The Origins of the WWF – Part Five

PART FIVE – Out With The Old, In With The New.

In the final part of our series, Hispanic hero Pedro Morales is the World Wide Wrestling Federation’s new champion as the promotion prepares to embark on a new era of its history.  As the 1970s roll on, in the ring, the Federation would see a total of five different World Champions crowned, while backstage, a new power player emerges in the office writes Will Burns.

WWWF Champion Pedro Morales

Moving to Brooklyn as a child, the Puerto Rican Pedro Morales made his in-ring debut in his new hometown of New York City in 1959.  He travelled the territorial system and became popular in California before returning back to Big Apple in 1970 and less than a year later, Vincent J. McMahon made him WWWF Champion.

Ivan Koloff, who had ended Bruno Sammartino’s eight-year reign on top just three weeks earlier, was defeated by Morales in front of a rabid sell-out Madison Square Garden crowd of 21,812 on 8th February 1971.  His admiration in the city was almost as impressive as Sammartino’s.  Everywhere Morales went he would be mobbed and his title reign pulling in big numbers in the seats.

After touring his new belt across the North East, Morales returned to the Garden to successfully defend against Blackjack Mulligan with 21,430 in capacity and in front of a full crowd at the Boston Garden twelve days, he was challenged by Bulldog Brower.  Morales was doing big business for McMahon and his associates and the television stations were also happy.

In the summer of 1971, Vincent J had reached out to Sam Muchnick to rejoin the National Wrestling Alliance. Refusing to accept that Lou Thesz was the “World Champion”, McMahon pulled out of the NWA in 1963 to create his own governing body for North East promotions, the WWWF. But by November 1971, an agreement was reached to return to the Alliance.  President Muchnick readmitted McMahon back into the NWA in front of the board of direction in St. Louis.  McMahon agreed to downgrade his WWWF Title to a regional championship and acknowledge NWA Worlds Heavyweight titleholder Dory Funk Jr, as the one true World Champion.

The change of heart from McMahon was to benefit on the plethora of talent that was at the NWA’s disposal.  This new strategy for the WWWF was to profit from the fans in New York, especially the readers of the magazines available at the newsstands, that were chomping at the bit to see the likes of The Funks from Amarillo, Jack and Jerry Brisco from Florida and the Valiant Brothers from the World Wrestling Association.  Now McMahon had these stars available to keep his television programming fresh and more importantly, sell tickets for the MSG shows.

By the autumn of 1971, McMahon imposed a new regular taping schedule.  Every three weeks, he would run the Philadelphia Arena on a Saturday night, recording enough bouts for three weeks television shows. The primary WWWF TV show would be taped every third Wednesday at the Field House in Hamburg, Pennsylvania instead of the National Arena in Washington, a 3,000 house that was failing to attract a bulk crowd.  The tapings would see the occasional big profile match, but primarily the shows would feature squash matches to get the wrestlers and their finishing manoeuvers over to the crowd and hype up non-televised shows with interviews and promos.

Vince McMahon Sr and his son, Vince Jr.

The face of the shows was Ray Morgan, a commentator who had been with the company since 1956, when Capitol Wrestling had debuted on the DuMont Network.  However, at the second Hamburg taping in October, he was replaced by Vincent Kennedy McMahon, the son of Vince Sr.  It is reported that Morgan tried to play hard ball over money with Vincent J. but the WWWF chief was in no mood to barter over the cash and dismissed the announcer immediately.  Therefore, McMahon was forced to hand his son Vince a new role in the company – the lead commentator on WWWF television.

Vince, aged 26 years old, had been working behind the scenes for two years at this point, constantly asking his father for more responsibility and by 1971, his father sent him to promote in Bangor, Maine.  Vince Jr. reveled in the task of promoting for the WWWF’s most northern territory and under his direction, the product spread out for further towns in the area.  Now that the promotion was booking shows in areas that had never seen the product before, the WWWF had expanded its presence in the state and Vince Jr. was rewarded by more power in the board room and the new role of commentator on TV.

Meanwhile, the end of 1971 brought tremendous success for the company.  The MSG attendance and the gate receipts record was smashed three times within a matter of months with 22,070 attending on 25th October with Morales vs. Stan Stasiak title bout headlining.  This was followed with 22,089 in attendance for Freddie Blassie’s unsuccessful challenge for Pedro’s title on 15th November and 22,091 for a rematch on 6th December.

Luke Graham and Tarzan Tyler were proclaimed the first WWWF Tag Team Champion as a result of a one-night tournament in New Orleans, Louisiana. However, like Buddy Rogers’ title win (mentioned in Part Three), this was a fictious competition – more on this later.

With Morales at the top of the bill in the Garden against King Curtis Iaukea, Pampero Firpo, George Steele and Ernie Ladd, attendances were steady and threatened to break further records throughout 1972 but Vince Sr. was planning the “Match of the Century” in September. 

Bruno Sammartino was appearing sporadically for McMahon, including winning the WWWF International Tag Team Titles with Dominic De Nucci, but had only made one MSG appearance since Morales clinched the title.  McMahon put plans in place to book a Morales vs. Sammartino dream match inside Shea Stadium, home of the New York Mets and hoped to sell around 40,000 tickets for the bout. This was deemed a match too big for the Garden.  Unfortunately, the weather was cold and wet and only drew 22,508 tickets which could have packed into MSG.  The big match ended in a 65-minute draw due to an 11.00pm curfew implemented by the New York State Athletic Commission.

The American Wrestling Alliance champion Verne Gagne appeared at the Garden on 27th November 1972 on the undercard of Morales-Ray Stevens main event.  This was the first time another World Champion had appeared on a WWWF show and rumours of further co-operation ran rampant, especially those that the AWA would join the Alliance, but it never materialised.  A Morales vs. Stevens rematch a month later shattered the MSG attendance record again at 22,906.  The December 18th sell-out show also features Dory and Terry Funk, Gorilla Monsoon and Lucha Libre’s Mil Mascaras who became the first ever masked wrestler to wrestle at the Garden.

Cable television was starting to surface in the States by late 1972 and TV company Sterling Communications cut a deal with MSG officials to broadcast New York Rangers hockey games, Westminster Dog shows and WWWF Garden events. In addition, two one-hour long syndicated television shows made their debuts, All Star Wrestling (from the Hamburg Fieldhouse) and Championship Wrestling (taped from the Philadelphia Arena) with the commentary team of Vince Jr. and Antonino Rocca. The more eyes on the product meant more shows promoted and more tickets sold.

Come 1973, after hearing great things of his Montreal feud with fellow giant Don Leo Jonathan, the senior McMahon poached Andre Rousisimoff to work for the WWWF in March 1973.  The sheer size of the 27-year-old Frenchman, who wrestled for Grand Prix Wrestling in Canada as Giant Jean Ferre, made him an instant star attraction and one of the biggest stars in WWWF history. Andre made his debut under the name of ‘Andre the Giant’ for the company on March 26th defeating Billy Wolfe at the Garden with a big splash.  The match ended in under seven minutes and started a relationship with the Frenchman and the McMahon’s that lasted for nearly twenty years.  The 7ft 4inch giant was wanted by promoters across the country and he travelled relentlessly around the territories under McMahon’s bookings.

Although he was profiting in New York with Morales as champion, elsewhere crowds started to dwindle so McMahon decided to remove the Puerto Rican as its champion and move it back onto former champion Bruno Sammartino.  He offered Sammartino a monster deal to return, the Italian agreed and was set to become the champion again but McMahon decided against another Morales-Sammartino bout and handed to the belt to another transitional champion, Stan “The Man” Stasiak.

A constant challenge to Morales, Stasiak had already challenged Pedro twice at MSG and pushed him to the limit, however it would be at the Philadelphia Arena where the switch would happen. On December 1st 1973, Stasiak defeated Morales in 17:43 in front of around 5,000 spectators, although the victory for Stasiak was clouded in a double pin controversy.  The pair both crashed to the mat with a backdrop and the referee counted to three but Stasiak managed to lift his shoulder off the canvas before the three count to clinch the belt ending Morales near three-year reign.  Fearing a riot, Stasiak was not announced as the new champion until McMahon’s television show the next day.

However, Stasiak was only champion for ten days before he dropped the title to Sammartino at the Garden.  Chants of “Bruno! Bruno!” rang out at MSG on 10th December as he pinned Stasiak with a slam to send the 22,000 in attendance into raptures.  McMahon’s most popular star was back at the prominent spot in the company and like his last reign, Sammartino was booked to overcome the heels and send the fans home with smiles on their faces.

Bruno Sammartino claimed the WWWF title again in 1973

Sammartino was doing big business, as usual, in MSG and McMahon was building up two heels for a summer tag team feud with Bruno and Chief Jay Strongbow, the Valiant Brothers. Jimmy and Johnny had been predominately wrestling for the WWA out of Indianapolis and Michigan and for Sam Muchnick in St. Louis.  But on May 8th 1974, their first night in the company, they were crowned the Tag Team Champions at a Hamburg TV taping.  The duo from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania held onto the titles for over a year.

The team of Sammartino and Strongbow aimed to take the Tag Team belts away from the Valiants at the August 26th MSG show later that year, but the bout ended in a split decision draw in front of 22,094.  This ticket sales for this event pleased McMahon and colleague Willie Gilzenberg due to selling out earlier that afternoon, as they saw the nationally televised New York Yankees vs. Minnesota Twins baseball game as a potential reason for business to be down that particular evening.  The pair were even more cheerful when the rematch occurred on October 7th when the Garden attendance record was smashed again with an estimate total of over 22,000 were jammed into the arena, up against a televised New York Jets vs. Miami Dolphins game.

Bruno kept the title throughout 1975-76 defending against Ivan Koloff, George “The Animal” Steele, Waldo von Erich and Greek athlete Spiros Arion.  The Koloff-Bruno match on December 15th 1975 was the first ever “cage” match held at Madison Square Garden.  On that very card, New Japan Pro-Wrestling promoter and wrestler Antonio Inoki made his debut defeating Frank Monte in under nine minutes. 

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Andre the Giant dumps boxer Chuck Wepner out of the ring at Shea Stadium.

In June 1976, Inoki faced boxing champion Muhammad Ali in the most high-profile wrestling event at that time, that was shown globally via closed circuit TV.  McMahon helped co-promote event and as Inoki and Ali were facing off in the Budokan in Tokyo on June 25th, Andre the Giant defeated Chuck Wepner in a wrestler vs. boxer contest at the promotion’s return to Shea Stadium with Sammartino successfully defending his WWWF Title against bitter rival Stan Hansen.

Hansen and Bruno had been embroiled in a bitter feud which began at the big MSG show on April 26th 1976. In what seemed to be the normal Bruno overcoming the challenger bout ended in controversy when Hansen, who was making his debut in the arena, dropped Bruno on his neck after eightminutes.  Sammartino suffered an instant broken neck and despite continuing the match for several minutes afterwards, the referee stopped the match due to laceration on Bruno’s eye.

Injuring Bruno was a big deal, McMahon took advantage of the story and booked Hansen to gloat about injuring Bruno with his lariat, even though it was a sloppy bodyslam that did the damage.  Hansen headlined the Garden against “Polish Power” Ivan Putski who was over with the sell-out crowd.  Hansen ended up winning the bout after just four minutes via count out and angry fans pushed their way towards the ring to get to the big Texan.  Brawls broke out between fans and security while Hansen managed to escape to the back but this was very good for business. 

The big Hansen-Bruno rematch on 25th June sold an approximate 32,000 tickets at the Shea Stadium as Sammartino retained his title via count out after Hansen just left the ringside area.  Further success at the box office was seen on August 7th in the Garden as Bruno finally gained revenge defeating Hansen in a Steel Cage bout.

Sammartino and Hansen clashed a total of ten times that year before Bruno faced the challenges of Bruiser Brody, Nikolai Volkoff and Stan Stasiak by the end of the year.  Come 1977, the neck injury caught up with Sammartino and the champion told McMahon that he wished to drop the title and work a reduced schedule again.  Vince Sr. after great deliberation, decided to crown former Stu Hart student, “Superstar” Billy Graham as Bruno’s successor.

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Superstar Billy Graham was the only heel since Buddy Rogers that was not just a short-term champion

Graham, a bodybuilder and former boxer too, was booked to take the gold away from Sammartino in the Baltimore Civic Center on April 30th 1977.  Inside the building, not one spectator expected Graham to beat Bruno, especially when the “Superstar” was bleeding profusely on his forehead and looked a defeated man.  However, in a dirty move, he managed to tackle Bruno down to the mat, covered the champion and used the ring ropes for leverage without referee Jack Davies noticing.  Davies’ hand slammed down on the mat three times and Graham was awarded the championship.

The fans were irate and disappointed that Bruno’s reign had ended in such a manner but the next two MSG shows drew further sell outs with Graham and Sammartino headlining the shows, both matches ending in a no contest.  The cocky, conceited but charismatic Graham, draped in tie dye and bleached blonde hair, was booed out of every arena in the Northeast but drew well at the box office. For once, the heel wrestler was not seen as a quickfire transitional champion.

Backstage, shares were acquired by Arnold Skaaland from Zacko and Monsoon selling 5% each of their ownership of the company to Skaaland.  On screen he was managing Bruno, but Skaaland was a reliable worker for the company dealing with Andre’s bookings and promoting shows in White Plains, New York.  After this deal, McMahon owned 50% of the total shares in the company with Skaaland possessing 10% and Zacko and Monsoon keeping 20% each.

Meanwhile, Billy Graham continued to deliver and McMahon filled his pockets sending his champion to work for Muchnick in St. Louis and even defended the WWWF Title against NWA Champion Harley Race for Eddie Graham in Florida – the first time the WWWF gold was defended on non-Northeastern soil. But the biggest profits were made with Andre the Giant.  The Frenchman had become the most wanted wrestler in the world, wrestling in Florida, St. Louis and for Inoki in Japan, Fritz von Erich in Texas, Don Owens in Portland, the Crockett’s Mid-Atlantic and Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling in Calgary to name a few.

In the meantime, on the undercard of Graham’s main events was a young Minnesotan collegiate wrestler called Bob Backlund was working his way up the program.  Backlund has begun his pro-wrestling career under the Funks in Texas and was even crowned their champion within a month of his debut in March 1974.  He learned his trade across the territories, making tours for Shohei Baba’s All Japan before ending up in Verne Gagne’s AWA.  Backlund eventually ended up working for the WWWF in Philadelphia near the end of 1976, before taking up a prominent role on the cards in Jersey, Massachusetts and Connecticut.

By 1978, a decision was made to put the belt on Backlund and after facing Graham multiple times, on February 20th at MSG, Backlund pinned Graham in 15:51 to win the championship.  The audience took to Backlund immediately and backed his title reign with two further MSG sell-outs in consecutive months, wrestling at the Garden was still the hottest ticket in town.

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Bob Backlund clinched the WWWF Championship from Graham in February 1978

Backlund went to war with more success against Ken Patera, a Portland-native strongman that had experience headlining the Garden with Bruno in late 1977.  While Sammartino only appeared seven times in a WWWF ring in 1978, Backlund overcome a series of Bruno’s former challengers in Koloff, Steele and Arion and while things were going well in the arenas, tragedy struck backstage.

The promotion had already lost co-founder Toots Mondt, who had passed away in St. Louis aged 82 in June 1976 and at only 49 years old, Antonino “Argentina” Rocca tragically died in March of 1977 following a severe urinary infection.  However, the hardest passing for Vince Sr and the promotion, was the death of Willie Gilzenberg on November 15th 1978.  Gilzenberg had fell ill on his way to the Garden on 25th September and was rushed to hospital.  He never returned to work and passed away at his home in Miami, Florida due to a short battle with cancer.

Although on screen, Gilzenberg was the “WWWF President” he was a lot more off camera. Willie was a trusted employee of McMahon whose efforts were invaluable; he was a charming man who was instrumental in dissolving any conflict between wrestlers or fellow promoters.  Going forward into 1979, New Japan Pro Wrestling associate Hisashi Shinma was named the new president of the WWWF.

Shortly after Gilzenberg’s passing, the TV taping schedule saw a move to the Agricultural Hall in Allentown, Pennsylvania.  Taping every three weeks on a Tuesday, the “Ag Hall” how it became known who film action for the “Championship Wrestling” syndicated show.

“High Chief” Peter Maivia, a long-time tag partner of “Chief” Jay Strongbow, turned heel by attacking Strongbow during their match with the Yukon Lumberjacks in October so he was booked in a feud with champion Backlund for the three months’ worth of Garden events.  Maivia was a legitimate contender to the title and took Backlund to the limit, beating the champion via a count out in November 1978.  Then a double count out occurred in the rematch in December with Backlund finally overcoming the Samoan in the third bout, a cage match on January 22nd 1979.

In March 1979, a major announcement was made as the promotion dropped the WWWF name and adapted the new slimline World Wrestling Federation (WWF) moniker. A whole host of new talent was brought in to give the shows a new lease of life. Greg Valentine arrived from the Carolinas to battle Backlund, the ever popular and uber-charismatic Dusty Rhodes worked the undercard, Iranian heel The Great Hossien (who later became the Iron Sheik) and NJPW’s Tatsumi Fujinami lit the arenas up with his highflying technical style. However, the biggest name of them all, Bruno Sammartino, returned to face old nemesis Ivan Koloff on March 26th in front approximately 20,000 inside the Garden.

Canadian born grappler, Pat Patterson had proved to be a massive draw in Roy Shire’s San Francisco promotion and McMahon brought him in to challenge Backlund on the 2nd of July 1979.  After making a few appearances in 1977, Patterson was announced as the “North American champion” when he returned under McMahon’s command in June 1979 and he received a great push, defeating Backlund via count out and subsequently picking up another count out win against Sammartino at the Boston Garden 12 days later.

Backlund did not manage to beat Patterson in five title matches leading into September and the Federation decided to add a secondary title into the fold.  In familiar circumstances to Buddy Rogers and the team of Luke Graham and Tarzan Tyler, Patterson was crowned the first ever WWF Intercontinental Champion.  He emerged as the victor of a one-night fictious tournament in Rio de Janeiro, with claims that he beat the South American champion to become the Intercontinental titleholder.

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Antonio Inoki with the WWWF Championship belt

With the new title in tow, Patterson received another shot at Backlund’s WWF title inside the steel cage and the Canadian was finally beaten.  In the ring, Backlund was performing well but controversy occurred with on a tour of Japan in November when Inoki pinned Backlund to win the WWF belt on November 30th. Before returning home, on December 6th, due to a distraction caused from Inoki’s rival Tiger Jeet Singh, Backlund reclaimed the belt but WWF President Shinma declared the result a no contest due to Singh’s supposed interference.  In America, the WWF did not recognise or acknowledge Inoki’s title win and this was basically used as a publicity stunt to make Inoki look superior to Japanese promotional rival Shohei Baba and his AJPW organisation.

A huge MSG show ended the year with Patterson successfully defending his I.C. title against Dominic DeNucci as the NWA Worlds Champion Harley Race beat Dusty Rhodes. Inoki wearing the NWF World Heavyweight belt defeated The Great Hossein and Fujinami beat Johnny Rivera to retain the Junior Heavyweight strap. In addition, a newcomer to the promotion, managed by Classy Freddy Blassie, “The Fabulous” Hulk Hogan made his MSG bow beating fellow youngster Ted DiBiase. 

Bob Backlund faced Bobby Duncum in a Texas Death Match and before the bout began, possibly keeping in line with storyline from Japan, Backlund arrived to the ring without the belt around his waist and president Shinma was inside the ropes with the WWF championship belt. Ring announcer Howard Finkel did not announce Backlund as the current champion, despite commentator Vince McMahon Jr. proclaiming Backlund as the champion.

As the new year closed in, the promotion was in good stead to target more towns and cities while their links with the NWA allowed their stars and champions to be promoted into further territories outside the Northeast, to become more nationally recognised.

As the WWF looked to expand further, Vincent Kennedy McMahon, along with wife Linda, began to develop their own business, create their own identity and progress their own careers.  Similar to what his father and grandfather had done before him, Vince bought a building, the Cape Cod Coliseum in South Yarmouth, Massachusetts towards the end of ’79, to promote music concerts, hockey games and of course, wrestling events.  This provided Vince Jr. more experience, ownership and a sense of accountability, putting his own funds at stake. Something that would become very natural to young Vincent soon enough.

Now you have read the introduction into our journey at ProjectWWF.com, we now continue in greater depth as we provide yearly, monthly and eventually weekly reviews of all the happenings inside the World Wrestling Federation.  You can start now by reading about the action backstage and in the ring from 1980 here.

Thanks for reading.

Will Burns

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

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