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The Origins of the WWF – Part Five

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

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

WWWF Champion Pedro Morales

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vince McMahon Sr and his son, Vince Jr.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bruno Sammartino claimed the WWWF title again in 1973

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bob Backlund clinched the WWWF Championship from Graham in February 1978

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Antonio Inoki with the WWWF Championship belt

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading.

Will Burns

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

The Origins of the WWF – Part Four

PART FOUR – “Bruno! Bruno! Bruno!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bruno Sammartino poses with Pedro Morales.

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

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

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

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

Will Burns

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