Monday, April 9, 2018

WWWF/WWF Title in Toronto

The WWWF/WWF Title would have an almost 20 year span in Toronto rings during the NWA days. From it's first appearance in 1964 to it's last in 1982 the title was defended on Toronto cards over 50 times. After the switch in 1984 it would continue to be defended here in the Hulk Hogan era (though not as often) but we will only be looking at the years up to 1982 when Bob Backlund made his last appearance with the title in the NWA era.

Before we look at the actual first Toronto defenses of the newly created WWWF belt in 1964, we can trace its origins here before the WWWF was actually created. The Toronto bouts between Thesz and Rogers in 1963 that led to the formation of the new fed is the logical start but we can even look a bit more into the past for the start of the story.

At the onset of the 1960's Toronto was fertile ground for young stars that had yet to make their name in the wrestling game. Gino Marella (Gorilla Monsoon), Don Jardine (The Spoiler), and Taro Sakuro (The Great Kabooki) were all working at their craft here as were The Tolos Brothers, Sweet Daddy Siki, and one Bruno Sammartino.

On the favorites side Yukon Eric had made his mark in the years he had been here while another newcomer Bulldog Brower had taken over the #1 villain spot on the scene as the 1950's turned to the 1960's. The #1 favorite here was still Whipper Watson but he was getting older and other stars were starting to share the main stage.

Bruno Sammartino had come into Toronto in 1962 on a recommendation while having issues with the Northeastern Promoters. Frank Tunney welcomed him into the city and was instantly rewarded when the fans got solidly behind the newcomer.

His first appearances at MLG in March 1962 were low on the cards. By April he was moving up and in May he headlined at MLG vs powerhouse (and seldom loser) Bulldog Brower. He got the win and there was no turning back. If Whipper was absent Bruno was in the main.

In June of 1962 Bruno got his first NWA Title shot vs Buddy Rogers. The trio of bouts the two had over the next 3 months cemented Bruno as a power to be in the wrestling world both here and in the Northeast where the promoters were looking at him in a new light.
vs Rogers 1962

In a 1962 article in the Star Frank Orr wrote '...the city's Italian populace has found a major hero in Bruno Sammartino and have been flocking to cheer their countryman. Bruno is a hero in the same mould as the great Rocca is to the Puerto Ricans in New York.' Frank Tunney answered 'The Television exposure has helped and we've had some great cards. Also the Italian people have been following Bruno in a big way.'

They sure were with an average of 14,000 coming out for his 3 bouts with Rogers. After the 3rd bout in Aug 1962 it was reported that 'the traffic out front (of MLG) was jammed before and after the bouts. Many fans came from out of town to see the fun, and they were not disappointed.' Fred Atkins added 'There is nothing wrong with pro wrestling that a couple of top-notch cards can't cure.'

Despite failing to unseat Rogers from the NWA throne Bruno would go on to win our version of the U.S. Title as well as team with Whipper and win the International Tag Titles for a time.

When Lou Thesz beat Buddy Rogers in Jan 1963 with the resulting changes with the promoters led by Vince McMahon Sr. breaking off to form the WWWF, it was said they already had an eye on Bruno to lead them into the future. Bruno would get a shot at Thesz here also in March 1963 and Thesz' win was said to be to establish Thesz as the 'real World champ' once the championship dust settled.

Bruno wrestled his last bout here on March 21 1963 in a tag with Kiniski before leaving for the WWWF and winning their title in May.

Bruno Sammartino

Even with all the upheaval among the promoters Tunney remained close with McMahon and Bruno would return with his new belt in Feb 1964 to face a previous opponent The Great Kudo (Red Garner). The fans would show up again , 11,000 of them though the main of the night was actually a handicap bout with Watson vs The Beast and his Manager Martino Angelo. Kudo, accompanied by manager Sam Sullivan was taken down by Bruno after just one minute 39 seconds of action. Manager Sullivan didn't fare too well either getting his jacket ripped apart by the champ previous to the bout.
vs Brower 1965

The next card saw a bigger challenge with Bulldog Brower getting his chance at the title. Bruno would emerge victorious in front of another fairly strong crowd of 7,000 in a bout that saw very few wrestling moves. Bruno and Bulldog would slug it for 19 minutes before Brower tried to charge at Bruno in the corner and met up with Bruno's sizable fist.

Bruno would return in March to face Professor Hiro, in July/Aug for 3 bouts vs The Beast, and again in November to face local boy Wally Seiber now turned into German villain Waldo Von Erich.

In the bout vs Hiro, Bruno was on the short end of judo chops and nerve holds and narrowly held on to his title when Hiro was counted out on the apron by ref Tiger Tasker.

Von Erich had met Bruno previously on the East Coast earning several title bouts - but this was the first local bout between the two. They would go on to be familiar adversaries over the next 15 years and Von Erich would prove to be one of Bruno's most respected opponents. The first bout in front of 5,500 saw Waldo repeatedly hitting the apron to escape the champ. The bout was called for curfew after 32 minutes with both wrestlers prone on the mat.

The re-match vs Von Erich on Jan 10 1965 ended when Waldo was flattened by Bruno and declared unable to continue after 24 minutes. A subsequent re-match was scheduled for 2 weeks later but was postponed due to Bruno being unable to attend due to bad weather in New York. They would meet on the last card of the month with Bruno getting the win in what was said to be an exiting fast paced bout between the two who 'have the dimensions of dinosaurs.'

In all Bruno would defend the title 24 times in Toronto between 1964 - 1969 with additional series against Johnny Powers, Bill Miller, Tiger Jeet Singh, and Professor Toru Tanaka.

He would win 2 consecutive bouts vs Singh in the summer of 1967. Under the tutelage of Fred Atkins, the young Singh had been tearing up the area and would battle back time and time again against the bigger Bruno to the delight of the Indian fans in the city.
vs Johnny Powers 1965

In his final Toronto defense during his first reign as WWWF champ he would meet Baron Scicluna on June 29 1969 but the title bout would not be the main attraction. At this time The Sheik had taken over top spot in Toronto and would meet Gene Kiniski in the final bout of the evening in front of a full MLG of over 15,000.

Tunney would book Sammartino to meet the Sheik on the following card but it was billed as a non-tile bout. The crowd of 12,000 was said to be 'half Italian.' Bruno still showed up with the title belt and used it to throttle Sheik after being attacked with the ring microphone and Sheik's #2 pencil prior to the bell. Bruno would earn a dq after pal Dom Denucci came in to help and the champ would then be absent from the Toronto scene for almost 7 years.

Bruno would lose the title in 1971 to Ivan Koloff and it would pass to Pedro Morales and Stan Stasiak before Bruno won it again in 1973. None of the others would defend here during their reigns. If Stasiak had held it longer its possible he may have appeared in Toronto given his previous history here in the early 1960's.

In Feb 1976 Tunney would bring Bruno back as a stop-gap fill in for the injured Sheik. By now the glory days of wrestling in Toronto were fading and the fans were tiring of the short bouts of the seemingly unbeatable Sheik on every card. Bruno was also a classic type champ on the cusp of a new wrestling generation that was slowly replacing the old guard in an effort to revitalize the game.

Sammartino would defend on 4 consecutive cards facing old foe Waldo Von Erich, Killer Kowalski, Ox Baker, and on the last card Apr 11 1976 - Brute Bernard. All of his opponents were also entering the later stages of their careers and the fans were evidently not impressed.

A card scheduled for Apr 25 was cancelled, Bruno was scheduled to face Superstar Billy Graham on May 2 but that card was also cancelled after Bruno was injured by Stan Hansen on Apr 26 in NYC.

That would be it for Bruno during the NWA years. His son David (as Bruno Jr.) would appear here quite regularly in the early 1980's both on Tunney cards and on Dave McKigney's circuit. Bruno Sr. would return in 1987 during his short lived comeback to meet Butch Reed at the Gardens.

Superstar Graham

Sammartino would lose the title to Superstar Graham in 1977 and SBG would come into Toronto on a number of occasions. The fans knew him from several appearances here in 1976 and as champ Graham would face Chief Jay Strongbow (2 times, one at Exhibition Stadium), and Stasiak during 1977.
vs Backlund 1978
 (mag photo)

On July 10 1977 a show at Exhibition Stadium had Graham defeating Strongbow in a short bout. The card also featured an NWA Title bout between Harley Race and The Sheik. Graham was scheduled to meet Stasiak on the next Ex card on Aug 7 but but an airline strike held him up and a main of Andre The Giant and Haystack Calhoun vs Bulldog Kent, Frank Stanley, and Chris Tolos went on instead.

Graham was then scheduled to face Stasiak on the Oct 16 card at MLG but again was not there. Stasiak faced Waldo Von Erich instead on a card that also featured AWA champ Nick Bockwinkel facing Dom Denucci. This card would have been the first time that both the WWWF and AWA Titles would be defended on the same night at MLG.

Graham would finally face Stasiak on Nov 20 1977 winning by pinfall after 10 minutes. AWA champ Nick Bockwinkel would also appear vs Carpentier making this the first card to feature both feds champs.

It's hard to judge Graham's drawing power in the city due to the overall climate for pro wrestling at the time. Attendance was in a sharp decline from years previous. There were many factors. Pro wrestling on the whole was seeing a decline across North America and many of the long time stars here were getting up in age. The Sheik's act had grown stale leading to a change and Tunney was looking outwards for help. During Graham's run Tunney made a deal to use Verne Gagne's top tier AWA stars including the champion Nick Bockwinkel so the cards became a mix of WWWF and AWA talent alongside the local stars.

Graham would make his last appearance with the title here on Feb 19 1978 pinning Ed Carpentier. It would prove to be his last successful defense as he lost it the next night in NYC to Bob Backlund. Graham would return a month later minus the belt to have 2 consecutive brawls with Dusty Rhodes at the top of the cards

Bob Backlund

Backlund would come in to MLG in May 1978 to face off against former champ Graham with the now renamed WWF Title and go on to defend in Toronto 22 more times through 1982. The skilled champ earned a strong following among the Toronto fans and would prove to be a popular (if not strong drawing) star in the city.

The early bouts vs Graham which included a steel cage bout (and the one vs Patera) showed Backlund to be more than just a scientific wrestler. He was able to brawl and match power against the bigger opponents. In the cage with Graham he battered SBG into the steel post and escaped through the cage to a huge roar from the crowd.

Opponents during his reign included Graham (3 times), Ken Patera (2 times), AWA champ Bockwinkel (Title vs Title), Monsoon, Koloff, Ernie Ladd, Greg Valentine (3 times), Ric Flair, Baron Von Raschke (2 times), Pat Patterson (2 times), Jimmy Snuka (2 times), Bob Orton Jr, and Buddy Rose (2 times).

Many of Backlund's defenses in the early part of his reign would be the semi main on the cards. Starting in October 1978 the Mid Atlantic stars headed up by Ricky Steamboat and Ric Flair started coming in and they would often occupy the main event on those cards.

On that first M-A stacked card in Oct 1978 Backlund faced former WWWF champ Ivan Koloff and won after an atomic drop and pin.

Backlund would find time to team with Dino Bravo to take on AWA Tag champs Patterson and Ray Stevens in a spirited bout in Nov 1978. The two would team up again in an Oshawa bout in July 1979 vs Greg Valentine and Ken Patera.

In what appeared to be a coup for Tunney, a bout was signed for Backlund to face AWA champ Bockwinkel in a Title vs Title bout. There wouldn't be many of those type in the wrestling world at all through the many eras of multi fed champs. As hard as it to believe now this bout actually wasn't the main of the night. The two new stars of Toronto Ricky Steamboat and Ric Flair battled it out in the main in another of their bouts over the U.S. Title. The other big bout had Canadian Champ Dino Bravo against Greg Valentine to make this card one of the biggest of the era.

The match had a bit of everything, both wrestlers showing their talents and using their favorite holds, Backlund with the Atomic Spinebreaker and Bockwinkel with the sleeper and a figure four attempt. Backlund, as in previous bouts would show his strength when Bockwinkel clamped on a short arm-scissors on the mat. Backlund would stand up and hoist Bockwinkel with him. Both would end up on the floor brawling and would be counted out after 39 minutes.

Backlund won a hard fought battle against Ladd on June 3 in another semi with a pin after 24 minutes. Dino Bravo won the Canadian Title from Greg Valentine in the main event of the night.

In what can be looked at now as a historic matchup, Backlund would defend against Ric Flair on July 15 1979. Flair was by now a very popular heel here and was tearing up the area but fell to Backlund when he was counted out. Backlund would show off his great conditioning yet again outdoing Flair in several showdowns and at one point doing his impressive bridge pushing out of a pin attempt with Flair on top of him. Backlund got the win by count-out after a fast paced 23 minute bout. At the time it was said that a return bout was to be expected but it never happened. It was on this trip North that Backlund would stay on for the Monday show in Oshawa to team with Bravo.
vs Valentine 1982

In August Canadian Champ Dino Bravo was scheduled to meet Ken Patera in a main event. Bravo no-showed and Tunney was able to get Backlund to fill in - in a title bout no less. Backlund won by dq at 24:14 of the bout

Backlund was scheduled for the Oct 15 1979 card to face Patterson was but the Bockwinkel-Dewey Robertson bout went on instead. It was said the Backlund bout was cancelled due to curfew but neither he nor Patterson were present at MLG.

The bout was re-scheduled for a month later but Patterson was replaced by Baron Von Raschke and the match ended in a double count-out.

Another bout vs Raschke and then Backlund finally met Patterson which ended with Backlund being counted out of the ring at 16:26. The re-match 2 weeks later saw Backlund get the pin over Patterson

Backlund would return to face The Destroyer on Jan 13 1980 in an action packed bout that was again the semi of the night. The Destroyer (Beyer) had returned to Toronto after an extended absence (he was here as Beyer in the '60's) and proved to be a great opponent for the young champ. Backlund would pull out all the stops using his abdominal stretch to almost earn the win and then deliver a brutal piledriver to the masked man. The bout ended in a double count-out with both brawling on the floor but Backlund was the clear winner and the fans got their moneys worth with this one. After the bout Backlund was mobbed when he stepped up into the stands by the ramp and while his drawing power in Toronto could still be argued, his popularity here can not.

After an extended absence Backlund would face Valentine in Jan 1982 in what was billed as a 'return' bout after the title was held up at MSG in New York. That bout actually took place back in October 1981 and the two had met since then (not here obviously) and they played it up as a grudge bout. The two had a great battle going toe to toe alternating between a slugfest and a scientific clinic, exchanging those slow suplexes that had them up in air for what seemed like an eternity. Valentine was a very well matched opponent for Backlund and while Valentine was always a hated heel here, he was well respected as a great wrestler. Their previous bout here in June 1979 was also a classic.

In the Aug 8 1982 bout vs Snuka, the Superfly kept throwing Backlund out of the ring and eventually Backlund stayed there being counted out. Their next matchup on Aug 22 was set to be in a steel cage. After a hard fought battle Snuka would climb to the top and launch his 'Superfly' only to miss and 'knock himself out' enabling Backlund to get out the door to earn the win.

Almost 11,000 came out to see Backlund face Bob Orton Jr. Backlund won after 23 minutes.

Next up was Playboy Buddy Rose for 2 consecutive MLG cards. Rose would make quite an entrance accompanied to the ring by a couple of pretty ladies but it wouldn't help him vs the champ. He was awarded the win in the first bout via dq but lost the rematch in a Texas Death match when Backlund used his chicken-wing move and Rose was declared unable to continue.

That would be the end of the WWF Title during the NWA days. Hulk Hogan would make his first appearance in Aug 1984.

Photos by Roger Baker, MLW as noted