As regular readers may have gathered, I'm not a big fan of the "MMA is pro wrestling" stuff, but I agree that the the fanbases and promoting styles can overlap, among other things. After creating a Canadian sports here in Georges St. Pierre, UFC has done amazing PPV business in Canada, especially in Montreal (where they also did huge live business with GSP on top) and Toronto. On Saturday at UFC 129 at the Rogers Centre with GSP defending against Jake Shields as the main event, they made their Toronto debut with what is in a variety of ways, the biggest show in UFC history. By far the biggest crowd and gate, and it probably did huge numbers on PPV. It may not touch UFC 100, but it should easily do at least a million buys. To some degree, I do think this ties into the fact that historically, Toronto and Montreal were two of the hottest pro wrestling cities in the world.
There have been plenty of cases where the success of an MMA event correlated to a hook that appealed to certain markets. Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer and Yahoo Sports noted when shows headlined by Kimbo Slice did especially well in markets where the Junkyard Dog was a superstar in the early '80s. Montreal had plenty of locals on top with big stars mixed in and GSP became a hero there. Toronto just loved big time wrestling with huge stars. The WWF set their crowd size record there and this past weekend, so did UFC with one of their biggest stars, that hero from Montreal.
Montreal was the home of one of the biggest money territories in pro wrestling, with fan interest so strong in the early 1970s that two promotions were able to do strong business. Johnny Rougeau's IWA/All-Star Wrestling was going strong (after having taken over the city from Eddie Quinn in 1964) when the Vachon family and others split off to form Grand Prix Wrestling. Both drew well, to the point that each was able to draw 25,000+ people to Jarry Park for supershows within a year of each other. Grand Prix eventually died off with Gino Brito and Dino Bravo eventually replacing Rougeau as the main promoters in the city, and their International Wrestling promotion (which also aired on TV and ran shows in parts of Ontario like Thunder Bay) did strong business well into the mid '80s.
They ended up co-promoting with the WWF for several months of successful shows before splitting after a show that sold out the Montreal Forum. Hulk Hogan was originally scheduled to defend the WWF Championship against Bravo. There was some dispute about the finish and Bob Orton Jr. ended up replacing Bravo. International floundered after that for the next year before closing. Some top wrestlers went to the WWF, which became the main promotion in town from then on. It was a key market for the company, which started experimenting there during a period where business was down overall.
Pat Patterson for those not familiar with his history, in an all-around wrestling genius (as an in-ring wrestler, booker/writer, and in coming up with exciting finishes to matches) originally from Montreal who was a WWF executive and Vince McMahon's assistant booker. He felt they should try to cultivate the city by using Quebec natives as the top stars, even if they weren't being used that way on TV.
In June 1994, heel tag teem The Quebecers (long-time area star Jacques Rougeau and his younger partner Pierre Outlette, an impressively athletic wrestler for his size) lost the tag team titles and stopped being used on television. At the house show in Montreal on June 25th that drew 12,248, they were in the semi main event, underneath a Bret Hart vs Owen Hart finale. The worked as babyfaces in a losing effort against new champions The Headshrinkers, who played heels for just the one match. After the loss, Outlette and manager Johnny Polo (Scott "Raven" Levy) attacked Rougeau, setting up a local feud that drew very well.
There was a tag match that I can't find the results of at the moment October 21st, they came back with Rougeau's announced retirement match against Outlette as the main even. Rougeau was cornered by his brother Raymond while Outlette was accompanied by Polo. They sold out the Montreal Forum, with a crowd of 16,843 (15,534) paid, and Rougeau won, of course. A show at Madison Square Garden in New York a week later drew just 9,646 to see a show headlined by The Undertaker vs Yokozuna and Bret Hart vs Jim Neidhart and TV tapings were often being run in small venues in equally small markets.
Pierre ended up as a babyface in Montreal, and did well as a draw when at first. Over 12,000 came to a show where he was featured in a match with Shawn Michaels when the latter was coming off a Royal Rumble win and on the road to a Wrestlemania title shot. Subsequently, Pierre was brought back to TV as kleptomanic heel pirate Jean Pierre Lafitte and worked low on the next Montreal card. Crowds were sinking and his WWF Championship shot against Diesel couldn't even draw 6,000. Outlette refusing to lose clean led to his departure from the company. In 1996, there was a little bit more local flavor as Raymond Rougeau drew well when boxing Owen Hart after being attacked by him during an interview. They stopped building around locals after that, with nothing really catering to the locals until the US vs Canada/Hart Foundation feud the following year, with THAT Shawn Michaels vs Bret Hart match at Survivior Series '97 selling out the Molson Center.
After the jump, we'll look at Toronto.
As big as Montreal was in the wrestling world, it can be argued Maple Leaf Wrestling out of Toronto was bigger. Even though it wasn't really a full-time territory (they also ran Buffalo, NY, TV tapings in the suburbs, and some other shows), top stars from all over North America were brought in and the shows were tremendously successful. Promoted by the Tunney family after they took over from Jack Corcoran in 1939,, their Maple Leaf Wrestling show was seen nationally on the CBC during the early days of TV in Canada. They ran Maple Leaf Gardens biweekly, drawing crowds in the 10,000-15,000 range regularly. Whipper Billy Watson was the key headline in the city from 1940-1971 and became a household name based off the TV exposure. During this period, Bruno Sammartino also became a huge star in Toronto when Frank Tunney pushed him as a top star while he was blackballed in the US.
In 1969, as Watson was winding down, The Sheik (Ed Farhat, also the top star of his own Detroit-based territory) became the biggest star in the city as a heel who rarely lost. Meanwhile, Farhat was bringing in wrestlers from his territory.
As opposed to Montreal, aside from Watson, there was never really a major "local" headliner and top stars from elsewhere worked fine, with ethnic heroes playing a big part at times. The large Italian population in Toronto was big on Bruno Sammartino and similarly, the large Indian population loved Tiger Jeet Singh, who often battled with The Sheik.
The Sheik went on a legendary win streak facing top names, but eventually the city burnt out, as did his own territory. After a hodge-podge roster for a few years that didn't draw especially well, the Tunneys started booking talent from Jim Crockett promotions in the Carolinas along with some locals mixed in as well as AWA and WWF stars from time to time. The TV show was a mix of With Ric Flair as top heel feuding with Ricky Steamboat (and later top babyface fighting off the heels with him), the promotion went on a hot streak that really put Flair on the map as a huge star.
When the WWF was expanding in 1984, Jack Tunney (Frank's nephew who was in charge after Frank died the previous year) switched to using them exclusively (with locals occasionally in prelims). This brought former Crockett stars like Roddy Piper, Greg Valentine, The Iron Sheik, and Sgt. Slaughter into the mix, as well as various WWF and AWA (the WWF raided many of their top names) wrestlers that had been around sometimes. The WWF never left, but Jack Tunney was forced out in 1995.
As far as I know, the WWF/WWE has probably drawn more crowds over 25,000 people to see a live show in Toronto than any other city:
- On August 28, 1986, they sold a standard house show with a Hulk Hogan vs Paul Orndorff main event to the Canadian National Exhibition, so the show was held in CNE Stadium, the infamous "mistake by the lake" with terrible sitelines. The show drew a record 64,100 fans paying $800,000. As a sold show, that meant the CNE got all the profits past the flat fee they paid WWE, a move I suspect angered Vince McMahon, as nobody expected such a huge turnout. The event has become legendary locally and thanks to the huge crowd, was released on home video as "The Big Event."
- Wrestlemania VI on April 1, 1990 drew 67,287 paying $3,490,857 to The Skydome (now the Rogers Centre) for a show headlined by WWF Champion Hulk Hogan vs Intercontinental Champion The Ultimate Warrior in title vs title match.
- Wrestlemania "X-8" on March 17, 2002 drew 68,237 paying $3,846,033 to the Skydome for a show headlined by Hulk Hogan vs The Rock. Chris Jericho vs Triple H was the "official" main event as the title match and Steve Austin vs Scott Hall was also pushed heavily. This is the building record and most likely, it will never be broken, as fans who hadn't bought tickets were let in for free at the last minute to set the record
- The January 31, 1997 house show drew 25,628 to see Shawn Michaels vs Bret Hart vs Psycho Sid in a Triple Threat Match. In the heat of the Monday Night War with WCW's Nitro, they planned to air the complete Royal Rumble match from a week or so earlier, presumably in addition to part of the Toronto show. Request TV, then one of the biggest PPV distribution companies in the US (the roles held by inDemand and TVN today) objected, so most of the house show was aired on TV. Just the main event and the Rocky Maivia vs The Sultan opener didn't air.
- The February 8, 1999 Raw taping drew 41,432 fans paying $737,628. Billed in Canada as "the biggest Raw ever," the show was only aired live there, as Raw was bumped to Saturday night that week. As a result, they got an incredibly disappointing show.