Next week’s WWE Monday Night Raw at Bell MTS Place marks the first time in 15 years that a major wrestling show has come to Winnipeg for a televised event.
But long before today’s superstars such as Seth Rollins and Kevin Owens ruled the ring, there was a time when Winnipeg wrestling fans were a spoiled bunch.
Some of the biggest names to have ever stepped foot into the squared circle — Nick Bockwinkel, Andre the Giant and Hulk Hogan, just to name a few — used to come to town on a monthly basis.
Starting in the early 1960s, the American Wrestling Association — a promotion based out of Minneapolis that was owned and founded by Verne Gagne — frequently made the trip north to the Manitoba capital.
It was the 1970s that was the beginning of the golden era of pro wrestling in Winnipeg. It’s when the AWA and their top grapplers became regulars at the Winnipeg Arena as they would conduct a TV taping every third Thursday in order to fulfill the Canadian content requirements set out by the CRTC.
The show was called AWA Major League Wrestling and it aired on CKND, now known as Global, and across the country.
"It was bonding time for my dad and I," said Power 97 morning show host Joe Aiello, whose fandom would later turn into a WWF gig for six months in 1992 as an interviewer. He was offered to join Vince McMahon’s travelling circus full time, but opted to stay in Winnipeg to continue working in radio.
"I grew up in an Italian immigrant family. To have a connection with your dad was pretty good because they were usually working. Wrestling was our deal. He would take me to the card every third Thursday.
"I didn’t miss many as a kid. I probably have black lungs from inhaling all the smoke in the old building. But it was a good time because the storylines were great."
Winnipeggers such as Aiello had a front-row seat to the best of the best.
In the span of two decades, the old barn on Maroons Road hosted memorable bouts such as Wahoo McDaniel battling Superstar Billy Graham in a strap match in ’73, Bockwinkel defending the AWA world title against Ray "The Crippler" Stevens in a cage match in ’78, Hogan putting his 24-inch pythons to good use by beating Jesse "The Body" Ventura in an arm-wrestling match in ’81, and Andre the Giant outlasting Hogan, Bockwinkel, Bobby "The Brain" Heenan and 13 others in a battle royal with $50,000 on the line in ’82.
But if you ask local wrestling promoter Tony Condello, there’s one match that stands out among them all — Ric Flair defending his National Wrestling Alliance world championship against the AWA’s top guy, Bockwinkel, in ’86.
"That went to a one-hour draw. They never repeated the same hold twice. I still remember the match," said Condello, 79, who trained a future WWE Hall of Famer in Rowdy Roddy Piper at his wrestling school in the early ’70s.
In the good ol’ days, the AWA cards would occasionally pack the arena with more than 10,000 fans.
It also helped that Gagne had no competition in the market; he had a clause with the Winnipeg Arena that didn’t allow any other wrestling promotion to bring their show to the building 30 days before or after an AWA event.
With the AWA in town every month, the contract didn’t leave any room for the WWF, now called WWE, to try to win over the market.
That was until Condello had something to say about it.
Condello and Gagne weren’t on the best of terms. Unaware of Gagne’s stranglehold on the arena, Condello had an idea to rent out the building and bring in legendary boxer Joe Louis as a special guest referee.
On another occasion, Condello was going to bring in Canadian boxing champion George Chuvalo. Both shows were shot down due to the arena’s AWA agreement.
But Condello’s issue with Gagne didn’t centre around Winnipeg — it involved Dauphin, a town whose entire population could fit inside the arena on Maroons Road.
Condello wrestled for the AWA in the late ’60s but started booking his own shows in rural Manitoba communities in 1972. One of Condello’s most profitable towns was Dauphin, as he recalls a time where he had 2,000 fans come out.
Word of Condello’s success made its way to Gagne and he decided he’d step on the Winnipeg promoter’s toes by bringing the AWA there for an event.
Gagne and the AWA ended up drawing a crowd three times the size of Condello’s local promotion. But according to Condello, fans didn’t leave happy.
"He killed the town for me. I went back again with a strong card. From 2,000 people, I went to 300," said Condello, unable to recall the exact year of when this occurred.
"Now I know he did a hell of a good job. (At the AWA show), the guys didn’t work. They didn’t wrestle. They’d put a guy in a headlock for 10 minutes. So, what are the fans going to do?
"From that day on, I never went back to Dauphin. So, I made a promise to myself. ‘You millionaire (expletive). One of these days, I’m going to get you and I’m going to get you good.’ And I did."
Condello reached an agreement with McMahon, the WWF’s owner, to become the company’s promoter in the province. Unable to book the Winnipeg Arena, Condello brought the WWF to the convention centre for their debut show in November 1984.
The WWF was picking up steam as it began to poach talent from rivals — including the AWA — as McMahon was able to sign Hogan, Andre the Giant and several other big names earlier in the year. But Winnipeg was loyal to the AWA and only 2,000 fans came out to see a card that featured Andre the Giant and Kamala in the main event.
Condello spent $7,500 out of pocket to promote the show and only ended up making $500 profit. He had to take money out of the gate to pay himself back, which didn’t go over well with a couple of wrestlers. That rubbed Condello the wrong way and he never promoted a WWE event again.
However, Condello remained on good terms with McMahon and he still wanted to stick it to Gagne. Condello met with the Winnipeg Enterprises Corporation, a non-profit organization that ran the arena, to appeal their restrictions.
"Overnight, they cancelled the contract," Condello said. "Now what happens is Verne finds out about it and he flies to Winnipeg on his private jet from Minneapolis. Too (expletive) late. From there on, anyone could book shows at the Winnipeg Arena if it was available."
McMahon took full advantage of the opportunity and the WWF invaded the Winnipeg Arena with six events in ’86.
After that, the AWA wasn't seen around these parts for some time. On Boxing Day '88, the AWA returned to its old stomping grounds and made a return to local TV, but it was too late. Thomas Boric, better known by his ring name Paul Diamond, said it had become a WWF town by that point.
Boric grew up in Croatia but immigrated to Winnipeg when he was 13 and was introduced to wrestling. He’d go on to play professional soccer for a few years in the North American Soccer League, but when the league folded, he became a pro wrestler. Boric made his way to the AWA in the late 1980s; by that time, the company was on the ropes.
"At this point, the WWE had already taken over. They took all the stars that Verne Gagne had like Hulk Hogan, Bobby Heenan and Jesse Ventura. I mean, all these guys had already left so AWA was basically on its last legs," said Boric, now 58, from his home in Tampa Bay.
Boric wrestled in the WWF from 1990-93, most notably as Max Moon, and lost an Intercontinental championship match to Shawn Michaels on the very first episode of Monday Night Raw.
On Feb. 2, 1989, the AWA had its final show at the arena. Boric, wrestling in front of friends and family, defended the AWA tag team title with his partner Pat Tanaka against Mando and Héctor Guerrero. But the homecoming didn’t feel all that special for Boric, as only 800 people were in the audience.
"They weren’t running as many shows as they had been... I think fans just kind of came with an interest to see what AWA had. It wasn’t like when I watched it (as a kid) every Saturday on TV and they had a good storyline," said Boric.
"That show that I remember at the Winnipeg Arena, the people didn’t really know us that well... It was definitely quiet."
I think fans just kind of came with an interest to see what AWA had. It wasn’t like when I watched it (as a kid) every Saturday on TV and they had a good storyline.” – Thomas Boric, aka Paul Diamond
Funny enough, a young Chris Jericho — who’d go on to become a WWE star — wrote a story about the disappointing event for the Free Press as he was studying creative communications at Red River Community College at the time.
It wasn’t a paid gig, nor did he get a free ticket to the shows. But he happily volunteered.
"The thing is it wasn’t the actual matches itself (that I remember), I remember going to the hotel, the Polo Park Inn and just watching wrestlers," Jericho said in a phone interview.
"Going to Gold’s Gym right by Polo Park and just seeing who would show up. You really had no guarantees that anyone would be there but if someone came, you’d be so excited.
"It wasn’t really about taking pictures and getting autographs, it was more so just trying to be around the guys."
In 1991, the AWA would officially go out of business. The WWF would continue to come to the Winnipeg Arena several times a year, although the majority of their appearances were not broadcast on TV.
Then, on Oct. 22, 1995, the WWF hosted a pay-per-view at the arena called In Your House 4 — Great White North. It was the first, and only time the WWE ever held a PPV in Winnipeg. More than 10,000 fans were reportedly in attendance for what ended up being a forgettable show.
It got off to a rough start when it was announced Michaels wouldn’t be able to compete as he had a concussion. He had to forfeit the Intercontinental belt to Dean Douglas, who would end up losing the title to Razor Ramon that night.
It also didn’t help that Diesel and Davey Boy Smith put on a snoozer of a main event for the WWF title.
Winnipeggers had to wait almost a decade before the WWF would have its cameras rolling at the arena again.
The WWF continued to use the venue on an annual basis, but just for house shows.
One on Feb. 28, 1998, sticks out to Aiello as he was hired as the in-ring announcer for the night. The main event was Stone Cold Steve Austin, Cactus Jack and Terry Funk versus Triple H, the Road Dogg and Billy Gunn.
"Triple H tells me backstage at intermission ‘Listen, I’m going to come for your chair (to use in the match). I’m just going to nudge you off the chair.’
"Well, his description of nudge and my description of nudge are two different things. I go sailing across the floor and all you hear is this rip in my rented tuxedo," said Aiello.
When it was announced the Winnipeg Arena would close its doors for good in 2004, the WWE wanted to give the historic venue a proper sendoff. But there was a hitch.
At the time, SmackDown, WWE’s other weekly program, would be filmed the day after Raw. Some of the equipment was shared between the two shows so they needed to be in close proximity from one another.
So, the only way the Winnipeg Arena would get one last TV taping was if they could handle two in the same week.
"It was a huge gamble. This marketplace has taken some big gambles whether you think of the World Juniors (hockey) or the Pan Am Games in ’99. Quietly, I’d put this, from my own perspective (up there)," said Kevin Donnelly, who’s now responsible for managing events inside Bell MTS Place.
On July 5, 2004, Raw, was finally in Winnipeg. One of the most memorable moments was Jericho, who was wearing a Winnipeg Jets T-shirt, winning a game of musical chairs to earn an Intercontinental title shot later that night against Randy Orton.
The next night on SmackDown, fans got to see up-and-coming John Cena defend his United States title against Booker T.
Both shows were near sellouts.
"It was an over the top, unqualified success, for sure," Donnelly said.
Since then, Winnipeg wrestling fans have had their patience tested. The WWE still comes every year for live events, but it doesn’t have the same glitz and glam of a TV broadcast.
Instead, Winnipeg has had their fingerprints on the wrestling scene in other ways.
After winning the top titles New Japan Pro Wrestling has to offer in 2018, Jericho and fellow Winnipegger Kenny Omega took their talents to upstart promotion called All Elite Wrestling. Its show, AEW Dynamite, airs on TSN on Wednesday nights and Jericho is currently the company’s world champion.
For years, Winnipeggers have salivated at the idea of Jericho and Omega squaring off against each other in their hometown.
"It’s just a matter of time before AEW goes to Winnipeg," said Jericho. "We haven’t even been to Canada yet. But I think it’s a no-brainer. Jericho and Omega in Winnipeg would sell out the place for sure."
“It’s just a matter of time before AEW goes to Winnipeg. We haven’t even been to Canada yet. But I think it’s a no–brainer. Jericho and Omega in Winnipeg would sell out the place for sure.” – Chris Jericho
Donnelly said there’s no contract between Bell MTS Place and the WWE that wouldn’t allow AEW to bring their talent to town, but there’s currently nothing in the works.
"At the moment, the best show in the world is WWE so that’s where we’re focused," Donnelly said.
That might be a gut punch for fans. As is the fact that Winnipeg’s days of being a key player in the world of wrestling are long gone.
But if it’s up to Donnelly, the future should look a little brighter. This past October, SmackDown was moved to Friday nights, thus making Winnipeg a much more feasible option for TV.
"I think we could probably host a broadcast maybe every five years, maybe even more frequently, and then still be in the rotation for the regularly scheduled house shows to come through annually," Donnelly said.
"I think it opens the door for both us as a host and for them looking for fresh markets to go to. I think it’s pretty exciting."
Now if only they could figure out some way to top Flair versus Bockwinkel.
firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: @TaylorAllen31
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.
Updated on Friday, February 21, 2020 at 6:28 PM CST: Fixes photo captions.
8:51 PM: Fixes typo
February 22, 2020 at 9:25 AM: Updates story
February 25, 2020 at 2:43 PM: Fixes typo