Verne Gagne was on an eight-year run of holding the American Wrestling Association's heavyweight championship belt when he went against Nick Bockwinkel at the St. Paul Auditorium on Nov. 8, 1975.
Gagne had two advantages in holding the title: One, he had long standing as the Minneapolis-based AWA's hero and ticket seller; and two, he owned the AWA promotion, with Wally Karbo as his partner.
On that night 40 years ago in front of full house in St. Paul, the unthinkable happened: Bockwinkel pinned Gagne and became the new champion of the AWA.
"There was no particular skulduggery, no interference from Nick's manager, Bobby Heenan,'' said George Schire, the author of several books on the AWA era. "It was a 1-2-3 … Nick pinned him.''
Bockwinkel died in Las Vegas on Saturday night. He was 80 and had been afflicted with Alzheimer's disease in recent years.
"It's been a tough year for old-school wrestling fans,'' Schire said. "We lost Verne in late April, and Dusty Rhodes and Roddy Piper also have died in recent months.''
Bockwinkel's father, Warren, was a prominent wrestler in St. Louis. Nick was a football player and went to Oklahoma with aspirations of playing for the mighty Sooners of the 1950s. He suffered a knee injury, came home and started training with his father, Lou Thesz and Wilbur Snyder to become a professional wrestler.
"You couldn't have better training than that trio,'' Schire said. "Everyone remembers Nick as a wonderful 'heel,' but he also was a terrific wrestler.''
Bockwinkel had his first pro match in 1954. He was a tag team partner with Wilbur Snyder for part of his early career. Nick did not pick up his bad-guy persona until he went to Atlanta in 1969 and spent a year working the NWA promotion.
"Verne and Wally Karbo recruited Nick to the Twin Cities and the AWA,'' Schire said. "He had his first match here in December 1970.
"Verne was into his 40s by then and was looking for the right person to pass the title. Nick was everything that Verne wanted — first, a wrestler, and second, a character who could sell tickets.''
The character played by Bockwinkel was a man of large intellect and way too smart to be appreciated by the wrestling fans who hooted vehemently against him.
On the AWA's weekly television show, Bockwinkel would demean the heckling fans as "cretinous humanoids,'' or "8-to-5, white sock [-wearing] lifers.''
Then, people would run into Bockwinkel at one of the Twin Cities charity events for which he was a willing recruit and find out Nick was a nice fellow.
"One of the best … and smartest when it came to promotion,'' Schire said. "Nick and Ray Stevens were a tag team and they brought in Heenan as a manager in 1974. Neither of them really needed help in interviews, but they recognized that 'Bobby the Brain' made them even more despicable to the fans.''
Bockwinkel held the title for five years, then lost it back to Gagne in June 1980.
"Verne knew in 1980 that he was going to wrestle one more year, and the best way to do that was by having regained the championship,'' Schire said. "So, that's what happened."
Bockwinkel was the opponent in Gagne's retirement match on May 10, 1981. There was a crowd of over 18,000 in the St. Paul Civic Center. Verne retired a winner, using his famed sleeper hold to put away Bockwinkel.
Nine days later, with the title vacated by Gagne's retirement, Bockwinkel was declared again to be champion because of his status as the No. 1 contender.
Bockwinkel had many famous opponents, including The Crusher, who referred to him as "Hoodwinkel'' and other uncomplimentary names. He stuck with the AWA to near the end in 1987.
"He had a famous match that year with Curt Hennig, who was 25 years younger than him,'' Schire said. "It reached the one-hour time limit and it was declared a draw. Nick was in his 50s, but he and Curt put on a wrestling clinic that night.''
Bockwinkel met his second wife, Darlene, in the Twin Cities and they were married in 1972. They moved to Las Vegas in 1999 to be closer to family.
"Of all the guys we've lost, this one hit me in the gut,'' Schire said. "Nick was such a good guy; he cared about people.''
Even those he referred to as "cretinous humanoids'' apparently.
"Of course,'' Schire said. "They bought the tickets.''