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The Origins of the WWF – Part One

PART ONE – The First McMahon and a Man Named “Toots”

As we close the door on the year of 1980 in our ProjectWWF.com journey, the World Wrestling Federation are in the preliminary stages of expanding its territory – formulating a potential national expansion.  In this new series, ‘The Origins of the WWF’, Will Burns investigates how the promotion transpired to be until the 1980s.  We begin with a look at the first McMahon to be associated with the world of professional wrestling, Jess McMahon.

Jess McMahon

The McMahon family has been connected to wrestling for nearly 90 years with Roderick James McMahon, known to everyone as “Jess”, booking his first grappling show at the Municipal Stadium, Freeport, Long Island on 7th June 1932. However, Jess had vast experience of selling tickets for other sports before that, promoting boxing since 1905.

Born in New York City in 1882, Jess and his brother Eddie formed the Olympic Athletic Club in March 1900 and after creating baseball and football teams, they promoted their first boxing show in December 1905.  Starting from the bottom, the McMahons grew a huge reputation as promoters in the Golden Age of Boxing throughout the 1920s and 1930s. In a Boxing News publication, Jess was labeled as “probably the best known promoter in the world”.

In October 1925, Jess was appointed matchmaker at the newly built Madison Square Garden in mid-town Manhattan and managed to book champions Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney and Jack Sharkey in his three-year tenure in the role. Jess continued to fill huge venues such as at Yankee Stadium and 130,000-seater Sesquicentennial Stadium across in Philadelphia.

Throughout this time, entrepreneur Jess had paid close attention to how popular professional wrestling had become for fellow promoter Jack Curley during the late twenties, and he began to research the business using literature borrowed from wrestling champion and friend, Jim Londos.  The aforementioned Freeport show took place in June 1932 and the success encouraged Jess to put his efforts into both boxing and wrestling, before he sadly lost brother Eddie in 1935 due to a long illness.

Curley died suddenly in 1937 and his passing caused the interest in the sport to dip. Known for running Monday night show’s at Madison Square Garden, Curley was the most successful New York promoter and was highly respected, holding a great relationship with the city’s sportswriters. After his death, the press coverage waned and the business suffered.  The resilient Jess soldiered on to operate shows in both sports at the Coney Island Velodrome, Queensboro Stadium and the Hempstead Bowl.  His Wednesday night Hempstead Arena events were deemed as must-see events by the local fans.

Looking to increase his income elsewhere, Jess branched out and began promoting music concerts in Washington D.C. in 1945.  The venture was a great success but Jess soon grew tired of the trips to the capital and decided to pass the responsibility onto his son, Vincent James McMahon, who relocated to the area.

Back in New York, it would not be until late into the 1940s that the market for wrestling matches would be prosperous again.  The resurgence was in part responsible by one of Jess’s eventual business partners, professional wrestler and visionary Joseph “Toots” Mondt.  Together, Jess, Toots and McMahon’s son Vincent, would combine resources and talents to produce the Capitol Wrestling Corporation in the early 1950s (more on that in Part Two of our series).

Toots held down a career in the business spanning over 60 years, both inside the ropes and in the office. Although a lethal catch-as-catch-can grappler, Mondt will be more fondly remembered for his intuitive forward thinking that helped shape the business to what it is today.

Joseph “Toots” Mondt

In 1912, the naturally athletic and charismatic Mondt was 18 years old when he made his debut in the carnivals, and by 1915, while working full-time as a labourer, he would climb into the ring sporadically to earn extra money.  He continued to appear at carnivals taking money off the locals, before setting off to Omaha to be trained by Farmer Burns.  Under the tutelage of Burns, Mondt expanded on his grappling skills while introducing theatrical skills and he became the “Colorado Cowboy”, one of the most popular performers in Colorado.  The sport was experiencing a poor period by the time World War ended and instead of financially suffering, Mondt managed to land a job at Colorado A&M University coaching the wrestling team.

Shortly after adopting the name of “Toots”, in 1922 he met heavyweight champion Ed “Strangler” Lewis.  Lewis, along with his manager Billy Sandow, were holidaying in Colorado and “Strangler” took a match to earn some bucks.  Mondt introduced himself to the pair and they were astounded by his views on the sport and his athletic ability, so they took him into the fold and the “Gold Dust Trio” was formed, though they would not be named as such until 1937.

Mondt left his coaching job and was an instant star in the ring. However, the ticket sales were still poor, so Mondt envisaged the waning crowds needed something different.  He proposed to Lewis and Sandow that the business should integrate time-limits to stop any matches dragging into hours.  He suggested that matches should have more theatrics and integrate brawling from carnival fights, boxing techniques (within the rules), and more suplexes, slams and arm drags to allow the stars to impress the audiences with their strength.  Lewis and his manager lapped this vision up and professional wrestling was born, although Mondt coined it ‘Slam Bang Western-Style Wrestling!’.

Prior to WWI, promoters could sell out a stadium with one single marquee title bout, however by the end of the war in 1919, the interest in wrestling was incredibly low. A single match did not seem enough so Mondt, Lewis and Sandow began promoting multiple matches on their events. These shows were also topped with a title defense as a main event but featured more wrestlers on the undercards, building stars for future main events.

As the crowds began to return to the sport in their droves, Mondt stressed that determining an outcome in the bouts was as important as ever. Not just the outcome, but the finish of the match. Although wrestling had been pre-determined for years previous, by dictating how a match was won was providing more drama for the viewer and attracting more and more people back to the sport.

Rival promoters were losing out including New York’s Jack Curley and the Stetcher Brothers, Joe and Lewis. Mondt had clashed in 1924 with Joe in a bout that turned into a shoot and Stetcher ended up knocked out cold via a strike. However, the business rivalry between the brothers and the Trio was just beginning.

Lewis and Sandow had discovered a four-sport athlete from University of Nebraska, Wayne Munn. In addition to collegiate wrestling, Munn had experience in boxing, basketball and football and after unsuccessfully turning out in the ring with gloves, he made the trip to Omaha to be schooled in professional wrestling.

Munn has also served as infantry first lieutenant during the war and the Trio saw dollar signs.  They booked him to clinch the World Championship from Lewis, a move that they would later regret. On 8th January 1925 in Kansas City, Lewis dropped the belt to Munn, but controversy prevailed in the aftermath, as the Trio booked the story that Lewis “refused” to give up the title, which set-up a rematch in Michigan City, Indiana – another good payday.

Stanislaw Zbyszko and Ed ‘Strangler’ Lewis

Munn was protected by the Trio and was booked against opponents on the payroll including Polish strongman and excellent grappler Stanislaus Zbyszko. The first bout between Munn and Zbyszko ended in the Poland native putting the 29-year-old over and the rematch was to be more of the same to help Munn and the Trio at the box office.

However, Zbyszko had other plans. Years before the Montreal Screwjob, the double-cross occurred with Zbyszko shooting on Munn and winning the match two falls to none within 13 minutes.  The man behind the betrayal was New York promoter Jack Curley. Munn, unlike Lewis, was incapable of stopping a shooter like Zbyszko, and the World Title ended up in the rival camp.  Months later, Zbyszko and Stetcher sold 15,000 tickets in St. Louis to see Joe go over Zbyszko.

After a year of trying out do each other in 1926, the Trio and the Stetcher-Curley camp buried the hatchet and came to realisation that the business (and their pocketbooks) needed them to work together.  Stetcher stepped away from in-ring activity to allow Lewis to regain the title in front of 8,000 at the St. Louis Coliseum in February 1928.

Throughout this period, Mondt stayed loyal to Sandow and Lewis and became a great aide trying to overturn their fortunes, however his in-ring action began to slow down due a knee injury he suffered in 1927.  Trouble in the camp begun when Sandow allowed brother Max into the fold, and he and Mondt clashed often before an ultimatum was thrown down to Billy with Sandow siding with his brother.

Mondt left instantly and joined Curley in New York and linked up with Philadelphia promoter Ray Fabiani.  In Pennsylvania, Mondt created new stars like Jim Londos and German grappler Dick Shikat to a huge success.  Shikat and Londos clashed on a Mondt show in Philadelphia in August 1929 in front of a reported 30,000 fans.

Besides his office and promoting duties, Mondt worked in-ring building stars now and then, but had virtually retired by 1932.  He began promoting Boston and Washington shows in conjunction with Fabiani and Curley, with all three benefiting from then champion Jim Londos appearing for the three territories.  However, the Greek had been carrying the shows and by April 1932, he severed ties with the syndicate and signed on with other New York promoters, Rudy Dusek and the Johnston Brothers, Charley and Bill, taking the belt with him.

Lacking star power, Mondt contacted old friend Ed Lewis and convinced him to climb back into the ropes and an agreement was reached to create a new syndicate with Mondt, Curley, Jack Pfefer and Rudy Miller (two more NYC promoters) and this created a turf war against Dusek and the Johnstons.

By the end of the 1930’s, with Jack Curley’s death having a huge impact, business in NYC was struggling, while other territories were booming with the likes of “Wild” Bill Longson, Bronko Nagurski and Lou Thesz selling the tickets across the nation. In September 1937 at the Garden, just 2,000 fans were in attendance and wrestling was pulled from the arena’s schedule.

Although Mondt had access in the New York market to promote his new style of wrestling, Madison Square Garden owner Tex Rickard, who had worked with Jess McMahon back in the 1920’s, was against the sport being promoted in the building and come March 30th 1938, MSG held it’s final wrestling event in 11 years.

However, come 1948, Mondt formed the Manhattan Booking Agency (MBA) with himself as the president, leading Miller (as General Manager) and wrestler Milo Steinborn (Matchmaker). By 1949, they collaborated with former rivals Rudy Dusek and the Johnstons and suddenly, with multiple promoters willing to combine forces to book bigger shows with a greater assembly of talent, Rickard had a change of heart.  This gave the new alliance the opportunity to bring wrestling back to the Garden.

Antonino Rocca hitting his patent dropkick

In December 1949, the return to MSG was a financial success with 17,854 in attendance with a young Argentine wrestler, Antonino Rocca at the top of the bill.  Only three nights previous, Jake LaMotta and Robert Villemain only pulled a crowd less than 10,000 in the Garden for a non-title boxing scrap. 

Meanwhile, Rocca was an instant star, the market in New York had been revived and MSG pulled audiences around the 15,000 mark for the next few shows.  Witnessing the success, the intrigued Jess McMahon and son Vincent visited the Garden, and formed a bond with Toots.  A relationship that would work together for many years.

The success also grabbed the attention of the National Wrestling Alliance, which was formed in 1948 to create a wrestling monopoly and have one world champion for all their territories.  Mondt was already involved with many members of the Alliance sharing talent which was against the rules of the NWA.  Initially, Mondt mocked the Alliance and its purpose, but after the NWA threatened members to stop working with him and Dusek, Mondt signed on in a move which both benefited from.  The NWA members had access to Mondt’s talent, and his wrestlers worked in Baltimore, Philadelphia and Washington gaining exposure in those towns.

But the relationship was not rosy for long.  In 1952, Toots allowed Rocca to work a non-NWA show in Iowa, a territory where NWA-founder Pinkie George ran an Alliance affiliated promotion.  Mondt was given a stern warning and Rocca was pulled from the event.  This was only one example of mis-management from Toots.  Wrestlers and promoters either received their payments late or not at all, and many pulled out of dealing with the MBA.  In the summer of 1953, Mondt managed to convince NWA Chicago promoter Fred Kohler to send his talent over from the Windy City but this would be a bad move for his New York market.

Kohler’s talent was featured on DuMont Television Network, which was distributed throughout the country, his stars were becoming household names.  Mondt had great reliance on the availability of Kohler’s Chicago stars and if they were unavailable, attendances crept down. In 1953, Kohler, Mondt and Charley Johnston formed the Sports Promoters’ Engineers Inc. which they had heavily invested in.  The group supplied wrestlers to cities like Chicago and New York, but it did last long as crowds and promoters were unhappy with the talent that was on their shows and the wrestlers complained about not been paid on time.

Mondt’s career was spiraling downhill. He was a heavy gambler wagering at the race track.  Former colleague Pedro Martinez punched Toots due to $19,750 he owed him, and the NWA was cautious of dealing with him.  Mondt declared bankruptcy in April 1954 and he took the Manhattan Booking Agency down with him.  In August, Martinez bought the company for $200, which included an exclusive contract with main event talent Rocca.

Kohler, the Johnstons and Mondt continued to run shows in New York under the new Manhattan Wrestling Enterprises banner, but the market never recovered until they got their own wrestling television program on the DuMont network.  Starting from June 1956, the Network would feature New York wrestlers in a new two-hour program every Thursday night from a Washington promotion ran by Vincent James McMahon (more on him in Part Two).

Mondt’s impact on modern-day wrestling cannot be ignored, his vision of ‘Slam Bang Western Style Wrestling’ inspired a lot of the action that we see today and you will hear a lot more about Mondt’s influence, especially in New York, in future articles.

Although he laid the foundation for the future WWF, Jess McMahon’s history will show that his success as a boxing promoter was more fruitful than his business in wrestling.  Sadly in 1954, Jess suddenly died aged 72.  While attending wrestling matches in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, he became seriously ill with a cerebral hemorrhage and passed away three days later.

After Jess’ unexpected passing, it was his son Vincent’s time to take his father’s business to a much higher echelon that his father and close associate, Toots Mondt could possibly ever have dreamed of.

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

Will Burns

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