Putting the belt on the man from New Zealand
Hello. This is Making a Champion. This article explores ideas of making a World champion of people who never got the chance to hold the gold during their careers.
So what is this? Well, it’s a chance to do something new while the world burns around us. Politics in the United States are abysmal and doing that every week would put my mind in a deeper depression than it already is. So I am going back to my bread and Butter, wrestling, and letting myself be creative. So let’s take a dive in history and have some fun.
This week is Tony Garea. The competitor from New Zealand was a staple of WWWF rings through the 70’s up until 1986. He was a secondary good guy while people like Bruno Sammartino, Pedro Morales, and Bob Backlund carried the big belt. Tony was often paired up with other popular good guys and won the World Tag titles with guys like Haystacks Calhoun, Dean Ho, Larry Zbyszko, and Rick Martell. After his run in the rings of the WWF, he became a long-time road agent in the 80’s and stayed with the company for decades behind the scenes.
But what if there had been bigger things for Tony?
The date is August 9, 1980, at the “Showdown at Shea” supershow at Shea Stadium in New York. The card features a main event of Bruno Sammartino taking on his former protégé Larry Zbyszko in a cage match. WWF Champion Bob Backlund was in the semi-main event teaming with Pedro Morales taking on the WWF Tag team champions the Wild Samoans in a best of 3 falls match.
Backlund had been champion for two years now. Vincent McMahon sr. had wanted to have an “all-American boy” type of champion to be the guy who was the face of his company in the Northeast part of the United States. Backlund had been the headliner all around the cities he held events at.
And he knew he had to make a change.
Although he didn’t want to admit it, but Backlund had not been the champion Vincent and wanted. Backlund didn’t sell the tickets and put butts in the seats like his previous champion Bruno had, or even Belly Graham. Bob’s awkward gestures, goofy facial expressions, and boring interviews didn’t set crowds on fire and was becoming the subject of mockery from not only wrestlers but the fans that were supposed to be cheering. It was time to make the switch and do it now.
So who could it be? Who could be the new conquering hero to take the company to new places as a new decade has dawned? Andre? No. He was an attraction more than material for a champion? Bruno? No, his time has passed. Pedro again? No, the riots from the Hispanic fans was enough the first time and Pedro had his own problems drawing. Vincent found a face though that might just fit the bill. He was a familiar face to fans now for the better part of a decade. While he wasn’t a muscleman/body builder type, he could fire up a crowd and deliver an entertaining match. That person was Garea.
But before you put the belt around the Kiwi’s waist, someone had to beat Backlund. Fans on 1980 weren’t used to having two heroes facing each other in the ring and the last time he tried that, years before in the same Shea Stadium, it was a disaster of a boring match with Bruno and Pedro putting on the snooze fest.
A villain was needed.
But again, who? Vincent went over his ideas. Intercontinental champion Ken Patera was a possibility, but after just crowning new Tag team Champions, having another vacant belt wasn’t in the plans. Mr. Fuji was too small to be a convincing champion to beat Backlund. Afa and Sika were tag team wrestlers, Jose Estrada and Johnny Rodz weren’t high enough to be contenders for the belt.
The best choice was the same one he picked for the Shea Stadium show. Larry Zbyszko had made himself the top villain in the WWF after turning on Bruno. His matches with Bruno had been doing well, and the cage match was one people would talk about for a long time to come. Hew was the right person at exactly the right time.
The match was made for Madison Square Garden in New York on September 21, 1980. Zbyszko spent the past month telling everyone the cage match was a fluke and that he was a top draw, not “that old man” in Bruno. Backlund counters that he can take Larry to the limit.
The match finds Larry stalling for the first few minutes but soon takes it to Backlund. bob counters the attack with his athletic moves but Larry sneaks around the ring to escape. After 20 minutes of action, Backlund traps Larry in the corner and starts beating him down in frustrated rage. As the ref pulls the champion back, Larry reaches into his tights and grips something. Larry swings wildly and levels Backlund and knocks the ref back. The ref stumbles as Larry tosses the object away. Larry goes for the cover and the dazed ref makes the count. The fans are in shock but history is made and Larry Zbyszko is the new WWF champion!
Meanwhile a few matches down the card Tony Garea scores a hard fought pinfall over the big Hangman in 10 minutes after being away from MSG for over a year.
The build up.
After winning the title, Zbyszko aligns himself with manager “Classy” Fred Blassie to help manage the affairs of being the champion. The despised champion goes around the territory defending the title against men like Rene Goulet, Dominic Denucci, and even species the powerful grasp of men like Ivan Putski and Tony Atlas.
Meanwhile, Garea is racking up wins of his own against Samoans Afa and Sika, Johnny Rodz, and Baron Michel Scicluna. Garea appears on TV mentioning that he is coming to get his former tag team championship partner. Larry may cheat, but Tony knows his secrets and will beat him at his first chance. Words are traded back and forth between the two as soon this match will have to take place.
December 29, 1980. Madison Square Garden in New York. This event is being televised locally on the MSG network and nationwide on the USA Network, along with coverage in Japan as well as tonight’s show features many of the stars from New Japan Pro Wrestling. The tag team Champions of Afa and Sika take on the French Canadian team of Rene Goulet and newcomer Rick Martel. Intercontinental champion Ken Patera defends against former world champion Pedro Morales. Tony Atlas takes on Ernie Ladd and not only stars of Japan, but the ladies and midget wrestlers are featured as well. In the build up, Garea is shown training with Bruno and Bob Backlund’s former manager Arnold Skaaland in the locker room and Zbyszko in his interview scoffs off Arnold’s presence as he had beaten down Bruno and had defeated Backlund so he will make no difference in defeating Bruno’s kiwi flunky.
The sell out crowd explodes as Garea is introduced with Skaaland in his corner as he come out in a blue ring jacket and tights as he is ready to go. The Champion slowly and casually walks to the ring brimming with confidence. Blassie’s voice can be heard insulting Garea as the bell rings and the match starts. Larry stalls and avoids contact for the first few minutes before finally locking up. Larry avoids the harder hits by bailing from the ring but Garea is still ready to go. After 10 minutes of ducking and dodging, Garea finally lets the smug champion have it as the crowd explodes. During the course of the battle The champion is busted open and bleeding as Garea holds nothing back. Larry gets the advantage back with a rake of the eyes and goes to work over Garea with slams and strikes. However Garea regains the advantage with a big blow to the chest. Larry scrambles to escaper as Garea opens up on him again but it’s of no use. Tony takes Larry down with an airplane spin and dumps the Champion down to the canvas. He takes hold of Larry’s legs and slingshots him up and into the corner, putting Zbyszko’s head right into the ring post and knocking him out. Garea collapses onto Zbyszko and the count is made to 3 and the crowd erupts as we have a new WWF world heavyweight champion.
Wrapping it up.
Would Garea have been the right choice? Who knows. Wrestling can be a fickle thing, but it sure would have been interesting. Vince sr. was a much different animal than his son would be only a few years after this would take place. Would have McMahon gone for a New Zealander champion to play in new York and other Northeastern areas? We will never really know.
Thanks for reading.