WWF Madison Square Garden (12.26.83) review
December 26, 1983
To start this 1980s wrestling project I watched an AWA and NWA show from 1983. Seeing as Vince McMahon hadn’t got his ‘big show’ deals lined up just yet, the place to watch ‘big’ WWF shows in 1983 was Madison Square Garden. I’m here to see what early, early Vince McMahon powered WWF looked like. Time’s they were a changing.
Bob Backlund was the 8th WWF Champion. He won the belt in 1978. Part of Vince’s new era WWF would involve getting the belt off Backlund, who was not what Vince wanted as a public image for his product, and onto Hulk Hogan. Two small issues; 1. Hogan didn’t actually work for him and 2. he didn’t want to switch the belt from one babyface champion to another. A transitional champion would be needed. Like Ivan Koloff, Stan Stasiak and Billy Graham he would need a heel to fill a temporary void. Step forward the late, great Iron Sheik.
We’re in MSG, as the title suggests. Hosts are Gorilla Monsoon and Pat Patterson. Ring announcer is one Howard Finkel with frilly sleeves.
Rene Goulet vs. Jose Luis Rivera
Rivera is a jobber. He’d go on to be Conquistador Uno. Goulet jumped ship here from AWA a few months back. He’s billed from France but he’s from Canada. The France of North America. Goulet is earning the New York money the New York style, the whole match is rest holds. Interesting to note there are clearly empty seats all over the place. Rivera gets a roll up out of a headscissors for the upset win. Seeing as he fucked it up, I imagine this won’t be the start of a big push. The replay suggests Goulet botched the bump. Either way, it looked shit, and the match was boring as dirt.
Salvatore Bellomo vs. Tiger Chung Lee
Tiger Chung Lee is, predictably, not from Korea but rather Japan. Well, if you’re a Japanese national you’d probably call Lee a Korean because he does have Korean blood. His real name is Masanori Toguchi. You may know him by the name Kim Duk, which is what he wrestled under in most places. Or as Charles Dance’s henchman in Eddie Murphy comedy the Golden Child. Bellomo is billed as an Italian American and they were probably hoping he’d recapture that Bruno Sammartino spirit. Which is funny because Bellomo is Belgian (albeit of Italian descent). Bellomo’s career is far more interesting than this match. He started out wrestling at carnivals in Belgium before moving to the UK to learn the British style. He then moved to Mexico and worked for EMLL before a move to Canada and Stampede. He also worked in Japan before signing for the WWF in 1982. His career is the template for guys like Bryan Danielson and Chris Jericho who wanted a rounded style based on travelling and experiencing other wrestling cultures. At this point Vince still wasn’t sure whether to push him or not. After a year of watching him in boring soulless midcard matches Bellomo had been turned into a jobber. He was released in 1988 and went on to work Catch in Germany and was a regular in early ECW.
In the match, the whole thing is rest holds. Mostly trapezius nerve holds, the most dreaded of all rest holds. Any time the match looks like it might pick up they go right back to a nerve hold. The 20 minute time limit expires, thankfully, and it finally picks up after the bell as they wail on each other for 30 seconds. Why not do that DURING the match? This was painfully dull.
Magnificent Muraco & Captain Lou Albano vs. Jimmy Snuka & Arnold Skaaland
This is a wrestler + manager tag gimmick, although Albano wrestled loads around this time. Skaaland is a rarity. He worked last month in Philly but before that it was a couple of years. He officially retired in 1978. The result is huge pops for everything he does. It helps that he’s the manager of babyface world champion Bob Backlund. You’d think he’d be more focused on Backlund’s big title defence tonight. I wonder if that will have any effect on the outcome? Knowing he doesn’t have a gruelling WWF schedule to deal with Skaaland works his socks off. Snuka is in good shape here and is over huge for his aerial ability. Which, in 1983, means leapfrogs. Snuka pins Muraco with a high crossbody, which gets a huge pop. Arnie Skaaland was fantastic here. It’s probably around **½. I enjoyed it. It did slow down dramatically when they worked heat on Snuka though.
Sidenote: Snuka sends best wishes to his manager Buddy Rogers, who was supposed to work the above match but broke his hip. The match did happen back in September but never on TV. Rogers, who was already very old, never wrestled again.
Chief Jay Strongbow vs. Sgt Slaughter
Strongbow went to WWF in 1982, just as Vince was about to clear out all the dead wood. Not ideal timing on his part. They work a brisk pace with Slaughter throwing himself around and taking bumps for the old timer. Given his heavy gimmickry, I’m surprised Slaughter didn’t get more WWF time. Obviously, he had a disagreement with Vince McMahon about the GI Joe (Action Force if you’re in the UK) toy line, which would be a lucrative deal for him. It wasn’t McMahon’s idea though and he wasn’t making any money from it so Sarge quit and went to AWA, who had a sudden top tier talent void.
Back in the match Strongbow is GASSED and they botch a side headlock takeover. They set a belting pace and Strongbow clearly couldn’t do it for more than five minutes. Strongbow nearly takes it with a sleeper but after he gets the ropes Sarge just twats him with a clothesline for the pin. This was decent. The last two matches have seen a clear uptick in effort.
Ivan Putski vs. The Masked Superstar
TMS is Bill Eadie, AKA Demolition Ax. Putski was a star of 70s wrestling. He’s a diminutive Polish powerhouse (5’6”, originally born in Krakow, migrated to Texas at a young age), whose finish is a double sledge to the chest. My main memory of Putski growing up was WWF using him to try and get his son Scott Putski over in 1997. So much so, they dragged him out of retirement for a tag match against Lawler and his boy.
As you can see from this still, Putski was extremely muscular. He’s in his early 40s here and sluggish or Vince would have pushed him hard when he took over. Putski does something I appreciate; he poses for the TV audience. He knows where the cameras are. This match ends abruptly as Putski tries to pull the mask off, the ref stops him, and Putski shoves Dick Krol over for the DQ. Somehow they both got disqualified? Lots of rest holds in this.
WWF World Heavyweight Championship
Bob Backlund (c) vs. The Iron Sheik
Backlund has been champion since February 1978. A truly different era.
He’s at 2135 days as champion. The angle here is that Backlund has an injured shoulder from Sheiky belting him during a demonstration of his skill with the Persian clubs.
Shiek works over the arm the whole match, mostly at the instruction of Fred Blassie at ringside, who appears to be calling the match himself. Occasionally Backlund tells him what to do as well. Not the kind of performance you’d expect from a man about to win the big strap. Sheik has only been in the WWF for a couple of months, something that’s often overlooked in the big scheme of things. Backlund does the best work of the match, attempting various roll ups and flash pins but unable to get a backslide, for example, thanks to his bum arm.
Sheik slaps on the camel clutch and Skaaland throws the towel in with Backlund unable to get out. ***. There’s an incredible noise in the Garden as they know they’ve seen a huge title change but also aren’t happy about it. A very focused and well put together match, with the focus on the arm and that leading to a logical finish.
Backlund’s selling was good and designed to allow them to do a quick title switch. Something that modern wrestlers could learn from. If you’re hurt, it’s ok to just tap out. Live to fight another day. Instead of every submission involving the babyface dragging themselves into the ropes. The match made sense and sometimes that’s all you need. Vince triggers his first title switch and a few weeks later, we’d get another one.
Tony Atlas, Rocky Johnson & SD Jones vs. The Wild Samoans
This is two out of three falls. Afa, Sika and Samu on the Samoans team. Samu, the younger one, is Afa’s son. He’s about a year into his professional career at this point. Sika is probably most famous nowadays for being Roman Reigns’ dad. If we’re talking famous dads; Rocky Johnson sired Dwayne Johnson, aka The Rock. Rocky Johnson is a great wrestler to watch. All the babyfaces have that kinetic energy about them but Johnson has the speed and athleticism to go with it. He’s also very fluid and easy on the eyes. Everyone piles in for a big brawl and the ref calls it. Is that a double DQ in two out of three falls? So, it’s 1-1 and we’re right into the deciding third fall.
The second fall lacks the energy of the first as it’s mostly the Samoans working heat. First on Atlas, then on SD Jones. The Samoans keep dropping headbutts until Jones gets pinned. Huh, no hot tag? That really takes the steam out of the crowd, who just saw Backlund lose his belt and probably could have used a babyface win here. Pretty simple booking. This was the second best match on the card but the flat finish crushed the rating.
Backstage, the Bob Backlund burial continues as he fake cries and says he’s so sad he let everybody down. They probably shouldn’t have interviewed him here.
Ivan Koloff vs. Tito Santana
Santana would be one of Vince’s go-to guys and one of the most consistent in-ring performers of the following 7 years or so. He only came to the WWF in 1983 and he’s lacking in gimmick. This is Koloff’s last WWF match, ever, so they could have run a “loser leaves town” match to properly pop the MSG crowd who are already mad that Backlund lost. Koloff is best known for his NWA work, although he did hold the WWWF title back in 1971 in another famous transitional run.
This match has a lot of rest holds in it. Loads of headlocks and lying around on the mat. It does pick up considerably, although Santana does a lot of kick/punch stuff. Santana takes it with the Flying Forearm and the crowd is happy, for the first time in a while. Big win for Tito, Koloff going out on his back.
The Invaders vs. Butcher Vachon & Iron Mike Sharpe
The Invaders, from Puerto Rico, are the faces. Invader #1 is Jose Rodrigues, who killed Bruiser Brody. Iron Mike Sharpe, the world’s loudest jobber, spends a while getting his arm worked over. The ‘sell out’ crowd is slowly thinning out at this point. Nobody really gives a shit about this match. Butcher Vachon is basically retired at this point and has next to no mobility. He takes one backdrop, can’t get up and the Invaders pin him for the duke. This was not a good finish to the show. MSG always did this, sticking the main event in the midcard, so they could advertise the next show and sell tickets to the rubes on the way out.
A historic show, for the end of Backlund’s title reign, but also a demonstration of how much work there was to do with the WWF in 1983. There’s a bunch of old journeymen, borderline useless and semi-retired guys out there. If you are picking your next world champ off this card it would be Tito Santana, Jimmy Snuka or Rocky Johnson.