The MLWP is celebrating 10 Years !
A look at the top ten milestones of the MLWP era
A purely subjective look at the ten most important milestones of the MLWP era, roughly 1976-1984
We will count back from # 10 ending in a couple of weeks at #1
#1 - M-A Affiliation begins 1978
The Wrestling scene in Toronto was growing stale as the 1970's wore on , the Sheik and his style of quick bouts, rare losses, and predictable style were getting old
and the fans were staying away from Frank Tunneys big shows at MLG. It was time for a change and Tunney would make the move after the Exhibition Stadium show in July '77.
Tunney would enter into an arrangement with
Verne Gagne and the AWA to supply some top tier stars for the cards in Toronto. Gagne was having some success promoting in Winnipeg and the AWA TV could be seen in Ontario so it seemed like a positive move to get the Toronto scene going.
The AWA champ Nick Bockwinkel would show up on nearly every card in Toronto over the next year and in addition to the AWA guys he would face opponents from both the WWWF, NWA, as well as the local stars. Both Bockwinkel and the team of Gagne & Brunzell would be well recieved by the local fans but the cards which were filled
out with WWWF and local stars would be up and down attendance wise.
Fast forward to mid 1978 and the Mid-Atlantic area, while always a hot spot, was seeing a resurgence with a a full roster of up and coming stars and established veterans. Ric Flair, Ricky Steamboat. Tony Atlas, Jay Youngblood, the Anderson Bros tag team, Wahoo McDaniel, Johnny Weaver and many more were burning up the southern Wrestling scene.
Tunney would enter in to a agreement with the M-A in late 1978 (acknowledged later- see Gary Will's TWH - Tunney-Crockett partnership) and debut the M-A stars on the Oct 18 card which was rounded out with a WWWF defense of Bob Backlund vs Ivan Koloff. The fans were immediately drawn to the fued between Flair and Steamboat, and the two stars would help to revitalize Toronto wrestling in the months to come.
Tunneys choice would prove to be a turning point for the business and for the next few years the M-A- region would become one of the main players among the NWA territories. The charismatic Flair would ascend to the top of the wrestling ranks, and at the same time Tunney would stay close with Gagne and McMahon Sr in supplying their top stars to the area. Gagne would attempt to promote Ottawa in 1980 with several cards which seemed to end the relationship with Tunney. (Tunney had promoted Ottawa in the past) and we wouldn't see Bockwinkel
back until 1982. Interesting to note those Ottawa AWA shows featured Dino Bravo who had been 'banned' in Ontario by Tunney after leaving the area abruptly in lat 1979 while Canadian champ. They drew in the 5-6000 range which could be considered a success but Gagne never returned and Tunney would start up again in 1982 with some shows in our nations Capital.
Many of the same angles that were hot in the M-A would play out in Toronto as well and the crowds would improve dramatically, with near sell-outs on popular cards. The success would continue into 1983 when we would start to see a fall-off of the A - talent coming up from the south. The business was rapidly changing and going into 1984 the crowds were generally down and in some cases non-existent for the cards at MLG. The empty seats would help ease the decision to go with the WWF in July 1984 ending a nearly 6 year relationship with M-A, and in my estimation the top milestone of the MLWP era
Hope you have enjoyed this countdown of Ten milestones of the MLWP era
#2 - Frank Tunney Dies 1983
When Frank Tunney passed away in May 1983 it was more than the end of an era, it would mark the end of a 50+ year career for one of the wrestling worlds longest serving promoters.
Since taking over the promotional duties in the 1930's Tunney had seen both ups and downs in the profession, but for most of the 50 years, had been at the top of the game. Widely respected within the
the NWA Tunney would also keep close ties with Vince McMahon Sr and Verne Gagne, bringing wrestlers from all corners of the world to compete at MLG.
His long time assistant nephew Jack would assume the duties and push to maintain the promotion after Franks death.
Jack had been involved for many years by this time but was facing new challenges in changing times. The 2 summer shows he put on at Exhibition Stadium just a few months after Frank had passed on could be considered 'Super-Shows', cards stacked with championship bouts and a who's who of the stars of the day. The crowds responded but
the attendance would go into a steady decline in the months ahead mostly due to the declining talent being supplied by the M-A.
When Tunneys' old pal McMahon Sr passed away almost exactly a year later, the stage was set for the new wave of wrestling promoters, namely Vince's son Vince Jr. Jr. would waste no time in pursuing the ripe Canadian market, with its expansive TV exposure, mainly the MLW TV tapings.
The Toronto office held the rights to promote exclusively at MLG but with the loss of the A stars from M-A combined with the threat of the WWF pushing TV to the masses it was decided to align with the fast expanding fed. It can be debated if history would have been changed had Frank not passed away but while some of the elder promoters would hang on past '84, they would all fall to the mighty WWF, slowly losing their main arenas, tv shows, and most of all - their stars.
The death of Frank Tunney could easily be #1 in the list of Milestones, it may have been the most important as far as the end of the promotion but we will pick what may be the biggest milestone - as far as the success of the promotion - during the MLW years - next up - #1 !
#3 - The Canadian Title 1978
The return of a local Title would help revitalize the Toronto scene after many years of the U.S. Title being the main focus of the area.
While we did have a different lineage up here to the Detroit U.S. version, we saw infrequent changes and no local heroes would gain the belt during the 70's. With the departure of The Sheik, Tunney would recognize the M-A version of the U.S. Title
and create a new version of the Canadian Title in Dec 1978.
The bout on Dec 17 would bill Dino Bravo vs Gene Kiniski to battle in the finals of a tournament to decide the Canadian champ. There was no such tourny but Bravo would beat Kiniski to become the first champ of the new era.
Kiniski would be a good choice to go down in defeat to Bravo, being that he was a former world champ and had held titles in Toronto in the 50's and 60's. In a passing of the torch Whipper Watson would be on hand to be celebrated, get into a bit of a face-off with Kiniski (albeit from the ring apron), and to also present the new belt to Bravo at the conclusion of the bout.
Bravo was a fairly established star by this point, familiar to local fans from his time in the M-A and Montreal, and was a frequent presence in the magazines of the day. On the previous card in Nov Bravo had teamed with Bob Backlund to beat AWA Tag champs Patterson and Stevens by dq, and had made one other recent appearance vs Patera. Bravo had first come to Toronto in 1973 and may have caused
some confusion among the older fans who remembered the original Dino Bravo, a local Ontario wrestler who was a star here in the 60's sometimes teaming with his 'brother' Domenic (Dom Denucci, also a reg partner to the new Bravo).
Bravo would prove to be a good fit among the new generation of stars appearing at MLG along with Steamboat, Youngblood, Flair & Valentine and the
rest of the M-A based crew.
His reign would start strong with his first bout after the Kiniski win being a dq victory over AWA champ Nick Bockwinkel, Following that up with a pinfall win over Flair would earn Bravo a spot in the local fans hearts and firmly entrench the Canadian belt as the
cornerstone of the promotion. Bravo and Valentine would trade the belt during a feud in the coming months then Bravo would beat Flair again and Ken Patera before suddenly leaving the area in Aug 1979. Bravo would show up in Winnipeg and other AWA cities still billed as Canadian champ while Tunney would hold a tourny in Toronto to decide
a new champ. Local star Dewey Robertson would beat Valentine in the finals of the tourny Sept 9 1979 to become the new champ and he would follow a similar route as Bravo defeating Bockwinkel in his first defense (only the Cdn Title at stake).
For the remaining years of the promotion the title would mostly stay with the local favorites and give the bad guys a chance at the top spot, lending itself to local angles and feuds.
#4 - Steamboat & Youngblood win Tag Titles Mar 27 1983
Steamboat and Youngblood were as popular a tag team as there was in this era. Both wrestlers were stars in their own right and the Toronto fans loved them.
This bout would prove to be a memorable moment of the MLWP era with the fan favorites taking the belts in a steel cage bout. This was the 4th bout in a series, with the previous card seeing a count-out win
for Steamboat & Youngblood. For the Toronto fans this was yet another historic title change and the place erupted upon the ending, but....the titles had already changed hands in Greensboro. NC a couple of weeks previous.
As it was back in the day that type of info took a while to move around so the fans here were none the wiser at the time. For most of us we never even knew about the double up until the internet era where we re-discover what really happened back then.
Both Steamboat and Youngblood were a big part of the revitalization of Toronto wrestling, Steamboat with an epic feud with Flair while Youngblood made his mark as one of our MLW TV Champs and would often work near or at the top of the card on the circuit shows.
They would come back to successfully defend on the
Night of Champions show in July 83 vs Dory Funk Jr & Jake Roberts, and again - for the last time
in Toronto as a tag- on the follow up show as challengers vs the Briscos.
#5 - 50th Anniversary Show Nov 15 1981
Gary Will explained to me some years back that there several 'Anniversary's' promoted in Toronto over the years, and you had to look closely at the dates involved.
This card , advertised as 50 Years of Wrestling at MLG was celebrating 50 years since the first Wrestling Card held at MLG. Nov 19 1931 was the date when Jack Corcoran presented the first show at the newly opened Gardens
and the building would remain the center of Wrestling in the city until 1995.
This card would be the highlight of the year drawing a near capacity crowd to see a star studded cast with a main event of Flair vs Race for the NWA Title.
"Love And Pain And 50 Years Of Grappling..."
James Christie - The Globe
For 50 Years, Maple Leaf Gardens has stood at the corner of Church and Carlton streets in Toronto and for 50 years, wrestling patrons have consistently been getting the show they paid to see. That's more than can be said lately for the fans who go to watch the building's chief tenants, the Toronto Maple Leafs, But, for the past half a century, Toronto's wrestling devotees have been delighted with the rivers of encapsulated claret that have bled away their cares for a few hours during wars, depressions, and recessions.
The fans have released their frustrations vicariously while successions of masked assassins and destroyers have consented to mutual mayhem, then divied up gate receipts. The man who has been putting these shows together since the Gardens opened on his 19th birthday is Frank Tunney, a promoter who makes good on Harold Ballard's credo that one makes money by giving the people what they want.
"Sunday's card is like a repeat of 50 years ago," Tunney said on the week of the Gardens anniversary. "That night, we had a sellout to see Jim Londos and Gino Garibaldi. The Leafs drew more than 13,000 for their first game in the Gardens in November 1931, but wrestling drew 15,000 and the gate was about $13,000. "This week, we should sellout again, but now there are about 17,000 seats for wrestling and the gate is about $100,000. We've got Ric Flair against Harley Race, Andre The Giant against Killer Kahn and Angelo Mosca against Big John Studd."
It should be noted that Tunney always thinks his cards are a potential sellout. Ask him when he had his best card and he instantly responds, "The next one". The answer will be the same next week, and the week after that. Wrestling has worked and will continue to work because of emotion, something the chief tenants of the Gardens. have been unable to evoke from their fans for a long time.
Professional Wrestling plays on love and hate and thrives on good guys versus bad guys. The problem with the Leafs is that, though they dress in white at home, they have been known to blur the good guy/bad guy distinction by being very bad themselves. There is also the matter of effort. Professional wrestling is largely ignored by the sports pages because it is regarded as light entertainment rather than athletic endeavor. But the whole-hearted effort expended by the participants to make it a good show cannot be denied. The same cannot always be said of the hockey shows that take place in the Gardens. How often in the past have Toronto hockey coaches been quoted as saying, "We came out flat."
Wrestlers enter the ring growling, snarling, doing sumo stomps, throwing salt, strutting, swaggering, caressing their golden locks or bowing to the east. They never come out flat. They have to be body-slammed into that position. "And they never want to quit," Tunney said. "Whipper Billy Watson, who was the best I saw, fought all through the 1950s and 1960s and kept saying he was going to retire and he never did, not until a car hit him and crushed his knees in 1971.
"Even Fred Atkins, who's in his 70s, is still active as a referee." Atkins also is known around the Gardens as the Leafs' merciless physical instructor during training camp. Many of the players, including teenagers, have difficulty keeping up with him in workouts that he regards as routine. Over the years, Tunney has featured midget wrestlers and female wrestlers, but they are not in vogue any more.
"There's been no real demand for them lately. If there were, I'd be giving fans what they wanted to see." Tunney recalls a night in 1936 when fans got to see something for which they didn't pay. Vic Christie, a popular grappler of the day, had prepared himself meticulously in the dressing room, lacing his boots, smoothing the wrinkles out of his long dressing robe and carefully !tucking his towel around his neck. He strode to the ring to a swell of cheers and boos, waving to the fans, then stepped into the ring. He was called to the centre by the referee for the mandatory explanation of rules.
Ref: "Now open your robe."
Christie flung open his robe. Then he saw the referee staring.
Christie: "What is it?"
Ref: "Christie, I'm supposed to check to see if you've greased your
body or if you've got some foreign object hidden in your trunks."
Ref: "First, you gotta wear trunks."
#6 - Regular appearances of all 3 Major Titles - 1976 - 1984
This one is more of a collective milestone. In the Territory days it was not uncommon for the champs of the 3 major groups WWWF/WWF, AWA, and NWA
to defend their belts on occasional forays into the competing areas. In Toronto however it was a fairly regular occurrence for
one of the champs to appear on the MLG cards throughout the 1976-1984 era. In total the 3 groups champs would defend in Toronto
a total of 72 times, including cards with 2 of the 3 champs appearing on the same night. This also includes the historic AWA vs WWWF
bout in 1979.
Even after Tunney aligned with the Mid-Atlantic in late 1978, the AWA belt would continue to share center stage with the
top belt of the M-A at that time, the U.S. Title and Bockwinkel would continue to appear through 1979 returning again in 1982 for a series of bouts.
Tunneys alliance with Vince McMahon Sr meant the WWWF/WWF champ would come up to Toronto, from Bruno to Superstar Graham to Backlund.
Backlund would prove to be popular over his 23 appearances, and the visiting champs would
take on some different challengers here
where the lines of the territories would be somewhat non-exisitant.
Backlund vs Flair, Bockwinkel vs Tiger Singh, and other bouts that would prove to make Toronto
a city of all cities, similar to the St Louis, or Houston scenes in that era.
#7 - Circuit starts up again 1980
In 1980 Tunney would go back to a more regular circuit in Southern Ontario after many years of limited shows outside his
twice or so a month MLG cards. In the 1950's and 60's there was quite a bustling circuit with many of the cities running their own
regular cards weekly or bi-weekly. Some had their own local promoters, Hamilton with Katan, Brantford with Maich, Oshawa with Milosh. Other towns
Kitchener, London, Peterborough, and others would revolve between local promoters and loosely Tunney sanctioned cards put on by Whipper Watson, Dave McKigney, and others.
In those days Pat Flanagan was the Tunney guy who would book out the wrestlers to the outlying areas, while other Territories would make forays into Ontario as well, notably the WWA in the 70's, making for a busy wrestling scene across the region.
In the mid 1970's Dave McKigney would branch out and work most of the Ontario towns, often utilizing Tunneys talent, presumably with Tunneys blessing. That relationship would see some rocky times in the late 70's and Tunney would begin to send his MLG
stars around the horn starting in 1980.
He would also move into Buffalo which had been deserted in a promotional sense for some years, often
working with the WWF and some of their bigger stars, notably champ Backlund. Kitchener, and
London would start to see bigger shows featuring the Tunney talent on the days following
the MLG cards, along with Guelph, Dundas, and Brantford, all of which would see TV Tapings on the
alternate days to the big shows. McKigney would continue to promote in the smaller towns while
Tunney would run opposition on several nights, leaving the Wildman with a sparse crowd.
McKigney would also work right in Tunney's backyard, Scarborough, Lakeshore Arena, Brampton
Thornhill and others that were deemed to small for Tunneys stars. The Tunney circuit however
would thrive with the far reaching TV and availability for the fans unable to reach
Toronto - to see the stars of MLW for the first time in many years.
#8 - Ric Flair wins NWA Title Kansas City 1981
It didn't happen here but Ric Flair winning his first NWA Title on Sept 17 1981 from Dusty
Rhodes would have a huge effect on the Toronto mat wars. Since coming on to the (local)
scene in late 1978 Flair (along with Ricky Steamboat and the other M-A stars) had revitalized
Toronto wrestling and the title win solidified the popularity of the M-A affiliation -of which
Flair was the prime star.
Even the casual fan in the late 1970's could tell Flair was going to be
the next top star and the Toronto fans were especially enamored with the upstart wrestler
- many fans already cheering him while a heel in his first couple of years here. When he
returned to Toronto as the new NWA champ in Nov 1981 he received a heroes welcome
from the fans and would return 8 times as champ during his first go-round with the belt.
During his reign Flair was mostly a heel while touring the territories but in his home base around the
Carolinas, and up here in Toronto as well as Ottawa, and Buffalo, Flair was a popular champ who could
fill the seats any time he came in to town. When he returned to the area in 1986 as part of Moscamania
as a heel facing Rhodes- the fans had not forgotten Flair and cheered him making Rhodes and manager
Baby Doll the impromptu heels for the evening.
#9 - The Sheik and Tunney split - Summer 1977
After a run of about 8 years at the top of Toronto wrestling with a history dating back to 1964 - the Sheik makes his last
appearance for Tunney on the Exhibition Stadium show July 10 1977. While Sheik would
return to the area with Wildman McKigney's group he would never again work for the
Toronto Promoter. The writing was on the wall with low attendance at the MLG shows but
Tunney and Sheik appear to have had a real falling out after the years of success. Tunney
was also a regular visitor in Detroit where Sheik would stage his own big shows and
he had stuck by The Sheik who often had trouble expanding his brand of mayhem into other Territories.
Tunney would attempt to fill the void with an agreement with Verne Gagne and the AWA to
supply some top level talent at the MLG shows. Gagne would send in his biggest stars
including his Champ Nick Bockwinkel but the crowds would take time to respond. While the
AWA affiliation didn't immediately help with the attendance it did begin a relationship that
lasted into the early 1980s with Bockwinkel frequently returning to Toronto to defend his
The Sheik meanwhile would become a regular on McKigney's circuit continuing his decades long feuds with Bobo Brazil and Luis Martinez and appear on the Big Bear shows
through the early 1980's.
#10 - Harley Race wins the NWA Title at MLG Feb 6 1977
This would be the final World title change in Toronto during the MLWP era. It had been 14 years since Lou Thesz took the NWA strap from Buddy Rogers and Race's win came at an important stage of Toronto
wrestling history. The Sheik era was close to coming to an end and the crowds were thinning at the formerly busy Carlton St 'cashbox'. Tunney may have made a plea for the bout to strengthen the resolve of the
local fans, bringing back the 'titles can change hands on any night' ideology after many years of few and far between (title changes) type booking.
Race beginning his second reign with the belt would come back to Toronto in April vs Ken Patera and then again for the big summer show at CNE to face the Sheik -in Sheiks final appearance here. He would come back often over the remainder of the MLWP era, usually speaking
in promos about how important Toronto was to him as a result of his Title win here. Bouts vs Steamboat, Robertson, and Flair stand out as memorable contests, and Race though often booed will always have a special spot in the hearts of the Toronto fans.
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