by Irvin Muchnick
As many readers know, my uncle Sam Muchnick was the late St. Louis pro wrestling promoter and almost continuous early president of the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA). He retired in 1982 and died in 1998.
In 1985 Sam let me go through some of his papers. The passage of time has made these, at minimum, fascinating historical curiosities on the evolution of an industry that is now globally branded and dominated by Vincent Kennedy McMahon’s WWE.
Fundamentally, the transition from the Sam Muchnick era to the Vince McMahon era tells the story of the modern pro wrestling industry.
The same year Muchnick retired, McMahon bought the northeastern U.S. promotion of his father, Vincent James McMahon, and partners. In 1983 the younger McMahon poached Minneapolis promoter Verne Gagne’s top star, Hulk Hogan, then secured Muchnick’s iconic old television slot, Wrestling at the Chase on St. Louis station KPLR, after the successor owners of the St. Louis Wrestling Club fell into disarray. And the next year McMahon bought control of the leading wrestling show on the nascent medium of cable television — that of Georgia Championship Wrestling on Ted Turner’s WTBS superstation in Atlanta — while also leveraging an over-the-air syndicated TV network with cash and barter deals on local stations. Historically, these outlets had given piecemeal exposure to a confederation of NWA-affiliated territorial promotions.
With the success of the first WrestleMania in 1985, both the large financial gamble and the vision of McMahon’s then-named World Wrestling Federation were vindicated. Now known as WWE, it is a billion-dollar multi-platform entertainment franchise traded on the New York Stock Exchange.
Muchnick’s stash of letters and telegrams by no means tells his entire story; I am sure that the most important dealings of this Mafia-like world never got written down. But in many respects this trove is as good as it gets in terms of capturing the underground history of an industry most peculiar, but also one with an indelible — and by now undeniable — footprint on all of American culture.
I start this series with the Muchnick NWA’s Department of Justice file. In 1955 DOJ’s Antitrust Division opened an investigation of the Alliance’s alleged anti-competitive practices, which included blacklisting troublemaker talent and “outlaw” promoters, and dividing the country into unofficial territories. In 1956 this cooperative — which had been formed in 1948 by a core group including Pinkie George of Des Moines, Iowa; Muchnick of St. Louis; and others — entered into a court-approved consent decree with the government. What this meant was that the NWA, while admitting no wrongdoing, agreed to refrain from certain practices moving forward.
When I say that the best stuff isn’t on paper, one of the things I’m talking about is the likely behind-the-scenes roles of such figures as Congressman Mel Price of East St. Louis, Illinois, in bringing the government’s legal threat to a smooth conclusion. Price had served in the Army with Sam Muchnick, in a non-combat post in the Panama Canal Zone during World War II, and they became best of friends. Price went on to become the long-time chair of the House Armed Services Committee.
A lot of public intelligence on the NWA’s operations has already emerged via wrestling historians who combed discovery in civil lawsuits and filed Freedom of Information Act requests for documentary background on the 1956 consent decree. These findings are the basis of a 2007 book by Tim Hornbaker, National Wrestling Alliance: The Untold Story of the Monopoly that Strangled Pro Wrestling. I have not read the book, but I commend as essentially accurate the thumbnail biography of Sam Muchnick published by Hornbaker at his website, at http://www.legacyofwrestling.com/Muchnick.html. (My father, Simon Muchnick, was Sam’s youngest brother.)
Famously, Hornbaker quoted a remark by Muchnick to government investigators to the effect that his colleagues in wrestling promotion were something less than a collection of the nation’s premiere brain surgeons and rocket scientists. This manifest gap of intelligence and savvy between Sam and others was a theme of the respectful image he maintained, especially in his hometown of St. Louis, but also nationally and globally. Over the course of a long career, Sam toyed with this idea, quite lucratively. As the perennial NWA president, he navigated political and personal disputes, but he also earned a personal booking fee on every appearance by the touring NWA champion — whose universal recognition was the only real guiding principle of an organization in which dozens of scattered promoters ran their businesses in wildly different ways.
Sam’s own way was as the emperor of St. Louis, who starting in 1959 produced a ratings powerhouse for the city’s first independent (non-network affiliate) television station, KPLR – Channel 11, and got a lavishing good press and community reputation for a brand of pseudo-sport orchestrated with comparative taste and restraint. Readers interested in a fuller appreciation of this epoch of achievement are directed to the 2005 book Wrestling at the Chase: The Inside Story of Sam Muchnick and the Legends of Professional Wrestling, by his long-time right-hand man Larry Matysik.
I also discussed Sam in the first chapter of my own first book, Wrestling Babylon: Piledriving Tales of Drugs, Sex, Death, and Scandal (2007).
This initial 83-page batch of Sam Muchnick’s papers has been uploaded to http://muchnick.net/nwa-doj.pdf. What follow are a few thematic notes.
Readers who identify errors of fact here, or what they consider serious errors of interpretation, are invited to contact me at [email protected].
Caught between government watchdogs and dimwit partners
In a June 15, 1956, letter to the assistant attorney general Stanley N. Barnes, chief of the DOJ Antitrust Division — at the one-year anniversary of the investigation leading to the consent decree — Muchnick complained that the NWA members, “most of whom are like ostriches, have buried their heads in the sand, as I have hardly heard from any of them in the last three or four months.” He added:
“At the present time there is a recession in the wrestling promotion business, but I hope that after we get our matter cleared, and I am in a position to tell a meeting of the Alliance to let members know all the facts, which I haven’t done at the present time, at the suggestion of your office, that we can really improve our business.”
Ultimately the Alliance approved the consent decree at a meeting in St. Louis on August 31, 1956. In addition to Muchnick, the membership consisted of:
Cal Eaton (Los Angeles)
Frank Tunney (Toronto)
Pinkie George (Des Moines)
Salvador Lutteroth (Mexico City)
Al Haft (Columbus)
Sam E. Avey (Tulsa)
N.W. “Tex” Hager (Spokane)
Orville Brown (Kansas City)
Stewart E. Hart (Calgary)
Paul Jones (Atlanta)
Dennis Stecher (Minneapolis)
Joe “Toots” Mondt (New York)
Roy Welch (Memphis)
Jim Crockett (Charlotte)
Billy Wolfe (Columbus)
Fred Kohler (Chicago)
Cliff Maupin (Toledo)
Harry Light (Detroit)
Joe Gunther (New Orleans)
Mike London (Albuquerque),
Max Clayton (Omaha)
C.P. “Cowboy” Luttrall (Tampa)
Rudy Dusek (New York
Ignacio Martinez (Buffalo)
James A. Whitfield [better known as “Billy Lewis”] (Richmond)
Hugh Nichols (Hollywood, California)
Al Karasick (Honolulu)
Eddie Quinn (Montreal)
Don Owen (Portland)
Dave Reynolds (Salt Lake City)
Paul Bowser (Boston)
Earl Sarpolis (Amarillo)
Morris Sigel (Houston)
Rod Fenton (Tucson).
On May 9, 1957, NWA lawyer John M. Ferguson, of the East St. Louis law firm Baker, Kagy & Wagner, wrote to another assistant attorney general, Victor R. Hansen, regarding Alliance by-law changes. “You can appreciate, we are sure, that the National Wrestling Alliance, if it is to continue in existence, must have for its purpose and as its standards, something else besides the enforcement of the Consent Decree,” Ferguson said. Specifically, the lawyer asked for indulgence in the matter of “recognition of champions.” Unlike in boxing, in which state athletic commissions held great sway over championship designations, wrestling was classified as “exhibitions,” and thus a different mechanism was necessary.
In a bit of what the carnies might call “kay fabe,” Ferguson wrote that
“the National Wrestling Alliance believes that the present heavyweight champion holds his title by lenial [sic] descent from Frank Gotch in 1905.
It is absolutely necessary for a heavyweight champion, whether he be booked by the N.W.A., or whether he be booked by some individual, to post an appearance bond. The champion’s dates are allotted months in advance and the various promoters go to considerable expense in arranging for the appearance of the champion in the way of advertising and public relations…. If a champion should fail to appear in a city such as St. Louis, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, or Houston, the promoter would be out of pocket at least $3,000 to $5,000 in expenses incurred[….] The appearance bond is designed to protect the various promoters against this loss.”
According to Ferguson, neither Lou Thesz nor “Whipper” Billy Watson had had a problem with the requirement of their $10,000 appearance bonds. (Thesz and Watson were the only two NWA champions through this period — the former having briefly handed the belt over to the latter so he could take a break, which included appearances in Japan in conjunction with that country’s emerging star, Rikidozan.)
The final court judgment with the consent decree was entered later in 1956. The bulk of the Muchnick papers deal with subsequent issues in the implementation of the consent decree.
One such issue was the very continuation of the NWA as an entity. In 1958 Muchnick told DOJ’s Hansen that Alliance membership was down from 38 to 28 promoters, and there was considerable sentiment for simply dissolving it.
In a note to himself in early 1960, Muchnick recorded that membership had continued to diminish to — depending on the number of renewals that would come through in September of that year — between 12 and 22.
Pinkie George / Sonny Myers dispute
On March 18, 1959, Muchnick wrote Hansen:
“One former member — he recently resigned — Mr. P.L. ‘Pinkie’ George, is rather angry because as he states, some people are going into ‘his territory.’ Pinkie George is the man who was sued recently by wrestler, Sonny Myers, in Des Moines, Iowa, under the antitrust laws. Sonny Myers claimed he had nothing against the National Wrestling Alliance, but tied the Alliance into the suit because he said George once said the Alliance had given him the State of Iowa for booking and promotion purposes. George and the NWA won the case in Des Moines, and the evidence all through the trial certainly was not against the NWA. Whatever evidence existed was against George.
I don’t know how interested your Department now is in what’s going on, but I thought now would be a good time to review what has been happening, as I have done all in my power for members to abide by the Consent Judgment.”
On March 25, Hansen told Muchnick that Earl Jinkinson, head of the Antitrust Division’s Chicago office, was being directed to have a member of his staff contact the NWA president. That staffer turned out to be Roy D. Hunter.
In a June 9, 1959, letter to Hunter, Muchnick said he was attaching a copy of a bulletin to NWA members. (The attachment itself is not there; presumably, the bulletin reported the George-Myers developments.)
“I have received only two replies, and these were vague. This illustrates the disinterest the members have shown in their organization since the signing of the Consent Decree…. I am going to wait a few more days and then send you another letter, giving you some definite facts on what has transpired recently which, under the old methods could have been corrected, but now, cannot.”
Eight months later, in a February 29, 1960, letter to the new acting assistant attorney general, Robert A. Bicks, Muchnick further explained that George claimed to “own” the state of Iowa for wrestling promotion purposes. Muchnick also said George and the NWA won the lawsuit by Myers, in which “there was no evidence against the NWA at all,” but the result was reversed on appeal “because of some remarks made by the Judge during the course of the trial.” George then quit the NWA.
Muchnick said the Des Moines market had been dormant for several years due to poor business conditions, but that it recently came to his attention that his St. Louis booking assistant, Bobby Bruns, was doing similar work for a new promoter in Des Moines. George himself had moved his operations to San Antonio, Texas.
“I received the following note from Mr. George today, from San Antonio, to which was attached a clipping of a show Bob Bruns had booked in Des Moines. Here is what Mr. George said: ‘Sam it looks like when one resigns from the Alliance the organization goes in and takes over from the local promoter. My son promotes in Des Moines, and your man Bruns puts in a show in opposition Tuesday night. Do you fellows want to monopolize the whole industry……signed Pinkie’. It seems to me like the Pot calling the Kettle black. I can truthfully say that I had no knowledge of Bruns booking a show in Des Moines, but if he did, what is wrong with that. That was the purpose of the Consent Decree. Apparently, George still thinks he ‘owns’ Iowa.”
Muchnick returned to a familiar theme:
“I still think if the Government would drop the entire matter and let the wrestling people try to run the wrestling business, just like football runs its business, also basketball and hockey and baseball, then we could get somewhere.
I, personally, feel that the National Wrestling Alliance, as it exists now, is strictly a fraternal organization. Our By-Laws have no teeth in them at all.”
The February 29 letter was also, in part, a readout of a February 1 meeting Muchnick had arranged, at the direction of Bicks, with William D. Kilgore, Jr., chief of DOJ’s Judgments and Enforcement Section, regarding a charge of a violation of the consent decree by promoter Billy Lewis in Richmond, Virginia. Muchnick fumed to Bicks:
“It seems to me that every would-be promoter, every would-be wrestler, and everyone that is disgruntled, tries to use the Consent Decree as an axe. Instead of the Decree doing good, as was the intent of the Department of Justice, it is merely working hardships on people who have worked for years to build up the wrestling business.”
On March 10, 1960, Bicks wrote back:
“… [T]he destruction of such territorial divisions is, as you have observed, one of the prime aims of the Judgment. That the accomplishment of this purpose may hurt some of the so-called established promoters by permitting others to come into their so-called territories and compete with them is a debatable question. Most monopolists feel hurt when they first encounter competition, but many discover to their surprise that competition only spurs them on to greater achievements and in any event the public receives the benefits of competition to which it is entitled.
While there is some indication that competition among bookers and promoters is beginning in a small way to enter the industry, there is no assurance whatsoever that anything like free and open competition as yet exists and under those circumstances it is futile to entertain any idea of modifying the Judgment.”
Kohler, the Chicago promoter, was a pivotal figure in post-World War II wrestling history. In the early 1950s Kohler produced a hit wrestling television show on the old DuMont network, which helped make national stars out of Lou Thesz, Verne Gagne, Hans Schmidt, Killer Kowalski, and others. After this show crashed, along with the sport, largely due to TV overexposure, Kohler rebuilt his franchise at the turn of the next decade with a scaled-down nationally syndicated program out of Chicago’s Marigold Arena. That show even ran for a couple of years in Muchnick’s St. Louis market, on Saturday afternoons on the NBC affiliate. I don’t know if Sam was unhappy with Kohler’s Chicago syndicated show, but in any case it was no threat to Muchnick’s Wrestling at the Chase juggernaut and Kiel Auditorium live events.
On June 10, 1959, Muchnick told DOJ’s Hunter of a new challenge involving Kohler:
“… I mentioned to you that a new studio wrestling show was going to start in Chicago, and that the Chicago Stadium was going to produce this show with the idea of promoting some big events in their building. I had been asked about working with these people, but the fact that I am very busy in St. Louis with my promotion, and with the job of being President of the National Wrestling Alliance, I did not show any interest. They then contacted Eddie Quinn, who is a promoter in Montreal, and who happens to have about a 10% interest in the promotion in St. Louis.
I am enclosing copies of letters I received from Fred Kohler, of Chicago, dated May 25, 1959 and June 5, 1959, also copies of letters I received from Pat O’Connor, dated February 7, 1959 and June 4, 1959, who is now recognized as champion by the National Wrestling Alliance….
We, in the wrestling business, have prided ourselves through the years that we have kept our game clean from outside influences and, unlikew other sports, we do not have thugs or gangsters connected with it. You can imagine my surprise when I received Mr. Kohler’s letter, of May 25, in which he makes veiled threats.
Before the Consent Decree was signed, when such situations arose, as is now developing in Chicago, we could have had a meeting and tried to arbitrate any disputes. In fact, Leonard Schwartz, of Chicago, asked to become a member of the National Wrestling Alliance, although Fred Kohler was a member previously, and Mr. Schwartz was admitted. For a long time both men were promoting in Chicago, but due to illness Mr. Schwartz had to retire.
Mr. Kohler is apparently peeved because Mr. Quinn is going to furnish wrestlers to the Chicago Stadium, and in order to keep me out of the situation and not help with talent, he [apparently meaning Kohler] is threatening me with reprisals.
Mr. Kohler forgets that he, or his associates, have gone into many cities and started promotions in them, sometimes without even mentioning their intentions to the established promoters in those particular cities. To my knowledge, he is now interested in the promotions, not only in Chicago, but also in Milwaukee, Fort Wayne, Indiana; Indianapolis, Indiana; Louisville, Kentucky; Detroit, Michigan; Clevelasnd, Ohio; Atlanta, Georgia; Omaha, Nebraska, and probably some other cities.
Under the terms of our Consent Decree there is really nothing I can do about these things, but if the Decree was modified as as to protect promoters in various citiies, or at least to leave these matters up to the various State Athletic Commissions, then I am sure the National Wrestling Alliance would mean something again. After all, the National Football League protects its members, as does the National Basketball Association and Professional baseball.
I am dictating this letter without benefit of legal counsel because our funds are so low that we just cannot afford the fees. I believe if the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, would give us some relief and in some way modify, or set the Decree aside, that our Annual Meeting, at the end of August, could be a fruitful one and that the organization could continue. Because of the Chicago controversy and arguments now developing among eastern promoters, the National Wrestling Alliance is in jeopardy and really doesn’t mean anything as it is now constituted.”
The existing files do not detail Kohler’s “veiled threats.” And the government did not appear to have replied to this letter.
The tension between Muchnick and Kohler would go on to take new forms.
The Jules Strongbow insurgency
Muchnick continued to be infuriated by what he believed were unintended consequences of the consent decree. As he wrote to Bicks on June 11, 1960, the decree “gives every penny ante wrestler a chance to ‘holler’ if he isn’t used; every would be promoter to ‘cry’ ‘Trust’, if he doesn’t get the best wrestlers and despite the fact, as was predicted in the letter to Judge Barnes of May 9, 1957 that there would be all kinds of champions, once the ‘teeth’ of the Alliance were extracted with the new by-laws.”
By now, notwithstanding the anointing as NWA champion of New Zealander Pat O’Connor (who “defeated” former collegiate champion Dick Hutton, who in turn had “defeated” Lou Thesz, who at this point, in his forties, preferred touring the world as his own brand), dissident promoter Eddie Quinn was recognizing Frenchman-turned-Canadian Edouard Carpentier “as World Champion in Montreal and in California; [Wladek ‘Killer’] Kowalski as champion in Chicago and New England and numerous others in Montreal,” Muchnick wrote.
The scenario in Los Angeles was Exhibit A of Muchnick’s complaint. There, promoter Cal Eaton, one of the signatories to the consent decree, was no longer a member in good standing of the NWA. Eaton had not resigned from the Alliance, but his dues had lapsed.
And into this breach stepped Eaton’s partner Jules Strongbow, fronting for a group they called “the North American Wrestling Alliance” while running highly successful television and live events out of Hollywood Legion Stadium. Muchnick:
“[Strongbow] can laugh at our organization, he can laugh at the ‘Consent Decree’, he can manufacture his own champions, and he is not bound by any antitrust laws…. If you people are interested in helping us, perhaps you could write me a letter stating ‘that the National Wrestling Alliance is the only recognized body of promoters and bookers officially recognized by The United States Government’.”
In his reply of June 23, 1960, Bicks rebuffed this plea to investigate the Strongbow group. “We have no information concerning The North American Wrestling Alliance,” Bicks said. “Unless the organization engages in activities violative of the antitrust laws, there is no basis for this Division to take any action against that Alliance.”
As for another reference by Muchnick to a possible decision by the NWA to dissolve at its upcoming August annual meeting, Bicks counseled that there was nothing in the antitrust laws nor in the 1956 consent decree preventing such action — though, “Of course, such dissolution would not affect the liability of the individual members who have consented to be bound by the judgment.”
“Isn’t your office even interested in learning the make-up of this so-called NAWA – who its officers are, if it has any bylaws, just how it operates, and the reason for its organization?” Muchnick asked Bicks on June 27.
No, said Bicks on July 21 — unless there was reason to believe the NAWA might be violating antitrust law.
Muchnick would never stop expressing puzzlement over why the consent decree was something that only did things to the NWA rather than for it. Only he knew where this posture might be careening from a genuinely pained sentiment to a lobbying calculation.
“Executive Secretary-Treasurer” Muchnick
Meanwhile, at the August 1960 convention in Acapulco, Muchnick began an interregnum lasting several years, during which he relinquished the NWA presidency but still, effectively, ran it with the new title of “executive secretary-treasurer.” Toronto’s Frank Tunney was elected president, and Chicago’s Kohler became first vice president. The next year, Tunney stepped down and Kohler assumed the presidency.
Muchnick and Kohler engaged in a power struggle over the NWA membership application procedures as they pertained to promoters Johnny Doyle and Jim Barnett.
Both Doyle and Barnett came with baggage, but only the latter’s had an unspoken subtext: Barnett was gay. Unlike the majority of his colleagues, Muchnick didn’t care; he simply observed that Barnett had exhibited great adeptness at the art of promotion through his work with Kohler. Muchnick was right about that. From 1964 to ‘74, Barnett would run one of the most successful wrestling offices of any location or era, in Australia. In 1984, as a minority partner of Georgia Championship Wrestling, Barnett would sell his stock to — and throw in his lot with — Vince McMahon, in one of the turning points of the post-Muchnick national promotional war.
As for Doyle, Muchnick told DOJ in a July 27, 1961, letter — which also said the NWA was down to 12 members — he was “a former member, who allegedly is the man who originally told the antitrust division in Los Angeles that the Alliance was a monopoly. Now he is promoting in Detroit.”
The crux of the dispute between Muchnick and Kohler over the admittance of new members was whether the consent decree required them to be waved in automatically if they displayed basic membership qualifications, or whether there needed to be a vote of the membership on their applications. The government told the NWA that the internal procedure was of no moment; the only thing that mattered was making sure the result didn’t run afoul of the consent decree.
The Doyle and Barnett applications remained in limbo, Muchnick reported to Lee Loevinger, the assistant attorney general, on September 28, 1961. He explained Kohler’s machinations in holding up their membership via review by a newly appointed membership committee.
On October 6, Loevinger warned the NWA that it was on treacherous ground: “I can only stress the seriousness of the failure of the Alliance to admit the two applicants.” Further, the organization’s by-laws called for the expulsion of any member who violated rules designed to comply with the consent decree.
Muchnick went right to work. On October 9 from Cincinnati (where Muchnick, an old newspaper sportswriter, was attending the baseball World Series), he dictated to his secretary a letter to Kohler quoting the assistant attorney general. Muchnick gave Kohler and his dubious membership committee 48 hours to resolve the status of Doyle and Barnett. Muchnick copied the 15 other members and advised them that he was polling them for an up-or-down vote by telegram.
Two days later Muchnick wrote again to Loevinger to create a record of his actions. Muchnick said president Kohler had called him to argue that the October 9 letter and poll of the membership overstepped the authority of the executive secretary-treasurer. If Kohler could assure the members they would not be in jeopardy of violating the consent decree in rejecting the two applications, Muchnick wrote, “I will be the first one to resign” as an Alliance officer and member.
Kohler retaliated with a bulletin to the membership, which he forwarded to Washington. Kohler wrote:
“Mr. Muchnick told me on the phone that he is running the Alliance. I thought the members were running the Alliance. I understood that the $15,000.00 a year being paid to Sam Muchnick was for booking Buddy Rogers as the world’s heavyweight champion and Pat O’Connor as the United States heavyweight champion. I now find out that the booking of Pat O’Connor is being done by Bobby Bruns who is not a member of the Alliance.”
Muchnick clearly was winning this fight: DOJ representatives met with Kohler to discuss what was holding up the Doyle and Barnett membership applications. They asked Muchnick to keep them apprised.
But the Muchnick-Kohler power struggle was a surrogate for a much bigger fight: the role in national wrestling governance of the dominant promoters in the population centers of the northeastern U.S. Significantly, two of the members of Kohler’s sham NWA “membership committee” were from that region: Toots Mondt and Vincent J. McMahon.
In an October 24, 1961, Western Union telegram to Sam Muchnick — reproduced with these papers — McMahon dramatically resigned from the NWA. This was the opening salvo in an all-out war over control of the schedule of the aforementioned Buddy Rogers, the industry’s hottest box-office name. The way this war played out would till the soil of the pro wrestling landscape we know today.
Vince McMahon the elder and the WWWF
Herman “Nature Boy Buddy Rogers” Rhode was the most important in-ring figure in the history of pro wrestling. I say this for the following reasons.
First, he saved Sam Muchnick’s bacon in the late 1940s when Muchnick was just starting out, in opposition to established St. Louis promoter and national industry powerbroker Tom Packs. Muchnick struggled mightily to draw crowds in his early years. As soon he got his hands on Rogers, St. Louis was golden, a second-generation wrestling capital. No Buddy Rogers, no Sam Muchnick — certainly not as the quarter-century-plus man behind the marionette that was the National Wrestling Alliance.
(The middle man of the Rogers-Muchnick deal was Muchnick’s fellow Eastern European immigrant promoter Jack Pfeffer, a relatively minor industry figure except for a string of gimmicks and often well-timed behind-the-scenes manipulations. More on Pfeffer later.)
The second reason for Rogers’ preeminence was that, as NWA champion from 1961 to ‘63, he was at the center of the tug-of-war described in this section of this article.
And third, when the dust settled and Rogers’ health and performance deteriorated, he was there to hand off his crown to Bruno Sammartino — kicking off the new East Coast-based World Wide Wrestling Federation. Of course, Vince McMahon the elder’s WWWF was the forerunner to Vince McMahon the younger’s WWE.
When Buddy Rogers, in 1961, was given the nod over Pat O’Connor to become the NWA-recognized champion — in a record-setting event, in terms of attendance and attention, at Chicago’s Comiskey Park — Rogers was already past his peak as a performer. Those of us of an impressionable age who watched him through this period may find this hard to believe, but historical videos of Rogers from the 1950s, now viewable on YouTube, make the case. I, personally, attended shows of his at Kiel Auditorium in the early sixties in which he consistently tore down the house against such rivals as John Paul Henning and Johnny Valentine. But the truth is that the grueling champion’s travel and expectations were wearing on Rogers’ athleticism, though he had the wiles to compensate and live off his reputation. The phenomenon of a performer getting his commercial due well past his aesthetic prime is a common one in all combat sports, both staged and real. (Floyd Mayweather, anyone?)
Who booked Rogers? Before he became NWA champion, the answer had been McMahon and Mondt out of New York. But in the NWA, the champion’s booker was Muchnick, and he answered to the needs of promoters from all over. McMahon and Mondt, however, wanted Rogers to work Northeast-heavy tours. The tension was unsustainable, for there weren’t enough days in a calendar month to go around.
Meanwhile, and with a little outside help from resentful wrestlers, Rogers was breaking down physically. Karl Gotch and Big Bill Miller jumped him in a dressing room in Columbus. Killer Kowalski may have accidentally-on-purpose broken Buddy’s leg in a match in Montreal.
Getting back to Vincent J. McMahon’s NWA resignation and the Sam Muchnick papers … On October 27, 1961, Muchnick told assistant attorney general Loevinger:
“In my opinion, there is more to this resignation than meets the eye, which is the reason for my hesitancy in accepting same until I hear further from your office.
If you think it important enough, I could come to Washington the latter part of next week to discuss in person with members of your staff, as to what has been transpiring.[…]
I have not heard further from Mr. Fred Kohler, regarding the Membership Committee.”
Muchnick also wrote to McMahon that he could not formally accept the resignation, in light of his entanglement with the dispute over the Doyle and Barnett membership applications.
On November 29 Muchnick wrote to Loevinger that a tally showed 11 votes in favor of the admittance of Doyle and Barnett, and only one opposed. “You would think,” Muchnick joked to the Justice Department official, that the two “are making applications to join the United Nations the way [Kohler] is making a big deal out of this.”
That fall, while Muchnick was hospitalized, Kohler called a meeting of another dubious subset of the Alliance, its “board of directors,” and pushed a resolution to dissolve the group. But as Muchnick pointed out to Loevinger, such a board meeting was not dispositive; the NWA had incorporated under Iowa law, which required a three-fourths vote of the general membership in order to dissolve. (The only ones in attendance at Kohler’s meeting were himself, Mondt, Jim Crockett Sr., and Frank Tunney.)
Muchnick shared with Loevinger a note of confusion regarding the status of the Alliance from Cowboy Luttrall, the Florida promoter. Luttrall said that if Doyle and Barnett were not admitted, Luttrall was quitting and he wanted a refund of his $100 membership dues.
But Kohler pressed on. In December he informed Doyle and Barnett that their applications had been rejected.
In January 1962 Doyle and Barnett told Muchnick not to bother further — that in light of the internal divisions in the NWA, they no longer wanted to be members. Muchnick was still seeking guidance from DOJ as to how all these twists and turns comported with the consent decree.
It’s an NWA — and now WWWF and AWA — world
On August 28, 1963, Muchnick updated DOJ’s Kilgore with the news that at the just-concluded NWA meeting in St. Louis, at which only seven of the 16 eligible members attended, he had been reinstalled as president.
Muchnick mentioned that on January 24, Lou Thesz (coming out of semi-retirement) had relieved Buddy Rogers of the NWA championship in a match in Toronto. Muchnick noted that McMahon’s faction told East Coast audiences that Rogers remained “undefeated.” Muchnick didn’t go on to explicitly chronicle the second part: Bruno Sammartino’s Madison Square Garden conquest of Rogers (in what was variously reported as 48 or 55 seconds) and subsequent crowning as World Wide Wrestling Federation champ –a crown Rogers won at a fictitious tournament in Rio de Janeiro.
Muchnick summed up:
“The National Wrestling Alliance has been in a sort of a state of confusion for the past three years, or ever since I stepped out as President, and became Executive Secretary. There was divided authority, as was in the case of Fred Kohler, of Chicago, who, when he became President came to your office to object to the admissions of the Messrs. Jim Barnett and Johnny Doyle into the National Wrestling Alliance. It was a personal vendetta between he and those men, and although we have offered them membership they now are rather cool to the idea because of Kohler.
We have also placed several members on probation for 60 days with the understanding they would be suspended for one year unless they abide by our By-Laws. One of these members is from Washington, D.C. [McMahon, obviously].
At the present time, several other groups have sprung up – one calling itself the World Wrestling Federation [sic] and the other the American Wrestling Alliance. They are controlled by promoters and partners, who are also wrestlers, and try to give the impression they are immune from the antitrust issue, judging by some of their actions.”
Jack Pfeffer again, and the blackballing of Johnny Valentine
The last batch of Sam Muchnick papers as they concern the NWA’s consent decree with the federal government revolve around Jack Pfeffer. Remember him? Pfeffer was a widely despised promotional gadfly who, long ago, had given Muchnick with access to the incomparable Buddy Rogers.
Now Pfeffer was worming his way into various promotional vacuums — most notably in Chicago, where Kohler’s empire had collapsed and the city’s historical wrestling hotbed had fallen into the doldrums. Pfeffer was running outlaw shows with deceptively billed ersatz talent, such as “Bummy” Rogers and Bruno “Nassartino.”
On October 1, 1964, Muchnick wrote to DOJ’s Kilgore:
“[…] There is a person by the name of Jack Pfeffer who is now headquartering at the Bostonian Hotel, in Boston, Massachusetts. He has been making some moves which I believe are in violation of the Anti-Trust Laws. These are things that he has been doing for more than thirty years, but no one paid much attention to him. Last summer he was involved in promotion with Fred Kohler, in Chicago, and a wrestler by the name of Johnny Valentine, who was booked for him, did not make the date because of illness, and sent him a telegram to that effect. Because Valentine did not make the date, Pfeffer has sworn he would ‘get him’.
His methods of ‘getting someone’ is to try to intimidate promoters who use certain wrestlers by flooding their towns with a lot of literature derogatory to wrestling. This Valentine is an American boy with a wife and three children. And, if Pfeffer is successful enough in scaring some promoters into not using him, they definitely won’t. For instance, he has flooded St. Louis with this kind of literature to many barber shops, restaurants and other public places. These tactics are not going to intimidate me in any way whatsoever, as I am going to use Johnny Valentine when I need him no matter what this Mr. Pfeffer does.
However, some promoters have already said they don’t want to get involved with this said Pfeffer because of the tactics he uses, and as a result it will deprive Valentine of earning power.
I advised Valentine, when he was here early this week, to write you and inform you of this, because inasmuch as the Anti-Trust Division has taken an interest in the regulation of wrestling and to see that the Anti-Trust Laws are obeyed, I thought you would be interested in above information.
This Mr. Pfeffer has promoted and booked wrestlers all over the country from the time he came from Russia, nearly forty years ago. His methods have always been the same. ‘If you don’t play my way, I will get you’.”
In reply, the government’s Kilgore asked Muchnick if Pfeffer was an NWA member. (He was not.)
There is a cryptic coda to this batch of the Muchnick papers: his monitoring of the federal prosecution in Callifornia of two gangsters with whom Muchnick seems to have worked in the promotion of a championship boxing event in St. Louis in 1959. More on this next.
I’ll be publishing additional installments of the Sam Muchnick papers.
WRESTLING BABYLON: Piledriving Tales of Drugs, Sex, Death, and Scandal (2007) is available by sending a money order or check for $17.95 to Irvin Muchnick, P.O. Box 9629, Berkeley, CA 94709. The price includes an autographed copy and free shipping within the U.S. For orders from Canada, add $5 US for shipping. For orders from all other places, add $10 US for shipping.
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The first edition of CHRIS & NANCY: The True Story of the Benoit Murder-Suicide and Pro Wrestling’s Cocktail of Death (2009) is available by sending a money order or check for $19.95 to Irvin Muchnick, P.O. Box 9629, Berkeley, CA 94709. The price includes an autographed copy and free shipping within the U.S. For orders from Canada, add $5 US for shipping. For orders from all other places, add $10 US for shipping.
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ECW Press published a second edition of CHRIS & NANCY, with revisions and a new introduction, in 2013. It is available at https://ecwpress.com/products/chris-nancy. The full text of the new introduction also can be viewed for free at https://concussioninc.net/?p=6819.