Verne Gagne’s Costly Blunder with Hulk Hogan
It was there for the taking. Promoter Verne Gagne had the hottest star in the business. The Incredible Hulk Hogan was battling for the American Wrestling Association Championship against Mr. AWA himself, Nick Bockwinkel. It should have been the match that kickstarted one of the greatest runs in wrestling history.
Instead, Verne’s blunder that night soon led to the downfall of the AWA. Nine months later, Hogan would be pinning Iron Sheik for the WWF World Heavyweight Championship.
Hulk Hogan Vs Nick Bockwinkel: The Butterfly Effect
The date was April 24th, 1983. Ten days earlier, the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul were hit with the largest April snowstorm in history (13.6 inches).
As a result, the Metrodome, home of the Minnesota Twins and Minnesota Vikings, deflated. Schools were closed, and mail delivery was suspended for the day.
Although this sounds like a tale of gloom and doom, and while an event like this would paralyze most cities for days on end, Minnesotans, besides being friendly, are amazingly resilient and equally proficient at dealing with occurrences like this. By the 24th, it was business as usual.
A Clash of Titans: The AWA Championship Showdown
On that April day, the temperature had climbed to a balmy 68 degrees. Twin Citians were grilling bratwursts in their shorts and flip-flops and chasing that delicious fare down with a cold, refreshing Hamm’s.
That evening, reigning AWA Heavyweight Champion Warren Nicholas “Nick” Bockwinkel defended his title against a relative newcomer by the name of Terry Eugene Bollea, more commonly known as Hulk Hogan, at the St. Paul Civic Center.
Bockwinkel, then 48, had been wrestling professionally since 1954 and was in his third reign as AWA Champion, having won the belt on October 9th, 1982, defeating Austrian legend Otto Wanz at the International Amphitheater in Chicago.
Wanz had captured the belt 41 days earlier, defeating Bockwinkel on August 29th at the Civic Center.
Legends Collide At The Saint Paul Civic Center
The St. Paul Civic Center had hosted many sellouts over the years, featuring the likes of wrestling greats Verne Gagne, Maurice “Mad Dog” Vachon, Baron Von Raschke, Larry Hennig, and of course, Bockwinkel.
Hogan, then 29, had been wrestling for less than six years, having joined the AWA in late September 1982 after an extended tour of Japan.
Ironically, Hulk was a little over a year old when Bockwinkel made his professional wrestling debut against Jerry Christy at the Valley Garden Arena in Los Angeles on September 3rd, 1954.
Early Years of AWA
A little bit of history is in order here. The AWA was founded in 1960 by Verne Gagne and Wally Karbo, having purchased the Minneapolis Boxing and Wrestling Club from Dennis Stecher a year earlier.
Gagne and Karbo organized the secession of several territories out of the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA), forming a highly successful and independent Midwest promotion.
Throughout the sixties and seventies, the AWA ran shows in Chicago, Milwaukee, Winnipeg, Denver, and later Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, and San Francisco. However, the hub for the entirety of the promotion was the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, Minnesota.
Gagne himself held the AWA World Heavyweight Championship for most of the promotion’s existence. However, in November 1975, he dropped the belt to Bockwinkel and would, save for one last run in 1980, keep himself out of the title picture going forward.
Hulk Hogan Vs Nick Bockwinkel: A Match Remembered For All the Wrong Reasons
Let’s set the stage for that fateful evening.
The referee, Lord James Blears, a wrestling great in his own right; Announcer, “Mean” Gene Okerlund; Commentator, Rod Trongard; AWA President, Stanley Blackburn; and of course, the participants, Hulk Hogan and Nick Bockwinkel.
Nick, accompanied by his long-time manager, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, entered the ring first to a massive chorus of boos from the standing-room-only crowd.
A moment later, the entire St. Paul Civic Center erupted at the sound of “Eye of the Tiger,” captivated by and enamored with their new hero, “The Incredible” Hulk Hogan.
Hogan was wearing a black t-shirt with “We Want The Belt” inscribed on the front and “Now or Never” on the back.
The stage was set for the proverbial passing of the torch.
Hogan’s Triumph in AWA and the Unforeseen Consequences
After a fairly one-sided match (in favor of Hogan), Hogan dropped his signature leg drop on Bockwinkel and covered him for the 1-2-3. The torch had been passed, and a new King had been crowned!
The St. Paul Civic Center nearly imploded as the ecstatic crowd saw Hogan lift the belt high for everyone to see.
The AWA was seemingly about to embark on a new era; “The Day of the Dinosaur” (Gagne was 55 when his last run had ended on May 19, 1981) was making way for The “Eye of the Tiger”! All good, right? Well, not exactly…
The Controversial Twist: Hogan’s Triumph Turned Sour in AWA
Moments after the pinfall, Mean Gene announced that Hogan had been disqualified for flipping Bockwinkel over the top rope to break the Sleeper Hold that Bockwinkel had locked in.
Additionally, the referee, Lord Blears, had been knocked out after being the heel end of a Bockwinkel-Hogan sandwich in the ring corner (how original, you might aptly say).
Bockwinkel left as champion, and the collective air was taken out of the sails of the previously elated sellout crowd, but not before they orchestrated a perfectly synchronized [BS] chant.
“[BS] [BS] [BS]”– The enraged AWA crowd after the match.
So, what became of the participants after this match?
Hulk Hogan, Mean Gene, and Bobby The Brain moved on to the World Wrestling Federation, where their legends were made (in the case of Hogan and Okerlund) or solidified (in the case of Heenan).
Bockwinkel held the AWA belt until February of 1984, winning it again on June 29th, 1986, and losing it for the last time on May 2nd, 1987, at 52.
Pro Wrestling USA’s Ambitious Bid to Counter WWF’s Expansion
To keep the AWA alive, Verne Gagne attempted to form a syndicate with several of the larger existing territories to thwart the expansion plans of an increasingly aggressive Vince McMahon Jr. and his WWF.
This promotion, called Pro Wrestling USA, was formed in 1984 and included the Continental Wrestling Association (CWA), based in Memphis and owned by Jerry Jarrett; Georgia Championship Wrestling (GCW), headed by the cantankerous Alan Rogowski (known to all of us as Ole Anderson), and the legendary Mid-Atlantic promotion, owned and operated by Jim Crockett, Jr.
The promotion had high hopes and drew over 21,000 fans for their SuperClash event at Comiskey Park in Chicago on September 28th, 1985.
Unfortunately, although starting with a bang, infighting between the promoters led to the quick demise of the promotion after only a year in existence.
Although Gagne attempted to carry on and, at times, experienced a modicum of success in the next few years, his efforts were ultimately unsuccessful.
In late 1990, the American Wrestling Association, an iconic and prestigious territory for 30 years, breathed its last breath.
What if Verne Gagne Did The Right Thing and Crowned Hulk Hogan AWA Champion?
This leads to the focus of this story; what if Verne Gagne had seen the proverbial light and done the right thing, placing the AWA Championship belt on a hugely marketable and ‘over’ Hulk Hogan?
As mentioned earlier, Gagne and the AWA had pursued aggressive expansion in recent years, annexing Western towns such as Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, and San Francisco, in addition to their staple cities such as Chicago, Omaha, Denver, Winnipeg, Milwaukee, and Green Bay.
At this time, Gagne and the AWA had working relationships with Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling, based in Calgary, and a strong partnership with Jerry Jarrett’s CWA. There are many other variables to this story, of course.
But one of the first targets for Vince McMahon’s national expansion was San Francisco.
The Hogan Factor: How Hulk Hogan’s Departure Impacted AWA
McMahon was able to oust Gagne from his Bay Area TV outlets by offering large weekly payments to the local station owners. Of course, he could do this because he was in possession of the cash cow and the golden goose, both of whom were named Hulk Hogan.
If Hogan were still performing with the AWA in front of sellout crowds at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, would McMahon have even been able to contemplate such a move?
All speculation, of course, but could Gagne, with Hogan selling out arenas throughout the Midwest, the West Coast, and Canada, have been the one to offer Stu Hart a million dollars for his Stampede Wrestling promotion (as McMahon did)?
Speculating the Impact of Hulk Hogan’s Absence on WWE’s First WrestleMania
Again, pure speculation, but is Vince McMahon able to pull off the first WrestleMania without arguably the biggest star in wrestling?
Would any other main event match have generated the requisite interest (and, of course resulting pay-per-view buys) that McMahon desperately needed at that point to sustain his operation and fund further expansion?
Gagne’s Dilemma: The Struggle Between Tradition and Financial Realities
Back to Gagne. There were two separate and distinct issues in play here.
First was Gagne’s core belief that the AWA title should be around the waist of a legitimate ‘scientific’ (the vernacular of that day) wrestler.
Throughout the previous 20-plus-year history of the American Wrestling Association, the belt had been primarily held by Gagne and Bockwinkel. However, at varying times men like Mr. M (Bill Miller), The Crusher, and Mad Dog Vachon were given brief championship runs.
After the Hogan debacle, Stan Hansen, who never met a wrestling hold that he liked, held the title for about six months until he decided to use the championship belt to test the durability of his truck tires.
Although limited in his move set, Hogan was capable of putting on a serviceable match for a reasonable duration.
Gagne’s second issue was (what else?) money.
The Tale of Two Careers: Hogan’s Ascent and Bockwinkel’s Fading Stardom
Verne was reaping substantial financial gains from Hogan’s merchandise sales and Hulk’s frequent tours of Japan. Verne was taking the lion’s share of the cash, much to the dismay of the young Hulkster. Allegedly, Hulk proposed a 50/50 split of the revenues, an idea Gagne summarily rejected.
One must wonder what went through the mind of one Laverne Clarence Gagne a little over three years later when Hogan was pinning Andre The Giant in front of 93,000 plus screaming fans at the Pontiac Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan, while on that same day, 52-year-old Nick Bockwinkel was teaming with 51-year-old Ray Stevens in front of a capacity crowd at Boylan Catholic High School in Rockford, Illinois?
Would it Have Thwarted Vince McMahon’s National Expansion Plans if Hulk Hogan Won the AWA Championship?
This topic was debated on the June 1st, 2021, episode of the Dan and Benny In the Ring podcast. The esteemed guests, Nikita Breznikov, former manager of Nikolai Volkoff, and Evan Ginzburg, Associate Producer of the Oscar-nominated The Wrestler and 350 Days, shared their thoughts on this controversy.
“I think it would have delayed it,” speculated Evan Ginzburg, “but, ultimately, you cannot escape from yourself; you are who you are. Gagne didn’t want to spread the money around, and Vince paid these guys more. It was as simple as that.”
Ginzburg continued, “Look, Piper could have been on top, Sergeant Slaughter could have been on top, Randy Savage, Utimate Warrior, they were all draws.
The Impact of TV and Money on Hogan’s Career Path
“Getting back to our original premise, had Hogan stayed in the AWA, he would have drawn for six months or a year, and eventually, Vince would have offered him more money, and he would have jumped, just like all the other guys jumped. There was a reason; it was dollar signs.”
Nikita Breznikov added, “Vince had better TV. Like anybody will tell you, if you don’t have good television, you ain’t gonna draw ****. Hogan would have burned out if he didn’t have that Vince McMahon machine behind him.
“Nikolai [Volkoff] had a great saying, ‘[BS] can get you to the top, but it cannot keep you there.’ Hogan would not have lasted six months. Period.”
Ginzburg and Breznikov agree that Hogan would have fizzled out fairly quickly as AWA Champion, and a non-Hogan-led WWF would still have taken over the wrestling globe, with the likes of Slaughter, Piper, Savage, Orndorff, and Warrior leading the way. The McMahon Money Machine would not be denied.
On the other hand, AWA historian George Schire, author of the book Minnesota’s Golden Age of Wrestling: From Verne Gagne to the Road Warriors, is emphatic that Gagne did the right thing by not putting the belt on Hogan.
However, he more or less agreed with Evan and Nikita that Hulk would have been lured by the big money Vince would have thrown at him.
What do you think would have happened?
Yes, it’s mighty special when grown men and women still passionately debate wrestling history.
Hulk Hogan winning the AWA World Heavyweight Championship remains one of the greatest “What if’s” in our beloved sport’s annals.
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The Fingerpoke of Doom!
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It is a moment forever burned in the minds of wrestling fans and considered by many the beginning of the end for WCW.
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