The Great Raid: How the WWF Took Over Wrestling (Part II)

FRANKCorrespondent IIAugust 16, 2009

The first installment focused on laying down the foundation by providing high level details of the state of wrestling in 1983 and before.

This installment will focus on the remaining years of the 1980s and the consolidation of approximately two dozen organizations to two as wrestling hit the 90s.

  • Wrestlemania and Survivor Series

The success of Jim Crockett's Thanksgiving "supercard," Starrcade, raised the bar and competition that Vince McMahon was ready to battle. He was ready to bet the farm on Wrestlemania to offset this NWA success.

In '85, Wrestlemania took place in Madison Square Garden and featured the main event of Hulk Hogan and Mr T. fighting Rowdy Roddy Piper and Paul Orndorff. Jimmy Snuka and Cowboy Bob Orton was in the respective corners.

Wrestlemania was a financial and critical success which secured the company's status as the most successful promotion in the United States.

Though both Starrcade and Wrestlemania would be able to share in the wealth, McMahon was looking to place his foot on the competition's throat.

In '87, Pay-Per-View was becoming popular and was rightfully visioned as a vehicle to spread the product. The WWF created Survivor Series to directly compete against JCP's successful Thanksgiving card Starrcade. 

To ensure that Survivor Series would profit and win, McMahon forced the PPV company to air Survivor Series if they wanted to keep the Wrestlemania shows.

Since technology was limited during this time, the PPV company was only able to air one of the cards. Of course the WWF won because McMahon was able to flex his power. 

NWA had no choice but to move their annual Thanksgiving card to the end of December if they were to compete.

  • Cable Television and Regional Organization

The WWF always had the upper hand due to their national exposure on TV. Matches were aired on the MSG channel, network television (who remembers the numerous Wrestling shows on Saturday morning which featured jobbers fighting against the stars), and on late night TV with their Saturday Night Main Event shows on NBC.

To compete with this exposure, various regional organizations implemented plans to go national via cable television.

JCP bought slots on TBS and began buying out some of the smaller territories like St.Louis and Florida.

ESPN began airing shows of the Pro Wrestling USA promotion (NWA and AWA merger) in the mid-80s and then eventually just AWA after the split. These shows were a hit for ESPN and the business relationship continued until AWA's last days in '91.

Please begin watching these AWA shows on ESPN classic if you have not. You will not be disappointed with the quality. 

I remember these days very well. Being a fan from New York, I was able to watch various organizations from California to the Carolinas via syndicate television. Seeing wrestlers who I only knew from the various magazines that I read monthly.

Even though the program was on a UHF channel, therefore the quality was terrible, it was the best shows on television.

Most of the cards had squash matches like the WWF but also featured a main event match which was so exciting that you couldn't wait for the next program.

The schedule was the following:

Monday and Wednesday: Jim Crockett Promotions, which featured the great feud between the Four Horsemen and the Superpowers (Dusty Rhodes, Magnum TA, Nikita Koloff, etc...)

Tuesday and Thursday: WCCW, which featured the Von Erichs feuding against Gary Hart's stable, Gino Hernandez and Chris Adams

Friday: California Wrestling which my recollection of this organization is next to nil...sorry

and on Saturday...Universal Wrestling Federation which featured great talent like Terry Taylor, Eddie Gilbert, Steve Dr. Death Williams, Sting, Fantastics, and the Freebirds. The UWF program featured no squash matches and was the most execited program of the week.

On WPIX-TV, AWA wrestling was shown every Saturday afternoon. The matches and format was similar to the cards on ESPN. Road Warriors, Curt Hennig, Scott Hall, Jerry Blackwell, Stan Hansen, and Sheik al-Adnan Kaissie's army were some of the main attractions.

Unlike the WWF programs, these programs featured some quality matches and needed to be if these organizations were going to compete against the mighty WWF.

  • Roster Raid and Organization Mergers

It became very clear to many organizations that the only way to compete with the WWF was to merge with other organizations, especially since their rosters were depleting due to the mass exodus of talent that was heading Vince's way.

After Hogan signed with WWF, talent after talent left to join him from the AWA. The initial wrestlers to fled were Ken Patera, Jumping Jim Brunzell, Adrian Adonis, and Jesse Ventura. Other personalities who left were Bobby "The Brain" Heenan and "Mean" Gene Okerlund.

The NWA was also susceptible to the raiding. Roddy Piper, Greg Valentine, the Briscos, Ricky Steamboat, and Bob Orton left for greener pastures.

The wrestlers above were critical to Vince in moving forward. They were experienced and, for the most part, unknown to the WWF fans. Most of them came over with successful gimmicks which were hits with the fans of the Northeast.

In '85, the NWA and AWA combined talent to compete with the growing power of the WWF. Their formation concluded with a successful card named Superclash which was held in Comiskey Park in front of 21,000 fans.

The feature matches were Rick Martel defending the AWA Title against Stan Hansen, Road Warriors fighting the Freebirds, and the main event was Ric Flair v. Magnum T.A. for the the NWA Title.

I suggest trying to get your hands on this cassette or YouTube the matches. It was better than Wrestlemania.

Unfortunately for these organizations, the union was short as Verne Gagne accused David Crockett of trying to sign the AWA wrestlers away.

Who knows! But it was another win for the WWF as they would have no problem taking apart these organizations individually. With them combined, it would have been a tougher challenge and only one can wonder if history would have been different.

AWA would form another alliance with the WCCW and CWA (Jerry Lawler's organization) in 1988. Though the alliance lasted longer than with the NWA, the talent was not up to par and their were too many egos involved (Lawler, Gagne, and Fritz Von Erich).

AWA and JCP were not the only organization raped. Mid-South Wrestling was also in the path of the wrath.

By 1980, Mid-South Wrestling was one of the best managed organization. Bill Watts had a great way to promote the good v. bad guy angles. He was also excellent in hitting the fans' Patriotic nerve by using the Russia v. US angle. This occurred way before NWA used the Koloffs and WWF used Volkoff/Iron Sheik to fulfill the same angle.

By the 1986, Watts too was feeling the heat from McMahon's invasion. He watched as main stars like Junkyard Dog, King Kong Bundy, Ted DiBiase, Hacksaw Jim Duggan, Kamala, Dick Murdoch, Butch Reed, Jake Roberts, The Sheepherders (Bushwhackers), and others left for the WWF. Watts probably was hit the hardest with the raid.

But, Watts still had fight in him and was not ready to go down.

Watts basically went bankrupt trying to take his organization national, which was now called Universal Wrestling Federation. To go national he spent a lot of money to sign the Freebirds and for the most part, as mentioned above, it was the best wrestling going on in '86. This was saying a lot because wrestling was booming during this time.

Unfortunately, the local oil economy in the South went into a quick recession in late '86 and many fans were not able to spend money on entertainment.

With the debt rising and less cash flow coming in, Watts sold his UWF organization to Jim Crockett Promotions. This was another organization JCP bought to compete with the WWF.

  • AWA Closes Its Doors

After failing to grow with the failed mergers, Verne Gagne was losing steam and wrestlers in the late 80s.

Though he was still developing some young talent, they were quicker to leave once they gain some recognition. Some of these talents were the Destruction Crew (Beverly Brothers), Kokina Maximus (Yokuzuna), Leon White (Big Vader), the Rockers, Tom Zenk, Scott Hall, and the Nasty Boys.

In '89, Gagne basically backed away from the day-to-day operation and let Eric Bischoff run the organization.

Bischoff has been mentioned as the idea behind the fateful Team Challenge Series. This series pitted three teams, made up of the remaining roster, who competed in various types of matches to split $1 million. This was a serious flop and basically accelerated the fate of the AWA.

By 1991, matches were taped in a empty room without any fans in order to fulfill their television obligations.

What an unfortunate way for a classy organization to end. I blame Verne Gagne's ego and stupidity. But there was probably no way the AWA would have competed against the WWF.

  • Jim Crockett Sells

Jim Crockett started to feel the pressure to sell as his bankroll could not compete with the WWF. At this time the WWF was promoting four PPV events, and the money was coming into Vince's pocket by the truckload.

Crockett sold his shares to Ted Turner in 1988 and the World Championship Wrestling organization was formed.

There was only two organization left heading to the next millennium, though ECW was gaining some recognition.

  • AOL - TimeWarner Merger

Wrestling was at its apex when the NWO angle occurred. This angle brought the best out of both organizations during the Monday Night War. Though the NWO angle was becoming stale in 2000, I have no doubt that WCW would have continued with their success.

Unfortunately, Time Warner merged with AOL. AOL deemed wrestling different from their image and basically gave McMahon the sport and the win. 

Vince McMahon was and is the lone man on the mountain. Though it must be lonely on top.

I often wonder what wrestling would be today, if some of the events mentioned did not occur.

I hope that some memories were restored with this article and the younger readers gained some curiosity in experiencing wrestling boom that occurred in the mid-80s.

I suggest watching some videos on YouTube or the WWE produced DVD of this era.

It was a pleasure to live through these times and know that wrestling will continue to prosper in the future.


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