PART THREE – Split from The Alliance and the World Wide Wrestling Federation
Part Three of our series begins in January 1963, and “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers has lost his NWA World Heavyweight Championship to Lou Thesz. This result triggered a series of events that changed the course of professional wrestling forever writes Will Burns.
The relationship between National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) president Sam Muchnick and Capitol Wrestling Corporation promoter Vincent James McMahon was professional, however edgy it become. It is reported that Muchnick sent a total of 32 letters to the Capitol chief demanding that the Alliance was paid their dividends for Buddy Rogers’ title defenses, which McMahon managed. In the past, with former champions and their booking agents, it was incredibly rare that the NWA were not paid on time, but payments from McMahon and Mondt were sometimes up to six months late.
During Buddy’s nineteen-month reign as the champion, Capitol Wrestling used its control on the NWA title to help solidify itself as the most important wrestling promotion in the nation, regularly producing sell-out crowds at the Garden and presenting the most popular wrestling television program. Although, the title was no longer in their camp, the exposure, the ticket sales and the fanbase still existed.
The Alliance, Muchnick and McMahon agreed that Rogers would drop the championship at the Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, Canada on 24th January 1963 in front of 11,000 fans, making Thesz the champion for his sixth reign. Rumours were abound that Thesz had threatened Rogers, and Buddy was going to rebel for McMahon and company. Thankfully for the belt’s notoriety, the bout went without a hitch, however, the NWA would suffer long term.
McMahon, his partner Toots Mondt and fellow Northeastern promoters, refused to recognise the title switch. It was traditional that all championship bouts were contested as Best Two out of Three Falls matches. Their claim to the fans was that the Toronto bout was a single-fall contest, therefore the title switch was invalid.
The Alliance were furious, but McMahon and Mondt were simply using the excuse to finally become independent away from the restrictions of the NWA. In reality, the success of Capitol Wrestling, McMahon and Mondt had outgrew the Alliance. As Thesz was parading the NWA belt around the territories protecting the Alliance’s promoters, McMahon was using the controversy to springboard his new venture into life. Vince, who held the position of second vice president in the NWA, set out to form his own coalition with the other Northeastern promoters.
In the Spring of 1963, McMahon, Mondt and Willie Gilzenberg formed the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF). Its purpose was to initially be, a governing body for the Northeastern companies and this was subtly introduced with little fanfare. From the March 25th Garden show, the WWWF was used in the promotion of all events in the building onwards. The “Nature Boy” was hand-picked to become the inaugural WWWF Heavyweight Champion in unique circumstances. News was released that a tournament, which was fictious, had been held in Brazil to create a new World Champion and Rogers had defeated Antonino Rocca in the finals on April 29th 1963. When Rogers appeared with the “new” belt, it was actually an old NWA United States belt until a new strap was created.
The forming of the WWWF saw Gilzenberg announced as the president, with the headquarters located in Gilzenberg’s community of Newark. Gilzenberg was a vital cog in the big wheel, but McMahon was most definitely the superior – the decisions fell to Vince. Gilzenberg had been working with McMahon and Mondt since 1960 and was an experienced promoter in New Jersey.
As president, Willie managed McMahon’s northern promotions and television and after the cancellation of Capitol’s only program in New York and dismal turnout for a card at Madison Square Garden, he secured a TV spot on WNJU-TV out of Jersey. Gilzenberg would become a trusted colleague of the WWWF and the McMahon family until his death in 1978.
McMahon had planned on building up Bruno Sammartino as the WWWF’s next star, but trouble with the NWA and Maryland Athletic Commission meant he was banned from competing in the states. Muchnick had already booked Thesz to defeat Sammartino on Frank Tunney’s turf back in March. This was great forward-thinking by Muchnick, as now Thesz, the NWA World Champion, had the privilege to say he had beat both of McMahon’s top stars within a matter of months.
Sammartino’s backstory is a heart wrenching, but inspiring one. Bruno had spent a considerable amount of his life fighting and surviving against insurmountable odds, so the wrestling business may have seem like a pushover to him. Young Bruno suffered through tragedy, fear and poverty in Nazi-occupied Italy throughout his childhood, and this horrific experience integrated tremendously good morals into his personality for the successful future that he had ahead of him.
Born in a small town called Pizzoferraro in the Abruzzo region of central Italy, his father Alfonso, left home and emigrated to Pittsburgh to work when Bruno was a toddler. Bruno, his mother, brothers and sisters fled their home in 1943 when the Nazi troops stormed their village with machine guns, killing hundreds of people.
The Sammartino family escaped to a mountainous area named Villa Rocca and shielded there for over a year away from the war. Bruno’s mother Emilia would walk up and down the mountains, a two-day round trip, to smuggle food to her family while Bruno recalled that he and his siblings would eat snow and go hungry most days. After a near encounter with the Nazis at gun point, the Sammartino family were saved by members of the Italian Resistance who overpowered the Nazis.
After the war ended in 1945, getting to America to be with Alfonso was the priority for the family, but sadly young Bruno fell ill with rheumatic fever and could not be cleared to travel for nearly three years. Eventually, in 1950 the family arrived in the United States via boat to be reunite with Bruno’s father. Bruno started in school where he was bullied for his small skinny physique and failure to speak fluent English.
Inspired by the bullies, Bruno became obsessed with weight training, which escalated into bodybuilding, and by the beginning of the 1960s, he achieved unofficial world records for the bench press at 569 pounds, deadlifting 700 pounds and squatting 715 pounds. His story goes on to be something of a legend, he was once tricked into wrestling an orangutan and got roughed up. He sparred with former world heavyweight boxing champion, Sonny Liston and promoters wanted him to take up boxing. Sammartino also appeared on Pittsburgh TV in 1957 and performed strongman stunts, and later labeled the “Pittsburgh Hercules” in The Pittsburgh Press newspaper
He began fond of amateur wrestling and was trained by Pittsburgh University coach, Rex Perry. Bruno was working as an apprentice carpenter while enhancing his physical ability, which landed him a tryout as a lineman with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Local wrestling promoter Rudy Miller approached him and persuaded him to try his hand at professional wrestling.
Miller introduced Bruno to Vincent J. McMahon in Washington, D.C. and within a year he made his Madison Square Garden debut on January 2nd 1960, under the Capitol banner defeating Wild Bull Curry in just over five minutes. Bruno’s legacy in the building would be incomparable and his name would be on the marquee at the Garden for the next 26 years, making a total 159 appearances at the arena, selling out approximately 45 times. Bruno’s first main event came in the late Spring as he and Antonino Rocca defeated The Great Antonio and Pampero Firpo on 4th June.
His career was interrupted in 1961 when he unknowingly missed a 4th March event in Baltimore due to a scheduling error, and wrestled for Roy Shire’s San Francisco promotion instead. The Athletic Commission of Maryland suspended Bruno immediately and the NWA restricted him from wrestling in their states. With no money coming into his household, Bruno returned back to Pittsburgh and took a job in the construction business.
Whilst Bruno was out of the wrestling game, he bumped into Canadian wrestler Yukon Eric at a wrestling show in Pittsburgh and he encouraged Sammartino to work for Frank Tunney’s Toronto promotion. In March ’62, Sammartino was booked on a Toronto event and with Tunney’s television show being shown all over the country, Bruno ended up working in many more cities including Montreal, Winnipeg and Calgary. With Toronto’s large Italian population, Sammartino became an instant success and this was noticed by McMahon. McMahon stepped in and convinced both the Maryland commission and the Alliance to allow Bruno to compete in the States again.
A fine was paid by McMahon and Toots Mondt and they reached out to Bruno to discuss a return to the promotion, but Sammartino’s stock was booming in Canada. He initially refused as he was making a great living in Canada, but the promise of being McMahon’s World Champion changed Bruno’s mind.
McMahon brought Bruno back and he was an immediate success in the Garden. Not just with the Italian community, but Sammartino’s face was plastered all over the New York press and his popularity grew, as did the ticket sales. Soon enough, he became the cover star in all the wrestling magazines which helped his fame reach out to other states.
On 17th May 1963, in front of a sell-out Madison Square Garden, Bruno won the WWWF belt from Rogers in just 48 seconds. Sammartino raised the champion onto his shoulders and used a bearhug-like backbreaker to force Rogers into submission to claim the title.
There was some bad blood between Sammartino and Rogers, and the pair had a mutual disdain for each other personally. Rogers claimed soon after the loss, that he was rushed to Georgetown University hospital for a mild heart attack, he had suffered six weeks before the bout. However, this claim has some doubt, although it might explain the short length of the title match.
Sammartino has always stated that this was not the case, as the New York Athletic Commission would have not cleared the “Nature Boy” to wrestle that night if he was recovering from such ailment. There is also debate on whether or not Rogers had been led to believe by WWWF management that he was to beat Bruno in the match – again a story that has many different views.
Nevertheless, the title switch was a popular one and the Garden faithful exploded for Sammartino as their new champion but one cannot discredit what Rogers’ short run with the newly introduced belt did for the company. His star power brought immediate credibility to the championship, which assisted the integrity of the 27-year-old Sammartino as the new champion. Notwithstanding Sammartino’s age and strength advantage, the crowd were overawed to see a relative newcomer dominate a legendary competitor like “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers.
Hatred for each other or not, Sammartino respected Rogers: “Rogers was one of the great wrestlers of his era. That match meant so much to me because that put me at the top.”
On the promotional front, McMahon issued a communication to his promoters that under the WWWF governing body, Bruno was their champion. He would be defending his championship in their territories and he set about doing that the next night against Mexican veteran Miguel Torres in Philadelphia. McMahon, still technically as a member of the NWA, missed the Alliance’s annual convention on 23rd August due to hosting a sell-out Garden show, headlined by Bruno and Killer Kowalski.
In his absence, the Alliance voted to issue McMahon with a warning to adhere to NWA rules, and give him 60 days to comply. Muchnick wrote to Vince and stated if his promotion did not acknowledge Lou Thesz as the World Champion then he would be suspended from the Alliance for 12 months. Of course, the deadline passed and McMahon and his associate Toots Mondt were handed a suspension.
This was no concern to McMahon’s company as it was heading for the stratosphere, it was bigger than the NWA. The introduction of the WWWF with youthful Italian strongman Bruno Sammartino at the helm, would fire the organisation and Capitol Wrestling into the next phase of their growth. A new era had been born, an era that would be successful and around for a long time to come.
Sources: WWE Network, Cagematch.net, Capitol Revolution – The Rise of the McMahon Wrestling Empire – Tim Hornbaker, National Wrestling Alliance – The Untold Story of the Monopoly That Strangled Pro Wrestling – Tim Hornbaker, Wrestling In The Garden, Volume 2 – Scott Teal, WrestlingData.com, The 6:05 Superpodcast.