These matches and magical moments in wrestling at Madison Square Garden illustrate just what it felt like to bear witness to history. As someone who has attended countless live wrestling shows worldwide since 1974, it takes a lot to impress this middle-aged old school jaded fan. However, these five matches did just that.
1. Jimmy Snuka Jumps Off The Steel Cage on Don Muraco
In 1983, the WWWF was meat and potatoes- with a monster heel vs. face champ in Bob Backlund on top at the arenas month after month, year after year. It was their way of doing things, a successful formula going back to the Bruno and Pedro reigns.
But Don Muraco and Superfly Snuka changed all that.
Muraco was a heel who could wrestle, brawl, fly, cut incredible promos, and do it all. In his prime as Intercontinental Champ, he was as great as anyone and, in my opinion, an all-time great heel.
And then there was Jimmy Snuka. His leap off the top rope at the time was as great a move as ever had been seen. Like Don Muraco, he could do it "all" as well. They were made for each other.
And on that memorable night at MSG in 1983 when everything magically came together- two warriors in their prime, in a feud that mattered, with a cage to boot, there was electricity in the air.
Yes, it was WHITE hot. And I know because I was there.
As Muraco lay there prone mid-ring, Snuka climbed to the top of the towering steel cage.
"No, no, he isn’t going to do it…" I said excitedly to my best buddy Scott Bernstein as Snuka stood on top of the cage.
"No! No way!" he responded in amazement.
But that was EXACTLY what Jimmy was about to do.
And as he perched upright on the cage, for what felt like forever, the excitement reached a crescendo. Then he made his leap, remarkably first springing upward, even higher than the cage itself.
"Oh, my God!" I shrieked in sheer joy, the adrenaline coursing through my veins as the cavernous building vibrated.
It may have been the most incredible moment in the history of pro wrestling.
The belt, who won, means little these many years later. What is remembered is that LEAP. And a half million-plus people on YouTube alone have watched it, and I’m sure a half-million more will.
We already know how it inspired Mick Foley, who was a youngster like me sitting there as well.
Hey, it’s a gift that keeps on giving.
Thank you, Superfly. And thank you as well, Don "Magnificent" Muraco. You both were, in fact, magnificent that night, and because of you, we all now share a magical moment in wrestling at Madison Square Garden that will live forever.
2. Bruno Sammartino vs. Superstar Billy Graham, February 1976
My late Dad was an NYC taxi driver of 27 years. He told me only three people could stop traffic in NYC- Muhammed Ali, actress Julie Newmar of Catwoman (and incredible body) fame, and Superstar Billy Graham.
He was that charismatic, flamboyant, and in 1976 virtually nobody looked like him.
"I’m the man of the hour, the man with the power, too sweet to be sour," he waxed poetic, kissing his own muscle, the Grand Wizard of Wrestling, looking on adoringly.
Bruno Sammartino was the beloved, humble, soft-spoken hero of the people, had to take his taunts month after month in a TV build-up that would lead to this clash of the titans.
Superstar destroying Bruno’s best buddy in Domenic Denucci in mere seconds at the very same Madison Square Garden two months earlier just added fuel to the fire.
When their first match at MSG ended indecisively, the fans were primed for this February 2nd rematch.
Forty-two years after the fact, I can remember the actual date it’s so seared into my being.
It was the coldest night of the year, but that building was sold out (contrary to myth Bruno, did NOT sell out MSG every month), and the electricity was in the air.
Without entrance music or pyro or video or any Pavlovian gimmick to elicit a fan response, the warriors merely walked to the ring, and you could literally feel the massive building vibrate in excitement.
The match itself was basic. Tests of strengths, punches, kicks, brawling. It was not "high art" from a technical standpoint, but it emphasized the "less is more" psychology of true wrestling masters. And with the charisma of both off the charts, it was a true meeting of giants. It was the Ali-Frazier of pro wrestling.
And everything they did got a pop—a huge one at that.
When Bruno opened up Superstar, and he became "a crimson mask," as the great Gordon Solie used to say, it was what the Roman Coliseum must have felt like when one gladiator got the better of the other.
The place was in a bloodthirsty frenzy. And that’s putting it mildly. We roared savagely when Graham staggered, his entire face covered in gore.
Even an indecisive finish- the stopping of the match at 17:55 on account of blood didn’t mar the fans’ joy. All that mattered was their favorite had won. The evil, bragging villain, had "gotten his," and we, a sea of blue-collar "marks" left happy and satiated.
It was quite the evening.
Oddly enough, no rematch was granted as the great "King" Ernie Ladd was pegged to face Saint Bruno the next month.
But nobody there will ever forget witnessing this moment in wrestling at Madison Square Garden. The Bruno vs. Superstar Graham, an epic battle for the ages.
3. Dynamite Kid vs. Tiger Mask, 1982
In those pre-Internet days, we didn’t have the luxury of sitting at home with endless "content "on YouTube, where we could sample at our leisure the greatest of the greats from around the world.
We basically "heard" about international wrestling stars through then primitive early wrestling "sheets," or on rare occasions, in the "mark mags."
So, when Tiger Mask and Dynamite Kid entered that ring- smaller guys than what we were accustomed to in our Super Heavyweight territory where Backlund would face and vanquish giants like King Kong Mosca, Swede Hansen, Big John Studd, Jesse Ventura, etc. month after month, we had zero idea what we were in store for during this great moment in wrestling at Madison Square Garden.
It was almost like these two guys had been dropped from another planet.
It was as if our entire perception of what wrestling was had been changed in a mere seven minutes and change.
This wasn’t big monster heel, punch, kick, choke, foreign object, paint by numbers stuff that always worked for us forever.
Instead, mouths agape, we sat there witnessing moves we had literally never, ever seen. I don’t think we ever knew the names of most of what these smaller, faster, literally flying guys were doing.
We were dazzled. Hypnotized. Enraptured.
Move after move was electric. They were oh so ahead of their time.
When it ended in under eight minutes with Tiger Mask’s hand raised in victory, we knew we had not only witnessed history but a "changing of the guard."
I think the best word to describe our post-match state would be "stunned."
We had witnessed not only magic but history. To this day, when someone gives me the old, "What’s an intelligent fellow like you doing involved in wrestling?" tired spiel, I’ll ask them to sit through these epic few minutes.
And inevitably, they do indeed "understand."
4. Roddy Piper Attacks Cyndi Lauper and Lou Albano, 1984
Anybody old enough and lucky enough to have seen heel Roddy Piper at MSG in his prime knew that he was a once in a lifetime phenom. Anytime he hit that ring, it was like a primitive force, a force of nature, a tornado, if you will.
And moments after his wild brawls, where carnage inevitably ensued, you could finally breathe again.
But he outdid himself on this particular evening.
In those days, celebrities were rarely involved in professional wrestling, so it was almost surreal seeing TV and music industry legend Dick Clark mid-ring with Cyndi Lauper, her manager Dave Wolff and Hulk Hogan. Cyndi was about to give Lou Albano an award for his charity work, which was shocking in and of itself as the man had been hated by that very same audience for the longest time. So, when "Captain" Lou came out dressed to the nines instead of in his usual Hawaiian shirt, we didn’t know what we were in store for.
My spider-sense was tingling, though, because when I saw that large plaque, I sensed the inevitable. The "unwritten law" of wrestling was any time there’s a cake or plaque or trophy. It was a prop to be used. "But with these mainstream celebs in the ring, how could it not be legit?" I thought to my then teen self.
Well, when "Ace" Cowboy Bob Orton and Piper suddenly and menacingly appeared, I again thought, "something is up."
Piper grabbed the plaque from Lou and suddenly, viciously, clocked him over the head with it, shattering it into pieces. Lou floundered dramatically like a fish out of water as he had done so many times in his brilliant villainous past.
It was somewhat expected but still incredibly dramatic.
But seeing Piper kick the then top of the charts, sweet and petite Lauper, and slam David Wolff, a non-wrestler, was far less predictable. In fact, it was unbelievably dramatic, and the place erupted to near-riot levels.
There were even police in the ring; it was as much heat as I had ever experienced in the joint.
It started the Rock and Roll Connection. It led to WrestleMania. It changed- for better and for worse- the entire business.
Was I ever lucky to be there.
Related: On the Road with Captain Lou Albano
5. "My First Time" – June 24th, 1974
In those long-ago primitive days when color TV’s cost "a lot of money" and my Dad, who never broke 25K in his life, didn’t have it, I’d watch the WWWF on a black and white set on a UHF station, often fiddling with the antenna to make sure I could actually see what had so captivated me.
When he finally bought those tickets- then only $6- I stared at that calendar for the longest time like a prisoner awaiting parole.
I was actually going to go to my first show for wrestling at Madison Square Garden, which was the world’s greatest arena to boot.
When I entered that historic building that I had been to so many times for the then great New York Knicks, it was almost strange to see that little ring in the middle instead of a basketball court.
But when the lights dimmed and the gladiators entered, it was like I had entered a world of real-life Marvel superheroes and villains.
They were larger than life, and my heartbeat out of my chest in sheer joy and excitement.
My god, I was HERE.
And one legend after another entered that ring and thrilled us.
The relentless Killer Kowalski as great a heel as had ever stepped foot in the ring. He wasn’t a kid anymore, but the man was FIERCE.
Japan’s Giant Baba and Gorilla Monsoon on their knees, trading chops to the chest with each blow getting the loudest of pops from the enraptured crowd.
The beloved 600-pound Haystacks Calhoun "using his weight to his advantage."
The Puerto Rican hero of the people, Pedro Morales, besting Black Gordman, who we saw week in and week out from LA’s Olympic Auditorium on Spanish language Channel 41 on New York TV. And did that crowd ever love Pedro with all their heart. You could feel it in the air.
The oh so colorful and charismatic Valiant Brothers- Jimmy and Johnny- with Lou Albano in two out of three bloody falls over 45 glorious minutes. "Who would win that third and ever so important fall?" The Valiants pulled it out to our utter dismay.
It was like I had entered a new dimension where everything you saw and felt seemed heightened and magical.
And then the main event.
Nikolai Volkoff was a powerhouse who made fruit explode with his bare hands. To say he was hated would be an understatement in those xenophobic days. And fiftyish Blassie, although past his prime and easing out of his wrestler role into manager was such a great heel that it didn’t matter- he was an all-time great villain and knew just how to get those fans to loathe him.
On the opposing side was Chief Jay Strongbow, who was incredibly "over" and adored by fans of all ages with his war dance, ability to take all kinds of punishment, and his never, ever submitting in spite of it. His amazing comebacks preceded Hulk Hogan’s by a decade but never failed to rally and inspire the fans.
Then there was our god, Bruno.
The love and awe for the man as he walked down that aisle in his plain tights was palpable.
When Bruno and the Chief actually WON, the sheer joy that washed over me, leaving that building made me feel like I was walking on air.
It was like this teen had become a new person.
And I had.
I was now a wrestling fan for life.
Results for my first show: WWWF Wrestling at Madison Square Garden, New York City, NY 24, 1974 (sell-out crowd)
- José González defeated Tony Altimore at 6:50
- WWWF Tag Team Champions Johnny & Jimmy Valiant defeated Dean Ho & Tony Garea in a Best 2 out of 3 falls match; fall #1 – the champions won; fall #2 – the challengers won; fall #3 – the champions won
- Haystacks Calhoun & Larry Zbyszko defeated Otto Von Heller & Killer Kowalski
- The Giant Baba defeated Gorilla Monsoon
- Pedro Morales defeated Black Gordman at 15:17
- WWWF World Champion Bruno Sammartino & Chief Jay Strongbow defeated Freddie Blassie & Nikolai Volkoff in a Best 2 out of 3 falls match, 2-0; fall #1 – Sammartino & Strongbow won via disqualification; fall #2 – Sammartino pinned Blassie (Blassie’s last wrestling match at MSG)
If you enjoyed this piece, be sure not to miss the following articles on our site:
- Bruno Sammartino and Freddie Blassie | A Fight Too Real for the Mob
- Superstar Billy Graham | Peaks and Valleys of his Life and Career
- WWWF | Remembering the NYC Area Wrestling Circuit of the ’70s and ’80s