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How the Long-Defunct AWA Is Stoking Wrestling Fans’ Nostalgia

Sports Illustrated logo Sports Illustrated 5/17/2022 Justin Barrasso

A new line of action figures will bring the promotion’s golden era back to life.

Long before Vince McMahon ruled the wrestling world, there existed a promotion out of Minneapolis called the American Wrestling Association.

As wholesome as apple pie, the AWA was family-owned and -run. It helped power the industry for two decades, until McMahon recognized the effervescence of the AWA roster and made it a point of emphasis to acquire as much of its talent as possible.

No different from Red Auerbach without Bill Russell, or Bill Belichick sans Tom Brady, there is no way McMahon would have created his empire in the 1980s without the phenomenon of Hulkamania. Hulk Hogan, Jesse “The Body” Ventura, “Mean” Gene Okerlund, Curt “Mr. Perfect” Hennig and Bobby “The Brain” Heenan were all proud products of the AWA who later went on to global prominence in the World Wrestling Federation.

Founded in 1960 by Verne Gagne and Wally Karbo, the AWA established itself as a true landmark and destination. Pro wrestlers knew there was money to be made in Minneapolis, and their territory ultimately expanded into major metropolitan cities that included Milwaukee and Chicago. But the business evolved in the ’80s, and the AWA—along with the other valuable territories across the United States and Canada—were gobbled up by McMahon. The AWA ran a couple of shows as late as the spring of ’91, but it has been a long time since the promotion mattered beyond lineage or legacies, especially after WWE purchased its assets nearly two decades ago.

Yet, in the spring of 2022, the heart of the AWA is still beating.

Greg Gagne is the son of wrestling legend Verne Gagne. He never achieved the same notoriety or success as his father, but filling the shoes of a legend is a tall order. After a lifetime in the business, including a brief run behind-the-scenes in WWE, he stepped away.

Until a serendipitous call with Steve Rosenthal.

A toy executive with more than 40 years’ experience, Rosenthal envisioned the action figure boom right before it took place in the 1980s. He nearly had a deal with Vince and Linda McMahon to create the WWF line, but instead found his business partner in the Gagne family.

“I could see that the wrestlers in the 1980s were becoming these live superheroes,” Rosenthal says. “Our bread and butter became tag teams and grudge matches, and we had a lot of success.”

The Remco figures, along with their accessories, sold as soon as they hit toy store shelves in 1984. Thanks to the Gagnes, the right wrestlers were chosen, and the line remains popular to the current day. In an effort to be the first wrestling action figure line available at the time, Rosenthal was able to flawlessly modify Remco’s line of The Warlord action figures to quickly establish the AWA figures in the marketplace.

There is a certain innocence to those old-school AWA figures from the 80s, but that is looking through a modern lens. Cutting-edge at the time, the Remco line was the first articulated wrestling action figure in the United States.

“I never forgot what I did in the ’80s,” Rosenthal says. “We have such great memories from that run. And that’s my son Scott, who was nine at the time, on the cover of the AWA title belt box next to Rick Martel.”

Rosenthal retired in 2018. Yet in true pro wrestling spirit, where no one truly stays retired, he couldn’t stay away. The Gagne-Rosenthal connection continues to this day. Nearly four decades after the AWA’s first Remco action figure line hit shelves, an evolved line with PowerTown is helping a nearly forgotten era live on.

Courtesy of Remco © Provided by Sports Illustrated Courtesy of Remco

Rosenthal’s business acumen, coupled with a lifetime of wrestling sense and savvy from Gagne, helped the two form a tag team as co-founders of PowerTown, one that has the capability to build a product much bigger than action figures.

But, for what it’s worth, the figures are marvelous.

That was the case months ago when the figures were revealed, and even more so after a number of changes.

“We listened to our fans, collectors and enthusiasts,” Rosenthal says. “We completely changed the line, and they are even more perfect now.”

The new-look figures are multi-articulated likenesses with a seven-inch scale and are all era-specific. The PowerTown talent roster is incredible, including Lou Thesz, Bruiser Brody, Nick Bockwinkle, Madusa, Kerry Von Erich, Harley Race, “Diamond” Dallas Page, Mad Dog Vachon, Heenan and Okerlund, just to name a few.

Newly signed to PowerTown are Gorgeous George and Pedro Morales. The roster continues to expand, even signing those—like Bobby Duncan, George “Scrap Iron” Gadaski, George South and Rockin’ Robin—who will each have their first action figure.

Originally, the plan was to create a direct-to-consumer Kickstarter. That project would have highlighted only 12 different wrestlers, and it likely would have led to a significant profit. But as over 200 wrestlers or their estates have signed with PowerTown, it is clear that there is exponentially more to this project than the bottom line.

Gagne is recreating the AWA’s model with the new toy line. In the same manner a wrestler from another territory could wrestle in the AWA, wrestlers whose notoriety came from outside the promotion can still have their figure made as part of the PowerTown brand.

“I sit back and look at wrestling now, and it’s reached a level we couldn’t even dream about,” Gagne says. “There is a lot of history that helped bring us to that point. We’re going to honor it.”

More new renderings and sculpts will be released next week at the Licensing Expo in Las Vegas. Detailed and precise, this line captures the beauty of the AWA at its peak. And it isn’t designed for children. It is engineered specifically for the children of the 1980s, the ones who will be ecstatic to add a mint Verne Gagne or the Rougeau Family to their collection.

The scope of this project continues to grow. PowerTown just signed an exclusive agreement with Surge Licensing to represent all of its talent. Surge is led by its president, Mark Freedman, who was the godfather of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles merchandise line that once practically printed its own money.

“Surge Licensing is thrilled to have signed on as the global licensing and entertainment agency for PowerTown,” Freedman says. “I haven’t been this excited about a new licensor since I discovered the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which Surge Licensing built into a three-billion dollar worldwide licensing juggernaut.”

PowerTown is doing more than selling action figures. It is cultivating fond memories of a past generation.

“This is an opportunity to tell history the right way,” Gagne says. “We are going to give back financially, and we want to make sure the people that need money get the help. We want to give back to the guys that have had adversities and struggles after they wrestled.”

Paying homage to 60 years of wrestling, the new PowerTown line of action figures is going to add a historical touch to modern-day pro wrestling.

“We are paying tribute to the ones who built wrestling, the men and women that laid the foundation for where it is today,” Gagne says. “They deserve to be remembered and celebrated, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.

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