Pacific Northwest Wrestling (aka Big Time Wrestling and Portland Wrestling) was one of the oldest promotions in the history of professional wrestling, dating back to 1925 when Australian Ted Thye opened the territory. The promotion endured over the next few decades, becoming a founding member of the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) in 1948. Its TV show Portland Wrestling ran an amazing 43 years, holding the record at the time for the longest-running wrestling show. A complete list of the many talented wrestlers who worked in the promotion would be exhaustive but names such as “Gorgeous” George Wagner, Gory Guerrero, Lou Thesz, Pat Patterson, Jimmy Snuka, Jesse Ventura, Roddy Piper, Billy Jack Haynes, Rick Martel, Jay Youngblood, Art Barr, Tom Zenk, and Scotty the Body (later known as Raven) are just a few of the stars who worked there.
While PNW was a founding member of the NWA, the promotion dates back to 1925 when Australian Ted Thye visited Portland, seeking a boxing and wrestling promotion. With the help of his assistant Herb Owen, a new promotion was born. Unfortunately for Thye, Owen put the promotion in his name when Thye went to his native Australia, seizing control of the promotion for good. The name Owen would forever be associated with Portland wrestling from then on.
Herb Owen initially began promoting boxing but later added wrestling. Owen’s sons Elton and Don began working in the business, working behind the scenes and even wrestling. When Herb Owen passed away, Don assumed control of the promotion. Don Owen helped build the promotion up into a successful venture, as reflected by its enduring success through wrestling’s cycles of feast and famine. Don Owen purchased a bowling alley and refurbished it into The Sports Arena in Portland, home to the promotion’s Portland Wrestling, a TV program which began airing in 1948, and featured live wrestling. Through the years, Don Owen built a reputation as a promoter who could be trusted, both in pay-offs and his word. This was a rare quality in wrestling promoters.
PNW featured two championship titles, its Pacific Northwest Heavyweight Championship (which replaced the Pacific Coast Junior Heavyweight Championship) and the Pacific Northwest Tag Team Championship. As an NWA territory, the NWA World Heavyweight Champion toured the area, defending the NWA’s top belt. In 1987, PNW added a second singles title, its Pacific Northwest Television Championship. All three titles featured some of wrestling’s all-time greats not only holding, but competing for the belt. Veteran Rip Oliver would hold the distinction of holding the belt eleven times.
No discussion of PNW would be complete without discussing its arch-heel, “Playboy” Buddy Rose. Fans who only know Rose’s work from his AWA Tag Team Championship team with Doug Sommers need to check out Rose’s work in PNW. Rose, a fantastic talker and worker, served as the promotion’s top villain in the mid-70’s through mid-80’s, often teaming with Ed Wisowski (later known as Colonel DeBeers in the AWA) to inflict carnage on whatever babyfaces got in his way. Rose’s fabled feud with “Rowdy” Roddy Piper is still considered one of the area’s greatest programs (including an angle where Rose stole Piper’s kilt and torched it), and Piper credits it with making him a national star (Piper would be invited to Jim Crockett Promotions after his work in PNW). Although Rose spent most of his time as a heel, his surprise face turn stunned the fans, and they suddenly embraced the man they’d hated for years.
On May 21, 1985, Don Owen held the PNW 60th Anniversary Wrestling Extravaganza, a card which lived up to its name by featuring talent from the NWA, AWA, and even the WWF. Although the WWF was no longer cooperating with rival promotions, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper had enough clout with Vince McMahon to appear on behalf of Don Owen, a man he had deep respect for. The Extravaganza featured title defenses by AWA World Heavyweight Champion Rick Martel and NWA World Heavyweight Champion Ric “Nature Boy” Flair. This unforgettable night reportedly drew the largest gate in PNW history.
Although PNW featured many top stars in professional wrestling, it remained at its heart, a family-owned and operated business that appealed to locals. In an interview, Barry Owen (Don’s son) recalls, “”The people were paying good money and we wanted to entertain them. We’d also have special nights (“Kids Free with Paying Adult,” etc.) to help out the house. Prices were usually $8.00 for ringside, $7.00 for the floor and $5.00 general admission. This was small town America and there wasn’t much to do in many of these towns so the shows were family events…” (“Portland Days: An Interview with Barry Owen”). PNW had a strong bond with its fans, undoubtedly partly due to its small-town values.
While many territories went out of business (and even larger promotions such as the AWA and Jim Crockett Promotions), Owen managed to stay in business but competition from national promotions and the proliferation of TV on wrestling began to hurt. Trouble also came from a state athletic commission that began imposing fines and restrictions on wrestling. In a 1999 interview, commented how the Oregon State Athletic Commission. “They regulated us to death…They really made it hard for my dad to stay in business and be competitive with all their rules. Finally, he just had enough” (Molinaro). The promotion’s problems mounted and in 1991, PNW’s major sponsor declared bankruptcy, contributing to the loss of PNW’s television show. According to an article by David Galvan, Portland Wrestling was still the station’s highest rated show at the time, but without television to promote his cards, Owen’s promotion was all but finished. In the spring of 1992, Don Owen sold the promotion to Sandy Barr, ending a historic age for wrestling fans in the Northwestern United States.
PNW’s TV show Portland Wrestling was historically significant in that it was the first wrestling program to air on a superstation. Portland Wrestling was carried on a number of stations in the northwest, making it a powerful promotion in the region. The show, which aired from 1948 through December 1991, reportedly held the record for the longest-running non-news program in the United States. With a run of forty-three years, it still ranks among the top twenty non-news programs (although these programs are national whereas Portland Wrestling was regional). If nothing else, Barry Owen believes it was special in two ways. “It was the longest running wrestling program on TV. What was amazing was that my dad never signed a contract with the TV station, it was just a handshake deal” (Molinaro).
With a history going back to the early 20th century, Pacific Northwest Wrestling is one of wrestling’s most historically significant promotions, both for its longevity, and its record-breaking television show. PNW also holds special memories for its fans as well as the talented individuals who worked there. With some of the promotion’s archives available on video, it promises to continue to entertain fans for years to come.
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