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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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