By Jim Phillips, Senior Editor – Classic Wrestling
Welcome back, Bruthas and Sistas. It’s time once again to pick up on the history of the business and further examine the footprint left by the eventual winner of the game. The shifting cast of characters that made up the world of professional wrestling was in flux and moving across the country, with many choosing their place of employment for the next decade. As the growth of Mid-Atlantic, Georgia Championship, and Championship from Florida continued to encroach northwards, Vince Sr. moved to shore up his foothold, as well as collect as many of the premier workers of the day to sign on with his WWWF and invest in it’s longterm expansions.
We left Bruno sitting stop the mountain as the World Champion as the Seventies began, as well as being one half of the WWWF International Tag Team Champions with his partner Tony “The Battman” Marino. Victor Rivera soon stepped in to take Sammartino’s place a tag title holder, since WWWF had provisions in their contracts that did not allow for a wrestler to hold two belts simultaneously. Little did the Italian Strongman realize, that there would be another major title change in his near future.
McMahon kept his close circle of Generals around him and utilized their skills and abilities in the business to strengthen his promotion from within, as well as nationally. Skaanland, Monsoon, Bruno and a choice other few had the ear of McMahon and he valued their council in his decision making. It once such instance that saw the shift in Lou Albano from being a member of the Sicilians, to working as a manager.
In early 1970, Bruno went to Sr. and expressed his thoughts on Albano moving to the ringside spot and working as a manager. Keep in mind that in those days, managers weren’t as widely used, and their value had not yet been capitalized on. Seeing his abilities to think on his feet and quickly turn a phrase, Bruno and Sr. moved to place him in a spot that better served them all. So Albano, along with Skaaland were the two preeminent managers in the company. Albano represented the up and coming Crusher Verdu, and shepherded him into a match that Summer against Bruno, who had Skaaland in his corner. Though Verdu lost the match, and moved on out of the WWWF, The Captain was born, and Lou opened the door for the company to experiment in different archetypes of the manager gimmick. By the end of the decade, they would have one of the greatest stables of managers in professional wrestling and would only build upon this in the decade that followed.
That year also saw a trio of men enter the doors of the WWWF, and all would stay on to become mainstay players over their careers, making themselves synonymous with the company brand. Whenever you hear the names of these men, no matter their earlier careers, you immediately think of New York. Let’s begin with the Italian-American from New Jersey that made bones as a Native-American warrior.
Born Luke Scarpa in the Fall of 1928, Chief Jay Strongbow started his career in the late Forties, at the age of nineteen, working the “NWA circuit” throughout Georgia and Florida, but it wasn’t until he showed up in the WWWF that things started to go to that next level for him. He came up against Crusher Verdu, with Albano in tow. The two had a short lived feud, just before Verdu left the company, but the Chief had to contend with Albano again when he had a run of matches against another of Lou’s men, Iron Mike McCord. Even though he lost that match, due to interference by Albano that left him bloody in the ring, the charisma of Chief Jay, personified by his war dance to the ring and colorful headdress of feathers he donned, that lent him to be more suited to television that some others in the company. This exposure also led to him becoming one of the top babyfaces of the Early to Mid-Seventies.
If I were to call out the name Bepo Mongol, most of you would have no idea who I was speaking of, but the young man that made his way from Yugoslavia to the United States and cut his teeth in Canada would go on to leave quiet a mark on the wrestling business during the Golden Age of the Eighties as the big man that never started a match without singing the Russian anthem, Nikolai Volkoff.
Born on October 14, 1947 in the Soviet province of Croatia, Josip Peruzovic grew up in a family of proud athletes. His grandfather was a champion greco-roman wrestler, and his brother played football, while Josip himself was a world-level competing weightlifter. In 1967, while at a lifting competition in Austria, the young Croat took a great risk and emigrated back to Canada with a group of fellow athletes. He got his training with Stu Hart at Stampede Wrestling, and eventually worked his way to America through Detroit and the NWA promotions in that area. He worked with Newton Tattrie and the two formed a bond, as well as a successful tag team, winning the tag gold while there.
The two arrived in New York in 1970, and set to establishing themselves as the heel team of the Mongols, Bepo and Geto. Placed in the stable of heel manager Albano, the two set to work on terrorizing the International Tag Team ranks and took those titles from the team of Marino & Victor Rivera in June of that year. They held the titles for over a year, and pummeled their opponents into submission or a state of catatonia as much as they used technical maneuvers. During that year reign, the third man I spoke of entered the fray and quickly became a huge fan favorite that commanded not only the attention of the crowd, but also turned heads in the office.
Pedro Antonio Morales, like the other men we spoke of, was also born in October, in the Fall of 1942 in Culebra, a small island just off the coast of Puerto Rico. He lived there with a huge extended family that encompassed the majority of the population there, until he was eleven, when his mother sent him to live in New York with his Aunt. He quickly made friends in Brooklyn, and was introduced to the local YMCA wrestling program and he was hooked. He had his first match at thirteen, and was a stand out among the other kids. It was also during this time that he became drawn to the world of professional wrestling as a fan of the Capitol Wrestling product. How fitting that he grew up watching the promotion that he would come full circle to, later in his career.
Pedro got his first in-ring training from Barba Roja at the age of seventeen, while he was still in New York. He took to the roads and gained his true training out there, like so many others of his generation. He traveled to Texas, Virginia, the Carolinas, as well as Washington D.C., and Connecticut, before returning back to the New York area in 1963 where he worked programs in various promotions for the next year and a half. He then ventured to the West Coast and competed for the World Wrestling Association in Los Angeles, where he found favor with the large Latin-American and Pacific Island population there. He took the WWA title from Dick “The Destroyer” Beyer in March of 1965, in a two-out-of-three falls match. He was soon drawn into a feud with a Luke Graham and they battled over the belt for the next several months in many specialty matches including a chain match. He won the title back from him in October of that year. He stayed in the forefront of the scene at WWA, battling every major player that came through there before he left for Hawaii and the Mid-Pacific promotion. He won the Hawaii Heavyweight Championship only months after arriving, when he defeated Curtis Iaukea in May of 1969, as well as winning the NWA North American title from Gene Kiniski shortly thereafter. He defended both titles over the next several months before working his way back to NYC in the Fall of 1970.
Upon his arrival in the WWWF, Pedro teamed up with Chief Jay and battled the Mongols in a series of matches but the two failed to take the belts off of Bepo and Geto. He took to the singles ranks and won the WWWF United States title in January of 1971, when he defeated Freddie Blassie, who had returned to the company at the urging of Gorilla Monsoon, who he was close friends with. Blassie was managed by Albano during this time, but in later years the two would find each other at odds in the business. Morales winning this title set into motion a series of events that would catapult him to the top of the scene in the company.
While Morales was gaining a very strong fan following, Bruno also had things happening in the forefront of his title picture. The Russian Bear had shown up on the scene in 1969, and quickly took Albano has his manager. The two created a frenzy amongst the fans with their underhanded tactics and the mere fact that Koloff was portraying the evil Russian to a pro-USA crown in The Garden. Everything came to a head when Sammartino gave Koloff a title shot in January of 1971. For as much as the fans hated Ivan, they moreover loved and worshiped Bruno as their Champion of Champions, and hero of the flag toting, working man. The crowd was left in a stunned silence, with some fans purported to be in tears, as the undefeatable, man with the near seven year title reign was defeated when Koloff dropped the big knee off the top rope and got the 1-2-3.
This was a significant step in putting the WWWF Title around Morales’s waist. Pedro was so over with the fans at this point that there was no was that the bookers, or anyone in the office was going to break the kayfabe tradition of having two babyfaces fight each other over the title, and risk the chance of splitting the allegiance of the audience for one or the other. Many see Koloff as a “place holder champion”, that was only given the title to not only keep the business protected, but to give Morales a sizeable enough heel to conquer in order to get over even more, with his already rabid fans. The roof blew off the Garden and it was the start of a near three year long reign for Morales as Champ. It is fairly well known that Koloff and Albano had to be rushed from the building by security and the crowd quickly turned into mob that attacked their car as they left and then preceeded to erupt into a small riot that left a nearby bar in shambles and Vince Sr. getting a bill from the city for nearly thirty grand in damages.
During 1970 and into ’71 the Mongols had held the International Tag Team Titles, but with the loss of the World Title by Bruno, it freed Sammartino up to compete in other directions in the company. He took on a new tag team partner and went after the titles that The Mongols had held for nearly a year. The man that became his partner was another wrestler that would become associated with the WWWF in the coming decade, as well as go on to train some of the biggest names in wrestling.
Born Dominic Nucciarone in Venice, Italy at the beginning of 1932, the man we know as Dominic DeNucci emigrated to North America not long after World War II. He got his first significant break into the business as the partner of Dino Bravo in Canada, but soon crossed the border and started to compete in the United States in the late Sixties. He took up working in the WWWF in the Summer of 1971, and teamed up with Bruno not long after. DeNucci tasted his first gold in the promotion with Bruno as his partner when the defeated the Mongols in June of that year and held the titles for only a few weeks before Bepo and Geto regained their belts. DeNucci would stay in the tag team picture in the WWWF for yeas to follow.
The Mongols, however, broke code and took the titled to another promotion that same year. The titles were rendered inactive and the team Luke Graham & Tarzan Tyler took the International Tag Titles in a tournament, but that muddied the waters of the title scene as the Mongols claimed they were never defeated, so they were still the true champions. The whole thing culminated when the Mongols returned and lost the those titles to the pair of Graham and Tyler, who were already World Tag Team Champs, in effect unifying the titles while they held them. The had won the newly created WWWF World Tag Team Titles only six months prior to the unification victory. The International Tag Team Titles were deactivated and rendered null and void at the end of that year in order to promote the single set of World Tag Team titles, instead of having two separate sets of Tag Champions. After the loss of the titles, Bepo left the territory to start fresh, and in that absence he began to use the moniker that we all know him best as….Nikolai Volkoff. We will catch back up with him when he returns to the WWWF in 1974.
As 1972 started, Pedro Morales was still firmly in the driver’s seat as World Champion for the promotion, and the team of Karl Gotch and Rene’ Goulet had taken the World Tag Team Titles for themselves. Baron Scicluna and King Curtis Iaukea soon took them away, but were bested themselves, not long after by the pairing of Chief Jay and Sonny King. In the early part of the year, however, a couple more men filtered into the company that would change that landscape entirely.
While billed as a Japanese persona, Harry “Mr. Fuji” Fujiwara was actually born in Honolulu, Hawaii in 1934. Much of his early life went undocumented, but his first appearances in professional wrestling can be found in 1965 in Hawaii, and in the years after when he traveled to the Pacific Coast to wrestle in the territories for Don Owens. He made his was to the Big Apple and debuted in the WWWF in early 1972 as a heel partner for the already established Professor Toru Tanaka. The two were a natural fit and their underhanded tactics always brought the crowd to a fervor of hatred towards them as the twosome would taunt them, and throw salt into the eyes of their opponents. It was after the addition of the third man to the team, that they began to sense the tag team gold was within their reach.
Born in the Summer of 1926, in Canton, Ohio, Erwin “Ernie” Roth got his first look into the world of show business as a disc jockey for a local radio station, and soon moved from Ohio to Detroit to follow that dream. Once there he became drawn to the flash of professional wrestling, working for some of the local promotions and eventually landing the job as the manager for The Shiek. As the turban wearing Abdullah Farouk, he made feign attempts at controlling the madman that was the Sheik. The two made an imposing pair to have to be across the ring from. Roth soon set his sights on bigger destinations and headed for NYC in the Spring of 1972, and was immediately paired with the heel team of Tanaka & Fuji. Using some of the strategies that brought him success in Big Time Detroit, he began to try to hold back the duo in the eyes of the referee, only to facilitate their treachery as soon as the referee was distracted. The trio beat the pair of Strongbow & King in June of 1972 and would hold the belts for the next eleven months.
1973 was a significant year for more reasons that those we’ve talked about so far, however. Two men that would change the business for the generation were also afoot in the promotion. Both of these men would usher in the next generation of how the business was perceived, as well as presented to the masses.
There is no need to delve too deep into the background and storied history of the man born as Roussimoff, but became famous as THE Giant. Andre grew up on his parent’s farm in the countryside of Molien, France, and by the age of eighteen it was apparent to all that knew him that he was growing up to be a unique individual cast into the towering mold of the Grand Ferre’, and when he had his first match around this same time, he was given the name Geant Ferre to connect him with the legend of their lore. His sheer size and amount of awe he inspired in those that saw him in person led him to begin a tour or the world that left him in a state of perpetual travel for the remainder of his life as he was ushered from one place to the next. It wasn’t long before his reputation around the world surpassed the size of his own stature. He had become truly, larger than life.
In February of 1973, Andre’ reached out to Vince Sr. and the two struck up a business relationship that saw Sr. make some changes to the persona of Andre’, lending him not to leave his feet and represent the immovable object, that Gorilla Monsoon coin him years later. Vince Sr. wasn’t the only genius in the marketing of Andre. It was one of the many evolving roles of his son, Vince Jr. to help develop new characters, and sell them in his to the audience in his role as commentator and ringside interviewer. These were but two of the many jobs that the young McMahon protege’ had in his ever-growing list of responsibilities in the company.
In what is one of the best examples of this re-marketing of the Giant was the famous interview conducted by Vince Jr., in his famous gold blazer, where they had Andre stand on a platform to give his stature an even more towering look than it had already. It was these little extras that would set the promotion apart from the rest as the years drew on and the company began to experience huge growth throughout the Northeast. Also, with Andre on his world tour, it put the McMahon name onto a grander stage, that would allow for much bigger promotional opportunities in the future because of it. Part of this growth was in turn credited to the new faces and characters that Sr. had taken a chance on. His hunches paid off and as the company rolled into the Mid-Seventies it looked stronger than ever.
This is where we are going to leave the story for right now, but we will pick it back up in Part V of the series. I hope you enjoyed this look into the early Seventies of the WWWF, and I will hopefully see you all right back here in two weeks when I come back with run the Bicentennial years of country, and the changes that are set into play as the company goes national.
Until then, always remember Bruthas and Sistas: Our wrestling history is gold…DIG IT!!! Peace.