, but in my opinion, Tom made a blunder when he put all of the company’s eggs into Thunderbolt’s basket."
The end of the Battle for Atlanta – Ann Gunkel surrenders All-South Wrestling Alliance.
In the main event for her promotion, Thunderbolt Patterson sold out Atlanta’s City Auditorium 13 times. Later he demanded a percentage of the company. That’s when he got fired and wound up starting another outlaw promotion called the International Wrestling League (IWL) in Georgia with American civil rights activist Reverend Hosea Williams and former football player and pro wrestler Jim Wilson. This organization managed to lure some talent away from Ann’s dying ASWA. The IWL also faced the challenges of doing business in an already controlled territory by the NWA, such as allegedly bribing arena officials, making it difficult for them to book a decent venue.
Eventually, Ann got bought out by Jim Barnett and surrendered in the Battle for Atlanta in November of ’74. For two years, Gunkel Enterprises gave the NWA a run for their money. Rumors have it that Tom Renesto (Ann’s booker) was an NWA mole the whole time and worked for Barnett, spreading the talent too thin and setting up the ASWA for failure. Jody Hamilton doesn’t think so.
"Based on what Ann told me later," Hamilton claims, "Tom had nothing to do with the company’s demise. It was Ann’s decision. Barnett had contacted her at a time when she was worried about losing everything. When Ann gave Tom the news, she told him that one of the stipulations she had made with Barnett was that Tom would get the booking job. She also got one-year guarantees for me, Charlie Harben, and Rock Hunter. In addition, she asked Barnett to use as much of her other talent as they could."
According to Gary Hart, the buyout was for $250,000, and Tom Renesto actually became the assistant to him as the new booker for Georgia Championship Wrestling starting in April of 1975. He claims that he had Barnett’s trust following the success they had in Australia and because he had been heavily involved in the booking of Florida as Bill Watt’s assistant in 1974 when the territory was in a boom period.
"There was no behind the scenes deal with Renesto," maintains Jerry Jarrett. "Buddy Fuller, Eddie Graham, Lester Welch, and Jim Barnett all, in fact, gave me direct orders to not screw with Ann or her talent out of fear of Ted Turner. Ted gave our group the word to fight fair. It was a simple matter of us doing a better job than Ann’s group."
In describing Ann Gunkel, Jody Hamilton once said, "If you made her angry, she wouldn’t hesitate to question your parentage or accuse you of having sexual relations with your mother. She was a good-looking woman, but beneath that pleasant-looking exterior, she was as tough as nails. I really liked Ann. She had some odd ways at times, but she was a good person who held her own in the business world, and I liked and respected her for that."
"A lot of people were against me," Ann Gunkel shares in a June 15th, 1974 interview with The Atlanta Constitution. They said it was too tough for a woman. And now they’re saying I’m too tough for the sport. I told them the NWA stood for ‘no women allowed.’"
Ann Gunkel passed away in 1987. Before marrying Ray, Ann was a very successful businesswoman in Atlanta in the hotel industry, where she made quite a bit of money.
Ray Gunkel was inducted into the George Tragos/Lou Thesz Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2008.
Both Ann and Ray are buried next to each other in Arlington Memorial Park in Sandy Springs, Georgia.
A compilation of all ASWA matches, according to Mid-Atlantic Wrestling Historian David Baker, can be found here.
You can find more on the IWL and their attempt to start a different kind of promotion here.
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