Long before Bruno Sammartino and Pedro Morales captured the hearts of New York’s ethnic population, Antonino Rocca was the hero in the ring and hero in the community – a true People’s Champion writes Will Burns.
In the Veneto region of Italy, the city of Treviso was recovering from the impact of World War I, when Rocca was born in 1921. Antonino and his family emigrated to Argentina in the late 1930s where they settled in the city of Rosario in the province of Santa Fe. He participated in rugby and soccer, before eventually climbing into the ropes under Buenos Aires promoter Karl Nowina in 1945 where the 24-year-old Rocca was first spotted by his future booking agent, Russian wrestler Kola Kwariani.
However, it was Yugoslavian-born wrestler Nick Ellitch that brought Rocca into the United States in 1948 where “Argentina Rocca” made his debut in Galveston, Texas come July. He defeated Gorilla Macias by two straight falls and stunned the paying crowd with acrobatics and agility they had never seen before. He impressed the promoters too; Rocca was billed as the Texas Heavyweight champion soon after by Houston promoters Morris Sigel and Kwariani.
Though it would be in New York City where Rocca would be the biggest success. After professional wrestling was pulled from Madison Square Garden in the 1940s, Joe “Toots” Mondt, of the Manhattan Booking Agency, signed Rocca to an exclusive contract from under the noses from Houston after Rocca’s visa had expired. However, Rocca chose Kwariani to still be involved in his career, as his agent to protect his bookings. The first MSG comeback show bombed with less than 5,000 fans, so Mondt booked Rocca to face Gene Stanlee on the next outing in February 1949 to massive improvement of 17,584 in attendance. This caught the attention of promoters across the country, who fought tooth and nail to hire the 27-year-old Rocca on their shows.
Rocca was a unique attraction in a world heavy on headlocks, submission moves and knock-out, drag-out brawls and his popularity soared. Only in his bare feet, he took flight in the ring and exclusively used high-flying manoeuvres in a time when others did not possess these moves in their arsenal. Rocca was wowing the crowds dropkicking opponents in their face, developing a huge ethnic fanbase in the process. To the Italian and Spanish speaking community in the Big Apple, the barefoot Rocca, who was “too poor to afford boots”, was their working-class hero that took the ring to battle evil and gave them an escape from their hard-working lives.
Come 1950, wrestling became a regular broadcast for television and with more and more of the population purchasing the T.V. sets, more eyes were witnessing the acrobatic skills of Rocca, sending his demand into orbit. So much so, this grabbed the attention of the National Wrestling Alliance and its champion, Lou Thesz. However, a pair of matches in January and in March 1953 were disappointing at the box office, the attendances dipped rapidly from November 18th 1952 which pulled in 18,357 with a Rocca vs. Lu Kim main event fell down to 11,693 and 9,300 respectively for the pair of Thesz-Rocca bouts.
Chicago promoter Kohler held a television on the DuMont Network and the wrestlers on the screen became national celebrities. Mondt cut a deal with Kohler to bring his workers to the Garden, while saved business in the New York from dwindling down further since Antonino was refused a visa to wrestle in October. He was missing for two months before he returned to battle Verne Gagne in December in a headline match that drew 11,651, and 15,071 for the rematch in February 1954. Despite going through a profitable period, the Manhattan Booking Agency declared bankruptcy in April so Rocca looked for employment elsewhere.
The relationship with Toots was not always rosy and beneficial for Rocca. In 1955, Rocca was supposed to be guaranteed $80,000 a year but the papers from the Department of Justice investigators unveiled that 20% of his salary was handed to NWA affiliate in Chicago, Fred Kohler and Mondt also took a handsome percentage meaning that Rocca only came out with around $25,000.
Fellow New York promoter Pedro Martinez later picked up Rocca’s contract and booked him to work with Hans Schmidt, Deo Leo Jonathan and Yukon Eric before the crowds started to fall again, and a combination of bad business and Kohler’s television show being cancelled meant that MSG shows would be pulled again. This was until December 1956 when Vincent J. McMahon, who was running T.V. out of Washington, D.C. was handed the schedule to the World’s Most Famous Arena.
McMahon’s live wrestling program from the Capitol Arena aired every Thursday from 10pm and his inaugural show featured Rocca headlining against Jack Wentworth which was seen on WABD-TV, Channel 5 in New York. Rocca cartwheeled to becoming an even bigger star, blooming into a household name and was booked as McMahon’s lead attraction. Looking back in March 1977, McMahon speaking to the New York Post, declared that Rocca sold more television sets than popular comedian Milton Berle: “He was wrestling on five different TV stations at that time.”.
Meanwhile, in 1957 and Rocca’s feud with Schmidt escalated into a tag team battle at the Garden in front of 19,300 fans, tagging with Verne Gagne against Schmidt’s German counterpart Karl von Hess on 4th February with a reported 5,000 fans turned away at the turnstiles. Rocca drew another sell-out (19,995) crowd four weeks later in a singles contest against Schmidt but business was on the rise, it was about to enter a further echelon.
McMahon was ready to introduce tag team belts into his promotion and booked Rocca and Puerto Rican grappler Miguel Perez as his first champions. The pair defeated “Wildman” Don Fargo and Don Stevens on March 30th with 20,125 in attendance – the show sold out three days prior, with scalpers selling ringside tickets at three times to original value. Wrestling was the hottest attraction in the Garden and the Rocca-McMahon relationship went from strength to strength.
Rocca and Perez had tremendous run with teams like Jerry and Eddie Graham, the Fabulous Kangaroos, ‘Wild’ Bull Curry and The Sheik constantly drawing full houses. The fans idolised the pairing and when they were cheated by the opposition the fans got out of hand and sometimes took it too far. In the November of 1957, Rocca and Edouard Carpentier paired up to take on the hated Dr. Jerry Graham and Dick the Bruiser in front of a raucous Garden faithful. After picking up the win, Graham and Rocca continued to brawl and the fans revolted throwing chairs and rampaged the ring.
The scene turned ugly with Bruiser and Graham throwing the overzealous fans to the ground. A total of eight police officers ended up injured and the New York State Athletic Commission took action fining all four grapplers (Rocca & Graham’s fine the worst at $1,000) and going so far to dish out a lifetime ban to Dick the Bruiser from wrestling in the city. The arena also implemented a new regulation that no one under 14-years-old could attend wrestling events at the Garden – an injunction that stayed true for 20 years.
With his outspoken personality and loyalty to his people, Rocca continued his rapport with the public, visiting sick fans and children in hospitals, delivering lectures to young people, supporting local businesses and even attending weddings when invited. Throughout the sixties, Rocca’s stardom spread into various media outlets, from numerous interviews for national newspapers and magazines to meeting President Richard Nixon to a guest appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.He even appeared as a character in the August 1962 edition of Superman comic, where Rocca outmuscled an Octopus and tossed Superman out of the ring during a charity wrestling bout.
Rocca continued to draw in New York and appeared in a total of forty-eight consecutive main events, either in singles or tag matches, at the Garden. Although, Rocca pulled money in wherever he went and wrestled across the territorial system, drawing big in Chicago, Milwaukee, Boston, Detroit, Philadelphia, and over to Kansas City and Los Angeles. He also ventured up to Canada in Toronto and Montreal, where he had a short reign as champion of the latter.
His in-ring style eventually was imitated by many other wrestlers and McMahon decided to book him against of one the copycats: The Amazing Zuma. They met five times during 1959/60, drawing sell-outs at Madison Square Garden, The Armory in Newark and the Island Garden Arena in West Hempstead. Of course, Rocca won all five matches against his young impersonator.
By the end of 1962, after a short feud with ‘Nature Boy’ Buddy Rogers, Rocca and McMahon parted ways as Bruno Sammartino took over as the main draw, especially with the Hispanic and Italian fans and “Argentina” did not feel like playing second fiddle. He branched out booking his own shows under the banner of the World Booking Agency, with one highlight promoting matches for the 1964 New York World’s Fair.
He continued to wrestle coast to coast but due to bad investments he took up jobs as a security guard in New Jersey and as a physical therapist in Florida. Before he first retired from in-ring competition in 1969, he tried to pick the business up in Buffalo and Cleveland for promoters Johnny Powers and Pedro Martinez, but showed a lack of discipline by not making some bookings. Apart from one match in California (June 1972) and a short stint in Puerto Rico rekindling his tag team with Miguel Perez in 1976, Rocca’s time in the ring was done.
McMahon brought him back into the fold in New York as a commentator in 1975 before Rocca died at Roosevelt Hospital on March 15th 1977 due to a severe urinary infection. He was survived by wife, Joyce, and their three children: Natella, Eric and Antonino Jr. When Rocca sadly passed away, it was reported that the Italian was aged 49, however wrestling historian Tim Hornbaker, while researching his excellent Capitol Wrestling book, discovered a signed Social Security application that stated that Rocca was actually born on 13th April 1921, making him aged 55 at the time of his passing.
Antonino Rocca’s connection with the migrant population of the Big Apple laid the foundations for Bruno Sammartino and Pedro Morales’ success in the late 1960s and 70s. He will be remembered as a hero for the working man, in and out of the ring in his adopted home of New York and his fearless high-flying style inspired many after him to take to the skies for the fans’ enjoyment.
“There was never a more likeable and more personable fellow in sports. There was nothing phony about Tony.” – Vincent J. McMahon, New York Post, March 16th, 1977.
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 writesWill Burns.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 on19th February.
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.
PART TWO – Vincent J. McMahon, Capitol Wrestling and Television
Welcome to our second part of the ‘The Origins of WWF’ series, and as we ended Part One with the untimely death of Jess McMahon, it’s time for his son Vincent to continue his father’s legacy and take the wrestling business to new heights writes Will Burns.
Vincent James McMahon would spend many nights of his childhood in the halls of Madison Square Garden, while his father Jess would be promoting a boxing card, so it is no surprise that eventually Vince would end up in the business of promoting sports himself.
Vince was born in 1915 and raised in Harlem, New York with father Jess, mother Rose and two siblings, sister Dorothy and brother Roderick. Jess placed Vince into a Military Academy after initial schooling and once graduated, the young McMahon became obsessed with promoting sports. After primarily shadowing his father at work, Jess started employing young Vince in small booking office in Hempstead, Long Island, in 1935, helping to promote fights and concerts. The 20-year-old Vince was gaining valuable experience for nearly seven years, until the United States went to war.
The former heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey, was in recruitment for the U.S. Coast Guard and Vince signed on. Dempsey stationed McMahon to a base in Wilmington, North Carolina, serving in World War II until he was discharged in August 1945.
Vince took on the role of promoting music events in Washington D.C. after his father had implemented the business in 1945 but found the commute to the capital too much hassle. By 1947, the 33-year-old Vincent packed his bags, found accommodation in Washington and settled in the area, but it was not long before McMahon got involved in wrestling in the city.
A former middleweight wrestling champion, Joe Turner, was a larger-than-life sports figure in Washington for over 40 years. Turner left the ring for the office, promoting wrestling and boxing and he purchased a garage building in 1935. He renovated the small venue, squeezed in 1,880 seats, and renamed it the ‘Joe Turner’s Arena’. The building became synonymous with the sport of wrestling in Washington and was part of many families’ routine every Thursday night.
Turner suddenly passed away aged 62 years old in 1947, and the boxing and wrestling community in the city was shattered. However, his wife Florence stepped in after his death with Joe’s matchmaker, Gabe Menendez. Vincent had dealings with Turner and Menendez prior to Joe’s death, and his widow hired McMahon to be the Arena’s new general manager.
After setting up an office at the Franklin Park Hotel, Vincent grabbed the opportunity by the horns and successfully made the Arena popular and profitable. He hosted music concerts, Basketball games and worked with Menendez to promote boxing and wrestling. McMahon had picked up where Turner had left off and brought in many of Toots Mondt’s stars from New York, in particular Antonino Rocca, who was a huge success in D.C.
At the end of 1952, Vince captured the sublease for the Turner Arena and purchased the wrestling territory from Menendez for $60,000. With the aid of his father, Vince promoted his first show in January 1953, brokering deals with Mondt and Jack Pfefer of New York and Chicago’s Fred Kohler to bring top talent to the capital. The deal with Kohler was the biggest asset, as mentioned in Part One of this series, the Chicago promoter had TV exposure through the DuMont Network and was building stars with ease.
McMahon promoted different shows to Turner’s product. Along with Kohler and Mondt’s talent, he used contacts in the NWA to hire woman’s wrestlers from Billy Wolfe, promoted battle royal matches and multi-week tournaments. During this period, amongst the big box office draws McMahon had at his disposal was Rocca, Hans Schmidt, “Mr. America” Gene Stanlee, Verne Gagne, Gorgeous George, Killer Kowalski, Danny McShain and Dick the Bruiser.
Business was booming and McMahon continued to place his own stamp on the shows and in December 1955, he renamed the Turner Arena to the ‘Capitol Arena’. The Capitol Arena name was taken from a venue in Albany, New York that his father Jess had held many events during the 1940s. Vincent was looking into the future and gained advice and information from Kohler, before deciding to negotiate with DuMont for his own TV show. He believed the exposure from the television could help him produce and promote his own stars, and not have to rely on other promoters’ talent.
At 10.00pm on 5th January 1956, live from the Capitol Arena, McMahon’s show debuted on Washington’s WTTG channel, part of the DuMont Network. Antonino Rocca defeated Jack Wentworth in the show’s main event. DuMont was not keen on giving Vince the initial one-hour slot but McMahon took a huge plunge and paid for the first two weeks’ production costs himself to prove the shows’ worth to the Network. It was a huge risk, but a risk that paid off, as DuMont signed on a long-term contract by the third week of TV.
On the TV show, McMahon’s booking methods were groundbreaking. The matches would include a lot of brawling and more action outside the ring which his audience had not seen before. He would make sure every show would end with a top main event, giving the viewers at home a reason to stay tuned in. This was a dangerous move as these high-profile matches were usually held back to promote ticket sales to non-televised shows, however, this technique had an adverse effect. The viewers watched the main event play out at home, which encouraged the thrill of seeing the stars live at the next opportunity.
By the summer, due to the success of the WTTG show, DuMont approached McMahon to add a two-hour show (9.00-11.00pm) on Channel 5 WABD in the New York Metropolitan area, debuting on June 21st. The broadcasting of this show meant that McMahon’s TV was now available in 11 states: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, Delaware, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland and D.C. Other promoters in the region quaked in fear as McMahon had a huge advantage over them, although Mondt knew this was good news for him.
With attendances dropping to its lowest level in NYC, the TV show would give the business in the city, the shot in the arm it needed. McMahon, Mondt, and The Johnston Brothers used the exposure from the television to promote a big show at Madison Square Garden at the end of November 1956. Over 10,000 fans bought tickets to see Rocca, Schmidt, and Dick Steinborn in action, but three months later, a sellout crowd of 19,000 would witness Rocca and Verne Gagne defeating Schmidt and Karl von Hess in the headliner.
In March, two MSG shows drew more sellout crowds, 19,995 and 20,125 respectively. New York’s wrestling business that once looked to be in turmoil had experienced a rapid financial turnaround due to the emergence of McMahon’s television show. The duo of McMahon and Mondt were thriving and working well as a team. Mondt had been on top before but failed many times over, McMahon was a superior businessman and kept his associate on course. Vince was establishing a future business model and this inspired Mondt to stay focused. Toots handled the talents while Vincent was leading the charge and becoming the mastermind behind the shows, but as their business grew into the 11 states, so did the need for more resources.
Johnny Doyle, a promoter who had worked closely with Mondt in Los Angeles, was brought in and on August 1st, 1957 the trio decided to label their new alliance under a new banner running out of Washington, D.C. – Capitol Wrestling Corporation. Mondt and McMahon also received great support from experienced New Jersey promoter Willie Gilzenberg, an associate of the McMahon family for many years to come (more about Willie in Part Three).
McMahon and Mondt owned 42 percent of the company with Doyle taking up the remaining shares and their roles were clear. Mondt was taking a back seat, but the promotion to use his membership in the NWA and the copious amounts of contacts, both promoters and wrestlers. McMahon was the president, the leader making sure all plans would be implemented successfully and Doyle would act as a matchmaker, vice president and treasurer. Although Doyle did not hang around, he was offered a job by Paul Bowser’s office in Boston and left Capitol to relocate there in 1958.
The finances were in the green come the end of the year, making a healthy six figure profit and throughout 1958, the Garden shows continued to be a huge success with eleven shows being ran and six drawing over 18,000 fans. The bookings of the arena were under the jurisdiction of Charley Johnston and his employees, Kola Kwarini and Walter Smallshaw, but they knew they needed the talent of McMahon-Mondt to pull the big money into the venue. Soon enough, McMahon claimed the duty of matchmaking in MSG and Mondt was labelled as co-promoter with Johnston.
Capitol’s stock was rising and they were becoming untouchable in the Northeast. McMahon nabbed a second TV outlet in February 1959, broadcasting out of Bridgeport, Connecticut. McMahon’s programming would now be seen from Virginia to Canada, which encouraged more shows to be booked across the Northeastern area, securing extra television slots paid impressive dividends. If McMahon could possibly hold any extra power, he then cut a deal with Antonino “Argentina” Rocca. McMahon and Mondt managed to pin the star down to a managerial contract, getting a share of all his bookings.
Heading into 1960, Rocca with his infectious charisma and pageantry, was the most popular headliner wrestler in the New York market. He was a hot commodity for the Garden, and whether he was in a singles bout or tag-teaming with Puerto Rican star Miguel Perez, Rocca appeared top of the bill in 48 successive events – the Perez-Rocca team headlining 21 consecutive MSG shows. Amazingly, his main event match against the high-flying The Amazing Zuma on 2nd January 1960, drew 21,950 fans and promoters were vying for his services. Once Rocca got on television, the whole country wanted to see him. Rocca’s popularity spilled out of the ring when made an appearance on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and wrestled an octopus in an August 1962 issue of the Superman comic.
Another wrestler that Mondt and McMahon pinned down was the blonde-haired, bronze-tanned, arrogant heel, “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers. McMahon exploited Rogers and his egotistical showman persona and he became an instant hit. Those fans that paid to cheer Rocca, would now pay to see Rogers beat up and they did just that. On May 21st in 1961, the Garden was headlined by a Rocca-Rogers match that drew a crowd of 17,988. Although, by the end of 1962, Rocca finished up with McMahon not willing to compete with Rogers for the top spot.
At the annual National Wrestling Alliance meeting, Mondt and recently admitted Alliance member McMahon, recommended Rogers to be crowned NWA World Heavyweight Champion, which was held by Pat O’Connor. Members of the Alliance, observing the great business that Capitol was doing, knew that they could profit from their success with Rogers wearing their belt on McMahon’s TV and events – although it was hardly a customary decision. NWA champions usually held great mat wrestling skills with the ability to shoot and protect the belt from anyone who tried to take it away without an agreement. Never had a heel with a captivating personality held the prestigious title and in a wrestler like Rogers, spectators would now see a man they love to hate in their arenas, instead of the hero-like champion.
In Chicago on 30th June 1962, Rogers defeated O’Connor to clinch the title in front a huge 38,000 crowd at Comiskey Park, a new North American professional wrestling attendance record. After been handed the championship belt in the middle of the ring by NWA Chicago promoter Fred Kohler, Rogers did something no other NWA champion has previously done – accepted the title with an arrogant style. With the title in his hands, Rogers spoke on the mic and proclaimed: “One thing I want everybody to know, and that is… to a nicer guy, it couldn’t happen.”.
However, Rogers’ reign was immediately problematic for the Alliance. An edict of being the NWA champion meant you had to pay a $10,000 deposit once in possession of the title. The organisation had implemented this as a safeguard measure that no champion would go into business for themselves and lose the belt to whomever they wished. However, the Alliance showing possible insecurity with Rogers as the titleholder, upped this to $25,000.
An ongoing difficulty in the relationship between McMahon and NWA president and St. Louis promoter Sam Muchnick was how Rogers was booked on McMahon’s shows, especially inside Madison Square Garden. McMahon would have his headliner wrestling in tag team matches, which was against the NWA’s agreement to make the “Nature Boy” the champion. Despite Muchnick communicating to McMahon that he wished this to stop, Rogers ended up appearing in 17 MSG shows as champion, nine of those bouts would be tag matches.
Muchnick’s role as NWA president was to book the champion’s schedule but McMahon and Mondt, dictated Buddy’s dates and clearly favoured working the Northeast venues which helped Capitol’s business. After Northeast dates were arranged, then Chicago (Kohler), St. Louis (Muchnick), Texas (Morris Sigel) and Toronto (Frank Tunney) were locked in the schedule.
This outraged the other NWA promoters. Rogers was pulling in monster crowds across the country in major venues and McMahon and company’s bank accounts were bulging. While other promoters in smaller territories were being bypassed, this led to many promoters threatening to leave the NWA. As tensions grew, president Sam Muchnick announced to the NWA in the Autumn of 1962, that Rogers was to drop the belt back to a man that Muchnick could rely on – long-time member and former champion, Lou Thesz. With Thesz about to claim his sixth run with the NWA Worlds Championship, Toots and Vince were far from pleased.
The title switch was originally scheduled for September but Rogers pulled out with an injury, likewise in November too. Many doubted that the injuries were legit however, criminal charges were pressed against Karl Gotch and Bill Miller after they beat up Rogers in a locker room incident. Rogers suffered a broken hand and was unable to make the September bout. The alleged second injury was a broken ankle that Rogers hurt in a bout in Montreal against Killer Kowalski.
Thesz finally uncrowned Rogers on 24th January 1963 in Toronto but the stranglehold in the Northeast was firmly in McMahon and Mondt’s command. They were about to set course to their next plan of action – to break away from the restrictions of the National Wrestling Alliance and create their own World Champion.
PART ONE – The First McMahon and a Man Named “Toots”
As we close the door on the year of 1980 in our ProjectWWF.com journey, the World Wrestling Federation are in the preliminary stages of expanding its territory – formulating a potential national expansion. In this new series, ‘The Origins of the WWF’, Will Burns investigates how the promotion transpired to be until the 1980s. We begin with a look at the first McMahon to be associated with the world of professional wrestling, Jess McMahon.
The McMahon family has been connected to wrestling for nearly 90 years with Roderick James McMahon, known to everyone as “Jess”, booking his first grappling show at the Municipal Stadium, Freeport, Long Island on 7th June 1932. However, Jess had vast experience of selling tickets for other sports before that, promoting boxing since 1905.
Born in New York City in 1882, Jess and his brother Eddie formed the Olympic Athletic Club in March 1900 and after creating baseball and football teams, they promoted their first boxing show in December 1905. Starting from the bottom, the McMahons grew a huge reputation as promoters in the Golden Age of Boxing throughout the 1920s and 1930s. In a Boxing News publication, Jess was labeled as “probably the best known promoter in the world”.
In October 1925, Jess was appointed matchmaker at the newly built Madison Square Garden in mid-town Manhattan and managed to book champions Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney and Jack Sharkey in his three-year tenure in the role. Jess continued to fill huge venues such as at Yankee Stadium and 130,000-seater Sesquicentennial Stadium across in Philadelphia.
Throughout this time, entrepreneur Jess had paid close attention to how popular professional wrestling had become for fellow promoter Jack Curley during the late twenties, and he began to research the business using literature borrowed from wrestling champion and friend, Jim Londos. The aforementioned Freeport show took place in June 1932 and the success encouraged Jess to put his efforts into both boxing and wrestling, before he sadly lost brother Eddie in 1935 due to a long illness.
Curley died suddenly in 1937 and his passing caused the interest in the sport to dip. Known for running Monday night show’s at Madison Square Garden, Curley was the most successful New York promoter and was highly respected, holding a great relationship with the city’s sportswriters. After his death, the press coverage waned and the business suffered. The resilient Jess soldiered on to operate shows in both sports at the Coney Island Velodrome, Queensboro Stadium and the Hempstead Bowl. His Wednesday night Hempstead Arena events were deemed as must-see events by the local fans.
Looking to increase his income elsewhere, Jess branched out and began promoting music concerts in Washington D.C. in 1945. The venture was a great success but Jess soon grew tired of the trips to the capital and decided to pass the responsibility onto his son, Vincent James McMahon, who relocated to the area.
Back in New York, it would not be until late into the 1940s that the market for wrestling matches would be prosperous again. The resurgence was in part responsible by one of Jess’s eventual business partners, professional wrestler and visionary Joseph “Toots” Mondt. Together, Jess, Toots and McMahon’s son Vincent, would combine resources and talents to produce the Capitol Wrestling Corporation in the early 1950s (more on that in Part Two of our series).
Toots held down a career in the business spanning over 60 years, both inside the ropes and in the office. Although a lethal catch-as-catch-can grappler, Mondt will be more fondly remembered for his intuitive forward thinking that helped shape the business to what it is today.
In 1912, the naturally athletic and charismatic Mondt was 18 years old when he made his debut in the carnivals, and by 1915, while working full-time as a labourer, he would climb into the ring sporadically to earn extra money. He continued to appear at carnivals taking money off the locals, before setting off to Omaha to be trained by Farmer Burns. Under the tutelage of Burns, Mondt expanded on his grappling skills while introducing theatrical skills and he became the “Colorado Cowboy”, one of the most popular performers in Colorado. The sport was experiencing a poor period by the time World War ended and instead of financially suffering, Mondt managed to land a job at Colorado A&M University coaching the wrestling team.
Shortly after adopting the name of “Toots”, in 1922 he met heavyweight champion Ed “Strangler” Lewis. Lewis, along with his manager Billy Sandow, were holidaying in Colorado and “Strangler” took a match to earn some bucks. Mondt introduced himself to the pair and they were astounded by his views on the sport and his athletic ability, so they took him into the fold and the “Gold Dust Trio” was formed, though they would not be named as such until 1937.
Mondt left his coaching job and was an instant star in the ring. However, the ticket sales were still poor, so Mondt envisaged the waning crowds needed something different. He proposed to Lewis and Sandow that the business should integrate time-limits to stop any matches dragging into hours. He suggested that matches should have more theatrics and integrate brawling from carnival fights, boxing techniques (within the rules), and more suplexes, slams and arm drags to allow the stars to impress the audiences with their strength. Lewis and his manager lapped this vision up and professional wrestling was born, although Mondt coined it ‘Slam Bang Western-Style Wrestling!’.
Prior to WWI, promoters could sell out a stadium with one single marquee title bout, however by the end of the war in 1919, the interest in wrestling was incredibly low. A single match did not seem enough so Mondt, Lewis and Sandow began promoting multiple matches on their events. These shows were also topped with a title defense as a main event but featured more wrestlers on the undercards, building stars for future main events.
As the crowds began to return to the sport in their droves, Mondt stressed that determining an outcome in the bouts was as important as ever. Not just the outcome, but the finish of the match. Although wrestling had been pre-determined for years previous, by dictating how a match was won was providing more drama for the viewer and attracting more and more people back to the sport.
Rival promoters were losing out including New York’s Jack Curley and the Stetcher Brothers, Joe and Lewis. Mondt had clashed in 1924 with Joe in a bout that turned into a shoot and Stetcher ended up knocked out cold via a strike. However, the business rivalry between the brothers and the Trio was just beginning.
Lewis and Sandow had discovered a four-sport athlete from University of Nebraska, Wayne Munn. In addition to collegiate wrestling, Munn had experience in boxing, basketball and football and after unsuccessfully turning out in the ring with gloves, he made the trip to Omaha to be schooled in professional wrestling.
Munn has also served as infantry first lieutenant during the war and the Trio saw dollar signs. They booked him to clinch the World Championship from Lewis, a move that they would later regret. On 8th January 1925 in Kansas City, Lewis dropped the belt to Munn, but controversy prevailed in the aftermath, as the Trio booked the story that Lewis “refused” to give up the title, which set-up a rematch in Michigan City, Indiana – another good payday.
Munn was protected by the Trio and was booked against opponents on the payroll including Polish strongman and excellent grappler Stanislaus Zbyszko. The first bout between Munn and Zbyszko ended in the Poland native putting the 29-year-old over and the rematch was to be more of the same to help Munn and the Trio at the box office.
However, Zbyszko had other plans. Years before the Montreal Screwjob, the double-cross occurred with Zbyszko shooting on Munn and winning the match two falls to none within 13 minutes. The man behind the betrayal was New York promoter Jack Curley. Munn, unlike Lewis, was incapable of stopping a shooter like Zbyszko, and the World Title ended up in the rival camp. Months later, Zbyszko and Stetcher sold 15,000 tickets in St. Louis to see Joe go over Zbyszko.
After a year of trying out do each other in 1926, the Trio and the Stetcher-Curley camp buried the hatchet and came to realisation that the business (and their pocketbooks) needed them to work together. Stetcher stepped away from in-ring activity to allow Lewis to regain the title in front of 8,000 at the St. Louis Coliseum in February 1928.
Throughout this period, Mondt stayed loyal to Sandow and Lewis and became a great aide trying to overturn their fortunes, however his in-ring action began to slow down due a knee injury he suffered in 1927. Trouble in the camp begun when Sandow allowed brother Max into the fold, and he and Mondt clashed often before an ultimatum was thrown down to Billy with Sandow siding with his brother.
Mondt left instantly and joined Curley in New York and linked up with Philadelphia promoter Ray Fabiani. In Pennsylvania, Mondt created new stars like Jim Londos and German grappler Dick Shikat to a huge success. Shikat and Londos clashed on a Mondt show in Philadelphia in August 1929 in front of a reported 30,000 fans.
Besides his office and promoting duties, Mondt worked in-ring building stars now and then, but had virtually retired by 1932. He began promoting Boston and Washington shows in conjunction with Fabiani and Curley, with all three benefiting from then champion Jim Londos appearing for the three territories. However, the Greek had been carrying the shows and by April 1932, he severed ties with the syndicate and signed on with other New York promoters, Rudy Dusek and the Johnston Brothers, Charley and Bill, taking the belt with him.
Lacking star power, Mondt contacted old friend Ed Lewis and convinced him to climb back into the ropes and an agreement was reached to create a new syndicate with Mondt, Curley, Jack Pfefer and Rudy Miller (two more NYC promoters) and this created a turf war against Dusek and the Johnstons.
By the end of the 1930’s, with Jack Curley’s death having a huge impact, business in NYC was struggling, while other territories were booming with the likes of “Wild” Bill Longson, Bronko Nagurski and Lou Thesz selling the tickets across the nation. In September 1937 at the Garden, just 2,000 fans were in attendance and wrestling was pulled from the arena’s schedule.
Although Mondt had access in the New York market to promote his new style of wrestling, Madison Square Garden owner Tex Rickard, who had worked with Jess McMahon back in the 1920’s, was against the sport being promoted in the building and come March 30th 1938, MSG held it’s final wrestling event in 11 years.
However, come 1948, Mondt formed the Manhattan Booking Agency (MBA) with himself as the president, leading Miller (as General Manager) and wrestler Milo Steinborn (Matchmaker). By 1949, they collaborated with former rivals Rudy Dusek and the Johnstons and suddenly, with multiple promoters willing to combine forces to book bigger shows with a greater assembly of talent, Rickard had a change of heart. This gave the new alliance the opportunity to bring wrestling back to the Garden.
In December 1949, the return to MSG was a financial success with 17,854 in attendance with a young Argentine wrestler, Antonino Rocca at the top of the bill. Only three nights previous, Jake LaMotta and Robert Villemain only pulled a crowd less than 10,000 in the Garden for a non-title boxing scrap.
Meanwhile, Rocca was an instant star, the market in New York had been revived and MSG pulled audiences around the 15,000 mark for the next few shows. Witnessing the success, the intrigued Jess McMahon and son Vincent visited the Garden, and formed a bond with Toots. A relationship that would work together for many years.
The success also grabbed the attention of the National Wrestling Alliance, which was formed in 1948 to create a wrestling monopoly and have one world champion for all their territories. Mondt was already involved with many members of the Alliance sharing talent which was against the rules of the NWA. Initially, Mondt mocked the Alliance and its purpose, but after the NWA threatened members to stop working with him and Dusek, Mondt signed on in a move which both benefited from. The NWA members had access to Mondt’s talent, and his wrestlers worked in Baltimore, Philadelphia and Washington gaining exposure in those towns.
But the relationship was not rosy for long. In 1952, Toots allowed Rocca to work a non-NWA show in Iowa, a territory where NWA-founder Pinkie George ran an Alliance affiliated promotion. Mondt was given a stern warning and Rocca was pulled from the event. This was only one example of mis-management from Toots. Wrestlers and promoters either received their payments late or not at all, and many pulled out of dealing with the MBA. In the summer of 1953, Mondt managed to convince NWA Chicago promoter Fred Kohler to send his talent over from the Windy City but this would be a bad move for his New York market.
Kohler’s talent was featured on DuMont Television Network, which was distributed throughout the country, his stars were becoming household names. Mondt had great reliance on the availability of Kohler’s Chicago stars and if they were unavailable, attendances crept down. In 1953, Kohler, Mondt and Charley Johnston formed the Sports Promoters’ Engineers Inc. which they had heavily invested in. The group supplied wrestlers to cities like Chicago and New York, but it did last long as crowds and promoters were unhappy with the talent that was on their shows and the wrestlers complained about not been paid on time.
Mondt’s career was spiraling downhill. He was a heavy gambler wagering at the race track. Former colleague Pedro Martinez punched Toots due to $19,750 he owed him, and the NWA was cautious of dealing with him. Mondt declared bankruptcy in April 1954 and he took the Manhattan Booking Agency down with him. In August, Martinez bought the company for $200, which included an exclusive contract with main event talent Rocca.
Kohler, the Johnstons and Mondt continued to run shows in New York under the new Manhattan Wrestling Enterprises banner, but the market never recovered until they got their own wrestling television program on the DuMont network. Starting from June 1956, the Network would feature New York wrestlers in a new two-hour program every Thursday night from a Washington promotion ran by Vincent James McMahon (more on him in Part Two).
Mondt’s impact on modern-day wrestling cannot be ignored, his vision of ‘Slam Bang Western Style Wrestling’ inspired a lot of the action that we see today and you will hear a lot more about Mondt’s influence, especially in New York, in future articles.
Although he laid the foundation for the future WWF, Jess McMahon’s history will show that his success as a boxing promoter was more fruitful than his business in wrestling. Sadly in 1954, Jess suddenly died aged 72. While attending wrestling matches in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, he became seriously ill with a cerebral hemorrhage and passed away three days later.
After Jess’ unexpected passing, it was his son Vincent’s time to take his father’s business to a much higher echelon that his father and close associate, Toots Mondt could possibly ever have dreamed of.
The World Wrestling Federation experienced an action-packed year in 1980 running some of their biggest shows to date and it all started with a legend coming out of retirement, just for his protege to stab him in the back writes Will Burns.
Throughout the month on WWF TV, there were interesting happenings between Bruno Sammartino and his protégé Larry Zbyszko. For the weeks leading up to the new year, Sammartino (now working as a commentator) wished to interview Zbyszko but received no response. Vince asked Zbyszko a week later why he had been ignoring interview requests from Bruno Sammartino and Larry stated that although he respected Bruno, he wanted a ‘scientific exhibition match’ with him. Sick of labelled “Bruno’s protégé”, Zbyszko wanted to chance to prove to people what he was made of. Bruno immediately declined to face him. McMahon held another Zbyszko interview on the next TV show and Larry said if Bruno refuses to face him to prove himself, then he would retire. Bruno appeared and accepted the match but clearly stated that he feels like Larry is a brother and his goal was not to beat Zbyszko.
5th – At the Civic Center in Baltimore, Hulk Hogan faced Andre the Giant in their first known match – it ended as a draw.
12th – A sell-out crowd of 19,568 at the Philadelphia Spectrum witnessed a match in the Lou Albano-Pat Patterson feud that carried over from 1979. It was a short match with Intercontinental champion Patterson winning via count-out in under four minutes.
21st – At Madison Square Garden, Bob Backlund defended his WWF Championship against Ken Patera in a 25-minute bout that ended in chaos. After Patera tossed Backlund into the referee Jack Lotz, another referee Terry Terranova sprinted down to ringside and called for the timekeeper to ring the bell. After the decision was announced, Backlund and Patera brawled for several minutes until members of the locker room emerged to split the fight up.
On the 2nd of February edition of Championship Wrestling, Larry Zbyszko got his wish and an exhibition match with his mentor Bruno Sammartino. As the scientific bout went on Zbyszko grew frustrated as he was outclassed by Sammartino. Zbyszko ended up on the outside and Sammartino held the ropes open for Larry to return to the ring. Zbyszko snapped and laid boots into his mentor then smashed a wooden chair over Bruno’s head leaving him a bloody mess. The crowd erupted in boos as Zbyszko continued his assault and Sammartino was left lying, drenching the mat with his blood, and exited the ring on a stretcher. A truly shocking angle. The full analysis of the six-month-long feud can be read here.
Other big news coming out of the promotion is that Vince McMahon Jr. and his wife Linda has formed Titan Sports, Inc. This company will be used to promote the WWF wrestling events and Ice Hockey games.
18th – The Bob Backlund-Ken Patera feud continued with another match at MSG with I.C. Champion Pat Patterson as the referee. Backlund won via count-out in 15:38 much to the delight of the New York crowd. Also on the card, Austin Idol and Tommy Rich made their debuts in the famous arena, this was to be their only appearance in the building.
21st – Bruno Sammartino traveled to Amarillo, Texas to team with his 19-year old son, David, in a win over Mr. Pogo and Bob Morgan.
Business was booming for the Sammartino-Zbyszko feud. On the 1st of the month, the Philadelphia Spectrum sold out for the first meeting of the pair since the double-cross angle in February. On St. Valentines’ night, the Pittsburgh Civic Arena sets a wrestling attendance record is broke of 16,661 and on the 24th, another record goes at Madison Square Garden pulls in 26,102 for Sammartino vs. Zbyszko main event.
In the ring, Zbyszko was awarded all three matches by disqualification In Philly, nearly 20,000 fans saw Zbyszko win via DQ as Sammartino’s exploded with rage in the bout and put his hands on the official, and was thrown out. In Pittsburgh and New York, Bruno was disqualified as he refused to release a choke hold on his former protege.
8th – At the Civic Center in Landover, MD, ‘The Incredible’ Hulk Hogan defeated WWF Champion Bob Backlund via count-out in a long bout that went over thirty minutes.
5th – The Boston Garden records its third consecutive wrestling sell-out of 16,000 attendees.
12th – The WWF promoted a huge show at the Philadelphia Spectrum where Bob Backlund defended his WWF Championship against “The Incredible” Hulk Hogan. Hogan took Backlund to the limit, and again went nearly 30 minutes defeating the champion via count-out. Bruno Sammartino and Larry Zbyszko clashed again with Bruno coming out on top in around 18 minutes. However, the big news coming out the show was that Ivan Putski and Tito Santana lost their WWF Tag Team straps to the Wild Samoans, Afa and Sika.
21st – The Federation hit Madison Square Garden with another title change. In just over 30 minutes Ken Patera defeated Pat Patterson to win the WWF Intercontinental Championship. Bruno fought Larry again and Zbyszko had experienced enough punishment by the 15-minute mark and left the ringside area to take a count-out loss. One-half of the newly crowned tag champs The Samoan #1 took on Backlund for the WWF Title. Backlund emerged as the victor around 17 minutes due to a roll-up into a bridge pin. Hogan beat Frenchman Rene Goulet in quick fashion as did Andre the Giant against Bobby Duncum.
The Sammartino-Zbyszko war continued with a big match at the Boston Garden on the 10th with the veteran coming out on top with a count-out victory. Due to the fact that Zbyszko hot stepped it out of the arena once the going got tough for him. News started going around that the WWF is trying to book a baseball stadium in the New York area for a summer cage match between the two to settle the feud.
19th – The MSG show was a fantastic show for Zbyszko as he came out on top of 16-man Battle Royal. He outlasted top stars such as “High Chief” Peter Maivia, Gorilla Monsson, Pat Patterson, The Samoans, and Tony Atlas on the way to the victory. In the main event, WWF Champion Bob Backlund defeated WWF Intercontinental Champ Ken Patera in a brutal Texas Death Match that is a Match of the Year contender. The match went 23 minutes and Backlund pinned the Strongman with a crossbody off the top rope.
After Larry Zbyszko took advantage of every loophole or shortcut to avoid a beating from his former mentor Bruno Sammartino, WWF officials signed a huge match at Shea Stadium in Flushing, New York on 9th August 1980. The “Showdown At The Shea” event was been hyped to hold a match to end the feud and Zbyszko would have nowhere to run, as the match was set to take place inside the confines of a 15-foot steel cage!
21st – WWF Champion Bob Backlund and WWF Intercontinental Champion Ken Patera continued their war in a huge title vs title match at the Philly Spectrum. The IC champion ended up with his hand raised but it was via disqualification so the WWF belt remained with Backlund.
Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant was signed for the Shea Stadium card in August. Hogan had attacked Andre in a New Japan Pro Wrestling MSG Series bout to cost the Giant his match against Stan Hansen, so he was forced to sign a match with Andre one-on-one.
Throughout the month, WWF Champion Bob Backlund was involved in a series of title defenses against Hogan, Zbyszko and Patera but remained in possession of the belt.
The Federation sets an attendance of 36,395 and gate for professional wrestling at Shea Stadium at the Showdown at Shea mega event on the 9th of August. The show was heavily promoted as a Cage match for Sammartino and Zbyszko to settle the score. Bob Backlund and Pedro Morales claimed the WWF Tag Team Titles from The Wild Samoans but relinquish the belts before the day was over so Backlund could concentrate on defending his WWF Championship belt. Full report here.
16th – Again Bruno and Larry pulling in good business as the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland sets a wrestling attendance mark of 19,787 for their lumberjack match.
23rd – Gorilla Monsoon had publicly stated in his column in the Philadelphia Journal, that he would retire if he failed to defeat Ken Patera at the Spectrum in Philly on 23rd August. Monsoon was bloodied and battered by Intercontinental Champion Ken Patera, who pinned the Gorilla after using the brass knuckles.
9th – In Allentown, PA at the Agricultural Hall, The Wild Samoans, Afa and Sika reclaimed the WWF Tag Team Titles after winning a six-team tournament that was held on WWF TV. Captain Lou Albano’s men defeated Rene Goulet and Tony Garea in finals after Afa pinned Goulet following a double team bodyslam while the referee was distracted.
20th – As promised last month, Gorilla Monsoon wrestles his last match ending his 21-year career. Gorilla was pinned by Hulk Hogan at the Civic Center in Springfield, MS.
Sgt. Slaughter, Stan Hansen and Killer Khan were new faces at the TV tapings for Championship Wrestling and All-Star Wrestling in October. Slaughter immediately challenged Backlund for the WWF belt on the 20th at Madison Square Garden. Slaughter took the champion to the limit and defeated Backlund by DQ.
The job of WWF TV color commentator passed from Bruno Sammartino to Pat Patterson on the 4th of October. Vince McMahon Jr. continued as TV commentator but turned over the portion of the show which provides audio news of upcoming events to Howie Finkel, ring announcer at Madison Square Garden and other major arenas in the area.
4th – The Hangman had been enjoying a good run since arriving in the Federation in June but was beaten by Bob Backlund in the Boston Gardenated streak. The Hangman and Backlund clashed many times throughout the month but the “All-American Boy” came out on top.
10th – Bob’s busy month continued as he was challenged by the most-hated man of 1980, Larry Zbyszko in Pittsburgh. The champion retained his belt pinning Zbyszko within 15 minutes.
11th – A special show was held at the Spectrum as Gorilla Monsoon retired from in-ring competition. The first 10,000 fans to enter the Spectrum received a signed photograph of Monsoon as the WWF held a special retirement ceremony for him. New Jersey Assemblywoman Barbara Faith Kalik presented Monsoon with a Proclamation on behalf of the State Assembly in a proud moment for Gorilla.
25th – Backlund experienced a tough contest against the Intercontinental Champion Ken Patera at the Capitol Center in Landover, Maryland, but Backlund once again prevailed as the strongman was counted out.
Newcomer Sgt. Slaughter received multiple shots at the WWF Championship and his matches with champion Bob Backlund all ended in disqualifications for either man.
8th – New WWF Tag Team champions were crowned at the Philadelphia Spectrum as Afa and Sika, the Wild Samoans were beaten by the team of Rick Martel and Tony Garea to send the Philly faithful into raptures. This is the fourth time that Garea has held the championships, formerly holding with Larry Zbyszko, Haystacks Calhoun and Dean Ho.
Also the Spectrum, Backlund defended against Larry Zbyszko with Tony Atlas as the special referee. The self-proclaimed “Living Legend” took Backlund close but ended up being disqualified after refusing to a break a choke hold. Backlund gained a bit of revenge by slamming Larry after the decision and kicking Zbyszko out of the ring.
And finally, the Spectrum also played host to a dream match as WWF Intercontinental Champion Ken Patera faced Bruno Sammartino and it was an even contest until Patera was struggling and hit Bruno with a ringside chair. The referee threw the match out and declared Bruno the winner, but the action did not end there. Patera kept punishing Sammartino placing him in a full nelson until Garea, Martel and Arnold Skaaland came to the rescue.
Bruno Sammartino and Ken Patera have been main eventing across the country while Bob Backlund, Andre the Giant and Hulk Hogan have been competing in New Japan Pro Wrestling’s MSG Tag League at the beginning of the month.
8th – Pedro Morales uncrowned Ken Patera to become the new Intercontinental Champion at Madison Square Garden, with Pat Patterson was the guest referee for the bout.
29th – The Federation winds up the year in front of 19,000 fans at MSG as Tony Atlas pins ‘Big Cat’ Ernie Ladd in the main event. NWF Champion & World Martial Arts Champion Antonio Inoki defeated Bobby Duncum and WWF Junior Heavyweight champion Tatsumi Fujinami successfully defended his title against Don Diamond.
Pittsburgh Steelers win their fourth NFL championship in six seasons on January 20th, defeating the L.A. Rams 31–19 in Super Bowl XIV at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.
On 19th February, AC/DC’s frontman Bon Scott died aged 33 in London, England.
In an announcement on March 20th, President Jimmy Carter declared that the United States will boycott the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Six Iranian-born terrorists take over the Iranian embassy in London, England on 20th April. The British SAS retakes the Embassy on May 5th with only one of the terrorists surviving.
On May 16th, The Los Angeles Lakers beat the Philadelphia 76ers to clinch the NBA Title in Game Six of a Best of Seven series to win the series 4-2. The Lakers won 123-107 in the final game with rookie Magic Johnson scoring 42 points.
The Summer Olympics begins on July 19th in Moscow, Soviet Union. A total of 82 countries boycott the Games with athletes from 16 of them participating under a neutral flag.
On October 21st, Philadelphia Phillies win the MLB World Series 4 games to 1 against the Kansas City Royals.
Ronald Reagan becomes the 40th President of the United States after defeating incumbent Democratic President Jimmy Carter on 4th November in the U.S. Presidential Election.
On the 8th of December, John Lennon was shot dead in New York City while he was walking toward his apartment, The Dakota with his wife Yoko Ono.
Sources: Joseph Shedlock Newsletters, Cagematch.de, WrestlingData.com, WWE Network,
22nd September 1980 – Madison Square Garden, New York City, NY – Attendance: 20,000
On 22nd September, hot on the heels of the gigantic ‘Showdown at Shea’ show in August, the Vincent J. McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation promoted a return to Madison Square Garden with two of their biggest main events they have ever booked. The Federation had not run the Garden since June 16th due to the Democratic Party convention but they return in style.
The incredible Hulk Hogan got his return match against Andre the Giant after the controversial finish of their Shea Stadium bout. In addition, for the first time in MSG history, WWF Champion Bob Backlund and NWA World Heavyweight Champion Harley Race clashed with both titles on the line.
After enduring a recent NWA World Title loss to Giant Baba in Japan, Harley Race subsequently recaptured the belt to put it on the line in this huge encounter against Bob Backlund. Backlund himself was in the Orient last month and defended his WWF title against Antonio Inoki in a match that was cut short by interference from Stan Hansen and “Pretty Boy” Larry Sharpe.
Despite their troubles overseas, MSG was treated to a fantastic bout that made history in this unification bout. The now five-time champion Race made his eight defense of this new reign in front of the sell-out crowd. This was the bout that Backlund had longed for. Even though he has met Race for the NWA strap on many occasions across the States, this was on his home turf at the Garden.
The match nearly ended after only two minutes after Backlund got a close count from a Lou Thesz press. Despite repeated attempts to physically intimidate Backlund, the WWF champ kept his cool and worked on Race with a wearing headlock. Race eventually worked his way out of the hold and nailed Backlund with a high knee lift. Race then set Backlund up for a suplex but the WWF champion reversed it to pop the crowd. Backlund went back to the headlock and then an abdominal stretch which frustrated the five-time NWA champion and Race escaped, thumped Backlund down to the canvas and delivered a knee drop. However, again as Race went to deliver a suplex, Backlund slipped out and put Race down with a Belly-to-Back suplex for a close fall.
Race made his way back into it and punished Backlund and headed to the top rope to possibly deliver the knee drop from the top, but Backlund caught Race and slammed him off the top. Afterwards an atomic drop sent Race to the outside with Backlund interrupting the referee’s count, Race made it back in before the ten. Race hit a low blow on Backlund without the referee Jack Lodz’s knowledge and hit a further knee drop to Backlund’s head. He then hit a piledriver and a headbutt which looked likely to put Backlund away, but instead of covering he hit another headbutt and went for another piledriver. Backlund gained some adrenaline and landed a piledriver of his own for a near fall.
Race gained back the advantage and missed a headbutt from the second rope which disorientated the NWA champ. He and Backlund collided which sent both men down, but Race spiralled out of the ring. Backlund dragged Race back in and landed a leg-drop for a two count. He then landed a gut-wrench suplex to another near fall and Race was in trouble of losing his championship. Desperate, Race hit Backlund with a further low blow and was warned by Lodz. Race crashed Backlund’s head into the ring post and again was cautioned by Lodz as the now-busted open Backlund was nearly counted out.
Race opted to try and slam Backlund’s head into the ring post again but he was reversed into it which caused Harley to bleed profusely. Backlund finally lost control once he saw the blood and thumped Race down and landed a backbreaker for yet another near fall. The crowd were hot and desperate to see Backlund’s hand raised but Race escaped every time showing why he is the NWA champion.
Backlund slapped on a sleeperhold nearly sending Harley unconscious but a desperate Race grabbed Lodz and was disqualified. The crowd thought that Race had submitted until ring announcer Howard Finkel read out the decision. The DQ win for Backlund meant both men kept their titles although Backlund’s arm was raised. You can watch the full bout here on the WWE Network.
Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant’s match at Shea ended in controversy as the replays showed that Andre was awarded the bout even though it was clear that Hogan kicked out of the pin. Hogan’s manager “Classie” Freddie Blassie demanded a rematch and it took place at MSG with Gorilla Monsson as the special referee.
Hogan and Andre tangled before the ring introductions could take place, and despite Monsson trying to split them apart he rang the bell early to begin the bout. Hogan started rule breaking early on which encouraged Monsson to grab Hogan by the hair to reprimand him. The impressive build of Hogan, who has been overpowering all in his way so far in the WWF, found it hard to overpower the Giant.
Hogan made Andre suffer in a bear hug once he gained a measure of control in the bout early on. Andre battered his way out but Hogan put him down with axhandles and kicks. Hogan tried to use the ropes to his advantage on many occasions with Monsson dragging Hogan away, in behaviour that was unusual for a referee. Andre dished out some knife edge chops that took Hogan down and Andre dragged him up for a bodyslam. Andre’s effort at a splash missed the target as the frantic Hogan rolled out of the way before Andre got to his feet and slapped on his own bear hug.
Hogan worked his way out and the MSG crowd was stunned into silence once Hogan got Andre up for a bodyslam. However, instead of covering, Hogan attempted to slam the Giant again but Andre’s weight was excessive for the man from California and his legs gave way. Andre landed on top and Monsson slammed his hand down three times to award the Frenchman the match.
In the other bouts, the opening match was for the NWA World Junior Heavyweight Title as Les Thornton defended against Jose Estrada. This was the Englishman’s first appearance at MSG taking on, although local, the very unpopular Estrada, who attacked Thornton before the bell. Thornton quickly turned the tables and gave the Brooklyn native some punishment with strong rights and lefts. Thornton dominated the majority of the match winning exchanges of chain wrestling and got the pin with a backbreaker.
Next up, Pat Patterson defeated “The Unpredictable” Johnny Rodz via pinfall with a sunset flip. Rodz took advantage early on stomping Patterson until the former Intercontinental Champion fled to the outside but Rodz continued the punishment with a top rope elbow further kicks and stomps on his return. Rodz then rammed his opponent’s head into the iron ring post which seemed to wake up Patterson as he made the comeback. The roles were reversed and Rodz was being severely punished in the ring and on the outside. The referee had many chances to disqualify either man but failed to and he became confused failing to break holds, when either man was held up in the ropes, before Patterson gained the victory with the flash pinfall.
The undefeated The Hangman kept his 100% record remain intact against fan-favourite Dominic DeNucci. The bout started off as a back and forth affair until DeNucci began working on the Hangman’s right leg and the Italian took control of the fight. But the bad guy got the duke after DeNucci caught the aeroplane spin on The Hangman but he grabbed the top rope, DeNucci legs crumbled and was caught out for the three count. The Hangman attacked DeNucci after the decision with the noose but the Italian gained control of the rope. He proceeded to hurl the man from Europe over the top rope with the noose around his neck, choking The Hangman unconscious as the crowd erupted.
The cheers turned to unanimous boos for the next bout as Larry Zbyszko made his way down to the ring to face former tag team partner Tony Garea. The New Zealander took the early advantage in the match, much to the crowd’s delight but Zbyszko fled the outside, and subsequently on his return to the ring, he unsuccessfully attempted to remove the top turnbuckle pad behind referee Jack Lodz’s back. When Larry finally made it back into the ring, Garea went to work on the left arm of Zbyszko. After taking a few minutes of punishment, Zbyszko caught Garea with an elbow that sent the fan favourite to the outside, and Larry once again attempted to remove the turnbuckle pad. Larry worked on Garea with stomps but the Kiwi caught Zbyszko in an abdominal stretch. Eventually, Zbyszko’s cheating ways got the better of Garea who proceeded to choke Zbyszko in the ropes and failed to break Lodz’s five-count and Larry was announced as the victor.
Newcomer to the area, Rick Martel made his MSG debut against “Quickdraw” Rick McGraw. In a scientific match with lots of sportsmanship, Martel reversed a hip toss into a back cradle for the win. The competitors shook hands and showed appreciation for each other after the bell.
One half of the Wild Samoans, Afa faced formed WWF Champion Pedro Morales in the next match. Morales was making his return at MSG for the first time in five years and got a great ovation from the New York crowd much to the unhappiness of the Samoan’s manager Captain Lou Albano. In a seesaw battle, Morales scored a questionable pinfall in three and half minutes after reversing a bodyslam. The two brawled after the bout with Morales gaining the advantage and sending the Samoan sprawling to the outside. The video replays showed it was a bad decision by the referee with Afa kicking out on the two and a half count.
The Intercontinental Championship match between champion Ken Patera and challenger Rene Goulet was next and it did not last long. The Frenchman gained an early advantage on the champion but before either man could get warm-up the match was over. As he was Irish-whipped into the ropes, Patera booted Goulet to the chest and small packaged Goulet for a win in just a minute much to the shock of the MSG faithful.
Sika of the Wild Samoans took on “Mr. USA” Tony Atlas before the Andre-Hogan main event. The athletic Atlas is still undefeated in the WWF after he landed an elbow drop as soon as Sika missed a splash in the corner.
Les Thornton pinned Jose Estrada in 7:05 to retain the NWA World Junior Heavyweight Championship (**)
Pat Patterson pinned Johnny Rodz in 8:10 (*)
The Hangman pinned Dominic DeNucci in 10:15 (**¼)
Larry Zbyszko defeated Tony Garea via disqualification in 12:17 (**½)
Rick Martel pinned Rick McGraw in 6:59 (**)
Pedro Morales pinned Afa in 3:29 (*)
Ken Patera pinned Rene Goulet in 1:00 to retain the WWF Intercontinental Title (NR)
Bob Backlund defeated Harley Race via disqualification in 35:41. Due to the disqualification, Backlund remains the WWF Champion and Race remains the NWA World Heavyweight Champion (**¾)
Tony Atlas pinned Sika in 5:32 (*¼)
Andre the Giant pinned Hulk Hogan in 12:25. Gorilla Monsoon was the special referee. (*)
This was the just the fourth time that Race has defended the title in the building after a defense against Tony Garea in 1978 and a pair of bouts with Steve Travis and Dusty Rhodes in 1979.
The WWF could not book the Garden in July or August due to the 1980 Democratic National Convention for Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale’s re-election. Although not intentional, this was a great thing to happen to Vince McMahon and the WWF as this encouraged them to run Shea Stadium in August, which did tremendous business.
This was a stacked card but the action itself was disappointing in many of the bouts.
After an incredibly slow start, Race and Backlund’s match turned into a great match around twenty minutes in and well worth a watch, however, Andre and Hogan was disappointing.
The Les Thornton-Jose Estrada opener was enjoyable with catch wrestling, back body drops and monkey flips are aplenty. Check out the Larry Zbyszko-Tony Garea bout if you can. Zbyszko is so over as a heel, it makes the match a good watch.
I have designed a poster for this event, check it out by visiting our artwork page.
9th August 1980 – Shea Stadium, Flushing, NY – Attendance: 36,295
In front of over 36,000 fans, the ring was set-up outside the diamond at Shea Stadium, home of the New York Mets, and the World Wrestling Federation hit it one out of the ballpark with this mega event.
Bruno Sammartino and Larry Zbyszko clashed in what would be their final battle, the cumulation of a heart-breaking feud. Pre-match, Bruno added to the anticipation proclaiming he would retire if he did not win the bout. After purposely being counted out in matches with Bruno for the past few months, Zbyszko had nowhere to run inside the demands of the steel cage.
With the tension at boiling point, Bruno entered the cage immediately attacking Larry, slamming his head into the cage four times. Zbyszko, a desperate man at this point, motioned to the referee to open the door but Bruno would not let him escape. Blood flowed early in the bout with Zbyszko suffering a laceration from his head.
Zbyszko then nailed Sammartino with a low blow and the match turned. Larry laying the boots into Bruno’s mid-section and then slamming the former champions head in return, into the cage walls. Twice Zbyszko tried to escape the cage by climbing over the top but Bruno pulled him back in to punish his former student some more. Zbyszko again nearly left the cage, however via the door but Sammartino dragged him back in and once again slammed his head into the unforgiving steel.
Bruno suffered an injury to his right arm with cause a cut to open, but this only fired him up and he slammed Zbyszko’s head into the ring post from the apron. He punished the self-proclaimed “Living Legend” some more by once again ramming his head into the walls and around 14 minutes on the clock, Bruno emerged victorious walking through the door leaving the bruised and battered Zbyszko laying in the ring.
As Sammartino left, he slid his index finger over his throat which enraged Zbyszko, adrenaline built and he got to his feet and chased after Bruno. As Zbyszko approached him from behind, Sammartino landed two hard rights to Larry’s head which rocked him but Zbyszko proceeded to grab Bruno’s arm and raise it in victory. Bruno did not appreciate the gesture and walked down into the dugout. The war was over and Bruno was the victor.
Time will tell what the future holds for both men. Will Bruno go back into retirement? After all the statements he made about proving himself and defeating Bruno earlier in the year, will Zbyszko continue his wrestling career?
On the rest of the card, in the opening bout, the crowd were treated to an all-Hispanic match-up as Angel Marvilla defeated Jose Estrada in 7:27 via pinfall, after Marvilla came off the ropes and hit a flying headbutt.
Dominic DeNucci and Baron Mikel Scicluna battled in a high-tempered affair which DeNucci won via a sunset flip in 5:57. For the majority of the bout, despite many efforts to antagonise De Nucci, Scicluna failed to make the Italian avert from the innate dignity which has made him famous. However, after enduring several minutes of cheap tactics, DeNucci exploded and ended up pinning Scicluna for the victory.
In a battle for the WWF Junior Heavyweight Title, the champion from Japan, Tatsumi Fujinami faced Mexican superstar Chavo Guerrero. Early in the contest, Fuijnami dived through the ropes onto Guerrero and the pair rolled across the green of the diamond. The empathic crowd showed their appreciation with cheers. Minutes later, Chavo looked like he was going to repay the favour to Fujinami but just teased the dive. This was not the end of Chavo’s showboating however, this failed to provoke Fuijnami as the match wore on. Fujinami aimed to suplex Chavo but the Mexican reversed it for a roll-up, the champion popped out of the pin and turned Guerrero up with a bridge for the three count in just over ten and half minutes.
Next up, Fujinami’s mentor Antonio Inoki defended his National Wrestling Federation Heavyweight title, a belt he defends normally in New Japan Pro Wrestling, against “Pretty Boy” Larry Sharpe. The New Jersey native tried to play mind games early on by not getting ready for the bout. Sharpe finally de-robed from his Elvis Presley-esque jumpsuit, however, Inoki looked unperturbed and took control of the match taking Sharpe down to the mat. Sharpe gained some offense nailing Inoki with some stiff boots to the chest but Inoki replied by taking Sharpe down with some leg kicks. Inoki prevailed and retain the strap after delivering two savage kicks to the back of the Pretty Boy’s head.
The WWF Tag Team Champions the Wild Samoans were dethroned by the team of Pedro Morales and WWF Champion Bob Backlund in a best of two out of three falls bout winning by two falls without reply. Backlund was punished by double team manoeuvres early on but he and Morales were a fall up after 9:30 with Morales rolling Afa up for the pin. The crowd erupted thinking the duo had won the championships, but it was short-lived as the further falls needed to be carried out. Even ring announcer Vince McMahon was confused and climbed into the ring to declare the winners. Samoans’ manager Captain Lou Albano was getting involved so the referee ordered the security supplied by the NYPD, to take him out of the ballpark. This action disorientated the Samoans and allowed Backlund to hit a piledriver on Sika but Afa stopped the three count. Sika hoisted Backlund up for a Samoan Drop but Morales dropkicked the Samoan in the face, causing him to topple over while Backlund landed on top for the three. The Shea Stadium faithful exploded in celebration for the new champions. Yet there is a huge question mark over the future of the tag titles as it is reported that the WWF will not allow Backlund to hold these and his WWF Heavyweight Title. More on this in our August 1980 Round-up to be released in the coming days.
Pat Patterson was attacked before the bell by the vicious Tor Kamata in the next bout. Although, Patterson ran out the winner in quick fashion (2:06) after Kamata was disqualified for attempting to throw salt into the Canadian’s eyes. It ended up in the eyes of referee Dick Kroll and he threw the match out.
In ladies’ action, Beverley Shade and the NWA World Women’s Champion The Fabulous Moolah defeated Kandi Malloy and Peggy Lee when Moolah flipped Lee with a backdrop and hit a splash for the 1-2-3.
Next up, Ken Patera defended the WWF Intercontinental Championship against “Mr USA” Tony Atlas and the challenger dominated early on, sending Patera to the outside after receiving a press slam. Patera continued to take punishment much to the crowds’ delight with Atlas landing a series of headbutts, dropkicks, elbow drops and splashes, however, the tide turned when Patera dropped to the floor with Atlas’ head in his hands, causing Mr. USA’s throat to be dragged across the top rope. Patera, the self-proclaimed Worlds Strongest Man, slapped on a swinging full nelson but Atlas managed to reach the ropes and force the referee to break the hold. Although the Tony Atlas fans would be disappointed after the pair were brawling on the apron and Patera failed to climb back in before referee counted to ten. Atlas won the match but not the title. Patera attacked Atlas after the bell. The victor grabbed the mic after the decision was called and challenged Patera to continue the fight but the Olympian refused to return to the ring telling The Wrestler magazine that “he had better things to do than fight a wimp.”.
Although Johnny Rodz attacked “Polish Power” Ivan Putski before the bell, he lost the bout via pinfall after Rodz tasted the full impact of the ‘Polish Hammer’ double axhandle in under five minutes.
Rene Goulet faced the challenge of “Classie” Freddie Blassie’s latest addition to his camp, The Hangman. The more experienced Goulet outclassed the Hangman throughout but fell to defeat after he was dropped throat-first on the top rope.
In a battle of undefeated men, “The Incredible” Hulk Hogan, flanked by manager Freddie Blassie battled Andre the Giant. As discussed in our July 1980 Round-Up article, Hogan and Andre had an altercation in Japan just weeks earlier in NJPW’s MSG Series tournament. Hogan stopped Andre from entering back in the ring in a tournament match against Stan Hansen and the giant was counted out.
At Shea, as the arrogant 6ft 8, Hogan sauntered toward the ring, the fans’ boos echoed around the stadium, while in direct contrast, Andre was unanimously cheered by the 36,000 plus crowd. It was a power man contest both testing their unbelievable strength on each other. However, Hogan failed to bodyslam Andre while the Frenchman got Hulk up no problem. Unfortunately, while Andre was lifting him, Hogan’s trailing leg knocked the referee out. Hogan attacked Andre from behind and to the gasp of the crowd, got Andre up and slammed him down to the canvas. Andre recovered and returned with a splash added for the win but the match ending was marred in controversy. Although, Andre looked to have pinned Hogan for the three count and was awarded the win, video replays showed that Hogan looked to had raised his shoulder before the referee counted three. After the bell, Blassie handed Hogan some brass knuckles which he placed into his elbow pad and clotheslined Andre. Andre suffered a laceration and this war will continue.
Angel Marvilla pinned Jose Estrada in 7:27 (*¾)
Dominic DeNucci pinned Baron Mikel Scicluna in 5:57 (**)
Tatsumi Fujinami pinned Chavo Guerrero in 10:33 to retain the WWF Junior Heavyweight Title (***)
Antonio Inoki pinned Larry Sharpe in 8:53 to retain the NWF Heavyweight Title (**½)
Bob Backlund & Pedro Morales defeated The Wild Samoans in 14:42 to win the WWF World Tag Team Titles in a Best Two out of Three Falls match 2-0 (***)
Pat Patterson beat Tor Kamata via disqualification at 2:06 (NR)
Beverley Shade & The Fabulous Moolah beat Kandi Malloy & Peggy Lee at 6:06 (*)
Tony Atlas beat Ken Patera via count-out at 8:20. Patera retains the WWF Intercontinental Title (**¼)
Ivan Putski pinned Johnny Rodz at 4:45. (*½)
The Hangman pinned Rene Goulet at 8:27 (DUD)
Andre the Giant pinned Hulk Hogan at 7:49 (*¾)
Bruno Sammartino defeated Larry Zbyszko at 13:59 in a steel cage match (***¾)
WWF owner and commentator Vince McMahon did the ring announcing at Shea Stadium instead of the usual ring announcer Howard Finkel. The reason being that “The Fink” was working for Jim Crockett Promotions that night as Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling ran a show at the Municipal Auditorium in Buffalo, New York.
In drawing such a large crowd, everyone did well financially off this gigantic show although no bigger than the headliner Bruno Sammartino, who reportedly received a paycheque for $35,000 for his nigh’s work.
The Bruno vs. Larry initial angle and the subsequent feud is iconic in professional wrestling. This was an idea that Zbyszko and Sammartino concocted themselves, to push Larry’s career on and it worked perfectly and gave the WWF a massively profitable show at a time of dire need.
Watching this whole angle build and its conclusion is one of the main reasons I have chosen to revisit the history of all this footage and finally produce content for this website. There was plenty of material here that I have not seen in my thirty years as a fan and it is a joy to research, watch, discover and learn. Hopefully, you guys can learn with me, and like me get a kick out of it at the same time.
On this journey, we will discuss every fine detail about these shows and angles and this is just a taster of what is to come. We have a long way to go until March 2001 so stay with us, stay patient and enjoy the ride.
The shows itself was enjoyable and only had a few poor matches. I would recommend hopping onto Youtube for highlights of the Sammartino-Zbyszko match and if you can, check out a young Hulk Hogan vs Andre in a total switch of roles that they would play less than seven years later.
I would advise (again if you can find them) to check out Fujnami vs. Guerrero and The Samoans vs. Backlund and Morales too.