We all know the Monday Night Wars ended when Triple H led DX to WCW’s gate with a tank, but when did WWF truly win the earlier territory war?
Despite Vince McMahon’s massive talent raids when he initially seized control of the WWF, the territories were still in solid shape.
That’s more than a little crazy considering Vince grabbed Hulk Hogan, Bobby Heenan, Jesse Ventura, Jim Brunzell from the AWA; Rowdy Piper, Ricky Steamboat, Iron Sheik from the main NWA branch in Mid-Atlantic; Barry Windham, Mike Rotunda, B. Brian Blair from Florida and Junkyard Dog from Mid-South in his first massive raid.
As usual, the winner gets to write history how they see fit. In reality it took a perfect storm for the WWF to take the Iron Throne of the territories.
By 1986, Vince was still working the kinks out of the Hulkamania and Wrestlemania formulas. Wrestlemania 2 took place on a Monday night and played out over three cities. It was filled with household names and garnered a lot of mainstream attention, but Wrestlemania didn’t scare rival promoters at this point.
Looking at the landscape, it was easy to see why the WWF rivals were still so confident.
The NWA was going strong as Jim Crockett Jr. put his chips in with wrestler/booker Dusty Rhodes, champion Ric Flair and the fledgling Four Horsemen as well as its incredible quartet of tag teams of The Midnight Express, The Rock n Roll Express, The Road Warriors and The Russians. The spring found the NWA hyping its Crockett Cup tag team tournament, which not only featured stars from the NWA, but allies like CWA Memphis, Florida, All-Japan and the UWF.
Further North, the AWA had a new partnership with ESPN, which put it in a national spotlight. Still smarting from failing to make Hogan the centerpiece of the promotion, Verne Gagne used the last two years to beef up his roster. Filling the void from the early defections were top tier stars like Nick Bockwinkel, champion Stan Hansen, Larry Zbyskzo, Sgt. Slaughter and Jerry “Crusher” Blackwell. Young stars like Curt Hennig, Scott Hall, Leon White and the Midnight Rockers were starting to come into their own. In the spring, the AWA held Wrestlerock 86, the biggest card in the promotion’s history. It actually earned more than the Crockett Cup.
Down South, Bill Watts was ready for his big national move. He’d taken big losses from the WWF with his main draw, JYD, jumping to New York. Finding a suitable black replacement proved embarrassing, but he finally started making headway after turning Ted DiBiase to create a face version of The Rat Pack with Hacksaw Duggan and Steve Williams. Terry Taylor was back after a failed run in the NWA and the Fantastics and Sheepherders were about to embark on a bloody war.
Watts struck the first big blow by luring World Class booker Ken Mantell to the UWF, which resulted in some of the strongest angles and matches of the 80s. Mantell’s departure led to a mass talent exodus at World Class as several major stars followed him including The Fabulous Freebirds, John Tatum and Missy Hyatt and One Man Gang. Like they’d done in so many territories, the Freebirds provided an instant spark to the promotion.
World Class felt the sting of the talent exodus, but with the Von Erichs, Chris Adams, Bruiser Brody and Rick Rude on the roster, it was still a viable and formidable promotion.
The territory war was going strong, but two accidents proved the catalyst for the WWF winning and they happened within five months.
Tragedies Times Two
On June 4, 1986, Kerry Von Erich took his motorcycle out like he’d done countless times, but this time was different. Bobbing and weaving through traffic, Kerry hit a police car and got into a major accident that nearly killed him. The timing couldn’t have been worse for World Class. Fritz Von Erich recently split from the NWA months earlier effectively making World Class an island of its own with no ties to the NWA or the business-boasting visits from Flair. Kerry was a former NWA champion and a Kerry run as World Class champ was the ace in Fritz’s booking plan. Kerry’s accident derailed those plans and with the Freebirds gone, Fritz had to rely on a severely weakened roster to keep the promotion going. In its heyday, World Class was a trendsetter, but one accident — coupled with the deaths of major stars David Von Erich and Gino Hernandez — and this promotion that could have been a WWF threat earlier was now stuck on a downward spiral it would never recover.
The NWA was clearly positioned as 1B to the WWF in 1986. With its Hall of Fame roster, the NWA didn’t lack for talent and Dusty Rhodes was at his creative peak at this point. Dusty was a highly charismatic figure and his wars with the Four Horsemen made him one of the more popular wrestlers in any promotion. But Dusty wasn’t the most popular star in his promotion.
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That honor belonged to Magnum T.A., whose intense interview style, high energy matches and 80s cool good looks set him apart from his peers. Magnum was wrapping a long feud with Nikita Koloff where he lost his United States title. This was a necessity as Magnum was being groomed to take on Flair for the NWA title.
Rhodes had a traditional booking sense and needed Magnum free of a lesser belt before he would become the man to dethrone The Nature Boy for an extended run. Magnum was being built for a showdown with Flair at the NWA’s version of Wrestlemania — Starrcade 86, which would be held in November.
On Oct. 14th, Magnum’s Porsche spun out and his head hit the inside roof of the car, which broke his C5 vertebrae. It took two hours for Magnum to receive care and by that time, he was clinging to life. Magnum survived, but he was paralyzed and his career was over. This was a catastrophic blow for the NWA, which had made all the smart investments in setting Magnum up as the future of the promotion.
Magnum’s accident left the NWA scrambling. Koloff was quickly turned face. Outside of the Horsemen, the Koloffs were easily Crockett’s biggest and versatile heels. Koloff was placed in the role against Flair for the title at Starrcade 86. Rather than a title change that would signify the launch of the Magnum era, Koloff and Flair battled to a double disqualification.
It would take the NWA another two years to find a worthy heir apparent to Flair with the arrival of UWF prodigy Sting. By that point, the battle was long since lost.
There Can Be Only One
While his rivals struggled, Vince saw blood in the water and initiated his coup de grâce with Wrestlemania 3. This match would pit Hogan against his most towering, unstoppable opponent and former friend Andre the Giant. It was the biggest match Vince had and he built it better than any storyline he’d done since taking over the company. He didn’t expect the Randy Savage vs. Ricky Steamboat match to reach such a legendary status, but he had a solid plan in store for Roddy Piper’s “retirement match.”
The WWF was already the dominant promotion at this point, but Wrestlemania 3 effectively ended the territory war in the wake of the Von Erich and Magnum T.A. accidents. If you’ve followed wrestling since the start of Wrestlemania, you know it was still a relatively level playing field. Sure, WWF had Saturday Night’s Main event and a strong foothold on TV, but Wrestlemania 3 was when it truly became the showcase of the immortals and wrestling’s answer to the Super Bowl.
Would that have happened if Magnum defeated Flair at Starrcade? Maybe, but Magnum likely would have been a draw for talent to consider coming to the WWF for a chance at a money feud and the possibility of being NWA champ.
Dethroning Hogan wasn’t an option in the 80s and the likelihood of being a headliner for months as Crockett expanded further into pay-per-view behind their aesthetically pleasing champ could have kept the NWA at 1B while Sting and Lex Luger were fully finished as main event stars.