Steel Belt Wrestling: An Overview

The Pittsburgh Territory

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The Killer Kowalski-Dom DeNucci rivalry was a hot one in Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh's Studio Wrestling debuted on Channel 11 in 1958. Promoter Toots Mondt resurrected the Pittsburgh territory. He ran a monthly show at the Pittsburgh Civic Arena, usually on a Friday night. On Saturdays, the TV show was done live at the Channel 11 studio in Pittsburgh and followed by a spot house show. Johnstown , Altoona , McKeesport , and other smaller towns ran monthly. Ace Freeman and Rudy Miller worked with Mondt in running the territory.

In 1966, Mondt sold the promotion to WWWF champion and Pittsburgh resident Bruno Sammartino. Bruno acted as booker and got promotional help from Miller and Freeman. Bruno ran the territory as a separate entity from WWWF, using talent from the neighboring Cleveland/Buffalo territory, WWWF talent, as well as a excellent core of local Pittsburgh stars including Johnny DeFazio, Frank Holtz, Bobby “Hurricane” Hunt, Frank Durso, Hangman Jim Grabmire, and others.

In 1970, Bruno sold the territory to Geeto Mongol (Newton Tattrie), who continued to use the formula that Bruno used to make the territory successful. In 1972, Geeto sold out to Cleveland/Buffalo promoter Pedro Martinez and his National Wrestling Federation. Martinez tried to introduce talent from his promotion and quickly lost the fan interest. In 1974, the NWF folded, but by then Bruno had taken back over and formed a loose alliance with Dick the Bruiser and his Indianapolis-based World Wrestling Alliance. Pittsburgh recognized the WWWF champion as world champ but always called that titleholder (largely Bruno) the World Champion and not WWWF champion.

Other titles were introduced on a sporadic basis. The Mongols were the International tag team champs. After Geeto Mongol and Johnny DeFazio won the International Tag titles from Crazy Luke Graham and Tarzan Tyler on Studio Wrestling, that title disappeared. The North American Title, which was rooted in the NWF promotion, appeared in Pittsburgh during 1974, with the title changing hands between Dominic DeNucci and Stan Stasiak.

But Pittsburgh Studio Wrestling was Bruno Sammartino. Bruno defended against heels leaving the WWWF, or still in programs with him in the WWWF, including Blackjack Mulligan, Stasiak, Ivan Koloff, George Steele, Killer Kowalski, and Waldo von Erich. Baron Scicluna always seemed to be around and was a frequent Bruno opponent. The Bruno versus George Steele feud has to be the prominent feud from the Pittsburgh territory.  In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Battman (Tony Marino) was the number two babyface and would headline when Bruno had other commitments. Later, Dominic DeNucci would be elevated to that position, especially for the smaller shows in Johnstown and Altoona .

The live TV show from Channel 11 each Saturday was hosted by “Chilly Billy” Bill Cardille, a Pittsburgh broadcasting icon, who also hosted the Saturday late night horror movie show “Chiller Theatre.” Billy was overly animated and full of great lines such as, “Welcome to Studio Wrestling, where anything can happen, usually does, and probably will.”

Pittsburgh fans will remember the old Pittsburgh Pirates star Pie Traynor doing American Heating Commercials live in the studio, and the show concluded with Cardille interviewing fans as they filed out of the studio. Bringing in jobbers from Canada like Terry Yorkston, Bull Johnson, Al Hayes, Al Schiller, Rujet Woods and others enhanced the local talent. Young stars like John L. Sullivan (Johnny Valiant) and Jos Leduc would get their first real pushes in Pittsburgh before moving on to the WWWF and other territories.

The National Wrestling Federation

Just north of the Pittsburgh territory was the Cleveland/Buffalo territory, home to the National Wrestling Federation, which in the 1970s was associated with veteran promoter Pedro Martinez. Martinez brought the NWF into Pittsburgh before letting Sammartino take back over by late 1973 (the promotion folded promotion in 1974). The NWF title was recognized by some as a legitimate world championship; it traces its title origin to 1970, when Johnny Powers “beat” Freddie Blassie in Los Angeles to win the title (in a strictly fictitious match).

Powers was the lifeblood behind the NWF as main eventer and executive, and would trade the title along the way with Johnny Valentine and Waldo von Erich. In the meantime, wrestlers like Ernie Ladd, DeNucci, and Abdullah the Butcher would hold the belt. The NWF also had a continuous tag title lineage. Many great teams such as the Fargo Brothers, The Mongols, and Tony Parisi and Dominic DeNucci would hold these belts.

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Ernie Ladd was a mainstay in the NWF.

The North American belt was the other primary singles belt with Powers, Ladd, von Erich, Ox Baker, Killer Karl Krupp and Eric the Animal all holding the championship. Buffalo and Cleveland were the mainstays in this promotion with shows in Cincinnati, Akron, Erie, Pa. and other towns surrounding Lake Erie. A lot of talent would trade back and forth with Pittsburgh , and with the NWF with Detroit and Toronto as well. This promotion also had strong ties with Japan. Antonio Inoki appeared in it, while Powers and other NWF wrestlers appeared in Japan.

Martinez brought in various business partners to help with backing. Ron Martinez (Pedro's son and an NWF television commentator) said that Powers was the first to come along. By the late 1960s, Pedro was getting old and Powers, who was still in his 20s, wanted to buy him out. He put down a pretty healthy down payment. The contract held that if Powers missed 2 consecutive payments, the promotion reverted to Pedro. Johnny brought in Ed Gillet, Wes Hutchings (Hartford Love), The Beast, and Moose Cholak to help him but couldn't make the payments and the company went back to Pedro Martinez.

Pedro Martinez recognized Powers' drawing power and wanted to keep him around, so he made him a 50-50 partner instead of just taking back the entire promotion. While the schedules changed regularly, for the most part the NWF taped TV on Thursday nights in Parma, Oh. at WUAB-TV, channel 43. They ran Cleveland on Thursdays, then Buffalo, and Saturdays in Akron, though the schedule jumped around a lot. They ran Utica on Mondays, and filled in the other days with Rochester, Elmira, Binghamton, and occasionally Albany or spot towns. Business was good; Ron Martinez said they could draw $4,000 gates in a medium-sized town like Utica and, with ticket prices at that time, that wasn't bad.

In 1972, Pedro Martinez bought Geeto Mongol's share of the Pittsburgh territory. Pedro got Jerry Jacobs, who owned Sports Services, the largest supplier of concessions at sports venues, to buy Powers' interest. Powers did keep Cleveland, while Pedro owned Buffalo and Akron. Jerry Jacobs also later acquired the Montreal territory owned by the Rougeau family.

The offices traded talent at first but by mid-1973, Martinez gave back Montreal to the Rougeaus and washed his hands of Pittsburgh. The Sheik (Edward Farhat) also was involved for a time and paid Pedro Martinez a fee to have his talent work the territory. With business slowing, the Sheik eventually just took over Buffalo in the late summer of 1973 as part of his Detroit territory.

Ron Martinez said the downfall of the Buffalo territory came when his father made Johnny Valentine the booker in 1972. This was known as a hotshot territory, but Valentine was famous for his straight, deliberate style of wrestling, which didn't work well in this area.

The most famous event in Cleveland was the Super Bowl of Wrestling in 1972, an outside event at Cleveland Municipal Stadium that was one of the early outdoor stadium shows. This was a Johnny Powers venture for which Ron Martinez was not present. Ron Martinez said: “It was a Johnny Powers idea. Duquesne beer gave him a $50,000 promotional advance for the Duke Beer Super Bowl of Wrestling, Johnny wanted his nose fixed, so the angle had Johnny Valentine break his nose.” This set up the big grudge rematch in the Super Bowl of Wrestling. Powers did well nonetheless and went on to open a string of health clubs.

By 1974, Pedro and Ron Martinez lost interest in the business and Bruno Sammartino and Ace Freeman began running the Buffalo towns, including Rochester and Erie (TV for Buffalo and Pittsburgh was taped at the Erie County Fieldhouse). The promotion was called Super Pro Wrestling. Channel 11 dropped Studio Wrestling and the new Super Pro Wrestling found a home with Bill Cardille on Channel 53 in Pittsburgh.

The Pittsburgh fans didn't notice a change as Sammartino, DeFazio, DeNucci, Scicluna, Steele, and all the others were still there. For Buffalo and Erie, Bobo Brazil , Hank James and other wrestlers of the Sheik's promotion still appeared. Powers still ran Cleveland and would wrestle there on and off for years. Powers sold the NWF to Inoki, who defended the NWF world belt for many years, and eventually joined the Martinez family and Eddie Einhorn in the new International Wrestling Association. By the close of 1975, the WWWF took over Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Johnstown, and other towns in the territory. The WWWF ran a few shows in upstate New York in 1975 and 1976, but did not run shows anywhere other than the major cities as wrestling in the area went into a drought.

— Gregory Mosorjak