AWA All Star Wrestling
September 2, 1989
“He buried him like a treasure chest!”
- Lee Marshall, 1989
Call it a guilty pleasure. Call it whatever you like. I watched AWA wrestling long past its mid 1980’s sell by date thanks to my grandmother’s basic cable subscription. Their ESPN show paled even in comparison to Jim Crockett’s World Championship Wrestling on Ted Turner’s TBS network and, by 1989, looked just a cut above Memphis wrestling in terms of television production. A small notch. Memphis boasted bigger crowds at least. To the end, however, Verne Gagne’s AWA largely eschewed the cartoonish gimmickry of Vince McMahon’s polished and booming WWF and never seemed ashamed to be a wrestling promotion. Let this review stand as paltry elegy for a wrestling company that never felt the need to pretend to anything else.
The less than stellar team of Larry Nelson and Lee Marshall open the program claiming to be on the scene in Chicago at a live card promoted locally as “The War in the Windy City”. The bare bones set is typical for the promotion by this point and smart money says they filmed this “location” intro in a Minneapolis studio. Nelson and Marshall run down the show’s card competently enough, but Marshall’s earnestness is as laughable as his ballyhooed “insider status”.
Our first match is “Illustrious” Johnny Stewart facing off against “The California Jammer” Tommy Jammer. One look at Jammer’s nickname in the AWA is illustrative of the creative slump deepening year after year as the promotion stumbled towards its doom. Commentating like we get from the tandem of Marshall and Eric Bischoff doesn’t help much either. Listening to Marshall struggling to identify even relatively common moves like a spine buster (deemed here “a power move” – thanks Lee) drags the presentation down several notches. The match, however, is better than it is has any right to be given the circumstances – Jammer and Stewart go above and beyond with an energetic back and forth match orchestrated with just the right amount of high spots in the action. Jammer wins clean with a flying body press.
Our next segments takes us back to another basic blue screen AWA interview segment, sans even the company’s logo in the background, and we’re treated to Nelson and a bleach blonde noticeably portly Scott “Flash” Norton standing at an arm wrestling table. Norton’s real life credentials as a championship level arm wrestler is the gimmick the sage AWA brain trust saddled him with and he’s still a faltering, self-conscious interview. Nelson pushes how other company champions like Flair and Hogan, including AWA World Champion Larry Zbyszko, hasn’t answered Norton’s arm wrestling challenge. It’s the sort of trash talking you might hear from a smaller man who’s taken a terrible beating but starts challenging you again shouting from blocks away. The company doesn’t need to be mentioning their competitors at all at this point – any comparisons are going to end badly for them. Suspending disbelief that Norton has $250,000 to put up against the business’ biggest stars is arguably harder than pretending Marshall is equal to prime Jim Ross. They bring out a referee, identified only as “Tom”, for a quickie arm wrestling march. Norton buries him. Like a treasure chest? Nelson’s near hysterical reaction to Norton’s victory makes the segment worth viewing.
Central States Heavyweight Champion Akio Sato wrestles Paul Diamond in the show’s second bout. Nelson conducts a brief ringside interview with Diamond where he lays out the scenario – this is following Diamond’s face turn after former Badd Company team mate Pat Tanaka and Sato attacked him. Diamond swears to destroy Diamond Dallas Page’s Diamond Exchange stable, starting with Sato, and storms the ring. It’s an unfortunately colorless babyface interview, but Diamond’s trying.
These two strong workers put on a good match. Sato has the foreign heel gimmick down to an art and relies on a lot of the standard moves – hair pulls, nerve holds, kicks, chops. Everything’s crisp however and Sato has good energy that never lets his half of the match drag. Marshall promotes the later title match between Larry Zbyszko and Greg Gagne. Marshall and Bischoff do a little better with their commentary on this one, but Marshall’s surprising lack of knowledge still shines through, his continued earnestness is painful, and Bischoff is obviously green as grass on color. Diamond mounts a brief comeback and it rouses the scant crowd, Sato regains it briefly, and then we have Diamond’s sustained babyface run. He tosses Sato out to the floor and gives a sloppy body slam. He sends Sato into the ring post at less than agonizing velocity and the referee calls for the bell. They tease Paul Diamond attacking the referee briefly when the ring announcer bellows out news of Diamond’s disqualification, but he soon shakes the referee’s hand and raises his hands in moral victory.
Back to the blue screen cut away interviews. Nelson brings out Paul Diamond for an awkward babyface interview where Diamond swears revenge against Pat Tanaka, Diamond Dallas Page, and more violence against Sato. It’s thankfully brief. When we return, Marshall talks about Bill Apter writing that Badd Company wasn’t destined at last, crediting his vision, and starts promoting the AWA’s new top team The Destruction Crew. Wayne “The Train” Bloom and “Mean” Mike Enos are pushed with a brief training montage complete with Rocky soundtrack music, a brief recap of their reign of terror so far with (brief) manager “Luscious” Johnny Valiant, including the AWA’s arguably last great angle when the Destruction Crew assaulted Ken Patera at the car lifting contest televised on ESPN and their later “retiring” of “Chief” Wahoo McDaniel.
There’s an embarrassing flub early on when the Destruction Crew comes out for a ringside interview. Donna Gagne tries introducing the team too early, pre-empting Nelson’s ringside interview, but stops herself a little ways in. Bloom and Enos are an underrated team, lost to history thanks to the promotion’s horrible state, but they do show why they later earned a brief WWF run as The Beverly Brothers. The promotion, in a rare concession to common sense, soon abandons the Destruction Crew’s road crew shirts as a gimmick, but you forget that unfortunate fashion choice once the match begins.
They are wrestling Ken Patera and Scott “Flash” Norton. Patera, once one of the business’ great heels and a legitimate Olympic star, is a shadow of his former self. He’s wearing the same gear he sported during his final WWF run, but he’s in the worst shape of his career. Unfortunately, he wrestles the bulk of the match to hide Norton’s inadequacies. He hits a smattering of mat wrestling, but the majority of his offense is unconvincing power moves and strikes. Ultimately, however, it doesn’t matter as Enos and Bloom carry the match.
The end comes when Patera, after an extended beat down, makes the hot tag to Norton. Norton comes in slow, hits the most rudimentary offense imaginable, and panics color commentator and Destruction Crew manager “Luscious” Johnny Valiant enough to send him into the ring. Valiant nails Norton in the back with a blow from his cane incapable of cracking an egg and follows it up with a series of gut shots that are even less convincing, somehow, and Norton no sells anyway. Cue Norton landing a bear hug on Valiant and the match ends in a cluster with Norton and Patera winning by disqualification. Not the worst match I’ve ever seen, but The Destruction Crew aren’t miracle workers either.
We return to Nelson conducting an in-ring interview with Patera and Norton/ It’s the usual “we’re not done with those guys” yet fare, but Patera proves he can at least still competently carry a babyface interview, if nothing else. Norton only contributes near the end and they continue protecting him by keeping things brief. It’s puzzling to me what Gagne or anyone else saw in Norton at this point – his obscure sports celebrity as an arm wrestler doesn’t suggest, then or now, the stuff of greatness to come.
We get another advertisement soliciting bookings from the general public. Yes, folks, at the end of the line the AWA ran spots with a phone number you could call to pay for shows at your local arena. One wonders how much business this move generated – if any. We return to the episode with Nelson interviewing again, black screen behind him this time, and his guests are “Luscious” Johnny Valiant and Wayne “The Train” Bloom. We hear the beginnings of the Destruction Crew’s later gimmick of Bloom continually interrupting Enos when Nelson asks about the Mean One’s whereabouts and Bloom dismisses the question telling Nelson he told Enos “the Train will handle this”. Bloom goes off ranting about wanting the tag titles, putting Brad Rheingans out of commission, and sidelining Wahoo McDaniel. Bloom turns the interview over to Valiant. Valiant responds by sending Nelson off camera in a huff and going off for an extended, nutty, and not always intelligible promo. It’s one of the demented highlights of the episode.
Another interview with the blue screen returning. Nelson interview Greg Gagne this time, then “International” Television champion, promoting next week’s title match between Gagne and AWA World Heavyweight Champion. It’s a brief and to the point babyface interview, zero fire, where Gagne keeps it humble, works in a reference to dad Verne, and promises to beat Zbyszko. Nelson sends us out with a final word about next week’s show.
They’re breaking up a single card into multiple television episodes because, frankly, they don’t have enough going on to sustain a fresh television show each week out. The matches aren’t unwatchable dreck, but even the best performers during this episode are struggling uphill to generate any significant excitement in a promotion running on scant fumes. Kudos to them for still trying for what must have been little money at that point.