November 23, 1972, Atlanta, Georgia
When the National Wrestling Alliance formed in 1948, one of the primary benefits it offered its members was protection from (and support against) an “outlaw” promotion entering a territory and working in opposition to the established NWA office. While there have certainly been many instances of this practice over the years, none were more high-profile than the hard-fought promotional battle that took place between Georgia Championship Wrestling and the upstart All-South Wrestling Alliance during the early-1970s in Atlanta, Georgia.
As the Sixties became the Seventies, former Purdue University wrestling standout Ray Gunkel was arguably the most popular pro wrestler in Georgia, the booker for the territory, and a member of the promotion’s ownership group. However, Gunkel did not have the best working relationship with the promotion’s other owners, most notably Paul Jones and Gunkel’s on-screen tag team partner, Buddy Fuller. In fact, the friction between Gunkel and Fuller became so problematic that Fuller eventually chose to leave the territory entirely, selling his stake in the company to his brother, Lester Welch. However, Welch’s business relationship with Gunkel quickly proved to be no more harmonious than Fuller’s had been.
When Ray Gunkel unexpectedly died immediately following a match with Ox Baker on August 1, 1972, in Savannah, Georgia, the friction between his business partners and Gunkel’s wife, Ann, continued on, regrettably. Depending on who you ask, there are two versions of what happened between the Georgia office and Gunkel’s widow following his untimely death. The prevailing theory is that Ann was frozen out of the company by her late husband’s former business partners, who wanted to divide Gunkel’s stock options amongst themselves; the other being that she was offered a generous buyout but instead chose to execute a coup d’état and start her own promotion. In either case, the fact remains that shortly after the death of her husband, virtually everyone who had worked for the NWA’s Georgia promotion quit the company on the same day and began working for Ann Gunkel’s new All-South Wrestling Alliance.
The collection of wrestlers, commentators. and office personnel that left the NWA’s promotion to join Gunkel’s ASWA group was, obviously, an unexpected, devastating blow to the established Georgia office. Among the top-tier attractions that jumped ship to join the All-South Wrestling Alliance were Ernie “The Cat” Ladd, The Assassins, Ox Baker, Thunderbolt Patterson, Ted Oates, Ray Candy, Dick Steinborn, the Missouri Mauler, Argentina Apollo, and Rock Hunter. Additionally, Jones & Welch’s talented booker, Tom Renesto, and popular, longtime TV announcer Ed Capral also defected to Ann Gunkel’s new “outlaw” promotion. Just days after shocking their former employer by walking out en masse, Gunkel held her first live event on November 23, 1972, Thanksgiving Day, at the Oglethorpe University Gym, while the NWA’s Georgia promotion scrambled to put together a new card at the Atlanta Municipal Auditorium. In terms of attendance, both groups did well and the fabled Battle for Atlanta had officially begun.
From the beginning, the All-South Wrestling Alliance started off hot. In addition to her impressive lineup of talent, Gunkel also secured a prime television slot on Ted Turner’s WTCG UHF station and on Saturday, December 2, 1972, just nine days after its first live event, Gunkel’s inaugural TV program debuted at 7 p.m. EST. The new promotion’s momentum was further enhanced by the fact that All-South Championship Wrestling aired immediately following the NWA’s Georgia Championship Wrestling program, which, of course, was broadcast on the same station. With its own competitor serving as the program’s lead-in, the upstart ASWA found itself in an excellent position to compete for ratings & audience share against the unrivaled power of the NWA. Meanwhile, Gunkel was also able to secure timeslots in several states along the Eastern seaboard, ensuring that her program was viewed by wrestling fans from North Carolina to Florida.
Yet, despite her ambition (or perhaps because of it), the National Wrestling Alliance was not about to take Ann Gunkel’s early success lying down…After the initial shock of seeing its entire roster of talent walk out on the promotion, the NWA’s Atlanta booking office, headed by Jones & Welch, regrouped. With the substantial aid from promoters throughout the National Wrestling Alliance, the Georgia promotion quickly set about rebuilding. As reinforcements were sent in from around the country, the NWA’s Georgia territory soon boasted one of the most talented & impressive lineups of top-tier talent in the entire business. Additionally, Tom Renesto’s former position as booker was filled by two more-than-competent young visionaries in Bill Watts and, later, Jerry Jarrett. Before long, the NWA’s Georgia affiliate was back on track and on June 1, 1973, they ran their first card at the city’s brand-new coliseum, The Omni. More than 16,000 fans showed up to see a smorgasbord of impressive NWA talent from around the country, including Southern Heavyweight champion Buddy Colt, the Brisco Brothers, The Sheik, Eddie & Mike Graham, Bobby Shane, NWA Junior Heavyweight champion Danny Hodge, Bob Orton, Jr, Mr. Wrestling I & II, Bill Watts, Bob Armstrong, and WWWF Heavyweight champion Pedro Morales, among others. Although the ASWA was still drawing respectable crowds at the City Auditorium, by running the much larger Omni, the NWA group reaffirmed its perceived status as Georgia’s premier promotion in the eyes of the wrestling public.
However, in reality, it was the addition of promoter James E. Barnett to Georgia Championship Wrestling’s management team that truly spelled the end for the All-South Wrestling Alliance. With the ingenious Barnett at the helm, the NWA’s group pulled ahead of Gunkel’s company, never to look back. While physically unimposing, the demure Barnett was as ruthless and calculating as they came.
By filing no less than three frivolous yet very expensive lawsuits against Gunkel and her promotion, having his subordinates threaten ASWA talent in a variety of nefarious ways, using his many political contacts to shut Gunkel out of key arenas & cities, and pressuring television executives to disrupt the ASWA’s programming schedules, Barnett was able to severely inhibit Ann Gunkel’s ability to run a successful business.
Jody Hamilton, in his book, Assassin: The Man Behind The Mask, recalled that, “For a time, we (ASWA) did good business. There were times when I thought we had the NWA on the ropes. Eventually, even though it took the NWA two years to recoup their loss, they turned the corner and began to pull way ahead of us. Atlanta drew well, but we couldn’t make enough money from that one town to pay the rest of the bills.”
Initially, Gunkel’s talent roster was very solid. But, her match-ups understandably got stale over time and with the NWA doing everything in its power to ensure that she could not recruit new stars, Tom Renesto’s match-making options became fewer and fewer. Thunderbolt Patterson, the promotion’s top babyface performer, sold-out Atlanta’s 5,000-seat Municipal Auditorium more than a dozen times as a headliner for the ASWA. However, Patterson, who was already known for his somewhat unreliable track record in promotions across the country, eventually quit (or, depending on who you ask, was fired) after he demanded, and did not receive, an ownership stake in the ASWA. The loss of her top attraction was then compounded by Patterson forming his own Atlanta-based upstart, the International Wrestling League, and luring away some of Gunkel’s wrestlers (as well as a few of her fans) at a time when she could afford to lose neither.
With unyielding pressure brought on by the NWA’s relentless hardball tactics (many of which were quite unscrupulous), coupled with the aggravating annoyance caused by additional competition from Patterson’s IWL, the All-South Wrestling Alliance found itself in an increasingly bleak situation as 1974 progressed. With no other recourse, Ann Gunkel eventually accepted a buyout offer from Jim Barnett in November, reportedly in the range of $250,000, and the tumultuous, two-year Battle for Atlanta abruptly ended.
Just under six months prior to the official demise of the ASWA, in the June 15, 1974 edition of The Atlanta Constitution, Ann Gunkel stated that, “A lot of people were against me. They said it was too tough for a woman. And now they’re saying I’m too tough for the sport. I told them that the NWA stood for No Women Allowed.”
Ron Fuller’s Studcast: fullerpod.com