Death of the Territories

By Tim Hornbaker

Death of the Territories
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For decades, distinct professional wrestling territories thrived across North America. Each regionally based promotion operated individually and offered a brand of localized wrestling that greatly appealed to area fans. Promoters routinely coordinated with associates in surrounding ... Read more


Overview

 

For decades, distinct professional wrestling territories thrived across North America. Each regionally based promotion operated individually and offered a brand of localized wrestling that greatly appealed to area fans. Promoters routinely coordinated with associates in surrounding regions, and the cooperation displayed by members of the National Wrestling Alliance made it easy for wrestlers to traverse the landscape with the utmost freedom.

Dozens of territories flourished between the 1950s and late ’70s. But by the early 1980s, the growth of cable television had put new outside pressures on promoters. An enterprising third-generation entrepreneur who believed cable was his opportunity to take his promotion national soon capitalized on the situation.

A host of novel ideas and the will to take chances gave Vincent Kennedy McMahon an incredible advantage. McMahon waged war on the territories and raided the NWA and AWA of their top talent. By creating WrestleMania, jumping into the pay-per-view field, and expanding across North America, McMahon changed professional wrestling forever.

Providing never-before-revealed information, Death of the Territories is a must-read for fans yearning to understand how McMahon outlasted his rivals and established the industry’s first national promotion. At the same time, it offers a comprehensive look at the promoters who opposed McMahon, focusing on their noteworthy power plays and embarrassing mistakes.

 

Tim Hornbaker

Tim Hornbaker is the author of eight nonfiction books, including National Wrestling Alliance: The Untold Story of the Monopoly that Strangled Pro Wrestling and Capitol Revolution: The Rise of the McMahon Wrestling Empire. His biography Turning the Black Sox White was nominated for SABR’s Larry Ritter Award and the Seymour Medal in 2015. He lives in Tamarac, FL, with his wife, Jodi.

Excerpt

 

Chapter One

 

The Established System

 

From makeshift mats in barns to the largest arenas in the world, professional wrestling has really come a long way to become an international phenomenon. Though its evolution has been gradual, it received significant help from innovative promoters looking to change the core aspects of the business. For example, the matches themselves needed to be improved. Instead of developing at a snail’s pace with protracted rest holds, bouts became more action-packed and exciting with aggressive competitors using a whole host of newfangled moves. The introduction of the flying tackle and the dropkick in the late 1920s and early ’30s was revolutionary, and promoters wisely built upon their popularity. Around the same time, wrestlers were testing the waters with character-based gimmicks, and good versus evil feuds were born, invoking incredible audience reactions.

 

This is all old hat in today’s marketplace, but in the early days, everything was remarkably unsophisticated. With no clear-cut and defined wrestling organizations to manage the day-to-day operations of the industry, the sport was completely devoid of orderliness. It wasn’t until the 1920s and ’30s that circuits were fashioned and shows were offered on a more regular basis in specific regions. Wars between grappling syndicates were legendary, akin to those between crime organizations erupting across the United States. But in place of bootlegging and prostitution, promoters were at odds over high-value attractions and territorial control, and money was the bottom line. Those who had it wanted more, and small-timers just wanted to make a living.

 

On September 16, 1930, the sport’s first major three-letter acronym to be used with any consistency made its debut with the advent of the National Wrestling Association. An outgrowth of the National Boxing Association, the NWA was administered by state athletic commissioners, and its mandate was to keep pro wrestling on the level. In truth, those involved were often more interested in the political ramifications and profit margins of the sport than anything else. They monitored the business, stepped in when convenient, but mostly collected money for little in return. The promoters who dealt with the NWA were protected to a certain extent, and if they kept their noses clean, they were allowed to run their operations unhindered.

 

Rather than be pushed around by political appointees, promoter Paul Bowser in Boston struck back at the NWA concept by creating his own private group, the American Wrestling Association, in 1931. He occasionally worked with local bureaucrats for photo opportunities to garner publicity, but he had the first and last say in whatever happened in his rings. Columbus, Ohio, promoter Al Haft followed with the Midwest Wrestling Association that same year, and, like Bowser, Haft crowned his own regional “world” heavyweight champion, the first of whom was John Pesek. Haft was fully autonomous in his leadership, unlike those in NWA states who were bogged down by hierarchy and regulations.

 

Bowser and Haft created a local circuit for their wrestlers and champions, and by the mid-1930s, most major promoters had done the same. On a national level, promotional alliances such as “The Trust” were organized and thrived until being destroyed by greed. Wrestling was plagued by a general lack of integrity among promoters, and partnerships were almost always on shaky ground. For that reason, the sport entered a never-ending cycle of conflict. Within the chaos were innumerable heavyweight title claimants, and conniving promoters were doing everything in their power to tear down their rivals. Wrestlers jumped sides with impunity, seeking the best financial deal they could make, and again, an overall lack of integrity left everything fair game.

 

Yet, some promotional alliances survived. In 1948, Paul “Pinkie” George of Des Moines, Iowa, aligned with affiliates in several neighboring states and expanded his localized “National Wrestling Alliance” into a budding cooperative. This new NWA was completely independent of all established organizations, including the still-active National Wrestling Association. Unlike the Bowser and Haft groups, the Alliance wasn’t structured with one man at the top of the pyramid, but allowed each and every man to have an equal membership. And since the body was founded and run by the promoters themselves, they implemented a crafty set of bylaws that protected their interests. Pro wrestling had never seen anything like it.

 

Of the many statutes written into the new organization’s bylaws, the acknowledgment of specific territories was among the most consequential. In common wrestling lingo, a “territory” was defined as a region in which a promoter operated, from one city to multiple states. The NWA supported territory ownership, meaning that once an Alliance-affiliated promoter laid claim to an area, he was untouchable. If an outsider attempted to run a competing promotion, the full power of the NWA would be turned against them. Alliance members would also respect the boundaries of their brethren, allowing all members to book matches and promote events without fear of interference. Member-promoters structured their enterprises as they saw fit, and each office had its own flavor. As a whole, the Alliance acted as an umbrella entity that united the various promotions and sponsored the recognition of a single world heavyweight champion. This sanctioned titleholder traversed the entire NWA map, appearing for promoters in cities large and small across dozens of states. His task was to demonstrate night after night that he was the best in the world, proving to fans that the Alliance was the most important organization in wrestling. Lou Thesz, who was given NWA support as heavyweight kingpin in 1949, took up that extraordinary challenge and succeeded in every regard. His clean-cut, no-frills style was crucial as promoters pushed wrestling’s legitimacy. In this kayfabe era, it all worked beautifully. Focusing on bringing in the best big-named talent and fostering a long-term relationship with the wrestling public in their areas, promoters used television to welcome a new generation of enthusiasts to the sport. Must-see performers like Gorgeous George and Antonino “Argentina” Rocca lit up arenas from coast to coast. Within its first year, the Alliance had spread from its humble beginnings in the Midwest to include Los Angeles, Toronto, Honolulu, and New York and all points in between. Membership was attractive to promoters because the NWA’s wide-ranging influence all but guaranteed success.

 

But the NWA didn’t eradicate the competitiveness of wrestling promoters and, in some cases, might have heightened the drama. For example, in 1950, Chicago’s Fred Kohler, a bespectacled entrepreneur with an enormous sense of humor, found no comedic value in the help his cross-town rival, and non-NWA member, Leonard Schwartz was receiving from Al Haft, his supposed Alliance brother. To Kohler, it was an egregious violation of organization rules. He pleaded his case to Alliance members to have Haft immediately cease his incursion into the Windy City. Haft believed he had a right to book his wrestlers to Schwartz, and the situation escalated into a full-fledged feud. Adding the importance of television to the fray, and with great sums of money involved, neither side wanted to back down. Kohler, in a fit of anger, resigned from the NWA, only to be coaxed back a short time later. Finally, after painstaking negotiations, the conflict was resolved with both operations running peacefully in Chicago.

 

Under the watchful eye of the National Wrestling Alliance, the esteemed territorial system was born. The map of North America was effectively partitioned and boundaries were set. For the most part, every city on the continent was assigned to one territory or another, and when questions arose about the status of any particular town, the democratically voted administrators of the group worked to iron out the problems, often with special committees appointed to mediate. While the NWA operated with surprising functionality, big personalities were involved, and the men in the Alliance were known for their loud and sometimes obnoxious behavior. They epitomized a boys’ club mentality — smoking, drinking, and swearing freely — and when things got contentious, anything was possible.

 

In some cases, egos were exceptionally fragile, as shown by the ill-fated 1957 plot to split the NWA world heavyweight championship. The idea was to give a recognized claim to French tumbler Edouard Carpentier, while lineal champion Lou Thesz ventured overseas. The sneaky deal was snapped in two after Carpentier’s manager Eddie Quinn of Montreal protested independent promoter Jack Pfefer’s attendance at the NWA’s annual convention. ƒ His hatred of Pfefer was so strong that he stormed out of the convention and quit the NWA, bringing an end to the dual championship ploy. A few years later, Quinn rejoined the Alliance, but he never made peace with Pfefer.

 

Quinn was one of many colorful members involved in the NWA during the 1950s and ’60s. Johnny Doyle in Hollywood was a lavish spender who loved airplanes and the ritzy nightclub life. Toots Mondt of New York was a sizable man with an impressive background on the mat. He knew how to create superstars and turned ex–boxing champion Primo Carnera and the Argentinean high-flyer Antonino Rocca into box-office sensations. When he wasn’t backstage at a wrestling event, he was usually at the nearest gambling venue, amassing substantial debts. His self-destructive personality hurt a number of once-thriving promotions, and business at Madison Square Garden dwindled in the early to mid-1950s because of his lackluster management. But regardless of his vices, he was still considered a member of wrestling royalty.

 

Frank Tunney in Toronto was the opposite of Mondt, and was as straightlaced as could be. Don Owen in Portland was similarly respected. Down in Texas, the Houston booking office of Morris Sigel controlled much of the state, and aside from a major blowout with Dallas operator Ed McLemore in 1953, things ran smoothly. Wrestler Dory Funk Sr. and Dory Detton were connected in West Texas prior to the latter bowing out in 1955. Funk then realigned with Dr. Karl Sarpolis, a former grappler himself. Since he was the central star in the territory, Funk’s ownership stake was kept out of the press, but insiders knew how much power he wielded. In Kansas City, Orville Brown, the initial NWA heavyweight champion whose career was cut short by a car accident in 1949, was the man in charge. He retired in the early 1960s, and the region was taken over by well-known wrestlers Bob Geigel and Pat O’Connor.

 

The Southeast was ruled by several different men during the 1950s and ’60s. Paul Jones, a smart ex-wrestler and businessman, built a fortune in Atlanta, Georgia. Another former grappler, Cowboy Luttrall was successful in Florida, while “Big” Jim Crockett Sr. controlled the Carolinas and parts of Virginia. Nick Gulas and Roy Welch ran an impressive circuit across the rugged regions of Tennessee and Kentucky, and Harry Light was the man in Detroit. In San Francisco, Joe Malcewicz was known for his generosity to wrestlers, especially those in need. After “Wild” Bill Longson was injured during a bout in 1937, Malcewicz stepped up to pay his medical bills. In a time of greed, it was a righteous move by one of pro wrestling’s genuine good guys.

 

Of them all, Sam Muchnick in St. Louis, who served 22 years as the president of the NWA, was undoubtedly the spirit behind the coalition from 1950 until his retirement in 1982. He was the guy who saw the good in Toots Mondt and Jack Pfefer, while still trying to appease fiery tempers like Eddie Quinn’s. Short in stature with a contagious smile, Muchnick was known for his easygoing nature, and he negotiated amicable resolutions to an untold number of Alliance problems. He was so important to the everyday management of the union that without his otherworldly efforts, the NWA probably wouldn’t have survived the 1950s intact. In fact, the odds were in favor of the coalition being derailed by the U. S. government in 1956 as a result of an investigation into the NWA’s so-called monopoly. Muchnick went well beyond the call of duty to see that the NWA lived another day. He went to Washington, D. C., to speak at length with officials and pulled strings through his political friends. In the end, the membership of the NWA signed a Consent Decree agreeing to halt its restraint of trade. In return, the group would be allowed to continue operating, and Muchnick retained a frequent correspondence with investigators in the years that followed. He wanted to make sure the Alliance was living up to its promises. Despite various complaints that the NWA wasn’t truly changing its monopolistic ways, the government never again chose to prosecute. The Alliance, and wrestling itself, had dodged a major bullet.

 

Muchnick’s executive management skills were unequaled. He spent most of his days on the phone coordinating between the various offices to ensure everything was running smoothly. On top of that, he booked the heavyweight champion. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that his own promotion in St. Louis was the third most time-consuming thing he managed during any given week or month, but that didn’t stop him from running an exceptional town. His professionalism was lauded by wrestlers and his peers alike. There was a reason why he was the go-to voice in the National Wrestling Alliance for three decades.

 

Keeping the peace in pro wrestling was a big part of his job, and Muchnick tackled his duties with an even hand. In 1960, superstar grappler Verne Gagne made it clear that he wanted to split from the NWA and form his own sanctioning organization based in Minneapolis, and Muchnick had no problem with the idea. His only goal was to ensure that Gagne and the wrestlers he used in his American Wrestling Association (AWA) remained on good terms with NWA members, keeping all lines of communication open. Muchnick wanted Gagne to attend Alliance meetings as well, and although it appeared to the public that the AWA was a competitor to the NWA, there was no real competition between the two groups.

 

Three years later, Vincent J. McMahon of Washington, D. C., also decided to break from the NWA and create an independent promotion. Associated with the Alliance since the early 1950s, McMahon became an official member in 1960 and, thanks to his sound business ideas, experienced tremendous growth. His locally produced television show became the most popular program in the northeastern territory and pushed him into a leadership position in New York City, the number-one market in the United States. As McMahon spent time with the Alliance membership, it was hard for his colleagues to not be impressed with his ingenuity and innovation. He was a natural in a social environment, and when he was pushing a concept, people listened intently.

 

In late 1960 and into ’61, McMahon sold the idea of giving “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers the NWA world heavyweight title. Considering the union’s history, bestowing the coveted championship upon a heel performer was far from the ordinary. The arrogant blond grappler was the antithesis of Lou Thesz, a man who had represented the Alliance for years and symbolized the honorable titleholder. Putting the belt on Rogers was a dramatic shift, but, to McMahon, it was a smart move for him and the rest of the organization. Rogers was a box-office attraction like no other, and he delivered high-quality matches against both fan favorites and heels. This gave regional promoters the opportunity to book their top grapplers against the champ, regardless of their in-ring gimmick.

 

Muchnick and other influential NWA members jumped on board, and the title shift was authorized. On June 30, 1961, Rogers defeated New Zealander Pat O’Connor in a two-of-three-falls bout before a whopping crowd of 38,000 at Comiskey Park in Chicago. Everyone was thrilled by the box-office numbers — the gate was estimated at $125,000 — and great things were expected throughout the NWA. But it quickly became apparent that McMahon and a select group of Alliance members were the only beneficiaries of Rogers’s reign. In many ways, the skewed booking of Rogers as titleholder drove a wedge between a number of dues-paying NWA affiliates and what was seen as the establishment of the organization — McMahon, Sam Muchnick, Fred Kohler, and several other high-profile members. Those promoters representing smaller circuits were routinely ignored, and the notion that Rogers would benefit the entire union was incorrect. In the Northeast, though, McMahon and Rogers did exceptionally well. While wrestling championships weren’t officially recognized in New York, fans knew from the national publications that Rogers wore the NWA belt. It was win-win for McMahon, and he let Muchnick deal with any disgruntled NWA members.

 

However, McMahon had a bigger plan for his territory, and ultimately decided to follow Verne Gagne’s footsteps and withdraw from the Alliance. His decision was coordinated with Rogers’s loss of the championship to Lou Thesz on January 24, 1963, at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. But instead of acknowledging the title change, McMahon claimed Rogers was still world champion. He formed the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF) and initiated a complete change of course from the NWA.

 

It was already well known that the northeastern circuit, from Virginia to Maine, was big enough to support a champion all its own. No one man could fulfill all the obligations of the region plus maintain a national touring schedule. Rogers did the best he could in that regard, but after months of grueling travel, he was beginning to fall apart. He suffered several injuries, and by early 1963, he was displaying signs of heart trouble. The stress had gotten to him. With Buddy in need of rest, McMahon needed a new champion who could represent his new WWWF with credibility and zeal. Lucky for him, he had a young man in the wings ready for the job. On May 17, 1963, the championship was moved from Rogers to Italian powerhouse Bruno Sammartino in a 48-second match at New York’s Madison Square Garden.

 

The territory was primed for a hero to take the reins, and Sammartino was the perfect antidote for spectators weary of Rogers and his antics. He was a hulking strongman, larger than life, and brought amazing charisma to the ring. In the months and years that followed, McMahon utilized a genius booking scheme for his champion, one that kept fans returning to the arena with gusto. The central idea was to build up a succession of threatening challengers for Sammartino, and Bruno would show his vulnerability in near defeats only to rise up in the end to conquer his opponents. His performance never failed to capture the imagination of audiences. Among his villainous rivals were the 350-pound Gorilla Monsoon, the 6-foot-5 Bill Miller, and the 6-foot-3, 275-pound Bill Watts. As Sammartino worked through one feud, McMahon pushed several other prominent challengers at the same time to keep the cycle continuing all over the circuit.

 

Appreciated for his babyface qualities, Sammartino was a dominant wrestler and exceptionally tough. He didn’t need a gimmick to get over with crowds. Off the mat, he appeared genuine and as a man of integrity. The New York fanbase didn’t just buy into any wrestler pushed by promoters, and it took a special breed of grappler to become a cultural icon in that territory. Sammartino’s first reign as champion lasted from 1963 to 1971. Few people in history can claim such a prolonged and successful run, especially in a promotion the size of the WWWF. His durability was a testament to his drawing power and physical conditioning.

 

One of the strengths of the territorial system was the clear-cut avenues for trading talent. Promoters within the NWA, including the AWA and WWWF, loved to send away burned-out workers from their region and receive fresh faces from cohorts elsewhere. This custom kept their shows from getting stale and allowed for new feuds on a regular basis. Sometimes, a big name from another region was enough to spark attendance all over a territory, and promoters relied on imported talent. The appearance of a special attraction was also a big boon to attendance. Women wrestlers, the troupe of little people, and other fascinating performers bounced from region to region, and fans responded in droves.

 

Even to this day, much about professional wrestling is cyclical, and the popularity of the sport has fluctuated countless times. During the late 1950s, the end of the TV explosion created a sizable economic downturn for the industry, corresponding with the U. S. government’s antitrust investigation into the NWA. These factors put a strain on the Alliance, and membership declined from 39 in 1955 to a dozen in 1961. The union managed to endure the hardship and soon regained much of its lost momentum. Notably, Vince McMahon rejoined the Alliance in 1971, and his heavyweight crown lost its “world” title status. Membership did have its privileges, and it was hard to dismiss the benefits of being affiliated to the worldwide contingent. Over previous years, NWA champions Lou Thesz, Gene Kiniski, and Dory Funk Jr. — all effective scientific competitors with their own styles — had given the Alliance enormous international credibility. In comparison, McMahon placed an emphasis on towering, muscular brawlers. The WWWF was seen as a completely different product than the NWA, and the northeastern approach, while popular in that territory, wasn’t altogether appreciated elsewhere. And vice versa.

 

Syndicated television provided many fans with exposure to outside territories for the first time. People in WWWF regions received telecasts from Los Angeles, Florida, and other locales, and their interest in Alliance wrestling spiked. To meet the growing curiosity, McMahon filled his Madison Square Garden shows with grapplers from the WWWF, the AWA, and the NWA, and Verne Gagne joined the Funks, the Grahams, and Dusty Rhodes for appearances. Cooperation between booking offices was never greater.

 

In 1975, Sam Muchnick stepped down as president of the NWA, an inevitable move he’d been contemplating for years. The loss of his esteemed leadership was a blow, but others lent their experience to the role, starting with Jack Adkisson (Fritz Von Erich) and Eddie Graham.

 

As for the WWWF, it faced several choppy years and brushed back a handful of coordinated invasions by independent promoters. Bruno Sammartino dropped his heavyweight crown to the “Russian Bear” Ivan Koloff on January 18, 1971, at Madison Square Garden, but Pedro Morales picked up the mantle as the promotion’s top fan favorite and titleholder less than a month later, on February 8, 1971. A popular wrestler from Puerto Rico, Morales retained the belt for well over two years, until being upset by Stan Stasiak, a veteran grappler from Canada, on December 1, 1973. Sammartino returned to the throne nine days later, much to the delight of his supporters. He remained WWWF champion until April 30, 1977, when “Superstar” Billy Graham beat him in Baltimore and captured the belt.

 

Graham had the longest championship reign for a heel since Buddy Rogers and was an astronomical draw. On February 20, 1978, at Madison Square Garden, McMahon went in a different direction, though, and put his faith behind a former collegiate champion, the type of wrestler more likely to star in the NWA. Bob Backlund, a native Minnesotan, was his choice, and his wholesome personality was a stark change from his predecessor. What he lacked in charisma, he made up for in athletic ability, and crowds appreciated his virtuous in-ring methods.

 

Over in the NWA, the world title passed through the capable hands of Terry Funk, Harley Race, and Dusty Rhodes between 1975 and ’79, and Giant Baba of Japan received a week long reign in late 1979. The business, at that point, was being inundated by a classy crop of new blood, and guys like Ric Flair, Ted DiBiase, and Ricky Steamboat were leading the charge.

 

As the 1970s came to a close, the territories retained their exceptional individualism, but promoters were coming to grips with a variety of new challenges. Cable TV was the biggest quandary. The medium made it possible for a regional operator to broadcast his show not only in neighboring regions but nationally. It was a pathway to immediate expansion, and every established promoter had cause for concern. In fact, the potential of cable made the already suspicious members of the NWA even more paranoid. However, the territorial system, defined over decades, was still in place and safe, and there was no way for an outsider to change that — at least, that’s what the old-time promoters believed. But, as time would tell, they couldn’t have been more wrong.

 

Reviews

 

“Tried-and-true wrestling fans will find lots to get excited about. ” — Publishers Weekly

“Tim Hornbaker has penned the definitive story of the death of the wrestling territories and pro wrestling itself as many of us loved it. Tim takes an incredibly complex story with many moving parts and boils it down with precision to just what you need to know. ” — Jim Cornette, Pro Wrestling Legend and Historian

“With Death of the Territories, Tim Hornbaker further establishes himself as possibly the finest wrestling historian writing today. ” — Jon Langmead, Writer, PopMatters, SLAM! Wrestling

“Armed with excellent research, Tim Hornbaker puts the reader in the centre of the purge that wiped out the fiefdom that once ruled professional wrestling, leaving Vince McMahon the last man standing. ” — Mike Johnson, PWInsider. com

“Tim Hornbaker’s Death of the Territories is a tightly researched, engaging read that tells of the turbulent years surrounding Vince’s conquest of the wrestling world and the struggles of those that tried to keep up. ” — Every Read Thing blog

 

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