by Stephen Von Slagle
Pacific Northwest Wrestling/Don Owen Sports, Inc. (a.k.a. “Portland”)
Herb Owen (1925-1942)
Don Owen (1942-1992)
Elton Owen (1942-1982)
Barry Owen (1982-1992)
STATES & PRIMARY CITIES:
Oregon (Portland, Eugene, Salem, Newport, Newport, Coos Bay, Seaside, Gresham, Finlay)
Washington (Seattle, Tacoma, Spokane, Vancouver, Longview, Ft. Lewis, Yakima)
World Heavyweight title/L.A. version (1930-1952)
Pacific Coast Heavyweight title (1948-1958)
Pacific Northwest Heavyweight title (1952-1992)
Pacific Northwest Tag Team title (1952-1992)
Pacific Northwest Television title (1987-1992)
In the early 1920s when Herb Owen founded the company that would eventually become Pacific Northwest Wrestling, he actually did so by promoting the “other” ring sport, professional boxing. Without question, prize fighting was a very popular sport and a lucrative enterprise during this time period. However, when Owen added professional wrestling to his business model, it soon proved to be even more profitable than boxing. By the late 1920s, he had begun to focus primarily on wrestling, promoting cities in both Oregon and Washington, and Owen slowly established a territory that became a popular and reliable new workplace for wrestlers (and to a lesser extent, boxers) on the West Coast. Initially, Herb Owen predominantly featured lightweights on his cards and the local fanbase responded with enthusiasm to the product he offered them. From an early age, his sons Don Owen and Elton Owen helped their father with the family business, from the ground up, and eventually learned the nuances of booking and promoting as well as performing. Each competed on their father’s cards as boxers and wrestlers, with Elton in particular excelling at both ring sports. Conversely, Don proved himself to be an excellent matchmaker and a natural promoter. When Herb Owen passed away on February 6, 1942 at the age of 58, his sons inherited the family business and under their watch the promotion continued to thrive.
Although it was headquartered in Eugene, the hub of the territory was Oregon’s largest city, Portland. Of the many televised professional wrestling programs that have aired in North America, Owen’s show stands out in several ways. Making its debut on July 10, 1953 on KPTV-27, Heidelberg Wrestling (named after the brewing company that sponsored the program) emanated from the Portland Armory, airing live from 10-11:00 p.m., and was originally hosted by announcer Bob McAnulty. In 1955, the program moved to a rival station, KOIN-TV and was renamed Portland Wrestling. During the thirteen years that the show aired on KOIN, Owen’s group also had a syndicated program that was taped in Seattle and seen in other parts of the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, greatly expanding the promotion’s exposure. Then, on February 17, 1967, the show returned to its original home at KPTV, where it remained for the following 24 years. Ultimately, Portland Wrestling aired uninterrupted from 1953-1991, making it the longest-running professional wrestling program in history (at least until WWE’s Monday Night Raw eclipses the record in 2033). While it featured many top names during its lengthy run, legendary performers such as Luther Lindsay, Mad Dog Vachon, The Destroyer, Moondog Mayne, Stan Stasiak, Pat Patterson and Rocky Johnson, the somewhat secluded Pacific Northwest territory was better known as a training ground and launching point for unknown, up-and-coming future stars like Buddy Rose, Roddy Piper, Jesse Ventura, Jimmy Snuka, Bob (Sgt.) Slaughter, Curt Hennig, “Iceman” King Parsons, Tom Zenk, Billy Jack Haynes, Chris Adams, Art Barr, Raven and many others. In 1968, Owen purchased and then renovated a former bowling alley, creating his own auditorium that would become known as the Portland Sports Arena, home to PNW and its TV program. In addition to owning the 1,500 seat Portland Sports Arena, Owen also promoted occasional cards at the much larger Portland Memorial Coliseum.
Although he faced his share of opposition from “outlaw” promotions, Don Owen and Pacific Northwest Wrestling remained the favorite of wrestlers and local fans alike, peaking in popularity during the 1970s and into the early 1980s. While he is often erroneously credited as being one of the founding members of the National Wrestling Alliance, Don Owen actually joined the NWA in 1951, not in 1948 when the Alliance was first formed. That said, with a membership that spanned from 1951 to 1992, Owen did maintain the longest tenure of any NWA promoter and outlasted all of his contemporaries, no doubt a dubious honor. Over the years, Owen contributed to that long-term success by surrounding himself with a management team of talented and trusted men such as his brother Elton (and, later, Don’s son Barry Owen) as well as Dutch Savage, Sandy Barr and Len Denton, all of whom helped Don Owen Sports, Inc. maintain its position as the premier wrestling promotion throughout the Pacific Northwest. Although it held its biggest card ever in 1985, when over 12,500 fans attended a star-studded supercard at the Portland Memorial Coliseum that celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Owen family business, Pacific Northwest Wrestling began its inevitable decline around the same time period. The mid/late 1980s was a tough time for smaller regional leagues such as Owen’s and he, like many other territorial promoters, was feeling the pressure of an industry in the midst of great change. With the WWF and Jim Crockett Promotions in the middle of their respective national expansions, the lack of available new talent was further compounded by an overzealous Oregon Athletic Commission that seemed intent on making life as difficult as possible for Owen’s promotion in particular and professional wrestling in general. To make matters worse, Owen lost both his television outlet as well as his primary sponsor in 1991, a crippling one-two punch. He tried to continue on, running live events in both Oregon and Washington, but without television and Tom Peterson’s sponsorship, Owen had no choice but to cease operating in April of 1992, following nearly 70 years of the Owen family promoting professional wrestling in the region.