The History Of The National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) World Heavyweight Championship in Pittsburgh And Western PA
November 26, 2018
By Trapper Tom, Editor, KSWA Digest
The National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) World Heavyweight Championship is the oldest professional wrestling championship title in the United States. It has been defended countless times all over the U.S., into Canada and across oceans. But just as any sports championship with merit, the title must make its way through Western Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh specifically.
[This is a detailed, but not perfect history of the “Ten Pounds of Gold” in Pittsburgh. Newspaper and internet sources are a plenty. All matches are researched, with some even being debunked. As years went by, newspapers didn’t cover the sport of professional wrestling as much as in the past. Sometimes, verification is impossible as records outside of newspaper accounts and incomplete internet statistics are scarce. Some video is available, but the older the subject matter, the more difficult to find.]
This is about the importance of the NWA World Heavyweight Championship and the athletes who held the title and wrestlers who challenged for the prestigious belt.
Lou Thesz wasn’t the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) World Heavyweight Champion for very long before he defended in Pittsburgh.
Thesz, who was awarded the “Ten Pounds of Gold” on November 27, 1949 following Orville Brown’s career-ending auto accident, was constantly on the road. Sandwiched between Memphis and Kansas City defenses, on Monday, April 10, 1950 Thesz successfully defeated Enrique Torres at The Garden, 110 North Craig Street, in the Oakland neighborhood within the city, in the Main Event. To put the era into perspective, President Harry S. Truman was coming back from a long vacation; and a Pittsburgh submarine commander, Paul R. Schratz, was identified as a man who piloted a submerged vessel 21 days and 5,200 miles from Hong Kong to Pearl Harbor without coming up for air. The Korean War was had not yet begun.
Thesz would wrestle all over for the next four years, except for Pittsburgh.
In 1952, then-American Wrestling Association (Ohio version) Champion Buddy Rogers had planted himself in the Steel City and successfully defended a number of times against a number of opponents, most often at The Garden. WDTV Channel 3 also started to broadcast wrestling cards from the Northside Islam Grotto, 107 E. Montgomery Avenue on the North Shore.
Thesz did not return again until he battled Big Bill Miller at The Garden on Tuesday, January 5, 1954. Ruffy Silverstein, who held a constant presence throughout the professional wrestling scene in the 1940’s and 1950’s in Pittsburgh, unsuccessfully challenged Thesz for the NWA title at the suburban Heidelberg Sports Arena on June 25, 1954.
Wrestling fans in Pittsburgh got to see Thesz wrestle, but on television. Or they could learn about his grappling exploits vicariously through sports updates and news tidbits. Thesz lost the title to former NFL standout Leo Nomellini in March, 1955 but regained it on July 15. On July 22, one week after regaining the title, Thesz was advertised as giving a title shot to the winner of a tournament that was being televised on KDKA-TV, Channel 2.
World’s Champion Thesz took on Dick Hutton on August 10, 1955 at Forbes Field. Many of the wrestling matches of the day were listed as fundraisers and this event benefitted the Pittsburgh Fireman’s Widow’s Fund. The sport had critics way back then, but the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission reportedly called this event “on the up and up.” According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Thesz won by 2 out of 3 falls before more than 4,000 fans.
And while records are difficult to come by and/or verify, that Forbes Field appearance may have been Thesz’s last NWA World’s Championship title defense in the city of Pittsburgh (some records indicate that there was a Thesz/Hutton rematch in the area on 10/16 of the same year; however, that cannot be verified). Thesz would go on to lose and then win the NWA title back a few times over the next two years.
Whipper Billy Watson, who defeated Thesz in 1956, defended all over with the exception of Pittsburgh. It’s unsure whether Watson’s inability to draw fans here in the early to mid-1940’s had anything to do with his lack of action. In a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article from October 31, 1946, a Zivic Arena card in Millvale featuring Watson had 202 customers. It’s also possible that promoters of the day had other matches in mind.
By the late 1950’s, the National Wrestling Alliance did not defend its title in Pittsburgh. Coincidentally, in November, 1958 Pittsburgh’s famous “Studio Wrestling” program launched.
After a five-year absence, the title returned to Western Pennsylvania. In January 1961, then-NWA Champion Pat O’Connor defeated “Gentleman” Ed Faieta in two straight falls, at the New Castle High School Fieldhouse. Some records say it was Jack Vansky who challenged, but according to Wrestlingdata.com, he wrestled in a tag team match on the undercard. O’Connor, billed as 231 pounds and from New Zealand in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, defeated Zivko Kovacic in front of 10,286 at Forbes Field on June 9.
“Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers, who frequently appeared in Pittsburgh and on “Studio Wrestling” on WIIC-TV Channel 11, won the NWA Heavyweight Championship on June 30, 1961. One-week later Rogers defended it in against Antonino Rocca in front 12,510 fans at Forbes Field that featured “One Million Dollars-Worth of Talent.” O’Connor and a vast array of International wrestlers—including a young Bruno Sammartino—dotted the card.
Scandal hit the NWA later in the summer when new-champion Rogers and Crusher Lisowski were “indefinitely suspended” by the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission for “action detrimental to wrestling.” In the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the suspension was announced with notice that a meeting would be held to iron things out. It’s interesting to note that the suspended parties had to wait for Commission member Paul G. Sullivan to return from Naval Reserve duty to hear the case. Remarkably, Rogers and Lisowski were reinstated with hefty fines paid just before their planned August 4 showdown at Forbes Field. The infraction? Crusher stomped on Rogers’ manager, Bobby Davis during an episode of Studio Wrestling.
Some 14,415 were on hand for Rogers’ August 4 title defense against Lisowski. Lisowski was disqualified on the third and final fall when he kicked the Champion in the “injured leg” said the Pittsburgh Press. That match only served as the preliminary for the September 8 rematch. Rogers won that, two out of three falls, before a crowd of 11,430. According to published reports, promoter Toots Mondt was okay with the smaller house, which competed against the opening Friday of high school football.
On October 17, 1961 Buddy Rogers defended the NWA World Heavyweight Championship against Handsome Johnny Valentine at the Civic Auditorium (which would later become the Civic Arena and then Mellon Arena). The fundraiser for the Dapper Dan drew 8,442 to the Civic Arena and Rogers won by disqualification.
November 6 saw a rubber match between Rogers and Lisowski. This contest ended with one fall to each wrestler, with a draw ending the third. At published total of 8,564 were in attendance for the matches, which included Bearcat Wright, a veteran wrestler attributed as being the first African American World Champion in wrestling.
Incidentally, Bruno Sammartino’s ascent up the NWA ranks started to occur in 1961. Buddy Rogers first defended against the not-yet two-year veteran on September 5, 1961 in Queens, New York. The card, held at the Sunnyside Gardens, featured “The Nature Boy” getting the duke. On October 2, 1961, Bruno earned his first victory over Rogers, albeit by disqualification. Rogers defeated Bruno again, this time at the Westchester County Center in White Plains, New York and at the International Amphitheater in Chicago on November 10. On November 12, the two faced off again—this time in Steubenville, Ohio, but Sammartino was not able to rest the NWA title from Rogers.
In February, 1962 Rogers successfully defended against National Television Champion Johnny Valentine in Pittsburgh. [Editor’s note: Valentine, the father of Greg “The Hammer” Valentine, was the headliner for the very first episode of Pittsburgh’s famed “Studio Wrestling” program that ran from 1958-1974.]
Pittsburgher Steve Novak became the very first Pittsburgh native to have an opportunity at the NWA World Heavyweight Championship, which was on March 23, 1962 at the Redbank Valley High School gymnasium in New Bethlehem, PA. According to the Kittanning Simpson’s Leader-Times from March 15, The Gene Darden-promoted event was held to benefit the Hawthorn Volunteer Fire Department.
On Monday, April 2, 1962 Buddy Rogers defended the NWA Worlds Heavyweight Championship against Bruno Sammartino at the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh. The “Pro Mat Show” was previewed in the Pittsburgh Press with one sentence. The Easter Seals benefit show drew 12,474 fans. Rogers defeated Sammartino in 2 out of 3 falls. Since Rogers would continue to hold onto the “Ten Pounds of Gold,” he and Sammartino would face off a dozen times in 1962, mostly throughout the northeast and Canada. One of the defenses north of the border would go down in infamy.
But first, Rogers would defend the NWA title on a nearly monthly basis in Pittsburgh during 1962. His schedule regularly registered two dozen defenses per month. Opponents included Crusher Lisowski, and what might just be the first “Ten Pounds of Gold” title defense against an African American opponent in Pittsburgh. Leading up to the May 7 showdown, Seaman Art Thomas, at 6’4” and 271-pounds, was described as the “Husky, ex Merchant Marine” for the District 7 Moose Lodge fundraiser. Rogers won the match in 7:44, which was held in front of 6,224 fans according to the Pittsburgh Press.
On July 2 of the same year, Crusher Lisowski once again had an opportunity for the strap at Forbes Field but was defeated by The Nature Boy in front of more than 13,000 fans.
On August 2, 1962, Bruno Sammartino defeated Rogers for the FIRST TIME for the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) World Heavyweight Championship during a contest at the Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, Canada. Rogers was injured during the 17:20 bout and was unable to continue. According to Buddy Rogers.net, a botched leap frog ended when the Champion collided, groin first, into Sammartino’s shoulder. Rogers couldn’t continue and the match was awarded to Sammartino, who took the house microphone and refused the title change. (The August 30th rematch in Canada would go Rogers’ way.)
On November 5, Sammartino (in his 11th challenge of the year) defeated Rogers once again, this time in Pittsburgh. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, each combatant each had a win in the best-of-three contest, but Sammartino fouled Rogers with a low blow. Although he got the duke, Sammartino once again swore off the title change and the match officially became a draw. Some 7,236 paid to watch the showdown at the Civic Arena.
That’s the last time the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) World Heavyweight Championship would be defended in Pittsburgh for 23 years. Buddy Rogers would lose the NWA title to Lou Thesz on January 24, 1963. Promoters Toots Mondt and Vince McMahon Sr. pulled their membership in the NWA and created the World Wide Wrestling Federation. They named Rogers their first champion. The now-WWE credits Rogers with being the champion since January 25, 1963. A television “coronation” with belt presentation took place in April of the same year. Pittsburgh had officially become a WWWF town, and the NWA would never have the same presence again.
Even though the title would not have a major influence again, Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania’s impact with the NWA would continue. Transplant Dominic DeNucci challenged for the NWA World title against Terry Funk in Toronto, Canada at the Maple Leaf Gardens on November 11, 1976. Funk was able to retain in 17:27.
DeNucci again challenged for the NWA’s top brass, this time when the Ten Pounds of Gold was held by Jack Brisco. This time, also at the Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, DeNucci lost in 14:49.
With the National Wrestling Alliance and Jim Crockett Promotions television now in syndication, the NWA made its return to Pittsburgh with occasional appearances.
The NWA returned to Western Pennsylvania first at the Altoona Jaffa Mosque on January 17, 1985 when Ric Flair defended against “Wildfire” Tommy Rich. The first defense in Pittsburgh took place on May 27, 1985 at Three Rivers Stadium when Flair took on Magnum T.A in a persistent rain. Flair won in 56 minutes by disqualification. The card has long been ridiculed, as many sources estimated the crowd to be 2,500; in 1985 Three Rivers Stadium had a seating capacity (not counting seats on the artificial turf was 58,429.
On October 24, 1986, Flair defended against “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes in the first NWA match at the Civic Arena in 24 years. By this time, all of professional wrestling was experiencing a massive upswing in popularity. Flair won by disqualification in front of an estimated 15,000. At that time, the Civic Arena capacity was just over 16,000.
February 27, 1987 saw Nikita Koloff defeat Flair in front of what had to be a near sell out at 17,000 (with floor seats) at the Civic Arena.
On September 18, Flair bested Ron Garvin for the NWA championship in the Main Event at the Civic Arena. Pittsburgh wrestling historian Hank Hudson reported that the match ended at 24:59 when both combatants would be counted out. Garvin would win the NWA title one week later, but not in Pittsburgh.
Not long after, Flair won the NWA title back. Sting beat Flair by disqualification on January 29, 1988, as did “Dr. Death” Steve Williams on May 6, 1988. In the defense against Williams at the Civic Arena, Wrestlingdata.com reports that only 3,800 fans attended the event. The World Wrestling Federation (WWF) had a grip on the Civic Arena, and Jim Crockett Promotions didn’t travel to Pittsburgh often.
On November 11, 1988, Lex Luger and Ric Flair had their match ended with a double count-out at 22:12. A crowd of 3,400 reportedly enjoyed the matches. In 1988, Jim Crocket Promotions sold its product to Turner Broadcasting and rebranded to World Championship Wrestling (WCW).
Despite the name change, the NWA title continued to be defended. On August 11, 1989, Ric Flair bested Terry Funk in a Texas Death Match at the Civic Arena. The time of the contest was 13:08. The two returned on October 7 for another Texas Death Match at the Civic Arena. Flair was again victorious.
On June 1, 1990, the NWA was moved from the Civic Arena to the A.J. Palumbo Center where Ric Flair was to defend against Lex Luger. Luger won that matchup by disqualification in 14:32. This would be the last NWA Heavyweight Championship title defense in Pittsburgh for 28 years.
On September 8, 1991, Flair signed with the WWF and the NWA belt was vacated. Flair returned in 1993 and regained the title for the final time. WCW leaves the NWA in September, 1993. This departure marked a truly controversial time for the NWA.
Without an NWA Champion, a tournament was held. On August 27, 1994, Pittsburgher Shane Douglas wins the prestigious title in Philadelphia in a match with Too Cold Scorpio. Douglas won the NWA title, called it dead and dumped it. He claims that Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) is its successor. The NWA was in disarray until Chris Candito won another tournament to crown a new champion in November, 1994.
Mixed Martial Arts stalwart Dan “The Beast” Severn won the NWA Heavyweight Championship on February 24, 1995. His second successful defense was in the Pittsburgh suburb of Plum Borough, PA on March 17 against “Mexico City’s” 215-pound “Strong Style” competitor Benson Lee. Two days later and 64 miles away in the Western PA town of New Castle, Severn bests Lee within two minutes by submission. Both matches were a part of the popular independent Steel City Wrestling (SCW) promotion. When the NWA title was a Jim Crockett Promotions property, hundreds of matches were held annual throughout the south and Midwest. Severn’s reign primarily consisted of independent bookings throughout the eastern half of the U.S. He defended 18 times in 1995, 10 times in 1996 and only as many as nine in 1997.
In 1997, a Western Pennsylvania independent wrestling promotion, PWX, became a branch of the NWA territory program and participated in the larger organization’s anniversary shows. [PWX’s Jim Miller also served as NWA President in 2001-2002.]
Naoya Ogawa defeated Severn to win the 10-Pounds of Gold and controversy soon took over. Ogawa was scheduled to defend the NWA title against Dominic DeNucci student and Western PA native “Bad Boy” Brian Anthony on May 29, 1999 in McKeesport; however, the champion’s plane was reportedly delayed and he missed the event. The NWA East decided to have Anthony defeat a masked wrestler who was called Ogawa. Anthony and the promotion then named Anthony the NWA Champion. According to sources, at least two other NWA branches recognized Anthony as the champion; however, the main office of National Wrestling Alliance did not go along with that claim.
As a way of finalizing the debate, Ogawa did defend in a Three-Way Dance against Gary Steele and Anthony at the NWA’s 51st Anniversary Show in Charlotte, North Carolina on September 25, 1999. In the ugly 5:33 contest, Ogawa repeatedly kicked his opponents in the thighs before rolling Anthony up for a quick submission. An awaiting Steele rolled Ogawa up for a fast three-count in which Senior Official Fred Richards did not once look at the Champion’s rolling shoulders. Ogawa would regain the belt one week later.
Sabu won the NWA World Heavyweight Championship on November 11, 2000 and three days later successfully defended the belt in McKeesport against JB Destiny and Cory K in a Three-Way Dance.
On December 15, 2001 when Shin’ya Hashimoto defeated Steve Corino and Gary Steele in a Triple Threat Match for the NWA Heavyweight Championship in McKeesport, PA. Hashimoto had previously defeated Corino at the NWA 51st Anniversary Show by repeatedly kicking him in the head while huddled in the corner and under the ropes. The belt was soon vacated as a result of that controversial title change.
The NWA World Heavyweight Championship would not be featured in Western Pennsylvania for many years. Pittsburgh product Kurt Angle challenged then-champion Christian Cage on February 12, 2007 when it was part of TV’s Impact Wrestling. Sterling James Keenan unsuccessfully challenged then-NWA Champion Adam Pearce in McKeesport on January 1, 2008. This was the first title defense in Western Pennsylvania since 2001 and would be the last National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) World Heavyweight Championship appearance in Western PA for 17 years.
Earlier in 2018, on May 11, current, reigning and two-time NWA Champion Nick Aldis defended against Pittsburgh metropolitan area’s Sam Adonis in Chicago, Illinois for the famed Ten Pounds of Gold.
This all leads to the NWA’s return to Pittsburgh on Saturday, December 1, 2018 as Nick Aldis defends against Keystone State Wrestling Alliance (KSWA) veteran Shawn Blanchard.