KENTUCKY FRIED RASSLIN'
By Scott Bowden
The Beverly Hills Blonde Bomber: Scott Bowden salutes former AWA World champion Nick Bockwinkel, a huge part of THE SPECTACULAR LEGACY OF THE AWA
God bless Nick Bockwinkel, the former heavyweight champion of the world. A mainstay of Verne Gagne's Minneapolis-based American Wrestling Association for years, Nick is featured throughout the recent WWE DVD release THE SPECTACULAR HISTORY OF THE AWA. Nick was -- and remains -- an engaging personality; however, being the old-school pro that he is, he sticks mostly to the kayfabe philosophy when discussing his career. Somehow, unlike Sgt. Slaughter, Nick does so in a charming way, and it's hard to fault the guy. Nick's career was winding down when the rules of kayfabe (i.e., never divulging any secrets about the business and remaining in character to outsiders) were beginning to relax in the late '80s.
While Nick realizes that most of the boys have no problem discussing the business as entertainment and nothing more, he still appears uncomfortable going in that direction. During the DVD interview, Nick artfully discusses his past opponents without divulging too much, occasionally using the term "great performers" (instead of great "wrestlers") when explaining how Billy Robinson, Verne Gagne and even Hulk Hogan would make him "elevate [his] game."
"It's like a psychological thing for the two guys getting in there," Nick tells us. "There was always a little one-upmanship--you make a move, and then maybe I make the move a little bit better. Once that bell rings, you'd better be idling at 4,000 rpm."
You get the idea.
Billed as being from Beverly Hills, Nick was the perfect heel opponent for the local hero Verne Gagne, an outstanding amateur wrestler and the founder of the AWA.
"Beating Verne Gagne in his hometown ... one could salivate over that," Nick says today, with the same subtle smugness that made him a hot draw in the Midwest, Houston and Memphis. "He was the hometown boy, so anytime you'd step on his toes and made him squeal ... they noticed you. You knew he was going to put the pressure on you. And that's what I was going to do to him."
Nick was a second-generation star, the son of wrestler Warren Bockwinkel, a fairly well-known grappler in his own right, who achieved notoriety for some bouts with NWA champion/legend Lou Thesz in the '50s.
In fact, Nick was approached at one point about taking over for Harley Race, as the touring NWA World champion; however, Bockwinkel was so accustomed to the AWA's comparatively light travel schedule, he turned down the offer.
"Once you got used to having off three and half days a week, it was fun," Bockwinkel says in the DVD documentary. And that's not even including the six-week period in the summer, when, as Greg Gagne explains, the company practically shut down.
Of course, Nick's schedule as AWA titlist also included dates in Memphis and for Houston promoter Paul Boesch, who began recognizing Nick as his World champion after NWA champ Harley Race no-showed two events. (Nick tells part of the story on the DVD.)
Baron Von Raschke puts over the classic battles between Verne and Nick, saying "For wrestlers watching their bouts, it was a thing of beauty. Everything was so smooth and well done."
Nick was no slouch when it came to mat wrestling, but he was an outstanding heel performer, with his classy, pretentious interviews and sneering mannerisms. Then there was the little white towel he carried to the ring and hung in his corner prior to starting the match--just in case sweat built up on his brow. (Years later, Bockwinkel-fan Curt Hennig added the towel to his Mr. Perfect gimmick.) Often dressed smartly in a suit during his promos, Nick also occasionally wore a loud, red half-unzipped jumpsuit (showcasing a small gold pendant tangled in his chest hair), which was emblazoned with "NICK" across the left chest of the jacket and "CALIFORNIA" on the back. Classic.
Pairing Nick with manager Bobby "the Brain" Heenan was a stroke of genius. Nick didn't require a mouthpiece to speak for him during promos, but Heenan added another dimension to his character.
As Nick says: "He was such an outstanding manager. And I'd put him about an eighth of a step behind Ray Stevens (a brilliant performer in his day). Bobby could replace me in any match, and the building would be just as wild. But I couldn't do what Bobby did."
Of course, in typical Jarrett and Lawler booking fashion, in their first opportunity to promote the AWA name, they played tricks with Verne's World tag-team championship. As the main event of the July 24, 1978, card at the Mid-South Coliseum, Jarrett booked a two-ring, triple-chance Battle Royal with the last two remaining the AWA World tag champions--even for Memphis, that's a ridiculous way to crown tag champs of the World. It was all an angle to turn "Handsome" Jimmy Valiant heel, who aligned himself with Don Carson to win the event. Carson was booked the week before as AWA World champions with the Red Shadow, despite the fact that Greg Gagne and Jim Brunzell were the champs at the time. I guess somehow the Shadow was injured, forcing the team to "vacate" the belts. The "title reign" of Valiant and Carson was soon forgotten.
When Memphis did their own version of the Dusty finish and claimed that Lawler had pinned Bock in a title match (the champ's feet were clearly on the middle rope), the "former" champ berated announcer Lance Russell at ringside immediately after the supposed title loss: "These cretins, these humanoids, I am sure will send their tens of thousands of letters to Stanley Blackburn (AWA figurehead president) claiming that Lawler pinned me the middle of the ring." A very large man at ringside overheard Nick say "cretins" and looked bewildered, as if to say: "I don't know what he just called me, but I don't like it." Nick goes on to warn Russell, "I hope that nothing happens to the tape of this match. I hope we don't have a Nixon doctoring job here. I hope we don't have that. If Lawler accepts this so-called victory, then he's the cheapest man I've even known in sports. Likewise for you, Lance Russell and likewise for these people. It's deplorable." This impromptu, off-the-cuff promo is one of my favorite wrestling interviews. And it was all done with Nick barely raising his voice above normal. Yes, Flair's insane promos were entertaining, but Bockwinkel carried himself more like a World champion.
From the hip: Bockwinkel hip tosses Lawler in their very first Memphis bout, held on Aug. 21, 1978.
Of course, Bock was on top too long, and if Verne had booked Hogan to win the belt in 1982 or '83, then it could have put a major dent in Vince's eventual expansion plans. Most likely, though, Vince would have successfully wooed Hogan anyway. It's a bit eerie watching the showdown between Hogan and Bockwinkel from April 14, 1982, which is included in the EXTRAS section of the AWA DVD. Hogan wins the belt, but the decision is overturned. When the sold-out crowd erupts and Hogan celebrates with the belt, the electricity is very reminiscent of the Hulk's WWF title win over the Iron Sheik in Madison Square Garden in January 1984. Makes you wonder what could have been for the AWA.