The National Wrestling Alliance (NWA), a wrestling organization so powerful and so feared that it could blackball a wrestler with a postcard, or put a would-be rival out of business. The NWA would bring order to wrestling, making for a unified world champion. It broke the wrestling world into fiefdoms from which individual promoters ruled their kingdoms with the knowledge that their partners would help keep out competition. Eventually, the NWA’s powers grew so powerful the organization was investigated by the federal government under antitrust laws. Although the NWA members would sign a compliance agreement with the feds to stop its monopolistic practices, it remained a powerful organization into the early 1980’s when changes in the industry and aggressive action by Vince McMahon destroyed many of its members, as well as its power.
The NWA came about as a desire by promoters to eliminate unnecessary competition and focus on how best to make money in their individual territories. At the time, wrestling promoters controlled a geographic area where they promoted their shows. However, competition from rivals and difficulties in booking top draws led to discontentment. There were two purposes for a wrestling syndicate: 1) to create a universally recognized world champion who could defend his championship in all of the territories; and 2) to provide assistance to one another in the event of a hostile takeover. These goals led to the creation of the NWA.
Although insiders doubted the NWA’s chance of success, the organization grew quickly. Founded in 1948, the NWA grew from, “20 members in November 1949 to nearly 40 in September 1952. Every segment in the United States was controlled by a member, and bookers governed all corners of Canada” (National Wrestling Alliance: The Untold Story of the Monopoly That Strangled Pro Wrestling, Hornbaker 24). Over time, the NWA grew from a national organization to one boasting membership throughout the world. Promotions in Japan, Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Australia, and New Zealand had NWA affiliations, making the world heavyweight championship a true world belt. This made for difficulties when the champion traveled overseas to defend the belt, but it also could be lucrative for the champion and the booker.
Although the NWA did maintain order and consistency in the United States, there were differences among promoters, sometimes leading to rifts or even secession from the organization. Verne Gagne (see our article on the American Wrestling Association) and Vince McMahon Sr. would form their own promotions. However, theirs was more of a friendly competition. In McMahon’s case, he rejoined the NWA, recognizing the NWA World Heavyweight Champion and even booking him for special appearances in Madison Square Garden.
The NWA’s power caused a backlash among those promoters who felt left out in the cold. Although the NWA established undisputed champions, it made business difficult (and sometimes impossible) for would-be competitors. NWA members often had questionable influence on athletic commissions, making it difficult for competitors to get permission to hold wrestling cards. Even if a promoter was able to hold a card against an NWA member, he might not be able to get wrestlers. Wrestlers who worked for non-NWA members faced being blackballed. NWA members circulated postcards with wrestlers’ names written in red ink, signifying said wrestlers were to be denied employment. In the event a promoter was able to run a show against an NWA member, fellow NWA members sent in their top stars to support the member, putting on star-studded shows to blow the non-member’s show out of the water. Indeed, competing with the NWA was a Herculean task.
Eventually, the NWA’s tactics led to complaints to the United States Department of Justice. This led to federal intervention when the U.S. government investigated the NWA. The NWA avoided a prosecution, instead signing a consent agreement wherein they promised not to engage in any monopolistic activities. The NWA members insinuated that some monopolistic practices may have occurred on rare occasion but denied the charges. As Tim Hornbaker notes in National Wrestling Alliance: The Untold Story of the Monopoly That Strangled Pro Wrestling, NWA official Sam Muchnick’s friendship with House of Representatives member Mel Price likely helped moderate the action, which could have led to criminal as well as civil prosecution. In the end, the NWA members agreed to a consent decree, a binding legal document which changed the way the NWA did business. Its monopolistic power was curtailed but not destroyed. The NWA continued making life difficult for competitors who battled its members, but with its power reduced, there was more competition.
By the early 1980’s the wrestling world was changing. Promoters were now able to reach outside their geographic area via cable television. Promoters such as Ole Anderson and Joe Blanchard had cable access on SuperStation TBS and the USA Network and Blanchard held an “Undisputed World Champion” tournament, possibly in anticipation of a national expansion. However, promoter Vince McMahon Jr. struck first, grabbing the USA spot (and eventually the SuperStation spot briefly) to expand the WWF’s reach across the United States. McMahon broke the unwritten rule of staying out of other promoters’ territories and hiring their stars. The NWA territories were taken by surprise and although some cooperated briefly, they eventually went out of business, were bought out by Jim Crockett Promotions, or left the NWA to try things on their own, usually failing. Jim Crockett Promotions’ transformation into World Championship Wrestling (WCW) saw it continue under the NWA banner, sanctioning their world heavyweight and world tag team champions under the NWA.
In 1993, WCW left the NWA, leaving the organization with a small group of promoters. The NWA’s efforts to find an undisputed NWA World Heavyweight Champion led to a tournament in 1994 where Shane Douglas to double-crossed the promotion and declared the ECW championship as the only true world championship. The remaining NWA members held a new tournament, crowning Chris Candido as their champion. The NWA remained in the shadows for most of the 1990’s save for a short-lived angle when the WWF brought in NWA wrestlers in a short-lived invasion angle. The NWA had a boost in the 21st century when Jerry Jarrett’s Total Nonstop Action licensed the rights to the NWA World Heavyweight Championship and NWA World Tag Team Championship, establishing a lineage for the new promotion. That ended in 2007 as the NWA decided to part ways. Since then, the organization has maintained members from small promotions.
The NWA’s rich history will always be remembered by fans for its assemblage of world champions and dominant influence on American wrestling. While the NWA is a façade of a once-great organization, its longevity and acquisition by Billy Corgan suggest the NWA name may have life left in it. Whether the NWA rises to a national level again is a question which only the future can answer.
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