Depending on the specific argument you’re making, you might say that the National Wrestling Alliance, pro wrestling’s oldest governing body, ceased being relevant as much as 35 years ago. So it was definitely surprising last week when Billy Corgan (yes, that one) bought its remnants from Bruce Tharpe, a lawyer and promoter who won the rights to the NWA in a lawsuit a few years ago. Originally formed in 1948 as a protection racket and marketing gimmick—one purpose was to eliminate confusion over the number of world champions in pro wrestling—the NWA in 2017 is little more than a loose affiliation of independent promotions that have to book a largely-unknown champion.
That’s what Billy Corgan bought.
Corgan is, when he’s not doing Smashing Pumpkins things, a hardcore wrestling geek who’s been on the periphery of the business in some form for a long time. He turned down buying into ECW at a $10 million valuation circa 2001 and dipped his toes in the water with a Chicago-based independent promotion for a few years a decade later before an incredibly strange 18-month run with TNA (now Impact Wrestling) that ended this past October, when he sued them after an attempt to fund and take over the company went south.
The only sane explanation for the NWA purchase is that Corgan is going to start a wrestling promotion again, and this was a brand with history that he could get for relatively little money. In terms of the value of that brand, there really isn’t much left outside of Japan—and even there, it’s waning—but if Corgan wanted an existing name, it’s not like he had many other options.
Through the late 1970s, it was awesome, as promoter, to be an NWA member. The champion, usually one of the best performers and biggest drawing cards in the world, had to work for your promotion for 10% of the gate if you asked for dates on him. If someone tried to run opposition to you in your designated territory, other members would send in top stars to help push the rival “outlaw” group out. The mainstream promotions were either members or on good terms, with the biggest non-members—the WWF, AWA, Mid-South Wrestling—seemingly existing outside of the Alliance mainly to help stave off another antitrust investigation.
If you grew up in the 1980s, though, the significance of the NWA is that even if it was never actually a singular pro wrestling company, the perception among fans of a certain age was that is was, because that’s how Jim Crockett Promotions out of the Carolinas was branded when it aired on TBS until the name WCW suddenly took over at the start of 1991. “The NWA” thus carried connotations of a certain period of time, when Ric Flair reigned supreme in the South and much of the Mid-Atlantic, and the newsstand wrestling magazines characterized the promotions he lorded over as the grittier, more sporting alternative to the “cartoon” WWF.
The nature of the NWA was never really explained on national television during the 1980s wrestling boom, though, much less when the NWA name vanished at the start of 1991, or when Flair left WCW with the physical NWA belt several months later. The average fan just thought that the NWA “became” WCW, even though it didn’t. So when WCW brought back the NWA name for additional titles—you know how WWE has had two separate versions of the world title for most of the last 15 years, and it’s always been kind of dumb? WCW did that first, because that was exactly the sort of thing WCW would do—it was incredibly confusing.
Legendary wrestler, promoter, and creative force Bill Watts took over WCW in 1992, and one of his initiatives was to ease the NWA name and titles back into use. (Again, this is even though the company had dropped the NWA name 18 months earlier despite its having been used for years as the main branding for wrestling on TBS.) The titles were brought back via tournaments being held to crown new world heavyweight champion and world tag team champions ... in addition to the WCW-branded titles. The tag titles were immediately unified with WCW’s, rendering them pointless, but the singles title was kept separate, and it wasn’t ever really clear whether it or the WCW title was the main one in the promotion, even after Ric Flair came back and reclaimed the NWA title, the belt most associated with him.
In the meantime, the NWA had netted a new member, New Jersey independent promoter Dennis Coralluzzo. Unlike most of the members, Coralluzzo actually ran shows on a regular basis, and joined the NWA with the goal of getting dates on the champion. Once Flair was back in the fold and holding the title this was an especially big deal, as Coralluzzo ran many of his shows in the Philadelphia area, and Flair was arguably the most beloved wrestler in the city. With a membership, not only was Coralluzzo theoretically entitled to book Flair, but he didn’t even have to shell out a guaranteed payoff. For someone like Flair though, that may not have been enough; Coralluzzo’s shows did well by mid-1990s indie standards, but asides from the occasional supercard or benefit show, 10% was probably going to be under $1000.
All of the problems with the NWA came to a head in July 1993. First, there was Coralluzzo’s inability to book the champion. “Expect some fireworks regarding the NWA title,” wrote Dave Meltzer in the July 12th edition of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter. “Several promoters who are members of the NWA, most notably Dennis Coraluzzo [sic] from New Jersey, are requesting dates of the NWA champion as part of the NWA bylaws, and of course the requests are falling on deaf ears. The NWA may have to take action which may result in WCW simply dropping the title.” Coralluzzo had even gone as far as to threaten a lawsuit against both the NWA and WCW.
Meanwhile, just as that edition of the Observer went to press, WCW was making its debut at Disney/MGM Studios at Walt Disney World in Orlando, the new home of WCW Worldwide, the company’s main syndicated show. In four days, they taped three months’ worth of shows that would extend all the way through the weekend before Thanksgiving. In the process, WCW gave away plans for a half-dozen future title changes, going two champions ahead of the then-current title holder. Flair was to win the NWA title days later at the next pay-per-view, but even though the NWA should have been thrilled with that move, they weren’t, for procedural reasons.
“A monkey wrench of sorts may have been thrown into that because during this past week, the NWA legal representatives sent a letter to WCW saying that they have no right to change the title without first getting confirmation by the NWA board of directors (which, by NWA bylaws, controls the NWA title belt),” wrote Meltzer in the next Observer. “The NWA board consists of Seiji Sakaguchi, Steve Rickard and Bill Watts, none of whom had at press time given the okay for the title switch. The NWA threatened to sue WCW if they did the switch this coming Sunday without permission, or advertised Flair as NWA champion without authorization of the NWA board. WCW was attempting to rectify the situation before Sunday.” They did, but the relationship blew up weeks later when the NWA objected to Flair dropping the title to Rick Rude, which had already been acknowledged at the Disney tapings.
WCW, however, clearly saw this coming, because the letters NWA were never used when referring to Rude at the Orlando tapings in July. At the annual NWA convention in September, WCW and its affiliated members—generally local promoters—all pulled out of the Alliance and the title was vacated. Shortly thereafter, Philadelphia-based Eastern Championship Wrestling (later to be better known as Extreme Championship Wrestling) joined the Alliance, which caused issues with Coralluzzo since they served the same metropolitan area. The NWA was not exactly short on tensions in 1994, and when a title tournament was scheduled in August, Coralluzzo’s choice to win, Chris Benoit, was vetoed because the older power brokers didn’t know who he was. ECW champion Shane Douglas, who had greater national exposure, got the nod instead. Upon winning the tournament, he threw the belt down and proclaimed himself ECW world heavyweight champion.
Yes, Douglas and ECW, led by Paul Heyman, double-crossed the NWA.
Chris Candido, who rarely wrestled for NWA promotions at that point, won Coralluzzo’s tournament three months later before eventually dropping the title to UFC fighter Dan Severn. Severn did get the NWA extra attention by bringing the belt with him to the Octagon, sometimes with Coralluzzo carrying it as part of his entourage, and interest in the NWA was up a bit, but there was a big problem.
While a nice guy and a great legitimate combat athlete, Severn was not good at traditional pro wrestling. At all. Put him in a more “reality-based” environment where he could just grapple and suplex guys, and he was fine, but he simply did not click doing the more narrative-heavy American style. Still, without a better choice, he held the title for the next few years.
During Severn’s reign, there was a short-lived WWF undercard storyline where Jim Cornette brought in the NWA—represented by Coralluzzo and Alliance president Howard Brody, a Florida indie promoter—to bring back tradition, or something like that. It was seemingly a not so thinly veiled attempt to make Cornette look old and out of touch, and in the context of the WWF, it’s little more than a trivia note. For the NWA, however, it led to a boom period.
All of a sudden, numerous indie promoters wanted to join the NWA, leading to the modern incarnation of the Alliance, which usually had about two dozen members. With the exception of the period where TNA made a deal for control of the belts, the NWA became a collection of indies who all had to book the champion, usually a popular indie wrestler but sometimes a Japanese star using the title to boost his or his promotion’s credibility. Former ECW star Steve Corino, who held the title for six months in 2001, was the jewel of this period, working for everyone and having the right skill set to pull off the role of classic NWA champ. Even though he spent the next several years working for the most prominent NWA member, Japan’s Zero-One, he never got the title back, though.
The NWA name lost pretty much all of its remaining value in the early part of this decade. At first, interest in the brand was up, when Colt Cabana won the title from Adam Pearce, who had dominated the title for several years. It made sense: Cabana was the biggest-name indie star to work a wide variety of smaller promotions, and was absolutely the best choice to hold the title. Hell, he even got some press for being the first Jewish NWA champion. Since it was seemingly a match made in heaven, fans were stunned when he promptly dropped the title who an unknown calling himself “The Sheik.” The Fake Sheik was out of the picture almost as suddenly as he appeared, so Pearce and Cabana went back to feuding and trading the title. A best of seven series was set for the title … and then Pearce legitimately vacated the title as it ended. Huh?
Texas lawyer and promoter Bruce Tharpe had been around wrestling for years, including as a ring announcer in the old Florida territory. He sued the NWA over misrepresenting the Alliance’s liability insurance policy, somehow got control as a result, and dropped the membership model for licensing fees. Aside from New Japan Pro Wrestling borrowing the NWA heavyweight and junior-heavyweight titles for feuds that featured some ridiculous promos from Tharpe, the NWA titles have since been most visible in obscure Texas indies.
That is what Billy Corgan bought. Why would he want it? God only knows.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.