By Jim Phillips, Senior Editor – Classic Wrestling
Welcome back once again Bruthas and Sistas, to another installment of my look back at the WWF. We left the story in the Spring of 1973, with Andre’ the Giant going through a bit of restructuring at the behest of Vince Sr., as well as the pair of Pedro Morales and Bruno Sammartino beginning to work tag matches together. Lou Albano and The Grand Wizard were taking the battle to the babyfaces in the promotion with their cadres of heels and villains. Tanaka and Fuji were still sitting high atop the WWF World Tag Team ranks but they were about to face a team that would unseat them, and establish themselves as one of the teams to be reckoned with. Their combination of speed, tandem action, and quick tags in and out of the ring made quickly led them to be fan favorites in the NYC market. The first arrived just ahead of his eventual teammate, in the Fall of 1972.
Born in September 1946 of Kiwi blood, Tony Garea hailed from Auckland, New Zealand when he was announced for his first match at the Garden. He fought the team of Fuji & Tanaka and found gold with his first tag partner, the massive Haystacks Calhoun in May of 1973, but they only held the titles through that summer, before the Japanese duo came calling to reclaim them in September of that year. Garea established himself as a favorite with the crowd that summer, but the big Haystacks wasn’t able to work the face paced matches that Tony wanted to compete in. His desires for a new partner that could keep up with him and captivate the crowd were about to be rewarded.
Dean “Ho” Higuchi made his way from his native Hawaii, to the Big Apple as so many do, in search of fortune and his slice of the pie. Dean had made a name for himself as a bodybuilding champion in the Fifties, and his fame endured on through the new business he started up. Dean’s Gym was a regular stop off for athletes of the Islands to get their work-outs in. Don Muraco, Karl Gotch, and fellow bodybuilder Mike Brown could often be found there sweating their way through an intense iron session. As did many of the Hawaiian wrestlers, he worked the Pacific Northwest territory for Don Owens, and the Vancouver, Canada area against then NWA Champion, Gene Kiniski in 1968. He rolled into the WWWF in the Fall of 1973 and immediately clicked with the ring style of Garea, and the two became fast friends and tag team partners. The won the World Tag Titles from Tanaka & Fuji on November 14. They held those titles for the next several months until they were unseated by the Valiants, Jimmy and Johnny. The flashy Valiants exemplified the NY Champion attitude and swagger. They held the titles for the next year, as they ran roughshod over their competition with a combination of brute force and a slick, cheating style of ring-work. The pair of Garea and Dean Ho went their separate ways just two years after the began working together. Ho went back to Canada to work and had a strong run if matches there though the early Eighties. Garea took focus on his singles career after the split-up. We will catch up with him later in our WWF coverage.
The WWWF World Title scene also had some changes in store as 1973 drew to a close. With Vince Sr. quietly rejoining the NWA at the end of 1971, their World Championship took on a name change so as not to be in direct competition with the claim to the “World” Title that was held by the NWA Champ. Sr. changed his title to the WWWF Heavyweight Championship early during Morales’s reign. As we discussed last time when Ivan Koloff won the title, Sr. had avoided putting Morales and Bruno in a match against each other so as not to split the audience and make them choose between the two favorites. He took the chance and rolled the dice at the 1972 Showdown at Shea, when he pitted them against each other in the main event. They battled seventy-five minutes with Morales retaining. Leery to try that experiment again, and risk it’s failure, Sr. decided to take the same route he had with Koloff and brought in a man to take the title off of Pedro in order to shift it back to Bruno before the Christmas Holidays in 1973. The man he chose had made a name for himself with a debilitating finisher know as the “Heart Punch”.
Born in Quebec in the Spring of 1937, George Stipich made his official debut in 1958 working the various promotions in Eastern Canada. Taking his name form a wrestler from the vaudeville days, his career as Stan Stasiak was off and running. At six feet four inches and nearly three hundred pounds, his imposing stature lent him to the choice of working as a heel. He made his way to the New York market in 1971, and Sr. quickly saw his potential as an evil, Stomper-esque bad guy. He built his persona and reputation over the course of the first two years of his career there, and he was given a shot at Morales’s Heavyweight Title on December 1, 1973.
I have read a few different series of events in various publications about how the title ended up around Stasiak’s waist and all of them have the same denominator of Stan being unaware that he would be winning the title on that chilly Philadelphia evening. The two had been booked in several matches across the territory in the weeks preceding the title shift, and Stasiak had gotten the feelers from road agents that he would be getting the rub for a push with the title, but none had ever come to fruition. Sr. chose that night to green light the title change, with Stasiak rolling his shoulder out of a pinfall, once Pedro had delivered the belly to back suplex, thus giving hin the win, as Pedro’s shoulders would still both be down, due to the bridge he would be holding. Stasiak held the title for nine days before it was put back onto Bruno, who would hold it for next twelve hundred and thirty seven days.
Another pair of men that I feel need to be looked at during this era gave Pedro a run for his money both before his loss to Stasiak, and after. They both are longstanding members of the WWF family and both helped to either usher in a new era, or train the workers that did. Let’s begin with the former, and take a closer look at a college educated intellectual, who made his claim to fame acting like a lunatic.
William Myers was born in the Motor City of Detroit in the Spring of 1937. He was a pure athlete and played every major sport at the high school level, and followed football to the college level when he became a Spartan at Michigan State. While he was there he took advantage of the schooling that came along with the football scholarship, and earned his bachelor’s in Science before his knees gave out on him, which forced him out of school there. He went on to Central Michigan and got his master’s degree, and began to teach and coach wrestling at the high school level not long after that in his hometown of Madison Heights.
Myers, like so many others in the territorial system, started wrestling to help supplement his income at his regular job. He headed to Detroit and worked for Big Time there, where he was put together with, in my opinion, one of the greatest minds in the business on how to effectively get over; Gary Hart. They took his masked Student gimmick and garnered not only the attention of fans, but also that of Bruno on one of his junkets to Pittsburgh in 1967. Bruno liked what he saw and went back to Sr. with the scouting report. Meyers headed to New York not long after and dropped the Student gimmick and changed his name to George Steele, after one of the coaches in the Michigan HOF. Sammartino took the wildman persona that Meyers had created and they put the George Steele name on it, and unknowingly, created a legend, and cash cow for the company. Steele worked his character to perfection throughout the rest of the decade. His erratic behavior and hairy Neanderthal appearance put the crowd on edge and set his opponents aback as George tore at the turnbuckle pads with his teeth. He also was famous for lolling out his green tongue and rolling his eyes like a madman. Bruno knew exactly how to work the angle and the two men always did well together.
Steele was well into his “Animal” gimmick when Morales came along and the two battled on numerous occasions as the fans cheered Pedro on in the late Summer of 1972. Pedro was victorious in their feud and he moved on to face other foes along his road to defending the Heavyweight Title. We will get back around to George later in this series.
The other man we spoke was one such opponent that we need to speak about. He has been credited with training some of the most famous workers in the business, as well as having a hand in many that he hasn’t been officially linked to by the media. He faced Pedro in some of the last matches he had after his loss of the title to Stasiak, and just before his final departure to San Francisco in 1975. That man was often referred to as “Unpredictable”, but you could always count on him to deliver in the ring.
A native born New Yorker, Johnny Rodriguez was born in 1938 Brooklyn and has lived his life in the Big Apple. He worked his first wrestling match in the early Sixties, and made it to the NWA Hollywood Wrestling promotion in the Seventies where he worked as Java Ruuk, but always came back home to NYC to work for Vince Sr. The WWWF was his mainstay home and he helped break in many of it’s new arrivals. Rodz was a mechanic, that could go in there and break you down and make you look like a fool, or barely lay a hand on you and make you come off like a million bucks. Though often found in the mid-card matches, his work ethic and ability to sell could have found him in any main event during his day. Just a few of the workers that Johnny Rodz has had a hand in training include: Tommy Dreamer, D-Von and Bubba Ray Dudley, Bill DeMott, and Taz.
Another man that became one of the biggest fan favorites in the WWWF arrived in the Mid-Seventies as well. A native of Krakow born during the second World War, Jozef Bednarski and his family immigrated to the United States and settled in the Lone Star State. Bednarski was devoted to bodybuilding, and his ripped physique was his calling card to fans in Texas. He took the name Ivan Putski, and with Jose’ Lothario as his partner, won the NWA Texas Tag Team Titles on two separate occasions. He was hugely popular in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area, and took that reputation to the AWA for a short time before he ended up in the WWWF. The McMahons were masters of knowing how to market an ethnic athlete to their diverse audience at the Garden and throughout their territory. They built Ivan into the Polish Power and he was quickly embraced by the fans. He went into battle against major heels like Stan Hansen, Ivan Koloff, and Bruiser Brody, with his hard hitting style complimenting their wild behavior. Over the next two years he built his character, and established himself as a regular on the WWWF roster.
Rolling into 1976, The team of the Executioners was holding the World Tag Team Titles, and Bruno was well into his second title reign. Nagging injuries were slowing Bruno up a bit, but he was dealt with an injury in April of that year at the hands of Stan Hansen that took him out of action for a couple months. Bruno was dropped on his head during the match and he broke a vertebrae in his neck. He returned after his time off rehabbing to meet Hansen in a re-match at an event that was one of the first to be developed and ran by Vince McMahon Jr.
The 1976 Showdown at the Shea was the second in the series of events that had that name, and it focused on the diverse matching of a boxer versus a wrestler as its driving force in marketing and booking. One match had Andre’ versus boxer Chuck Wepner that ended in a count-out victory for the big Frenchman. Sammartino made his return to face, and defeat, Stan Hansen in a hotly advertised rivalry, and the main event was a match between Japanese wrestling icon Antonio Inoki and boxing genius that was Muhammad Ali. Ali had made his presence in the WWWF known a few weeks earlier when he jumped in the ring with Gorilla Monsoon, who had just won a match against Baron Scicluna. Ali danced around and jabbed at Monsoon, who, snatched him up, put him in an airplane spin, and dumped him on the mat. Gorilla maintained the kayfabe for years later, and the cloud of mystery over the incident remained until both passed away. Many assumed it was all a work, but Monsoon always kept the “what if it weren’t” part of the story alive. All this buzz around the event made for a sell-out and gave Vince his first real taste of promoting success on his own. The ’76 Showdown also featured matches between Ivan Putski(w) and Baron Scicluna, while Chief Jay Strongbow and Billy White Wolf beat the team of the Executioners for the World Tag Titles, and Jose’ Gonzales fought Kevin Sullivan to a draw.
Vince Jr. had also launched a pair of syndicated television programs in the Seventies, with All-Star Wrestling in ’71, followed by Championship Wrestling just months later. Vince did the announcing, interviewing, and most of the behind the scenes work as well. He managed to get a few stations across the country to pay for the right to air their product, including one that I grew up watching, KPLR-TV from St. Louis. They along with a Los Angeles station reportedly paid 100K to use the McMahon programming. This, along with his successes in the Showdown at the Shea events, bolstered his willingness to take a chance and gamble with his future. He had grand plans for the business, and it was in the Mid-Seventies that he began to set his plans into motion.
As 1977 came onto the horizon things began to shift a little in the title scene at the WWWF. Billy White Wolf suffered a neck injury in a match against Ken Patera, and the World Tag Titles had to be vacated. A tournament was established to crown new champions, and the team of Fuji and Tanaka stepped up to take back the gold when they defeated the newly formed team of Tony Garea and Larry Zbyszko. The Japanese heels would go on to carry the gold for the next several months until they were unseated by the team of Dominic DeNucci and Dino Bravo in March of 1978. We will hear much more from Dino Bravo in future installments as we get into the Eighties.
Bruno was at another crossroads in his career in ’77 as well. He was working through injuries that had been accumulating over the last year and it was to a point that he felt he was unable to continue on as Champion, with the working schedule that it required. He let Sr. know it was time to get another worker in place to take his spot, and the wily old promoter began to survey his roster. He came to realize that he wanted to roll the dice on a man that had recently left the WWWF for the Florida Territory to hold their Heavyweight Title, after his defeat of Dusty Rhodes. This man would be another whose career would become intertwined with the company, and his career was as multi-colored as his tie-dye attire.
Eldridge Wayne Coleman was born in the desert of Phoenix, Arizona in the height of the 1943 summer, just after Independence Day. He was drawn to the iron of the gym at an early age and started his bodybuilding journey before he entered middle school. He found his faith in his teenage years and the Church became a foundation for not only his Christian faith, but a way to reach out with his bodyduilding to others when he incorporated into the early sermons he was beginning to give. He tried everything in the sports world from track&field to competing in the Golden Gloves as a hopeful boxer, and playing in the Canadian Football League. Clearly looking for an outlet in which to focus his physical abilities, he focused on his bodybuilding, but professional wrestling started to catch his eye.
He won Best Developed Arms at the Mr. America competition in NYC in 1975, as well as being featured in Wieder’s Muscle and Fitness alongside phenom in the sport, Arnold Schwarzenegger. He was beckoned into the professional wrestling business by a friend, and got his training at the famous Hart Dungeon in Calgary. He broke in the business there and before long he was ushered into the Graham “family” of wrestlers by Jerry when he ventured into the Florida territory. He took the moniker of Billy out of respect to the popular evangelist of the same name, and started to make his way around the territorial circuits. He worked for Roy Shire in San Francisco where he teamed with Pat Patterson, before moving onto the AWA. It was in Minneapolis working alongside that cast of characters that he developed his “Superstar” persona. He worked briefly for Sr. the first time in 1975 and had a run against fellow bodybuilder, “Polish Power” Ivan Putski. It was after he left the WWF for Florida that Sr. was approached by Sammartino to find his replacement.
Vince Sr. reached out to Billy while he was still in Florida, offered him a deal that would bring him back to NYC and then take the title off of Bruno. He saw the sweetness in the deal and agreed to the terms. On April 30th, 1977 in a match that emanated from Baltimore, Superstar Billy Graham took the title from Sammartino, and despite several re-match attempts, would deny Bruno of ever having that Heavyweight Title again. He put an end to a legacy that had spanned a decade. While Bruno was by no means, laid by the wayside, he was indelibly shut out of the race for that title for the rest of his career.
While Superstar Graham was a representative Champion for the company and traveled all over the globe to show the power of the WWWF Title, he was not the longterm “guy” that Sr. was looking for. Sr. didn’t miss a beat to listen to his son and capitalize in the marketability of the heel, Graham. They staged a Champion -vs- Champion match at the 1978 Orange Bowl in Miami that pitted Graham against the NWA Champion Harley Race in a title unification match. The two fought to a one hour draw, with each Champion keeping their respective straps, and walking away with potential bragging rights over the other with the no-decision ending brawl. There was another man however, that Sr. had taken notice of to be his hand picked Champion. He still worked under the old ways of doing business and preferred a heel to take the belt off of Bruno, like with Pedro. The man he picked was cast more from the mold of the type of man that Sr. opted to have as his standard bearer. As we close in on 1978, everything in the promotion was about to take another shift, and as the Eighties came into view, a new Era approached the company.
Well, it’s there that I think we will close up this installment Bruthas and Sistas. We will pick things back up again next time. I hope you all enjoyed this further look into the heritage of the old WWWF, and never forget; our wrestling history is gold…DIG IT!!! Peace.