Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Book Review: Minnesota's Golden Age of Wrestling: From Verne Gagne to the Road Warriors.

Recently the Minneapolis Star-Tribune complied a list of the 50 greatest pop culture moments in the history of the state of Minnesota. Fifth on the list was the formation of the old American Wrestling Association in 1960.

Old-school professional wrestling was the Saturday night program of choice for thousands of Midwestern families during the AWA's heyday, but the history of the once powerhouse promotion has been largely forgotten since the national explosion of World Wrestling Entertainment.

Noted insider George Schire attempts to cure that by exploring the history of the AWA and wrestling in Minnesota in a comprehensive new book from the Minnesota Historical Society Press called Minnesota's Golden Age of Wrestling: From Verne Gagne to the Road Warriors.

A legitimate top-tier athlete, Gagne was recruited to play football and wrestle at the University of Minnesota. As an amateur, he captured two NCAA titles and was an alternate for the U.S freestyle wrestling team at the 1948 Olympic Games before being drafted by the Chicago Bears.

In those days, professional wrestling actually paid better than football and Gagne chose the mat game in 1949. By the early 1950s, he had became one of the biggest and highest paid sports stars in the country thanks to his weekly exposure on the old Dumont television network out of Chicago.

The National Wrestling Alliance, the sports largest governing body at the time, and Chicago promoter Fred Kohler eventually had a falling out when the NWA allowed a rival Windy City promoter a title date with world champion Lou Thesz.

Kohler, who controlled the sport's national television exposure on Dumont, responded by canceling bookings on Thesz and creating the United States championship for his biggest star, Gagne.

In turn Kohler booked Gagne out to other promoters around the country, charging the same 10 percent of the gate that the NWA asked for Thesz. Thanks to Dumont, Gagne was actually a better draw in many cities and Thesz was angered.

By 1957 Thesz wanted out of the insane travel schedule and Gagne was thought to be his logical successor, but was bypassed for Dick Hutton, Thesz's hand-picked replacement.

In 1960 Gagne grew increasingly restless over never getting a shot with the belt and purchased controlling interest in the Minneapolis Boxing & Wrestling Club, creating the AWA.

Gagne used the new organization to make himself a world champion, concocting a story that then-NWA champ Pat O'Connor refused to give him a title shot.

The American Wrestling Association would go on to give exposure to some of the most colorful characters in wrestling history, including Hall of Famers Gene Kiniski, Jack "Fritz Von Erich" Adkisson, Dick "Dr. X" Beyer, Reggie "The Crusher" Liskowski, Ray "The Crippler" Stevens, Maurice "Mad Dog" Vachon, Dick "The Bruiser" Afflis, Billy Robinson, and Nick Bockwinkel in such major cities as Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Chicago, Omaha, Winnipeg, Denver, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas and San Francisco.

Gagne held the AWA World Heavyweight Championship a record ten times before retiring from full-time competition in 1981.

The promotion flourished for a few more years with Bockwinkel, Hulk Hogan and The Road Warriors leading the way but eventually succumbed to Vince McMahon's national expansion with the World Wrestling Federation, which is now known as World Wrestling Entertainment.

The WWE kept the brand name alive by inducting Gagne into its Hall of Fame in April of 2006 and buying most of the television footage from the company's archives.

An easy read, Schire's book encompasses 256 oversized pages and has a suggested retail price of $27.95 but is available for as low as $18 on Amazon.com.
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