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The Origins of the WWF – Part Five

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

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

WWWF Champion Pedro Morales

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vince McMahon Sr and his son, Vince Jr.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bruno Sammartino claimed the WWWF title again in 1973

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bob Backlund clinched the WWWF Championship from Graham in February 1978

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Antonio Inoki with the WWWF Championship belt

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading.

Will Burns

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

The Origins of the WWF – Part Four

PART FOUR – “Bruno! Bruno! Bruno!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bruno Sammartino poses with Pedro Morales.

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

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

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

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

Will Burns

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

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

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