Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
What if one of the greatest wrestling matches of all time happened not in New York, Atlanta, Memphis or any of the sport’s traditional hotbeds, but Anchorage? There was no title on the line, only a technical masterclass from two of the most gifted wrestlers ever, each part of a multigenerational tradition of excellence. For more than 30 years, that match has existed only in cherished memories and legend. It is the last holy grail of lost wrestling matches, and one of you reading this might hold the key to unearthing it.
Wrestling in Anchorage dates back to the town’s 1915 founding. The sport was especially popular in those early, muddy years, and the first local star was Young Viking. His real name was Savan “Swan” Challstorp, but locals maintained the in-universe fiction of wrestling, or kayfabe. Residents almost exclusively referred to him by his wrestling name. As in, when he opened a pool hall, it was Young Viking listed as the proprietor. When rheumatism forced him to seek treatment in Seattle, best wishes were addressed to Young Viking.
In the subsequent decades, the popularity of wrestling waxed and waned across the country. By the mid-1980s, it reached a new height within the mainstream. Leading the way was Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation (WWF), now World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), with its roster of massive and easily distinguished heroes and villains. Hulk Hogan, Iron Sheik, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, Andre the Giant, “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan and “Macho Man” Randy Savage, among many more, were television, cartoon and merchandise superstars.
In 1985, the American Wrestling Association (AWA) staged three shows in Anchorage, the first major, modern wrestling promotion to tour here. Though their roster included stars like Sgt. Slaughter, Larry Zbyszko and the Fabulous Freebirds, attendance was poor. A 1986 live screening of Wrestlemania II at Sullivan Arena similarly bombed.
Finally, on Aug. 12, 1989, the WWF made its first in-person visit. Unlike its predecessors, the show was an instant success. The announced attendance of 8,600 at the Sullivan was far more than recent concerts, nine times the attendance for George Foreman’s 1988 boxing comeback, and four times what the AWA managed to pull in 1985. Tickets ranged from $10.50 to $20.50 each, roughly $22 to $43 in 2020 dollars.
Columnists for both local newspapers — Anchorage Times and Anchorage Daily News — made snobbish noises about the WWF, wrestling and its fans. Mike Taylor for the Times opened with, “You’ve got to be crazy to buy into the society of tank tops, tattoos, beer bellies and turnbuckles known as professional wrestling.” Linda Billington of the Daily News described one match as possessing the “dynamic tension of a B-grade ‘Waiting for Godot’ as they shuffled around like two geriatric elephants making a feeble (and futile) attempt to mate.”
Wrestlers uniquely combine acting and stunt work. Each match is a miniature play and a choreographed athletic exhibition. The performers need to convey tragedy and triumph to both the most distant attendee and the closest camera, as well as demonstrate a physical prowess that differentiates them from the ticket-buying horde. And while the stories and outcomes are predetermined, much of the pain is real. Muscles do not negate physics or the wear and tear from impacts repeated hundreds of times a year. The history of wrestling is replete with painkiller addictions, early deaths, and every other form of tragedy.
Andre the Giant was the WWF’s featured attraction that night. The 500-pound, 7-foot, 4-inch Giant was near the end of his career, in pain and physically restricted. He died four years later at only 46. To the Anchorage attendees, however, he remained a towering spectacle. He had gained acclaim for his occasional acting work, including an enduring turn as Fezzik in 1987′s “The Princess Bride.” And though he was then a wrestling villain, children poured down to ringside for closer looks after his entrance. His opponent was the Ultimate Warrior, who combined an electric, muscular presence with his own limited ring skills.
Even those who might have reasonably predicted an underwhelming main event would have been surprised at the ensuing debacle. Before the bell could ring, Warrior attacked Andre from behind with a clothesline. Three more clotheslines, a splash from the ropes, and less than a minute later, the headlining match was over. Just like that, the show was over with a relative whimper, a mixture of boos and cheers serenading the wrestlers.
The audience at least left with the memory of a stronger undercard. For as much as the local press was antagonistic toward wrestling, one match caught their attention. Both newspapers gave special notice to a much longer bout between Bret “The Hitman” Hart and “Mr. Perfect,” aka Curt Hennig. In a time of lumbering giants, simple slams and leg drops, Hart and Perfect were technical experts, professionals who prided themselves on their ability to wring captivating drama from even a house show in Alaska.
The heelish Perfect leaned into his titular persona, taunting the Alaska crowd before the match. “I once caught the biggest silver salmon of the season at the Lake Iliamna,” said Perfect. “Is there anything I can’t do?” He had previously been a part of the AWA’s 1985 Anchorage tour, then tag-teaming with his father, the legendary Larry “The Axe” Hennig.
What followed was a wrestling masterclass. Years later, Hart recalled:
“”At one point, I climbed up from outside the ring, and Curt rushed the ropes, sending me flying off the apron, sailing 15 feet in the air. I cleared the timekeeper’s head by a hair and crashed chest-first into the steel barricade behind him. I wasn’t hurt, but nobody knew it, not even Curt. As I lay on the floor writhing in agony, I smiled to myself, content that I was dancing with a real artist. I eventually climbed back to give the Alaskan fans a whale of a match.”
Twenty minutes after the bell, the match ended due to a time limit stipulation. Officially ruled a draw, Perfect exited the ring and headed for the showers. However, fan attention quickly recentered on Hart still standing in the ring. He challenged Perfect to continue their brawl. “I think you showed everyone in this building you’re not so perfect after all,” said Hart. “If you think you’re so perfect, why don’t you come back for five more minutes.” Perfect replied, “Hit Man, you couldn’t beat me in 20 minutes, so five more minutes isn’t going to help you, you loser.” Perfect returned to the ring where Hart gained the winning pin for an unofficial if crowd-pleasing conclusion.
As the years passed, the Hart-Perfect match became something of a minor wrestling legend. Hart swore, “People who were there have never forgotten it, and they still bring it up to me to this day.” For the WWF, their 1989 Anchorage visit was a routine, lower-stakes house show. Which means, unfortunately, they did not televise, let alone record, the matches.
The bout would have remained buried within the minutia of wrestling history, except Hart made a point of calling it out in his 2008 autobiography, “Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling.”
“It was one of the top five matches of my entire career,” wrote Hart, “and it wasn’t even caught on film.” If Hart, widely acclaimed as one of the best wrestlers ever, considered the Anchorage match one of his top five, then the bout was elevated to holy grail status amongst fans.
Gary Dinsdale is a collector of lost wrestling classics with a personal library of rarities that would collectively run for nearly 4,300 hours. He believes video of the Hart-Perfect match could exist, likely recorded by an attending fan. In the past few years, he has promoted the search for the “Lost Match of Anchorage” through social media, offered a reward, and even hired Hart to record a video about the hunt.
Dinsdale, an IT consultant in the United Kingdom, has been a fan of wrestling as far back as he can remember. “My earliest memory is seeing a WWF match on television with my Dad,” said Dinsdale via email. “I remember vividly he got on the floor with me and showed me the concept of a pinfall, complete with him counting to three and hooking my leg. After that, I was hooked.”
Wrestling fans and scholars have long since discovered most of the previous wrestling holy grails. The rise of wrestling streaming services has enabled even casual fans to view once-obscure matches. “Sometimes I feel like the search for this match is in some ways going to be the last swan song for the hobby,” said Dinsdale. Hennig’s 2003 death, at only 44 years old, adds to the drama of the search.
Several people have claimed possession of a recording, but each contact has fizzled out. If you think you have a recording from this show or know someone who might, please contact Gary Dinsdale via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Twitter (@garydinsdale).
Billington, Linda. “Wrestling as Theater: Send in the Clowns.” Anchorage Daily News, August 14, 1989, C-1, C-6.
Dinsdale, Gary. Email message to author, December 18, 2020.
Hart, Bret. Hitman: “My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling.” Toronto: Random House of Canada, 2008.
Martin, Danny. “WWF Packs House.” Anchorage Daily News, August 14, 1989, C-1, C-6.
Taylor, Mike. “Pro Wrestling: Vaudeville in the Sullivan Arena Ring.” Anchorage Times, August 13, 1989, E-7.