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#24 Nick Bockwinkel
A gifted technical wrestler and a tremendous interview on the microphone, Nick Bockwinkel was the embodiment of the heel champion throughout his career. Bockwinkel became as much of a staple of the American Wrestling Association as its founder Verne Gagne and his nearly 3,000 accumulative days as AWA World Heavyweight Champion trail only Gagne as the most dominant champion of the great promotion.
Bockwinkel was the son of Warren Bockwinkel, himself a popular wrestler during the 1930s and 40s. A great athlete, Bockwinkel was a tremendous football player in high school and ended up earning a football scholarship to the University of Oklahoma, which at the time was being led by legendary head coach Bud Wilkinson. Unfortunately, an injury brought an end to his football career and cost him his scholarship. Turning to the family business, Bockwinkel began to be trained by his father for a career in professional wrestling. Bockwinkel's father being a popular wrestler entitled his son to have some tremendous training opportunities, and Bockwinkel was officially trained by no-less than Lou Thesz.
Bockwinkel first began wrestling in tag teams with his father. In addition, Bockwinkel was assigned the task of being the personal driver for Yukon Eric one of the biggest babyfaces of the 1950s. Bockwinkel cites those long car rides with Eric as being one of the most influential times of his life, as he learned a tremendous amount of information about the business and what it meant to be a top name.
Bockwinkel would begin his singles career and won his first singles championship while working for Don Owen's Pacific Northwest Wrestling promotion and capturing the NWA Pacific Northwest Heavyweight Championship from Tony Borne. Bockwinkel would quickly lose the title to Mad Dog Vachon, and then he would move onto Hawaii and California.
It was on the east coast, in Georgia Championship Wrestling, where Bockwinkel would become the main event star that he would be for the rest of his career. As the son of a popular babyface wrestler, Bockwinkel was naturally perceived to be a babyface himself, and his slick technical wrestling style in the mold of Lou Thesz and Pat O'Connor backed that up. However, in Georgia Bockwinkel began to feud with the NWA World Heavyweight Champion Dory Funk Jr. and it was during his battles with Funk that led to Bockwinkel becoming a heel. His clashes with Funk would drive the Georgia territory, with the pair main-eventing sell-outs in the Atlanta City Auditorium.
In 1970 Bockwinkel wrestled for the first time in the AWA, defeating Dave Cox in his debut match and was booked as a confident and talented heel. Soon he formed a tag team with the equally cocky Ray Stevens and the duo captured the AWA World Tag Team Champions on three separate occasions. In the 1970s the AWA had the top tag team division in wrestling, anchored by legendary teams such as The Crusher and Dick the Bruiser and Verne Gagne and Billy Robinson. Not only were the tag teams cocky and arrogant, but all the men were widely regarded for being double-tough and helped establish the punishing and physical style that the AWA became known for.
A steady hand for the AWA for years, Bockwinkel was finally awarded the AWA World Heavyweight Championship in 1975 from Gagne, ending Gagne's over seven year reign as AWA World Heavyweight Champion. Bockwinkel himself would hold the championship for the remainder of the decade, taking on a bevy of top flight talent as he clung to his world championship. On March 5, 1979 Bockwinkel became the first AWA World Heavyweight Champion to defend his championship against the World Wide Wrestling Federation Champion, when he wrestled Bob Backlund to a double-count out in front of a sold-out Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto.
Bockwinkel as a heel set a new precedent for the AWA. For the first time, Verne Gagne was not always directly in the title picture. There had been long reigning champions in the promotion before, Mad Dog Vachon held it for over a year, however the AWA went through a very simple booking methodology when Gagne was involved. Gagne would hold the championship, only to lose it to a heel, normally Vachon, but also Fritz Von Erich, The Crusher and others were involved. Gagne would then chase the heel, eventually recovering the crown, only to surely lose it once again. This formula paid off for a long time, and for 15 years Gagne dominated the scene.
Bockwinkel was the first real champion of the AWA that held the title without the intent of ever giving it back to Gagne at a certain date. He got out of the shadow of Gagne, and became easily the most identifiable star in the promotion's history behind Gagne. Perhaps the most admirable thing that can be said about Bockwinkel is that Verne Gagne trusted him to carry the promotion without his own star power. Verne was notorious for his cantankerous attitude and was extremely protective of the AWA; it was HIS creation. Bockwinkel was given a near impossible tasks in picking up the company torch from Gagne, and he pretty much succeeded at that.
By the time he was world champion, Bockwinkel had long ago established himself as a terrific technical wrestler, but another facet of Bockwinkel was even more impressive. In the late 1970s Bockwinkel was arguably the best promo in the business, right on par with Dusty Rhodes and Superstar Billy Graham. Bockwinkel was the quintessential heel on the microphone, adapting a strategy that was used by The Destroyer. Bockwinkel would openly insult the fan's intelligence and brag that not only was he tougher and more physically talented than everybody else, he was smarter too.
Bockwinkel would often use four and five syllable words in his promos to try and get under the fans' skin. His secret weapon was a small notebook that he would carry with him at all times and anytime that he came across a word that he didn't recognize, he would write it down in the book and memorize it and its definition. Naturally, the words would begin coming to him in everyday life, and they began manifesting themselves in his promos.
Bockwinkel's title reign would come to an end in 1980, when he lost the championship back to Verne Gagne. Not quite ready to let go of the limelight, Gagne held the championship for nearly a year, despite the fact that he was 54 years old when he won the championship. Gagne would hold onto the championship until he retired from active wrestling, vacating the championship in a controversial move that certainly irked more than a few wrestlers that felt Verne avoided doing one final job.
Bockwinkel was awarded the championship in May of 1981 when Gagne retired from professional wrestling. While it typically would have made more business sense to have some form of tournament to crown a new champion, having Bockwinkel win the championship without having to even wrestle a single match incensed the fans and they poured into arenas throughout the Mid-West to see Bockwinkel put his championship on the line.
The formula that Gagne used to book himself as champion would also be applied during Bockwinkel's reign on top of the promotion. Bockwinkel would hold the championship only to drop it to a babyface, and then eventually regain the title. Bockwinkel would do this twice with two international wrestlers, first with Austrian strongman Otto Wanz and then to All-Japan Pro Wrestling superstar Jumbo Tsuruta, making the AWA World Heavyweight Championship a true world championship.
A key feud for Bockwinkel began in 1981 when Hulk Hogan arrived in the AWA. Hogan was off a successful run in the WWF and had a role in the widely popular film Rocky III. After a real-life feud with Vincent J. McMahon, Hogan left the WWF and was signed by Gagne. Hogan was originally brought in as a heel but that was quickly corrected when the fans began cheering for Hogan regardless of how nefarious his behavior was. The chase then began for Bockwinkel's AWA World Heavyweight Championship.
Hogan's victory as champion was seen as inevitable, but due to poor booking and comically bad mismanagement of the company by Gagne, fans never got to see it. In June of 1982 Hogan defeated Bockwinkel via pinfall in a match in St. Paul, MN, but the decision was reversed by the referee and Bockwinkel retained the championship. Not only did this anger fans, it angered Hogan as well, whose rage was stoked even further when Bockwinkel dropped the championship two months later to Wanz, who allegedly cut a backdoor deal with Gagne for the title.
Tired of playing politics with Gagne and his cronies, Hogan left the company and returned to the WWF, where he would go on to become the biggest global superstar of the 1980s. With Hogan gone, Bockwinkel's greatest opponent and the future of the promotion was put in great jeopardy. Bockwinkel would remain a staple for the promotion, as the WWF whittled away the AWA's territory Bockwinkel remained the only true icon that Gagne could rely on. Even as he entered his 50s he remained a tremendous technical wrestler and his loyalty to Gagne and the AWA eventually turned him babyface.
As a babyface Bockwinkel would feud with stars like Stan Hansen and Larry Zbyszko. He would hold the championship for a fourth and final time in 1986 when he won the title when Hansen vacated the championship. Bockwinkel would enjoy his run as a babyface champion, even challenging NWA World Heavyweight Champion Ric Flair to match in Winnipeg that ended in a double count-out. Bockwinkel would drop the championship to Curt Hennig in May of 1987 when Zbyszko handed Hennig a roll of quarters to deck Bockwinkel with. In one of his final matches, Bockwinkel exacted his revenge on Zbyszko by nailing Bockwinkel with a roll of coins of his own. Following the feud with Zbyszko, Bockwinkel would retire from the ring.
Bockwinkel's legacy is nearly unmatched when it comes to being a classy heel world champion. Not only does he have the lengthy world title reigns to back it up, but his influence as a heel still rings true today. While some stars have a unique style that works for them Bockwinkel's approach as a heel champion would work for countless other superstars in the future. Many of them would adopt his pattern of wearing a suit during interviews and using large words to enunciate their greatness. Bockwinkel was a pillar of the AWA and unquestionably one of the greatest heels to ever step into the ring.
Next week #23 will be revealed, a charismatic American that would lead wrestling through two huge boom periods.
The Top 50 so far (click link for description of the qualifications of the list):
49. Superstar Billy Graham
47. El hijo del Santo
45. Bruiser Brody
43. Kurt Angle
42. Hiroshi Tanahashi
41. The Sheik
39. Perro Aguayo
38. Ricky Steamboat
37. Toshiaki Kawada
36. Jushin Thunder Liger
35. El Canek
33. Jack Brisco
32. Shinya Hashimoto
31. Roddy Piper
30. Genichiro Tenryu
28. Abdullah the Butcher
27. Keiji Mutoh
26. Bob Backlund
25. Mil Mascaras
24. Nick Bockwinkel