The National Wrestling Alliance still lives—and not just in memory. This may come as a surprise to many. I, for one, assumed the once powerful wrestling organization died out long ago. It was only after seeing a recent reference on a wrestling blog that I discovered otherwise.
A quick Google search revealed the NWA not only exists, but also regularly puts on shows—with title changes and even a women’s division. As current owner/president R. Bruce Tharpe told me via email, the company strives to “honor the rich heritage and lineage” of the NWA while also promoting “some of the most exciting events possible.”
At one time, NWA was pro wrestling. Saying as much isn’t even that much of an exaggeration, as the Alliance was the first major governing body of wrestling in America and at one point nearly every event and promotion fell under its jurisdiction. According to its official website, the NWA loosely traces its roots to the very beginnings of wrestling in America with promotions involving the likes of early stars Frank Gotch, George Hackenscmidt, and Farmer Burns. But it was in 1948 that the NWA officially formed during what’s often called the First Golden Age of the pseudo-sport.
This era of wrestling developed what’s commonly referred to as the territory system. The NWA featured a board of promoters from local organizations who would vote to choose the world champion. That champion would then travel throughout the small promotions, often for the purpose of making local talent look good, and early title-holders included Lou Thesz and Buddy Rogers before the likes of Dusty Rhodes and Ric Flair became NWA’s signature stars.
Cracks developed somewhat early within the territory model. In the early 1960’s, wrestler/promoter Verne Gagne broke away from the NWA with his Minneapolis-based AWA and Vince McMahon, Sr. created the standalone Northeast promotion WWWF (in doing so, the perception of the NWA as a mainly Southern entity no doubt grew). Even still, Gagne and McMahon occasionally put on cross-promotional events with the NWA for a time. Of course, that changed when Vince Jr. bought his father’s company in the early 1980’s, dropping a “W” from the title and starting the first truly national—and eventually global—promotion. But even during the rapid, meteoric rise of the WWF, the NWA proved to be a viable alternative, particularly among old-school fans turned off by the WWF’s sometimes kid-pandering gimmicks. At least, it competed for a time.
Ted Turner eventually delivered the biggest blow to the NWA. Looking to get into (what he called) the “rasslin” business, the billionaire tycoon bought up the popular mid-Atlantic, NWA-affiliated Jim Crocket Promotions in 1988. He renamed it WCW, and it soon played down its membership with the NWA to a confusing extent by recognizing separate titles until formally becoming unaffiliated in 1993.
The following year, Philadelphia-based Eastern Championship Wrestling (ECW) held a tournament to fill the vacant NWA World Heavyweight Championship. The winner, Shane Douglas, threw the NWA belt down and declared it a dead promotion. The soon-rebranded Extreme Championship Wrestling then withdrew from the NWA.
From there, the NWA reemerged occasionally. Strangely, the name was used by the WWF at the end of 1997 for a stable of former NWA wrestlers like Jeff Jarrett and Barry Windham. This was likely an attempt to wrangle in old NWA fans from WCW in what was the height of the Monday Night Wars, but the idea proved to be a dud and was dropped the following year. A more recent trivia question involving the WWE and NWA can be pinned on current NXT champion Finn Bálor, who co-founded the now defunct NWA Ireland in 2002 (and trained current WWE star Becky Lynch). TNA was the last major promotion in America associated with wrestling’s oldest sanctioning body before ending the relationship in 2007, though Ring of Honor had a brief flirtation with NWA the following year.
Tharpe has worked at getting the NWA back into the spotlight since taking control in 2012. The promoter/president also somehow heads his own law office in Texas, but there’s no doubting his enthusiasm for wrestling. “I was born in the wrestling profession and have connections to the original NWA,” Tharpe said. This was in reference to his father, Chet, a longtime associate and ring announcer for Eddie Graham’s famous promotion, Championship Wrestling from Florida (the company was rebranded much later as WWE’s developmental system before NXT).
Tharpe’s NWA works with licensed promoters throughout the country, including in Texas, Florida, Tennessee, Ohio, and other states. Surprisingly, the NWA has found a lot of recent success in the Japan, where Tharpe continues an ongoing relationship with New Japan Pro-Wrestling (NJPW), the popular promotion that recently signed WWE Hall of Fame commentator Jim Ross. NWA title changes have occurred at NJPW, and Tharpe himself even portrays a villainous manager there.
The current NWA heavyweight champion is named Jax “Godzilla” Dane. Though old-school in terms of his character, Dane is burly enough and possesses enough natural charisma that it seems impossible to think that WWE scouts don’t already have eyes on him. Filling up the rest of the NWA roster throughout various territory-style promotions are indie veterans and former TNA talents like Santana Garrett and Amber O’Neal, as well as young, scrappy wrestlers.
As a whole, the in-ring action certainly stays true to NWA’s roots with an emphasis on grappling and light on the show business/kid-pleasing aspects one might see on a typical episode of Monday Night Raw. Really, Arn Anderson wouldn’t even look out of place in one of today’s NWA rings.
But this isn’t a company stuck in the past. Tharpe seeks expansion. Along with more branching out throughout the U.S., he hopes to soon break ground in Australia, Europe, and Canada. He also told me national television is “the next logical step for the NWA.” Reports surfaced last year that he met with Spike, the home of TNA until 2014, and he continues dialogue with the cable network while seeking out other potential broadcast deals.
Basically, Tharpe’s vision is for the NWA to once again be a major promotion. In differentiating from the WWE, he claimed the NWA is “definitely not ‘sports entertainment’—it’s more like an ‘entertaining sport.’” Currently, the WWE’s seemingly biggest competition might be it’s own offshoot, NXT, which, like Tharpe’s product, places more emphasis on wrestling. So, perhaps it’s the NWA’s time to rise again, after all.