By Jim Phillips, Senior Editor
Welcome back once again Bruthas and Sistas and we delve a little deeper into the history and family legacy that we find in the World Wrestling Federation. I hope that you all learned a few new things from our reading last week, and got a better look at what not only the wrestling environment was changing into, but the men that were helping to take it there. The story of Toots Mondt and how he brought the business into a new light of not only success, but a more broad acceptance of it outside of the carny tents really moved me, as in turn, I hope it did you as well. First and foremost for me, this series about the territorial days of this business is to educate the young readers and consumers of the product today, as well as shine a light on some of the history that may have been forgotten by some of the older folks as too. If we forget our history, how can we ever expect to learn from it.
Let me climb down off of my soapbox, and get to the business at hand though. We left off at the start of the Fifties, with the passing of patriarch Jess McMahon, and the formation of Capitol Wrestling Corporation by Mondt and Jess, just before his passing, and their alignment with the National Wrestling Alliance. We’ll pick back up there and take a look at not only the progression of the company, but a few of the men that helped to carry it there.
The CWC reigned supreme over any and all promotions in the Northeast during the Fifties. Vince Sr. saw the need for the entertainment side of wrestling as the country came out of World War II. After securing a weekly Wednesday night timeslot in the burgeoning DuMont Network, his product began to be seen by a greater audience. He started to try his hand at creating characters that he could use to sway the fans, as well as drive the ticket sales more than the classic ground and pound that the NWA was starting to represent. He did get a first look at what this future may bring him in the guise of a the original Nature Boy.
Buddy Rogers was born in Camden, New Jersey in Winter of 1921. Rogers was a natural athlete and excelled in most any sport he chose to participate in. He took to wrestling at the young age of nine at his local YMCA, and went on to win their own Heavyweight Championship there years later, as well as their three mile swimming championship. His life was one given to oddity even before he took on the profession of wrestler. At age seventeen, he joined the Dale Brothers Circus, and also held jobs as both a police officer and longshoreman. Buddy was not scared to take on any challenge and when the opportunity presented itself for him to compete in the wrestling ring, he took that by the horns like everything else in his life.
Rogers got his first foray into the business on Independence Day, 1939. It wasn’t long before he was one of the top draws in the area even beating Strangler Lewis, and Lou Thesz during his time in Texas. He left for Ohio, bleached his hair blond, and began working under the moniker “The Natural Guy”, and that unfolded into his Nature Boy gimmick soon after. He picked up Lillian Ellison as his valet, and promoter Jack Pfefer coined her Slave Girl Moolah. The two worked their heel gimmick all throughout Ohio and drew strong wherever they worked. Rogers had his first run-in with Sam Muchnick during the Fifties, when he worked in Missouri. He continued on north to Chicago and worked as booker and main draw for Fred Kohler. It was in the late Fifties that he finally made his way to the Northeast market and started working with Vince Sr.
In 1961, Rogers was selected to face Pat O’Connor at Comiskey Park in Chicago for the NWA Heavyweight Championship. They sold out the park and garnered a crowd of nearly thirty-nine thousand fans, which set a record for attendance at a wrestling event at that time. They also drew a gate of nearly one hundred and fifty thousand dollars in Sixties dollars, which would be over a million these days. Billed as the “Match of the Century”, Rogers won in the third fall to take the title. After winning the title he quit the two jobs he was holding down in the Chicago area to supplement his income. Now that he was the Champ, all that was about to change.
After winning the NWA Championship, Rogers toured the United States, representing the title at NWA affiliates across the country. After some time, however, many began to think that Rogers favored the Northeast market, including the powerhouse in St. Louis, Sam Muchnick. Sam wanted to see Thesz with the title, so it would be better represented in the Midwest and his own city. They leveraged Rogers into a match for the title against Thesz, who Rogers had bad blood with after the incident in Columbus where Thesz and promoter Bill Miller broke his hand in a disagreement about the booking of the title that particular evening. Thesz was a legit shooter and could hurt a person if he chose to, and that coupled with the fact that certain people in the NWA office threatened to withhold the twenty-five thousand dollars deposit money that each champion had to put up to hold the belt, was the reasoning behind Rogers losing the NWA Title to Thesz that night. It was all politics, plain and simply put, but that’s how things got done in those old days of the NWA. This left a bad taste in the mouths of promoters McMahon and Mondt who were the main beneficiaries of Rogers reign. This singular decision set into motion a series of events that would eventually end the NWA years later, and put it on the shelf as a stronger power emerged.
Vince Sr. and Toots Mondt made up their minds that they weren’t going to recognize Lou Thesz as their World Champion and in early 1963, the two men backed out of their affiliation with the NWA and started making the changes to go out on their own, and start fresh with Rogers as the Champion of their choosing. They formed the World Wide Wrestling Federation, and set to task of taking over their piece of the territorial map. On April 11th of that year, they announced that Rogers had won the WWWF Title in a tournament in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, which was all a work created by Mondt to show that Buddy Rogers was now their Champion. This would be a short lived run for the Champ, and a new successor was in the wings of the WWWF, just biding his time, and waiting for his opportunity at becoming a Living Legend.
Born Bruno Leopoldo Francesco Sammartino in Pizzoferrato, Italy in October of 1935, the “Italian Strongman”, saw the horrors of WWII firsthand as his father immigrated to Pittsburgh ahead of his family when Bruno was only four years old. His mother took him and his six siblings into hiding from the Germans to the the mountainside of Valla Rocca. She scavenged their food in secrecy to keep her family from being discovered. They lived a meager existence and Bruno lost four of his siblings during the years that led up to them finally reuniting with his father in Pennsylvania many years later in 1950. It was this time of struggle that would define the character of Sammartino and he would always have surviving those hard times to pull from when the chips were down in his wrestling career. He was regularly picked on by bullies in his new school due to his small size and immigrant Italian heritage. Bruno spoke no English and this also led to his bullying by the other boys. He made a promise to himself that he wouldn’t allow his small size to hold him back…and he began to train with weights.
As he grew, he continued to work out in the gym like a madman, and his efforts nearly landed him on the 1956 Olympic Weightlifting Team, but he was edged out by another competitor. Three years later he set a world record in the bench press when he lifted five hundred and sixty-five pounds. This led to him doing strongman stunts on the local television, where he was seen by promoter Rudy Miller, who sought out young Sammartino and helped him get started in the wrestling business. He made his in-ring debut in December of 1959, winning the match in under twenty seconds. Less than a month later he got his first shot at Madison Square Garden, with a match against Wild Bull Curry. Curry is one of my favorite heels and made his bones working in the Detroit market, but was feared wherever he turned up. Bruno put him down and everyone in the Garden took a second look at the strapping Italian grappler. It wasn’t long after that Bruno decided he wanted to leave the NYC area to work for Roy Shire in San Francisco, due to him feeling like he was playing second fiddle to Champ Buddy Rogers. This move fell thru for Sammartino who missed a pair of scheduled dates that left him with a suspension by the NWA, and no job waiting in California as he had hoped. Feeling like he had been played by Vince Sr., he stayed out of the ring for a short time and worked as a laborer in Pittsburgh. The ring was now ingrained in him and it wasn’t long before he returned to the ring with a short run in Canada working for Frank Tunney. Several weeks after his arrival in Canada, Toots Mondt, and Vince Sr. paid his five hundred dollar fine and his suspension by the NWA was lifted. Bruno still refused to work for the pair unless he was given a shot at Buddy Rogers and his WWWF Title. The two agreed and on May 17th, 1963, Bruno soundly defeated Rogers in less than a minute to become the new Champion. He and Rogers exchanged words and worked in a tag match after that, but Buddy retired from the WWWF before regaining the title from Sammartino. The next man that Bruno faced also holds a considerable legacy with the WWWF, and made quite a name for himself in the Sixties working as the heel to fan favorites like Sammartino and others. He is hands down, one of my favorite characters to be associated with the McMahon dynasty, and was one of the minds that helped Jr. take his vision to the grand stage.
Robert “Gino” Morella was born in Rochester, New York in June of 1937. He went to high school in Rochester and excelled in football, wrestling, and track and field. He attended Ithaca College and took second in the 1959 NCAA Wrestling Championships, with his large three hundred and fifty pound frame lending him to victory. He was inducted into their Wrestling HOF in 1973, and held many records including an eighteen second pin in his pursuit of NCAA gold. towering, but gentle giant, Morella stood six feet-two, and weighed in at over three hundred and thirty pounds when he was spotted by NY promoter Pedro Martinez in 1959. Martinez wasted no time in getting Morella into the ring and started his training.
Originally booked as a babyface, Morella would come to the ring and sing in Italian prior to his matches to win favor with the fans. It didn’t take the astute young man long before he realized that the heels were the best part of the show and they garnered the best reactions from the fans, and in-turn, afforded them more opportunities than a fan-favorite type of character ever would. He grew a beard, and changed his style to that of the heel and adopted the persona of Gorilla Monsoon from Manchuria. He played it to the hilt, with his back story being that of a wildman that wrestled bears, and drank blood in his native land. The fans were terrified of Gorilla, and the opportunities started to roll in for him. He strode menacingly to the ring and used such moves as the Manchurian Splash, vicious chops, and his Airplane Spin to finish off his opponents. As Monsoon’s fame grew he was set to meet Bruno Sammartino in the Fall of 1963.
The two men met in Jersey City, New Jersey at the Roosevelt Stadium. Monsoon won the match by DQ, and this set into motion a series of matches at the Garden that kept the big men at odds through the Mid-Sixties. Though tipping the scales at nearly four hundred pounds, Morella was extremely agile for his size, and would take Bruno to the mat for hour long matches on several occasions. McMahon saw that Morella was adept in the ring, as well as in the office and the two men formed a strong friendship, with Gorilla even buying into the company for a one sixth share.
With Bruno set strong in the driver’s seat as the WWWF Champion, it was necessary to keep a rotation of heels for him to go to war with in the company. Gorilla Monsoon aligned with another heel that was making himself a thorn in the side of Sammartino, and the two took the Tag Team Titles only weeks after combining forces. That man was the mentor and eventual trainer of H3, Chyna, Kofi Kingston, Kronus, Perry Saturn, and Damien Sandow, among many others. He was mean, ruthless, cunning, relentless, and many knew him as Killer.
Edward Spulnik is a name that most may find unfamiliar but if I said Killer Kowalski, then it would turn heads and grab your attention. Born in Windsor, Ontario, Canada in October of 1926, the young Edward never expected to be a wrestler. He grew like a weed and by the time he was fourteen he stood at six feet-four inches tall but still had the physique of a boy and he spent many hours at his local YMCA working on filling out his body to match his stature. He went to the University of Detroit and worked part time at Ford plant in the Motor City to help him get through school.
As we’ve heard before in our research of the business, Kowalski soon realized that he could earn more in the wrestling ring than he could at his nine to five job at the plant, so he opted for the life in the wrestling biz, and rolled the dice on his future. He tried several gimmicks to get over including that of Tarzan Kowalski and Hercules Kowalski before he began to work as a heel and adopted the moniker that he would forever be associated with, Killer Kowalski. Soft spoken by nature, he got flack from some promoters for “breaking character” when he was away from kayfabed environment of the arenas. In those days it was preferred that heels not be nice in public, to keep the secrecy and insure their ability to draw effectively. He worked the NWA circuit across the country and spent some time in the AWA as well. He earned his reputation of the evil villain in the ring, but also became known among his peers as one of the guys that could keep you safe and still put you over. When Kowalski arrived in the WWWF in the early Sixties, he aligned with Gorilla and the two took the WWWF US Tag Team Titles on November 14th, 1963 but held them for a short run before the lost them to the Tolos Brothers, Chris and John, on December 28th. He went on to feud with the Giant Baba soon after in a popular set of matches that were booked in NYC and Japan.
Bruno continued on as the Champion in the WWWF for an unprecedented seven years, eight months and one day before he lost his title, but we will get there later on in this history. Gorilla Monsoon also continued to gain success in the ring, as well as in the office as he invested in several territories and promotions both in and out of the country. He also had notable feuds with Bobo Brazil , among others that garnered him not only the attention of promoters but his peers. He teamed with Professor Toru Tanaka and they left a wake of destruction behind them in their march through the tag divisions.
Vince Sr., opted for a managerial style much different than the one his son would take on years later. He was the stoic advisor that kept quiet until it was time to speak, while he shuffled the little stack of quarters in his hands that he always had with him. Toots Mondt began to hold less and less control in the WWWF as the Sixties went on, and he eventually sold his shares to Vince Sr. in the late Sixties. Rumors circulated that it was due to Mondt’s gambling that led to financial falling out between him and Sr. The newly acquired television domain was unfamiliar to Toots, who struggled to adapt to the new landscape. He was kept on as a salaried employee of the WWWF, but his capacity in the company was greatly diminished. Vince Sr. also kept a wary eye on his growing competition to the South, because even back then, he knew they could give him a run for his money.
That brings us to the end of this installment, Bruthas and Sistas. Join me back here next time for Part III of our retrospective of the juggernaut that was the WWF. The Seventies will bring not an explosion of talents, but the rise of the young interviewer in the gold blazer that would change the business forever. Until then, always remember, our wrestling history is gold……DIG IT!!!