411’s Wrestling Hall of Fame Class of 2010: Nick Bockwinkel
Nick Bockwinkel was born to be a professional wrestler. We say that about the majority of second-generation wrestlers at one point or another as a lame talking point, but the phrase couldn’t be more accurate for the son of Warren Bockwinkel, a man who feuded with wrestling icons the likes of Lou Thesz & Paul Boesch and had a successful tag team with Fred Blassie. Warren never held a world championship, but he was instrumental in helping shape the next generation of wrestlers.
After Nick’s football career came to an end at the University of Oklahoma, he was trained in the art of pro wrestling by Warren & Lou Thesz. His very first match was against Thesz, who was the NWA champion at the time. He spent most of the early days teaming with his father in various promotions mostly on the West Coast. Nick won singles & tag team championships in the NWA’s San Francisco, Pacific Northwest, Hawaii & Georgia promotions in the time period from 1958 to 1970. Bockwinkel said the following about the early stages of his career in an interview with SLAM Wrestling…
“I was very mediocre for the first 10 years of my career. Then for the latter 20 years of my career, I was very, very top drawer. So there’s a learning process.”
Since there isn’t a whole lot of footage from the first ten years of his career out there we can’t tell if Nick was being modest or not. What we do know is that Bockwinkel’s career really picked up when he made his way to Verne Gagne’s American Wrestling Association in the early 1970s. Soon after arriving, Nick formed a team with Ray “The Crippler” Stevens, a man who many say was the best in-ring worker of his era. Stevens led an interesting life outside the ring and that ultimately led to him not making it to the world championship level, but he and Bockwinkel, with the guidance of their manager Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, held the AWA tag team championships on three separate occasions from 1972-1974 for a combined total of 1,202 days. This is second only to the record set by the legendary Crusher/Dick the Bruiser tag team. Bockwinkel always gave credit to Stevens & Heenan for helping him look better than he was, but he had a lot to do with making the team work as well.
Bockwinkel’s interview style was radically different from just about everybody else in pro wrestling at the time. Instead of getting all mad and hollering at people, Bockwinkel would calmly articulate his grievances with his opponents, using large words that tended to infuriate the masses. Bockwinkel carried himself as being above everybody around him, from his opponents to the fans that despised him. They weren’t worthy of his time, and that’s why Bobby Heenan was there for most of his AWA career, to do the things that Bockwinkel didn’t wish to bother himself with. He was a thinking man’s wrestler, a cerebral assassin long before somebody thought to coin the term.
After dominating the tag team ranks alongside the Crippler, Bockwinkel decided that he wanted the spotlight for himself. On November 8, 1975 in St. Paul, Minnesota, Nick Bockwinkel shocked the wrestling world when he ended the seven-year heavyweight title reign of the AWA’s foremost grappler, Verne Gagne. Bockwinkel would hold the AWA championship for the next five years, defending against everybody that the company had to offer and vanquishing all opposition to his cause. His first reign lasted 1,714 days, which ended up second to Verne’s previous title reign. While Bockwinkel’s title reign seems to have been well-received from a creative and financial standpoint, you could probably start to see the cracking in the AWA’s armor when Nick dropped the title on July 18, 1980 to Verne so he could retire with it ten months later.
Bockwinkel was awarded the AWA championship for a second time on May 19, 1981. He didn’t beat Verne, in fact, Verne defeated Bockwinkel in his “last match” nine days earlier. It’d be interesting to see what kind of logic they used to explain all of this on television, and if it made a lick of sense. It sure hasn’t in anything I’ve read about it. The ultimate decision was probably the right one because Bockwinkel was the best wrestler in the AWA, but surely they could have concocted some tournament or a lame battle royal instead of just handing the belt over. The next plan for the AWA was to have Bockwinkel put over this young kid by the name of Hulk Hogan, but one thing led to another and that didn’t happen. Instead Bockwinkel put over European promoter Otto Wanz for a quickie title reign before getting it back, and his final championship reign started on June 28, 1986 because then-champion Stan Hansen no-showed an event in Denver, Colorado and never returned to the AWA.
The 1980s weren’t a complete disaster for Nick Bockwinkel though. Far from it. Despite the AWA’s crumbling around him and his body advancing in age, he continued to be one of the best wrestlers in the world and continued to put on classic matches that hold up very well today. His title defenses against Jerry Lawler in Memphis’ Mid-South Coliseum were legendary. Who could forget his sixty-minute draw with Curt Hennig? That match, which took place in Las Vegas, Nevada on November 15, 1986, was as good a clinic of scientific wrestling as you will ever see, mixed in with a bloody brawl for the final ten minutes. It’s easily one of the best ten wrestling matches I’ve ever seen, and the nearly fifty-two year old Bockwinkel had an amazing performance in it. I’ve heard stories about a sixty minute draw that Bockwinkel had with Ric Flair at the Winnipeg Arena in 1985 that makes it sound like one of the greatest matches of all time.
Bockwinkel retired in 1987 and worked for the World Wrestling Federation as a road agent for a couple of years after that. He had an on-screen role as WCW Commissioner in 1994 and has served as President of the Cauliflower Alley Club since 2007. He was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2007 and has appeared on WWE television as recently as earlier this year, when he was involved in a Legends Lumberjack Match pitting Christian against Ted DiBiase Jr. At 75 years old, it’s quite possible that Bockwinkel was the oldest lumberjack in wrestling history. I’m sure that didn’t make Christian or Ted feel any safer about being tossed out near him.
Why Nick Bockwinkel was selected…
Verne Gagne created the American Wrestling Association and held their championship more often than anybody else, but for most of its existence Nick Bockwinkel was the cornerstone of the company and considered the best professional wrestler competing under its banner. Whether he was the AWA heavyweight champion or part of a tag team championship combination with Ray Stevens, Bockwinkel was constantly under the skin of AWA fans as the man that they bought tickets to see get his butt kicked. Bockwinkel’s calm, articulate interview style combined with the verbal jousting of his manager Bobby Heenan made for a combination the likes of which had never been seen before, and hasn’t been seen since. Unlike many people who wrestled into their 50s, Bockwinkel was still in fantastic shape and having tremendous matches towards the end of his career. The two words most used by fellow wrestlers to describe Bockwinkel were “class act”, and in a business where the top guys often can’t be described that way, it’s always nice to hear that about somebody who accomplished all the things that Bockwinkel did. A Hall of Famer in and out of the ring, Nick Bockwinkel merits inclusion in any listing of pro wrestling’s all-time greats.