I attended 90% of the WWWF Madison Square Garden shows between 1974 and ’84. This is my love letter to the past.
The Vibrant WWWF Scene at Madison Square Garden (MSG)
On most of the old-school WWWF at Madison Square Garden broadcasts, the credits roll, and you then see a long shot of MSG “packed to the rafters” with fans.
Back then, a sellout was announced as 22,092. There were many nights where butts filled every seat. The adjacent Felt Forum was similarly packed for closed-circuit for that evening’s card.
Regardless, it always felt like an event, even though it was monthly.
My dad used to say, “Anybody can go out on a Friday or Saturday night. The hip people go out on Monday!”
And we did.
Again and again on those most sacred Mondays, we would marvel at the athleticism and high drama provided by Bruno, Pedro, Backlund, and the walking parades that were Superstar Billy Graham, The Fabulous Valiant Brothers, and Wild Samoans– these were superheroes and supervillains who were larger than life.
Watching these shows today on my large-screen TV, it’s like I’ve stepped into a time machine.
It’s the first match of the evening- suddenly, there’s a mere glimpse of a wrestler about to walk down that aisle.
There’s a rising murmur, and you can feel the crowd’s anticipation grow as they recognize the approaching gladiator.
Although I’m on my couch, part of me is so very far away- back in that $6 MSG Loge seat right above ringside sitting with Dad.
Wrestling Superfan Georgiann Makropolous
And who do you see as the first competitor heads to the ring? The superfans were in the very same spot month after month.
Right there- clear as day- on camera is one of them- Georgiann Makropolous, editor of The Wrestling Chatterbox newsletter.
She was also the only person ever to get Bruno Sammartino and Buddy Rogers to pose together, as they hated each other. She was the head of both their fan clubs.
A large woman with even larger hair; you can’t miss her. My dear friend. The den mother of the wrestling community. Smiling. Happy. A look of peace and contentment was written on her face. She was in her element.
I get a warm feeling seeing her again.
“Hey, there’s Georgie…Wow…” I think to myself.
Then I let out an audible sigh.
Because now she’s gone.
The Memorable Cast of Characters
There’s also the pack of ringside photographers. Mainstays. I recognize and even know some personally.
George Napolitano, Bill Apter, Frank Amato, John Arezzi and Dr. Mike Lano, and others. Mike is now co-host of our podcast, Wrestling & Everything Coast to Coast, and one of my best friends in the world. They worked for the newsstand mags back then.
There’s also the Japanese magazine contingent. All excitedly scurry around the ring, desperately seeking that perfect shot.
Some get just that as many of their photos made newsstand covers and are now iconic. Sadly, not many of these publications even exist today.
A wrestler comes to the ring for the opener. Johnny Rodz. The “unpredictable one” does the slightest little swagger before the match starts—instant heel heat.
Today you’d have to do some suicidal leap off the top rope to get a fraction of that reaction. We were primarily blue-collar “mark” fans who were primed, and it didn’t take much to set us off. The great old-school wrestlers grasped that “less is more.”
And we had that warm spot for the undercard guys whose WWWF won-loss records may not have always been stellar, but their talents and performances most certainly were.
To this day, some of the most consistently excellent wrestlers I’ve EVER seen live were Rodz, Davey O’Hannon, Iron Mike Sharpe, and Jose Estrada. And Baron Scicluna, resplendent in his Christopher Lee-like Dracula cape and SD Jones, also entertained us dozens and dozens of times, and we never, ever tired of them.
Even when SD would yet again “go to the well once too often.”
You see, poor SD would charge that corner, whereupon his opponent would inevitably dart away at the very last second; Jones would clunk his head on the top turnbuckle and thus tragically end up prone and “looking at the lights.”
Good old SD just never seemed to learn from his mistake. But hey, we loved them all so very much.
Adding to the allure of the shows, aging veteran worldwide headliners like former champion Stan Stasiak, Swede Hansen, Butcher Paul Vachon, Bulldog Brower, and others still had gravitas as they moved to mid-card or undercard.
And future legends like Eddie Gilbert and Curt Hennig were simultaneously working their way up the ladder. These weren’t weekend warrior indie-type guys- these were stars who had the fans’ respect and were always a threat in our eyes.
Each month a sharply dressed Howard Finkel announced the matches. And when he hyped the next card, we popped like we would for a well-placed dropkick.
With a lilt in his step, Professor Elliot Maron took the ring jackets from our heroes, strutting back to the dressing room as if he had just won the WWWF title.
He was deemed a professor by the Grand Wizard of Wrestling for his business knowledge and was part of this fantastic cast of characters. As were the “Hatpin Mary” types- Georgette Krieger was our very own.
Georgette Krieger – The Little Old Lady at Ringside
Wrestling superfan Georgette Krieger was born in 1899. Really. And in her own crazy way, she was famous, too.
I saw her one night on the back page of The Daily News when they covered the matches.
Elderly “Mrs. Krieger” just LOATHED the heels and LOVED the faces and wasn’t shy about whacking the villains with a then primitive fifty-cent program or umbrella or whatever she could get her furious hands on.
It was sweet in an odd sort of way.
The heels knew if they jawed with HER, it was guaranteed mega-heat.
“Hey, this big bully is threatening that old lady!”
It was all so simple, but it worked magically, and she, too, became a part of the show.
And, of course, Gorilla Monsoon called those matches with a mix of humor and suspense. Could our favorites indeed weather the storm from these super heavyweights that Vince Sr. loved so dearly? Monsoon never sounded bored or as if he were going through the motions.
They are all gone now, as are so many refs and a sizable chunk of the wrestlers on the cards.
Professor Tanaka vs. Chief Jay Strongbow. Piper vs. Snuka. Andre vs. King Ernie Ladd. All departed as is Bruno and maniacal George “The Animal” Steele, foes who wrestled each other time and time again; their match-up at least seemed like an annual summer event.
Such is their charisma that it’s honestly hard to wrap my head around all these legends now just being flickering images on film.
A Different World
As I watch today in the comfort of my living room, it dawns on me this was some 40 or 50 years ago. God, a half-century. A different world. And now I’m older than my dad was when he took this awestruck kid.
The amazing heel managers- an almost lost art today- was also a huge part of the show.
“Captain” Lou Albano would get clocked pre-match and flounder like a fish out of water. There was no greater joy in the world for us than this. None. The bell hadn’t even rung, and the heat was off the charts.
The Grand Wizard of Wrestling would hide like a little kid behind a protégé’s massive frame, and we dreamed that he, too, would “get his.”
And Freddie Blassie, with his endless army of foreign heels, from fierce Waldo Von Erich to Spiros Arion on down, was a heat magnet. Fans today couldn’t even fathom the rage “The Hollywood fashion plate” elicited.
They all added so very much to the festivities.
Then there’s the wrestling itself. I know the old-schoolers do the kneejerk “great card” for anything back then.
They have their nostalgia goggles on because it’s their childhood favorites, and back then, they were ALL 10 feet tall to us. But if you look objectively, the matches ranged from stultifying to classic.
A Don Muraco, Ken Patera, Sgt. Slaughter, Ivan Koloff, Paul Orndorff, Tito Santana, Greg Valentine, and so many others were indeed magnificent then and would still be looked at as great today- total packages.
Dynamite Kid vs. Tiger Mask was revolutionary and would more than stand up as well. But an Ivan Putski-Baron Von Raschke type match-up was numbing even then and would be even more painful in 2022 for those with less attention span.
Rest holds masquerading as headlocks were held for what seemed like forever, and the bout going an unnecessarily long 20 or 30 minutes was indeed painful. Not that the “Polish Power” and Baron didn’t have their glorious nights as well when matched with the right opponents.
And for the many, many wrestlers who had charisma off the charts but were meat and potatoes “punch-kick-hide that foreign object” wrestling-wise, we felt every one of those punches and kicks and BELIEVED. We loved it with every fiber of our being.
Any of today’s so-called “smart fans” who might refer to this era as “overrated” is misguided and rewriting history.
For they simply weren’t there and didn’t feel that building shake or their heart beat out of their chest while they sat at the foot of giants.
I watch these cards with a warm, nostalgic glow, but a sense of melancholy inevitably envelops me.
For many of the heroes of my youth, some who even became dear friends like Nikolai, Kowalski, Johnny Valiant have left us, as has my beloved dad and his best buddy Burt, who shared these magical nights with their adoring children.
Watching these cards is a mix of joy and pain, like everything else in life. But I am so very glad that these grapplers have carved out their piece of immortality.
It’s ever so comforting that they are captured on film forever to thrill us when we need to visit them yet again.
And we most certainly will.
I discuss this article and my memories of watching the WWWF at Madison Square Garden on Wrestling & Everything Coast to Coast with Buddy Sotello and Dr. Mike Lano. You can view this below:
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