As we put a wrap on 2015, let’s take time to remember those who we lost in the world of professional wrestling this past year. Each year we sadly see wrestlers, managers or promoters pass away too soon, and this year was no exception, however the names of those who left this year is a who’s who list. Let’s look back at the magical careers of those who left an indelible impression on us in the squared circle.
Verne Gagne was a 10 time AWA World Heavyweight Champion. He also held the NWA World heavyweight Championship (Omaha version) five times, and the IWA World Heavyweight Championship once. He ranks third (behind Bruno Sammartino and Lou Thesz) for the longest single world title reign, holding the AWA Title from August 31, 1968 until November 8, 1975, a total of 7 years 3 months.
In 1960, after being frustrated in getting a chance to win the NWA title, Verne formed his own promotion, the American Wrestling Association (AWA). Besides being the owner of the company and its biggest star, Gagne would serve as the companies top trainer, doing so on his farm in Minnesota. His training sessions were known for pushing the hopeful wrestlers to their limits. Verne went on to train some of the biggest names in wrestling history including; Ric Flair, Ricky Steamboat, Bob Backlund, The Iron Sheik, Larry and Curt Hennig and Ken Patera.
At its peak the AWA was one of the top promotions in the world and at the steering wheel was Verne Gagne. Many of the all time greats had their first runs of major success in the AWA including, Ken Patera, Superstar Billy Graham, Dusty Rhodes, Shawn Michaels, Scott Hall and Hulk Hogan. Verne Gagne is one of only six men inducted into each of the WWE, WCW, Professional Wrestling and Wrestling Observer Newsletter halls of fame. Verne passed away this year on April, 27.
The wrestling world lost Tommy Rogers on June 1. It was in Memphis, during the early 1980’s, where Rodgers would meet his longtime tag team partner Bobby Fulton, and form The Fantastics. The team would have their first taste of success in Bill Watts’ Mid South territory. It was in Mid South that they would have their first of many encounters with the Midnight Express. The feud would continue into the mid 80’s when the teams were in Fritz Von Erich’s World Class Championship Wrestling.
After their run in WCCW, Rogers and Fulton went back to Oklahoma to work for Watts under Mid South’s new name, the Universal Wrestling Federation. Upon joining UWF, the Fantastics, would embark in a long series of violent matches against The Sheepherders (later known as the Bushwhackers). In 1988, the Fantastics joined the NWA to renew their rivalry with the Midnight Express. The team stayed active into the 1990’s and spent several years in Japan in various promotions with their biggest feud being against Dean and Joe Malenko. After a brief stint in WWF in 1997, Rodgers would join ECW, where he briefly teamed with Jerry Lynn. In 2005, the Fantastics reformed on the independent circuit, where they would go on to capture the SCW (Southern Championship Wrestling) Tag Team Titles by defeating the Midnight Express in a steel cage match.
The American Dream Dusty Rhodes sadly passed away on June 11. Rhodes won multiple titles across the nation in various territories, including three NWA World Heavyweight titles, a twelve time Florida Heavyweight Champion, a one time run as the NWA United States Heavyweight Champion, and multi-time World Television and World Tag Team champion. In 1974, Dusty would become the hero of thousands of wrestling fans after turning on tag team partner Pak Song and manager Gary Hart during a match in Florida. That turn was the impetus for the American Dream persona, in which Dusty would portray himself as a working class man and the son of a plumber.
In 1977, during the peak of Rhodes’ popularity, Dusty would wrestle for the WWWF, where he would have a string of matches in Madison Square Garden challenging for the WWWF Heavyweight Championship against Superstar Billy Graham. To this day these matches are considered some of the best the Worlds Most Famous arena has hosted. Rhodes himself, always considered these matches with Graham as among the most exciting and memorable of his career.
Dusty Rhodes is considered by many as one of the most innovative and creative bookers in the history of professional wrestling. Soon after his time in WWF, Dusty began working as a booker and wrestler with Jim Crockett Promotions (JCP) in the Mid-Atlantic territory. Amongst some of Rhodes’ memorable contributions to JCP and the wrestling world was his creation of Starrcade. In 1985 Rhodes would go on to one of his most memorable feuds as he teamed with Magnum T.A. as “America’s Team,” to take on the likes of the Four Horsemen and the Russian team of Ivan and Nikita Koloff.
In mid-1989, Rhodes would come back to the WWF as the yellow polka-dotted wearing “Common Man” Dusty Rhodes. Many have said over the years, that the gimmick was intended to humiliate Dusty due to his involvement with the rival NWA, however Dusty has said many times that the gimmick never bothered him as he rode it all the way to the bank!
Dusty would later go on to have stints in WCW, ECW and TNA where he served both in the ring as a wrestler and was also involved as a booker. Later Rhodes would come back to WWE where he served as a creative consultant, and eventual head writer and creative director for NXT. Soon after Dusty’s untimely death, at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn, NXT General Manager William Regal announced that he was establishing the “Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic” – a tag team tournament named in the American Dream’s honor.
Nature Boy Buddy Landel passed away on June 22. Landel started his career in 1979 in Bill Watts’ Mid South promotion. He later went on to the NWA and joined manager James J. Dillon’s stable. Landel would start a feud with Ric Flair where they would eventually break Elvis Presley’s attendance record in Dorton Arena in Raleigh, North Carolina, in July of 1985. Buddy would go on to win the NWA National Heavyweight Championship from Terry Taylor at Starrcade ’85.
Just when Landel was set to win the NWA Heavyweight Championship from Ric Flair in 1985, he had a falling out with the management of Jim Crockett Promotions and left the company. Landel then landed in Jerry Lawler’s Tennessee territory where he would headline the last sold out show at the legendary Mid-South Colisem with the likes of Bill Dundee, Dutch Mantell and the King himself, Jerry Lawler.
Landel went back to the NWA in 1990 and where he would once again feud with Ric Flair in a “Battle of the Nature Boys”. In the mid 90’s Buddy worked in Smoky Mountain Wrestling where he would hold the SMW Heavyweight Championship and the SMW Television Championship. He remained a main event wrestler for the company until the promotion folded in late 1995. A match for the Intercontinental Championship between Landel and Shawn Michaels would set an attendance record at the Knoxville Coliseum in August of 1995.
On July 31, the wrestling world was stunned to hear of the death of Roddy Piper. Arguably one of the greatest heels of all time, Roddy Piper was also one of the biggest stars the wrestling world has ever seen. Hot Rod headlined numerous pay-per-view cards, including the WWF’s inaugural Wrestlemania. Over the course of his amazing career, Piper accumulated over 30 championships. Piper played a vital role in bringing mass media attention to the first Wrestlemania as he incited the likes of pop singer Cyndi Lauper and television star Mr. T.
In the late 1970’s, Piper would have his first successful run in Don Owens’ Pacific Northwest territory. Soon after his run in the northwest, Piper joined the NWA Mid-Atlantic territory where he beat Jack Brisco for the Mid-Atlantic title, and would later defeat Ric Flair for the US belt. Piper would later serve as a commentator on Georgia Championship Wrestling. After leaving the announcing table, Piper would feud with Sgt. Slaughter, Ric Flair, and Greg Valentine. Piper’s feud with Valentine culminated in a dog collar match at the first Starrcade. Valentine legitimately broke Piper’s left ear drum during the match with the collar’s chain, causing Piper to permanently lose 50–75% percent of his hearing.
In 1984, Piper would join the WWF, and the rest as they say is history. He was given his own interview segment called Piper’s Pit, which became must see TV. One of the most memorable episodes was when Piper insulted Jimmy Snuka’s Polynesian heritage and attacked Snuka by smashing him over the head with a coconut. A personal favorite though was his infamous interview of the “legendary” Frank Williams.
Piper’s first major wrestling storyline in WWF was with Hulk Hogan, which also involved pop singer Cyndi Lauper, and culminated in 1985, with MTV’s broadcast of The War to Settle the Score, which ultimately set up the very first Wrestlemania. The main event at WM 1 would be Piper and Paul Orndorff, with Bob Orton in their corner vs. Hogan and Mr. T who were accompanied by Jimmy Snuka. Piper would also play a major role in Wrestlemania 2 as he fought Mr. T in a boxing match. After Mania 2, Piper would be in and out of the WWF with his biggest high point being capturing the Intercontinental Championship (his only major title run in WWF) at the 1992 Royal Rumble when he defeated The Mountie. He would soon lose the strap to Bret Hart at Wrestlemania 7.
In 1996, Roddy joined WCW. Piper would rekindle his feud with Hollywood Hulk Hogan leading to them meeting in the main event at Starrcade. After having brief feuds with the NWO and later Ric Flair, Hot Rod would once again face Hogan in a steel cage match at Halloween Havoc.
Piper is considered one of the greatest talkers and heels in wrestling history. The Piper’s Pit interview segments were considered innovative, and set the tone for future wrestler interview segments, such as The Brother Love Show, The Peep Show and The Highlight Reel. In 2012, WWE named Roddy Piper the greatest villain in wrestling history.
On November 14, the wrestling world lost yet another legend as four-time AWA Heavyweight Champion Nick Bockwinkel passed away. Nick was one of the two most dominant forces in AWA history, the other being Verne Gagne. When you look at the career of Nick Bockwinkel he had feuds with a list wrestling legends including; Gagne, Superstar Billy Graham, Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, Jerry Lawler, Bob Backlund, Curt Hennig, Rick Martel and Stan Hansen.
Bockwinkel, who was trained by the legendary Lou Thesz, was a combination of style, arrogance and great wrestling technique. When Nick initially joined the AWA he was quickly teamed with Ray Stevens to form one of the greatest tag teams of all time. Also helping the teams legendary status was the involvement of their manager, Bobby Heenan. After the team split up Bockwinkel (who was still managed by Heenan) focused his efforts on the AWA Heavyweight Championship setting up his longtime feud with Gagne. Nick would go on to win the AWA Heavyweight Championship four times for a combined 2990 days or the equivalent of just over eight years!
As Nick’s career continued, I honestly believe that no wrestler in the past 50 years performed better at an advanced age than Nick Bockwinkel. 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. But, it wasn’t until Nick was 52, that he had maybe his greatest feud outside of Vern Gagne, when he began to tangle with Curt Hennig, a man 24 years his junior! Oh the matches these were. Clinics in how a match and story should be told. The matches were so good that they made you forget the age difference between these two legends.
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 the truth of the matter is, he truly was one of the best ever.
It’s with a tear or two that we say goodbye to these legends, who gave us so many memories over the years and whose impact on the business is still seen today. To all of you a very sincere thank you!