Because of egotism, the National Wrestling Alliance completely missed the boat when it
came to Verne Gagne. Of course, many knowledgeable fans understand that Gagne
was the force behind the American Wrestling Association (AWA), and the World
Heavyweight Champion of that group many times. But between 1953 and 1960, the NWA
really missed the opportunity to capitalize on Gagne's national popularity. There were
two major opportunies, however - and one was during the peak of the DuMont Network's
wrestling run, around 1953-'54.
At that time, Gagne was the most popular wrestler in the Untied States and getting more
coverage than any other grappler in the business. He was a huge draw across the
country, and with the right kind of promotion, a Gagne vs. Lou Thesz championship
match (or double title match as it would've been) would have definitely established a new
national gate record, smashing the $100,000 figure drawn by Thesz and Baron Michele
Leone in 1952. Held in Chicago, it may have drawn 50,000 fans and a $150,000 gate.
Who knows? But the reason why it never happened in 1953-'54, when it would've really
been beneficial was because of the egos of the major players behind-the-scenes were
hurt, and tempers were raised. This is why this dream match never occurred.
And that really leads right into the second blunder by the NWA. Because of these same
egos and hurt feelings, Gagne was not given the NWA World Heavyweight Title when he
really could've helped the organization - anytime between 1953 and 1957. In 1953, the
Alliance membership was polled to determine who they thought would be the top
contender to the heavyweight championship, and seemingly who they thought would be a
good replacement for Thesz if something happened to him. The NWA membership
picked Verne Gagne number one, Killer Kowalski number two, and Antonino Rocca
number three. Other wrestlers to receive votes were Bill Longson, Yvon Robert, Ruffy
Silverstein, Don Beitelman (Curtis) and Ray Gunkel.
The support Gagne was receiving from NWA members coincided with his success as a
box office draw, and extended popularity with fans in places like New York City.
Altogether, this is a complicated story, but has origins in 1953 when Fred Kohler decided
to name a "sectional" champion to feature on his nationally broadcast wrestling program
on the DuMont Network.
Reportedly "Whipper" Billy Watson recommended to Kohler that if he was implement a
local championship, he dub it the "United States" championship, and that is exactly what
he did. With support from DuMont, Kohler decided to go forward with the idea, honoring
Gagne as initial champion on the September 5, 1953 Marigold TV program. Members of
the NWA were in attendance for the show, as they had been in town for the annual
convention. It was clearly stated that the U.S. Championship held by Gagne was only
recognized by Kohler in Chicago, and not an NWA-wide designation. A week later,
Gagne was presented with the U.S. Title belt in the WGN-TV Studios.
Although Kohler clearly worked to distinguish the new championship recognition as being
a local thing, many fans were confused about Gagne's ranking in comparison to NWA
Heavyweight Champion Thesz. With week-in and week-out publicity on Dumont, Gagne
was gaining a huge following, and with him charging around the country as the U.S.
Champion and holding a belt, it seemed to many people that he was the number one
heavyweight. Gagne's popularity soured to new levels, and he may have been the most
popular grappler on the circuit at that time. It didn't take long before Thesz and NWA
President Sam Muchnick were fuming.
An obvious question - Were Muchnick and Thesz angry that Gagne was more popular
than the NWA Heavyweight Champion?
Ed "Strangler" Lewis, the "manager" of Thesz and considered by some to be just an NWA
stooge, went to Chicago and blasted Kohler in the media, claiming that Kohler wanted to
be the wrestling "czar." Lewis also stated that Kohler had overstepped his powers by
naming a U.S. Champion. Kohler went on the same radio show a short time later and
defended his actions, reaffirming that Gagne was only recognized by promoters in the
Midwest. Then he mailed a letter to Muchnick stating that members were indeed allowed
to have regional champions in their territory. Kohler denied wanting to injure Thesz and
his prized championship, and wrote that he had "done more to get recognition of Lou
Thesz's world heavyweight championship title than any other member in the National
Kohler went out of his way to tell the newspapers in Chicago that Gagne was only
recognized as the U.S. champion, and not by the National Wrestling Alliance. Another
pointed clarification was printed in his popular wrestling magazine, "Wrestling As You Like
It," telling fans that Thesz was still the "World" champion. Muchnick, additionally, put out
a press release from the National Wrestling Association explaining that Thesz was the
Despite these efforts, this matter was becoming fiercely personal. Muchnick gave
exclusive rights to Thesz's bookings in Chicago given to Schwartz, and Kohler then had
Jack Brickhouse announce Gagne as a world title claimant on national TV.
Instead of furthering the damage to their relationships and the NWA, Muchnick called a
special meeting to the Morrison Hotel in Chicago on November 8. There, after a long
discussion, it was agreed that in the future, Gagne would be billed as the "United States
Heavyweight Television or TV Champion."
The situation was reportedly solved by the NWA in a board-room, but how did it actually
translate to the wrestling world? Well, Gagne and Thesz never wrestled in that high
profile match, and benefited from the tremendous buzz it would have created. The
tensions remained amongst the Gagne-Thesz-Kohler-Muchnick group. When Thesz
handpicked his successor in 1957, it certainly wasn't Gagne, even though he and Buddy
Rogers were probably the top two picks. Since Thesz had personal beefs with both men,
neither were seriously considered. Both Gagne and Rogers made better business sense
than Dick Hutton, who was a great wrestler, but not a great draw.
Copyright 2010 Tim Hornbaker
|National Wrestling Alliance - Verne Gagne U.S. Title Situation