By MICK KARCH – For SLAM! Wrestling
Here we go, my friends. Indulge me. This is a tough one.
Back 44 years ago, in the summer of 1971, gasoline was 40 cents a gallon. Postage stamps were eight cents. Richard Nixon was President of the United States. “Joy to the World” by Three Dog Night was the top selling record that year. I was an idealistic journalism student at the University of Minnesota. That’s also the year I first met Nick Bockwinkel.
“The rub” is a term used in professional wrestling to describe the fame or luster a lesser talent gets by associating or working with a main eventer. 1971 is when I started getting the rub from Nick. The “Bockwinkel Brigade” was born that year.
I had published other fan newsletters before and at one time actually ran a club for The Crusher. Aspiring young “journalist” that I was, I had been away from the hobby for a few years. When Bockwinkel arrived on the AWA scene in the fall of 1970, I was enthralled with his heel persona, and the bug bit me to start publishing again. Yes, it took me eight months to get up the courage to ask him if I could run a club in his honor. I did so a week after a group of us had a sign proclaiming our reverence for Nick ripped from our hands by a Minneapolis Auditorium usher. I used that topic as the “ice breaker” when I approached Nick after the AWA TV tapings at the Calhoun Beach Hotel in Minneapolis and mentioned starting the club.
By the way, I never really referred to the Brigade as a “fan club.” It was a real “Brigade,” a group of several hundred, loud-mouthed smart asses who made their presence felt in arenas all over the country and at the televised AWA “All Star Wrestling” events. (The late announcer Rodger Kent noted our presence over the air waves on more than one occasion.) We were boisterous, we were obnoxious, we were notorious. We held up signs and wore home made T-shirts proclaiming our support of the “Lean, Mean, Machine,” “Wicked Nick,” “The Bock.” Decades before it became fashionable and trendy to rally behind wrestling’s “heels,” we cheered for not only Nick but also Ray Stevens, Ivan Koloff, Superstar Graham and Krusher Kowalski. We were often threatened by the masses. Hell, my friends and I were literally chased out of town after a Cambridge, Minnesota “spot show” where we had cheered for Nick. One evening, I was pushed and shoved as I made my way down the hall at the Minneapolis Auditorium by babyface fans who were livid at a Bockwinkel-Stevens victory. A drunk took a swing at me as he venomously cursed Nick’s very existence. (Incidentally, I told Nick about it a week later. He laughed.)
I published a sporadic bulletin (over the course of the next 18 years) which was cutting edge and before its time, complete with sarcasm and tell-it-like-it-is condemnations of the “babyfaces.” The bulletin and club were two time award winners from the Wrestling Fans International Association (WFIA), thanks in no small part to Nick writing a column in its pages. I organized multiple conventions in the Twin Cities for Nick’s fans, and they would come in from Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago, Milwaukee, Omaha, Davenport, Winnipeg, etc., just to spend maybe an hour with Nick at the TV tapings or at the arena matches. Nick would graciously take time out from cutting his promos or preparing for his matches to pose for pictures, sign autographs, answer questions, etc., with his Brigade. He fought hard not to let on, but he loved every minute of it. Did I mention Nick was the guy who, on June 12, 1971, as he gave me permission to run the Brigade, promised that he would give “no help or support of any kind,” and if I wanted to operate within those parameters, then so be it. (He repeated that story to his cohorts a hundred times over the years.) He then spent the next couple decades doing just the opposite, much to our delight.
My relationship with Nick when it came to the wrestling business back then was strictly professional. I had to earn his trust. It was an era of “kayfabe,” and despite the fact that generally speaking, Nick was aware of what I knew, he kept the backstage, behind-the-scenes info off limits. I didn’t ask him about it, I didn’t question it, I didn’t discuss match outcomes or finishes with him. It was none of my business. Every now and then, if we were watching a match together from a far corner of the arena, Nick might make a comment validating an angle that was going on the ring, and “selling it.” While it wasn’t easy to do, I didn’t bat an eye. It was called “respect.”
There were a couple times Nick had to play “henchman” for the AWA office and give me a little heat. Once, after The Crusher had verbally insulted a group of young kids at the TV studios for booing him, I wrote a not-so-flattering article about Crusher for the bulletin. Nick diplomatically told me he thought the article was “a bit extended.” When Billy Robinson got out of the ring and inexplicably slapped a fan on nationwide television, I documented it in print for a local newspaper I was writing for. Again, when the office expressed displeasure, Nick had to do the dirty work and explain (even though he was exasperated at Robinson’s actions) the potential fallout from writing such an article.
There was one time, though, when Nick was really ticked at me. He was on a trip to Japan and got word that myself and a group of my friends had put on what was really a predecessor to a “backyard wrestling show.” Again, you have to remember the era. No matter how insignificant I may have thought it was at the time, it was a big deal to Nick and to the office. I was writing publicity for them at the time and it was perceived as a violation of trust. It was an ugly moment for me when Nick confronted me about it at the St. Paul Auditorium, but it was also a learning experience. I had to mind my P’s and Q’s, plain and simple.
In late 1986, my friend George Schire and I did play by play for West Four Wrestling Alliance, a small NWA affiliate promoted by Tony Condello in Winnipeg. When we came back from one of the tapings, we asked Nick to watch and critique our work, which he did one morning at George’s home in St. Paul. Aside from a few “highlights” scattered here and there, much of the “action” on those tapes was pretty dismal. It was a tough sell for George and me sitting behind those microphones. But, lo and behold, when we had finished watching the tapes and Nick said, “Great job, you guys! If you can get this sh– over, you can get anything over.” It was like we had won the lottery, especially for me because I had always wanted to be a pro wrestling announcer. It was my dream from childhood. To get an endorsement like that from Nick Bockwinkel? Are you serious??? It didn’t get any better than that.
In the summer of 1987, working at my full-time day job, I got a phone call from Greg Gagne. He told me that Nick had spoken highly of my work and as a result the AWA wanted to give me a tryout as ring announcer for their ESPN tapings in Las Vegas. I went to their Twin Cities studio, auditioned, got the gig, and the rest (all the announcing jobs, Saturday Night at Ringside, etc.) is history. I have absolutely no doubt that it was that “rub” I got from Nick and the word he put in for me that helped paved the way.
The first indicator that I had finally reached that “next level” with Nick was when I received a postcard from him later in the fall of ’87. He was cryptically telling me that his AWA days were coming to an end. He indicated that he was in touch with “another wrestling company,” and he had deliberately given the AWA office an incorrect date for his return from Japan in order to see what developed. He said he would update me soon regarding future “personnel” changes. Despite the initial sadness that the end of the Bockwinkel AWA tenure was imminent, I still felt good that in a sense, I had “arrived.” Nick was taking me into his confidence. He was telling me, albeit it indirectly, that he was headed to the WWF as an agent and part-time broadcaster.
Mind you, even then, I wouldn’t push the envelope with him about the business. I would wait for him to tell me things. When he called a month or so later the day after a WWF pay-per-view and asked me what I thought of the event, holding nothing back … discussing angles, blood, the whole nine yards. I was blown away. We had never had a conversation like that before. But I didn’t miss a beat. I gave him my opinions, he gave me his. It was like we had always been on that level of frankness.
One amusing note. A few years later, I got a huge kick out of it when WCW named him their on-screen, figurehead “Commissioner.” Nick called me out of the blue one afternoon to tell me he was flying to Atlanta for TV the next day, and he hadn’t been keeping up with the storylines and needed to know what he had been missing so he would at least be semi-prepared when he got down there! Talk about irony! I was smartening HIM up!
We all get older and we all slow down. Fast forward to April 2015, Cauliflower Alley Club in Las Vegas. It is no secret that Nick’s health has been an issue for the past few years. It was announced prior to CAC’s “Baloney Blowout” event (which will now be called the “Nick Bockwinkel Baloney Blowout”) that because of health concerns, this was probably Bock’s last appearance at the reunion. He received a rousing standing ovation from the attendees and was visibly touched and very emotional as a result. It was so surreal to me, so much history between us, so many, many years. My wrestling hero, my mentor… my friend… was riding off into the sunset.
I knew this was no time to be gutless. There was no way I was going to miss the opportunity to tell him what was on my mind. He was sitting with his wonderful wife Darlene, shaking hands and accepting the well wishes of so many of his friends and fans. I waited my turn and then bent down next to him, whispering in his ear, “I love ya, Bockwinkel. You know that, don’t you?” He looked up at me with that twinkle in his eye. I was conditioned after all these years to expect that Bockwinkel wit and sarcasm. Instead, he looked at me and said, “you do, huh?”
I felt a lump in my throat and said, “damn right.” With that, Nick started to cry, which prompted me to do the same. I looked at him and said, “Nick, I wouldn’t be here… I wouldn’t have any of this… if it wasn’t for you.” We shook hands and I went on my way, leaving him to bask in the glow of the adoration he was receiving from everyone.
Whatever the future holds, I hope and pray that Nick will enjoy peace and contentment. To say that I can never, ever thank him enough is an understatement. I have been so very blessed and honored to be connected in some small way to such a tremendous man and true champion all these years. There will never be another like him.