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AWA TV Tag Team Classics
by Marty Goldstein on 2001-06-11

5 AWA TV Tag Team Classics

Like Jim Cornette,I remember risking life and limb to adjust the TV roof antenna to improve reception from a distant station just to watch wrestling. In our case, nirvana originated in Pembina, North Dakota. The biggest influence on every wrestler, from Chris Pepper to Playboy Doug McColl to Chi Chi Cruz,that came out of Manitoba from 1967 to 1985 was the weekly AWA TV show broadcast on a weak indy station that later became the cornerstone of Izzy Asper's Global TV Network.

In a 3,and then 6 channel universe, it was easy for the AWA to stand out. There was rarely competition in general terms on TV to begin with. The choice for a 10 year old kid was easy. The Crusher or Rory Calhoun's Death Valley Days? Mad Dog Vachon or Kinsman Jackpot Bingo? Superstar Graham or Garner Ted Armstrong?

The old tapes were done in a small TV studio, with legendary announcers Marty O'Neill and later Rodger Kent on the mic. I will dedicate a future column to the performances of these and other commentators, and their influence on me when I broke in doing play by play. Basically, when they spoke, it was gospel, repeated over and over on the playground on Monday morning. Shock and outrage sold tickets.

The AWA had a better class of athletes than any other promotion of the era, but the TV shows were often horribly boring, even by the standards of those days. One summer,Verne Gagne actually ran the same matches 6 straight weeks. After watching Kim Duk brutalize Peter Lee in a judo jacket match over and over and over again, even the very plain Vancouver All Star Wrestling looked entertaining. By autumn, we were dying for the new tapings to be shown.

Dave Meltzer,in one reminisence, mentioned " the annual AWA angle". That was the secret of their success. The AWA didn't have to give away the farm every week. They were the only game in town. When they did an angle,it had impact. Here are 5 favorite AWA tag team moments from the 60's and 70's.

1) In late 1968 the 2 top heels teamed up to cream 2 hapless jobbers. In the 2nd fall, all hell broke loose, and as the jibronis were felled, the name babyfaces came to the rescue.While Dr.X fended for his life against Cowboy Bill Watts in the ring, Mad Dog Vachon somehow became entangled in the ropes and hung, upside down, over the apron, outside the ring, helpless. There was mayhem all around the ring.

Dutch Savage, in his last AWA angle before going west, calmly hopped to the floor, picked up a chair, stood before Vachon and took a baseball swing. Vachon forehead exploded and spurted like a stuck Algerian pig. Savage then calmly walked away. It was so gruesome and real, and to this day I believe it was a hardway shot, that my mother and grandmother fled the room, horrified at the spectacle. Juice on TV was unheard of. Us kids loved it.

2) One of the AWA specialties was 2 out of 3 fall bouts.Handsome Harley Race and Pretty Boy Larry Hennig, who had to drop the straps when Verne Gagne broke Hennig's leg in Winnipeg,had re-formed their team in 1969 and faced Rene Goulet and Kenny Jay. Jay was completely obliterated in the first fall, and AWA matchmaker Bill Kuusisto allowed Bill Watts to fill in. Boom, second fall to the babyfaces.

In the third fall,Watts dominated again, when Race resorted to the favorite foreign object of the day, Brass Knuckles. Much gore and blood, a DQ, and the resulting fued was the catalyst to being taken to my first live card, Watts and Igor vs. Race and Hennig.

3) The injury angle was replayed but much more effectively in 1970, when an even better drawing blood feud was engineered. Mad Dog and Butcher Vachon were in the midst of an amazing 2 year run on top, and faced a very good little babyface, Bruce Kirk (I think he was from Vancouver), and his special partner, the legendary Eduardo Carpentier. It was one fall apiece,the babyfaces on the verge of a major upset, when the ref took a rare bump outside.

While Carpentier tried to roust the ref, Kirk was being slaughtered in the ring. Carpentier hit the ring and made a strong comeback, but was outgunned. The studio audience was in an uproar, as Carpentier had a Gagne-like status. Kenny Yates, Kenny Jay and the assorted jobbers were similarly Kirked. Bodies lay everywhere. It was time for... The one, the only, the man who made Milwaukee famous, The Crusher! However, what made this unusual was the fact the Crusher was in street clothes, and smoking his trademark cigar.

The Vachon's were all over him, and tore his suit to shreds. Then they tried to jam the cigar down his throat. Somehow Butcher was cast aside, and Mad Dog was down on the mat. Crusher hauled off and punted Mad Dog in the temple, and he pumped out blood like a faucet. After the melee, Crusher, in tatters but with the mangled cigar between his teeth,did an interview demanding revenge. The next week, Vachon claimed to have almost died from loss of blood, and said he took 23 stitches in his head. After a tag program with Carpentier involved, the blow-off came in the cage "too violent for TV". This feud was the standard by which all AWA blood feuds were compared, and a 1976 attempt to redo the angle, with the participants older and the fans wiser, was good but not as great.

4) Don Muraco was, believe it or not, a major rookie babyface in 1972, and after some singles matches around the horn with a couple of Texans, took Wahoo McDaniel as his partner to face the #2 heel team in the AWA, Dirty Dusty Rhodes and Dick Murdoch. I cannot speak highly enough about how charasmatic and aggressive Dusty was as a young heel, and Murdoch, rest his soul, was the only guy around at 270 lbs who threw standing dropkicks. They were awesome. Wahoo took the first fall, and with the ref distracted Murdoch posted Muraco during the second fall and he was counted out and carted off. (In those days, the post meant business.)

Wally Karbo, for some reason, refused to allow Wahoo to take a substitute partner, and although Billy Robinson was vehemently against it, Wahoo continued alone. What followed was a textbook story of clever wrestling by Wahoo, being outgunned, still winning the deciding fall, and a total and utter destruction of a very bloody Wahoo post-match.

This angle is particularly near and dear to my heart because 22 years later we were trying to book a tag bout and I told the story to my booking committee with Rough House Rasslin'. With some modifications, we used the same injured partner premise to great success on our first show, but with the Indian, Gene Swan getting hurt and Chi Chi Cruz going it alone for 2 falls against Suicide Stan Saxon and Brian Jewel. It worked perfectly and the promoter, Tony Condello, said he had never seen anything like it at the local level for crowd heat.

5) By 1975 Greg Gagne and Jim Brunzell " The High Flyers" were ready for a big push- well, Greg was ready the day he was born, but to get him over it took the special talents of the greatest heel team in AWA history, Nick Bockwinkle and Ray Stevens, and an unexpected twist.

With Bobby Heenan expertly working the corner, the crowd heat built until it was time to burst the bubble. Brunzell was of course posted and injured, and the heels triple teamed Gagne. As usual, the undercard save was dispatched. When the massive Larry "The Axe" Hennig hit the ring, everyone feared an even worse beating. But Hennig tried to pry the heels off of Greg. Stevens in particular was enraged.

As the heels held Hennig's arms apart and invited Heenan to take a free shot, The Axe pulled them into each other and they took an enormous bump, and he got his mitts on Heenan, who sold for the new babyface like a million bucks. Hennig's postmatch interview, in which he claimed to hate the Gagne's but "I have a son that age and I hope someone would help him" became a classic and set the course for the rest of Larry's career and set the stage for the eventual introduction of his son, Curt.

I learned from experience that the old angles, done properly, push all the right buttons to generate interst and crowd heat. Even in todays overexposed spotfest climate, the best angles to book, in my opinion, are the ones that push emotional buttons, and nothing does that like heels cheating and bullying babyfaces into a bloody pulp.

In a future column I will compose a similar remembrance of great AWA singles angles of the era, and eventually move on to the later 70's and 80's aka the Hogan era. Verne had no idea what he had with him.

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Quotes from the boys: Moondog Manson says "The key to success in the wrestling business is by being humble, respectful, and paying your dues. With out these you will fail.".
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