WWWF | Remembering the NYC Area Wrestling Circuit of the ’70s and ’80s

It seems so awfully long ago, but there once was a glorious time when the WWWF would run numerous cards a month in New York City, and fans would enjoy them all.

The WWWF – Wonderful Memories From Yesteryear

I used to go to three WWWF cards a month in NYC. It was a magnificent time. 

The WWWF of the ’70s and ’80s featured an A, B, and C circuit where each venue usually ran monthly. The A circuit would feature the heavyweight champion and whoever was at the top of the card, the B circuit would be headlined by the Intercontinental champion, and so on. Madison Square Garden was truly the mecca of professional wrestling before the expression became a cliché, and it became just another stop for the WWE circus. You had “made it” if you appeared in the Garden, and you were really “hot” if you were flown in for a one-shot.

"World Title Showdown!" A WWWF program hyping the matchup of Bruno Sammartino vs. Bepo Mongol at MSG.
“World Title Showdown!” A “World Championship Wrestling” program hyping the matchup of Bruno Sammartino vs. Bepo Mongol at MSG.

Some, like Billy Robinson or Don Kent, you would never see again. Others down the road became regulars. And when a young Greg Valentine or Ric Flair were showcased at their MSG debut, you just sensed they were a diamond in the rough, a legend in the making. And it was the simplest of formulas that worked for Vince McMahon Sr.

Recommended article: Vince McMahon Opens Up About His Father, Vince Sr.

A WWWF program hyping the soon-to-arrive Superstar Billy Graham to MSG. 
A “World Championship Wrestling” program hyping the soon-to-arrive Superstar Billy Graham to MSG.

With the exception of Superstar Graham’s ten-month heel title run, under champs Pedro Morales, Bruno Sammartino, and Bob Backlund, the heels would climb their way to the top of the card, work one to three matches on top with the titleholder at MSG, and then slowly descend to mid-card before hitting the territories again and coming back “fresh” a few years later. There were a few rare exceptions i.e., Buggsie McGraw and Lou Albano taking on Bruno in a handicap match or the then sizzling hot Pat Patterson working Backlund four straight MSG main events. Although many headline bouts were recycled time and time again- George Steele, Killer Kowalski, and Waldo Von Erich each wrestled Bruno Sammartino hundreds of times- the Garden cards were generally phenomenal, and each one felt like an EVENT.

The “B Circuit”

The Nassau Coliseum shows were clearly the “B circuit.” After Bruno polished off an opponent at MSG, they would book a rematch at Nassau. They’d rarely draw well, there was clearly less heat, and the undercards were not on the level of the MSG show either. Yet there was always a sense of fun, and even camaraderie as the very same fans usually attended each month; there was also an early heel loving contingent, which was less common in the pre-internet days. Besides, when Johnny Rodz was on the card, he was always good for a hot opener, and on one amazing night, he battled Tatsumi Fujinami for the Junior Heavyweight title in a barn burner.

There was, however, an evident change in the booking philosophy during Superstar Graham’s reign, as he faced many wrestlers that he did not work at the Garden. This resulted in some GREAT matches, such as a 20-minute classic with Tony Garea. It also resulted in some disappointments- including a 29-second count-out win over Haystacks Calhoun and some quickies with Larry Zybysko and Chief Jay Strongbow. It was nonetheless exciting to see some different matchups, and regardless of the opponent, Graham had charisma to spare. When he strutted down the aisle, us kids would reach out to touch him, as if a piece of his magic would somehow rest upon us.

A WWWF poster hyping an upcoming show at Nassau Coliseum featuring Haystacks Calhoun, Buggsie McGraw, Bruno Sammartino, and more.
A WWWF poster hyping an upcoming show at Nassau Coliseum featuring Haystacks Calhoun, Buggsie McGraw, Bruno Sammartino, and more.

Generally, Ivan Putski would appear in the co-feature as he was a major star at the time. Although many of his matches were lackluster, he was considered by a predominantly “mark” audience as unbeatable.

Other non-MSG headline matches of note there included: Bruno Sammartino versus The Executioners in singles matches, ditto Bruno vs. Johnny Valiant, as well as Bruno vs. Jerry Valiant, The Executioners vs. Bruno and Gorilla Monsoon, two months of Dusty Rhodes vs. Ivan Koloff, Andre the Giant vs. Superstar Billy Graham, Bruno vs. Bruiser Brody in a steel cage, Dino Bravo and Dusty vs. Superstar and Crazy Luke Graham, face Andre vs. heel Hulk Hogan, Bruno vs. Butcher Vachon, Bruno vs. The Wolfman, Andre vs. Butcher Vachon, Andre vs. Blackjack Lanza, and innumerable others that escape me nearly a half-century later.

The WWWF “C Circuit” Shows

The now-demolished Sunnyside Garden Arena where the WWWF held many shows during its heyday.
The now-demolished Sunnyside Garden Arena where the WWWF held many shows during its heyday.

The WWWF would regularly feature “C circuit” shows, which we regularly hit as well. The far tinier Sunnyside Garden Arena or the Westchester County Center would present 5-6 matches, the bulk of which were far from memorable. The smoky, intimate atmosphere was unbelievable, though, and every seat put you right on top of the action. One classic series at the County Center had Pat Patterson against Ted DiBiase in a feud for the then North American (pre-Inter-Continental) title.

A friendly ticket collector greets fans just inside the now demolished Sunnyside Garden Arena.
A friendly ticket collector greets fans just inside Sunnyside Garden Arena.

One exciting memory that stands out for me was Bob Backlund, just days after losing his title at MSG, beating Iron Mike Sharpe in the main event. At the time, he was feigning an arm injury (remember, manager Arnold Skaaland submitted for Bob due to an “injury” in his title loss to the Iron Sheik?). So much for the “Iron Mike Sharpe was JUST a jobber” myth, by the way.

The wildest thing I EVER experienced in these venues was The Executioners wrestling Chief Jay Strongbow and Billy White Wolf, 2 out of 3 falls, 45 minutes, at Sunnyside Gardens in the dead of summer with no air conditioning whatsoever. The fans were sweltering, but there was Kowalski in a mask coming at the beloved faces like a machine; he was a remarkable athlete.

A poster promoting an upcoming WWWF "C Circuit" show at Sunnyside Garden Arena.
A poster promoting an upcoming WWWF “C Circuit” show at Sunnyside Garden Arena.

All in all, you did not need to have a great card at these places to have a great time, and I have many fond memories of them, particularly meeting so many of the wrestlers up close and personal. When they tore down Sunnyside Gardens to put up a Wendy’s in its place, it was like a knife to the heart. A small plaque remains outside, citing it as a boxing mecca with no mention of the classic wrestling and roller derby they once featured.

A Happier Time

Although it seems like a lifetime ago, there was a wonderful time when I had the opportunity to enjoy live wrestling on almost a weekly basis. The fact that we, as kids, went with our beloved fathers who are no longer with us makes it that much more memorable and poignant. It’s hard to wrap my head around it, but nearly a half-century has passed since these evenings, which are among the most magical of my youth.

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Evan Ginzburg
Evan Ginzburg is a contributor for Pro Wrestling Stories. He was an Associate Producer on the movie "The Wrestler" and "350 Days" starring Bret Hart and Superstar Billy Graham. He is a nearly 30-year film, radio, and TV veteran, as well as co-host of the weekly Wrestling & Everything- Coast to Coast radio show with Buddy Sotello. He can be reached on Twitter @evan_ginzburg or by e-mail at evan_ginzburg@yahoo.com.