In 1972, 1976, and 1980, Shea Stadium in Flushing, New York, hosted thousands of screaming wrestling fans to see the first-ever supercards by WWE. Featuring icons like Muhammad Ali, Pedro Morales, Bruno Sammartino, Hulk Hogan, and Andre the Giant, in a time before WrestleMania, these epic spectacles were unmissable!
The Awesome History of Showdown at Shea
Shea Stadium. A colorless monolith built in 1964 and served as the home of the mostly hapless New York Mets from 1964 to 2008 and the even more hapless New York Jets from 1964 to 1983.
A stadium with the personality of a moth on life support, where the seats were way too high, and the relentless, unforgiving wind blew right through you.
Apart from Cleon Jones catching the last out of the World Series on October 16, 1969, thereby giving the stumbling, bumbling Mets their first World Championship (there would only be one more, in 1986), very few good or exciting things happened at a stadium that was very appropriately located in a place called Flushing.
However, on three separate occasions (1972, 1976, and 1980), Shea Stadium came to life, as thousands upon thousands of screaming wrestling fans witnessed what would become known as the Showdown At Shea. In the days before WrestleMania, they were the first super cards put out by WWE.
Although each one of these spectacles could easily warrant a story unto itself, I will attempt to combine the three events into one piece.
It should be noted that while unrelated, the three Showdown at Shea shows have one common thread: each was headlined by “The Living Legend,” Bruno Sammartino.
Showdown At Shea (1972)
On September 30th, 1972, 22,508 fans converged on a cool, rainy Saturday evening for the inaugural Showdown At Shea event.
The “little” people opened the festivities as Little Beaver and Little Louie defeated Pee Wee Adams and Sonny Boy Hayes.
In the next match, El Olympico defeated Chuck O’Connor by disqualification.
Mr. O’Connor would later soar to far greater heights as one of The Executioners before reaching his ultimate notoriety as Big John Studd.
Other matches included Jack Brisco defeating Mr. Fuji, Gorilla Monsoon defeating Ernie Ladd via referee’s decision, Chief Jay Strongbow and Sonny King defeating Lou Albano and The Spoiler, and The Fabulous Moolah defeating Debbie Johnson for the Women’s Championship.
This very improbable feud had booking genius written all over it.
Several months earlier, Bruno and Pedro teamed up to wrestle two arch nemeses, Mr. Fuji and Professor Toru Tanaka. During the match, Bruno and Pedro were blinded by the ever-present salt that both of their nefarious opponents hid in their tights.
Each of them threw haymakers, ostensibly at their villainous foes, but in reality, at each other. This created some hard feelings between the two friends, leading to this bout.
Bruno and Pedro battled for 75 minutes and 5 seconds, which surpassed the combined 59 minutes and 42 seconds duration of their previous six matches.
While this sounds utterly disproportionate on the surface, the reality was that the hard-working folks of New York bought their ducats to see Bruno and Pedro.
Despite the non-consequential finish, as well as the inclement weather, they got their money’s worth and then some.
The 22,508 fans in attendance for this Showdown at Shea event was just slightly below the hometown Mets’ average attendance of that year (27,361).
Showdown At Shea (1976)
The second show in this Showdown at Shea trilogy took place on June 25, 1976, ironically the day after my 21st birthday.
This card opened with “Polish Power” Ivan Putski defeating the great Baron Mikel Scicluna, the pride of Malta.
Other matches included José González and Kevin Sullivan wrestling to a draw and Chief Jay Strongbow and Billy White Wolf defeating The Executioners in a two-out-of-three falls match, although the WWWF Tag Team Championship did not change hands due to the villains being disqualified in the deciding fall.
Andre The Giant defeated the “Bayonne Bleeder” Chuck Wepner via count-out at 1:17 of the third round in a unique wrestler versus boxer match. On this night, Mr. Wepner was no match for the Eighth Wonder of the World.
Did you know? Chuck Wepner’s performance against Muhammad Ali in 1975 inspired Sylvester Stallone to write the screenplay for the original Rocky movie.
In what was billed as the main event, Antonio Inoki, arguably the greatest wrestler in Japanese history, fought to a draw with World Boxing Association Champion Muhammad Ali, in what was, to put it mildly, a stinkfest.
This contest was shown at Shea Stadium via closed-circuit television from Japan.
During the match, Inoki did his best imitation of a fiddler crab, crawling around the ring and kicking Ali in the legs over 100 times.
The Tokyo crowd in attendance threw garbage in the ring and shouted, “Money back! Money back!”
Unfortunately, for the fans at Shea, this was the last thing they saw before navigating the unforgiving Grand Central Parkway back to their humble abodes. Thankfully, they had experienced a thrilling victory by their hero, Bruno Sammartino, over the “Bad Man from Borger, Texas” Stan Hansen in the penultimate match.
The storyline behind this bout is legendary in the annals of wrestling.
On April 26th, just 60 days earlier, Bruno had suffered a broken neck in a match with Hansen at Madison Square Garden.
Hansen, still very new to the business, had botched a body slam, causing Bruno to hit the mat headfirst, fracturing his sixth vertebra.
Of course, this was kayfabed into a storyline that Hansen’s lariat, aided and abetted by a loaded elbow pad, was the cause of Bruno’s neck injury.
In the course of my never-ending research into wrestling history, one thing I have learned with absolute certainty is that a promoter will take advantage of just about anything, real or imagined, to sell tickets. The cause of an injury like this could never be concealed today; however, in 1976, without the internet, social media, cell phones, and cable in its infancy, this was relatively easy to accomplish.
Vince McMahon, Sr. had invested heavily into the Ali-Inoki closed-circuit match. Unfortunately, McMahon’s enthusiasm was not shared by the paying public. McMahon knew that a poor showing at the box office could very well bankrupt his Capitol Wrestling Corporation.
It has been said many times that desperate men seek desperate measures. Following this playbook, McMahon reached out to the one man who had never let him down, that, of course, being Bruno, to offset the lackluster interest in the closed-circuit contest.
Bruno was the ultimate team player and would always do anything and everything to promote and protect the sport he so dearly loved. This time, only one problem: Bruno was convalescing in a hospital bed in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, trying to recuperate from the severe neck injury he recently sustained.
On one occasion, Bruno’s doctor, Louis Civitarese, answered a McMahon phone call in Bruno’s room. The good Doctor performed a long-distance lacersphincterostomy (aka tearing one a new hole) on a very startled McMahon.
In no uncertain terms, Dr. Civitarese explained to Vince Sr. that Bruno had sustained a profoundly serious neck injury, and not only was his wrestling career in doubt, but his very ability to function as a normal human was as well.
After being verbally eviscerated, humbled, and guilted, a rational person would have seen the error of their ways and thought of something else. Instead, McMahon called back the next day.
Bruno acquired many appellations over the course of his illustrious career, one of them being the Italian Superman. Somehow, within two months after what should have been a career-ending and life-altering injury, he soundly defeated Hansen in their rematch at Shea, much to the absolute delight of the estimated 32,000 fans in attendance.
The New York Mets’ average home attendance that year was 18,133.
Showdown At Shea (1980)
The finale of this epic Showdown at Shea trilogy featured thirteen matches in front of the then third-largest crowd in American wrestling history: 36,295.
First, I will include a brief summary of the results and then expound upon a couple of the contests:
- Angel Maravilla defeated Jose Estrada
- Dominic DeNucci defeated Baron Mikel Scicluna
- Tatsumi Fujinami defeated Chavo Guerrero Sr. (WWF Junior Heavyweight Championship)
- Antonio Inoki defeated Pretty Boy Larry Sharpe (NWF Heavyweight Championship)
- Bob Backlund and Pedro Morales defeated The Wild Samoans (WWF World Tag Team Championship)
- Pat Patterson defeated Tor Kamata via disqualification
- Fabulous Moolah and Betty Shade defeated Kandi Malloy and Peggy Lee
- Greg Gagne defeated Rick McGraw
- Tony Atlas defeated Ken Patera via countout
- Ivan Putski defeated Johnny Rodz
- The Hangman defeated Rene Goulet
- Andre The Giant defeated Hulk Hogan
- Bruno Sammartino defeated Larry Zbyszko in a steel cage match
Most of these matches were inconsequential and did little to advance existing storylines.
Backlund and Morales quickly vacated the tag team titles, as due to WWWF rules, any current champion (Backlund) was unable to hold two titles.
As I am sitting here writing this, I wonder why the match would have been billed as a championship match when the championship could not change hands? I know I am way too logical when logic has no place in the mind of a wrestling fan.
Perhaps Backlund and Morales should have retained the great Vincent LaGuardia Gambini to plead their case?
The WWF Junior Heavyweight Championship, defended by Fujinami, was virtually unknown to the average New York wrestling fan and was, for the most part, contested in Japan.
The National Wrestling Federation (NWF) Championship was a prestigious title while it was the domain of Buffalo-based promoter Pedro Martinez.
Such greats held the belt as Dominic DeNucci, Waldo Von Erich, Ernie Ladd, and Johnny Valentine. Antonio Inoki captured the belt from Johnny Powers in late 1973 and incorporated this championship into his newly created New Japan Pro-Wrestling promotion.
From there, Inoki did his absolute best Verne Gagne imitation, holding the belt for the majority of the next eight years until its deactivation in 1981.
The Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant encounter was quite intriguing.
Hogan, then a monster heel managed by Freddie Blassie, made a very impressive showing in this bout. Although he was pinned (albeit with an extremely quick count), he not only busted the Giant open, but he lifted the 400 plus pound Giant with relative ease and slammed him into the mat.
Of course, this occurrence was conveniently erased from WWE history during the build of their epic encounter at WrestleMania 3.
The storyline for the main event is my all-time favorite and perhaps one of the best in modern wrestling history.
Larry Zbyszko had long been considered the protégé of the living legend, Bruno Sammartino. In one of those rare instances where kayfabe mirrored reality, Zbyszko, as a teen, literally crawled through the shrubbery to gain entry into Bruno’s backyard just to catch a glimpse of his hero.
By this point in his life, Larry had decided on professional wrestling as his vocation and asked Sammartino to train him and help him break into the business. Forever gracious and classy, Bruno agreed to do so, contingent upon Larry pursuing a college degree.
Larry faithfully pursued this course of action (at least for a while, as he dropped out of Penn State University), and Bruno followed through on his commitment.
In his early career, Larry could have easily been mistaken as Bruno’s younger brother or son, as there were many similarities in both their physique and their wrestling style.
Zbyszko enjoyed a modicum of success in his early career, wrestling in British Columbia, Japan, and the Mid-Atlantic territory, before returning to his East Coast roots with the WWWF in early 1977. He captured the WWWF World Tag Team Titles with Tony Garea in November of 1978.
Zbyszko, though scoring many mid-card victories, was unable to break into the upper echelon, main event matches.
In early 1980, Larry appeared on a TV taping in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and stated that he wanted to wrestle his mentor, Bruno Sammartino, to demonstrate to the fans he rightfully belonged at the top of the card.
Bruno, at the time a commentator, initially demurred, but due to the overwhelming response of the public (those cards and letters sometimes work, folks!), agreed to wrestle his protégé, with the condition that while he would give it his all in terms of effort, he would not try to defeat Larry or attempt to injure him.
The much-anticipated match took place in Allentown on January 22, 1980, although it would not be seen by the public for several weeks.
Although Zbyszko fared quite well in the bout, he was outmaneuvered by Bruno on several occasions, producing a clearly evident and growing frustration.
Finally, after losing his balance and falling through the ropes, Larry intentionally kneed Bruno while Sammartino was assisting him back into the ring. Zbyszko then proceeded to retrieve a chair from ringside and clobbered the bewildered and still stunned Bruno. The result was quite graphic and stunning, to say the least.
Although by this time an adult and wise to the ways of the wrestling world, I vividly remember standing up in my living room and uttering “holy s***” over and over.
Bruno, the teacher, transformed into Bruno, the madman.
Incensed by the betrayal of his pupil, he cut scathing promos, referring to Zbyszko as “Judas” and describing in no uncertain terms what he was going to do to him once they squared off. The result? A near-record crowd of 36,295 screaming fans at the normally placid Shea saw Bruno exact a measure of revenge on this turncoat, this traitor… this Judas.
Although Bruno won the match, he did not pin Larry nor make him submit. This inconclusive result enabled the two to take their feud around the proverbial horn, including the hallowed Madison Square Garden.
Bruno’s legend and legacy had long been established. Still, this feud vaulted Zbyszko into the main event position with several promotions, including a two-time run as American Wrestling Association (AWA) World Heavyweight Champion.
Larry’s WWE Hall of Fame induction speech is by far my all-time favorite; the reverence, gratitude, and love he has for Bruno are clearly evident.
To quote the immortal Eddie Cochems, “There you have it sports fans.” Epic events at a not-so-epic venue. Perhaps like being served prime rib at McDonald’s?
In any event, it was a wrestling trilogy that will live on forever in the memories of old-school wrestling fans.
These stories may also interest you:
- Bruno Sammartino and Stan Hansen | The Botch That Broke Bruno
- Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant – The Truth Behind Their Feud
- Muhammad Ali, Antonio Inoki, and the Controversial Birth of MMA
- Vince McMahon Opens Up About His Father, Vince Sr.
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