Every day when I was in junior high and high school, , I would run home and turn on ESPN to watch the daily wrestling shows that they aired, either World Class Championship Wrestling (WCCW) from Texas or one of my favorites, the American Wrestling Association (AWA) out of Minneapolis area. Every day the AWA was on, I’d see announcer Larry Nelson welcome me to an hour of wrestling that was different from Vince McMahon’s WWF at time. The AWA focused more on wrestling and less on comedic characters, which was exciting for me (I loved all wrestling, but I still love watching the AWA).
This is the second time I have read Larry Nelson’s book, titled “Stranglehold: An Intriguing Behind The Scenes Glimpse Into The Private World of Professional Wrestling.” The book’s copyright is from 1999 by Chump Change Publishing. I decided to re-read the book after several mentions of Nelson have appeared on one of my favorite wrestling podcasts. The book has some good and bad in it, which I am going to review.
Nelson (real name Larry Shipley) got his start in the radio business where he started interviewing wrestlers from the AWA as a way to boost ratings. His first interview was Bobby Heenan who came into the studio thinking that Nelson wanted to fight Heenan. After the shows started to get popular, the station got pressured by the WWF to start having their talent on the air, not just the AWA Stars, which Nelson was not a major fan of because it was the AWA that helped them get started. Through his work with the wrestlers on the show, he was hired to do some voice work for the AWA and some interviews, which led to his hiring full time with the AWA after the radio station dropped the wrestling show, which was on AM Radio, due to the popularity of FM Radio.
Nelson writes throughout the book about his partying habits (scotch and cocaine), which escalated by hanging out with professional wrestlers. When he was working on the interviews, which took place in Winnipeg Canada, the wrestlers would try to keep themselves occupied when on the road as well. Nelson writes about Rick Martel and Curt Hennig amateur wrestling each other in the hotel rooms, Larry Zbyszko would hide in his room and play the game Battleship, Nick Bockwinkel stayed in his room, and the wild activities of Wally Karbo, Stan Lane, and Road Warrior Hawk.
Nelson talks about his relationship with another AWA Announcer Ken Resnick, who was not liked by the other AWA Wrestlers or staff , and how Resnick walked out of the company the day of their big event WrestleRock, after finding out that he was going to share the announcing duties with Nelson. Since the card was to have a concert to help promote the event, Nelson was asked to help suggest some acts due to his radio background. He suggested the rock band The Fabulous Thunderbirds, who were starting to break after the song “Tuff Enuff” hit radio. Owner Verne Gagne decided on Waylon Jennings due to his affordable salary and the music executives at the meeting also thought that Jennings could bring several fans of different genres to come to the event.
A few other great stories in the book talks about how wrestler John Nord and Greg Gagne (Verne’s Son) almost got into a fight at a interview taping over payment, Curt Hennig and Playboy Buddy Rose’s luck at the casinos when the AWA moved the tapings to Vegas, and how Bruiser Brody threw a mop bucket filled with vomit onto the owner of The Showboat Casino, where the tapings were held. He also describes the time The Midnight Rockers (Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty) danced by themselves at a club, when NWA Champion Ric Flair tried to pick up and out drink Kathy Gagne (Verne’s son), and when Stan Hansen and Brody decided to go overhead bowling.
In re-reading the book, I was curious to see what Nelson’s take on the decline of the AWA. He blames the major sign that the league was falling apart in competing with the WWF was the loss of the ESPN TV deal. He also states that when a toy company made the AWA action figures, the fans didn’t buy them and were a flop. He claims that he was never paid when the AWA made home videos trying to keep up with the NWA and WWF. Not being paid for his services, turning all his work into one day instead of three and four days, and bad business deals with Verne Gagne and other businesses all played a role in the league failing. Because of some of these events, Nelson decided to move to Florida with no notice to the AWA, and was then replaced by Eric Bischoff.
The bad parts of this book deals with its editing. I know Nelson’s book is printed by a minor company or even self published company; however the editing could have been better. Most of the photographs “unless noted” are from Nelson’s personal collection, including the cover. The photographs, though, look like they were copied on a Zerox machine. Many of them are blurry, including the cover which features Nelson and Brody.
Another problem I have with the book is some of the inaccuracies in the book and typos. Nelson talks about wrestlers John Nord as “John Ord” and Michael Hayes as “Hays.” He also says that Nick Bockwinkel vs Stan Hansen at WrestleRock was to be the rematch between the two, that Hansen “won the title from Bockwinkel in Chicago before a huge crowd” (Hansen beat Rick Martel in 1985 in East Rutherford, New Jersey and WrestleRock wasn’t until 1986). Another error stated in the book is Nelson telling the reader that the famous Bockwinkel vs Curt Hennig match that went an 1 hour draw on ESPN was “live from The Cow Palace in San Francisco” (It was at The Showboat Casino in Vegas in 1986, which is now found on the Curt Hennig WWE DVD).
Another match error in the book is when Nelson states that during the AWA merger with the USWA and World Class Wrestling, AWA Champion Jerry Lawler and Kerry Von Erich each won a match and wrestled two times. “Lawler won the championship in his home territory of Tennessee, then wrestled Von Erich later in Texas, where Von Erich won.”
Just my research alone, Jerry Lawler beat Hennig for the title. He then fought Von Erich in a series of unification matches before the bloody SuperClash match. Lawler fought him in 1988 in Tennessee (which I assume this is the match he’s talking about) in 1988. Kerry and Jerry both punched the first referee for a DQ finish. The match was restarted by a second referee and Kerry pinned Lawler with a piledriver, which was banned in Tennessee. So Lawler was declared the winner by DQ, which in World Class Wrestling, the champion could lose the belt during a DQ. Both wrestlers left with their respected belts regardless. Then there was a “Texas Death Match” at the Cotton Bowl in Texas, which the AWA refused to recognize Kerry as the winner due to a bias referee. Kerry then fought Lawler in Texas again for a TV Taping, where announcer Terry Garvin got involved when he threw a chair into the ring. The big match was at SuperClash, which Lawler won due to the referee stopping the bout due to Kerry’s bleeding. The way the writer writes Nelson’s take, Von Erich won the AWA Title, which he did not. And this was more than wrestling only two times.
Yet another error in the book details the ending of the AWA. Nelson says:
“A few key people stayed until the bitter end. Greg Gagne remained because he and his father, Verne, were the owners. Larry Zbyszko, who had married Kathy Gagne, hung on out of family loyalty. Nick Bockwinkel, with twenty years invested in the AWA, was also loyal to the end.”
Yes, Gagne and Zbyszko stayed (Zbyszko was the last AWA Champion), but Nick Bockwinkel was working as a road agent for the WWF in the last years he was in the business- the AWA folded in 1991, and Bockwinkel was in the WWF from 1987-1989. He was out of wrestling in 1991 from my research. Bockwinkel even wrestled in 1987 at a WWF Show-a legends battle royal in the Meadowlands in New Jersey. This may sound like a small detail, but it shows that even Bockwinkel was gone from the AWA before it closed.
One interesting quote in the book is when Nelson talks about WCW, where Eric Bischoff was running the league at the time of the writing. Nelson writes, “If Bischoff’s ego trip continues, it is likely Vince McMahon’s WWF will win the current wrestling war.” WCW ended up being sold to McMahon in 2001.
Overall the book is a good read besides some of the errors in it. Nelson very briefly states a sentence or two throughout the book about his partying, but it does not distract from the book, say like Sunny’s book did, which I reviewed for Slam Sports Wrestling (you can find that link in the March 2016 Archives at the side of this site). At 152 pages, one could read it in one sitting if one wanted. I do wish there were more stories about Bockwinkel, Zbyszko, Sgt. Slaughter, and others, but it is still filled with good tales. I think the AWA gets a bad rap in the wrestling world and whatever few books I can get on it, I’m going to enjoy it, and I enjoyed most of Nelson’s book.
A Special Thanks to The Great Brian Last for providing me with some last second information.
(Larry Nelson’s book is available at Amazon.com)
(Nelson, Larry and Jones, James. Stranglehold: An Intriguing Behind The Scenes Glimpse Into The Private World Of Professional Wrestling. Denver: Chump Change Publishing, 1999. )