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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 Origins of the WWF – Part Two

PART TWO – Vincent J. McMahon, Capitol Wrestling and Television

Welcome to our second part of the ‘The Origins of WWF’ series, and as we ended Part One with the untimely death of Jess McMahon, it’s time for his son Vincent to continue his father’s legacy and take the wrestling business to new heights writes Will Burns.

Vincent J. McMahon

Vincent James McMahon would spend many nights of his childhood in the halls of Madison Square Garden, while his father Jess would be promoting a boxing card, so it is no surprise that eventually Vince would end up in the business of promoting sports himself.

Vince was born in 1915 and raised in Harlem, New York with father Jess, mother Rose and two siblings, sister Dorothy and brother Roderick. Jess placed Vince into a Military Academy after initial schooling and once graduated, the young McMahon became obsessed with promoting sports. After primarily shadowing his father at work, Jess started employing young Vince in small booking office in Hempstead, Long Island, in 1935, helping to promote fights and concerts.  The 20-year-old Vince was gaining valuable experience for nearly seven years, until the United States went to war.

The former heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey, was in recruitment for the U.S. Coast Guard and Vince signed on.  Dempsey stationed McMahon to a base in Wilmington, North Carolina, serving in World War II until he was discharged in August 1945.

Vince took on the role of promoting music events in Washington D.C. after his father had implemented the business in 1945 but found the commute to the capital too much hassle.  By 1947, the 33-year-old Vincent packed his bags, found accommodation in Washington and settled in the area, but it was not long before McMahon got involved in wrestling in the city.

A former middleweight wrestling champion, Joe Turner, was a larger-than-life sports figure in Washington for over 40 years.  Turner left the ring for the office, promoting wrestling and boxing and he purchased a garage building in 1935. He renovated the small venue, squeezed in 1,880 seats, and renamed it the ‘Joe Turner’s Arena’.  The building became synonymous with the sport of wrestling in Washington and was part of many families’ routine every Thursday night.

Joe Turner’s Arena, Washington, D.C.

Turner suddenly passed away aged 62 years old in 1947, and the boxing and wrestling community in the city was shattered.  However, his wife Florence stepped in after his death with Joe’s matchmaker, Gabe Menendez.  Vincent had dealings with Turner and Menendez prior to Joe’s death, and his widow hired McMahon to be the Arena’s new general manager.

After setting up an office at the Franklin Park Hotel, Vincent grabbed the opportunity by the horns and successfully made the Arena popular and profitable. He hosted music concerts, Basketball games and worked with Menendez to promote boxing and wrestling.  McMahon had picked up where Turner had left off and brought in many of Toots Mondt’s stars from New York, in particular Antonino Rocca, who was a huge success in D.C.

At the end of 1952, Vince captured the sublease for the Turner Arena and purchased the wrestling territory from Menendez for $60,000.  With the aid of his father, Vince promoted his first show in January 1953, brokering deals with Mondt and Jack Pfefer of New York and Chicago’s Fred Kohler to bring top talent to the capital.  The deal with Kohler was the biggest asset, as mentioned in Part One of this series, the Chicago promoter had TV exposure through the DuMont Network and was building stars with ease.

McMahon promoted different shows to Turner’s product. Along with Kohler and Mondt’s talent, he used contacts in the NWA to hire woman’s wrestlers from Billy Wolfe, promoted battle royal matches and multi-week tournaments.  During this period, amongst the big box office draws McMahon had at his disposal was Rocca, Hans Schmidt, “Mr. America” Gene Stanlee, Verne Gagne, Gorgeous George, Killer Kowalski, Danny McShain and Dick the Bruiser.

Business was booming and McMahon continued to place his own stamp on the shows and in December 1955, he renamed the Turner Arena to the ‘Capitol Arena’. The Capitol Arena name was taken from a venue in Albany, New York that his father Jess had held many events during the 1940s.  Vincent was looking into the future and gained advice and information from Kohler, before deciding to negotiate with DuMont for his own TV show.  He believed the exposure from the television could help him produce and promote his own stars, and not have to rely on other promoters’ talent.

At 10.00pm on 5th January 1956, live from the Capitol Arena, McMahon’s show debuted on Washington’s WTTG channel, part of the DuMont Network.  Antonino Rocca defeated Jack Wentworth in the show’s main event.  DuMont was not keen on giving Vince the initial one-hour slot but McMahon took a huge plunge and paid for the first two weeks’ production costs himself to prove the shows’ worth to the Network.  It was a huge risk, but a risk that paid off, as DuMont signed on a long-term contract by the third week of TV.

On the TV show, McMahon’s booking methods were groundbreaking. The matches would include a lot of brawling and more action outside the ring which his audience had not seen before.  He would make sure every show would end with a top main event, giving the viewers at home a reason to stay tuned in.  This was a dangerous move as these high-profile matches were usually held back to promote ticket sales to non-televised shows, however, this technique had an adverse effect.  The viewers watched the main event play out at home, which encouraged the thrill of seeing the stars live at the next opportunity.

By the summer, due to the success of the WTTG show, DuMont approached McMahon to add a two-hour show (9.00-11.00pm) on Channel 5 WABD in the New York Metropolitan area, debuting on June 21st.  The broadcasting of this show meant that McMahon’s TV was now available in 11 states: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, Delaware, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland and D.C.  Other promoters in the region quaked in fear as McMahon had a huge advantage over them, although Mondt knew this was good news for him.

With attendances dropping to its lowest level in NYC, the TV show would give the business in the city, the shot in the arm it needed.  McMahon, Mondt, and The Johnston Brothers used the exposure from the television to promote a big show at Madison Square Garden at the end of November 1956. Over 10,000 fans bought tickets to see Rocca, Schmidt, and Dick Steinborn in action, but three months later, a sellout crowd of 19,000 would witness Rocca and Verne Gagne defeating Schmidt and Karl von Hess in the headliner. 

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

In March, two MSG shows drew more sellout crowds, 19,995 and 20,125 respectively.  New York’s wrestling business that once looked to be in turmoil had experienced a rapid financial turnaround due to the emergence of McMahon’s television show.  The duo of McMahon and Mondt were thriving and working well as a team. Mondt had been on top before but failed many times over, McMahon was a superior businessman and kept his associate on course.  Vince was establishing a future business model and this inspired Mondt to stay focused.  Toots handled the talents while Vincent was leading the charge and becoming the mastermind behind the shows, but as their business grew into the 11 states, so did the need for more resources. 

Johnny Doyle, a promoter who had worked closely with Mondt in Los Angeles, was brought in and on August 1st, 1957 the trio decided to label their new alliance under a new banner running out of Washington, D.C. – Capitol Wrestling Corporation.  Mondt and McMahon also received great support from experienced New Jersey promoter Willie Gilzenberg, an associate of the McMahon family for many years to come (more about Willie in Part Three).

McMahon and Mondt owned 42 percent of the company with Doyle taking up the remaining shares and their roles were clear.  Mondt was taking a back seat, but the promotion to use his membership in the NWA and the copious amounts of contacts, both promoters and wrestlers.  McMahon was the president, the leader making sure all plans would be implemented successfully and Doyle would act as a matchmaker, vice president and treasurer.  Although Doyle did not hang around, he was offered a job by Paul Bowser’s office in Boston and left Capitol to relocate there in 1958.

The finances were in the green come the end of the year, making a healthy six figure profit and throughout 1958, the Garden shows continued to be a huge success with eleven shows being ran and six drawing over 18,000 fans.  The bookings of the arena were under the jurisdiction of Charley Johnston and his employees, Kola Kwarini and Walter Smallshaw, but they knew they needed the talent of McMahon-Mondt to pull the big money into the venue.  Soon enough, McMahon claimed the duty of matchmaking in MSG and Mondt was labelled as co-promoter with Johnston.

Capitol’s stock was rising and they were becoming untouchable in the Northeast.  McMahon nabbed a second TV outlet in February 1959, broadcasting out of Bridgeport, Connecticut.  McMahon’s programming would now be seen from Virginia to Canada, which encouraged more shows to be booked across the Northeastern area, securing extra television slots paid impressive dividends.  If McMahon could possibly hold any extra power, he then cut a deal with Antonino “Argentina” Rocca.  McMahon and Mondt managed to pin the star down to a managerial contract, getting a share of all his bookings.

Rocca appeared in Superman comic in 1962

Heading into 1960, Rocca with his infectious charisma and pageantry, was the most popular headliner wrestler in the New York market.  He was a hot commodity for the Garden, and whether he was in a singles bout or tag-teaming with Puerto Rican star Miguel Perez, Rocca appeared top of the bill in 48 successive events – the Perez-Rocca team headlining 21 consecutive MSG shows.  Amazingly, his main event match against the high-flying The Amazing Zuma on 2nd January 1960, drew 21,950 fans and promoters were vying for his services.  Once Rocca got on television, the whole country wanted to see him.  Rocca’s popularity spilled out of the ring when made an appearance on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and wrestled an octopus in an August 1962 issue of the Superman comic. 

Another wrestler that Mondt and McMahon pinned down was the blonde-haired, bronze-tanned, arrogant heel, “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers.  McMahon exploited Rogers and his egotistical showman persona and he became an instant hit.  Those fans that paid to cheer Rocca, would now pay to see Rogers beat up and they did just that.  On May 21st in 1961, the Garden was headlined by a Rocca-Rogers match that drew a crowd of 17,988.  Although, by the end of 1962, Rocca finished up with McMahon not willing to compete with Rogers for the top spot.

At the annual National Wrestling Alliance meeting, Mondt and recently admitted Alliance member McMahon, recommended Rogers to be crowned NWA World Heavyweight Champion, which was held by Pat O’Connor.  Members of the Alliance, observing the great business that Capitol was doing, knew that they could profit from their success with Rogers wearing their belt on McMahon’s TV and events – although it was hardly a customary decision.  NWA champions usually held great mat wrestling skills with the ability to shoot and protect the belt from anyone who tried to take it away without an agreement.  Never had a heel with a captivating personality held the prestigious title and in a wrestler like Rogers, spectators would now see a man they love to hate in their arenas, instead of the hero-like champion.

In Chicago on 30th June 1962, Rogers defeated O’Connor to clinch the title in front a huge 38,000 crowd at Comiskey Park, a new North American professional wrestling attendance record.  After been handed the championship belt in the middle of the ring by NWA Chicago promoter Fred Kohler, Rogers did something no other NWA champion has previously done – accepted the title with an arrogant style.  With the title in his hands, Rogers spoke on the mic and proclaimed: “One thing I want everybody to know, and that is… to a nicer guy, it couldn’t happen.”.

However, Rogers’ reign was immediately problematic for the Alliance.  An edict of being the NWA champion meant you had to pay a $10,000 deposit once in possession of the title. The organisation had implemented this as a safeguard measure that no champion would go into business for themselves and lose the belt to whomever they wished.  However, the Alliance showing possible insecurity with Rogers as the titleholder, upped this to $25,000. 

An ongoing difficulty in the relationship between McMahon and NWA president and St. Louis promoter Sam Muchnick was how Rogers was booked on McMahon’s shows, especially inside Madison Square Garden.  McMahon would have his headliner wrestling in tag team matches, which was against the NWA’s agreement to make the “Nature Boy” the champion.  Despite Muchnick communicating to McMahon that he wished this to stop, Rogers ended up appearing in 17 MSG shows as champion, nine of those bouts would be tag matches.

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

Muchnick’s role as NWA president was to book the champion’s schedule but McMahon and Mondt, dictated Buddy’s dates and clearly favoured working the Northeast venues which helped Capitol’s business.  After Northeast dates were arranged, then Chicago (Kohler), St. Louis (Muchnick), Texas (Morris Sigel) and Toronto (Frank Tunney) were locked in the schedule.

This outraged the other NWA promoters.  Rogers was pulling in monster crowds across the country in major venues and McMahon and company’s bank accounts were bulging.  While other promoters in smaller territories were being bypassed, this led to many promoters threatening to leave the NWA.  As tensions grew, president Sam Muchnick announced to the NWA in the Autumn of 1962, that Rogers was to drop the belt back to a man that Muchnick could rely on – long-time member and former champion, Lou Thesz.  With Thesz about to claim his sixth run with the NWA Worlds Championship, Toots and Vince were far from pleased.

The title switch was originally scheduled for September but Rogers pulled out with an injury, likewise in November too.  Many doubted that the injuries were legit however, criminal charges were pressed against Karl Gotch and Bill Miller after they beat up Rogers in a locker room incident.  Rogers suffered a broken hand and was unable to make the September bout.  The alleged second injury was a broken ankle that Rogers hurt in a bout in Montreal against Killer Kowalski.

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

Thesz finally uncrowned Rogers on 24th January 1963 in Toronto but the stranglehold in the Northeast was firmly in McMahon and Mondt’s command.  They were about to set course to their next plan of action – to break away from the restrictions of the National Wrestling Alliance and create their own World Champion.

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

Will Burns

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