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“I see 1984 as being perhaps the most turbulent year in professional wrestling.” – Vince McMahon, WWF All Star Wrestling, December 31, 1983

One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.

Christmas night 1983 was a typical one for pro wrestling in the United States, as wrestling promoters across the country either celebrated or sulked over their holiday attendance.

For World Class Championship Wrestling, it was a night for celebration. They drew a record 19,675 fans, turning away 8,000 more, with a $210,000 gate for their Wrestling Star Wars card at Reunion Arena. Santa Claus came to town, but had nefarious intentions and looked suspiciously like Michael “P.S.” Hayes, who was supposed to leave town a month earlier, but showed up to deliver a surprise attack to the Von Erichs after they seemed to oust his Freebird brethren from Texas for good, based upon the Loser Leaves Town stipulation of the evening’s tag team main event.

For Georgia Championship Wrestling, it was a night for sulking, a task where notoriously cantankerous promoter Ole Anderson famously excelled. His Omni card only sold an alarming 2,500 tickets, an 80 percent (!) decline from Thanksgiving and a sign that the group might be in rapid freefall. Ole needed a win. Months earlier, Anderson ousted Jim Barnett for embezzling money from his company, only for Barnett to turn around, join the WWF, and start working to convince television stations in Ohio, where Ole had only recently expanded, to drop World Championship Wrestling in favor of WWF syndication. In attempting to be everywhere at once, Ole neglected to be much of anywhere at all, a lesson one would think he learned years earlier when he tried to book Georgia and the Carolinas at the same time, but apparently not.

Jim Crockett Promotions had a good night worth celebrating — a good holiday season, in fact, considering the record-setting Starrcade ‘83: A Flare For The Gold on Thanksgiving night — but also received some unfortunate news that might have resulted in some sulking. One of Crockett’s top babyfaces, Ricky Steamboat, made the decision to retire from pro wrestling. After he and partner Jay Youngblood defeated Jack and Jerry Brisco in a steel cage match, Steamboat broke the news to the live audience at the Charlotte Coliseum before they vacated the NWA World Tag Team Titles they won just a month earlier.

A typical night turned atypical for the AWA, so it was neither celebration nor sulking, but instead, confusion. While on tour in Japan, Hulk Hogan, promoter Verne Gagne’s top star, sent the AWA a telegram that he received an offer to jump to Vince McMahon’s WWF for more money. Thinking he could solve this, Gagne pulled resources and produced the capital to exceed Vince’s offer to Hogan. Gagne was so confident he would keep Hogan in the AWA that he continued to advertise him for the Christmas night card at the St. Paul Civic Center. Hogan was a phenom and the hottest wrestler in the country, and 19,675 fans, the most of any wrestling promoter in the country that night, filled the St. Paul Civic Center to see their favorite wrestler.

The problem was that “the Hulk”, as he was affectionately called at the time, wasn’t there. At bell time, Hogan was replaced by Baron Von Raschke, which went over with the live crowd about how you would expect. “We want the Hulk!” chants echoed through the arena, but sadly, AWA fans would no longer get “the Hulk”, at least not anytime soon, and never again in quite the same form.

We don’t know for sure what Vince McMahon was doing on Christmas night. He might have simply been resting up, knowing all of the chaos he was about to create around the world would require him to be on high alert. The very next day, while the AWA was busy issuing so many refunds to angry fans for Hogan’s absence at the San Francisco Cow Palace that their paid attendance shrunk to 3,000 fans, the ball would start rolling on McMahon’s own plans for world domination, and wrestling would forever be changed. On December 26 at Madison Square Garden, we received our first hint that nothing would be sacred anymore when the Iron Sheik defeated Bob Backlund in front of a shocked crowd to win the WWF World Title, ending a near-six year run as champion. If you watch the match, the crowd doesn’t respond as loudly as you might think, and that could be because they were in shock. Teenagers had become grown adults, graduated college, gotten married, or started families during the Backlund years from 1978-1983. We were rapidly approaching the second presidential election year of his title reign. Lives had changed. Yes, fans had started to get annoyed by Backlund’s change in appearance over the last year or so, but he remained an institution in the northeast. However, he would only be the first institution to be toppled.

Wasting no time, two days later, the WWF debuted in St. Louis, the spiritual home of the National Wrestling Alliance, to tape Wrestling at the Chase for New Year’s Day airing on channel KPLR-26. Vince’s true intentions, which had been debated among NWA promoters for months, could no longer be questioned. It was a declaration of war.

However, if anyone in the NWA was still affording him the assumption of no bad intent, McMahon would be happy to be transparent about how he saw the future. He debuted his new top star on this television taping — “The Incredible” Hulk Hogan. Hogan defeated Bill Dixon in a quick squash match before he was interviewed by another face familiar to AWA fans, legendary announcer Gene Okerlund.

Elsewhere on the taping, an old Hogan rival from the AWA debuted: “Dr. D” David Schultz. The presence of Okerlund and Schultz, who also failed to appear as advertised as an opponent at the AWA’s Christmas night show, meant that not only was Hogan debuting in the WWF, but he was also importing an entire structure that he trusted to make him as effective and successful as possible, a battle-tested collection of roles and performers that would only expand in the coming year. The local fans in St. Louis greeted Hogan and the WWF as liberators right away. McMahon moved the taping to the nearby Chase Hotel, which had higher capacity, and charged $5.00 per ticket when tickets for TV tapings had always been free. 1,100 fans entered the taping, with hundreds more turned away. You might think fans would balk at the changes, and at one time they probably would have, but the previous year had been a tough one in St. Louis that left fans demoralized. McMahon was at least selling them something new.

In March of 1983, just over a year after famed NWA promoter Sam Muchnick retired, Larry Matysik realized that his philosophical differences with NWA promoter Bob Geigel were so irreconcilable that he needed to break out on his own. Matysik departed the NWA’s St. Louis Wrestling Club and formed his own independent group, Greater St. Louis Wrestling Enterprises, with the intent of taking on the NWA stalwart, aiming to provide a truer vision of the classic, Muchnick-style professional wrestling he believed in. For the rest of 1983, the NWA would need to defend itself from Matysik’s consistent (and they’d say disloyal) opposition. Matysik was able to secure six-time NWA World Champion Lou Thesz as a special referee on his debut show. He formed partnerships with fellow outlaws Southwest Championship Wrestling of San Antonio and International Championship Wrestling of Lexington, which gave him access to great talent. He also had Bruiser Brody, the biggest star in the city. As the year progressed, Matysik chipped away at the incumbent, which raised questions about the NWA’s strength. He ran a series of cards at the Checkerdome that were progressively more successful until September, when despite the NWA headlining with major stars like Ric Flair and David Von Erich, Matysik drew 7,000 fans with a Bruiser Brody-Nikolai Volkoff main event, 1,500 more fans than the NWA was able to rally to the Kiel Auditorium for a matchup with much bigger stars.

In October, having shown us what he thought through presenting his version of pro wrestling, Matysik decided to tell us how he felt. “The National Wrestling Alliance is only a shell of what it used to be,” wrote Matysik in an editorial for a St. Louis newspaper. “Certain structures and politics have made it difficult for Greater St. Louis Wrestling Enterprises to obtain some of the established names so far. […] St. Louis fans are learning that if you want true wrestling excitement, action from start to finish, Greater St. Louis Wrestling Enterprises delivers the goods.”

Channel KPLR-26 was impressed; in hindsight, they were a little too impressed. They asked Matysik to collaborate with a New York promoter named Vince McMahon on a new wrestling show. Matysik honored their request, but McMahon had his own vision and perhaps unsurprisingly cast Matysik aside in short order. “The talk in the business is that [McMahon is] trying to take over everything,” Matysik told the St. Louis Dispatch on December 30. “The question is, can one outfit take over an operation that’s been run by dozens of independents? I don’t know, but they sure got rid of me.”

He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.

It was a painful pill that many promoters across the country had to swallow, although some had to do so on a different timetable than others, and they escaped with a little more dignity and considerably less heartache. For Jack Tunney, it was more an obvious decision than an easy one; when uncle Frank passed away in May 1983, he attempted to make a go of reviving Toronto on his own and had initial success, but the WWF’s talent acquisitions made Jim Crockett less likely to send him stars, his crowds dwindled, and eventually, the obvious decision was to sell to McMahon.

For Stu Hart, it was an easy decision by the time McMahon approached him. Stampede Wrestling was successful but didn’t have anywhere close to the resources or star power it would need to compete with the WWF when it obtained television in Calgary, Edmonton, or Vancouver.

It was also an easy decision for George Cannon. The WWF was eyeing Detroit, Michigan, for expansion, and worked with Jim Barnett to broker a deal with Cannon’s Superstars of Wrestling, a territory that had been in decline. Cannon heard rumblings in late 1983 that Georgia Championship Wrestling planned to invade the Motor City, all while in contrast, a smiling McMahon came in peace, pitching a three-way deal with a third of profits going to Titan Sports, a third going to Cannon, and the remaining third going to Olympia Stadium Corporation, the parent company that administered Cobo Hall and Joe Louis Arena. Cannon would even have a job paying upwards of $60,000 per year. Use your skeleton crew to compete with an invading company with weekly national exposure on WTBS or take the money and run? That seemed like a pretty straightforward choice.

In reverse, it appeared to also be an easy decision for Don Owen. McMahon may not have understood Owen’s community strength in the Pacific Northwest and that building the same loyalty would be difficult, but he did understand the cold reality that the state commission in Oregon would only allow one wrestling promoter. In late 1983, McMahon made similar overtures to Owen, seeking the direct path of the elevator over the competitive stairs, which unlike his peers, Owen declined.

Still, it was an easy yes for Mike LeBell of Los Angeles, the first promoter McMahon approached with such a proposition. More than a year earlier, LeBell met with McMahon at Chicago-O’Hare Airport to arrange a deal that combined employment with a purchase of the territory, which had been practically dead for years, while also providing a proving ground for McMahon to test tactics for national expansion, as the WWF could step out of the northeast and also run shows on the west coast without attracting too much NWA scrutiny. The only person who seemed to notice what McMahon was preparing to do was Ole Anderson of Georgia Championship Wrestling.




To die hating them, that was freedom.

Ole himself had been under the similar NWA scrutiny to McMahon in the past that never quite evaporated. At the NWA convention in August 1982, GCW business partner Jim Barnett had to explain to other frustrated promoters across the country that Georgia Championship Wrestling had nothing to do with Superstation WTBS airing World Championship Wrestling in their markets. In truth, GCW had been eyeing national expansion long enough that even the WWF knew it was a possibility. As a preemptive measure, the WWF even booked former GCW National Champion Paul Orndorff to lose a preliminary match on their first California show, a half-hearted attempt to manufacture a perception gap between Ole’s group and his own.

McMahon’s premonitions were not entirely unfounded — by May, Ole solidified plans to expand to Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Texas. Ole would soon solidify his partnership with Southwest Championship Wrestling promoter Joe Blanchard, who was running opposition to NWA promoter Fritz Von Erich in Texas, by providing Blanchard with top talent like Tommy Rich, Buzz Sawyer, and Stan Hansen, to give him a fighting chance against a juggernaut fueled by a scorching hot Freebirds-Von Erichs feud. Ole didn’t help assuage any concerns within the NWA when he declined to announce Harley Race’s title win over NWA World Champion Ric Flair on WTBS until several weeks later, when it was only mentioned in passing to quell rumors. By August, Ole had adjusted his expansion strategy on the margins; maybe he would cede Texas to Blanchard and act as a partner instead of an aggressor, but he’d make a play everywhere else, even in Washington, DC, and Baltimore, putting him directly in Vince McMahon’s crosshairs.

Hinting at tactics to come, McMahon responded by signing Tony Atlas, Masked Superstar, and the Iron Sheik, three major GCW stars. Ole was so mad that he booked “Vince McMann” to lose an opening match to Joe Lightfoot at an Augusta, Georgia, house show. He then confronted Vince’s father at the NWA convention when Vince Sr. still sat on the NWA Board of Directors, pointing out the obvious conflict of interest in Vince Sr.’s continued NWA participation while his son tried to expand to compete with them. This was one of many factors that prompted Vince Sr. to resign from the NWA Board finally.

By October, Ole’s Ohio expansion was being challenged in some cases and outright sabotaged in others. Notably, he would receive a phone call from Dayton’s Hara Arena that the WWF had now signed an exclusive contract with the building and he could no longer promote there. Still, most NWA promoters didn’t think this was their problem. No one really likes Ole, and Vince is competing with him, not the rest of us.

By the start of 1984, Ole was still irritable but was now also erratic. The booking of GCW had taken a sharp and obvious decline and crowds were down even at the Omni in Atlanta, his biggest and most successful building. He responded by childishly airing clips of his former stars who were now in the WWF. The clips would have the WWF stars dominating their opponents in squash matches, only for Ole to cut away before the finish and lie to the audience, falsely claiming they were defeated in the end. Predictably, no one bought it.

Well, someone bought it, because someone sold it, although it was a much different it. Sensing that Anderson was running the territory into the ground, Jack and Jerry Brisco were looking to cash out. They found an eager buyer in Vince McMahon, which led to what “Mr. Mike”, a Wrestling Observer Newsletter columnist, famously called “Black Saturday”. As WTBS viewers tuned in at 6:05pm on July 14, 1984, they saw the classic opening to World Championship Wrestling, only to then see Vince McMahon himself declare a new era in professional wrestling before cutting to pre-taped matches elsewhere in the country. GCW, to the extent it still existed, was now all McMahon’s, disassembled for parts, the rest dissolved into the fledgling WWF. Fans who showed up the morning of the taping, some who had traveled all the way from Michigan, were sent home empty handed. Ole’s successful attempts to expand into Baltimore and Cleveland no longer mattered, because his territory had been taken right out from under him.

It was certainly a surprise to Ole, at least a few months earlier, which is why the purchase was tied up in court for months before the public knew anything, just as it was a surprise to viewers on July 14. For many people watching at home, they were seeing their third or fourth WWF program of the day. By July 1984, the WWF was in 90 markets throughout the country; by the end of 1984, they would be in over 100. WTBS did field viewer complaints for the rest of the year and the working relationship with the WWF would become tumultuous to put it generously, but Vince had ultimately secured the victory he was seeking. For a time period at least, the WWF was the only pro wrestling anyone could watch on cable television and it had replaced local NWA television in dozens of markets nationwide.

Between January and June, the WWF syndicated Superstars of Wrestling, a repackaged version of Cannon’s old show, somewhere in virtually every NWA territory in the United States and Canada. For example, Superstars aired on KLRT-16 in Little Rock and WNOL-15 in New Orleans, which placed the WWF television product firmly in Bill Watts’ Mid South Wrestling territory, even if McMahon was rightfully skittish about running live shows there. To an extent, the Mid South decision was out of McMahon’s hands. Like Oregon, the Louisiana State Athletic Commission would only issue one wrestling promoter’s license statewide, and Watts already had it. To another extent, Mid South Wrestling was on fire for much of the year, having its greatest success ever. Bill Dundee became booker in late February and implemented plenty of Memphis flavor, which provided a freshness the territory needed. Suddenly, what used to be a big man’s group was dominated by smaller, faster tag teams like the Midnight Express and Rock N Roll Express, with a soundtrack provided by a thriving young Jim Ross and promos delivered by Jim Cornette, the best young manager in wrestling. While Mid South was mostly immune to the WWF’s power in 1984, they were not completely isolated from it — in June, they drew more than 20,000 fans to the New Orleans Superdome and involved a young heel named Wendi Richter in the finish of the main event; just three weeks later, she was on WWF television promoting her upcoming match with the Fabulous Moolah at Madison Square Garden, with pop megastar Cyndi Lauper cheering her on.

Stupidity was as necessary as intelligence, and as difficult to attain.

McMahon would eventually have to learn the hard way that there’s power in restraint, especially when you challenge one of the smartest wrestling promoters in the country. In June, he attempted to take on Jerry Jarrett head on, running back-to-back cards in Memphis, Louisville, and Nashville. Jarrett not only defeated him but humiliated him — McMahon drew a paltry 1,200 fans his first time in Memphis, even on a show including Hulk Hogan, while Jarrett drew a sellout 11,300 fans to Mid South Coliseum the following day to see Jerry Lawler and Austin Idol face the Road Warriors.

Part of Jarrett’s response to Vince was to think like Vince. While Vince’s first show was taking place, Jarrett worked with WMC-5 to air a live television special at the exact same time: a special episode of The Jerry Lawler Show where Lawler spoke with top talent from Dusty Rhodes to Jimmy Valiant to the returning Fabulous Ones, all in service of hyping the Monday night show at Mid South Coliseum. Stubbornly, McMahon tried to enter the market one more time the following month, but by that point, Jarrett had already convinced WMC-5 to place The Jerry Lawler Show permanently head-to-head with Superstars of Wrestling in Memphis. As a result, the second Jarrett victory was more decisive than the first. McMahon scheduled a third show and canceled it when he learned that Jarrett had NWA World Champion Ric Flair in reserve for a title defense against Jerry Lawler if he needed to run the match. McMahon ultimately avoided the market entirely for more than two years. In 1984, Memphis had its share of highs and lows, but it produced plenty of great material worth watching, between the long overdue spotlight it provided for “Macho Man” Randy Savage; the rise of Rick Rude, who was shipped to the Dallas Sportatorium and tasked with watching “Gorgeous” Jimmy Garvin so he could return to Memphis and emulate him; the arrival of the Road Warriors; and the hottest brawls in the country, as Eddie Gilbert and Tommy Rich battled up and down Mid South Coliseum against the Pretty Young Things.

In the face of pain there are no heroes.

While McMahon suffered plenty of defeats and setbacks, there was one especially notable exception. His biggest and perhaps most satisfying victories came in the Twin Cities, and the WWF-AWA war was easily the ugliest of them all in 1984. On the surface, it seems like it would be easy to root for the AWA; after all, they were the family-owned business with a rich history in the Midwest, and here was this New Yorker, a snooty thirty-something businessman with a baby blue suit and a curiously refined pompadour, trying to come in and shut them down. However, Verne Gagne was nobody’s hero. Even after Hogan departed, the group continued to air deceptive local promos in markets. For instance, promoter Wally Karbo would state that they were working to sign Hulk Hogan for the next card, all while knowing that simply wasn’t possible anymore. They even attempted to replace Hogan with the 57-year old Crusher, a major star in his heyday, and the man after which the AWA modeled Hogan in how he was booked, but it was immediately clear that it wouldn’t work. Seeking revenge, Gagne may have even offered the Iron Sheik cash money to break Hogan’s legs in front of a sold out card at Madison Square Garden on the night Hulkamania was born at a sold out Madison Square Garden.

“Since Christmas night, I’ve been going through hell,” Hogan explained to People Today in a locker room interview at MSG shortly after winning the WWF World Title. “Wally Karbo and Verne Gagne knew four weeks ahead of time that I had terminated my services in the [AWA], yet they continued to advertise that I would be there on Christmas night. […] Before Thanksgiving, I told Karbo I might be available on Christmas night, but as of November 22, I quit the AWA. Karbo knew that, yet he said I would be there as a partner to Rick Martel, Greg Gagne, and Jim Brunzell for an eight-man tag match. […] I want to set the record straight, tell it like it is, because of what these people did to me. They used my name to fill the Civic Center. It was Christmas night, man, and they took people away from their families. Since I wasn’t there, some people think it’s my fault. How can it be my fault when Karbo and Gagne knew a month in advance I had no intention of being there? Everywhere I go, people stop me and ask what happened. Now, I’m ready to tell the whole story.”

Ever a worker, Hogan then takes the opportunity to add, “I beat [AWA World Champion Nick Bockwinkel] three times, but every time [AWA President] Stanley Blackburn and the promoters found a way to strip me of the belt. […] I knew I was in trouble the third time I wrestled the man in St. Paul. Bockwinkel turned to Stanley Blackburn, who was at ringside, and winked.”

Hogan made clear that he intended to continue the program with David Schultz that started in the AWA and immediately threaded the story of the AWA into his current WWF endeavors. “I gave Schultz a beating in St. Paul, and put 28 stitches in his head. Now he’s running his mouth in New York, saying he can beat me. I will say this; he’s a tough man.” More tellingly, he indicated that he had unfinished business in the Twin Cities. “The reason I’m coming back, brother, is that I love the people of the Twin Cities,” Hogan explained. “These people are like family to me. I want to be a fighting champion and wrestle all over the world. The Madison Square Garden operation can put me in a major arena every night.” After pointing out all of the losses AWA World Champion Nick Bockwinkel had faced to both him and other opponents, knowing this helps establish him with fans as the “real” world champion, Hogan added, “What I cherish most is my love affair with the great fans in the Twin Cities. This is my home.”

If Hogan was direct, announcer Gene Okerlund was living up to his eventual moniker, downright mean. “Since I informed [the AWA] that I was going with Titan for the World Wrestling Federation, I have exchanged no dialogue at all,” Okerlund told reporters in the Twin Cities. “Not one word. They’re good people and they had their day and they did a good job. But times change and the young lions are now taking over.” Okerlund added that AWA television had, “left-handed matches in a garage in front of 85 people” and that promoters Verne Gagne and Wally Karbo were “not as ambitious as [McMahon] is and I don’t think willing to put the money forward it takes to run this on an international scale.”

It stung so much because it was true.

By May, Hogan’s aforementioned desire to come home became a reality. On May 12, the WWF’s Superstars of Wrestling debuted on WTCN-11 in Minneapolis, the network the AWA called home from the 1950s to the 1970s, on Saturdays at 6:00pm, finally establishing a presence for the WWF in the Twin Cities. In the months before this, McMahon sought a swift and sudden victory; he offered the AWA’s television station six figures to replace the AWA’s show with his own. They declined, which in hindsight only prolonged the AWA’s suffering. The WWF stars seemed to take special delight in attacking Gagne and the AWA. Jesse Ventura would soon follow Hogan, Okerlund, and Schultz to the WWF, and didn’t mince words himself. Ventura preemptively explained to local radio hosts in Minneapolis-St. Paul that he left the AWA because there was no money there. “Don’t believe it if the AWA says I’m suspended,” he declared.

The WWF announced that they would debut in the market on June 17 at the Minneapolis Met Center. The AWA planned to counter them before they even arrived with a loaded show on June 10 at the St. Paul Civic Center, but could only draw a tepid 8,000, less than half the number of fans that were in the building to see Hogan on Christmas night six months earlier. In the top matches, Jerry Blackwell won a “$100,000” 18-man battle royal while Nick Bockwinkel and the Crusher brawled to a double disqualification. When the cash prize for the battle royal was announced in advance, the WWF balked and even lobbied the Minnesota State Athletic Commission to require a tax agent to be present to ensure the money was distributed as advertised, smirkingly pointing out the opportunity for the state to collect up to $25,000 in tax revenue.

The WWF gained allies in the Minneapolis-St. Paul press for this endeavor, as sports columnist Don Riley wrote in the day’s Sunday Pioneer Press, “For 25 years, Gagne and Co. have reaped (critics pronounce it ‘raped’) this community of a gross more than $15 million. Gagne’s established himself in the old Heffelfinger mansion, bought $50,000 horses for children, made a movie, bought choice real estate – but eats alone when it comes to his camaraderie with his grunters. Many of his own have defaulted, claiming they can earn twice as much with the New Yorkers. Others tolerate the 350-mile auto trips, the grubby overnight lodgings, the truck stop steaks for one reason: He keeps them steadily employed. It might be a $400 check for a $150,000 gate in St. Paul or a $150 job for a 720 turnout in Fergus Falls.”

Ouch!

Not one to avoid an opportunity to twist the knife, Okerlund followed by telling local reporters, “Someone told me two of the guys Wally [Karbo] is bringing in are Wilbur Snyder and Dick the Bruiser. Wilbur Snyder? Well, if he gets hurt, Medicaid will take care of it.” To add injury to all the insults, before the show, Mad Dog Vachon informed the AWA that this would be his last show with the company, as he too would now join the WWF. Gagne and Karbo responded by pulling Vachon from the evening’s show, which only angered fans in attendance and contributed to AWA’s reputation for not delivering on advertised lineups. Incumbency should carry some advantages; all three Twin Cities network affiliates covered the AWA show that night on the evening news. However, the WWF aired an ad during the commercial break on WTCN-11 just before the segment to promote their own card one week later. McMahon thought to cover all bases, with Okerlund even saying in local promos, “Our purse is a realistic 50 grand. The money is going to be presented to the winner in cash, right in the middle of the ring. There isn’t going to be any of this ‘the check is in the mail’ stuff.”

On June 17, the WWF debuted in Minneapolis before 11,000 fans at the Met Center, approximately 3,000 more than the AWA’s show a week earlier. The show began with Gene Okerlund passive aggressively welcoming the Twin Cities to the “big leagues”, and in the main event, Hogan defeated Schultz, giving AWA fans comfort food backdropped by a new company logo. New WWF arrivals Vachon and Ventura were even on the card. The WWF still had a long way to go to defeat the AWA in the Midwest, as Chicago was slower than every major city in America to convert to cable television, which gave the AWA an advantage for a while, while the two groups continued a dog fight on the west coast and in Salt Lake City, but McMahon had drawn obvious blood.




It was not by making yourself heard but by staying sane that you carried on the human heritage.

In some cases, the WWF neither obliterated their foes nor did their foes obliterate them. Take Championship Wrestling From Florida, a company which peaked a decade earlier but still drew respectable crowds in one of many head-to-head competitions, as the WWF ramped up its opposition efforts in the state. Sometimes, the WWF had more people in attendance while sometimes, the NWA Florida territory won the night. Booker Dusty Rhodes was doing his best to counter a machine with booking brains, but even he knew that long term, the odds weren’t in their favor. He went out in customary Dusty style, booking the Orange Bowl on June 30, for Lord of the Ring, a one night-tournament (where he beat NWA World Champion Ric Flair in the finals, naturally) which drew 10,000 fans and even offered a few exclusive $100 skybox tickets with unlimited champagne and hors d’oeuvres. A few weeks later, Rhodes took half of the roster and found a new home in Jim Crockett Promotions, a place he would stay and create a legendary type of pro wrestling for the next four years.

Crockett had the strongest NWA territory in the country that would prove the most difficult for McMahon to vanquish. Early attempts — and for that matter, many late attempts — to expand into the Carolinas and Virginia weren’t particularly successful, even as the WWF signed away Roddy Piper and Greg Valentine, and even as Crockett’s own weekly television deteriorated with the loss of top talent and Ric Flair usually on the road defending the NWA World Title. Crockett was also best positioned to compete with the WWF in its own home territory by simply expanding slightly north into Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York. In May, JCP promoted Night of Champions at the Meadowlands Arena and was successful on Vince’s home turf, even if it wasn’t a runaway smash hit, drawing nearly 13,000 fans compared to Vince’s 19,000 six weeks later. In 1984, both Crockett and McMahon won against each other by simply not losing.

Perhaps one did not want to be loved so much as to be understood.

A short time earlier, the hottest territory would have easily been World Class Championship Wrestling, and in 1984, it was still massive on the strength of the Von Erichs. However, there were reasons for concern. The group was having difficulty running Southwest Championship Wrestling out of the area, even with every advantage imaginable in terms of star power and strength in the market. At first, Fritz Von Erich attempted to play Switzerland in the WWF-NWA wrestling war by declining to send talent to St. Louis, in part because McMahon continued to play nice with Fritz, likely because he hoped the Von Erichs would be in his own company one day. In April, any false pretenses of courtship were abandoned when the WWF not only debuted Superstars of Wrestling in Dallas on KTXA-21, but was running head-to-head every week with WCCW’s Championship Sports on KTVT-19 by the end of the month. McMahon’s attempted excuses that Dallas was a top ten market he needed solely for marketing purposes and not to think of him as a competitor no longer flew. Fritz quickly realized the WWF was not his ally.

It was a tough personal and professional year for the Von Erichs. On February 10, David Von Erich died on the first night of a planned tour of All Japan Pro Wrestling, a tour that was intended to shore up David’s political support to be the next NWA World Champion where he would successfully defend his newly won NWA United National Title. The city of Dallas mourned because the Von Erichs were such a big part of the local culture. In a metro area of 2.7 million people, over 600,000 households tuned in to watch a one-hour tribute to David that aired the following day. His funeral, attended by over 3,000 people, even had 1,500 fans show up and demand to pay their respects. WCCW closed operations for 10 days, an unheard of practice in that era, before reopening and charting a course for Kerry Von Erich to win the NWA World Title, which he did on May 6, 1984, in front of 32,123 fans at Texas Stadium. Kerry would only hold the title for 18 days, as Flair was needed on big shows to counter the WWF offensive, but it created an iconic moment.

Despite the feel-good boost of Kerry’s big win, week-to-week crowds were soft in the aftermath and the void in World Class still obvious. Some of the soul was missing from Dallas. It became clear that the Freebirds feud, while still hot, would simply not last forever. The Freebirds tried their hand elsewhere, even briefly joining the WWF, but ended up back in the territory that neither they seemed to be able to leave nor that seemed able to leave them, although by year’s end, WCCW was building around a new top heel group — The Dynamic Duo, Chris Adams and Gino Hernandez — that would sustain World Class for another year and had enormous promise as something fresh.

In moments of crisis one is never fighting against an external enemy but always against one’s own body.

While Fritz Von Erich had made his loyalty to the NWA known, the NWA didn’t completely buy it. WCCW’s television continued to expand across the country in syndication, and his weekly show was now airing in markets everywhere, including Boston, St. Louis, Atlanta, Chicago, and Minneapolis, placing WCCW in competition not only with the WWF, but also the NWA’s St. Louis shows, Championship Wrestling From Georgia, and the AWA. This, combined with Kerry Von Erich appearing in WWF Magazine, caused paranoia from other NWA promoters. The NWA, even while Fritz was still a member, offered help to Southwest Championship Wrestling by providing Blanchard with top NWA talent. In truth, Fritz did not believe WCCW was strong enough to expand because his talent roster was thin and fully extended. He had no intentions of running live shows in the new markets, but the alienation from other NWA promotions led him to consider partnership with Vince McMahon and the WWF after all. He leaned even more in that direction when the AWA, fearing a WWF-WCCW partnership in the Twin Cities, secured a television spot for All Star Wrestling on KRLD-33 in Dallas. Television time slots across the country were quickly becoming an arms race, the unspoken threats similar to those that accompany nuclear proliferation. WCCW ended 1984 on thin ice with the NWA and in a cold war with the AWA.

In this environment of mistrust and bad communication, the NWA and AWA held a special meeting in Chicago, Illinois, to discuss how to counter the WWF expansion efforts. The promoters agreed to start Pro Wrestling USA, a syndicated television program. The concept was that promoters would share talent and then do supertours across the country. Eddie Einhorn, who attempted a national expansion in the 1970s that failed, would work with Syndicast Services Inc. to finalize the deal. However, the show was often directionless and cold, offering nothing except random squash matches that attempted to feature too many people at once. The names involved in Pro Wrestling USA could absolutely put up a real fight against Vince McMahon, but there was no solidarity among promoters or excitement among fans, no build from week to week. It just added more programming to an already terribly oversaturated televised wrestling ecosystem.

The paranoia and tactical mistakes were not limited to promoters in the United States. In the early part of 1984, McMahon discussed possible expansion to Japan with former NJPW President Hisashi Shinma, building around Satoru Sayama as his top star. Sayama, better known as Tiger Mask, was available because he quit New Japan Pro Wrestling the previous August in the fallout of a scandal involving Antonio Inoki, when Inoki was caught embezzling company funds, which kept wrestler payoffs far lower than they ever should have been during such a boom. Sayama was intended to debut on March 25 at Madison Square Garden in a card that would be broadcast on Fuji-TV in Japan in April. However, these plans did not materialize because of a personal falling out between Shinma and Sayama. Rumors flew that Shinma would instead build around Akira Maeda or Tatsumi Fujinami as his top star, and Maeda did have a match on this MSG card; however, the actual plan was for 21-year old Nobuhiko Takada to debut on the show and win a new version of the WWF World Junior Heavyweight Title, positioning him as Shinma’s new top star. New Japan Pro Wrestling refused to go along with the idea. This left Shinma in a position to start a company without quite knowing where to take it.

On April 11, the Universal Wrestling Federation held its first show. Perhaps because they took pity on him, Shinma received some unexpected help from NJPW. While New Japan balked at building the UWF around Takada, they were willing to send Takada to the UWF for its first week of shows. They also allowed Yoshiaki Fujiwara to main event the April 17 card.

It was a blow struck against the Party. It was a political act.

Over time and two incarnations, the UWF became perhaps the most revolutionary company in the history of professional wrestling. Its legacy and impact is woven not only into pro wrestling, but also mixed martial arts, with the second version of the UWF opened in 1988 more closely resembling that finished vision of which the first 1984-1985 version of the UWF only hinted at times. Stars like Takada, Fujiwara, Maeda, Kazuo Yamazaki and others, including eventually Sayama, contributed to a vision of pro wrestling that at times resembled the revolution punk brought to rock music — strip it down to its most essential parts and emphasize the core struggle inherent to the form to create something refreshingly basic, deceptively complex, and undeniably fresh, even while respecting the roots of the form. In the same way punk attempted to capture the earnest simplicity of early rock-n-roll, the UWF and its numerous 1990s spinoffs focused on the initial premise of pro wrestling as a competitive sport without much in the way of bombast or glitter. That wouldn’t be apparent right away — Dutch Mantell is on the first card and he’s not exactly a bastion of shoot-style — but by the time they ousted Shinma and started executing their vision, the UWF would find its identity as a reaction to pro wrestling bloat and excess.

In August, shortly after forcing the corrupt Shinma out of the company, they announced new rules: All matches must have a winner. Matches can only end by pinfall, submission or countout, and there are no double disqualifications or double countouts, or the match will be restarted until it reaches a proper conclusion. Maeda felt annoyed by the cheap finishes in Japanese wrestling and scarred by his experiences in American wrestling and wanted no reminders of either; Americans on their July shows found themselves quitting; foreign talent like Leo Burke and Bob Dellaserra didn’t enjoy receiving Fujiwara’s headbutts, and when Pierre Martel didn’t see the fun in taking Maeda’s stiff kicks.




A lunatic is just a minority of one.

New Japan Pro Wrestling was a company often in turmoil, not only because of Inoki’s scandal the previous year, but also because of the ways the WWF’s quest for American control bumped up against its own operations. Hulk Hogan won the IWGP title in June 1983; at the time, he was a hugely popular American star, but hadn’t yet signed with the WWF and become a pop culture fixture and phenom like he would. Hogan-Inoki was the most sought after match all year, and NJPW was finally able to get them in the ring on June 14 at Tokyo’s Sumo Hall before 13,000 fans, generating a $285,000 gate. The match was everything the new UWF was intended to rally against in pro wrestling prog rock. Because Hogan was not in a position to take a pinfall loss, the match followed a ridiculous path that was almost a precursor to the overbooked specials that would dominate American wrestling in the 15 years after this card.

Initially, the match went to a double countout, which elicited “Pin fall!” chants among a frustrated crowd before the match was restarted. Two minutes later, they both ended up outside the ring for a second double countout, which again restarted the match. After Inoki kicked out of two axe bombers, the two rolled outside the ring, where an interfering Riki Choshu delivered a lariat to both men. Inoki recovered first, rolled into the ring, and won the match — and thus the IWGP title — by countout. Fans were furious at the cheap finish and pelted trash at the ring in a riot that lasted over two hours after the show ended. Naturally, Vince McMahon declined the invite to attend the show, so he was not around to witness the carnage he had at least a small role in creating.

That’s not to say New Japan had a disastrous year; in fact, it was far from it. As would be the pattern for the rest of the decade, it was a company that often found success in spite of its chaos and disorder, not because of some genius vision. In the year’s highlight, an 80-minute match on April 19, in front of 12,000 fans, involving five members of Riki Choshu’s Ishin Gundan against Inoki, Fujiwara, Takada, Fujinami, and Kengo Kimura remains one of the best and most exciting wrestling matches of all time even 40 years later. Even as Fujinami blurred work-shoot lines by distancing himself from Inoki in the media, and even as rumors always flew that he was trying to get out of New Japan, he teamed with Inoki regularly, which made for a weird and contradictory viewing experience at times, but still somehow worked. Dynamite Kid and Davey Boy Smith were exciting as opponents and partners. Big name American talent like Dusty Rhodes and Buddy Rose appeared on cards; the Adrian Adonis-Dick Murdoch tag team was pushed in the WWF while continuing to dominate in New Japan. The NJPW-WWF working relationship also continued even as the WWF didn’t work with anyone; it simply bought them out. The Choshu-Fujinami feud continued to carry the company and was red hot until Choshu couldn’t handle the shady if productive dysfunction of New Japan any longer, appearing in All Japan Pro Wrestling along with most of the rest of Ishin Gundan by year’s end. New Japan lost enough talent in 1984 to start an entire company in the UWF and reverse the fortunes of a second in All Japan. They were dangerously close to shutting their doors by the end of 1984, but kept finding a way to hang on.

So long as human beings stay human, death and life are the same thing.

All Japan Pro Wrestling, as usual, was the calm to New Japan’s storm. They often lagged behind New Japan in popularity because they maintained so much loyalty to the classic NWA style — a style even the NWA itself had started to betray to mixed results in the United States — but still produced some of the best matches and moments of the year, whether that included Jumbo Tsuruta’s AWA World Title win over Nick Bockwinkel, or Kerry Von Erich’s tour of the territory, the artistic peak of his career, where for one night at least, he defended the NWA World Title against Jumbo Tsuruta and looked like nothing less than the best wrestler in the entire world. Bruiser Brody and Stan Hansen continued to trample everyone; Ricky Steamboat, Greg Gagne, Jim Brunzell, and Harley Race continued to appear for tours.

After Sayama abandoned the Tiger Mask persona because of scandals involving creator Ikki Kajiwara, All Japan picked up the gimmick, or at least tried, by repackaging a young Mitsuharu Misawa and starting to push him against exciting junior heavyweights around the world who could try to emulate the style. 1985 would begin a major transition for All Japan, but for most of 1984, they were the steadiest hand in wrestling: a welcome reprieve from turmoil and maybe the only territory on earth that was neither flailing and desperate to remain in business, fighting and feuding with friends and enemies alike, nor on an egotistical mission to conquer the world.

At least it didn’t seem that way until September 21, the day after NJPW concluded its Bloody Fight Series, when new AJPW business partner Naoki Otsuka announced at a press conference that he had signed Riki Choshu, Yoshiaki Yatsu, Higo “Animal” Hamaguchi, Isamu Teranishi, and Kuniaki Kobayashi, collectively known as Ishin Gundan to his own company, one we’d later learn was called Japan Pro Wrestling, that would lease its wrestlers to AJPW at the start of each tour. He followed that four days later with an announcement that he also signed Haruka Eigen, Masanobu Kurisu, Norio Honaga, Shinichi Nakano, and Fumihiro Niikura. After a failed coup of NJPW the previous year to oust Inoki from AJPW, Otsuka went on offense, pairing with Baba and starting to sign away NJPW talent. “I will lure all the members from the New Japan group except [Antonio] Inoki, [Seiji] Sakaguchi, Kantaro Hoshino, and ex-wrestler Kotetsu Yamamoto.” Maybe Baba wasn’t so demure after all? “Inoki lacks in ability as a manager and has brought all of this upon himself,” he told reporters.

If All Japan Pro Wrestling risked falling behind until Otsuka’s maneuverings, All Japan Women was prepared to lead the way, fueled on the popularity of the Crush Girls. Lioness Asuka and Chigusa Nagayo would release their first musical single in August, the month after AJW secured weekly time on Fuji-TV, making their highly athletic approach to pro wrestling and moralistic, high-strung approach to its presentation accessible and desirable to teenage girls all over Japan. Many men in wrestling laughed away the talent on display in AJW; Stan Hansen didn’t even see it as wrestling at all and in fact, when Wrestling Observer Newsletter editor Dave Meltzer toured Japan near the end of the year and wanted to see the group live, he stood out uncomfortably in a crowd of screaming tween girls who wanted to see Lioness and Chigusa fight off the schoolyard bullies led by Dump Matsumoto. In 1985, AJW would reach new heights; in 1984, the groundwork was laid to push the Crush Girls vision to its maximum. They had a TV contract, the right top stars, and the most exciting in-ring style in the world.

The consequences of every act are included in the act itself.

One could call the McMahon attempt to take over pro wrestling admirable in some ways. It was certainly ambitious. It’s important not to romanticize it, as it certainly wasn’t an act of love. Love was for fools like Larry Matysik in St. Louis, who simply had a different vision and thought fans deserved a choice; McMahon’s model was not to enter new markets and give fans an honest chance to choose between two competing versions of pro wrestling, but instead to maneuver behind the scenes to weaken his competition, all while leveraging his proximity to New York and Los Angeles media hubs to control how the general public perceived his version of pro wrestling, to the point that they couldn’t perceive of any other pro wrestling existing at all. You could change the channel as many times as you wanted, and the WWF would still be what the world was watching.

By the end of 1984, questions about the future of pro wrestling were endless; answers were few. McMahon found his greatest expansion success on the mostly unopposed west coast and in competing with an often self-destructive AWA, but struggled against groups with loyal fan bases and their own style preferences such as Memphis, Mid South, World Class, and JCP. The WWF had so many television partners that it struggled to keep them all happy — Vince was frequently at odds with Ted Turner over the lack of studio wrestling on WTBS while the USA Network didn’t appreciate McMahon’s relationship with a rival network and thought they deserved first right of refusal for all televised content. As the year wound down, whispers were starting that he was talking to stakeholders at NBC too, a step that would give pro wrestling a presence on network television for the first time since the golden age of the 1950s.

McMahon was financially struggling. He wasn’t drawing on the road quite like he hoped; there was a tendency for fans to turn out once for the first event in the market and then not come back because they didn’t like what they saw. The WWF was paying most of the 100 television stations across the country to carry their television program. The WWF had signed so many wrestlers and was running so many shows – often four per night – that their travel and talent budgets were unlike anything to that point in wrestling history. McMahon had successfully shaken up the industry in 1984, but it was still unclear how it would all settle.

1984 is not a year of conclusions as much as it is a year of exploration and uncertainty, the most thrilling year in wrestling history because of the endless possibilities, ranging all the way from pro wrestling being taken to unforeseen heights, a revert to the status quo, or an entire genre’s demise; the hundreds of wars being fought on hundreds of fronts, city by city, venue by venue, and television station by television station; of allies that can’t remain in alliance; of enemies that occasionally cooperate. It’s a delightful and confusing mess, something few could have envisioned a year earlier and that many had forgotten a year later, even as they lived in its aftermath.

Lenin famously said that there are decades where nothing happens and there are weeks when decades happen. In parallel, at least in sentiment if not specifics, 1984 is a year where everything possible seems to either happen or be set up to happen, in the shadows of a mostly tranquil early 1980s. The year 1984 in pro wrestling is what Gramsci might call a new wrestling world aching to be born. He would be right that 1984 was a time of monsters, but those who know the time period understand how the truth is much less idealistic. Not every change happening in 1984 was for the better, just as no era of wrestling is perfect. The modern wrestling world in which we live was created here, though; where 1983 acts as the denouement of an old guard, in 1984, they would either find a way to thrive and adapt or die trying.

All highlighted quotes are from the classic George Orwell novel, 1984. Special thanks to the Wrestling Observer Newsletter and the excellent Death of the Territories by Tim Hornbaker for the information and inspiration. This was cross-posted to the Wrestling Playlists Newsletter, a daily newsletter that aims to track the chronological footage history of professional wrestling, one four-hour block at a time. You can subscribe to Wrestling Playlists at wrestlingplaylists.substack.com.