May 17, 1963, New York City, New York
During the 1950s and 1960s, Buddy Rogers was one of the most powerful men in professional wrestling. Sporting an action-packed ring style and a natural arrogance the oozed charisma, he was a huge draw throughout the United States and Canada. When Lou Thesz was looking to take some time off and wanted to drop the NWA title, many believed Rogers to be the obvious choice to carry the title belt. Rogers, however, fell victim to politics and to legitimate heat he had with Thesz. Thus, the NWA went with Thesz’ choice of Dick Hutton, but the former three-time NCAA champion lacked the charisma needed to draw crowds and he ended up dropping the belt to New Zealander Pat O’Connor. O’Connor carried the belt for two year and was considered to have had a successful run, but most of the NWA promoters knew that the big money was with Rogers. He met O’Connor for the belt on June 30, 1961, with Rogers winning two out of three falls in front of 38,622 fans at Comiskey Park.
Rogers performed as advertised, drawing big money and ratings wherever he travelled. The problem was, though, that he could earn more money in larger, more lucrative territories, than in smaller areas of the country. Promoters in these smaller areas cried foul when Rogers began spending most of his time in the Northeast wrestling for Vince McMahon, Sr.’s promotion. Thus, they hastened Thesz to come back to reclaim the belt. A match between the two took place on January 24, 1963 in Toronto, Canada, with Thesz taking the belt in one fall. While the NWA believed it had shown its strength against McMahon and Rogers, McMahon and his partner Toots Mondt, withdrew their membership from the NWA and formed the World Wide Wrestling Federation, naming Rogers as the promotion’s first champion. Rogers gained enormous popularity as a draw for the fledgling promotion, but Rogers being Rogers, he was a bit difficult to control. He was also beginning to suffer from health problems, causing McMahon to have to change his lineup for major shows. Eventually, McMahon decided that a change needed to be made.
That change came in the form of the Italian strongman Bruno Sammartino. Sammartino was extremely popular as an ethnic draw in the Northeast and had gained respect wrestling across North America. The decision was made to move the belt to Bruno, but Buddy had second thoughts about dropping it. Sammartino reported that he gave Rogers an ultimatum. “We can do this the easy way or the hard way,” Bruno suggested. Ultimately, Rogers did the job on May 17, 1963 in Madison Square Garden, dropping the belt in 48 seconds after Sammartino caught him in a backbreaker. Rogers later claimed that he had suffered a heart attack prior to the match, but Bruno would have none of it, claiming that Rogers had wrestled full-time, right up to their match. Rogers was suffering legitimate medical issues, however, and wrestled mostly in short tag matches for the rest of his career. For the WWWf, Bruno would become the torch-bearer of the company, headlining as the champion for 12 of the next 14 years and leading the promotion to become a legitimate rival in power to the NWA.