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Remembering Nick Bockwinkel by Hank McAllen

On November 14, the wrestling world lost yet another legend as four-time AWA Heavyweight Champion Nick Bockwinkel passed away at the age of 80. I can’t help but think of the superstar level of wrestler we have lost this year. Nick joins Nature Boy Buddy Landel, Tommy Rogers, Dusty Rhodes, Roddy Piper and Nick’s longtime rival and AWA founder, Verne Gagne as among those who have passed away in 2015.

I had never seen Nick Bockwinkel wrestle until 1984 when the AWA joined forces with the NWA to form Pro Wrestling USA. Back then the New York market was strictly WWF territory, but this was the two companies combined efforts to take on Vince’s global domination plan in the WWF’s own backyard. It was with great anticipation that I was getting to see the likes of Bockwinkel, The Road Warriors from the AWA as well as Ric Flair, Magnum T.A., Tully Blanchard and others from the NWA to name a few. It only took me just a few episodes to become a fan of Nick’s in ring persona and wrestling style.

When you look at the career of Nick Bockwinkel he had matches with a who’s who list of wrestling legends; Verne Gagne, Superstar Billy Graham, Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair (who was the NWA Heavyweight Champion at the time), Jerry Lawler, Bob Backlund (who was the WWWF Heavyweight Champion at the time), an amazing feud with a young Curt Hennig, Rick Martel, Stan Hansen, Randy Savage and even a very young Bret Hart. Some list huh and that doesn’t include his battles in Japan with some of their biggest stars as well, including Jumbo Tsuruta.

Bockwinkel was style, arrogance and great wrestling technique. Nick came from a wrestling family as his dad Warren had a successful career in the 1940’s. Besides being trained in the business by his dad, his other major mentor was the legendary Lou Thesz. It was with this foundation that Nick took on the wrestling world and in 1970 received his first big break by joining the AWA and forming a tag team with Ray Stevens. The two were managed by a young brash 26 year old by the name of Bobby Heenan. Many consider the team of Bockwinkel and Stevens one of the greatest teams of all time from any era. They went on to capture the AWA tag team belts three times, with their biggest feud being against Dick The Bruiser and the Crusher.

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The team ultimately split after Nick turned on Stevens leading to a spectacular feud which allowed two of the greatest in ring technicians of all time to showcase themselves main eventing at all of territories top venues. The split also allowed Bockwinkel to focus his efforts more on the singles division and the crowned jewel, the AWA Heavyweight Championship. It was during this run at the title that Nick began his long time feud with the great Verne Gagne. Between August, 1968 and February, 1984 the AWA champion was either Gagne or Bockwinkel , with the exception of a brief 41 day reign by Otto Wanz. While others were always contenders for the belt, such as Sgt. Slaughter, Pat Patterson, Mad Dog Vachon, Billy Robinson and Baron Von Raschke, it was usually the names of Bockwinkel and Gagne that were sitting on the marquis at AWA arenas.

During Nick’s heyday as AWA Champion, he was still under the guidance of Bobby Heenan. Look up the interviews of these two. Bockwinkel was pure arrogance. A true clinic in cutting an interview. While speaking to the viewer in a rather large vocabulary, carefully telling the public how he was going to dissect his opponent, he was dressed to the nines in a perfectly tailored suit or sports coat. It was narcissism taken to the umpteenth degree. He would then turn the microphone over to “The Brain”. Heenan would pick up right where Nick left off but in more layman’s terms demeaning any opponent and reminding the audience how much smarter both he and Bockwinkel were than them. If you’re a fan of promos, you got to see two of the best at their peak!

I honestly believed no wrestler in the past 50 years performed better at an advanced age than Nick Bockwinkel. Yes, I know people will say the likes of Terry Funk, Ric Flair and others. But nobody fought at the level that Bockwinkel did against the caliber of opponents night in and night out than Nick.

In 1983, at the age of 48, Bockwinkel had three of his most memorable feuds. The men that Nick would defend his title against on a regular basis the first half of that year were Rick Martel, a man 20 years his junior, Jerry The King Lawler and Hulk Hogan. All three of these contenders brought three very different styles to the ring, which showed how well Bockwinkel could adapt to his opponent regardless of how big, strong or fast they were. These feuds were so intense. If you thought only passionate crowds and intense matches existed in the NWA back then, do yourself a favor and check out some of these matches that Bockwinkle had in 1983. My personal recommendations would be versus Hogan at Super Sunday April 24, 1983 (see below), versus Martel in Winnepeg on September 29, 1983, and against Lawler on New Year’s Day 1984.

As the WWF was taking over the wrestling world, the second half of the 80’s saw the NWA, AWA and other remaining territories try to rebuild their depleted rosters with young new talent that could take on whatever remaining established wrestlers were on the roster. As far as the AWA was concerned, Bockwinkel came face to face with some of the up and coming stars of tomorrow, including the great Curt Hennig.

It was 1986. The AWA was seeing a bit of a resurgence as they had a regular spot on ESPN, their home base was the Showboat Resort in Las Vegas and they had an influx of young talent such as Scott Hall, Shawn Michaels, Leon White (aka Big Van Vader) amongst others. One of the new kids on the block, Curt Hennig was climbing up the ranks to become the number one contender for the AWA Heavyweight Championship. As their feud began Hennig was the baby face, while Bockwinkel was the respected, yet still heel Champion. Yet as the feud continued into 1987, and as things began to intensify, Hennig with a little help from Larry Zbyszko, turned heel. The fact that this feud lasted as long as it did, with the changes in persona and the high quality of matches is amazing. But for me what is truly amazing was as all of this was happening Nick was 52 years old and having 25 – 40 minute matches with a man who was 24 years younger than he was! If I had to recommend a match from this feud, it would be tough, so I’ll narrow it down to my two favorites, November 21, 1986 and December 15, 1986 at the “Brawl in St. Paul”.

Nick went on to retire later in 1987. He had an illustrious career as both a tag team and heavyweight champion that resulted in him being inducted in both the WWE Hall of Fame and the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame in Amsterdam, New York, as well as well as being honored in the prestigious Cauliflower Alley Club. Unbeknownst to most, Bockwinkel’s presence was felt by most WWE fans as late as 2008, when Chris Jericho based his new heel character on Bockwinkel. In his autobiography The Best in the World Jericho wrote, “The WWE had recently released an AWA retrospective DVD, and while watching it, I remembered how great a heel Bockwinkel was. He wore suits for all his interviews and used ten-dollar words that went over the average fans’ heads, pissing them off markedly. Here was this pompous blowhard using the fancy talk and wearing the fancy suits, claiming to be the best because he was the World Champion, which was the truth.”

Sadly I think due to the fact most of his career was spent in the AWA, many fans have never head of or forger Nick Bockwinkel. But I am here to tell you he was an amazing wrestler. He fought so many of the greatest wrestlers the world has even seen and did so with a style and presence second to none. If you haven’t seen the WWE produced DVD titled “The Spectacular Legacy of the AWA”, do yourself a favor and check it out. Not only does it give you a peak into one of the most successful territories ever, but it’ll let you see how revered Bockwinkel was by his contemporaries.

Rest in peace Nick, you will be greatly missed.