By Jim Phillips, Senior Editor – Classic Wrestling
Welcome back once again, Bruthas and Sistas, as we peer into the history of the WWF before it became the publicly traded, unilateral corporation that we all know today. While it proudly displays its lineage on their venerated network, the WWE sometimes likes to focus it’s self-examining eye on only a few characters that helped build it up, while leaving others drifting in the breeze half-hearted obscurity. Many of these men have been left to a line or two in their publications, or having one match, out of the hundreds that they worked, given limited exposure once or twice a year. I would like to take some of the names that you thought you knew and delve a little deeper in this edition, to more broadly reveal the roles they played in the early years of the WWWF’s construction. So, let’s head back to where we left off, in early 1964.
The Sixties, for most intents and purposes, were built around Bruno at the WWWF. He carried the company on his broad shoulders like the mythic Atlas of old, and it flourished during his near eight year reign with the title. During this twenty-eight hundred days as Champ he challengers come and go, but he faced them all and never gave an inch. He continued to battle Gorilla Monsoon, as well as Killer Kowalski into 1964, and he saw another man come into the scene in New York. A man whose later career would become synonymous with the company.
We documented the early life of Freddie Blassie in our coverage of the Worldwide Wrestling Associates promotion, but it was in the years after he there that he first emerged at Worldwide. He strode into the promotion doting his own Pacific World Championship, and declared that he was there to take Bruno’s title and unify the two belts, then he would hold the promotion in his evil grasp. Blassie had perfected the art of the Heel while in California and Japan, and he knew full well how to incite an audience and build them to a fever pitch. While most remember him for his run as the Hollywood Fashion Plate in the managerial role, it was his days in the Fifties and Sixties that really set him apart in my opinion.
Bruno and Blassie had a series of matches, where in more than a few instances the loyal Sammartino fans thought he was done for. Naturally, Vince Sr. kept the title on his chosen champion, but Blassie showed not only Sr. that he could handle himself as a wrestler, but he also established a strong friendship with Gorilla Monsoon, The two would talk shop and work through different ideas as they traveled the roads. Bobo Brazil also feuded with Freddie while he was there. The two would sell the Garden out every time they were billed to face each other. Blassie left for a short run in Japan, but it was his time there and the bonds that he made that would bring him back in the early Seventies. We’ll pick him back up there.
As the years went on, Monsoon continued to wrestle, but was working more and more in the office end of things. It was these close working relationships that helped the company survive in the face of the thriving NWA movement that was happening just south of Maryland. While the Crocketts had a continual rotation of workers from the NWA circuit, as well as the wealth of talent that regularly worked there from Georgia, Florida, and Mid-South, McMahon had to establish his fan base around a roster that was centered in the heavily populated Northeast region. This seclusive environment that grew in the Sixties, may have kept Vince Sr. in a sort of bubble, it also gave him the chance to lock down all the major markets in his territory that included some of the biggest cities in the country. Many believed that his separatist attitude towards the NWA would be his downfall, but it would be the inherited advantage that his son would mold into his own vision of how the business should be.
Another man that found his way into the WWWF, who would eventually become an integral part of the office was man from White Plains, known as “The Golden Boy”. Arnold Skaaland was born amidst the Roaring Twenties, on January 21, 1925. He went to WWII as a Marine, and when he returned he tried his hand at both boxing and wrestling, with the latter being his sport of choice. He started his career in 1946 and worked his way through the northeast area and had a short stint Georgia as well under the name Bobby Weaver. His short, fire-plug build combined with his heart for competition was noticed by the other wrestlers as a man that could handle his own between the ropes, no matter his size. Prior to his appearance in Worldwide, he had shots at both Buddy Rogers and Pat O’Connor for the NWA Title. He furthered this reputation during the early years at Worldwide, in such that he didn’t win any titles, but he gained respect in the promotion. He also purchased a share in the company, as well as being in charge of production for some of it’s television outlets. We will catch up with Arnold later as well, as there were many more workers filtering into the promotion that we need to discuss.
Another man that started in the ring and transitioned not only to a managerial role, but also helped usher in the Golden Era, when he worked with Cindy Lauper in the Rock and Wrestling Connection. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves though, and talk a little about his early career.
Vincent Albano was born in the height of the Italian Summer of 1933, in Rome. One of nine children, Lou was born in Italy due to his father continued his medical training, though his parents were native Americans. He was baptized in the hallowed halls of the Vatican, and not long after his family returned to the States, and moved to Mt. Vernon, NY. Lou participated in track & field, as well as football in high school, even making captain of the team. He had his pick of several universities, but chose to move to Knoxville and play football for the University of Tennessee as one of the Volunteers. His academic career was cut short when he was accused of cheating, and he then opted to try the military. He given an honorable discharge after only serving eight months due to a physical ailment as a result of an old football injury.
He decided to give boxing a go, and trained with family friend Lou Duva, but Duva soon realized that he wasn’t suited for boxing and suggested he try his hand at wrestling instead. He connected Albano with a promoter and in turn that man set him up to train with Soldier Barry, one of the WWWF workers. They two worked shows in the New York area with Albano working under the name Leaping Lou. It wasn’t long before he turned heel and tried a few gimmicks until one stuck with him. He teamed up with Tony Altomare and the two became The Sicilians, with the full on gangster shtick. Some of the Chicago mob didn’t take kindly to their portrayals of a stereotype that the underworld would rather have less publicized. They held the WWWF United States Tag Team titles for two weeks during the Summer of Love. Well will cover that a little later in this article. First, I want to talk about one of the first real factions to hit the scene in the Northeast, and the man that started it rolling, and that had been working in and out of the territory since the Fifties.
Born Jerry Matthews in 1921 Oklahoma, he took to the wrestling game at the young age of fourteen. Jerry took the name of his stepfather, and gave himself a self-appointed Doctorate. With that, one of the legendary heels of the WWWF was created.
Dr. Jerry Graham was a thinking man’s wrestler and made few wasted movements in the ring or in his business dealings. He took notice of the multitude of wrestlers that were donning the bleached hair and heel persona. He capitalized on this and came up with his Graham Family concept, and started to add other similar wrestlers to his family tree. Starting with Eddie in the Fifties, he brought nearly a half dozen “Grahams” into existence. All of them maintained connections with the WWF throughout their careers. He and Eddie formed the Golden Grahams, selling out virtually any venue they stepped into, including many times at the Garden.
Jerry made a name for himself all through the Fifties, and he once took on Bruno in a match for the title that sold out the Garden, with more than ten thousand fans being turned away when they hit capacity. One of my favorite Jerry Graham stories is the night in New York when he teamed with Dick the Bruiser against the team of Edouard Carpentier and Argentina Rocca. The heel pair so enraged the fans that a riot broke out during the match, with eight policemen being injured when the fans started throwing steel chairs. They arrested several fans as a result. That is white heat Bruthas and Sistas. So much so that Dick the Bruiser was banned from wrestling in the State of New York for many years after.
James Johnson had been working in the business for a few years when he was approached by the Great Mephisto, who told him that he resembled Graham, and suggested the two discuss getting together. It wasn’t long after, in 1964, the twenty-four old debuted in the WWWF alongside Jerry Graham, as his brother “Crazy” Luke Graham. The pair took to the US Tag Team ranks and quickly found gold, when the won those titles in March of that year. They held the titles for eight months, until losing them to the pair of Gene Kiniski and Waldo Von Erich. Luke left for a short time and returned for a singles run, as well as tagging with other members of his clan in the Seventies. Well, see him again there.
Another man that made an impact during the Sixties was the heel from Malta that claimed he was of royal descent. It was hard to miss six foot-three Baron Mikel Scicluna as he strode to the ring in his red cape touting his heritage to the jeering fans. He was famous for brandishing foreign objects that normally included a roll of coins he would smash his opponent in the head with, among other implements. He teamed with Smasher Sloan to capture the US Tag Titles in September of 1966, but lost them less than two months later to Tony Parisi and the Iron Greek. We will catch back up with The Baron next time as well.
Spiros Arion was also known as the Golden Greek, was born Spyridon Manousakis, in Cairo, Egypt, in 1940. His family moved to Greece when he was a youth and it was there that he learned the art of Greco-Roman wrestling. At the age of twenty-one he began his professional wrestling training under French wrestler Andre Bollet. He journeyed to Australia where he adopted his Golden Greek persona and worked that market from 1964-66. He battled the likes of Mikel Scicluna, Bobby Shane, and Killer Kowalski during his time at Jim Barnett’s WCW down under.
Arion made it to the WWWF in 1966, where he quickly gained popularity with the fans as he dispatched one evil opponent after another. He won the US Tag Titles, and was soon taken under the wing of Bruno Sammartino, who helped watch Spiros’s back and taught him the ways of American wrestling. In July, 1967 he was teamed with Arnold Skaaland, who was wrestling in the stead of Tony Parisi, when they lost their tag titles to the Sicilians. Bruno stepped in, and replaced Skaaland as Arion’s partner and they took those belts back from the Sicilians just two weeks later.
The United States Tag Team Titles were deactivated soon after, when Vince Sr. opted to push his International Tag Titles in their place. The longest single reign was held by the team of Dr. Jerry Graham and brother, “Crazy” Luke Graham who held those titles for just over three hundred-twenty days.
Gorilla Monsoon was still working the tag scene as well through the mid-Sixties, and in 1967 he teamed up with one of his most evil partners yet. They two battled the team of Sammartino and Arion, and he was a thorn in the side of Sammartino in singles competition for nearly a year. That man’s name was Charles Kalani, but you may remember him by a different name.
A native of Honolulu, Hawaii, Professor Toru Tanaka was born in 1930. He was a natural athlete and began is judo training at the tender age of nine. When he was old enough to play sports at the collegiate level, he came to the mainland to attend the University of Utah where he played football and also met his wife-to-be there in 1952. He was drafted during the Korean War in 1955, and sent to Germany where he continued with the boxing he had picked up in in college, as well as his judo. He remained in the service through the start of the Vietnam War, and received his honorable discharge from the Army in 1966.
When Kalani returned Stateside, he chose to live in San Francisco, where he opened up a martial arts dojo. Promoter Roy Shire happened upon the establishment and saw Kalani going through some moves in the dojo. He approached him with the offer of becoming a wrestler, and with that, Professor Toru Tanaka was born. Shire opted for the Japanese heel type of character for Tanaka, and it stuck with him. He made his way to New York just one year later.
Tanaka teamed with Monsoon and the two made a fearsome pair in the ring, and along the entranceway in front of the fans. The pair main evented the Garden twice against the pair of Bruno and Spiro, and fought any team that was foolhardy enough to step into the ring with them. The Professor was also gripped in a feud with Bruno for some time and lost several of those matches to disqualification when he was caught trying to throw salt in the eyes of the Italian Strongman, which was his go-to gimmick in the ring. We will see more out of Tanaka as we enter the Seventies in the next episode of Territories.
Well I believe that is where we’re going to break away and pick it back up next time in Part IV, as we see a surge of new faces enter the WWWF promotion, and titles change along the way. I hope you learned a thing or two about some of the lesser known men that helped to take the company from an NWA affiliate, to a stronghold in the Northeast, with Sammartino as it’s standard bearer. Vince Sr. continues to move his pieces around the chess board, and surround himself with trusted Generals that he will rely upon in the years ahead of them.
I will see you then Bruthas and Sistas, and never forget: Our wrestling history is gold…..DIG IT!!!! Peace.