“It was one of the most surprising wrestling upsets in the history of the sport. Fans were left shocked and confused. Things did NOT go to plan…”
In professional sports, the name of the game is winning championships, but upsets make for great stories too, and fans love talking about them. Rooting for the underdog is fun but it’s even more fun when they win!
Let’s first briefly look at some examples in sports that shocked everyone…
Notable upsets include the 1969 New York Mets baseball team coined “The Miracle Mets” who upset the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series. The Mets, for years, would consistently lose at least 100 games per season. Them having a winning one seemed an impossibility. Becoming World Series champs after only their 8th season in existence without the advantage of today’s free agency system? Fuhgeddaboutit!
Baltimore would again succumb to a New York team but this time in American football during the 1969 Super Bowl III contest held between “Broadway” Joe Namath’s Jets, who were 18-point underdogs and the heavily-favored Colts. Namath guaranteed a victory and he delivered the shocker. This is still the Jets’ only Super Bowl win.
In the midst of the Cold War in 1980, a team of young amateurs on the USA men’s national ice hockey team upset the mighty soviet Olympic squad comprised of professionals in what is now known as the “Miracle on Ice.” These two teams didn’t even belong in the same building. The USSR had won the gold medal in five of the previous six Winter Olympic Games. It was a David versus Goliath scenario where David was left standing and the whole country became hockey fans for that moment in time.
In 1990, fight fans will remember James “Buster” Douglas and his TKO victory over an “Iron Mike” Tyson who was proving unbeatable entering the bout with a 37-0 record. Douglas, who was according to Las Vegas oddsmakers a 42-1 underdog, was supposed to go down and go down hard like all of Tyson’s previous opponents. That fateful bout held in Tokyo, Japan changed the lives of both competitors forever and the sport of boxing was left reeling in the confusing aftermath.
Another upset that will surely echo throughout the ages was in Greco-Roman wrestling. The story is of Rulon Gardner, a dairy farmer from Wyoming who won the gold medal in the 2000 Sydney Olympics after defeating Alexsandr Karelin who was an astounding 888 and 1 for his career entering this bout. Karelin was like a perfect unbeatable wrestling machine and Gardner was seen as merely a stepping stone for his next conquest. Let’s just say this win by Gardner was like yours truly defeating Lou Thesz in a shoot match. It was never supposed to happen, but it did.
Memorable wrestling upsets
Enough of that. We’re here to talk pro wrestling right? Well, when it comes to upsets in wrestling, every generation has a match or two that will always be remembered and is talked about years later. Sure, if you’re a fan and a regular reader of Pro Wrestling Stories, you know our beloved sport is a work where the wrestlers are not really competing against each other. They’re cooperating together to entertain the crowd. If you didn’t know this, I apologize, and I won’t go into the secrets of Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny either.
Recommended read: KAYFABE in Professional Wrestling – “You know wrestling is fake, right?”
In spite of the nature of wrestling being a work, the upsets are considered “real” and the fans can live them just as passionately as the examples of “legit” sports above. They can be as unexpected and shocking as any upset in competitive sports.
They’re not jobbers, they’re professional wrestlers!
In wrestling, we have had for many years what many fans unfairly call “jobbers” or “underneath guys.” Now, most wrestlers themselves would rather simply be called “professional wrestlers” and recently WWE has decided to name them “enhancement talent.” Nonetheless, we can agree in that these undercard performers were there to make the other guy look good, and they rarely (more like almost never) won a match. In this piece, these journeymen will be referred to as “preliminary wrestlers.”
Not everybody in wrestling gets that big push, and these guys are the workers who helped in the pushing of the next star by being glorified sparring partners if we were to borrow a boxing term. In wrestling, one guy needs to lose or do “the job” as they say, and another has to win and be “put over.”
When you’d watch wrestling on TV during the ’80s and ’90s, it was usually a given that the guy with a normal name, no theme music, nondescript look and who was already in the ring was NOT going to win the match and was most definitely going to get a beating. This applies to tag teams as well. The Road Warriors in the ’80s practically made a career out of dismantling and laying waste to teams in a matter of minutes. These are now called “Squash Matches.” Preliminary wrestlers drew as many fans to the matches as the referee and announcer, but they were needed in the grand scheme of things and their roles in the business were important.
Watch: Mongolian Stomper makes quick work of Star Fighter #1
Unknown to most at the time was the fact that these workers were, in some instances, rather successful stars in smaller territories or were at the end of their careers trying to stay in the game after years of at least being mid-carders somewhere else. Rusty Brooks would apply to the former and SD “Special Delivery” Jones is more similar to the latter case. But in the majority of instances, they never won anywhere and their role in the different promotions was “to job.” You didn’t really think Starfighter #1 in the above video had a chance at winning, right? Well, that was the sentiment when Sean Waltman, wrestling as The Kid, faced Razor Ramon in 1993.
The Kid (Sean Waltman) pulls off one of the most amazing wrestling upsets over Razor Ramon
With kayfabe in full effect and fans not understanding how things worked, preliminary wrestlers (jobbers is a fan’s term) facing the heel would get cheered by the fans as if their unabashed fervor and enthusiasm could elevate him against impossible odds. It rarely happened, but when it did, it was memorable. Case in point, the amazing upset by The Kid (Former Lighting Kid, and later X-Pac/Sean Waltman) against Razor Ramon in 1993. His name was promptly changed to 1-2-3 Kid and it is an upset that still resonates amongst the fans today. As of 2013, it was #20 in the WWE top RAW moments.
Before arriving in WWE, Waltman had success in the Texas-based GWF and PWA from the Minneapolis area, but this was unknown to most WWE fans at the time. To them, he was sure to become Razor Ramon’s next easy prey.
Watch: The incredible unexpected upset victory by “The Kid” over Razor Ramon
In the rematch between the two, Razor promised $10,000 if The 1-2-3 Kid could beat him again. It finished in a wild double count out with The Kid taking the sack of money, but not before he got concussed when he suffered a horrific tumble from the top turnbuckle and landed face-first on the concrete.
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Wrestling Upsets – Bruno Sammartino and his epic title reign is cut short by “The Russian Bear” Ivan Koloff
On January 18th, 1971, the fans in attendance witnessed what was perhaps the most unexpected loss by the beloved Bruno Sammartino whose title reign until that night had been for seven years and eight months. Ivan Koloff, with a slam and a knee drop off the top rope, silenced the crowd to the point where Bruno in a shoot interview conducted by Joey Styles and Bill Apter, says that he thought there was something wrong with his hearing, the silence was that deafening from the stunned MSG crowd. There are pictures from New York newspapers with fans crying, almost as if Sammartino had died in the ring. Bruno also mentions that he hadn’t foreseen his loss having such a dire effect on the people and that he felt really bad about it afterward.
In turn, Koloff in an interview with Two Man Powertrip of Wrestling, said he only felt bad for 5 seconds! He recalls that the referee, sensing that there might be trouble from the crowd, instructed Koloff to go to the dressing room and that’s where he eventually got the belt, instead of in the ring. Later trying to leave the arena in a cab along with Lou Albano his manager for the bout, they almost got lynched by like 50 people. You can read more about this memorable moment in wrestling in our article entitled, “Bruno Sammartino and Ivan Koloff: The Night They Shocked the World.”
The Iron Sheik Wins The WWF Title From Bob Backlund – Another one of wrestling upsets that left fans “outraged and confused.”
In the storyline, Bob Backlund injured his neck, shoulder and possibly arm after accepting the Iron Sheik’s Persian Club Challenge. When he had succeeded on his third attempt, an angry Sheik attacked him from behind and thus injuring Backlund. He entered into the December 26th, 1983 title defense against the Sheik with these injuries but felt healthy enough to proceed with the match anyways. While in the Sheik’s Camel Clutch, “The Golden Boy” Arnold Skaaland, who was Backlund’s manager at the time, concerned over his well-being, threw in the towel. The title was relinquished and The Iron Sheik claimed victory in front of an outraged and confused crowd. “Ayatollah” Fred Blassie quickly grabbed the championship belt and celebrated with Sheik in the ring. Backlund’s title reign had lasted almost 6 years after defeating “Superstar” Billy Graham in 1978 and most fans did not see this loss coming. This would soon usher in a new era, the era of Hulkamania.
Watch: The fallout from the Iron Sheik’s upset victory over Bob Backlund
“Wildfire” Tommy Rich pulls off one of the most memorable wrestling upsets by defeating “the greatest champion there ever was” Harley Race
Filled with a youthful exuberance and a fearless attitude towards life, “Wildfire” Tommy Rich became an NWA world champion, albeit for only 4 days when he defeated the legendary Harley Race on April 27th, 1981. Tommy considers Race the “greatest champion there ever was” and feels blessed to even be mentioned with all the rest of the former NWA champions.
“Rugged Ronnie Garvin cements one of the greatest wrestling upsets over “Nature Boy” Ric Flair
“Rugged” Ronnie Garvin also cemented his place in wrestling history when he knocked off the “Nature Boy” Ric Flair to win NWA World Championship gold on September 25th, 1987 in a grueling and bloody Steel Cage Match.
Wrestling Upsets: Mikey Whipwreck pulls an upset over The Sandman
Mikey Whipwreck was a former member of the ring crew at 5’7” and just 170 lbs, but on October 25th, 1995, he added to his accolades after defeating The Sandman in a violent Ladder Match to become the ECW World Heavyweight Champion.
The Phantom Submission Match – one of the most surprising wrestling upsets in the history of the sport
Those are just some examples of what most fans would consider upsets in pro wrestling and was not meant to be a complete list. But what happens when a true undercard worker, a preliminary wrestler if you will, scores a victory over someone whose last name is Sammartino?
Even at the behest of his father not wanting him becoming a wrestler, David Sammartino decided to take a chance at stardom and entered the world of professional wrestling. He debuted in 1980 and quickly picked up where his father left off by feuding with Larry Zbyszko on the independent circuit.
In 1984, he began to compete in the WWF and got a big push thanks to his father who still had a lot of influence in the company. Seconded by Bruno Sammartino, he faced Brutus Beefcake at the inaugural WrestleMania and later his father came out of retirement for a few matches to team up with his son against Beefcake and “Luscious” Jimmy Valiant. Bruno was still a good draw, especially in the northeast where he was adored by the fans. His son David was somewhat popular, but without his father, was primarily relegated to the undercard and not in the main event as he expected. It is theorized by many, including Bruno, that his son was being used only to lure him out of retirement.
Ron Shaw was trained by “Killer” Kowalski and wrestled the bulk of his career from 1980 until the early ’90s in the WWF until retiring in 2000. Thanks to Kowalski’s good relationship with Gorilla Monsoon, Ron Shaw wrestled in the WWF early in his career and was often used as a preliminary wrestler. Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and MSG in the New York area are where Shaw was most seen. He’s very proud to mention his work in MSG because he says that many preliminary wrestlers such as himself never set foot in that building, and he’d sometimes be brought in 3 to 4 times a year.
He worked with top talent including Andre The Giant, Dusty Rhodes, Bobo Brazil, Mil Mascaras, Pedro Morales, Bob Backlund, Sika, Mad Dog Vachon, Dan Spivey, and Hulk Hogan (just to name a few). He was able to obtain wins over Iron Mike Sharpe, Rene Goulet, and Chief Jay Strongbow.
“The Big Upset”
Even though Ron Shaw had more experience than David Sammartino, probably nobody that night ever imagined he’d be getting a win over the youngster, in a match that would later be called the “Phantom Submission Match” or “The Big Upset.”
It is called this because Gorilla Monsoon, who was announcing the match, was in denial that David had submitted to Shaw’s bear hug, even though it is pretty clear when watching the video that Sammartino, after being body-slammed repeatedly by Shaw, and later put into a bear hug, indeed submitted. No Montreal… umm Philadelphia screwjob going on here.
Referee Dusty Feldbaumer and ring announcer Mel Phillips seemed lost in what they were supposed to do next. The referee spent a good minute aiding David and helping him get up off the mat. He sold the bear hug very well and slowly made his way back to the dressing rooms after he acknowledged the crowd.
Gorilla Monsoon said after the match, “Maybe we best get a hearing aid for (referee) Dusty or somebody. David Sammartino never gave up in his life. Even if he’d broken a rib on any of those slams, or cracked a rib, this youngster has too much guts to give up. He may be waving his arm in pain, but I don’t think he said ‘I quit.’ It’s not within him to do that.”
Even the fans at the time knew something wasn’t right and can be heard yelling “Bullsh$t!” to what they were witnessing. Several were standing around, a few were even clapping and cheering Ron Shaw’s big upset. He, in turn, was relishing the moment and continued to kick Sammartino after his unlikely win. When announcer Mel Phillips officialized the decision and said, “The winner of this bout by a submission, Ron Shaw,” before leaving the ring, Ron Shaw, adding insult to injury, spit on a defeated David Sammartino who still laid prone. Monsoon quickly said “I doubt that” in response to the official decision.
Watch: Ron Shaw shocks The Philadelphia Spectrum by defeating David Sammartino in what is now dubbed “The Phantom Submission Match”
Nobody can spin this match and tell you that it was as shocking as Bruno losing his title to Ivan Koloff or when Harley Race lost to Tommy Rich, so I won’t even try. But Ron Shaw, although having years of experience under his belt, wasn’t booked to win this match and in the eyes of everybody in Philly that night had zero chance of leaving that night victorious. He was without a doubt, in the eyes of the fans, only a preliminary wrestler that would once again lose, like he usually did. Why would anything be different on this particular night?
David Sammartino, frustrated at the way he was being underutilized by the company, quit the WWF soon after this match. He was sending a statement and protesting to management by ending the match the way he wanted, not how management had booked it. Eight months after his WrestleMania appearance, he was gone from the company.
After a brief run in the AWA where he unsuccessfully challenged Stan Hansen for the championship in 1986, he returned once again to the WWF in 1988 until he got into an altercation with a fan. Herb Abrams’ UWF hired his services in 1990, and in 1995 and ’96, David briefly appeared in NWA New Jersey and WCW. He wrestled sparingly afterward and seems to have had his last match in 2010, where he wrestled against Larry Zbyszko and later in the year with him as his tag partner.
The son of Bruno Sammartino occasionally makes appearances at conventions and said in 2006 in an interview with WreslingEpicenter.com that despite not speaking with his dad for 15 years, he still loved him and both he and his father were just stubborn. He also says that he doesn’t feel that Zbyszko stole his thunder early in his career, but he does wish that he had some of the breaks Larry had gotten. He wishes that he could’ve done better in wrestling and been a world champion somewhere, but is thankful for what he was able to accomplish.
“When he first started out,” Gorilla Monsoon once said, “I told him ‘don’t try and follow in your father’s footsteps, make some of your own, do your own thing,’ and he certainly has.”
In 2015 on his website bigronshawwwf.com, Ron Shaw gave an update about his life after wrestling. After spending years driving a tractor-trailer after leaving wrestling, he moved from Philadelphia into a gated community in Fort Myers, Florida in 1999 and took off about 45 lbs. He still actively works out and loves to golf about four times a week. He enjoys playing the guitar and shooting pool at home.
Shaw still holds a special place for his time in wrestling. “I’ve got a lot of stories and a lot of memories,” he says. ‘I’m happy with what I did. Because I lived out my childhood dream. Who does that?”
When Shaw was asked about what exactly happened that night with David, he keeps it under wraps by saying, “The only thing I’m going to say is this: It’s up to the wrestling fans to decide what that match was,” he says with an enigmatic smile. “It’s whatever the wrestling fans think it was. That’s the great mystery about this thing.”
Some people may say in the end “David screwed David” and has nobody to blame for the shortcomings of his career but himself. But ask yourself, “What measuring stick have we compared him with? Who in the end can become another Bruno Sammartino?”
“David Sammartino’s memory is a little fuzzy.” – Ron Shaw
Editor’s Update (October 18th, 2019): After reading this article, Ron Shaw kindly reached out to us to share his side of the story which can be read in full below.
“I first want to say that David Sammartino was a great wrestler with a great knowledge of holds and counter holds and was very strong. I know this as I was the first man to wrestle him on TV in Poughkeepsie, New York where he made his debut. We did not chop meat, kick, etc. It was clean holds and counter hold type match until I bodyslammed him hard into the mat, where he then gorilla pressed me over his head for his first win. This was the only match that we ever had on TV and in some past interviews years ago he had said he squashed me many times on TV and that I was basically a jobber.
David’s memory is a little fuzzy and he doesn’t know my history prior to our meeting in 1984. Six months after becoming a pro, Vince Sr. took me to the side and gave a young kid a great compliment and said I was a natural and gave me a push as The Executioner, where I worked all over.
In 1982 I started with Kowalski’s IWF Bedlam from Boston shows as I was one of the top heels managed by Wild Bull Curry.
Then we merged with Bruno in Pennsylvania where I was then teamed with Hans Schroeder as the top heel tag team as we faced David and Manuel Soto a few times and shortly after that I became a face after a bloody turn of events as Schroeder turned on me on TV and even several times Bruno interviewed me to build up the match between Schroeder and myself.
Some fans believe I was good friends with David, but I never traveled or shared a room with him and the only time I saw him was in the dressing rooms. Now, the night David was scheduled to wrestle me in Philadelphia, The Hulkster and then Bobby the Brain Heenan came up to me and gave me a warning in which I thought I was going to be made an example of in the ring. I have been in shoots before where I almost broke, but most certainly damaged a young wrestler’s arm and shoulder ’cause he was making me look bad in the ring.
Or the time Irish Davey O’Hannon spoke to me before a match when the Samoans Afa and Sika were going to work against me and a new kid who must have been bragging and talking c**p in the dressing room.
In that match, they beat the c**p out of him where it just looked like a normal match where all the punches and kicks were stiff and the kid left the ring with a punctured lung and was bloodied. Earlier in the evening, he introduced himself to me as he was the flower lady’s son who always sat at ringside with his mom at the TV tapings in Allentown where they gave out roses to the faces as they were going back to the dressing rooms. It was his first and last match.
So as I stepped into the ring, David and I faced each other and I gave him two blows behind the neck and seven bodyslams later my hand was raised. In the interview [he recently had with Monte and The Pharaoh], he said I let him hurt his back and I was the better man that night. Well, I don’t know if I would let anybody purposely hurt my back. Even though this is one of the most talked-about upsets, I still consider pinning Chief Jay Strongbow my biggest win as he was a veteran of some 30 years and wins over Iron Mike Sharpe and Rene Goulet.
It’s an honor to be in the books “WWE 50” and the “WWE Encyclopedia of Sports Entertainment“ with the biggest superstars because of that match and almost winning the battle royal at The Brawl to End It All in MSG.
David and I had some things in common. We both wanted to be wrestlers when we were about 8 years old and both our fathers were heroes to us. And yes, it was d**n cool knowing what this business was really about at an early age.”