To my delight, on October 3, World Wrestling Entertainment will broadcast a live Madison Square Garden card on WWE Network. If you’ve been to the Old School section of the Network, you know that this is a throwback concept to a time when the company would broadcast live events from the Garden on the MSG Network, a glorified house show that usually offered a few high-caliber matchups from an impressive roster of whatever time it existed in.
With Brock Lesnar and Chris Jericho on hand to shore up the star power, the event holds promise, though it really needs Howard Finkel as ring announcer. Looking back, the Garden has unsurprisingly been the home of numerous (W)WW(F)E moments that stand the test of tie, and whittling a list down to 25, while fun, was challenging. Here’s what I could come up with when looking back at WWE’s rich history at Madison Square Garden.
25. Rhodes Beats Superstar by Countout (September 26, 1977)
About the closest the charismatic Dusty Rhodes came to being WWWF Champion was a countout victory over Superstar Billy Graham halfway through the champion’s reign. So popular among the New York crowd was southern-fried Rhodes that 22,000 fans screamed ‘bulls–t’ when it was made clear that the ‘American Dream’ hadn’t captured the gold. Imagine how different WWE would be had Rhodes, not Bob Backlund, been late-seventies headliner.
24. The Dead Man Rises Again (March 14, 2004)
Lots of griping from the usual internet suspects when Undertaker’s ‘Return to the Dark Side’ at WrestleMania XX was essentially just him growing his hair and wearing a brimmed hat and overcoat over his Bikertaker gear. Regardless, the image of a returning Paul Bearer leading torch-bearing Druids down the aisle, followed by the trademark ‘GOOOONG’, turned the Garden crowd rabid. That alone justifies whatever choice in costume Undertaker made.
23. Cena Before Cena (November 17, 1996)
Shawn Michaels had it rough in his long-awaited first WWF Championship reign, as the weight of Monday Night War (namely WWF’s second place position) fell hard on his fragile shoulders. Making matters worse, the Garden crowd completely turned on Michaels at Survivor Series, wildly booing him in his title loss to Psycho Sid, despite the promotional machine spending the previous year and a half building him as the undisputed hero.
22. The Original Triple Crown (December 8, 1980)
Twelve years before Bret Hart became just the second man afforded what is now a too-common feat, Pedro Morales became the first WWE performer to hold the World, Intercontinental, and Tag Team gold, ending Ken Patera’s eight month reign as IC Champion. It was far from the most newsworthy story in Manhattan on that evening – less than three miles away, beloved Beatle John Lennon was murdered outside his apartment building.
21. Piper Bloodies Andre (March 25, 1984)
Weeks after Andre the Giant effortlessly manhandled a high-strung Roddy Piper on the set of Piper’s Pit, Piper got some rare revenge on the oft-protected monster. In a tag team match pitting Piper and David Schultz against Andre and Jimmy Snuka, Piper clocked Andre with some concealed weapon and busted him open, resulting in infallible Andre being helped to the locker room. The Giant later returned to clean house while heavily bandaged.
20. Bang Bang! (September 22, 1997)
Talk about knowing your audience. Mankind and Dude Love certainly had their moments, but the third Mick Foley alter ego was most suited for MSG. In a delightfully-silly pretape that showed those two Foleys ‘interacting’, Hunter Hearst Helmsley found out he wouldn’t be getting his scheduled falls count anywhere match with Dude, nor surrogate Mankind. Then Cactus Jack appeared, winning his WWF ‘debut’ in violently grand fashion to much rejoicing.
19. Return of The Hitman (November 17, 1996)
One month after signing that infamous twenty-year contract to remain with WWF at the height of the pro wrestling arms race, Bret Hart defeated Steve Austin in a hybrid wrestling/brawling clinic that remains underrated today. Of plenty of note in hindsight, Vince McMahon, possibly with buyer’s remorse underlining his choice of words, seemed to undercut Hart’s efforts during the match, portraying him as feeble and astonishingly mortal.
18. Restarting The Game (January 7, 2002)
Wrestling fans watching Super Bowl 36 may have cried out in anguish upon hearing U2 play “Beautiful Day” at halftime. That’s because WWF beat the song into the ground in videos hyping the return of Triple H, who sat out eight months with a torn quadriceps. With the quality of Raw stagnating over several months, Helmsley’s return was anticipated, then heralded, drawing 4.2M viewers at a time where wrestling was obviously cooling off.
17. Submitting The Sheik (December 9, 1968)
As WWWF Champion, Bruno Sammartino was put in position to vanquish every villain that came down the pike throughout the sixties, few as gruesomely as Ed “The Sheik” Farhat. In a Texas Death Match, Sammartino blew off the three-match series against the notorious wildman by wresting an ink pen away from the challenger, and using it to stab holes in Sheik’s arm, leaving the limb oozing streams of blood until Sheik surrendered.
16. Doomsday Hat Trick (August 26, 1991)
SummerSlam 1991 was already a non-stop crowd pleaser, as babyfaces like Bret Hart, Virgil, and The Big Bossman were winning decisive blowoff matches with high stakes at hand. Post-intermission, history was made when The Legion of Doom defeated The Nasty Boys in a no-disqualification match to become WWF World Tag Team champions. That win made Animal and Hawk the first (and only) duo to hold the WWF, NWA, and AWA World Tag Team titles.
15. The Alley Fight (May 4, 1981)
Wrestling Observer’s Match of the Year for 1981 pitted future McMahon bootlicks Pat Patterson and Sgt. Slaughter in a virtual fight to the death. Given how ungodly deep Slaughter bladed off of a slingshot to the post, a fatality was in the realm of possibility. Patterson walloped Slaughter in the gash with his boot repeatedly until The Grand Wizard threw in the towel on Slaughter’s behalf, ending what was a tremendous slice of gritty brawling.
14. Dr. D Slaps Stossel (December 28, 1984)
As dirtsheet readers will attest, sometimes the best stories in wrestling take place outside the ring, where nobody’s ‘working’. Filming a piece for ABC’s 20/20, contrarian reporter John Stossel drew the wrath of David Schultz by declaring that he thought wrestling was ‘fake’. Schultz responded by cuffing Stossel with two vicious smacks on camera, leading to the journalist, suffering temporary trauma, acquiring a settlement from the WWF of $425,000.
13. Surprise Entrant (January 27, 2008)
After eliminations for Undertaker and Shawn Michaels, it seemed for all the world that Triple H was destined to win the 2008 Royal Rumble match from the number 29 position. The buzzer sounded for the final entrant and after a deliberate second of anticipatory silence, John Cena’s music cued up. Cena was expected to be out another six months following pectoral surgery, and actually drew a mighty pop from a surprised Garden crowd used to booing him.
12. Splashing the Streak (August 29, 1988)
For 15 months, The Honky Tonk Man reigned as Intercontinental champion, a duration that has never been topped for that particular belt. Foes from Ricky Steamboat to Randy Savage to Brutus Beefcake couldn’t end the reign. Beefcake was pulled out of the inaugural SummerSlam with kayfabe injuries, leading to an open challenge by arrogant Honky. Twenty-seven seconds later, The Ultimate Warrior captured the title in a whirlwind of destruction.
11. Deafening Silence (January 18, 1971)
For 2,803 days, Bruno Sammartino was unmoved as WWWF Champion. On a chilly Monday night, Ivan Koloff would end the near eight-year reign of Sammartino, felling him with a slam and a flying knee drop. The finish was met with near silence from the 22,000 on hand, none believing that the match could be over, causing Bruno to legitimately fear he’d gone deaf. Only when the announcement of Koloff’s win was made did the fans react with outrage.
10. Throwing In the Towel (December 26, 1983)
Bob Backlund’s six-year reign as WWF Champion met just as infamous an ending, also to an opponent portrayed as a sworn American enemy. The Iron Sheik capitalized on Backlund’s badly-injured neck and ensnared him in this website’s namesake hold, The Camel Clutch. Allowing Backlund to save face, his manager Arnold Skaaland threw in a towel to halt the match, giving Sheik the belt and keeping Backlund strong, through his WWF time was short.
9. Revenge of The Vanilla Midgets (March 14, 2004)
Tainted today by the horrific events of three years later, Chris Benoit forces a submission from Triple H to close out WrestleMania XX, and celebrates his hard-earned World Heavyweight title win with WWE Champion Eddie Guerrero, both once adrift in sea of disorganization and indifference in WCW. The tearful moment beneath the falling confetti validated both men’s journeys, and the unwavering loyalty of their diehard fanbases.
8. An Influential Leap (October 17, 1983)
Future ECW icons Mick Foley, Tommy Dreamer, and Bubba Ray Dudley all claimed to be in attendance on this night (Foley purportedly hitchhiked to the Garden), and bore witness to a vengeful Jimmy Snuka leaping off of a steel cage onto a prone, wounded Don Muraco with his Superfly Splash. Foley cites this moment as spurring him toward his professional wrestling dream. Note: Snuka had missed a similar splash onto Bob Backlund just 16 months earlier.
7. The Brawl to End it All (July 23, 1984)
A landmark moment in the WWF’s rise to cultural powerhouse in the 1980s, as a partnership with MTV would prove fruitful to the tune of a 9.0 rating. Women’s wrestling proved a draw long before #GiveDivasAChance and its subsequent ‘Revolution’ as Wendi Richter ended the dubious 28-year Women’s championship reign of The Fabulous Moolah, while pop star Cyndi Lauper, at her peak following the release of She’s So Unusual, worked Richter’s corner.
6. The War to Settle the Score (February 18, 1985)
Dipping the cup further into glorious excess, WWF teamed up with MTV once more to air a Hulk Hogan-Roddy Piper WWF Championship bout, in many ways secondary to the star power involved with the production. Lauper was once again a part of the mayhem, joined now by Mr. T, joining up with Hogan to head off Piper and Paul Orndorff. Celebrities, from Bob Costas to Dick Clark to Ted Nugent to Dee Snider to Tina Turner and more, figured onto the show.
5. Austin Stuns McMahon (September 22, 1997)
Steve Austin would be sidelined for several months after nearly ending up paralyzed at SummerSlam. In the interim, Austin took to assaulting authority figures to maintain his cool factor, from Sgt. Slaughter to Jim Ross, before doling out the most important Stunner of all. After blowing off a well-wish from Vince McMahon at the Garden’s first Raw, Austin Stunned the boss, planting the seeds for the best idea to hit the company in a long, long time.
4. The Ladder Match (March 20, 1994)
In an increasingly-cartooned WWF, this match proved to be the element of danger needed to steer toward a more daring future. Razor Ramon and Shawn Michaels warred in a flawless battle to determine the undisputed Intercontinental Champion, with Michaels ragdolling himself as though he’d never get the chance again. Fans oohed and aahed with each innovative twist, and the ladder match remains as one of the most important matches ever.
3. Sammartino Crushes Rogers (May 17, 1963)
A controversial bout that had the benefit of ushering in sustained success for the WWWF, inaugural champion Buddy Rogers drops the gold to 27-year-old Bruno Sammartino in 48 seconds, kicking off the longest reign in the belt’s half-century lineage. History differs on the background of the switch; some say an ailing Rogers had to lose quickly following a heart attack, though Bruno claims that Rogers demanded a quick loss out of anger toward losing.
2. Hulkamania is Born (January 23, 1984)
Counting the patrons inside MSG’s internal theater, Felt Forum, reportedly 30,000 fans were on hand to see Hulk Hogan escape the Iron Sheik’s Camel Clutch and end the Iranian’s short reign as WWF Champion with his trademark legdrop. With the title switch, Vince McMahon found the man he would come to rely on as his drawing card for close to a decade, and forever changed the way professional wrestling would be presented on the grand stage.
1. WrestleMania (March 31, 1985)
McMahon bet the farm that the Howard Finkel-named event, with the WWF’s top stars mixing it up with celebrities, would be a success on closed-circuit television. More than a million people nationwide watched the maiden production of wrestling’s version of the Super Bowl, proving wildly profitable in spite of those hoping to see imperialistic McMahon fail. Instead, Madison Square Garden was the launching point for pro wrestling’s mecca.