By: Lou Sahadi
This article was originally printed in Wrestling World magazine, date unknown, circa late 1960's
It was still early and the place was empty. The main lights hadn't been turned on in the arena and the only signs of life were a number of wrestlers who began arriving one at a time. A couple of them stopped and looked around the new arena before heading for their respective dressing rooms.
Vince McMahon Sr. stood in the runway leading directly to the middle of the vast floor.His eyes were fixed at the ring and then he slowly gazed around the environs of the new Madison Square Garden. Neatly dressed as always, McMahon appeared a bit concerned. He is a master craftsman as a promoter yet he couldn't help but wonder how many people would be lured into the $36-million emporium. No one could predict. This was the first wrestling show ever held in the new 33rd St. structure that rises majestically over Penn Station.
McMahon was pondering a number of questions out loud. How good are the acoustics? Is the lighting sufficient? Can the spectators in the far-off seats see well enough? How will the fans react to a new arena? The latter question offered concern. A few years back a rival promoter tried to run a number of wrestling events in the New York Coliseum, a modern edifice just a stone's throw from the old Madison Square Garden.The promoter took a heavy financial loss and oldtimers guessed that the reason the wrestling fans did not accept the Coliseum was that it was a new building.
It's a strange paradox, but that is the nature of the wrestling fan. He associates himself with the old through habit and rebels against a vast physical change. He's used to going to the arena at a certain night in the month and sitting in his same seat show after show.It's almost as if he projects himself into the program. He'll cheer world champion Bruno Sammartino and he'll boo anyone he opposes. He wants to stand up and be counted.
McMahon himself is a throwback to the past. He was exposed to the serious business of promoting ever since he could remember. Now in his early 50s, McMahon still retains that boyhood charm that most Irish kids growing up in New York possessed in the 1920s. He runs a first-class operation that has earned him the respect of wrestler and fan alike. His association with Madison Square Garden runs deep. His father, Jess, promoted the first ring attraction in the old place on December 11, 1925, a lightheavyweight championship fight between Jack Delaney and Paul Berlenbach.
Young McMahon played in the Garden as a kid of 11. He'd explore the catacomb level underneath the arena and end up sitting at the knees of fabled celebrities. This was the Golden Age of sports,and McMahon was exposed to it all as an Irish moppet, wide-eyed by it all in the excitement of smoke-filled arenas. "My big charge came from seeing Ching Johnson of the Rangers come up the ice with the puck," reflected McMahon. "He was electric, shedding body checks like Bronko Nagurski shaking off tacklers."
"I remember the Garden being so jammed by fans waiting to see Reggie McNamara in the six-day bicycle races that my father and the Striblings had to sit on the steps in an aisle to make a bout. My father sat behind me with Pa Stribling, who managed Young Stribling, sitting next to me. Not many people know that Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney were booked to fight in New York,which turned it down because Harry Wills said that Dempsey was ducking him. That's why the fight went to Philadelphia instead. Dempsey was not ducking Wills. Jack Sharkey had no trouble with Wills before winning on a foul."
These were some of the memories that McMahon can easily recall when talking about promotions and Madison Square Garden.He's had pleasant memories and sad ones,like the time last January when McMahon staged the last ring show in the old Garden, which featured Sammartino against Taru Tanaka."I was just about the last person in the place," he remarked. "All the front doors were locked and I had to leave by way of the employee's entrance. I just sat around thinking back. It felt eerie, thinking about the things that I saw there in the 42 years since my dad opened it."
Jess McMahon wasn't one of the Damon Runyon type characters that made up the fight game then. First of all, he was a graduate of Manhattan College, and how many guys along Jacobs Beach could make that distinction? Then Jess ran a neat and proper office.His working hours were strictly from 9 to 5 and who ever heard of that among the cigar smoking, card playing characters who usually conducted their business in the back rooms of the many saloons along the way? McMahon himself didn't smoke and purposely kept proper hours in order to maintain a close family life in Far Rockaway.
In a tribute to his memory, the Garden moguls gave Vince the distinction of putting on the first ring show in the new Garden. McMahon came right back with Sammartino in the main event against Bull Ramos, a 325-pound Apache Indian. It was Sammartino's 55th main event appearance in five years in the Garden, and no athlete in any sport could come close to approaching such a milestone.
"He is the strongest man in the world," exclaimed McMahon."He can do a pushup with two wrestlers on his back. Most people don't seem to know it but Bruno outdid Paul Anderson, the weightlifting champion, by 90 pounds in a tournament. Bruno began lifting weighs in a Pittsburgh YMCA to build himself up after virtually starving during World War II when the Germans occupied his little town in northern Italy."
Although his office is located in Washington, D.C., McMahon's operations extend far beyond the eastern seaboard. He recently concluded a contract with Japanese promoters for a two-week tour by Sammartino. He also set up a longer tour of Australia for Gorilla Monsoon.McMahon has also arranged for Sammartino to appear in Canada, South America and Australia.He is constantly on the telephone at his office in the Franklin Park Hotel or from his home in a fashionable section of Washington. Even when traveling, McMahon makes liberal use of the telephone. He does over 90 percent of his business that way.
A number of years ago he promoted an outdoor show in Chicago's Comiskey Park. It was a fantastic succss. A crowd of 39,995 turned out for the program which still stands today as the largest crowd ever to attend a wrestling match. McMahon maintains a humble ego in his performers. One night they could be headlining a television show, or appear on top in Madison Square Garden, before sending them off to such far off corners as Lewiston, Maine, to fulfill a contract with a local promoter.
Travel and television are some of the complexities that face McMahon that his father never confronted. He has to serve as a behind the scenes producer of the television shows, matching the right performers who will provide the finest matches. Then, he has to arrange for a weekly schedule for a large number of wrestlers who appear in one city one night and a different one the next.
The schedule does have its headaches. Like the time a few years ago when Sammartino was scheduled for a matinee match in Pittsburgh and an evening appearance in Newark, N.J.In order to insure Sammartino's arriving on time at the Newark Armory, McMahon arranged for a police escort from Newark Airport through the busy streets of Newark. Sammartino made the committment with about three minutes to spare.
Usually, promoters do not foster a close relationship with wrestlers. They establish a good rapport but maintain a business relationship. However, it is quite obvious that McMahon is fond of Sammartino. "He's the greatest champion in the game today," beamed McMahon."He's had the belt over five years which should tell you just how great a champion he is. I'd venture to say he has received more fan mail than any wrestler in history and I mean ever since the sport became popular. He's known all over the world and promoters constantly are in touch with me seeking Bruno's services. I have turned down more requests than I have agreed to. It just can't be helped. It isn't humanly possible to fulfill all the requests he has received."
Along with his vast wrestling network, McMahon somehow finds the time to dabble in other promotional ventures. He currently possesses the promotional rights to one of boxing's hottest properties, lightheavyweight champion Bob Foster. He did so by a daring maneuver by guaranteeing then lightheavyweight champion Dick Tiger $100,000 if he would meet Foster in New York's Madison Square Garden. The match was made last May and Foster easily knocked out Tiger to capture the title.
"I may move Foster up into the heavyweight ranks," disclosed McMahon. "Why, there's nobody around in the lightheavyweight division who can come close to beating him. The way I see it, he can beat most of the heavyweights around right now."
Although he may get involved in any number of promotions, wrestling is closest to McMahon's heart. By his own admission, he'd rather promote wrestling than any other event. Actually,it's more demanding and more challenging. That's what McMahon thrives on.It makes him go. It turns him on like an eight-day clock. Right now he's faced with his biggest challenge, selling out the new Garden in the same manner that he did the old one. If any one can do it it's McMahon. It'll take some masterful strokes, though. There wasn't going to be a sellout this particular night. A crowd, yes, but not one that will completely satisfy McMahon in the manner in which he has sold out Boston and Philadelphia. That's about all that's left for McMahon to do. The smart money says he will accomplish it.
Copyright 1997 - Jump City Productions