Monday, February 26, 2007

"Stealing" Talent

The documentary detailing the rise and fall of the AWA was enlightening, as I had heard the name many times before, as the starting place for many a classic wrestler, such as Hogan and Andre the Giant, but nothing more. The parallels with the WWE were striking, as Verne Gagne basically built the AWA up to its heights near single-handedly, similar to Vince McMahon, and well as bringing his family into the business in order to keep control, again like Vince and his son Shane and daughter Stephanie. From there, the stories deviate.

Verne Gagne was known for his stubbornness, his heavy hand and personal touch in every aspect of the business, from personally training wrestlers to actually wearing the belt for long lengths of time. Through his grooming and business management, the AWA spawned a roster of world class wrestlers, from Hogan and Andre to Shawn Michaels and the Road Warriors, and other great personalities such as Bobby the Brain and Gene Oakerland. The AWA was highly successful under the rule of Verne Gagne for 30+ years.

Then came Vince Jr. When he took control of the WWWF from his father, he set out to create something completely new and fresh, with the best talent, high production values, and widespread television and pay-per-view broadcasting. Vince began to reach out to established and rising stars, including those in the AWA, one of the first being Hogan. Whether it was just an obscene offer in itself or whether Hogan was just looking for an out, whatever the reason, Hogan made the jump, and for some reason did not finish out his pre-booked dates for AWA. With the loss of arguably its greatest star, the AWA began hemoraging talent to the WWWF, which began growing, despite all arguments to the contrary by old verterans that this 'new-fangled wrestling' would never survive. Verne became even more stubborn, and drew his interests in even closer, mandating iron-clad contracts from his talent, which they didn't always sign. Vince's enterprise was gaining across the country, as the AWA began losing, and eventually faltered.

Did Vince kill the AWA? Were his tactics unsavory, or unfair? I think not, he was building a company, and wanted the best, and apparently he could afford it. If Verne Gagne had been less stubborn and had reached out to others, the AWA could have been able to evolve with the times in response to the up-and-coming WWWF, and may have lasted much longer. Yes, Vince was an opportunist, but only by seizing opportunities are fortunes and fates made. Without Verne Gagne and the AWA, the WWE as we know it, as a multi-billion dollar international enterprise, would probably not exist, but if Vince Jr. had not come along, I'm not sure if the AWA would be still be around either.


Mike W. said...

Someone, there was a post from Peter (?) a few weeks back about what it takes to earn the loyalty of talent. Briefly, two things were agreed on: money and prestige. Even if it was good for you, if someone (Vince) was offering it in greater abundance, your philanthropy would no longer be appreciated.

Did the WWF steal talent from AWA? I don't think so, because nobody didn't want to go of their own volition. The WWF's major faux pas, I believe, was to interrupt the region system that had been in place for the majority of the 20th century. It wasn't that Hulk Hogan was signing with Vince. It was that Hogan was signing with Vince and trying to take over Minnesota.

There are plenty of examples of "major coups" in wrestling these days - I was discussing then-ECW Champion Mike Awesome's sudden departure to WCW in 1998-99; he was the bane of the wrestling world. How could a current champion up and leave for the competition? Well, as it turns out, they would do so pretty easily if they aren't being paid at all, as was the case with Awesome and a number of ECW talent.

These days, wrestling has become more about litigation that talent, I'm afraid. WWE is protecting its (and arguably others) intellectual property from being used by the competition. This is why The Dudley Boyz are now Team 3D (an ethical can of worms I won't get into). Christian was lucky he quickly snatched up trademark protections on his name to use it in TNA. This is, I believe, the case with more wrestlers than ever. So, with that in mind, you wonder how another company could "steal" a brand the way many claim WWF did. What would the past 20 years of wrestling history look like if Gagne had wrapped up the IP rights to "Hulk Hogan" before he jumped ship?

Sam Ford said...

Interesting questions posed. As far as what you ask, Mike, I think the main difference in the regional era is that these guys moved around so often that, for many characters, it's unclear where they started the character. Hulk was Hulk Hogan well before he ever came to the AWA. The fact that many of these guys were journeymen made it hard to determine who owned the rights, and I guess there was no economic incentive in punishing them if they jumped, as you point out, because they usually didn't jump to the competition but rather another area of the country...

Peter "The Malcontent" Rauch said...

Reading your post, I'm remembering the readings about historical wrestling, and the slow transition from "boring" sport to "exciting" spectacle that culminated in the rise of TV wrestling, and I'm left wondering, how did nobody see Vince McMahon, Jr. coming? I'm sure it looked different at the time, but modern wrestling just looks like the logical extension of a bargain people like Verne Gagne made years earlier--to sacrifice the sport for the show.

I can appreciate that Gagne wanted to preserve some of the sport's legitimacy by ensuring that only "real" wrestlers became stars, and it's certainly a principled stand. Thing is, given what wrestling was before the depression, and what it was when it hit TV, it also seems naive. If it isn't a sport, there's not much reason to treat it like one.

Carolina said...

Did Vince kill the AWA? It's a loaded question but I think the overwhelming answer would have to be that Vince "killed" every organization that ever opposed him. The thing is, Vince is a businessman and he did what he thought he had to do to win. He came in with a completely different mentality than his father and the likes of Fritz Von Erich and Verne Gagne, who all adhered strictly to the idea that your territory was yours and you stuck to your own territory.

Vince wasn't the first person who had dreams of going national and even international, as witnessed by the documentaries that we watched this and last week. However, he was the first that recognized change was needed and he got it. Where everyone else was stubborn and refused to change or adapt, Vince adapted and competed.

The way I see it, the guys running the territories that opposed what Vince were doing were in a completely different time than Vince. Vince came in young, willing to change, armed with ideas and what many have labeled a ruthless aim to get the best talent to work for him. No one else saw him coming, but once they did, they didn't know how to handle something that had never been a problem before. It's not that the AWA couldn't compete, they just didn't know how. For that reason, while I do concede that a large part of the fall of the AWA has to go to Vince, the changing times are really what finished off the organization in the end.

luistenorio said...

I don't think that the stealing of talent during that time was so unfair. People just want to work for the bigger better company to get ahead. Sure there are lots of ties someone may have but Verne Gagne did not respect someone like Hulk Hogan as much as he did Curt Hennig because he was not a technical wrestler, he was a hero and his personality won the crowd, not his wrestling ability. You see in professional sports today, teams lobbying to get the best players to play for them. It even happens with college players as well. So Vince taking wrestlers to the national level was not a wrong thing to do. Had the AWA gone national like the WWF then it could have kept its stars but both the WCCW and AWA became sort of the minor leagues. If the WWF did not go national, I am sure someone else would have done it. And perhaps it would have been WCW but even that is up in the air since without Vince McMahon, I am sure some of these places could have stayed in business a little longer than they did.