The American Wrestling Association (AWA) was one of the Big 3 in the golden age of professional wrestling alongside the NWA and WWE. Out of those three, only WWE came out of the '80s in one piece. The rise of WCW wiped out the NWA, and the AWA went out of business.
However, for several years, Verne Gagne's AWA created some of the top stars in professional wrestling. While some remained connected to the AWA, such as Nick Bockwinkel and Larry "The Axe" Hennig, others moved on to WWE and became massive stars outside of the Minnesota-based wrestling promotion. Here is a look at the 10 most successful WWE superstars who got their start in the AWA.
10 JESSE "THE BODY" VENTURA
Before Jesse "The Body" Ventura was the Governor of Minnesota and a conspiracy theorist, he was one of the biggest names in professional wrestling. By the time he reached WWE, however, his in-ring career was already coming to an end. However, Ventura slid into a new role as a color commentator and became one of the best in WWE history.
Ventura signed with WWE directly off his massive success in the AWA. Ventura received the nickname "The Body" in the AWA by owner Verne Gagne. He and Adrian Adonis won the tag team titles there and held them for almost a year. Shortly after losing them, both men signed with WWE.
9 ADRIAN ADONIS
When Adrian Adonis and Jesse "The Body" Ventura won the AWA world tag team titles and held them for almost a year, the two were known as the East-West Connection. When the two lost their titles, WWE signed both men from the AWA to join WWE. While Ventura had to retire due to blood clots in his lungs, Adonis became a mid-card superstar.
Adonis started in WWE as a partner to Ventura and then became a challenger to world champion Bob Backlund. He went on to win the WWF world tag team titles with Dick Murdoch. However, it was in 1985 that Adonis took on the gimmick of "Adorable" Adrian Adonis and achieved his most memorable success. Adonis died in 1988 in an automobile accident.
8 RICK MARTEL
In the '80s, people loved to imagine matches between WWE world champion Hulk Hogan and NWA world champion "Nature Boy" Ric Flair. However, the third world champion during the start of the WWE's Rock 'N Wrestling Connection was AWA world champion, Rick Martel, who had a stint in WWE before that from 1980-82.
Martel returned to WWE after losing his world title to Stan Hanson. Martel ended up as a tag team wrestler when he started in the Can-Am Connection with Tom Zenk and then with Tito Santana as Strike Force, winning the tag team titles. He finished up as a heel known as "The Model" with his most significant moment a blindfold match with Jake "The Snake" Roberts at WrestleMania VII.
When Big Van Vader started his professional wrestling career, he wasn't Vader but was known as Leon White. AWA legend and trainer Brad Rheingans noticed him at a gym and got him signed to work in the AWA. He built up his wrestling skills there, eventually moving into the main event scene when Stan Hansen was champion.
Vader reached greater success when he left for New Japan, working with Hansen once again and winning the IWGP title three times. He was also a three-time WCW world champion before moving onto WWE where he shot to the main event before flaming out quickly.
6 JERRY "THE KING" LAWLER
Jerry "The King" Lawler was part of the AWA at the end of its illustrious run. Lawler was originally part of Mid-Southern Wrestling in Memphis, which later became connected with the AWA. Soon, World Class Championship Wrestling suffered financial troubles and joined up as well, and it was around this time that Lawler won the AWA world title from Curt Hennig.
Lawler left the AWA when he had a dispute with Verne Gagne and signed with WWE. He worked as a wrestler, feuding with Bret "The Hitman" Hart but soon retired from wrestling in WWE and became one of their longest-running color commentators.
5 SUPERSTAR BILLY GRAHAM
Superstar Billy Graham is one of the few WWE superstars who was a world champion in the company during the reign of Bruno Sammartino. Graham was so influential that everyone from Jesse "The Body" Ventura to Hulk Hogan tried to emulate his persona.
However, before Graham defeated Sammartino to win his only world title, the Superstar worked in the AWA. It was actually in the AWA that Graham took on the nickname "Superstar" and feuded with Verne Gagne while working there. Graham ended up leaving the AWA in 1975, made a short stop in the NWA and then moved on to his major success in WWE.
4 MR. PERFECT
Before he was Mr. Perfect, Curt Hennig was one of the biggest stars in the AWA. He started there as a second-generation star, working with his father and multi-time AWA world tag team champion Larry Hennig. He reached his first level of success by teaming with another youngster named Scott Hall and the two won the AWA tag team titles.
In 1987, Hennig reached the pinnacle of his single's success when he beat the legendary Nick Bockwinkel for the AWA world championship. This win was also the first time that Hennig worked as a heel. He held the title for over a year and then left for WWE, where he became Perfect.
3 SCOTT HALL
It might be hard to see Scott Hall as anything other than Razor Ramon for many wrestling fans. However, when Hall started his career, he was a big cowboy known as Starship Coyote. He moved on to the AWA in 1985 and kept that persona, calling himself Big Scott Hall and winning the AWA tag team titles with Curt Hennig.
He changed his persona in 1991 in WCW when he took on the gimmick of The Diamond Studd and then moved on to WWE where he tweaked it to become Razor Ramon. He won four Intercontinental titles in WWE before leaving to start the nWo in WCW.
2 SHAWN MICHAELS
The Heartbreak Kid Shawn Michaels was a tag team specialist when he entered WWE in 1988. Most fans fell in love with Michaels when he and Marty Jannetty showed up in WWE as The Rockers. However, that tag team started in the AWA as the Midnight Rockers, where they won the AWA World Tag Team Championship two times.
However, The Rockers never lived up to their AWA success in WWE and never won the tag team titles together again. However, Michaels became one of the most successful stars in wrestling history. HBK is a four-time world champion and won a total of 14 titles in WWE.
1 HULK HOGAN
Along with Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock Dwayne Johnson, and John Cena, Hulk Hogan is one of the biggest stars in WWE history. What many fans might not realize is that Hogan started his career as a wrestler named Terry Boulder and it was in the AWA that he became a star under the name Hulk Hogan.
Hogan wasn't even going to work in AWA at that time, but WWE refused to allow him to appear in the movie Rocky III, so he left them to work for New Japan and AWA instead. After Hogan became a breakout star, Vince McMahon Jr. brought him back, handed him the world title, and reignited professional wrestling for mainstream audiences.