August 20, 2004
Sheldon Kane III
"The Russian Bear" Ivan Koloff (Champion) vs. United States Champion Pedro Morales (Challenger)
Madison Square Garden, New York, NY
February 8, 1971
On the night of January 18, 1971, fans jam-packed Madison Square Garden to witness their hero, WWWF Champion Bruno Sammartino, defend his title against yet another fearsome opponent; a man nicknamed "The Russian Bear", Ivan Koloff. Seven years and eight months before this day, Bruno had defended the championship with honor, defeating the very best contenders the sport had to offer. Everyone from Killer Kowalski to Gorilla Monsoon to Cowboy Bill Watts all knew what it was like to taste defeat at the hands of this future "Living Legend", whose name had become synonymous with the WWWF by this time. It seemed this evening would be like any other night for Bruno Sammartino; a successful title defense against a roughneck opponent who would give Bruno a battle, but would ultimately come up short.
Two days before this title defense, Bruno had battled the one-man riot squad, Dick "The Bulldog" Brower, to a double-disqualification in Philadelphia. It would be the last time Bruno would walk out of an arena with the WWWF Championship until December 10, 1973. On this winter evening in Madison Square Garden, Ivan Koloff dropped a knee from the top rope onto the prone champion, and scored an unimaginable three-count at the 14:55 mark. Out of fear of a riot, referee Dick Kroll and the newly minted champion quickly left the ring and headed for the dressing room. But there would be no rioting on this night. Instead, the New York City fans went into a stunned silence. Rare is it when a sports crowd in New York actually goes quiet, but that is what happened the night their hero, Bruno Sammartino, finally met his match as the Champion. Legend has it there were even some fans in attendance who could be heard weeping. It was another emotional evening for fans of Bruno Sammartino, but on this occasion, the emotions felt were of shock and sadness. Bruno would later state that he suffered a shoulder injury at the hands of George "The Animal" Steele three days prior to the match, during a tag team contest in Pittsburgh. He would announce his retirement at age 34 (as we all know, this retirement would not last very long).
At this point in WWE history, it was a common philosiphy to have a popular babyface holding the Championship while taking on the biggest, baddest heels in the business, but to have a transitional heel champion in the interim. When Bruno Sammartino lost the title, it paved the way for a new face at the top, one that would inspire a good deal of fan adulation himself; enter Culebra, Puerto Rico's favorite son, then-United States Champion Pedro Morales. A multi-talented athlete who could wrestle a technical style, brawl with the best of them and take to the air when necessary, the 5'11", 240-pound Morales proved to be quite the popular draw amongst WWWF fans, especially in the New York City area, where the Puerto Rican fan base was large and very dedicated in supporting their favorites. He was a natural challenger to the hated Koloff, managed by the equally vilified Lou Albano. Sure enough, just three weeks after "The Russian Bear" won the title, he was summoned back to Madison Square Garden to defend the championship against Morales.
Pedro's fans were always intensely passionate, but on this night in the Garden, they were more vocal than ever. Fans in attendance that night wanted to see the Puerto Rican fireplug put an end to Koloff's title reign, which to many felt more like three YEARS instead of three weeks. The match that ensued would have the people on the edge of their seats, as they were witness to a title match featuring two very capable athletes representing very different philosiphies. Indeed, it was not only a battle of athletic prowess, but also a battle of wills; Koloff and Morales were very proud men who wanted to be the best at what they did. But only one man could stand atop the mountain; and on February 8, 1971, one man would be left standing above all, while the other would taste bitter defeat. It should be noted; despite Pedro's status as the United States Champion at the time of this match, only Koloff's WWWF Championship was on the line. Also, the United States Title Pedro held at the time is not to be confused with the United States Title seen on WWE SmackDown! today, the lineage of which goes back to the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) and World Championship Wrestling (WCW).
After the opening bell sounded, Koloff and Morales circled the ring with their eyes locked upon one another, preparing for an intense struggle for the most prestigious championship in all of professional sports. After a pair of collar end elbow tieups which saw neither man give an inch, Morales and Koloff clenched their fists out of determination and a bit of frustration, apparently headed for a slugfest. Instead, the champion waved off the fiery challenger, stepped through the ropes and stood on the ring apron arguing with the Madison Square Garden fans. Referee Terry Terranova would have none of this, and ordered Koloff back into the squared circle. Reluctantly, Koloff stepped back inside, and eyed his opponent intensely. Morales focused squarely on his adversary, and after a staredown, the two men locked up again. Morales ensnared Koloff in a side headlock, and Koloff shoved him off into the ropes. Morales quickly rebounded and caught Koloff with a shoulderblock. Koloff quickly returned to his feet, and Morales ran the ropes, with Koloff dropping down to the mat. Morales jumped over him, ran to the opposite ropes, but was caught by a back bodydrop from the hated champion. Morales fought off "The Russian Bear" with a kick, made it to his feet, and slammed the 5'11", 295-pound champion. After a pair of takedowns, Morales trapped Koloff on the mat with a side headlock. With Morales in control of the match, Koloff attempted to get to his feet while trapped in the headlock, but only got as far as his knees. Koloff would attempt to get out of the side headlock by grabbing the challenger's hair, but referee Terry Terranova was right there to make sure Koloff did not make any such move. Koloff would make it to his feet, but Morales would simply apply more pressure with the headlock, wrenching down hard several times over. Koloff again tried grabbing the hair of Morales, but again the official would catch him in the act. Koloff pushed Morales to the ropes, and Morales would rebound, knocking Koloff down with a shoulderblock. As Morales bounced off the opposite ropes, he was met with a boot to the midsection from the champion. Koloff stomped away at the challenger, and applied a painful reverse chinlock. Painful, because Koloff was actually using the hold as an illegal choke. Morales motioned to the referee that Koloff was choking him, but of course Koloff denied any wrongdoing. Koloff would end up breaking the hold, and delivered two kicks to the chest of Morales. A snapmare later, Koloff reapplied the chinlock, this time with the benefit of the shoulder strap from his black singlet wrapped around Morales's neck. Koloff attempted to conceal the strap with his left arm, but the referee was right on top of it, and forced Koloff to break. Slowly, Koloff stalked his challenger, but Morales fought back hard, catching him with two strong left handed shots. Koloff started to beg off and even tried extending his hand, but Pedro and the fans watching would not hear of it. Instead, the two men engaged in a test of strength, which the larger and stronger champion won easily. Morales, however, was not to be outdone. After making it to his feet, the challenger pushed the champion into the ropes, and escaped with a beautiful monkey flip. Koloff attempted to beg off yet again, but again Morales would not fall for Koloff's obvious tricks.
As the match wore on, it was apparent to all watching that Koloff was starting to get desperate. Koloff raked the eyes of Morales, and applied a strong bearhug, which he hoped would squeeze a submission out of him. Morales temporarily freed himself after a single punch, but was trapped in another bearhug almost immediately. Eventually, Morales would find a means of escape by cinching deep, scooping Koloff up, and executing a bodyslam. As Morales moved in to follow up, Koloff caught him with a shot to the throat, and a hard kick to the chest. Koloff clamped on a side headlock, and delivered a stiff right hand to the head while the hold was applied. Koloff again clamped on the headlock, but Morales shoved the champion into the ropes. On the rebound, both men collided, and fell to the mat simultaneously. Terry Terranova started to put a count on both men, but at the count of seven, both men were able to regain their footing. Morales attempted another slam on Koloff, but this time, the weight of the 295-pound Russian menace proved to be too great. The United States Champion fell under his weight, but Koloff only managed a two-count. Quick to take advantage, Koloff ran the ropes and attempted a body splash, but there was nobody home. Both men were down once again, but Koloff slowly made it back to his feet, using the ropes to pull himself up. Koloff picked up Morales and slammed him to the mat, then went to the outside. The fans in Madison Square Garden recognized this scene all too well, for this was the very same move Koloff used to defeat Bruno Sammartino three weeks earlier. Koloff got into position to administer his top rope kneedrop, and as he came crashing down, Morales moved out of the way, avoiding certain defeat. Morales quickly followed up by scaling the top rope and catching Koloff with a flying bodypress. The fans rose to their feet in hopes this would be the title-winning pinfall, but it was not to be. Koloff kicked out at the count of two.
Koloff found himself on the defensive, and started to try whatever tactics he could to hold onto his title, which he felt slowly slipping from his grip. Koloff whipped Morales into one corner of the ring, then the opposite corner. Koloff then threw Morales into a third corner of the ring, turned him facing the turnbuckles, and locked his challenger in for a German suplex. As Koloff lifted Morales, Morales kicked off the ropes, and both men went down in a pinning position. The referee counted both men's shoulders, but Morales managed to raise his shoulder just before the count of three came down, and at 10:41, a new World Wide Wrestling Federation Champion was crowned (videotapes of the match show Koloff's shoulder also raised off the mat with Morales's, but apparently the referee overlooked this). The fans in Madison Square Garden erupted into celebration, and as their deafening cheers filled the arena, former champion Bruno Sammartino entered the ring to personally wrap the championship belt around the waist of Morales. The fans were so raucous in their celebrating that several of New York's finest had to stand up on the apron to prevent joyous fans from rushing into the ring. Koloff complained of the call, flipped off the crowd, and disappeared quietly to the dressing room. Meanwhile, the new WWWF Champion Pedro Morales stood proudly in the middle of the ring, with Bruno Sammartino raising his right hand, and referee Terry Terranova raising his left hand. A new era had begun in the WWWF; the era of Pedro Morales.
Ivan Koloff never again held the WWWF Championship, despite making several more bids for the title over the years. His career would continue for the next three decades to follow, competing all over the United States and the world over. After becoming WWWF Champion, Pedro Morales relinquished the United States Championship, in accordance with WWWF rules which stated a wrestler could not hold two championships simultaneously. The WWWF Championship reign of Pedro Morales would last until December 1, 1973, when he lost the gold in Philadelphia to Stan "The Man" Stasiak. Ironically, Stasiak defeated Morales for the title in the same manner Morales beat Ivan Koloff, with both mens' shoulders down in a suplex position, and Stasiak raising his shoulder in time. In later years, Morales would enjoy reigns as Intercontinental Champion and World Tag Team Champion, becoming the first wrestler in WWE history to complete the championship "Triple Crown". He would be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 1995. But no matter how many more accolades Morales would achieve, nothing could ever top his accomplishment of February 8, 1971. Not only did Morales take down a menace the fans wanted to see go down desperately, but he also carved himself a permanent niche in the annals of WWE history. The name of Pedro Morales will never be forgotten.