Wrestling Review: Nick Bockwinkel vs. Curt Hennig - May 2, 1987

Written by Jason Hillenburg, posted by blog admin

San Francisco, California
May 2nd, 1987

Lost in the shadow of their classic late 1986 hour long draw that aired nationally on ESPN, the May2nd, 1987 confrontation between AWA World Heavyweight Champion Nick Bockwinkel and Curt Hennig, the future “Mr. Perfect”, is a much shorter contest, but arguably more gripping until the finish. San Francisco’s Cow Palace hosted the main event for the AWA’s second Superclash card and anyone who wants visual evidence of the organization’s badly wounded status can take a single glimpse at the sparse crowd for, presumably, the crowning of a new young champion. Despite Bockwinkel’s success in a bad situation, being awarded the title once again thanks to the Stan Hansen debacle masquerading as a title reign, Bockwinkel was a middle aged man positioned as the AWA’s standard bearer while locked in a battle for survival against the far healthier WWF and Jim Crockett Promotions. Continuing with Bockwinkel as champion proved untenable soon enough, but Hennig stood ready as an essentially homegrown prodigy, a blossoming heel, a great bumper, and evolving fast into one of the best in-ring performers of his generation.

It’s a hard hitting affair. The famous hour long Las Vegas tilt doesn’t rate as a powder puff bout but, because of its shorter length of twenty five minutes and change, the intensity level has a much more claustrophobic feel. Hennig attacks the match with a go for broke attitude he maintains throughout the entire of the bout and the subsequent post-match angle. Hennig’s AWA heel days are now overshadowed by his high profile, better promoted WWF run as Mr. Perfect, but I saw him in my youth as one of the best young heels in the business, solid on the mic, and crackling with intensity. Hennig lacked any great babyfaces during his run as AWA champion, but you aren’t going to draw when you lack compelling challengers and labor under an antiquated booking formula.

Bockwinkel is clearly calling the bulk of the match, but there’s obvious give and take going on here as well. There isn’t a single time when I watch late Bockwinkel matches, particularly those with Hennig, where I don’t finish a little slack jawed how elite he remained up to the very end of his full time ring career. The pace he maintains with Hennig is notable; they seldom linger in anything resembling a rest hold and the see saw effect of their exchanges comes across organic rather than blocked off with pre-match chorography. One of Hennig’s best bumps ever comes at near the eleven minute and five second mark when Curt reverses an Irish whip, sends Bockwinkel hurtling into a corner, and misses with a running charge at the champion. He soars between the ropes and crashes into the ringside barricade despite breaking his fall. Despite poor camera positioning, it’s still quite a sight.

They work through a series of exciting near falls near the match’s end, including a spot on sequence when Hennig lands a beautiful cross body block on Bockwinkel coming off the ropes. I’ve seen him do it with many other wrestlers, but I love how Bockwinkel sells dazed so well that suspension of disbelief brings you into the moment to say, yeah, Hennig’s got him now, Bockwinkel’s out on his feet and this ends it. Then the champion kicks out again, at two and three quarters, naturally.

Bockwinkel briefly turns the tables on Hennig again and collides with Hennig coming off the ropes. Larry Zbyszko, who challenged the winner of the match before it began and sat ringside throughout, saunters over to a stunned Hennig draped over the bottom rope. They pull off one of the more discreet handoffs you’ll ever see in a modern professional wrestling match and Larry walks away. Hennig gets to his feet at the same time as Bockwinkel and summarily clocks him with a punch to his jaw that knocks the champion out in a flash. Hennig covers him for a three count and wins the title.

But not so fast. Watch Hennig and Zbyszko close after the pinfall and you’ll see them exchange something Larry pockets.  Guest commentator and legendary Bockwinkel tag team partner Ray “the Crippler” Stevens insists something underhanded has transpired, takes off his headset, and heads for the ring to protest the decision. He yanks Larry’s hand from his pockets and dimes fly across the ring mat. AWA “President” Stanley Blackburn enters the ring, confers with the wrestlers and referee, and announces the title will be vacated until the AWA championship committee rules on the footage.

It is an unfortunate finish born out of necessity, but a mistake nonetheless. The WWF courted Hennig at the time and, while it certainly isn’t the whole story, elevating him to world champion represented part of AWA owner Verne Gagne’s attempt to retain his services. Hennig had not yet decided whether or not he would stay with the AWA, thus Gagne put the title in limbo until he made his decision. It followed soon after and the AWA named Curt Hennig the new world heavyweight champion.

Bockwinkel would wrestle a little while longer, but never regained the title. The finish, necessary or not, killed off a dying town – as mentioned in the introduction, the scant attendance for Superclash 2 didn’t bode well for the future and the crowd’s loud chant of bullshit when they reversed the decision chopped the head off of the AWA running San Francisco. Despite its circumstances, the match still stands the test of time as dramatic athletic theatre and the entire feud between these two legends stands as a rare example of a legend passing the torch to a talented rising star and finishing school for one of the greatest modern technicians, Curt Hennig.