The Wrestling Review Corner – The Spectacular Legacy of the AWA [DOC]

vernegangeOwner and star of the AWA, Verne Gagne – Source: World Wrestling Entertainment

I watched another great wrestling documentary the other night, and I’d like to share it with you, through the art of the pen, or in this case, the keyboard. To add to the list of films about specific wrestling promotions, I saw one that I’ve been meaning to watch for a while.

The Spectacular Legacy of the AWA gives you a guided tour around a world you may have previously known little about, but about which all true wrestling fans should be thoroughly educated. It’s a very serious, sports orientated piece documenting the highs and lows of a territory based around technical wrestling, not sports entertainment. The film is preluded by a classy intro from it’s star, Verne Gagne. The man is known as a true legend of the business, and the reasons why are covered in this.

However, it’s not just about Gagne, it’s about a whole organisation. The film shows you the history of how it got started, and even before it existed with Verne’s life in the 40s and 50s. This is probably as far back as I’ve learned about in wrestling. It’s so much more professional and cultured than the other ones that I’m used to seeing. You feel like you’re watching an ESPN special. It’s got all the high-end production values of a typical WWE documentary, but with more of a real sporting edge. As always, a host of great interviewees make up a large bulk of the content. Regulars like Jim Ross and Mike Graham are joined by a lot of new, or I guess actually old, faces that I’ve never heard of. It’s a nice change and a real education.

The AWA wasn’t just the bedrock of technical wrestling. At one point, after many years of growth, they had a roster that the world would envy, including the likes of Andre The Giant, Jesse Ventura and Hulk Hogan. I discovered that Hogan was contemplating leaving the business altogether, before he joined Verne’s company, and subsequently gained a tonne of momentum. That did a lot of good for both parties, but that relationship eventually soured. When Vince McMahon began to monopolize the territories, he took Hogan, Ventura and even Gene Okerlund to the WWE.

Vince and Verne didn’t see eye-to-eye one bit and this started a fierce business rivalry between the two of them. Gagne had always liked McMahon’s father, but didn’t take kindly to the young upstart rebelling against every rule in the old-school book. He forged an alliance with the NWA and began putting together inter-promotional events by the name of Superclash, in a bid to counteract Vince’s dominance. This very dysfunctional combination didn’t work and was eventually disbanded, having little or no impact on the WWE’s progress.

The AWA itself boasted some of the biggest names in wrestling history. It was also made famous by some of the best workers of all time. These are the men that are often forgotten. Half of the names I learned about watching this film I had previously only ever heard from JBL on commentary, or from watching the Legends of Wrestling round-table discussions. I learned about the brilliance of Nick Bockwinkel, and the genius of Bobby Heenan. If I was teaching Wrestling 101 at a community college evening class, I would show my students this film. It’s particularly insightful to hear from Verne’s son Greg, and take in his life experience as the son born into a world of professional wrestling.

Another rather fascinating period covered in the film is the emergence of a young Eric Bischoff. Paul Heyman gets a minor mention too, because he passed through there, but it’s the future WCW owner who was more memorable in the promotion. He was a regular broadcaster there during the company’s decline, before eventually using everything he had learned there to take himself to the top of the mountain. There are just too many names to mention, when it comes to cameo appearances from people you know, in this movie.

Verne made a lot of enemies over the years, mostly for refusing to move with the times. Hulk Hogan and Jerry Lawler are two guys who had notable run-ins with him. Hogan walked out after he felt he was unfairly treated. Verne didn’t care much for him, despite his success and popularity, because he was an average worker. Lawler took off with his title, after he wasn’t paid from a Superclash gig he was booked on. Neither of them had too many kind words to say about the guy.

Nonetheless, despite these differences, the overall picture painted is one of a very successful and ultimately important product, and it’s much-loved, highly respected leader. Despite it’s legendary status, it just couldn’t keep up with the changing tide of wrestling and the increasing competition from WWE. The film is brought to a close with an emotional montage of final statements from everyone involved. Verne’s Hall of Fame speech was the perfect way to send the screen to black, as evidence of a man now at peace with former nemesis McMahon, and proud of a lifetime of accomplishments. It was a nice touch from WWE, and a splendid way to top off a very uplifting two hours.

Thanks for reading, and check it out.

Craig [Editor]


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