By Jim Phillips, Columnist
Welcome back, Bruthas and Sistas, to another edition of Territories. We’re going to jump right into it this week, with a look at a promotion that was created out of rebellion, and built on a legacy that goes all the way back to the Twenties, during the foundations of the NWA. Let’s head to the home of the Hoosier, and take a look at the World Wrestling Association
The year was 1964, and Midwestern standout wrestler, Dick the Bruiser, decided to break away from the NWA affiliate in Detroit and start his own brand in his home state of Indiana. Along with fellow wrestler Wilbur Snyder, the two purchased the NWA Indianapolis territory from Jim Barnett, who was amassing capital for a new venture in Australia. They formed Championship Wrestling of Indiana as their parent company, and the WWA was founded shortly after. The following year in 1965, the two also purchased the Chicago based Fred Kohler Enterprises which was the the original NWA territory where both had started out at in the Windy City.
Fred Kohler was a native Chicagoan who had began his wrestling and promoting career in the 1925, at the young age of twenty-two. After several major success in promoting events in the Chicago area, he joined forces with Ed White and the two promoted together in the city into the Fifties. They began airing their product on the the DuMont network, and called their show Wrestling From the Marigold. The show drew huge ratings and stayed on the air until 1957. It was during this time that Dick the Bruiser and Wilbur Snyder worked the territory that they would eventually own. Kohler ran afoul of Sam Muchnick at this same time when he tried to expand his business and ran shows in Indiana, which was the territory on Muchnick’s St. Louis Wrestling Club. Many feel that this is what led to him losing television spot on the Dumont Network. He also lost his time slot on WGN in 1957. Things were beginning to take a turn downhill for Kohler in the late Fifties as he saw more competition enter his territory. He weathered that storm and was elected President of the NWA in 1961, only to get voted out in the next cycle for actually suggesting the dissolution of the organization. He broke away from the NWA after that and launched his own International Wrestling Association in 1963, and ran in direct competition with them. It was only open for a year before Kohler folded and sold his company to the pair of Afflis & Snyder.
William Afflis was born in June of 1929, in Delphi, Indiana. He wrestled and played football in high school and followed that onto Purdue University where he did well enough to land a job with the powerhouse Green Bay Packers in 1952. After a short lived career in Wisconsin, Afflis fell back onto his wrestling abilities and began his foray into professional wrestling at the NWA Chicago promotion. His gruff voice, burly physique and hard hitting style quickly made him a local favorite. He also gained some local recognition when he handily dispatched famous Detroit Lions player, and future TV family Dad on the Eighties show Webster, in a bar fight. The Bruiser continued to work the Chicago and Detroit markets for the NWA and would regularly squash new talent that came into the area, which built his tough-guy character up even more. He worked there until he splintered off and started up the WWA in 1964.
Wilbur Snyder was born a California boy in Santa Monica, on September 29, 1929. He also started his career in football, but after receiving some wrestling training in the 1953 off season, he decided to make the transition to a more long lasting, and lucrative career in the squared circle. He made his bones when he took the US Heavyweight Title off of Verne Gagne at the Marigold Arena in Chicago. He continued to work the NWA circuit and won titles all across the country. He also perfected his signature move, one that he’s credited with creating, the abdominal stretch. He finally decided to stop wandering around so much, and put roots into the Indianapolis area with promotional partner, Bruiser, in 1964.
The Bruiser quickly established himself as the WWA World Heavyweight Champion and they booked him as such. He won the title on twelve different occasions from its inception in 1964 until 1985. He also started the tag ranks with his business partner Snyder, who won their WWA Tag Team Titles on April 25, 1964, just three days after The Bruiser won the Heavyweight gold. The two men fought the pair of The Assassins, and lost the titles to them in July of the following year. They would cement a rivalry that lasted through the following year.
The Assassins were the combination of Joe Tomasso, and Guy Mitchell. While the two only stayed together for a short time, Mitchell remained on the WWA roster off and on for the next twenty years. He was crowned The Stomper by Afflis, during his time between WWA and the BTW:Detroit promotion, where The Bruiser also worked while he was based out of Indianapolis. The Assassins were managed by a man that made his break in WWA, but built his legacy in New York City.
The Assassins were the first tag team that Bobby Heenan ever managed, but he would go down as possibly the greatest tag team manager in history. Born Raymond Louis Heenan in Chicago, as WWII was coming to an end in 1944, Bobby dropped out of school in the eighth grade to support his Mother and Grandmother and was drawn to the business of professional wrestling, that he so loved to watch as a child. He started out as low on the pole as you can, by carrying bags, selling refreshments, and just being an all around “go-for”. Though he claimed to never receive any official training, the business came naturally to the youngster and he got the chance to wrestle his first match in the WWA. He was billed as “Pretty Boy” Bobby Heenan because of his youth, and took to the ring in 1965. The Bruiser, who had a great eye for the potential in people, recognized that Heenan would be better as a manager, and he gave him the job of working with the heel tag teams.
The tag team ranks were on fire in the WWA, and the title changed hands often as the years passed. Several teams of not made their mark during this time. Wilbur Snyder won several Tag Championships with various partners, and co-owner Dick the Bruiser also tore up the ranks with his AWA compatriot, The Crusher. The Beer City Brawlers, as they were known in the AWA, the pair of Bruiser & Crusher were huge fan favorites and worked together off and on for nearly two decades after they paired up in Minneapolis. They won the AWA Tag Titles five times, as well as six times in the WWA. One of Snyder’s partners that he won multiple Championships with was a roster regular and also hailed from Indiana.
Edward Cholak, better known as Moose, was born in 1930, and began his wrestling career. A monster of a man at six feet four inches, and a staggering four hundred pounds, he got his nickname by wearing a moose head to the ring and bellowing like the animal prior to his matches, and in interviews. He worked in the WWA territory from 1964 until 1981, with little time wrestled elsewhere. He is said to have worked over eight thousand matches during his career, and was a fan favorite in Indianapolis. His size, like most big men, eventually caught up with him and he passed away from a complications of a stroke on Halloween, 2002.
The WWA had several years of trade exchange with the AWA, and it saw many of the Northern favorites make their way there, including one Baron Von Raschke. The hated German brought his scowled face and grasped, claw to the Heavyweight title hunt and along with fellow AWA alum, John Lanza. Lanza took the title from Bruiser and then he and the Baron battled over it through the start of the Seventies. Von Raschke held the title for two years with the exception of a couple month long intermissions, where he lost and promptly regained the belt. He left the territory for other AWA sanctioned work throughout the country in the Summer of 1972, when he lost the title to “Cowboy” Bob Ellis.
The Bruiser was working tags at while Baron was running hot with the WWA Title. He had held the Tag Titles seven times at this point with The Crusher and other partners. He was partnered with Bill Miller during the height of the Summer of 1970, when a new force came spinning into the WWA like a boomerang out of the bush.
The team of Al Costello & Don Kent hit the WWA scene and immediately took the place by storm. The second incarnation of The Fabulous Kangaroos took the Tag Titles from Bruiser & Miller in July of that year, and they laid siege to any and all teams that stood in their way. They were intensely hated by the fans, who would be driven to a fevered frenzy at their underhanded heel work. Wilbur Snyder and Moose Cholak went to war with them for a year over the belts, before The Kangaroos moved onto the neighboring NWA:Mid-America by 1972. These heel teams would come into a territory and get over by attacking the local babyfaces, and then move on a couple years later after the heat had died down. Then the next round of heel workers would make their way through, after they had just blown up a different area. Thus the cycle went on and everyone ate well during the territory years, and had the ability to work nationwide through connections and word of mouth bookings.
After his successful run with The Assassins, Bruiser put Heenan working with another pair of mean spirited cowboys that he saw as a good combination for a tag team. John Lanza, better known as Jack, was already using the heel cowboy gimmick, that had him decked out in all black ring gear, with the accompanying hat. He soon came to be know as “Black” Jack Lanza. His would-be partner, Bobby Windham, was also working a cowboy gimmick in the AWA. Afflis saw the chemistry, and the look of them together. Capturing the popularity of “Black” Jack Lanza, Bruiser just put them up in matching gear, and The Blackjacks were born. Heenan was put as their manager since he had already been working with Lanza in other bookings. They tore into the tag division and took their one and only Championships in the WWA in November, 1971 before moving on to WCCW, and eventually the WWF….like everyone else in the country that worked North of Tennessee, and West of Texas.
The WWA Heavyweight Title scene saw the belt shuffle around between the hands of Bob Ellis, Pepper Gomez, and “Stomper” Guy Mitchell donned the mask and won as The Masked Stranger. Ivan Koloff also made an appearance from the AWA and gave Bruiser a run for his money. It was the big man, with the bigger eyebrows from Sedalia, Missouri that held it longer than anyone else during this time.
Douglas “Ox” Baker held the WWA title early in the rise of his heel career. He made his way through the territory and made the fans reel with towering six foot five inch, near three hundred seventy pound frame, and menacing look that made his so easy to hate.
This look, along with his heart-punching persona, made him a very marketable commodity in the Seventies, not only in the wrestling ring, but on the big screen as well. While appearing in many films, he is most remembered for his role as the would-be executioner of Snake Plissken in the 1981 John Carpenter epic, Escape From New York. If you don’t know, or like this classic flick, I’m not sure we can be friends after this. Hahahaha.
After becoming known for his heart punch, Ox Baker sadly died in 2014 from complications of a heart attack. A sad irony for a great entertainer.
Bobby Heenan wasn’t done with the tag team competitors yet. Not by a long shot. Another team that came there to capture the Titles and rock the house to the ground. The team of Jimmy and Johnny Valiant first came together in the WWWF at the start of the Sixties, but they really got into their groove in the WWA a few short years later. They won their first Championships just after they arrived in 1974, and held them three more times between then and 1978. They added “brother” Jerry Valiant, who was, a once again re-packaged, Guy Mitchell. The three men worked together and in singles action there until the end of the decade, when Jimmy and Johnny, along with Heenan, departed for other opportunities. We will talk more about Bobby Heenan, as well as the Valiants in the WWW(F) section of this series. Mitchell continued to work in the WWA as Jerry Valiant after the brothers departed the territory. He worked there until he had a short run in the WWF when he was brought in to replace an ailing Jimmy. He left the wrestling scene a few years later and died in 2010. He was 68.
The tag rankings faltered after that and no real established team held the belts the rest of the time the promotion was open except for the Wild Warriors in 1984, and The Motor City Hitmen years later in 1989. Al Snow wrestled as a member of the Hitmen in the early days of his career.
From 1977 until 1981, Dick the Bruiser took on a handful of worthy heel competitors who came looking to take his title. One of my all time favorites, Bruiser Brody had the title in 1979, with Ernie Ladd, Johnny Valiant on a short return run, and Bobo Brazil, Blackjack Mulligan, and Harley Race all had a go for the title through 1983.
The beginning of the Eighties saw the immergence of the WWF across the territorial landscape, and with that, the talent drainage started to happen, and the WWA was not left unscathed in the fray. They did better that some of the rest though and held on for a few more years with new talents still being produced there up til the very end.
Two of these men were Gregory Wojciechowski, who wrestled as the Great Wojo, and Scott Rechsteiner, who started his career under his real name, but eventually dropped the Rech, and started working under the name that made him famous, Scott Steiner. The Great Wojo made the 1980 Olympic Wrestling Team, but with our boycott of the Games due to political conflicts with Russia, he missed his opportunity to represent his country there. He came to work for Afflis in 1983, and beat him for the WWA title not long after his debut. He was a legitimate “shooter”, and went undefeated in series of challenges where he took on all comers for a ten thousand dollar prize. He retired from wrestling in 1994, and now coaches at the high school level in Toledo, where he instills the basics to the stars of the future.
Little needs to be said about the career of “Big Poppa Pump”, Scott Steiner. He went on to become WWA Champion on August 14, 1986. He left for Memphis and the CWA in 1988, and stayed there until the formation of WCW in 1989. We will pick his story up there in upcoming editions.
The Worldwide Wrestling Association closed it’s doors and retired all of it’s titles in November of 1991, when Dick the Bruiser died suddenly at his seasonal home near Largo, Florida. He reportedly died from a blown blood vessel in his throat while lifting weights with a family member. Strongman and tough guy til the end, he died at the age of 62. In another sad irony in the saga of the WWA, his partner Wilbur Snyder died only a little over a month later, on Christmas Day, also at the age 62. The parallels that these two wrestlers and friends had in their lives was eerie, and followed them all the way to their deaths.
I hope you enjoyed this week’s story of the WWA, and how a small, center of the country promotion, made an impact that was felt coast to coast. We’re closing in on the final few editions of this series. I’ve really enjoyed learning new things along the way that I hadn’t heard until I started my research into these territories. If you feel the same way, then I’ve achieved my goal with this. I’ll talk to you again next week Bruthas and Sistas, as we head to Florida and start our march up the East Coast to New York. Never forget, our wrestling history is gold…..so DIG IT!!