Tag Archives: Antonino Rocca

PROFILE: Antonino ‘Argentina’ Rocca

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.

Antonino Rocca: Classic photos | WWE
Rocca displaying his unique style in the ring

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.

NWA World Tag Team Championship (Capitol version) - Wikipedia
Rocca and Perez – Tag Team Champions

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.

Rocca throwing Superman through the ropes in an August 1962 edition of Superman comic.

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.

Buddy Rogers feels the wrath of Rocca’s dropkick.

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.

Antonino Rocca - History of Wrestling

“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.

As always, thanks for reading…

Will Burns

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

The Origins of the WWF – Part Two

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 J. McMahon

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.

Joe Turner’s Arena, Washington, D.C.

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. 

Vincent J. McMahon behind the desk of his office in Washington.

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.

Rocca appeared in Superman comic in 1962

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.

WWE Buddy Rogers Giving Pose
“Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers with the NWA World Heavyweight Championship belt around his waist.

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 and Rogers finally faced off in a NWA World title switch Toronto in January 1963.

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.

Click here to read Part Three of ‘The Origins of the WWF’, to be released 5th February, we take an in-depth look at the split from the NWA and Capitol evolving into the WWWF.

Will Burns

Sources: WWE Network, Cagematch.net, Capitol Revolution – The Rise of the McMahon Wrestling Empire – Tim Hornbaker, National Wrestling Alliance – The Untold Story of the Monopoly That Strangled Pro Wrestling – Tim Hornbaker, Wrestling In The Garden, Volume 2 – Scott Teal, WrestlingData.com

The Origins of the WWF – Part One

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.

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.

Joseph “Toots” Mondt

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.

Stanislaw Zbyszko and Ed ‘Strangler’ Lewis

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.

Antonino Rocca hitting his patent dropkick

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.

Click here to read Part Two of ‘The Origins of the WWF’, as we dive into the history of Vincent James McMahon and the Capitol Wrestling promotion.

Will Burns

Sources: WWE Network, Cagematch.net, Capitol Revolution – The Rise of the McMahon Wrestling Empire – Tim Hornbaker, National Wrestling Alliance – The Untold Story of the Monopoly That Strangled Pro Wrestling – Tim Hornbaker, Wrestling In The Garden, Volume 2 – Scott Teal, WrestlingData.com