This Friday morning, tickets go on sale for All Elite Wrestling‘s Milwaukee debut at UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena on April 1. While there have been many wrestling promotions to come to the city of late—Zelo Pro, AAW, and Ring Of Honor have all put on great shows over the years—this is different. For the first time since the days of World Championship Wrestling, a real contender to WWE’s reign is making their way to Milwaukee.
As a wrestling town, Milwaukee was always a stronghold for Verne Gagne’s AWA out of Minneapolis. Starting in 1966, the company ran shows in Milwaukee on an almost monthly basis with stars like The Crusher, Mad Dog Vachon, and Baron Von Raschke became local legends. At the time, the United States was divided into wrestling territories, and Milwaukee was an AWA town.
The rise of cable television and Vince McMahon’s thirst to elevate WWF (now called WWE) to a national scale would put a major hamper on the AWA, and the territory system’s viability. By the mid-’80s, the AWA was on its way out and Milwaukee needed a new company to get behind. The war for national supremacy in professional wrestling was on.
While the WWF was going national with former AWA star Hulk Hogan leading the charge, Jim Crockett Promotions out of the Carolinas was doing its best to compete with them. As the WWF chose to make wrestling more cartoonish to appeal to a wider audience, the JCP product was far more adult-oriented, sports-like, and bloody. It was wrestling with a capital R-A-S-S-L-I-N.
Jim Crockett Promotions didn’t have a New York base behind them or the star power of Hulk Hogan. What they did have was perhaps the greatest collection of talent in wrestling history, led by stars like Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes, Sting, and the Road Warriors.
Milwaukee entered the war between the companies in 1988. The WWF, coming off WrestleMania 3, would run on July 31, 1988 at Milwaukee County Stadium. This was the biggest show ever held in Milwaukee with 15 matches, headlined by a WrestleMania rematch between Andre The Giant and Hulk Hogan in a steel cage. The spectacle garnered an attendance of over 25,000 people, with a gate that reportedly topped $300,000 according to Dave Meltzer. The show became known as WrestleFest 1988 and it was released on home video.
NWA and Jim Crockett Promotions ran a show the next night as part of their Great American Bash tour at the Mecca in Milwaukee. The show was headlined by a War Games match that saw Dusty Rhodes, Lex Luger, Sting, and The Road Warriors defeat Arn Anderson, Barry Windham, JJ Dillon, Ric Flair, and Tully Blanchard. This show drew a paltry 3,800 fans and a gate that was said to be $50,000.
Being the day after the big WWF show didn’t help things and a Monday night was probably not ideal in terms of scheduling, but it’s hard to discount what attendance might’ve been if WrestleFest didn’t feature 15 matches at an outdoor stadium on a day when the high temperature was 87 degrees. Remember: This was a pre-internet, so the walk-up sales were very important. And only absolute diehards would be walking up to Great American Bash at the Mecca after that show. This is a classic example of some of the tactics that WWF would employ during this time to win the wrestling war.
To be clear, $50,000 in 1988 money isn’t shabby at all, but in the context of the wrestling war, it showed just how far behind they were at this point and how much financial trouble Jim Crockett would soon find himself in. By the end of 1988, Jim Crockett Promotions would be no more, as Ted Turner bought the company and re-branded it as World Championship Wrestling. The battles would rage on, but the war was essentially over by this point.
The WWF would claim Milwaukee for themselves shortly thereafter, including a 1989 Main Event taping that is arguably the most famous moment in WWF and Bradley Center history. WCW would only make two 1989 appearances. The WWF made five.
WCW mostly gave up on Milwaukee in the early 1990s. The WWF had fully claimed the city as its own, but they did have one truly memorable show in Milwaukee: SuperBrawl II.
As the 1990s began, wrestling became less cool. People tired of the old stars, the new stars didn’t click, steroids became a bad thing, and wrestling just wasn’t changing with the times (despite the efforts of Man Mountain Rock.) It was a dark era for wrestling. Vince McMahon went on trial, Hulk Hogan went to WCW, and many fans went and found other things to do.
Then Ted Turner decided to give WCW a broadcast block on Monday nights—opposite WWF’s Raw—and the era known as the “Monday Night Wars” would begin. It was during this era that Milwaukee once again became a battleground between the two companies.
WCW made their Milwaukee return in 1997 for a Clash Of The Champions event at the Mecca at the height of its popularity, and the show was classic of WCW in this era. Young wrestlers like Chris Jericho, Eddie Guerrero, and Ultimo Dragon absolutely stole the show on the undercard before established stars like Lex Luger battled the nWo on the top of the card. It was a great formula that lead to even greater wrestling television, but it wouldn’t last forever.
At this time, the WWF knew it needed to change as the old formula stopped working. Everything that WCW was doing at the time was just cooler and fresher. The WWF needed some attitude and it came to them at the Mecca in June of 1996 in the form of Stone Cold Steve Austin. After winning the King Of The Ring tournament, Austin delivered one of the most memorable promos of all-time that showed WWF exactly what fans wanted.
It took WWF a while to listen, but they got the message by the time they returned to Milwaukee in 1998. Austin was the biggest star in the world and WWF Raw was the top-rated wrestling show on television. One of Austin’s greatest matches took place in Milwaukee when he headlined WWF’s Over The Edge 1998 against Dude Love (one of Mick Foley’s personas) in a wild match.
The WWF’s new edgier attitude was also spurned on by Vince Russo, a writer who wrote professional wrestling like an unloved preteen who found an issue of Hustler in the woods behind the school and saw South Park once. The matches and wrestlers would always be secondary in Russo’s vision of wrestling, and by late 1998, it was getting out of hand.
A two-hour episode of Monday Night Raw from Milwaukee in 1998 featured just 20 minutes and 38 seconds of in-ring action. The rest of the show featured a woman swallowing a whole kielbasa for money and WWF Chairman Vince McMahon peeing his pants.
In a world where Ringmaster seemed like a good idea, it worked, and WCW fell further and further behind. They were still making money and were more popular than the company was at any other time in its history, but they wanted to be number one again. They began making a series of bad decisions that only made things worse for them. They were desperate for a solution and decided to bring in Vince Russo to run the whole thing.
When WCW returned to Milwaukee for Nitro in December 1999, it was a completely different company…and not for the better. Russo was fully unleashed without oversight and a three-hour show with 14 matches didn’t have one that lasted longer than eight minutes. It was the last big crowd that WCW would ever have in Milwaukee. Fans had seen enough.
The chase for ratings transformed WCW from profitable company to money-losing venture and, eventually, out of business. WCW did one more show in Milwaukee before their demise, Mayhem in November 2000, that drew around 3,800 people who would likely go on to regret that decision. The war was over for good. WWF would grow bigger than ever, but the wrestling business would never quite be the same without that alternative.
The story of WCW presented a lot of lessons on what a wrestling company should and shouldn’t do. These are lessons that upstart AEW has studied carefully. In less than a year of national exposure, AEW has built up new stars—like Darby Allin and Sammy Guevara—who had little-to-no exposure on a national level before now. AEW is defining its own style and finding an audience that has been waiting a long time for something else.
While there are similarities and inspiration taken, to compare AEW to WCW is folly. All Elite Wrestling is very much a company of right now with a product that aims to be diverse and inclusive, words that once felt forbidden in the world of professional wrestling.
Wrestling in the past has been defined by wars, but AEW isn’t looking for one. They don’t care what any other company is doing. They only care about telling their stories and putting on a good show. If wrestling history has taught us anything, that’s the kind of thing that Milwaukee can get behind.
AEW Dynamite is coming to UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena on Wednesday, April 1. Tickets go on sale Friday, February 7 at 11:00 a.m. at Ticketmaster.