1972. WWWF televised event.Well before the days of Monday Night Raw and WWE.
Two of the biggest stars in the business teaming together for an epic tag team match. One, the current World Champion in Pedro Morales. The other, the former (and eight year reigning) World Champion, Bruno Sammartino. In our lifetime, it was like a Hogan and Warrior or an Austin and Rock team up. Their opponents, the heavy heels Professor Tanaka and Mr. Fuji. Without a doubt, the kind of tag team match where the fans expected the heels to get their comeuppance for their previous wrongdoings.
But then came a turn in the match. Fuji, in trademark fashion, threw salt into the eyes of Sammartino, blinding him into an inadvertent attack against Morales who came into the ring to help his partner. As Morales hit the mat, Tanaka followed Fuji's play and blinded Morales with his own toss of salt. Suddenly, the two allies found themselves mistakenly battling each other, thinking they were Tanaka and Fuji. When the dust (or salt) settled, the match was clearly over, but the result created heat between Sammartino and Morales with each man blaming the other for the circumstances.
Vincent J. McMahon knew what he had on his hands. Something that had not been done in wrestling before. Two mega faces at odds with other. The perfect centerpiece for his outdoor event at Shea Stadium.
The Match Of The Century
Born in 1935, Bruno Sammartino was an immigrant to America from Italy, whose family planted roots in Pittsburgh, PA in 1950. The teenage Sammartino, having already survived a life threatening battle with rheumatic fever, took on the hobby of weightlifting to build up his slender, gaunt frame.
Sammartino's success in the weight room nearly earned him a spot on the 1956 US Olympic team, but he was edged out by eventual gold medalist in the '56 games, Paul Anderson. But his impressive feats of strength, which became a sort of local event each time, caught the eye of a local wrestling promoter in the area who recruited Sammartino into his fold. Not only was Sammartino a specimen in terms of his 6'1" 280 pound frame, but his Italian ethnicity was a draw to many of his fellow countrymen in the Pittsburgh area.
His first match was a 19 second squash of Dmitri Grabowski.
The planned show was an outdoor event to be showcased at Shea Stadium, which only six years previous had housed The Beatles to over 40,000 fans and only three years previous the World Series winning Mets. McMahon knew to bring the fans in that he needed a main event that was as big as a heavyweight boxing bout. With the events having transpired in the tag match with Morales and Sammartino, the groundwork had been laid for such a battle.
The Showdown at Shea took place on September 30, 1972.
Over 22,000 fans braved a very cold and rainy day to see the match dubbed "The Match of The Century." As we've all found throughout the years of watching mega events like this, how the fans will react can never be predicted. The usually heavy favored Sammartino was jeered by the fans, something he had not really encountered in his career as a wrestler.
Davies' biography on Sammartino offers the suggestion that Sammartino was disliked that day because the fans "who attended the monthly cards at Madison Square Garden were angry that Bruno was no longer appearing on a regular basis. Morales had replaced him in their hearts."
The match was a technical wrestling exhibition in every sense of the word, and showcased not only the incredible stamina of each individual but also the focus to tell a compelling story inside the ring.
After several near falls and an attempted run-in by George "The Animal" Steele, the match finally had to be called a draw after an incredible 75 minutes due to the current curfew ordinance instituted in New York. Morales and Sammartino had not only gone Broadway but well beyond anything anyone had expected. At the conclusion of the bout, both Morales and Sammartino embraced, once again unified as a tag team as well as friends.
In the coming years, McMahon (and his son) would deliver two more Showdown at Shea events to New York in 1976 and 1980. The 1976 show had Sammartino successfully defending his WWWF Title against Stan Hansen, while the 1980 show famously pitted him in a cage match with his protege turned heel, Larry Zbysko,
Interesting note: the under card of the 1976 Showdown at Shea had Andre the Giant facing boxer Chuck Wepner, who was the inspiration for the film Rocky which would debut later that year in theaters. The fight itself would also be the inspiration for the match between Thunderlips (Hulk Hogan) and Rocky Balboa in Rocky III.
After his run as WWWF Champion, Morales left the company in 1974 and worked various promotions throughout the country until staging a comeback to the renamed WWF in 1980. Morales not only went on to win the tag titles with Bob Backlund (which had to be immediately forfeited because Backlund was World Champion and by the rules of the time could not hold more than one title) but also claimed the WWF Intercontinental Title after defeating Ken Patera in his old stomping grounds of Madison Square Garden. The win was significant for Morales because he became the first ever Triple Crown Winner in the history of the WWWF and WWF. He would wrestle for the company until 1987 when he finally retired from the ring, and was inducted into the WWF Hall of Fame in 1995.
Sammartino would retire from the WWF in 1980, but return in 1984. Although he worked a number of matches with his son, David, in tag team action, Sammartino did feud with both Macho Man Randy Savage and the Honky Tonk Man for the Intercontinental Championship before finally calling it quits in 1988.
Unfortunately, Sammartino's relationship with the company would become more and more strained due to his criticisms over issues such as steroid use and questionable story lines. His outspoken position on the direction of the WWF/E has kept him out of the Hall of Fame as well as many other honorable mentions. (He is also missing from the past and present roster on the new website.)
There was almost a breakthrough in 2004 while in the midst of a possible DVD release of Sammartino's greatest matches as well as a possible position working on WWE 24/7 Classics, but the negotiations fell through once again over the present direction of the company. The Monday Night Raw episode that week was in Pittsburgh, and Sammartino was invited to attend but declined despite being told of the main event featuring Triple H and Chris Benoit. Sammartino added he would have attended if Benoit was wrestling Kurt Angle.
Granted, the Showdown at Shea was not a match that took place at Wrestlemania but with John Cena and The Rock's recent bout dubbed a "Once in a Lifetime" main event, it's interesting to look back to a similar "Match of the Century" that took place during a time when the company was still on the verge of succeeding and failing with every event promoted and how two massive stars with two different fan bases produced wrestling history.