For any longtime wrestling fan over the age of 40, we all have memories of a different time and, quite frankly, a different world. A world with no Internet, 13 TV channels (or less), and where the best video or computer game was Pong or electronic Tiger handheld games.
And no matter where you were in North America, you had the local wrestling company. And as far as you knew, this was the whole wrestling world. The world champion was the true Champion Of The World, and there was no one better. The TV commentators were the only ones you knew, so they were the best as well. You liked the good guys and you hated the bad guys. It wasn’t “cool” to cheer them; they were evil and you wanted to see your heroes beat them.
It was in this environment that I started watching wrestling in my hometown of Winnipeg, right in the middle of AWA territory (well, the far north part of the middle). Every Saturday evening at 6 pm, AWA All-Star Wrestling would come on, and I didn’t know anyone who didn’t watch it. Young and old, male and female....everyone. After that, we switched over to Hockey Night in Canada on CBC at 7 for our only hockey game of the week.
In this environment, two guys stood head and shoulders above everyone else in the wrestling world. Verne Gagne was the old man who wasn’t always around but when he was, we knew that despite his advanced age, if he could get his deadly sleeper on, he could take anyone out. Big brutal Russians, wild Frenchmen, Goose-stepping Nazis, Middle-Eastern shieks....it didn’t matter, Gagne would save the day.
Whenever he wasn’t around, the best in the world was Nick Bockwinkel. In fact, Gagne was pretty much semi-retired by the time I was 9 years old so to me, Bockwinkel was the man. But he wasn’t that big....surely my favorites would be able to take him down. But one by one, they came and went, and for the most part, they couldn’t get the job done. And Bockwinkel, along with his evil manager Bobby “The Weasel” Heenan (sure, he called himself "The Brain", but we knew differently), would always find a way to get the job done and keep the title. Even Hulk Hogan, larger than life and soon to be a movie star, couldn’t get the job done and eventually left wrestling altogether (as far we knew).
I even recall an “imposter” world champion who showed up on TV, claimed to be the real deal, and said he was coming to Winnipeg to defend "his" title against Bockwinkel. This was the first time I was ever behind Nick as I didn’t want to see this "fake" world champion beat the guy who’d beaten all my favorites. Plus, he could take his title to boot! Well, Bockwinkel and his opponent, a guy named Ric Flair, went to a no-contest on a cold night in mid-January 1986. Bockwinkel didn't take the NWA title that night, but stood his ground, and went on to continue beating all my heroes.
Eventually, Bockwinkel got older and went from the hated villain to the respected veteran. He still had some tricks up his sleeve, and won the title as late as 1987 before eventually losing it to Curt Hennig. By this point, we had other options. WWF Maple Leaf Wrestling and Superstars of Wrestling had replaced All-Star Wrestling on Saturdays, eventually moving to 11 am. If we wanted to see the stars of the AWA, we had to pay for something called cable, which was not cheap back then. I had a good job in high school so I paid for it myself -- specifically so I could continue to follow it.
A few years later, Bockwinkel showed up in WCW as the commissioner. He still had the gift of gab, even if he couldn’t (or wouldn’t) get in the ring anymore. It was a nice remembrance of my childhood to see him again. Eventually, he faded out of the spotlight. Over the years, it was always nice to hear stories of how he was still keeping an eye on the industry and reading about in the Observer. It was also sad to hear how he hadn't been able to attend Cauliflower Alley the last few years after being such a big part of it in the past.
When I heard on Sunday that he’d passed away, it was another part of my childhood gone and a link to a long-forgotten world that most of the people reading this probably didn’t even know existed. At least we have the memories and the legacy he left behind and for that I’d like to say thank you, Nick Bockwinkel. Rest in peace.