By Jim Phillips, Senior Editor – Classic Wrestling
Hello again, Bruthas and Sistas. Are you ready for another edition of our little history class on the early days of the business? Well, strap on your travelin’ boots, don your tie-dye, and get ready to roll. We’re headed back to 1977, and the height of the reign of Superstar Billy Graham.
The flamboyant Graham had taken the ball and ran with it since his acquisition of the title from Bruno in December of that year. Until that time, no heel champion had a run the length of the one he was building. It is a testament to the strength and marketability of his gimmick that he was able to hold the top spot for that long. The McMahon brain-trust of men that ran the office never really had any confidence in the concept of a longstanding heel champion. They wanted a Bruno or Pedro to be the fan favorite that crushes the many forces of evil that laid waiting in their stable of talents. Graham, flanked by his vile manager The Grand Wizard, had no problem driving ticket sales and making fans want to come out for the chance to see him lose the match, yet never lose his coveted title. Vince Sr. was leaning towards finding a new champion in the Spring of 1977, and he had his eyes on a young man that had recently entered the company with the “All American” type of image that he was looking for to refresh the face of the company so to speak. Coming off the ultra patriotic bicentennial celebrations across the country, it seemed like the right time to put his ideas into motion.
Like so many other amateur wrestling greats, Bob Backlund hailed from the frigid land of Minnesota. Born at the start of the post WWII boom in 1949, Backlund grew up in Princeton, and was a natural athlete cast in the mold of 1950’s Heartland Americana. The scrappy hard worker managed to make it to the state finals while in high school in Princeton, but it was when he got to the college level that he began to stand out among his peers. He attended junior college his freshman and sophomore years and made All American in football and wrestling. He love of the mat lent him to follow wrestling as his focus, and he transferred to North Dakota State University to finish his education while continuing to hone his wrestling skills. He won the NCAA Div II Championship that year, moving up to heavyweight in his senior year and placing fifth. He graduated NDSU with a degree in physical education, and an unquenched thirst for competition.
Making the switch from amateur to the world of the professional wrestling isn’t always a seamless one for some. While having the skills to drop someone to the mat and stretch the hell outta of ’em, having the knowledge of the psychology of the business to know, “when and why” to do so escapes them. Once you raise that level of awareness to the workings of the professional world, the combination of the two can be lethal. Guys like Kurt Angle, Bob Roop, Backlund, Jack Brisco, and Dory Funk, just to name a few, had the knowledge of now only what to do to effectively integrate the two styles, they knew when to do it to make it sell. It was encounters with three of these four men in his early days that helped to mold his own understandings of the business better.
After leaving college Backlund sought out a local trainer and broke into the AWA as a clean cut young babyface. He stayed there and worked on his character for the next year and then headed out on the NWA circuit, making his way to Texas and the territory of The Funks. The combination of the rough and tumble Terry, alongside the supple technician that was Dory, gave Backlund a new look on the combination of skill and storytelling. He continued on to Florida and Georgia where he worked with Roop and Brisco and so many other great wrestlers in the Southeast territories, and then ventured to St. Louis to face the great Harley Race for the Missouri Heavyweight Title. It was Jack Brisco that took that title from Bob just two months after that. Backlund had been hearing about the fertile land in the Northeast, and decided to make his way to New York in the spring of 1977.
Backlund caught the eye of Sr., who immediately put him with veteran Arnold Skaaland, who had recently transitioned to more office and managerial duties within the company. With the “Golden Boy” there to guide his new protege’, Sr. began to position the dominoes to make Backlund his new standard bearing, babyface Champion. Graham, who was just coming off an electric run with Dusty Rhodes, began this process by defending against Backlund in a series of matches. This was a way for Sr. to gauge the receptiveness of the fans to having Graham go under, and lose the title. He finally got the torch passed to him on February 20th, 1978 when he got beat Graham in the hallowed halls of MSG. Graham worked his leg onto the bottom rope during the count, but in what may be seen as one of the first in a repetitive cycle of the McMahon “screwjobs” that led to title changes. Who can say for sure the happenings of the last few seconds of any title reign and change, but is almost always left up to conjecture and the fact that there are always “two sides to every story”.
McMahon marketed on the strength of the match-up and held several re-matches, including one of note in the steel cage, but Graham was never able to seal the deal and bring the belt back to his camp. He left the WWWF not long after, and took to the NWA circuit, when he made his move to Texas to work with the Boesch organization. We’ll see Superstar back in the company again in the years to follow however.
Backlund also entered into a distinct phase that incorporated his amateur skills into his professional career. Over the next several months he had matches of note against fellow “World Champions” across the territorial and international gambits. This started with his confrontation with NWA Champ Harley Race, and their Champion vs Champion match which ended in a draw, and saved the reputation of both men as the best in the world. The McMahons saw the potential of this idea, and set up matches against AWA Champion Nick Bockwinkle, Former NWA Champ Ric Flair, NWA Florida Champion Don Muraco, as well as international grappling sensation Billy Robinson from the UK, who like Race, also wrestled him to an hour draw. One such match against Antonio Inoki in 1979 caused the title to be left in limbo and it’s lineage in a cloud of gray that some still argue over. We will make it back to that point shortly. But first, I’d like to highlight another man that came into the New York territory in 1978.
Born at the height of the Summer of 1952, Scott Irwin had a short lived, but impactful career in the wrestling business that stretched across several territories of note that began with training with Verne Gagne in Minneapolis. He made his debut against a young Ricky Steamboat, who was wrestling as the horribly named, Dick Blood in Iowa in March of 1976. Feeling he was stuck in the lower positions on the card, he chose to take to the roads, and learn his craft. He got to GCW in 1977, and worked there for a brief period before moving on again to MACW. He worked for the Crocketts for almost a year and decided to move onto the NYC market where he teamed with French Canadian Pierre Lafleur, and formed the team of the Yukon Lumberjacks.
The pair of bruisers beat their opponents and use heel tactics to quickly find success in the territory. They started a feud with the World Tag Team Champions at that time, the pair of Bravo & DeNucci. The battled each other until finally, on June 28, 1978 they won the titles from the pair and the Lumberjacks held the titles and made a name for themselves over the next six months. They would eventually lose them to the pairing of Tony Garea and a man who found fame in the AWA, but cut his teeth in the WWWF in the early Seventies.
Lawerence Whistler indeed found his global fame working under the more familiar ring name of Larry Zbyzsko both at the AWA, where he was a two time Heavyweight Champion, and years later in the WCW during the Monday Night Wars. He sat in the commentary position for WCW, and was an ignition point for controversy with his outspoken nature and need to be heard by one and all. But our story starts with him in 1973, under the tutelage of Bruno. Zbyzsko had left the Penn State wrestling program early to pursue the life of fame and riches that he saw in professional wrestling. After getting his foundations he traveled around the world and competed internationally for a year or so, before returning to the WWWF to team with Tony Garea to take those title from the Yukon Lumberjacks.
Scott “Lumberjack Eric” Irwin left the WWWF shortly after this loss and traveled to CWF and worked as Eric the Viking before he donned the mask and took on the persona of the Super Destroyer. He found fame with this gimmick, and took it with him to Mid-South where he battled the JYD & Dick Murdoch in tag matches alongside his partner The Grappler, and also fought Bob Roop, losing his Louisiana Heavyweight Championship to him. He then partnered up with the Masked Superstar, and the two left for CWA where they took on the identities of the Super Destroyers. The two parted ways and Irwin would eventually bring in his real life brother, Bill to fill the slot, which was also shortly occupied by Big John Studd under the mask as Super Destroyer #1. Bill took up that spot and the brothers natural chemistry began to shine through. The two would eventually find fame under their own names, but working as the tag team of the Long Riders, patterned after the Jesse James biographical movie of that same name. The cowboy pair of “Wild” Bill Irwin and Scott “Hog” Irwin battled against the Road Warriors in the mid-Eighties in the AWA. This feud was one of the hottest rivalries in those last days of the AWA, and they produced some great matches with the wily Long Riders using their crafty tactics to keep the powerhouse Warriors at bay. These were some of my favorite matches as a teenager, and i wanted to take the time to touch in the life and career of a great wrestler, and young man that was cut short. Scott Irwin died on September 5th, 1987 from a brain tumor. He was taken at the young age of 35, with so much still left to give the business and his fans. R.I.P. Brutha.
In March of 1979, Vince Jr. began to set into motion a longterm vision for the business that, as we all now know, would bring the territories to their knees, and send all the talents rushing to fill gaps in the major two remaining promotions left in WCW, and the WWF. Jr. re-branded the business that March and by dropping the Wide he re-launched their new World Wrestling Federation under the Capitol Wrestling banner. With Vince at the announce, and interview positions, as well as being in charge of their expanding television market, the young McMahon was about to turn the business on it’s head and leave rest of his fellow promoters scrambling to keep their offices in check. Vince was also working closely now with Japan and the flow of talents back and forth gave him even more options at his disposal to further promote his brand on the world stage. With his success in the Ali and Inoki match a few years prior, and Backlund’s run of battling other world level champions, it seemed like a natural fit to set up a match between the two.
The two met on November 30th of that year in Tokushima, Japan to battle over Backlund’s WWF Heavyweight Championship with Backlund losing to Inoki and ending a near six hundred and fifty day run with the title. Backlund got his rematch a week later, and won the match after it was ruled a no contest when Tiger Jeet Singh, of Inoki’s own NJPW brand, interfered, costing Inoki the match. The title was vacated by Inoki, giving Backlund the chance to win it back again with a defeat of Bobby Duncum in match that happened back in NYC. Some tried and true WWF historians acknowledge that Backlund’s reign was uninterrupted and that Inoki’s week long title reign with the WWF Heavyweight title was crossed out of the record books by the interference of Singh. While all these things were happening to keep the title in flux during 1979, the constant immigration of workers into the NYC territory kept the vortex of creativity there spinning, and churning out great matches as the new arrivals sought to make names for themselves and carve out their piece of that Big Apple pie.
Greg Valentine made his way to New York just after he finished up the run wher he had broken Wahoo’s leg in MACW, and he immediately got into World Title hunt when he hit the scene. He kept up that incapacitator gimmick, with The Grand Wizard as his manager, and ran the angle with Chief Jay Strongbow. Valentine got his first shot at Backlund in February of 1979, when the two wrestled to an one hour time limit draw at MSG. Valentine continued to exercise his independent contractor status and worked both promotions over the next few years. We will definetly see more out of The Hammer in the years to come.
Another man that would be forever linked to the WWF made a brief stay in the company that year as well. Ted Dibiase showed up from a successful run in Mid-South, and captured the newly created WWF North American Title in the Spring of that year. Many thought the title was created to sway DiBiase into the territory, but when things didn’t go as expected, and as another independent contractor that still had the marketability to book himself beyond the still growing WWF, he kept his avenues open to other offers. Four months later Pat Patterson showed up in the territory and took the belt from Dibiase, who then promptly left for to go back and work with Watts at his newly formed UWF.
Patterson held that title until later that year when he unified it with the South American Title to create, in my opinion, the most coveted title to ever exist within the company; the WWF Intercontinental Championship. It would be built to be the working champions title in the years to come and some of the most influential and respected men in the locker room would hold that belt throughout the Eighties. We will catch up to Pat Patterson later in this article, but first we need to shift back over to the Tag Title scene for a bit.
On March 6th of that year the WWF World Tag Titles changed hands and gave our next man on the list his second tag title reign in the process. John Sullivan, better known as Johnny Valiant, and Luscious Johnny V during his management stint with the company, was born at the end of November in 1946, and grew up, coincidentally only blocks from Bruno’s home in the North Hills part of Pittsburgh. Life in the Steel City wasn’t easy, and it left a hard knocks type of attitude ingrained into Johnny’s character. He formed a close friendship with Bruno, which would be considered more of a mentorship today. Johnny worked the low and mid card matches for the first yeas of his career ad he learned the ropes and sharpened his knowledge of the business. He and his “brother” Jerry took the titles from Garea & Zbyzsko in March of 1979, and held them for that entire summer before they were unseated by The Polish Power, Ivan Putski and his partner that would go to make a huge wave in the WWF Eighties, and make the tag team ranks his home, even though he had several singles matches of note during these years as well.
Born Merced Solis in May 1953 Mission, Texas, the young man grew up loving football and wrestling. He attended the combine of wrestling greats, as a member of the West Texas football team, where he met Tully Blanchard, who then brought him into the world of professional wrestling at his father’s Southwest Championship Wrestling in Texas. Solis went on to train with Hiro Matsuda and Bob Orton in the CWF promotion, where he made his debut in 1977. He worked for a year at GCW following his time in Florida, before finally making it up to NYC in 1979, and adopted the name that he would become famous under…Tito Santana.
Santana teamed with Putski and the two worked the tag ranks until they finally got a shot at the Valiants’s Championships in October. The two rode their wave of charisma and kept the fans in their corner for into the following Spring until they met a team that became notorious for keeping the fans on the edge of their seats and held at bay with their barbaric demeanor.
Arthur “Afa” Anoa’i was born just off the coast of New Zealand in November of 1942 amidst the carnage of World War II on the island of Western Samoa. His younger brother Leati “Sika” was born into the growing family three years later, and the family as a whole moved to San Francisco in 1959. As teenagers both enlisted in jobs that took them to the sea, with Afa joining the US Naval Sea Cadet Core, and Sika going to work with the Merchant Marines, but left after a time to become a longshoreman. It was when Afa left the SCC, and started to train in the ring with family friends Rocky Johnson, who was dating his sister, and Peter Maivia. He also got some supplemental mat training from veteran Kurt von Steiger, and made his official debut in Phoenix in 1971. After telling his brother about this new found path to fame and fortune, Sika joined him, and with Afa’s training the team of The Samoans were ready to take on the wrestling world.
The team went north of the border and worked for Stu Hart in Stampede for their early days in the Seventies, until deciding to make the journey to the Northeast and take on the big city. The pair arrived in NYC in 1979, and after some more work and education in the ways of the business, they made their in ring debut on January 21st, 1980. The pair worked that year building their reputation of being reckless, out of control, and Wild. Their hard work was rewarded in April of 1980 when they beat the reigning Champions, Putski and Santana, for their World Tag Team Titles in Philadelphia. They would hold onto those titles as we head into the third rendition of the Showdown at the Shea that the company was building towards that Summer. Tito Santana left the company shortly after losing the tag titles to seek his fortune in the AWA.
If there was any year that could be argued as one of the most pivotal in the history of the WWF, as well as in professional wrestling as a whole, it would be 1979. The movements that Vince Jr. and Linda were making inside Capitol Wrestling, combined with the level of talents that continued to cycle through the doors made for unending opportunities for the smart young McMahon. He saw the building blocks that were lying in front of him, and began to machinate over the possibilities that he could create with them. His relationships with creative and financial partners like Skaaland, Monsoon, and Bruno became not only more fertile but was already bearing the benefits of said fruit, with each and every show they promoted. While his father had these men, along with Toots Mondt, as council and reliable means of income, Jr. started to realize that he too was going to need to groom a future champion to be the spearhead of his lofty ideas for Capitol and the WWF. That man arrived at his front door that Summer, and their futures would soon become intertwined for the rest of their lives.
The life of Terry Bollea has been documented time and again, so I don’t see a need to dig into the facts that we already know. So let’s just jump into his early, breaking in days and pick it up there. Once he was recruited by the Briscos, and had his leg broken by Hiro Matsuda, Hulk Hogan continued to come back and worked in the CWF territory for a short time under the mask as the Super Destroyer character, but left not long after, citing Matsuda being too “demanding” of a trainer. It’s likely that Matsuda still thought he didn’t have “it”, and was riding his ass, making life tough for him at the promotion, and in his training. Nevertheless, Hogan had the itch for the business, and it wasn’t long before he was back, and he brought his close friend Ed Leslie with him. They appeared in the CWA as the Boulder Brothers, and Leslie made his bones in the WWF years later as Brutus Beefcake. We’ll catch up with “The Barber” in future editions of this series. It was around this time in Memphis, that he began to use the Hulk name in relation to the highly popular television series with Lou Ferrigno, The Incredible Hulk. Hogan defeated Bob Roop for his first championship ever in Tennessee, when he won the NWA Southeastern Heavyweight title. He dropped that belt to Bob Armstrong, and spent a cup of coffee in GCW, before he finally headed to New York in 1979.
It was Terry Funk that initially made the introduction between Hogan and Sr., but it was Vince Jr. that saw the real marketability in the big man. The McMahons put Freddie Blassie beside him as his manager, and to school the green youngster more about the business. They also had Tony Altamore, of Sicilians fame, drive him around and help him in those areas as well. Hogan had his first match in November of that year, and even got a match with the Backlund in those early months. Jr. put him into a feud with Andre’ and the two battled towards the 1980 Showdown at the Shea. Jr. also began sending Hogan to work in Japan, where he became a favorite for his size, and blonde, American look. Hogan would go on to take his popularity in the Land of the Rising Sun to new heights in the early Eighties.
On February 21st, 1980, Jr. made another move in his ultimate shift of the company. He and Linda founded Titan Sports and began to set up everything to transfer the balance of power within the company in the two years that followed. While it may seem like a small move, it would allow Jr. to create and do things his own way without having to work inside the sometimes older, more constrictive ways that Sr. preferred. It was his first real foot out on his own, even though at this early stage he had very little to call his own….yet.
All the Championships were tightly in the hands of their titleholders as we headed into the Showdown at the Shea, except for one. Pat Patterson dropped his Intercontinental Championship in April of 1980 to a man that would also go on to make big waves in the WWF in the decade to come. He also has one of the most interesting stories in the business.
A native of Portland, Oregon, born in November of 1942, Ken Patera grew up in a family that was entrenched in sports, specifically football. Both his brothers played the NFL, and his older brother Jack coached the Seahawks from ’76-’82. Ken lent toward track and field, with hurdles and high jump being his areas of competition, but after an injury he switched over to throwing discus and shot put. He began to weight train to increase his abilities, and it became his longterm focus. He went on to the Pan Am Games where he captured the gold in weightlifting, as well as winning the super heavyweight class at the US Weightlifting Championships from ’69-’72. Though he failed to medal at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, he did capture the silver just months earlier at the World Weightlifting Championships. He is credited as being the only American to ever clean and press five hundred pounds.
While Patera had gotten a shot at Bruno in ’77, it was when he met Patterson and took the IC Title that he first tasted gold in the WWF. We will catch back up with Ken after this, when he aligns himself with the Heenan Family. With all of their Champions set, and drawing strong, the McMahons and staff began to tool everything towards the third, and final, Showdown at the Shea in the summer of 1980.
As we know from tales of the Sportatorium in WCCW, and the many armory shows in CWF, a hot venue will not keep the fans away. The card was stacked, and it would be a star studded affair that would be the only thing hotter that August than the sweltering stifle that was hanging over NYC like a cloak. With the only saving grace being the open air, they packed ‘em into Shea to see the spectacle that was that year’s Showdown.
The near three hour event had something to offer every one of the thirty six thousand, three hundred in attendance with thirteen matches in total. Some of the early matches saw Johnny Rodz lose to The Polish Power, Dominic DeNucci besting Baron Scicluna, as well as the pair of Fabulous Moolah & Beverly Shade defeating Peggy Lee & Kandi Malloy in a womens tag match. Patterson won his match, and Greg Gagne ventured down from Minnesota to compete as well in a match against Rick McGraw that was the longest bout of the evening at just over fourteen minutes. The highlight of the non title matches was the first meeting of Hulk Hogan and Andre’ the Giant before a large crowd on a grand stage. The two did not disappoint and Andre’ beat the young Hogan, securing his “undefeated” streak.
The title matches that evening began with Chavo Guerrero Sr. taking on, and defeating Tatsumi Fujinami for the WWF Junior Heavyweight Championship. We also saw a defense of the rarely known WWF World Martial Heavyweight Championship, when its holder, Antonio Inoki defended his title against Larry Sharpe. This was more of a ceremonial title than anything else that was presented to Inoki by Jr. in 1978 to try and keep the Japanese star in the company, as well as allowing his stars to be able to go over and contest the Champion in Japan. Combine all this with him having a WWF title in existence in a foreign country and a diversified market, and you can’t really shit on his business acumen for being a networker, long before that term was ever created.
We also saw Ken Patera retain his Intercontinental Title by countout loss when he slipped away from the grip of Tony Atlas. Well talk more about Tony as well in the future. Now, in a move that I saw as a bit of a head scratcher, WWF Champion Bob Backlund didn’t defend his title, but was working as a tag teammate to Pedro Morales and the pair took the World Tag Titles from the Wild Samoans in a brawl that went on as the under-main event. The McMahons chose to use the rivalry between Bruno and his defiant in the face of the teacher, protege’ Larry Zbyszko. The two took their war inside the steel cage for the main event and did not disappoint with their bloody slug fest. Naturally, they put Bruno over, which gave the crowd the satisfaction of a small amount of revenge against the loud mouthed Larry. I would have loved to have been there for that one Bruthas and Sistas, as the last Showdown at the Shea proved to be a classic.
I’m going to break it off there Bruthas and Sistas. I know it was a long edition this time and I want to thank you all for coming back again and again to attend my little history class. I hope, as always, that you learned a few new things, and walk away with a greater love of the business, and all the workers that have given their bodies and lives to it. We are about to get into the last leg of this little cross country journey, and I expect to see you all back here for the next class. Don’t be late, and remember, our wrestling history is gold….DIG IT!!