Nicholas Warren Francis "Nick" Bockwinkel (December 6, 1934 – November 14, 2015) was an American professional wrestler. He was best known for his appearances with the Minneapolis, Minnesota-based American Wrestling Association (AWA) from 1970 to 1987, where he held the AWA World Heavyweight Championship on four occasions and the AWA World Tag Team Championship on three.
Bockwinkel was recognised for his exceptional technical wrestling ability and mastery of in-ring psychology. He was also known for his even-toned, articulate promos, which distinguished him from many of his contemporaries. He was inducted into the Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame in 1996 and the WWE Hall of Fame in 2007.
Bockwinkel was born to Warren Bockwinkel – himself a professional wrestler – and Helen (née Crnkovich) Bockwinkel in St. Louis, Missouri on December 6, 1934. He attended the University of Oklahoma on a football scholarship, playing for the Oklahoma Sooners until sustaining a knee injury that ended his football career and cost him his scholarship.
Professional wrestling career
Early career (1955–1970)
Bockwinkel was trained to wrestle by his father and Lou Thesz, debuting in 1955.
When he was first breaking into the business, Bockwinkel served as the driver for Yukon Eric, taking him to various cities throughout the Eastern and Northeastern United States. He later commented that the experience, "was so smart. [...] Lots of ways to learn about this business." After training to become a professional wrestler with his father Warren, a regional star in the 1940s, and Lou Thesz, he spent the early years of his career as part of a tag team with his father. At the age of 16, he had his debut match against Thesz. He won his first major singles title in 1963, defeating Tony Borne for the NWA Pacific Northwest Heavyweight Championship. He also held several singles and tag team titles in Hawaii and California.
It was during his time at Georgia Championship Wrestling in Atlanta, Georgia that Bockwinkel developed into a main event star. He had previously been a heroic character, but began a transition to being a villain during a feud with NWA World Heavyweight Champion Dory Funk, Jr. Funk, Jr. later referred to Bockwinkel as "One of the best wrestling challengers for the belt. [...] He was very technical, and put a lot of thought into his interviews, his talk, his work in the ring, his persona."
American Wrestling Association (1970–1987)
In 1970, Bockwinkel joined the American Wrestling Association (AWA), where he formed a team with wrestler Ray Stevens and manager Bobby Heenan. Together, they won the AWA World Tag Team Championship three times, the first in 1972. They defended the belts against such opponents as The Crusher, Dick the Bruiser, Billy Robinson, and Verne Gagne. The team eventually broke up after Stevens attacked Heenan when the latter praised himself and failed to comment on Stevens during an interview. Bockwinkel also teamed with Pat Patterson on occasion.
Bockwinkel became known for his articulate wrestling interviews. "I used to use the four, five or six syllable words as best I could," he was quoted as saying in the book The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Heels. "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."
With Heenan still as his manager, Bockwinkel won the first of many AWA World Heavyweight Championships on November 8, 1975 at the age of 40, ending Verne Gagne's seven-year reign. As AWA Champion, Bockwinkel had feuds with Billy Robinson, Dick the Bruiser, The Crusher, Tito Santana, Mad Dog Vachon, Jerry Lawler, Otto Wanz, Mr. Saito, Jim Brunzell, Greg Gagne, Verne Gagne and Hulk Hogan. Bockwinkel was involved in the first ever AWA versus World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF) World Title Unification match, wrestling WWWF Champion, Bob Backlund, to a double count-out, on March 25, 1979, in Toronto.
Bockwinkel's first reign lasted for 1716 days and ended on July 19, 1980 when he was defeated by Verne Gagne. Shortly after regaining the AWA World title, Gagne announced his retirement from professional wrestling, and the AWA Heavyweight Championship was awarded back to Bockwinkel on May 19, 1981. This move infuriated wrestling fans throughout the AWA, and it solidified Bockwinkel as one of the most despised wrestlers in the world.
Perhaps the biggest controversy surrounding Bockwinkel and his title reign involved a series of matches with Hulk Hogan, whom Gagne signed after Hogan left the World Wrestling Federation in 1981. In June 1982, Hogan defeated Bockwinkel by pinfall in St. Paul, Minnesota to capture the AWA World Title, but AWA President Stanley Blackburn reversed the decision and returned the title to Bockwinkel, who went on to lose it to Otto Wanz and regain it with Heenan's help in the span of two months. Hogan, in the meantime, grew tired of the politics surrounding Bockwinkel and the world title and departed the AWA to return to the WWF, where he became a star and helped the company become a worldwide brand.
On February 22, 1984, Jumbo Tsuruta defeated Bockwinkel to capture the AWA World Heavyweight Championship in a match where Terry Funk was a guest referee. On an AWA card, Bockwinkel wrestled NWA World Champion Ric Flair for the NWA title on January 16, 1986 at the Winnipeg Arena; the bout ended in a double count out. Bockwinkel last held the AWA World Championship in 1987, at the age of 52. He became popular in a feud against then-AWA champion Stan Hansen. When Hansen failed to appear for a title defense, Bockwinkel won the title by forfeit. Hansen had quit the AWA from that point. Months later he dropped the championship to another second generation wrestler, Curt Hennig, at SuperClash. The match ended in controversial fashion due to interference by Larry Zbyszko, who had handed a roll of coins to Hennig to use on Bockwinkel. Bockwinkel retired in 1987, ending a career that spanned four decades. In one of his final matches as an active competitor, he paid Zbyszko back for costing him the AWA World title by pinning him on an episode of AWA Championship Wrestling on ESPN after knocking him out with a roll of coins.
After departing AWA, Bockwinkel worked as a road agent for the World Wrestling Federation, also serving as a color commentator for occasional televised events. He was released in 1989 due to budget cuts. He returned to the ring in 1993 at Slamboree: A Legends' Reunion. The card was promoted by World Championship Wrestling (WCW) but featured veteran wrestlers from all over the country. Bockwinkel wrestled former NWA World Champion Dory Funk, Jr. to a time limit draw as part of the undercard. In 1994, Bockwinkel became the on-screen commissioner of WCW. He was reunited on the program with Bobby Heenan but their former partnership in AWA was never mentioned.
In 2000, he and Yoshiaki Fujiwara were the commissioners for a short-lived shoot style promotion, the Japan Pro Wrestling Association, but as the shoot-style market in Japan had been low since the collapse of UWF International, the wrestlers on it moved to other promotions. Bockwinkel was the President of the Cauliflower Alley Club until stepping down in May 2014 due to health reasons.
On March 31, 2007, he was inducted in the WWE Hall of Fame by his former manager Bobby Heenan.
Bockwinkel was known for his technical wrestling ability and in-ring psychology. Bob Backlund wrote in his autobiography that "Nick had a great head for the game, a wonderful sense of ring psychology, and an uncanny ability to use his intelligence and cockiness to get under the people's skin. He was a terrific representative for the AWA and was the key player in the success of the AWA for a long time." Backlund goes on to say, "He was a very intelligent, well-spoken, and cocky heel, and his in-ring skills were right up there with the very best in the business." In the book 50 Greatest Professional Wrestlers of All Time: The Definitive Shoot, author Larry Matysik lists Bockwinkel as number 18, writing "He was an athlete, he could wrestle, and his psychology was second to none."
In addition, he was also known for his calm, charismatic, articulate promos, which distinguished him from many of his contemporaries. In 2008, Chris Jericho based his new villainous wrestling persona on Bockwinkel. In his autobiography The Best in the World Jericho wrote, "The WWE had recently released an AWA retrospective DVD, and while watching it, I remembered how great a heel Bockwinkel was. He wore suits for all his interviews and used ten-dollar words that went over the average fans' heads, pissing them off markedly. Here was this pompous blowhard using the fancy talk and wearing the fancy suits, claiming to be the best because he was the World Champion, which was the truth."
Other television appearances
In 1968, Bockwinkel appeared as a contestant on a prime-time version of the NBC game show Hollywood Squares, winning a Pontiac Firebird, a deluxe kitchen set, and $1300 in cash. He played Harry in the episode "Savage Sunday" in the show Hawaii Five-O. Bockwinkel also played a wrestler in an episode of the 1960s television series The Monkees.
On June 22, 1957, Bockwinkel married Susan Tranchitella, with whom he had two daughters: Johnna (born October 11, 1958) and Nikki (born 1961). The couple divorced in 1967. Bockwinkel remarried in 1972 to Darlene, with the marriage lasting until his death. The couple lived together in Las Vegas, Nevada.
In November 2007, Bockwinkel underwent triple bypass heart surgery.
In 2007, he was elected President of the Cauliflower Alley Club, a non-profit organization. In 2013, Ric Flair told Stone Cold Steve Austin on his podcast that Bockwinkel had Alzheimer's disease. Bockwinkel's wife Darlene denied Flair's claim, but did acknowledge that he had health problems which she wanted to keep private. In August 2014, Bockwinkel stepped down from his position as Cauliflower Alley Club president due to his declining health. He was replaced by former wrestler B. Brian Blair. At the Cauliflower Alley Club reunion in 2015 he appeared frail and his wife said he was making his final public appearance due to dementia and heart issues.
Bockwinkel died from undisclosed causes on the evening of November 14, 2015. His remains were cremated in Las Vegas and a memorial mass was held at St. Joseph Croatian Catholic Church in his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri on November 21, 2015. He was survived by his wife, his two children from his first marriage, two grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.
- Signature moves
- "The Smartest Man In Wrestling"
- Tag teams and stables
- Wrestlers trained
Championships and accomplishments
- NWA Georgia Heavyweight Champion (2 time)
- WWE Hall Of Fame (Class of 2007)