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.

365 Wrestling, Day 17: The New York Rumble (WWF, 1/17/94)

365 Wrestling, Day 17: The New York Rumble (WWF, 1/17/94)

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

It’s January, and that means it’s Royal Rumble season!

I.

Love.

The Royal.

Rumble.

It is appointment viewing for me every year, no matter whether I have been following WWE from week to week or haven’t watched in months. I watched the very first one — not the pay-per-view in 1989, but the original Rumble that aired free on USA in 1988 — and was enraptured. I think I wore out my VHS copy of the ’89 Rumble, which was used for background and time cues while re-enacting my own Rumbles with action figures.

That led to one problem with regard to this project, though … I was committing to only watching matches I had never seen, and I’ve seen every Rumble.

Or so I thought!

While doing research and filling out my spreadsheet calendar for January, I discovered a Rumble held at a house show at Madison Square Garden on January 17, 1994, five days before the Rumble pay-per-view took place that year. Some hearty individual toted a Camcorder (after all, remember, this was 1994) into the Garden and recorded the whole thing. You can find it on YouTube or Dailymotion with some shrewd searching.

The Context

No title shots were on the line in this match but the stage was set for the Rumble pay-per-view, where the winner of the Rumble match would face the winner of the YokozunaUndertaker match for the WWF Title. Meanwhile, a long-simmering storyline of sibling rivalry had been playing out between Bret Hart and Owen Hart.

The Match

Howard Finkel announces this as the New York Rumble, and the proclamation that a Rumble match is taking place appears to take the Madison Square Garden crowd by surprise.

In several ways, this serves as a dry run for the Rumble on pay-per-view a few days later. The final four, for example, is almost the same: with Fatu, Bret, and Shawn Michaels in at at the end. Owen Hart joins them, in a spot that would be filled by Lex Luger five days later.

The other most significant harbinger to the pay-per-view Rumble is an early run of eliminations by Diesel, who enters at number one and tosses three straight foes before running into Scott Steiner. Watch during this portion of the match as Diesel waylays Steiner before he can even get into the ring, steps over the top rope and pursues him to the floor; that’s an elimination, but it goes unnoticed or unacknowledged or both. Crush and Randy Savage, who have their sights set on a meeting at WrestleMania, lock horns in the Garden and, in both Rumbles, Crush tosses Macho Man.

For me one of the biggest highlights is the seemingly random selections who fill out the 30-man field. As I mentioned on Day 13, this era of WWF is one of my biggest gaps as a fan and I forgot that certain mainstays of the 1980s are still hanging around on the roster at this point: Iron Mike Sharpe, Virgil, Jim Powers, Rick Martel … I’m looking at all of you.

A few other highlights that stood out for me:

–The 1-2-3 Kid (who you may know better as X-Pac) and Diesel have a nice exchange early in the match.
–Crush looks strong throughout his approximate 15 or so minutes in the match, ousting Savage, Bam Bam, and generally looking strong until a dropkick from Bret Hart sends him to the floor.
Johnny Polo (aka Raven) makes an appearance and does a good bit of flying in the ring; note a heedless-looking sternum-first collision into the turnbuckles not long after he enters.
–Michaels and former partner turned nemesis Marty Jannetty going at one another like The Chicken and Peter Griffin when HBK enters the ring at #29.
Doink delivering a suplex to Bart Gunn near the ropes that dumps Bart out to the floor.

The major story here, though, is the one between the two Hart brothers. Despite all of their issues, Owen saves his big brother from elimination on several occasions. Once the Rumble is down to the final two — Owen and Fatu — Samu comes out to support his fellow Headshrinker while Bret heads back down ringside to cheer on Owen. The final few minutes play out more like a standard wrestling match than the end of a battle royal, but the action is solid, with Owen ultimately prevailing.

Random Thoughts

Bushwhacker Butch makes the most of his appearance. He’s the second guy who gets fed to Diesel in the early going. He gets a big reaction from the crowd on his entrance, gets in a comic-relief spot, bumps hard for Diesel to make the big man look strong, gets eliminated, and works the gimmick all the way up the entrance aisle … all in less that two minutes.

Adam Bomb is in this match, albeit briefly. I always thought the WWF could have done more with him during his run there.

Sgt. Slaughter makes a surprise appearance in what marks his first match since September of 1992, according to Cagematch. A couple of years earlier, in the 1992 Rumble, Slaughter gets eliminated on a facefirst bump into the turnbuckles, hitting the post and tumbling to the floor. He does the same spot, to varying levels of aesthetic success, four times in this one.

Final Rating: 5.8

Even a bad Royal Rumble is still pretty fun to watch at least once, and this one is better than some of the offerings that made pay-per-view. The end helps, as Owen was such a phenomenally talented and well-liked performer. Seeing him win here makes you wonder what might have been had he gotten more of an opportunity during this era of WWF wrestling.

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

What’s Next

The King of Memphis faces a terrifying lumberjack from Canada.

Got a match you’d like me to watch as part of this 365 Wrestling project? Agree or disagree with my take on this match? Let me know by using the contact form on this site, or reach me on Twitter.