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KENTUCKY FRIED RASSLIN'

By Scott Bowden
Scott Bowdens Kentucky Fried Rasslin

2006-12-07 - The Beverly Hills Blonde Bomber

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.

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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.

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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."

While Ric Flair looked like a pro wrestler trying to appear classy, Nick was class, which made the AWA World champion the antithesis of local Memphis babyface Jerry Lawler. For years Memphis-area promoter Nick Gulas, and later, Jerry Jarrett, booked NWA World champions like Jack Brisco, Terry Funk and Harley Race to face local favorites such as Ron Fuller, the Stomper, Rocky Johnson, Steve Kovac, and of course, the hometown King, Lawler. Jarrett has since voiced his frustration over the NWA board refusing to allow the title to change hands in Memphis, citing the fact that he feared that fans were catching on that the belt would never go to the local challenger. Jarrett didn't help his cause when Race supposedly got wind of a video the promoter had put together making it appear that Lawler had beaten "the entire NWA" when in actuality many of those bouts had ended inconclusively. This led to Harley challenging Lawler to a shoot before one of their title bouts, a confrontation the King undoubtedly would've lost.

For whatever reason, Jarrett aligned himself with Verne's promotion in the summer of 1978, switching the affiliation of the area's Southern singles and tag titles from NWA to the AWA.

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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.

Instead of Race and the NWA, Memphis fans were soon educated to accept Nick Bockwinkel as the World champion. With his oversized belt and even bigger vocabulary, Nick was a tailor-made heel for Memphis rasslin'.

During the DVD, Lawler describes his old foe: "He was a class act. He had this certain air about him. He carried himself like a real professional. When you saw the guy, you knew he was the real deal. He was excellent on interviews. I'd put him in the top five of the guys that I've ever wrestled." Nice shots of Bockwinkel wrestling Lawler in Memphis air during the DVD voice-over, including a rare shot of Nick wearing the AWA Southern title and while hoisting the AWA World title...a nice touch.

Many fans of old-school wrestling marvel at the way Race and Flair could sell their opponents' offense and make them look like a million bucks. They had nothing on Nick, who, much like Ricky Steamboat, sold in a much more realistic fashion, like a heavyweight boxer on the ropes prior to being knocked out. (A skill which came in handy during the champ's matches with Hulk Hogan, who was made to look invincible because of Nick.) But seemingly no one could knock out the AWA kingpin, not even Lawler on his home court, despite several wonderful bouts -- in my opinion, the best of the King's career. (Of course, AWA owner Verne defeated Bockwinkel for the belt as late as May 1981 in Chicago's Comiskey Park. Verne could still go in '81, but it was a little ridiculous seeing this older bald man -- who looked more like an insurance salesman than a wrestler at that point -- parading around as the World champion.)

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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.

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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.

I'll cover the rest of the AWA DVD next week, along with a few other rasslin'-related gift ideas for the fan on your Christmas list.

SIDE-NOTE SLAM: A guy named Mark (ahem) from Tennessee passed along a link to his new Web site, which features the advance promo ads that usually appeared on Sunday in the Memphis COMMERCIAL APPEAL newspaper along with the results ... from 1971 to 1980. (Samples from the page are featured in this column.) Brings back a lot of memories for me. These same ads also appeared in the MEMPHIS PRESS-SCIMITAR on Friday evening, and I couldn't wait to run down the driveway and pick it up, as the ads gave a strong indication of what would transpire on that upcoming Saturday's TV show. I was thrilled to see the results for the first card I ever attended at the Mid-South Coliseum: Lawler and Jackie Fargo defeating Austin Idol and Mil Mascaras in a stretcher match. Check it out at: http://www.marksfiles.com/index.html.

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