The Kings of Queens: The 40th anniversary of Showdown at Shea
When you think of gigantic WWE events that are held in the country's largest stadiums, the first word that logically comes to mind is WrestleMania. But astute sports-entertainment aficionados know that one of the very first events of that magnitude was held on Sept. 30, 1972, at New York’s Shea Stadium. It was an event so special due to the dream match nature of the main event, no one would have thought it could have taken place. As we approach the 40th anniversary of the first “Showdown at Shea,” WWE Classics is recognizing the advent of it. ( RARE PHOTOS)
I was one of those fans among a crowd of 22,000 who braved a cool and rainy early fall evening to witness what was a stellar event, unprecedented for its time. Of course, as Madison Square Garden has always been WWE’s crown jewel for Live Events, putting on a show at that time of the year in the Northeast was a risky business venture for sure. Yet it was tempered by one very important and unique match featuring WWE’s top two fan-favorites at the time: WWE Champion Pedro Morales defending his coveted title against the former champion Bruno Sammartino. Two friends battling each other, and an opportunity for the former champion to once again wear the 10 pounds of title gold around his waist, was the event’s signature attraction. But this match might never have come about had it not been for the two joining forces for a tag team match that went awry, something that Morales remembered vividly.
“Bruno and I were tag team partners for a match that aired on TV against Mr. Fuji and Professor Toru Tanaka,” Morales told WWE Classics. “During the match, we both were blinded by salt thrown by our opponents. We started to fight against each other, somewhat blinded, but were then separated. Our tempers got the better of us as we blamed each other for the incident. So we just wanted to face each other to settle our differences, and the match was made. [WWE] felt that this was a really big deal, so they put it in Shea Stadium and called it the ‘Match of the Century.’ ”
And what a match it was! After a grueling roller coaster–like ride of physical exertion and pent-up emotion that lasted for one hour and 15 minutes. The 11 p.m. curfew (which was then a New York State Athletic Commission regulation) intervened, and the match was declared a draw.
“I believe that that was the greatest match of my career,” Morales said. “Bruno and I gave it everything that we had, and I was very lucky to walk out with my championship that night. But I also walked out with an even greater respect for Bruno than I had before the match began.”
This card additionally had other matches of major interest, such as the legendary Gorilla Monsoon facing Ernie Ladd, WWE World Tag Team Champions Chief Jay Strongbow & Sonny King opposing The Spoiler and his manager Lou Albano, and the great Jack Brisco meeting the aforementioned Mr. Fuji in a battle of WWE Hall of Famers.
Two other WWE events occurred at Shea Stadium in four-year increments.
On June 25, 1976, nearly 32,000 patrons witnessed an ambitious undertaking take place involving two boxer/wrestler matchups. Although one of those confrontations — Muhammad Ali vs. Antonio Inoki — originated in Tokyo and aired in New York via closed circuit, Shea hosted the other boxer vs. wrestler match between Andre the Giant and “The Bayonne Bleeder” Chuck Wepner. Also, Sammartino, who had his neck broken a few months prior with a lariat by Stan Hansen in Madison Square Garden, got somewhat of a measure of revenge on the rugged Texan in the Shea ring.
The final Shea Stadium card occurred on Aug. 9, 1980, and almost 38,000 fans witnessed an unprecedented 13 matches that evening. Among the top bouts on the card were Sammartino being put into another “score settling” situation, this time against former friend, Larry Zbyszko, with the match taking place inside a steel cage. ( WATCH) WWE Champion Bob Backlund joined forces with former champ Morales and defeated The Wild Samoans to win the WWE World Tag Team Championship. ( WATCH) Additionally, Intercontinental Champion Ken Patera defended against Tony Atlas, ( WATCH) and the first match between Andre the Giant and Hulk Hogan took place. ( WATCH)
Today, Shea Stadium is no more, having been razed then replaced in 2009 by Citi Field. The New York Mets were the main tenant at Shea for 44 years, and musical artists like The Beatles, Grand Funk Railroad and Billy Joel entertained there as well through the years. Yet the presence of WWE at Shea Stadium in 1972, 1976 and 1980 had an impact as being the forerunner for the great outdoor extravaganzas that are now presented in the form of WrestleMania. And isn’t it fitting that the first outdoor stadium extravaganza in the New York metropolitan area since the 1980 Shea Stadium event will be WrestleMania 29 next April?
If you enjoyed this article and want to see full-length matches and complete episodes of classic shows throughout history, check out WWE Classics On Demand.