The NWF World Title Tournament
So what do you do when your heavyweight champion – who’s also your booker – wants more money than you’re willing to fork over? You declare his title vacant and hold a high-profile tournament to decide a new champion.
That’s the dilemma – and the solution – that the National Wrestling Federation came up with in January 1973, when Johnny Valentine’s monetary demands got out of hand. Valentine, who had headlined in the territory for much of 1972, was seeking an exorbitant $1,500 a week guarantee, according to Ron Martinez of the NWF. That sum was “huge in those days,” Martinez said. Perhaps more to the point, while Valentine is rightfully considered a legend in wrestling, his methodical, grind-it-out style never took hold in the NWF. Attendance figures show very little impact from Valentine’s appearances, perhaps because the area had been built for years on heated angles. Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Buffalo also had significant minority and blue-collar populations that seemed to cater more to wrestlers like Bruno Sammartino and Ernie Ladd.
As a result, as 1972 came to a close, the NWF world title was in a state of flux. Valentine had defeated Abdullah the Butcher for the championship in a rare “heel vs. heel” match in Cleveland in October, then went on to a continuation of his long-running feud with Johnny Powers. On Nov. 30, Powers and Valentine went to a double disqualification in Cleveland. A week later, Powers beat Valentine by countout, but the belt was held up, pending a review of the match finale..
The world title tournament was scheduled for Buffalo on Jan. 24, 1973, and the hype on TV shows was clearly to give anyone and everyone a chance at the gold. As laid out in the pre-match publicity, the card looked loaded. The first round matches included:
• The Executioner (Donn Lewin) against Boris Malenko
• Don Serrano vs. Fidel Castillo
• Jacques Rougeau vs. Bruce Swayze
• Chief White Owl vs. Hans Schmidt
• Reginald Love vs. Tony Parisi
• Pampero Firpo vs. Eric the Red
• Zulu vs. Valentine
• Johnny Powers vs. Waldo von Erich
About 4,000 fans turned out that night in the old Buffalo Aud. Unfortunately, there was a little bait-and-switch on the card. Malenko, who had been wrestling in Cleveland, did not show, and Killer Karl Krupp (previously Mad Dog Momberg) took his place. Eric the Red, a fixture in the region, subbed for the wild Firpo, while Valentine was replaced by Hartford Love. (Valentine was not totally done with the NWF; he wrestled in Cleveland through early February, got in a tussle with Eddie Creachman at one point, and made a spot appearance in Buffalo in June). Finally, “brother” Raoul subbed for Fidel Castillo.
As a result, the first round matches became fairly predictable, and unbelievably quick. Only two matsmen went over clean – Rougeau with a sleeper on Swayze in 4:10, and Serrano with a dropkick and press on Castillo in just eight seconds. Otherwise, the endings were disqualifications or countouts. Schmidt beat White Owl, who was standing on the ring apron, chopping away at his foe. Hartford topped Zulu by countout in 4:22, and Reggie Love got himself disqualified against Parisi in 10:05. Krupp beat The Executioner by DQ in 4:40 and Eric was counted out against Martinez in 8:40. In the key event, Powers controlled von Erich for most of the 9:35 before getting him in his figure four “Powerlock.” But Powers maintained the hold on the ropes and refused to break against his long-time rival, resulting in his disqualification.
The second round saw three more less than clean finishes. Serrano was counted out in 6:00 after von Erich threw him from the ring, while Schmidt and Parisi were DQ’ed against Rougeau and Krupp, respectively. The Rougeau contest went just 4:55. Only Luis Martinez with a 7:00 pinfall against Hartford earned a clean triumph.
In the semifinals, von Erich bested Martinez, again by countout, while Krupp was DQ’ed against Rougeau. That set up a final match of von Erich, who already had held the NWF world title twice, against Rougeau, who had entered the federation in the fall of 1972, when promoter Pedro Martinez bought the Pittsburgh and Montreal territories to round out his Great Lakes-based group.
The key moment in the match came at the pat downs. Von Erich’s stock in trade, his black glove, was considered a resting place for foreign objects that he used to despoil his adversaries. In a protracted discussion before the bout, Rougeau insisted that the referee take off the glove – Ron Martinez was in the ring, watching the affair. von Erich was forced to remove the controversial device, and Rougeau, thus satisfied, whipped him with a slam and press in less than 10:00 to become NWF champion. Give the purchase of the Montreal office, Rougeau seemed like a reasonable choice as champion, Ron Martinez recalled.
It’s interesting that so many of the matches ended in disqualifications or countouts, considering that usually only one or two bouts per card ended that way. The effect of the tournament was not great. The Montreal purchase lasted only a few months before Rougeau’s territory went its own way. In fact, the North American belt became the center of contention in 1973 between Eric, Powers, and J.B. Psycho. Powers regained the world belt later in 1973, and defended it mainly in the Cleveland area, where he made his home. In December, the sage of the NWF world title came to an end as Powers dropped the strap to Antonio Inoki, who would make the title a mainstay of Japanese wrestling for years.
— Steven Johnson