To modern fans of pro wrestling, many of whom truly discovered the sport less than ten years ago, Sam Muchnick is remembered as some old guy who appeared at legends functions and had done something important but nobody seemed to know what. The truth of it is that Muchnick is easily among the five most influential men in the history of pro wrestling worldwide, and certainly could be called the most important promoter ever without much question. Yes, even more so than Vince McMahon.
Muchnick passed away on December 30, 1998, in St. Louis, the city out of which his wrestling empire grew. He was 93. Initially a postal clerk, he left that position in 1926 to join the sports staff of the St. Louis Times, earning $20 a week to cover the Cardinals. When the paper merged with the St. Louis Star six years later, Muchnick was offered a position there but declined it, reportedly because it would have meant a good friend of his would have lost his job. After a stint in the Army from 1942 to 1945, Sam returned home to enter the pro wrestling business as a promoter.
There was no National Wrestling Alliance, but there was a National Wrestling Association. This group was much looser than the NWA which would follow it and essentially restricted to the Midwest. The coalition had survived the wrestling drought of the 1930's, becoming the only office to draw money at a time where the business, and the entire country for that matter, was starving. Tom Packs, one of the promoters in the Association who controlled its World title with Billy Sandow, was the guy running St. Louis. Starting out in the business in 1922, he made a killing both in promoting his hometown and in "selling" the World title, which was a common practice in those days. For a fee, Packs' wrestler would drop the belt to a wrestler from another territory. It was a win-win situation, as Packs got cash and the other promoter got a credibility boost among the fans. If worse came to worse, the title could just be stripped from the other guy's wrestler, since he retained control over the belt (that happened more than once, notably with Steve Casey when he left the country in 1938). Prior to the war, Muchnick had gotten involved in Packs' office following the newspaper merger. When the war came to a conclusion, Sam returned home and promptly opened an office in opposition to Packs.
Early on, Packs slaughtered Muchnick. Packs used his connections across the country to prevent any big names from working for Muchnick and to give him as little coverage as possible. Even though Sam was a former reporter, Packs was in tight with the local writers, and it was tough to find a break. Shut out from using the top stars, Muchnick brought in older guys who were past their prime, including Casey (who I'd imagine was not exactly going to be welcomed back by Packs) and Ed Lewis, who had won his first world title twenty-five years earlier. The best comparison of Packs vs. Muchnick would be something like WWF vs. AWF. Muchnick's guys were the old, slow veterans living off their reps (AWF), while Packs had the high-flying, brawling stars of the day (WWF). It was no contest at the gate; Packs was the king.
But fortunately for Muchnick, he got two lucky breaks. The first was Packs' personal misfortune, as he went bankrupt in the stock market and was forced to sell his office and control of the World title for $360,000 to an ownership group comprised of Lou Thesz, Eddie Quinn, Frank Tunney, Bobby Managoff, and World champ Bill Longson. The second, though, was the break that not only saved him, but also changed the face of the business forever. Muchnick went to several promoters in the Midwest and shared with them the problems he was having with competition in his own territory (now from the Thesz group as opposed to Packs). He then suggested forming some kind of an alliance to combat this. Five others thought it was a good idea, and on July 14, 1948, the group formed the National Wrestling Alliance in Waterloo, IA. The original six promoters were Muchnick (St. Louis), Al Haft (Columbus, OH, which was a huge money territory at the time), Max Clayton (Omaha, NB), Pinky George (Des Moines, IA), and Orville Brown (Kansas City, KS). Haft and Brown had been having some success with their own Midwest Wrestling Association, of which Brown was the champion. So when the two joined the NWA, Brown became its first World champ. The agreement between the promoters was that they would share talent with each other but not with promoters in competition with an Alliance member, and would also blacklist any wrestler who hurt the business in any way. This would come back to bite them in the mid-1950's, as the government explored the NWA's possible violation of anti-trust laws. Thanks to Muchnick's connections to a powerful House member, the suit disappeared quietly, with the Alliance agreeing to drop those clauses on paper but not in practice.
Buoyed by the new venture, Muchnick immediately put it to use by bringing in Buddy Rogers from Haft in November 1948. Rogers was over in the city from a previous stint with Packs, and he was a huge box-office draw. Rogers' run closed the gap between Sam and the Thesz group, but fears of a drop in business once Rogers left for another territory led Muchnick to meet with Thesz about merging their offices. The two would agree to a deal in 1949 that made them equal partners in a new, unified St. Louis office. Since the National Wrestling Association had pretty much crumbled by that time, the new NWA's World title would become the top belt. Thesz, the Association champion, was to face Brown, with the winner getting both titles, but Brown was in a car accident two weeks before the match that essentially ended his career (he would try a comeback briefly but it didn't last). Thesz ended up being declared the new World champion by forfeit, beginning a seven-year run with the belt that would be as profitable for Muchnick as it was for Thesz himself. Sam had become NWA president in 1950 (taking over for George) and thus the booker of the champion. He commanded a 3% fee for every date he arranged for the champ. That brought him about $40,000 in after-tax profit each year, which of course is aside from the profits of his own territory.
It wasn't always smooth sailing for Muchnick. St. Louis aside, being the NWA president was as political a job as one could get. Instead of balancing the needs of a small crew of wrestlers against the desires of a promotion's booker or show coordinator, here Muchnick had to deal with over three dozen promoters, each of whom were looking to further their own office and, despite the agreement they had signed, really couldn't care less about any other promoter. Thesz was a thorn in Muchnick's side on numerous occasions, as he was very picky about where he wrestled, how much he was paid, and who he would put over. Some of the battles Muchnick won – for example, he got Thesz to wrestle on an Al Haft show featuring a women's match despite the Alliance's agreement not to have their world champion wrestle on the same card as women or midgets – but he also lost some as well. He was unable to get Thesz to drop the belt in 1957 to Buddy Rogers, as Thesz and Rogers had a lot of heat with each other and there was no way Thesz was going to do business with him. It ended up with Thesz putting over Dick Hutton, a good worker but lacking in charisma and never a big draw.
The Alliance went through a good deal of backstage turmoil in the late-1950's and early-1960's, some of which was Muchnick's doing. He had given up the presidency in 1960, with Frank Tunney taking over, but that didn't mean he was out of power. Far from it. Muchnick was always a big fan of Buddy Rogers, but when the belt was finally put on him in 1961, things backfired. Toots Mondt and Vince McMahon Sr., who ran the Capital Wrestling Corporation, the Northeast territory from Washington, D.C. to New York, took over control of Rogers' bookings and refused to allow him to work weekends anywhere but in their own territory. He was only able to be booked in other territories a few days every month. Needless to say, this didn't sit well with the other promoters, so Muchnick called Thesz, still his silent partner in the St. Louis office, to save the day. Rogers kept cancelling out of matches where he was to drop the belt until Sam said he would donate the $25,000 performance bond posted by Rogers (and every NWA champion) to charity. Buddy finally showed up and dropped the belt to Thesz on January 24, 1963. The title change was never recognized in the Northeast; Rogers kept right on being called champion, although it was no longer of the NWA but now of the World Wide Wrestling Federation.
Muchnick, once again named president in 1963, was always a firm believer in the principles of an alliance of promoters, so he sought to lure McMahon and Mondt back into the fold. The New York promoters arranged a meeting in Chicago in 1965 with Tunney, Muchnick, and then-NWA champion Thesz, where they tried to negotiate a title vs. title match between Thesz and the WWWF champion, Bruno Sammartino, in New York. Vince and Toots felt they could make a killing off closed-circuit throughout the country, as well as netting around $200,000 at the gate alone (an unheard-of figure for the time period). The idea was for Thesz to drop the belt to Bruno for $50,000 (half going to Muchnick and half to Thesz) with a rematch a year later where Thesz would regain the title. Muchnick thought it was a great idea, since it would bring one of the "outlaws" back into the alliance, and a powerful one at that. There was no dismissing the fact that New York was the big money territory at the time. Thesz, who had a strong dislike for Mondt, didn't want to do it unless he got $100,000 and ten percent of the MSG gate. Muchnick tried to order Thesz into taking the original deal, but when Lou said he would do a shoot if he was paid anything less, the deal fell apart. Needless to say, Thesz also fell out of grace with the NWA over the deal, and he dropped the belt to Gene Kiniski in January 1966.
Muchnick remained as NWA president through 1975, presiding over the glory years of the title. Dory Funk Jr. would beat Kiniski in February 1969 to become champion, and it was during his reign that the title had reached a high point in terms of prestige and drawing power. Lots of territories had guys who were hot that people wanted to see take the title, so Funk was able to draw huge crowds, which kept everybody happy. St. Louis, which was now owned outright by Muchnick (Thesz sold his share in the office), was doing great business and was recognized by the fans as the place where the best workers of the era performed. As a result, the fans' standards for wrestlers were high, and guys had to be great workers to get over. Just take a look at some of the guys who held the Missouri title in the 1970's: Harley Race, Johnny Valentine, Terry Funk, Gene Kiniski, Dory Funk Jr., Bob Backlund, Jack Brisco, Dick Slater, Ted DiBiase, and Dick Murdoch. Of those guys, only Backlund would not be called a great worker, and he was able to get over because of his amateur background, which translated into "great wrestling ability" in the fans' eyes. Of course, there were exceptions (Dick the Bruiser).
Muchnick gave up the NWA presidency for good in 1975. Jack Adkisson took over, and it spelled the end of the clean finish era for the World title. During Muchnick's run, even if there were screwjobs in the beginning of a program involving the champ, the titleholder always had to come out on top via clean finish in the end. Once Adkission took over, that disappeared, and the prestige of the title in various territories took a dive.
Sam finally left the business in late-1981, with his retirement show on January 1, 1982, at the Checkerdome in St. Louis (strangely not at the Kiel Auditorium, which had become most associated with Muchnick). Mayor Vincent C. Schoemehl Jr. proclaimed the day as Sam Muchnick Day, and the show drew a huge gate for matches that included Dick the Bruiser winning the Missouri title from Ken Patera. The St. Louis territory continued, as Muchnick sold his interest to Verne Gagne, Larry Matysik, and Bob Geigel, though business never was as good as under Muchnick. In fairness to the new ownership group, though, the business had changed, and the territory system was on the way out. Jim Crockett ended up buying a piece of the office and shutting it down in 1986, bringing an end to over fifty years of wrestling.
Muchnick remained a revered treasure from wrestling's glorious past until his death. At every opportunity he was honored, on the surface as a guy who did something for wrestling a long time ago, but underneath, as the glue that bound the Alliance for over thirty years.