Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association is a promotion that I’d heard of, but never really knew anything about, so naturally I was intrigued when I saw The Spectacular Legacy of the AWA DVD in the bargain bin at Zellers for five bucks. Most of my knowledge of the AWA came from matches on WWE compilation DVDs and Vance Nevada’s book Wrestling in the Canadian West, which featured a section on the AWA (who ran in Manitoba).

The format of The Spectacular Legacy of the AWA will be familiar if you’ve seen any of the other WWE DVDs focused on another promotion. Disc 1 features a three hour documentary chronicling the AWA from the beginning of Verne Gagne’s career as a wrestler through to the closing down of the company in the mid-1990s. As far as I’m concerned, the documentary alone is well worth the five dollars I dropped to pick this thing up. The first few segments focus on Verne Gagne and his career as a wrestler, which eventually leads into the founding of his own promotion and breaking away from the National Wrestling Alliance, which seems to have been a hotbed of world championship controversy amongst the NWA promoters. So essentially it was the same as it is now.

Once the AWA is established in name, we start to hear about the promotion itself and Verne Gagne’s approach to presenting his product. The AWA focused quite heavily on the athletic competition in the ring, focusing less on over-the-top characters (although they were certainly there) and more on the wrestlers’ abilities as athletes. This was probably based on the fact that Gagne’s character as a wrestler was all about his abilities as an athlete, and he was the top guy in the promotion for a good chunk of it’s run. There was a lot of interesting stuff about wrestling and the early days of television, including that the AWA’s average rating throughout it’s television run was a 25. Think about that. 25. RAW nowadays gets a 3-point-something. There are a ton of completely sensible reasons for that disparity, but it’s still impressive.

All of the natural wrestling documentary bits follow, including the heyday of the promotion, Vince McMahon coming onto the scene with the WWF and the decline of the AWA after that, culminating in Verne Gagne’s induction into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2006. The bonus features on disc 1 are mostly interesting stories that didn’t fit into the narrative flow of the documentary. There are also a few classic promos.

Disc 2 features a selection of matches from the AWA’s history. I won’t say they’re classics, because it’s hard to judge the quality of matches from as early as the ’70s, especially when they aren’t even shown in full. The first few matches are Gagne-centric, and start near the finishes, probably because they’re all in the 40 minutes plus range. The first really solid match features a young Pat Patterson teaming with Ray “The Crippler” Stevens to take on two guys whose names I’ve forgotten and I’m not going to look up. Hulk Hogan appears briefly in the middle with a championship victory over Nick Bockwinkel (which it mentioned in the documentary was overturned later and the title returned to Bockwinkel) and about five minutes of brawling with Mr. Saito and some other folks, leading to the announcement of a handicap match which is then not shown, despite being the title of that particular chapter on the DVD. The disc ends with the controversial AWA/WCCW Championship unification match at SuperClash III between Jerry “The King” Lawler (AWA Champion) and Kerry Von Erich (WCCW champ). While it’s fascinating that a match can be compelling despite neither guy actually doing moves. Jerry Lawler’s entire offence involved punching Von Erich, both with and without a pair of brass knuckles which he kept in his tights (apparently having his hand down his pants for half the match didn’t tip off the referee). Von Erich crowned the king with his own piledriver, but other than that it was all punches and discus punches. And buckets of blood.

My favourite matches in the collection:

  • The Midnight Rockers vs. Playboy Buddy Rose and Pretty Boy Doug Sommers in a steel cage match. Except for Marty Jannetty deciding to take the night off from selling, this was a really good match.
  • Nick Bockwinkel vs. Curt Hennig. Oh man. Two masterful technicians doing what they do best. I could have done without the after-match shenanigans featuring Larry Zbyszko, but the match was still very good.
  • Jerry Lawler vs. Kerry Von Erich. Despite neither guy actually doing moves, this match was still very compelling. The King is somehow both a great and terrible worker at the same time, in that he can work a crowd and psychology like no other, but has pretty much the same arsenal of moves now, at 61 years old, that he did in his prime.

Should you buy this? If you’re interested in the history of the AWA, absolutely. If you can find it for cheap like I did, there’s no question about it: buy this. The documentary alone is worth it. The matches are more of a mixed bag. Some of them, most of which I called out, were excellent. Some of them weren’t. Some of them were in the middle. Much like the other WWE productions, match selection is a little bit questionable, and choosing matches that needed to be cut down significantly seems counter-productive. There are a few gems worth seeing, though.