I awoke last Sunday morning to the stunning news of Holly Holm’s defeat of Ronda Rousey for the UFC Bantamweight Championship at UFC 193. It was a strange feeling. Sure I’m not the biggest UFC fan and I have nothing but respect for Rousey’s accomplishments, but I was genuinely happy to see Holm make history by delivering her first loss.
I didn’t possibly think there could be any bigger news story that day in the world of pro wrestling/mixed martial arts. Unfortunately, it was only a little while later when I learned the news of AWA legend Nick Bockwinkel’s passing. He was 80 years old.
While it wasn’t entirely shocking considering his age and physical condition, it was still a blow nonetheless. Bockwinkel now joins the likes of Dusty Rhodes, Roddy Piper and career rival Verne Gagne on the list of major historical wrestling figures to pass away this year.
My first real exposure to Bockwinkel came several years ago while watching WWE’s “The Spectacular Legacy of the AWA.” The documentary took an in-depth look into the rise and fall of the American Wrestling Association. The Minneapolis-based territory was one of the big three wrestling promotions of the 1960s-1980s along with the World Wrestling Federation and National Wrestling Alliance.
Bockwinkel was a smooth worker who was lauded for his technical prowess inside of the ring and the classy demeanor he displayed outside of it. He was so well respected that he was even offered an opportunity to have a run with the NWA World Heavyweight Championship, back when it was considered the holy grail in wrestling. Bockwinkel ultimately declined due to the grueling travel that was required of all NWA champions of that era.
One of Bockwinkel’s greatest assets was his gift of gab. Not only was he a great interview, but few in history have been able to successfully replicate the articulate, heel promos he specialized in. The closest modern equivalent was current WWE star Chris Jericho during his 2008-2010 heel run. Jericho frequently credits Bockwinkel as being the inspiration behind that gimmick.
Along with his tremendous ring psychology and verbal ability, a big part of Bockwinkel’s success came from his partnership with manager Bobby Heenan. Their pairing was always unique to me. Typically, the main role of a manager is to serve as a mouthpiece for a wrestler who may have trouble communicating with the audience. The Bockwinkel-Heenan combination was a rare case of two guys who spoke equally well and complemented each other in every way imaginable.
In addition to his notable accomplishments inside the ring, Bockwinkel was responsible for grooming some of the best young talent in the business. He worked extensively with Hulk Hogan during the AWA’s peak business years of 1982-1983, and went to a thrilling 60 minute draw against Curt Hennig that aired on New Year’s Eve 1986. Not only was the match largely responsible for putting Hennig on the map as a future star, but it took place when Bockwinkel was 51. Few wrestlers have been able to compete at such a high level into their fifties.
Interestingly enough, Bockwinkel enjoyed notoriety as something of a mainstream wrestling figure during his heyday, particularly within the Midwest region. He guest starred on popular television shows such as The Monkees and Hawaii Five-O.
Following his retirement in 1987 Bockwinkel worked briefly in WWE as a road agent and as a figurehead authority role in World Championship Wrestling during the mid 1990s. He later served as the longtime president of the Cauliflower Alley Club, a nonprofit organization composed of both retired and active professional wrestlers and boxers in North America.
Bockwinkel is universally recognized as one of wrestling’s all-time great performers. He’s a member of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, George Tragos/Lou Thesz Professional Wrestling and WWE versions of the Hall of Fame. Larry Matysik, former wrestling announcer and assistant to longtime NWA President Sam Muchnick, rated him #18 in his book, “The 50 Greatest Wrestlers of All Time: The Definitive Shoot.” Journalists George Oliver and Steve Johnson ranked him as the 13th greatest heel in their book, “Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Heels.”
The final years of Bockwinkel’s life were marked by a prolonged bout with Alzheimer’s. It was difficult to witness the mental and physical deterioration of a man who was described as being one of the most intelligent wrestlers to ever lace a pair of boots.
Bockwinkel should always be remembered for the amazing contributions he made toward the betterment of professional wrestling as both a world-class competitor and revered elder statesmen.
Rest in peace Slick Nick.