The Origins of the WWF – Part Four

PART FOUR – “Bruno! Bruno! Bruno!”

Vincent James McMahon’s new venture, the World Wide Wrestling Federation, was running smoothly and its new Heavyweight Champion Bruno Sammartino was selling out arenas across the country.  Just when you thought that McMahon’s organisation could not be any more profitable, the Italian native and his popularity is about to send the company into orbit, but with some hiccups on the way writes Will Burns.

As mentioned in Part Three, on 17th May 1963, Buddy Rogers dropped the WWWF Heavyweight Title to the 27-year-old Bruno in only 48 seconds in front of a sell-out Madison Square Garden.  The quick finish came when Bruno with his brute strength hoisted the Nature Boy up on his shoulders, then the Italian forced Rogers to quit with a backbreaker submission. 

Sammartino’s incredible connection with the fans was unparalleled with any other wrestler in the business – he was their ultimate hero.  His strong ethics and hardworking mentality made his followers feel like he was one of them, and he was.  He mirrored his in-ring persona in his real life but he was very realistic about why his career had become successful: “There’s only one reason that you’re a star and that’s because the people bought a ticket to come watch you wrestle.  Anytime I went in, I gave it my all because I felt I owed it to those fans and that was the least I could do because it was them who made me a so-called star in wrestling.”.

One of the main sources for McMahon’s WWWF success (and Bruno’s) was the television exposure.  By mid-1963, McMahon’s WWWF provided content from four locations: WBAL-TV studios in Baltimore, KYW-TV studios in Philadelphia, Washington’s the Capitol Arena and the Bridgeport City Arena, Bridgeport, Connecticut.  McMahon would be present at the arena for all the four tapings to oversee all the live content being produced.

The booking of Bruno as the champion was a similar rotation of events each feud for McMahon, and it was very successful.  Hire a heel wrestler, usually a foreigner, build him up, face Bruno, Bruno wins, the heel leaves the territory and repeat.  The New York fanbase’s previous hero Antonino Rocca, would wow the crowd with moves to impress the crowd, but Bruno brought power, class and respect and won the fans over with ease.  Bruno was dominating in the ring and on camera, but more importantly for McMahon, he was dominating at the box office.  The Italian that experienced childhood poverty and tragedy would go onto make more money than any other wrestler in the next eight years.

Bruno Sammartino and Gorilla Monsoon faces off in MSG in 1965 in one of their many matches for the WWWF Title.

With manager Arnold Skaaland by his side, champion Bruno Sammartino worked successful programs with Bobo Brazil, Gorilla Monsoon, Killer Kowalski, Waldo Von Erich, Dr. Jerry Graham, Classy Freddie Blassie and future NWA World Champion Gene Kiniski, selling out the Madison Square Garden consistently.  Though in 1965, there was a proposal from McMahon and Mondt to make major money for themselves, Bruno and the National Wrestling Alliance. 

A meeting was arranged in Toronto and McMahon and Mondt suggested a title vs title match to promoter Frank Tunney, NWA president Sam Muchnick and NWA World Champion Lou Thesz.  The deal would be that Thesz would meet Sammartino at MSG, with Bruno winning the NWA belt and dropping it back to Thesz later in the year.  McMahon wished to use closed-circuit TV to show the match in other arenas across the country, however money could not be decided and they amounts discussed were way short of Thesz’s expectations and the bout never materialised.

Bruno would appear for all the Northeastern territories including in Vince’s original venue, the Capitol Arena, until McMahon’s lease expired in June 1965.  He still kept running shows in the area, moving his operations and holding weekly television tapings to the ‘National Arena’ ice skating rink across city until 1971.

Back in New York, Sammartino was a victim of theft after the September 27th 1965 successful title defense against Tarzan Tyler at MSG.  As Bruno went to dinner in The Spindletop restaurant in Manhattan, his WWWF Championship belt was stolen from Skaaland’s car.  The thieves took Bruno’s suitcase with his ring gear, a coat along with the diamond-studded belt that was worth $10,000 inside.  A few days later, Willie Gilzenberg offered a reward of $10k for the return of the title belt but to this day, the belt was never discovered.

Throughout the mid-60s, Sammartino overcame the challenges of “Cowboy” Bill Watts, Baron Mikel Scicluna and Bill Miller with the turnouts beginning to decline to an average of around 11,000 at the Garden.  For no real reason, popularity was deteriorating and on April 30th 1966, the New York TV deal expired and the shows at MSG were pulled from March 28th.  It was not until August until the company could begin television shows on WOR-TV Channel 9, and by November 7th the shows returned to the Garden with 14,159 fans in attendance.

While Bruno and Monsoon were pulling decent attendances throughout the Spring of 1967, WOR-TV proved to be a short-lived home for the product.  After moving the program to 12:30am on a Sunday morning in April 1967, the numbers were atrocious and the station cancelled the show by August.  Again, New York attendances fell and by October 23rd, Bruno defended his title against Hans Mortimer in front of just 6,612 spectators.  With McMahon surely feeling like his empire was crumbling, knew he needed a new outlet to the punters back into the Garden and Gilzenberg came to the rescue and secure a deal in Newark on WJUN-TV Channel 47. 

Gilzenberg had a good friend Fred Sayles, who was the program director at WJUN-TV. Sayles had a past in the wrestling business announcing matches from Newark’s Laurel Gardens for years. The channel picked up the broadcasting of the ‘Wrestling from Washington’ show, with the first presentation airing on November 11th and with the faithful New York audience able to view the product again, the tickets sales started to pick up.

Come 1968, a new state of the art Madison Square Garden opened at Pennsylvania Station, a few blocks from the Empire State Building. McMahon debuted his show in the new $150million arena to under 13,000 fans with a Bruno vs. Bull Ramos main event but business was doing well in other cities.  Philadelphia an important city to McMahon’s organisation and towards the end of the decade, long-time promoter and WWWF ally, Ray Fabiani decided to sell up.  All rights to the area and the monthly shows at the Philadelphia Arena, were transferred over to Phil Zacko, Vince’s secretary and treasurer.  Another city of importance was Boston with Abe Ford as promoter. A total of 29 shows running at the Boston Garden in 1968 and 1969.

Perhaps, Sammartino’s biggest rival, Killer Kowalski returned to the New York in 1969 to challenge the champions for the gold and actually pinned Bruno in a tag team match on 27th January.  A month later he received a title shot in a match that went to a no-contest in front of a poor 9,639 crowd, although they managed to add another 2,000 fans on that total a month later in a return bout.  However, the big business was done at the Boston Red Sox’s Fenway Park on June 28th.  Kowalski and Sammartino battled in a bloody Stretcher Match with 17,000 in attendance. Bruno delighted the fans by successfully retaining the belt after smashing a wooden chair over Kowalski’s head.

Bruno smashes a wooden chair over the skull of Killer Kowalski at their Fenway Park bout in 1969.

The television channels caused McMahon more problems in June after WNJU-TV switched the show’s slot from 10:30pm on a Saturday evening to a Wednesday afternoon and three weeks later, the Garden only managed to get 5,527 through its doors, the lowest attendance of McMahon’s promotion in MSG.  The July show was subsequently cancelled.

This was certainly a transitional period even though Sammartino was entering this seventh year as the champion.  The resilient Vince was delivered another blow when the 75-year-old Toots Mondt announced he was retiring.  Mondt sold his stock back to McMahon, who allocated it out to devoted employees Arnold Skaaland and Gorilla Monsoon, as well as longtime associate Zacko.

Although the market in New York started to heat up for McMahon by the turn of the year, with Garden ticket sales topping over 10,000 in December, and reaching nearly 17,000 fans in attendance for the 19th January 1970 show with a Bruno vs. Ivan Koloff title match headlining.  Sammartino was still popular in Toronto for Tunney’s promotion, but when The Sheik (wrestler and Detroit promoter Ed Farhat) took over the booking in late 1969, McMahon pulled away from the agreement with Maple Leaf Wrestling.

On June 15th 1970, MSG saw its first sell out for seven years with 20,819 fans looking on as Spanish wrestler Oscar “Crusher” Verdu defeated Sammartino by referee’s stoppage with no title change. The rematch a month later drew another sold out crowd but there’s was more difficulties regarding TV for McMahon as his Washington channel dropped his weekly two-hour live show in September. 

Other programs began cropping up with Championship Wrestling from Florida (Eddie Graham’s territory) appeared on New York and New Jersey stations, and Spanish speaking “Lucha Libre” show commenced broadcasting on WXTV Channel 41 out of Paterson, New Jersey.  McMahon worked with Graham to bring in some of his stars to area and started to form a plan to create Hispanic stars for the new Spanish-speaking market.

Come the beginning of 1971 in the absence of Mondt, Vince recruited a new member of staff to the fold – his son, Vincent Kennedy McMahon.  McMahon hired his son Vince as a ringside announcer and got him started in the promoting game, running the territory in Bangor, Maine.  Vince Sr. needed all hands to deck when he was delivered his heaviest blow to his business – Bruno announced he wanted to drop the WWWF title.

Ivan Koloff takes flight against Bruno Sammartino to win the WWWF Title – 18th January 1971.

Sammartino, for a few years, had requested a change but McMahon had constantly convinced the Italian to stay on but Bruno grew incredibly tired of the schedule and wanted to spend more time with his family.  A decision was made to change the champion and reduced Bruno’s in-ring schedule.  On January 18th at MSG, “The Russian Bear” Ivan Koloff climbed to the top rope and came down on Bruno’s chest and throat with a knee drop. A three count later and Bruno’s seven-year, eight month and one day run as the champion was over.

The Madison Square Garden faithful fell deathly quiet.  Sammartino lay there after the pinfall and wondered if Koloff’s high risk move had affected his hearing.  Bruno’s manager Arnold Skaaland climbed into the ring to ask how he was, Sammartino heard Skaaland loud and clear and realised there was nothing wrong with his ears.  The tension of the Cold War was at its peak, and when Koloff asked the referee to raise his hand in victory, but the official refused.  Koloff did not receive the title until they got backstage, in fear of a riot breaking out with the stunning result.

Since Ivan Koloff ended Bruno Sammartino’s eight-year reign as WWWF Heavyweight Champion, business for Vincent J. McMahon’s promotion rapidly started to weaken.  Bruno only wrestled three times under the WWWF banner that year and McMahon had to deal with the toughest task in his career as a promoter so far – how to replace the irreplaceable?

More than aware of the Spanish assembly that professional wrestling was attracting, McMahon was ready to move the title onto one of his new Hispanic stars. Enter Pedro Morales.

At 30 years old, the Puerto Rican Morales had been wrestling on the New York circuit since 1958 and moved around the territories learning his craft.  He made waves in Amarillo, the Pacific Northwest, Hawaii and Southern California throughout the sixties before predominately working for McMahon in late 1970. Holding the United States Heavyweight title, Morales was pushed as number one contender to Koloff’s WWWF title and was booked into a championship match on February 8th 1971.

Bruno Sammartino poses with Pedro Morales.

Koloff’s three-week reign ended as Morales pinned the Russian in under 11 minutes to become the new champion at the Garden with 21,812 people in attendance.  With the new energetic babyface champion in place and a fanbase that was heavily ethnic, McMahon and his associates was once again reaping the rewards.  With Morales as champion, every Hispanic fan in the borough would converge at MSG, they would rush for tickets for the Boston Garden and build queues for tickets in Philadelphia. 

McMahon had a fresh, new babyface title holder in place to bring the crowds back, but more changes were afoot as crowds dipped in Washington, McMahon decided to pull out of the weekly National Arena shows in the city.  McMahon declared in September 1971 that monthly events would still be promoted at the Washington Coliseum, but the status in the city had fell enough that it was no longer worthwhile running his weekly shows. The D.C. public would see taped shows from Hamburg, Pennsylvania on their television programming.

Despite all the troubles with attendances and TV channels, the World Wide Wrestling Federation emerged as the number one territory across the United States, and fast becoming a prominent member of McMahon’s staff was his son, Vincent.  Vince Jr was ready to take on a greater role into the 1970’s, and like his father, and his grandfather before him, he was preparing to ready the promotion for greater success.

Join us for the fifth and final part of ‘The Origins of the WWF’, to be released on 19th February.

Will Burns

Sources: WWE Network, Cagematch.net, Capitol Revolution – The Rise of the McMahon Wrestling Empire – Tim Hornbaker, Wrestling In The Garden, Volume 2 – Scott Teal, WrestlingData.com.

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