Nostalgia and the Wrestling Fan

We should perhaps reconfigure [nostalgia] in terms of a distinction between the desire to return to an earlier state or idealized past, and the desire not to return but to recognize aspects of the past as the basis for renewal and satisfaction in the future. Nostalgia can then be seen as not only a search for ontological security in the past, but also as a means of taking one’s bearings for the road ahead in the uncertainties of the present. This opens up a positive dimension in nostalgia, one associated with a desire for engagement with difference, with aspiration and critique, and with the identification of ways of living lacking in modernity. Nostalgia can be both melancholic and utopian.  –“The Modalities of Nostalgia” by Michael Pickering and Emily Keightley, Current Sociology ✦ November 2006 ✦ Vol 54(6): 919–941

No photo description available.

Just under 200 hundred people have gathered at Embassy Suites by Hilton Bloomington, 2800 American Blvd. W for an event in appreciation for the American Wrestling Association.  The audience skews male, white, and older — but with a surprising number of women and folks too young to remember the AWA in its heyday.  We sit around the table, waiting for the meet and greet to end, talking to each other — one person at our table old enough to have been employed by the AWA when it was still in operation, behind the scenes, a few who remember the Showboat era, a few who remember the syndicated TV era, a few who remember repeats on ESPN Classic — a spectrum of people coming together with one thing in common — a nostalgic connection to the American Wrestling Association.

What was the AWA?

According to Wikipedia, “the American Wrestling Association (AWA) was an American professional wrestling promotion based in Minneapolis, Minnesota that ran from 1960 to 1991. It was owned and founded by Verne Gagne and Wally Karbo.”

The AWA first appeared in my [David’s] life on All-Star Wrestling, syndicated televised wrestling that ran in the Milwaukee market.  [John lived in Michigan, which was within the Big Time Wrestling territory.]  For point of reference, this was AWA televised wrestling in the 1980s:

The history of the AWA is chronicled in multiple places.  In brief, you can find it in this essay in Minneapolis/St. Paul Magazine.  It’s chronicled in greater detail in Minnesota’s Golden Age of Wrestling: From Verne Gagne to the Road Warriors.  Audio interviews with Schire can be found here.

The AWA was a regional promotion, first and foremost.  It made an attempt to go national, in the “Showboat era” [after 1985], when ESPN aired shows from the Showboat Sports Pavilion in Las Vegas, Nevada. By 1989, the promotion contracted, and by the 1990s, it was a memory.

The story of AWA, as a trademark and as an intellectual property, continues forward into the 21st century, as recorded by the Minneapolis City Pages.

Fan-Wrestler Interaction

The event is broken into four phases:

  • A “Meet and Greet,” which is another way of
  • Lunch
  • A Question and Answer session
    • Awards and Inductions into the Minnesota Wrestling Hall of Fame
    • Ken Resnick told the crowd that the biggest difference between working for the AWA and the WWF/WWE was the emphasis on the house shows.  The AWA still saw TV as a way to generate heat for the house shows, while the TV shows were the apex of the WWF/WWE productions.
    • “Sodbuster” Kenny Jay was one of several wrestlers to salute the role of spouses — making the career of wrestlers possible.
    • Other wrestlers talked about the move from AWA to WWF, about suing McMahon for violation of his contract — reminding us that the talent was not only at the mercy of the promoter.
  • A Trivia Competition, with 25 questions.  In a moment of wry irony, the prizemaster noted that the questions were about the AWA, but the prizes largely reflected the WWF/WWE, because the WWE is ubiquitous.

The Power of Nostalgia for the AWA

Nostalgia is a homesickness;  it is a space of vulnerability that marketers take advantage of.  And yet, we think, it is also a site of possible social power.

Michael Pickering and Emily Keightley tell us that “the term nostalgia derives etymologically from the Greek nostos, meaning to return home, and algia, meaning a painful condition” — it “was related to prolonged and usually involuntary
absences from home… associated with a sort of homesickness for a lost past.”  According to Pickering and Keightley, changes in the term his involved “a shift from spatial dislocation to temporal dislocation.  Nostalgia moved from a sense of loss over a place to a sense of loss over a time passed.”  In a room full of wrestling fans, the AWA is the lost past, the moment when wrestling was bigger than life but still in your living room.  These fans are homesick, in this sense, for an experience not just of wrestling but of family connection in front of the TV or in the Civic Center watching a house show.

That homesickness is a tool for sales.  An event like this is clearly marketing and sales, capitalism — selling us photos and autographs because we feel nostalgic for classic wrestling.  After all, nostalgia can “counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety,” and “evoke feelings of security, comfort and trust.”  And, Forbes tells us, “those sentimental feelings make people increasingly willing to spend money on consumer goods and services.”  Nostalgia loosens our pocketbook, and there are people waiting to take our money.

But there is positive power to nostalgia.  Researchers Lasaleta, Sedikides and Vohs claim that “when people have higher levels of social connectedness and feel that their wants and needs can be achieved through the help of others, their ability to prioritize and keep control over their money becomes less pressing,” according to the Journal of Consumer Science.  I want to shift from the marketing implication to the social implication.

Did attendees at this event “have higher levels of social connectedness and feel that their wants and needs can be achieved through the help of others”?  Sitting at a table where the youngest man present was in his early twenties, the oldest well more than seventy, with scatterings between… Sitting at a table with modest racial and other diversity… brought together by a common affection for the AWA…  There was an atypical social connectedness.

Sitting in this room, we wonder about the productive power of nostalgia — what Pickering and Keightley call “a means of taking one’s bearings for the road ahead in the uncertainties of the present.”  Could this energy be harnessed not just for cash for autographs, but something more positive, more powerful?

List of Attendees

The following is a list of attendees at this event, recorded mostly for future scholars who might find this info useful.

* “Precious” Paul Ellering, former wrestler and manager of the Road Warriors!
* “Sodbuster” Kenny Jay, one of the AWA’s most beloved wrestlers!
* Steve Olsonoski, an AWA mainstay in the 70’s and 80’s!
* Mick Karch, former AWA announcer and “The Voice of Minnesota Wrestling!”
* Eddie Sharkey, the “Trainer of Champions” (Road Warriors, Rick Rude, Jesse Ventura, Barry Darsow and many more!)
* Ken Resnick, former AWA and WWE announcer!
* The Terminators, a rugged tag team who appeared in the latter days of the AWA!
* Al DeRusha, former AWA TV Director, referee and promoter!
* “The Golden Idol,” co-owner of Steel Domain Wrestling who at one time managed The Sheik, Ray Stevens, Chris Markoff and more!
* “The Architect” Ed Hellier, co-owner of Steel Domain Wrestling who was mentored into the business by the great Nick Bockwinkel!
* George Schire, noted wrestling historian and AWA “authority!”
* Amy Hennig, former wrestler, daughter of the late Curt Hennig and grandaughter of the late Larry “The Axe” Hennig!
* Scott and Stacy Kowalski, son and daughter of the late Stan “Krusher” Kowalski, one half of the 1st AWA Tag Team Champs!
* Carol Castle from the Minnesota Wrestling Hall of Fame!


Pickering, Michael and Emily Keightley.  “The Modalities of Nostalgia.” Current Sociology ✦ November 2006 ✦ Vol 54(6): 919–941

by John Heppen [Professor of Geography, UW-River Falls] and David Beard [Associate Professor of  Rhetoric, University of Minnesota Duluth]

1 thought on “Nostalgia and the Wrestling Fan”

  1. I grew up with the AWA in my household. My Mom Yvonne worked as a secretary for Wally and Verne/. She did not share much of what went on but she did love working for Mpls Boxing and wrestling association. I must say Wal;ly and Verne treated my Mom Yvonne very well and she loved working for the wrestlers. She passed away in 1982 and it was very com,forting to see how many wrestlers cared about her. That helped me through it. I will miss Wally and Verne always.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.