By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
Walk into Wade Keller's plush townhouse in a quiet part of Eagan and you'll have no idea you're entering one of the world's major hotspots for wrestling journalism. There's no Ultimate Warrior decal on the wall, no championship belt displayed on a mantle, no wrestling ring in the basement.
In fact, Keller's family members — his four-year-old son, Bowie, and his longtime partner, Cory — have no interest in pro wrestling whatsoever. Ask little Bowie if he's into it, and without a moment's hesitation, he exclaims, "No!"
Nonetheless, Keller continues to churn out pro wrestling reports, columns, and podcasts for the web, along with a weekly newsletter sent to thousands of subscribers throughout the world.
Keller founded the Pro Wrestling Torch 26 years ago, and his comfortable residence in Eagan is the house that wrestling built. Born in Bloomington, Keller started off as a fan of the Minneapolis-based American Wrestling Association, and he says he still gets excited to see a five-star match or a great promo. But these days, writing and talking about wrestling is his job first and foremost.
"Wrestling is not my escape, and it can't be," Keller says. "Because when I watch it, I'm thinking about things that produce a good portion of stress in my life, which is my job and running a business and deadlines, so I can't watch wrestling and not be thinking about work."
At the same time, Keller's challenge is to make sure his subscribers, many of whom do view wrestling as an escape, remain entertained.
"The way I approach it is I watch it as a journalist, but I report on it with a tone for people where it is their escape [and they] can enjoy it and not feel stupid for liking it," he says.
But on this day, Keller is going back in time to an era when he was just a fan. Down in his theater room, he puts on an old AWA tape that he dubbed to DVD.
Footage of Mad Dog Vachon pounding nails into a rickety-looking coffin deep in the depths of a Twin Cities basement lights up the projection screen. Mean Gene Okerlund sticks his microphone in Mad Dog's face.
"This is for my friend, Jerry Fatwell!" Mad Dog growls, making fun of his rotund enemy, Jerry Blackwell. "I've waited a long time for something like this."
It was the spring of 1982, and the AWA was at the peak of its power. Mad Dog was about to cut one of the AWA's more memorable promos.
"Jerry Blackwell put me out of wrestling for two and a half years," Mad Dog barks, before interjecting this very Minnesotan twist: "I had to work in the mines to make my money!"
A young Keller watched that promo on KMSP Channel 9's Sunday morning All-Star Wrestling show, and his anticipation for the upcoming Mad Dog-Blackwell "death match" swelled. His mom agreed to take him to the Met Center for the card.
Back then Keller still wasn't smart to the business. He thought it was real.
"I was in the crowd, and when Gene explained the rules, that the match ends when somebody can't get up after 30 seconds, and I didn't know until that moment that a death match didn't end when somebody literally died," Keller says. "And I was still wondering, 'Oh, there's a 30-second rest period — does that mean he's dead?'"
RIGHT AROUND THE SAME TIME Prince was blowing up nationally, Hulkamania was running wild in Minnesota. The AWA was already hot before Hogan: The first match Wade ever attended — Verne Gagne's May 1981 retirement match against Nick Bockwinkel at the St. Paul Civic Center — drew 18,000 spectators. But Hulk's debut in August 1981 took the excitement to another level.
Hogan was 6'8", 325 pounds, with charisma to spare. Shortly after he debuted in the AWA, Rocky III came out, and Hogan's role as "Thunderlips" made him a movie star. AWA promoters initially wrote his storylines in such a way that fans were supposed to boo him, but they refused, so Hogan was quickly turned into a fan favorite.
The resulting big leg-dropping, bad guy-stomping babyface gimmick was pretty much identical to the one fans throughout the world came to know and love during Hogan's legendary World Wrestling Federation run years later.
But while Hogan was clearly the most popular babyface in the AWA, owner Verne Gagne refused to give him the belt.
"It was kind of embarrassing for Verne, as an old-guard promoter, that he would be headlining with a guy who didn't know a wristlock from a wristwatch," Keller says of the Hulkster's lack of wrestling prowess. "So there was this reluctance to embracing Hogan."
A major turning point in AWA history occurred on April 24, 1983, during Hogan's title match against Bockwinkel. Hogan had been chasing the belt for more than a year, but Bockwinkel's manager, the legendary Bobby "the Brain" Heenan, kept screwing him out of it. The expectation headed into April 24 was that this would finally be the night Hogan would be crowned champion, and demand for tickets reached a fever pitch.
"The Civic Center and adjacent St. Paul Auditorium were packed with 29,000 fans. They were convinced that this was the night that the title would change hands, and they paid increased ticket prices to see that happen," George Schire writes in Minnesota's Golden Age of Wrestling. "As soon as the match was announced it was completely sold out, a full two and a half weeks before the card, with fans paying a total of $300,000 to watch."