Stan Hansen and the AWA Championship Belt Fiasco

Although Stan Hansen earned countless championships over the span of his 28-year career, he was always a man who knew where he stood and never needed a belt to validate his place on the roster. But when he was given the opportunity to become AWA World Heavyweight Champion, he readily complied, believing that there would be a financial reward in his future. This wasn’t the case.

When out of the blue he was ordered him to drop the belt to Nick Bockwinkel, he wasn’t thrilled and decided to take matters into his own hands! What he did to the belt afterward is now forever a part of wrestling lore.

Stan Hansen refused to drop the AWA Championship belt to Nick Bockwinkel, something he was ordered to do by Verne Gagne and the AWA.
Stan Hansen refused to drop the AWA World Championship belt to Nick Bockwinkel, something he was ordered to do by Verne Gagne and the AWA. [Photo: @OldWrestlingPic on Twitter]

Pro Wrestling USA and the End of the Wrestling Territories

For decades, the NWA and AWA operated under a territory system that divided the United States into well-defined markets. Each territory had its champions and operated in an insular environment where they presented their product as if wrestling didn’t exist outside of their product. Until national TV networks and later cable TV came into existence, the only media outlet that removed the veil from the fan’s eyes and made them aware of other promotions were wrestling magazines.

During the mid-’80s, Vince McMahon’s WWF (later WWE) propelled a forceful shift in the wrestling business that shook things up from its very foundations. No longer respecting the system, the WWF began raiding talent and eating up the smaller, weaker territories of the NWA and even the AWA. The WWF juggernaut bought TV time on stations like TBS (July 14th, 1984 became known as Black Saturday) and MTV, ensuring unequaled national exposure. It painted somber writing on the wall for the remaining territories in dire need of a plan.

With the WWF going national and determined to become the only wrestling product, a joint effort spearheaded by various promoters like Jim Crockett Jr., Verne Gagne, Ole Anderson, Jerry Lawler, and Jerry Jarrett saw the creation of Pro Wrestling USA.

Born out of necessity, the new organization would co-promote cards and stack them with such talent that not even the WWF would be able to match up.

Often promoting in northeastern cities that were the heart of the WWF, the Baltimore Arena became their most successful venue in the northeast.

It was commonplace to see both an NWA and AWA title match on the same Pro Wrestling USA card. The most successful event promoted by this tenuous alliance came on September 28th, 1985, at Chicago’s old Comiskey Park.

Twenty-one thousand fans witnessed SuperClash just a couple of months after the WWF’s breakthrough WrestleMania mega-event, their answer to the NWA’s 1983 Starrcade. Fans at SuperClash saw a stellar card featuring the Road Warriors taking on The Freebirds, Ric Flair vs. Magnum TA for the NWA World Championship, and Rick Martel retaining the AWA World Championship vs. Stan Hansen when the referee ruled the match a double disqualification.

Stan Hansen was one of the most successful wrestlers to enter the squared circle and was wildly popular overseas in Japan. [
Stan Hansen was one of the most successful wrestlers to enter the squared circle and was wildly popular overseas in Japan. [ [Photo: egloos.zum.com]
The next three SuperClash events are considered catastrophic failures and were mostly AWA talent working with other promotions not associated with Jim Crockett Promotions. By early 1986, Pro Wrestling USA was defunct.

Stan Hansen Becomes AWA Champion

Under the Pro Wrestling USA banner, Nite of Champions II, which took place on December 29th, 1985, from the Meadowlands Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey, saw an unexpected title change. Stan "The Lariat" Hansen became the new AWA World Champion after Rick Martel submitted to his "Brazos Valley Backbreaker" (AKA the Boston Crab). Before succumbing to Stan Hansen’s punishment, Martel held the belt for almost 19 months.

At the time, Hansen’s priorities were with Shohei Giant Baba’s All Japan Pro Wrestling, but he also worked with Ole Anderson and Georgia Championship Wrestling. With the relationship several of the promoters had forged with Pro Wrestling USA, Verne Gagne wanted Stan Hansen to work for him in the AWA, including Nite of Champions II, while still allowing him to meet his obligations in Japan.

Watch Stan Hansen Become AWA World Champion:

According to a 2009 interview Stan Hansen found within the pages of Volume 26 of The Wrestler Magazine, Hansen certainly saw promise when made the AWA champion. Still, the relationship quickly soured when he didn’t pocket the money he had envisioned.

"I think the AWA could’ve been good," said Hansen candidly. "I never went to the AWA thinking I’d ever be the champion. It wasn’t my idea. But everybody was complaining that Martel wasn’t drawing as champion. He couldn’t speak English, and there were a thousand reasons."

He continued, "[Martel] was a great white-meat babyface. He was a good-looking guy who could sell and never die. He and Tommy Rich were the best white-meat guys ever. I suspected they were just using me to pass the belt from one babyface to another. That would’ve been fine if they’d just laid that out to me at the beginning. I would’ve been fine having it for four months and passing it on. But when I saw that I really wasn’t being promoted, that was a problem."

Stan Hansen and the Curious Case of His AWA World Championship Belt

On June 29th, 1986, the local promoter passed down the AWA’s order for Stan Hansen to drop the belt to Nick Bockwinkel in Denver, Colorado. This was a decision that made little sense to the burly Texan.

For a man who never asked to be the champion, he just wanted the opportunity to work with people he could draw money with. He never felt that he got that push from Verne Gagne and he wasn’t content with just being a transitional champion.

"They were just giving me these squash jobs on TV," Stan Hansen said in a 2016 shoot interview with The Hannibal TV. "I had a few return matches against Martel, against Nick [Bockwinkel], but I just don’t think they were promoting me."

Hansen continued, "I’d go in, and next to my name it would be blank. They’d just get some guy to come in for TV. ‘Give me Curt Hennig, give me somebody that I could go out there and go crazy with and draw some money,’ I’d tell them."

It’s important to note that Hansen did defend the AWA title against Hennig on at least one TV taping aired on May 31st, 1986. Perhaps he wanted to have worked a regular program with him.

Shohei Giant Baba never gave Hansen any direction on what to do when in the United States but trusted he would make the right decision. Well, when he was ordered by the AWA to drop the title to Nick Bockwinkel, Hansen purportedly had a tense confrontation with the promoter. He left the building and went back to All Japan Pro Wrestling taking his AWA championship belt along with him.

Giant Baba had previously booked Hansen for a tour as the AWA Champion, and the same happened upon Hansen’s return to Japan. Hansen defended the belt as the AWA World Champion as if nothing had happened.

Stateside, the AWA immediately stripped Hansen of the title for no-showing in Denver, and Nick Bockwinkel began his fourth title reign as AWA World Champion. In place of the AWA World title, which was still in Japan, Bockwinkel temporarily used a tag team championship belt instead.

Watch Nick Bockwinkel Makes The Best Out of an Odd Situation:

When Verne Gagne and the AWA threatened legal action, claiming that they rightfully owned the belt, Stan Hansen supposedly ran over the belt with his pickup truck or tractor. He then sent it back to the AWA office in Minnesota, ruined and with mud tracks all over it.

Hansen admits that he was in the building when he was ordered to drop the belt to Nick Bockwinkel. When asked by Hannibal TV if he ran over the belt before returning it to Verne Gagne, Hansen responded with a smirk on his face while crossing his arms, "Well, you know, the belt got beat up. That’s all I got to say. It was beat up when I got it, but it was beat up a little more when they got it back!"

In an interview with The Wrestler Magazine, Hansen was again coy with the details about supposedly running over the belt.

"That’s a great story. I don’t know who started it," says Hansen.

Conducting the interview was senior writer Harry Burkett, and he replied to Hansen that Nick Bockwinkel often told that story.

"Well, ask Nick then [laughs]. I wouldn’t say it was a pickup truck, but it might’ve been some other kind of motorized vehicle. Nevermind, no comment on all that. It’s not important," said Hansen in a bid to mitigate his statement.

When speaking on the Monte & The Pharoah Variety Show in 2019, Stan Hansen still regrets not making the money he believed he could have during his AWA World Championship run. He remembers that after months of what he deemed "missed opportunities," out of the blue, AWA wanted him to drop the belt to Nick Bockwinkel. According to Hansen, Bockwinkel’s response to Verne Gagne was, "Don’t just spring the news on him like that because he’s not going to react well."

Hansen was surprised to learn that even though he had sent the belt back (a little damaged no less), the AWA had already made a new one for Bockwinkel. "It didn’t look like the big old piece of shit belt that was made in some prison!"

Although he later joked that he'd heard inmates made the AWA Championship belt, Stan Hansen certainly didn't want to let go of it so easily!
Although he later joked that he’d heard inmates made the AWA Championship belt, Stan Hansen certainly didn’t want to let go of it so easily! [Photo: courtesy of Pro Wrestling Illustrated]

The Aftermath

Stan Hansen remembers years later being seated awkwardly next to Verne Gagne at a Cauliflower Alley Club reunion. "What a joke that was, right? I’m sure somebody was laughing his ass off!" But Hansen claims that later, he and Gagne buried the hatchet and laughed at the whole situation because "it’s only business."

He also mentions that aside from all the things Verne Gagne didn’t do right as a promoter, he can’t say anything wrong about him because he kept his word.

"He verbally committed to pay me a certain amount for one of his big shows, with no contract, and he honored it," says Hansen.

Wild stories fill the pro wrestling landscape, and as time goes by, these anecdotes become legendary tall tales that we’ve come to cherish. To this day, Stan Hansen still hasn’t publicly provided all the insight into what happened that fateful Denver evening and keeps much of the story kayfabe.

It’s very likely that this whole AWA belt fiasco may not have happened if the AWA had demanded a security deposit on their belt like the NWA was famous for doing.

As for the short-lived alliance called Pro Wrestling USA, we will always wonder, “What if?” On paper, they certainly could have given Vince McMahon’s WWF a run for their money. Unfortunately, they couldn’t keep their egos in check and effectively work together to slay the giant.

Stan Hansen became arguably the most famous foreigner to ever wrestle in Japan, and in 1996, was inducted into the Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame. In 2016, Vader (Leon White) inducted Hansen into the WWE HoF, and in 2017 he received the Frank Gotch Award from Waterloo’s National Wrestling Hall of Fame Dan Gable Museum.

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Javier Ojst
Javier Ojst is a senior writer for Pro Wrestling Stories. He is an old school wrestling enthusiast and the creator/administrator of the Facebook page "Classic Wrestling Stars." He also has a few bylines on Pop Culture Retrorama where he shares stories of pop culture and retro related goodness. This work can be read by following the link above. He can be reached by e-mail at jojst1@gmail.com.