Tag Archives: Bruno Sammartino

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. 

Image result for andre the giant  mcmahon
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.

Image result for billy graham wwwf champion
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.

Image result for bob backlund wwwf champion
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.

Image result for antonino inoki wwe champion
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.

The Origins of the WWF – Part Three

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.

Rogers dropped the NWA Worlds Heavyweight Championship to Lou Thesz in January 1963.

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.

Buddy Rogers, the first WWWF Champion, with the remodelled United States Championship, with a plate attached that states ‘World Champion’.

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.

Bruno Sammartino was to be McMahon’s next big draw.

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.

Bruno, pictured here aged 23, became incredibly strong in his teens and early twenties.

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.

Bruno was crowned WWWF Champion in just 48 seconds of the bout against Rogers.

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.

Click here to read Part Four of ‘The Origins of the WWF’, to be released on 12th February, where we discuss the reign of Bruno Sammartino.

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 6:05 Superpodcast.


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.

WWF: Madison Square Garden (04.21.80) – PDRwrestling


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 MaiviaGorilla MonssonPat PattersonThe 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.

22nd – In their first meeting on WWF soil, Champion Bob Backlund defeated NWA World Heavyweight Champion Harley Race by disqualification in Madison Square Garden. Both grapplers emerged from the contest a bloody mess. We covered the entire event here.


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.

Ring Posts: Q&A with Sgt. Slaughter - Baltimore Sun


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. 

Pedro Morales - eWrestlingNews.com


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.


Bob Backlund vs. Ken Patera (MSG – 21/01/80)

Larry Zbyszko vs. Bruno Sammartino (Allentown, PA – 02/02/80)

Bob Backlund vs. Hulk Hogan (Philadelphia Spectrum – 12/04/80)

Bob Backlund vs. Ken Patera – Texas Death Match (MSG – 19/05/80)

Bob Backlund vs. Ken Patera (Philadelphia Spectrum – 26/07/80)

Andre the Giant vs. Hulk Hogan (Philadelphia Spectrum – 26/07/80)

Andre the Giant vs. Hulk Hogan (Shea Stadium – 22/09/1980)

Bruno Sammartino vs. Larry Zbyszko – Cage Match (Shea Stadium – 22/9/80)

Bob Backlund vs. Harley Race (MSG – 22/09/80)

Bob Backlund vs. Larry Zbyszko (Philadelphia Spectrum – 08/11/80)

The Example of Ronald Reagan - NYTimes.com


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.

Will Burns

Sources: Joseph Shedlock Newsletters, Cagematch.de, WrestlingData.com, WWE Network,


It is reported by sources in New York that over 30,000 fans will embark to Shea Stadium, the home of the New York Mets on August 9th 1980 for the World Wrestling Federation’s biggest show to date, “Showdown at Shea”.  There is only one match that could headline an event of this magnitude, Larry Zbyszko vs. Bruno Sammartino writes Will Burns.

“No Mr. Nice Guy” proclaimed Larry Zbyszko shortly after exhibition bout with his mentor Bruno Sammartino on a February 2nd 1980’s edition of WWF Championship Wrestling. The fan’s jaws dropped to the floor when Zbyszko erupted violently in a vicious attack against the former legendary WWF champion. The student stabbed his teacher in the back and at Shea Stadium, he must pay the consequences.

Larry met Bruno in 1967 and describes the moment perfectly in his autobiography “Adventures of Larryland”: “So, when I turned 16, I became a stalker.  I couldn’t help it — when I found out my larger-than-life, living and breathing hero lived only two miles away, I had to drive past his house every chance I got.  One day, I damn near wrecked my car. There he was in his backyard — I could see him through the hedges.  I’m sure it made his day, some 16-year-old, pimply-faced kid stumbling through his humble beginnings shrubbery.  But that’s how it started —I trespassed into his privacy.  I introduced myself, very respectfully, and for some reason, he bought my dream. It really was as simple as that — Bruno’s protegé, Larry Zbyzsko, was born.”

Bruno agreed to train Zbyszko and then began working out regularly in the two-time WWF champion’s basement and by 1972, in a business which is incredibly difficult get into, Bruno introduced his protégé to Vincent James McMahon, the owner of the World Wide Wrestling Federation, and Zbyszko was signed to appear on their shows.  Larry idolized Bruno and Bruno treat Larry like a younger brother. They were incredibly close.

Then as time went on Bruno suffered injuries and semi-retired from the ring and Larry started plying his trade with great success, winning the WWWF World Tag Team Titles with partner Tony Garea in November 1978.

However, in December 1979, the student-mentor relationship showed signs of cracks when Bruno (now a colour commentator on WWF Championship Wrestling) was snubbed by Larry when he tried to interview him.  A week later, Sammartino stated that he had tried to reach out to Zbyszko to talk to him but he could not get him to acknowledge his calls. Vince McMahon was able to talk to Larry at ringside and Larry made his feelings known…

“I was trained by Bruno Sammartino and he taught me almost everything I know.  And it was very hard for me not to talk to Bruno but I couldn’t get myself to talk to the man and I am going to tell everybody why.

I want to make this clear to everybody – I do not hate Bruno. I do not disrespect Bruno but I have to become Larry Zbyszko to survive in my chosen field, in my career. For years now, I have been walking down the street and I have been recognised as “hey, you’re the one that Bruno trained aren’t ya?” and I have been walking down the streets for years and people say “hey there’s Bruno’s protégé”. And I have been getting this all over the world, not just where I live, I’ve even been getting this off some members of my own family.”

“The man who helped me so much is now standing in my way.  I cannot become Larry Zbyszko, the veteran while I exist in Bruno Sammartino’s shadow.”

“I have to prove myself and I deserve a chance. I have asked Bruno for my favours in the past and I have to ask for one more. I want to wrestle Bruno Sammartino and prove myself to the world and the fans and to the promoters that won’t give me the recognition I’m due.”

As the weeks went by on the television shows, Bruno rejected the idea of the match saying that he “loved Larry like a brother”, he could not fight his brother and Zbyszko’s challenge hurt him deeply.

After a match on the 26th January edition of Championship Wrestling, Zbyszko called Vince over to talk and he stated if Bruno would not wrestle him, he would leave the business. He called out Bruno face-to-face which Sammartino obliged. Bruno said he did not want Zbyszko to end his career due to his willingness not to wrestle. He reluctantly agreed to the match and give Zbyszko the chance to prove himself however, that he would not go easy on Larry but he would not go out to hurt him.

The next week on television (February 2nd), the match took place. The bout was a technical exhibition bout and Zbyszko was being clearly being outclassed by his mentor. Larry began to show his frustrations and after Bruno reversed a hammerlock that sent Zbyszko hurtling to the outside, Bruno held the ropes open to invite Larry back into the ring.  Zbyszko snapped and viciously attacked Bruno stomping away at his chest before slamming him headfirst into the turnbuckle.

The crowd were shocked and Zbyszko’s actions had only just begun. He grabbed a wooden chair from the outside and smashed it across Bruno’s forehead three times and the Italian was bleeding copiously laying on the mat.  The boos rang out of the Agricultural Hall in Allentown, Pennsylvania as Larry eventually left the ring as Bruno lay in a pool of his own blood.  Betrayal of the lowest order.

Bruno spoke shortly afterwards, very sombre and talked about the loss of blood he suffered and the sleepless nights he had been experiencing due to the incident.  In contrast, Larry was brash and cocky, proclaiming himself as “the new living legend”.

Bruno was out for revenge and the pair met at a huge show on March 1st in front of a sold-out Philadelphia Spectrum. In a back and forth affair, it was Bruno that displayed his frustrations and while pummeling Zbyszko in the corner, Bruno threw the referee out of the way and many from the locker room had to peel Sammartino off from causing Zbyszko serious damage.  Bruno was disqualified and Zbyszko was announced as the winner.

In a rematch at Madison Square Garden on 24th March, Bruno failed to release a chokehold on Zbyszko and was again, disqualified. The next month with the Spectrum sold out again, Bruno gained some revenge when Zbyszko’s attempt to bring a steel chair into the ring backfired. Sammartino gained control of the chair and he slammed it into Larry’s head. Bruno was declared the winner after Zbyzsko was unable to continue.

This bitter feud was in full swing when the pair returned to MSG on 21st April. Zbyszko tasted defeat again but via count-out when he walked from the punishment that his mentor was dishing out. The pair battled at the Boston Garden on May 10th, again Larry walked out to give Bruno the frustrating count-out victory.

On 9th August 1980 at Shea Stadium, in a match that has attracted over 30,000 fans, Bruno will meet Larry again. But this time there is nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, as the bout takes place inside the confines of the demanding steel cage. The heartbreaking war will end so join us here for a full report in the coming days.

Will Burns