365 Wrestling, Day 60: Bruno Sammartino vs. Ernie Ladd (WWWF, 3/1/76)

365 Wrestling, Day 60: Bruno Sammartino vs. Ernie Ladd (WWWF, 3/1/76)

365 matches in 365 days, each from that specific date on the calendar? Challenge accepted. Welcome to 365 Wrestling.

We’re kicking off the March portion of the project with another Guest Contribution, this time from Al Getz. You might know Al as a former manager on the independent circuit in the Southeast. He’s also worked as a commentator, and even dabbled as a promoter on one occasion in Asheville in the 1990s. Currently he’s delving deep into the history of wrestling through his Charting the Territories website and companion podcast.

Given Al’s taste for wrestling history, it’s no surprise he went deep into the days of yore for this match: Bruno Sammartino against Ernie Ladd from Madison Square Garden on March 1, 1976. At this time, the WWF was known as the WWWF.

Why did Al pick this match?

“When John asked me to recommend a match for his series, I had Ernie Ladd on the brain. I had just been reading about the 1965 AFL All-Star Game that Ladd had been a part of, which was moved from New Orleans to Houston on two days’ notice. So I looked for a match that Ladd had against a ‘marquee opponent’ in early March of any year and found this match against Bruno from MSG.”

You can watch this match on the WWE Youtube channel, and I’ve also embedded it below:

The Context

Sammartino is into his second reign as WWWF Champion, which began in December of 1973. Holding a title for two-plus years sounds impressive but also consider that Sammartino’s first run as champion lasted a decade.

His foe here is “The Big Cat” Ernie Ladd, and one of the most well-known crossover stars in wrestling. Ladd played in the AFL from 1961-68, and is best known for being part of the Fearsome Foursome that propelled the Chargers to the AFL crown in 1963. Ladd started wrestling around the same time his pro football career began, and when knee troubles curtailed his time on the gridiron, Ladd shifted to the squared circle on a full-time basis.

Ladd worked as a heel for the vast majority of his career as a wrestler, and was known for using his taped thumb to wreak havoc on the windpipes of his foes. He was also a phenomenal talker, and here’s a taste of that, from a WWWF TV broadcast just a couple of months before this title bout:

The Match

You saw him in the above segment and Vince McMahon is on solo commentary for this match from the Garden. At this time, the promotion is still being owned and run by Vince’s dad, Vince McMahon, Sr.

Ladd’s size jumps out at you. He’s a monster in this or any era, with incredibly long limbs. I’ve always thought more of Ladd as a character and a talker than a wrestler, but that could be attributed to just not seeing enough of his work before mobility started to be a factor. I wasn’t expecting him to take a backdrop, certainly, or to go to the top rope for what sets up the finish.

I mentioned Ladd’s taped thumb in the context portion and it’s a crucial storytelling device in this match. The referee searches Ladd before the bell, and he promptly turns and deposits something into his trunks. Later, after getting knocked around by Bruno, Ladd goes to the trunks and places a foreign object on the thumb to waylay the champion. Ladd’s got some slick sleight of hand on this, turning away from the referee before inflicting a blow with the gimmicked thumb and then dropping the foreign object back out of sight when the official tries to investigate.

Sammartino is the barrel-chested, brawny, beloved, longtime champion. After withstanding a several-minute barrage of offense from Ladd, the champ makes his comeback and just starts thrashing the Big Cat. There’s very little wrestling here and lots of brawling: punches,. jumping stomps, and smashing Ladd’s head into the mat. Ladd’s sell is great here as he just clutches his skull with both hands and writhes slightly in pain.

Ladd controls the majority of the match and Vince is teasing the upset hard on commentary, but after Ladd misses his dive off the top, Sammartino makes a quick cover for a somewhat anticlimactic conclusion.

Al’s Take: This is your standard Bruno Sammartino match against an opponent that they’re not building up a rematch for. Modern wrestling fans would probably hate it. When I watch wrestling footage from the 70s and earlier, I always try to keep in mind that the matches weren’t meant to be “evergreen”, i.e., watched years later for analysis. These matches were geared towards the fans that paid for their ticket to see the good guy whup the bad guy.

They get to see Bruno being superman, and they get to see Ernie do some badass things for a man of his size. When he hip-tosses Bruno, the size disparity between the two makes it look particularly effective. After some shenanigans with a foreign object and some karate-type thrusts that Bruno sells really well, Bruno moves out of the way as Ladd attempts to splash him off the top, then quickly covers him for the pin.

What stuck out to me was how ginormous Ladd was. He was always billed as 6-9. Given his prior career in football, I imagine his real height was well-known and thus they couldn’t exaggerate it. When he wrestles Andre in the Garden two months later, it looks like Andre maybe has 2-3 inches on him.

Random Thoughts

–There’s semi-regular debate about great punchers in pro wrestling, and I think Bruno should be in the conversation. His shots to Ladd during the comeback look great here, and Ladd certainly does his part by selling them as huge blows.

–I’d recommend young wrestlers watch this for Ladd’s facial expressions alone, whether he is selling or protesting to the referee after another illegal tactic. Ladd also cheats early and often, but always tries to turn away or cheat out of the ref’s point of view so as not to bury the official.

Final Rating: 5.4

This match reminded me in several ways of the Jerry Lawler-Jos LeDuc match we watched in January. You have the strong fan favorite headliner taking on another monstrous rulebreaker. The Memphis match has more shenanigans (imagine that), but I found the emotions and the level of action to be similar. Worth watching for historical value and some of the small details I mention in the above section.

Here’s the complete, ongoing list of matches in this project.

Up Next

A dream match (on paper, at least) from the early 2000s.

Are YOU interested in making a match suggestion for the 365 Wrestling project? I’m accepting limited guest submissions for the remaining entries in the year. Just reach out on Twitter or fill out the contact form on the site.