November 14 would sadly signal the loss of another legend in the world of professional wrestling, this time the four time American Wrestling Association (AWA) World Heavyweight Champion, Nick Bokwinkel. For someone who achieved so many accolades and influenced many superstars over the years, it is a shame that his name is not heard of more frequently amongst the many legends who came both before and after him. But rather than mourn his passing, it is only fitting he gets the recognition he more than deserves for a much celebrated career.
Nicholas Warren Francis “Nick” Bockwinkel made his arrival into the world on December 6, 1934, born in the wrestling hotbed of St. Louis, Missouri before attending the University of Oklahoma on a football scholarship, which ended prematurely due to a knee injury, by which time he decided to pursue a career in professional wrestling where his father, Warren Bockwinkel was a 1940’s regional star.
1955 would be the start of his professional career and after training from his father Warren and the legendary Lou Thesz, Nick would make his debut in the ring facing Thesz himself before going on, in 1963, to win his first major singles title by winning the NWA Pacific Northwest Heavyweight Championship from Tony Borne. He also wrestled in Hawaii and California, where he was a popular attraction and won several singles and tag team titles in the process.
But it was Bokwinkel’s time in the American Wrestling Association (AWA), where he joined in 1970, that would bring him his greatest fame and success. Starting out by forming a team with Ray Stevens along with manager extraordinaire Bobby Heenan, Bockwinkel and Stevens would, in 1972, go on to win the AWA World Tag Team Championship for the first time, winning the belts on two more occasions. Around this time, Bockwinkel would find himself a novel and genius way to cut promos that were far from the norm. Quoted in the book, The Pro Wrestling Hall Of Fame – The Heels, Bockwinkel stated:
“I used to use the four, five or six syllable words as best I could. If I ran across one I didn’t know, I had a little dictionary. I would have this little dictionary, with 70 or 80 words, that I would always be perusing. I had it with me all the time. Automatically, some of these words just starting coming to me in my interviews because I was familiar with them.”
At the age of 40, Bockwinkel realised the dream of every aspiring wrestler and ended the seven-year reign of Verne Gagne to finally become AWA World Heavyweight Champion and enjoy a reign of 1,714 days himself before dropping the title back to Gagne on July 19, 1980. Gagne’s retirement from professional wrestling however left the title vacant and the AWA Heavyweight Championship was awarded back to Bockwinkel on May 19, 1981, a move infuriated wrestling fans throughout the AWA, solidifying Nick Bockwinkel as one of the most despised wrestlers in the world.
Bockwinkel would hold the gold three more times, and his four championship reigns added up to a combined total of 2,990 days, both second only to Verne Gagne’s ten championships spread out over 4,677 days.
On his final night as champion, and in one of his last acts as an active competitor, Bockwinkel dropped the AWA championship to fellow legend Curt Hennig at Superclash II in the beginning of May 1987. He would call it a day shortly afterwards and stayed away from in-ring competition for the best part of five years before briefly coming out of retirement in May of 1992 to face Billy Robinson in a UWFI show in Japan and having one final match a year later at the age of 58 at WCW’s Slamboree: A Legend’s Reunion, taking on Dory Funk Jr. in a 15 minute time limit draw.
The younger generation of wrestling fans today are unlikely to have heard the name of Nick Bockwinkel since he never wrestled for the WWE (though he did work as a road agent and serve as a color commentator for the occasional televised event) and thus, are left either completely or greatly unaware of the many deeds of a man whose in-ring career spanned 32 years, the two one-off matches aside. But to the many people who knew him best, his many peers and industry experts, consider him to be one of the greatest of all technical wrestlers, a masterful in-ring psychologist and someone who was far ahead of his time when it came to cutting articulate, intellectual promos with big words, the area for which he was most highly regarded and influential. This would be used as a direct template for the likes of Chris Jericho’s epic heel run from 2008-2010 and Damien Sandow’s “Intellectual Savior of the Masses” gimmick in 2012-2013 where it was easy to see the traces of Bockwinkel in their delivery.
It was these traits and more which saw him ultimately rewarded with inductions into both the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2003 and the WWE Hall of Fame in 2007. He made his very last televised appearance on the March 29, 2010 edition of Monday Night Raw as part of a Legends Lumberjack match between Christian and Ted Dibiase Jr. The last years of his life were spent outside of the wrestling spotlight until his undisclosed passing just weeks short of his 81st birthday. Along with his devoted wife, Darlene, to whom he had been married to since 1972, he is survived by his two daughters, Johnna and Nikki (from his first marriage) two grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.
It goes without saying that any career lasting four decades is noteworthy and in the case of Nick Bockwinkel, his career deserves to be ranked right near the top when discussion turns to the greatest all-round wrestlers that ever made their way into the squared circle.
Fans and aspiring wrestlers who have never seen the man in action can do so much worse than to immediately go on to the WWE Network and watch classic footage from the AWA and see for yourselves what all the fuss was about in the 1970’s and 80’s. You will not be disappointed!
RIP Nicholas Warren Francis “Nick” Bockwinkel