May 8, 2006
The Pittsburgh Wrestling Scene & My First Live Event
On February 20, 1978, Bob Backlund stunned the wrestling world by defeating Superstar Billy Graham for the WWWF World Championship. Backlund's historic win took place in Madison Square Garden, considered to be the Mecca in this Northeast territory. But only three nights before (on Friday the 17th) I attended my first live event and fell in love with the sport.
I was a skinny thirteen year-old kid who only recently began watching this athletic theater on television. My family lived in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, where only ten years before, Bruno Sammartino was running the local territory. I remember that the early-70s promotion was called "Studio Wrestling" -- and aired on Saturday afternoons, A LIVE SHOW that ran a combination of squash matches & shoot interviews, with live promos sometimes hawking a local card taking place later that very night!
One local star I never had the pleasure of seeing live was Tony Marino, who used to don the tights dressed as Batman! In the late 60s with the popularity of the TV show, Batman was king. Even in the wrestling ring. But as the sport moved into the next decade, the Batman gimmick was laid to rest.
So in the 70s, I'm now watching "All-Star Wrestling" on my Saturdays. Stars such as Dom DeNucci, Baron Scicluna, and the Golden Terror filled the TV screen. I even remember a brief tag-team feud with "Dynamite" Jack Evans and his partner "Pretty-boy" Larry Sharpe opposing fan-favorites Tony Garea & Larry Zbyszko. This feud was great because Evans & Sharpe cut such good promos, bad-mouthing their opponents. As a thirteen year-old kid, I'd take a good look at the bleach-blond heels and wonder what the hell was up with those guys.
So I fell in love with the sport. DeNucci and Zbyszko were my two favorites, you know, the Pittsburgh connection. Chief Jay Strongbow, Ivan Putski & Haystacks Calhoun were some others. During the holidays I found out that my cousin Ricky was also a wrestling fan. He had several wrestling magazines and knew of all the guys. And it was Ricky's idea that we attend the upcomming February show in Pittsburgh -- a return match between Champion Graham & "Polish Power" Ivan Putski.
How do you describe seeing "Hollywood" for the first time? That's what it was like. These were the same people I watched on TV. And Ricky had somehow gotten us great seats -- right over the hockey dasher-boards so we could climb over to the ringside floor and greet the wrestlers as they came to the ring! This was a real big deal years ago, the ringside area wasn't as sectioned off as it is today. At a card a few months later, we had front-row ringside seats (at a cost of six dollars a piece) and helped up Bob Backlund after he was tossed from the ring by Ivan Koloff. Again, this was a real big deal some 25 years ago. The place wasn't teeming with security. Most of the cops where just there to lead the wrestlers to and from the ring. And watch the show.
After a preliminary match with two local workers, Larry Zbyszko stepped in to face Baron Scicluna. Zbyszko was really over as a babyface (more than Bruno's prote'ge -- a real good talent) & Scicluna was really over as a heel, They wrestled on TV every week and I loved seeing them live. A long match, trading good spots, with Zbyszko gaining the upper hand as the 20 minute bell rang -- a draw.
The next match was a womens' tag, and the only thing I remember is that one of the face ladies was blond & pretty with big boobs, and she wore a one-piece that was practically a thong - butt-cheeks galore! That's all I was focused on at thirteen.
The Main Event was a Steel Cage Match between Champ Graham and Ivan Putski. Superstar was over well as a heel, and also got some face pops from the crowd. He always seemed to be both face and heel as a performer. He even defended the title a few times against top-heel Ken Patera - a bit of a tester by the WWWF to gauge Graham's popularity.
The cage match had a lot of two-way action. I was sure Putski was going to exit the cage first and win the belt. The Superstar was a bloody mess & on his last legs late in the match. Putski left Graham for dead and began to climb the cage. Once at the top, the Polish Power began to wave to the crowd. This was a mistake. That bit of lollygagging cost Putski the match as the Superstar smashed his way through the cage door and rolled down the steps to the arena floor a good two seconds before Putski came over the side and touched down. Bloody & bruised, Graham was still champion.
During the intermission I quietly sat in my seat. If only Putski had been TWO SECONDS faster!
Anyhow, I was convinced Graham's title reign would soon come to an end. Actually, just three more days...
Two more matches rounded out my first card. Stan Stasiak pinned S.D. Jones, a result I had expected. "Special Delivery" Jones was another favorite, but lost a good bit on TV. I was getting a hot dog at the concession stand and missed the end of the match.
The final bout was a tag-team title match between champs Mr. Fuji & Professor Tanaka and babyfaces Dom DeNucci & Gorilla Monsoon. It was 2 of 3 falls, and I don't remember one pin decision. I think Monsoon was counted out of the ring once, and both teams were DQed to end the match. Funny thing, an old lady sitting next to us hated Monsoon, really yelling loud & calling him fat-asss and stuff. But she still was rooting for the faces to win the bout!
What a great show! The whole thing was larger than life, back in the days of six or eight TV channels. In most cases wrestling was just the one-hour weekly show and a local live card every five or six weeks. Until our area got cable & the WOR-TV running the main "Championship Wrestling" show on Saturdays at midnight.
Fortunately, Champ Bob Backlund was booked in Pittsburgh every card, and never missed a show except for a once-a-year vacation. Bruno Sammartino would then step in to challenge the top heel. And beat him.
Looking back, it's easy to see why Ricky and I attended just about every card from then-on. We even learned where the wrestlers parked their cars, and would stand outside and wait there for autographs after the show. The great thing is that the stars would stop briefly to sign before driving away. Never any more than 15 or 20 of us waiting, even though the show would sometimes draw ten or twelve thousand, Backlund was well-over as a face champ in our town.
In fact, about ten of us once walked six or seven blocks with Bob to a parking garage next to a hotel. He autographed our programs and hung out with us for 10 or 15 minutes before mentioning that he had to be on his way to another match. So we all said good-bye and went away. Thinking on it now, Bob was probably staying overnight at the hotel and was easily able to get rid of us. Pretty smart guy.
Some of these memories include Ivan Koloff exiting the arena wearing a cowboy hat, and my cousin politely asking him to sign. Koloff nodded his head and signed the program without saying a word. We all thought that was pretty cool, and nobody had the guts to give Koloff any problem - that was pretty cool also.
Zbyszko, Garea, DeNucci, Gorilla Monsoon, Ted DiBiasie, an believe it or not, Greg Valentine were great guys & would always sign, though Valentine & Ken Patera were able to get away most of the time without anyone approaching them. Still, they would give a wave or a "How ya doing?" if we noticed them.
Ivan Putski was best of all, really taking all the fan stuff well & would pose for pictures with us! He was great & would say things like "I'm gonna be wrestling in a tag match against those rotten Valiants and Albano right here next month, boys. Wait 'till you see what I do to that fat slob Albano! I'll fix him good!" --- and we would have camped outside (for tickets) FOR WEEKS just to see it. We would've!
Another great memory was the Sammartino / Zbyszko feud. Fantastic stuff. Zbyszko was so over in his new heel persona it was incredible. After Larry did his TV / chair bit on Bruno, the WWWF had one of the first arena rematches in Pittsburgh.
The two local guys cut such great promos, you could almost sense some real tension here. Zbyszko was like Joe Nameth before the Superbowl, GUARANTEEING he'll win the rematch -- and he did, Bruno hit the referee for a DQ loss in front of a sold-out (over 18,000) crowd. Ricky & I ordered our tickets 3 weeks in advance and still had far-away seats.
Bruno got his revenge in a steel-cage match a few months later in front of another capacity crowd, much to my delight.
So the Pittsburgh wrestling scene was hot back then. Back before this modern era. Back when it was all just a big key-fabe work. And none of us the wiser. (wink, wink)