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The AWA: Professional Wrestling in the Twin Cities

Article by Michael Rainville, Jr.

The 1960’s was a good decade for Minnesota sports. The Vikings, Twins, and North Stars started their inaugural campaigns, the Golden Gophers football team won two Big Ten Championships and one national title, and the American Wrestling Association (AWA) took advantage of a very popular up-and-coming form of entertainment. Back when everyone thought professional wrestling was as real as any other sport, the AWA became the leader in sports entertainment. This is the company that put the Twin Cities on the wrasslin’ map.

In 1948, the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) was formed and quickly established a territory system across the entire U.S. where there were many regional promotions, and national champions who would travel to every one. One of the founding regional promotions was the Minneapolis Boxing and Wrestling Club, which itself was in existence since 1933, and owned by Anton Stecher. In 1959, the company was bought by Anton’s colleague Wally Karbo, who is a fellow DeLaSalle Islander, and the legendary Verne Gagne. With Karbo and Gagne at the helm, they pushed to be the best NWA territory in the company. Gagne tried numerous times to get the NWA national champion Pat O’Connor to come to the Minneapolis Boxing and Wrestling Club to put on a show for his loyal fans, but the NWA would not allow it. As frustrations grew, Gagne and Karbo were pushed to the limit and eventually broke away from the NWA to form their own independent wrestling promotion, the American Wrestling Association. Gagne declared the NWA champ Pat O’Connor as the inaugural AWA champ, but the NWA never acknowledged it, and soon after, the title was forfeited and granted to Gagne. Smart move. This marked the start of a three decade long run of being on top of the wrasslin’ game.

AWA yearbook featuring the AWA World Heavyweight Champion Verne Gagne

A big part of the AWA was their televised shows, and they needed a place to tape them. They ended up calling the Calhoun Beach Club their home. The AWA’s show All Star Wrestling became so popular that they consistently scored the 2nd highest TV ratings in the Midwest only behind 60 Minutes. The live crowd attendance was also just as impressive. It was the hottest ticket in town. The April 18, 1965 edition of the Minneapolis Tribune sports section noted that there were almost 4,500 fans in attendance to see the Twins beat Cleveland 3-0, and the AWA title match saw a crowd of 8,900. Later in the year when the Twins were hosting the Dodgers for a World Series game, the AWA still attracted over 9,000 fans. That is absolutely crazy to think about!

The quality of the wrestling was also top notch. Verne Gagne and the AWA became a place for young wrestlers to learn the business and become national, and international, superstars. Hulk Hogan and the ‘Nature Boy’ Ric Flair both got their starts in the AWA. They are the two biggest and most popular professional wrestlers of all time. However, the list continues: Bob Backlund, Eric Bischoff, Nick Bockwinkel, ‘Jumpin’ Jim Brunzell, The Crusher, ‘Superstar’ Billy Graham, Scott Hall, Bobby Heenan, Larry ‘The Axe” Hennig, his son Curt Hennig AKA Mr. Perfect, Paul Heyman, Killer Kowalski, Madusa, Sherri Martel, Gene Okerlund, Diamond Dallas Page, The Midnight Rockers Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty, Dusty Rhodes, Wendi Richter, The Road Warriors Animal and Hawk, The Iron Sheik, Sgt. Slaughter, Ricky ‘The Dragon’ Steamboat, ‘Mad Dog’ Vachon, and our former governor Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura. All of these people and many more were household names throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s, and many also went on to do better things with the giant of the wrestling world, the WWE.

Hulk Hogan from 1982 when he defeated Nick Bockwinkel in St. Paul to capture the AWA World Heavyweight Championship for the first time.

When professional wrestling hit its stride, the WWE started to form a monopoly of the business with the WWE having the funds to offer contracts to the top stars of the world. Because of this, in 1991, the AWA officially was no more, but their legacy continues to live on. Professional wrestling may not be as popular as it once was, but Minneapolis’ own AWA made it possible for wrasslin’ to go into the mainstream. It’s hard to think that the WWE would have been so popular if it wasn’t for the talent the AWA developed. The next time you’re strutting around Lake Bde Maka Ska imagine the immense crowds that would attend AWA events, or when you find yourself stylin’ and profilin’ at Mayslack’s Bar, have a drink for the wrasslers who used to celebrate a good match there. The AWA was a Twin Cities staple back in the day, and its memory lives on.

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About Michael Rainville, Jr.

A 6th generation Minneapolitan, Michael Rainville Jr. received his B.A. in History from the University of St. Thomas, and is currently enrolled in their M.A. in Art History and Certificate in Museum Studies programs.

Michael is also a lead guide at Mobile Entertainment LLC, giving Segway tours of the Minneapolis riverfront for 6+ years.

He can be reached at

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