Bruno Sammartino was a consistent presence on Pro Wrestling Illustrated in 1979 and 1980. Photo via PWI-Online
As a young fan of the 1980s, wrestling magazines were supremely important in keeping me and other fanatics abreast of what was going on in the sport we loved so much.
Although I was a steadfast fan of the World Wrestling Federation, most of the other wrestling groups of the time weren't available to me on television. Of course, for better or worse, we had no Internet. So magazines were the only way for me to follow anything outside the WWF. Imagine a wrestling world without Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes, Sting, Sgt. Slaughter, the Road Warriors, and Abdullah the Butcher!
The most important of these magazines was Pro Wrestling Illustrated, which was founded in 1979 by publisher Stanley Weston, who also published The Wrestler and Inside Wrestling. (These were the so-called Apter mags, named after famed wrestling journalist Bill Apter, but the magazines had staffs of other dedicated professionals). They covered wrestling as a legitimate sport, and today they serve as a great resource for learning about the history of pro wrestling.
Though I've found great resources before for past wrestling magazine covers and photos on the Internet, I only recently discovered a great archive from the horse's mouth itself: the comprehensive Pro Wrestling Illustrated online archive of covers.
So let's take a trip in the wayback machine, shall we, and see what we can learn from these covers, starting with the year 1979, a year of cheap suits and expensive gasoline (and also my birth).
The cover photo teases a rivalry with Dusty Rhodes and Mil Mascaras, two of the biggest wrestling stars in the world, that to the best of my knowledge never happened. Though they were on the opposite sides of a 2005 six-man tag team match in Japan. But somehow I doubt Pro Wrestling Illustrated was that ahead of the times. Perhaps this piece had more to do with each men having a similar place in the wrestling world and both having the same goals.
You probably know about Dusty's accolades as NWA champion and major wrestling star for WCW in the 1980s. But this was near the peak of Mascaras' fame in the United States, as he was a special attraction throughout the world. Here's an example from this general time of how he was treated as a major star, in this appearance on WWWF television setting up a Madison Square Garden show from Jan. 23, 1978.
Also featured in this edition: Rick (not Ricky) Steamboat, NWA champion Harley Race's hatred, WWF (the extra ‘W' was dropped in March 1979) champion Bob Backlund's fear, AWA champion Nick Bockwinkel's (spelled Bockwinkle) crumbling throne, André the Giant's vanquishing of the AWA (presumably in a battle royal), and Bruno Sammartino, who was nearing the final major feud of his career with protege Larry Zbyszko.
Our top headline this month is a story of Bruno Sammartino written by villainous wrestling manager Capt. Lou Albano, presumably conveying the point of view that Sammartino wasn't actually the hero he was purported to be. I am a fan of such storytelling.
The other headline is Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat forming a tag team and whether it would end poorly because of past problems. I suppose they were referring to things to this.
I'm not clear on whether the Flair-Steamboat team stood, but considering Flair won the NWA World Tag Team titles with Blackjack Mulligan in August 1979 (probably after the deadline for this magazine), I'm guessing it did not end in grand triumph.
Also: Want a chance to win Chief Jay Strongbow's headdress? Well, you are more than 32 years too late. Sorry.
The first Pro Wrestling Illustrated issue is very belt-centric, as the lead story talks about the "spectacular" five-day NWA title reign of Dusty Rhodes (which took place in August). According to Pro-Wrestling Title Histories, Rhodes had three successful defenses, all in Florida, against Race, Terry Funk and Don Muraco before losing it back. (Race would have a similar short loss to Giant Baba in November 1979 as well)
The WWF title story questioned how long Bob Backlund could remain champion. Which is funny, because Backlund actually lost the title to Antonio Inoki in November 1979 in Japan. It was quickly held up under controversial circumstances and Backlund won the vacant title back in December. I don't believe WWE ever publicly acknowledged the situation (and it still doesn't appear on WWE's own title history site). I'm sure all these unacknowledged shenanigans created problems for the wrestling magazines, who wanted to cover wrestling as accurately as possible but also wanted to go along with the promotion's storylines.
Anyway, other than a second later-unacknowledged blip involving Greg Valentine, Backlund had the title for another 47 months and change. Backlund was notoriously reviled by a certain segment of the fanbase (sound familiar?) and PWI was based in the Northeast, so I wonder if this was tapping into the sentiment even then.
The AWA title story features the secret behind Nick Bockwinkel's (spelled the traditional way this time) success. Bockwinkel was into his fifth year as AWA champion, which is kind of an amazing run for a villain just headlining one territory (albeit a widespread one). Though Bockwinkel did sometimes stray outside the AWA's borders when called upon by territories who were having disputes with the NWA, such as Memphis or San Antonio.
There's also stories again on Rick (again not Ricky) Steamboat and Mil Mascaras, clearly both PWI favorites at this point. And best of all, we get a full-color pinup of Ivan Putski. Take a look at this hunk of man meat, opposite-sex-preferring ladies and same-sex-preferring gentlemen!
Dusty Rhodes makes his third appearance on the cover, this time on his return to the WWF for the first time in six months. Bruno Sammartino also gets major treatment in his rivalry with Greg Valentine, which is probably from the Madison Square Garden show on Oct. 22, 1979, in match that ended with the referee stopping the match after Valentine lost excessive blood.
We also have features on why Ric Flair sees Buddy Rogers in himself (didn't both of you being called Nature Boy give you a clue, Ric?). Verne Gagne gets a 30-year retrospective, from being a major television star in the 1950s to being the AWA's top dog (and owner). Terry Funk's name is mentioned on a PWI cover for the first time, as apparently he's gone rogue and is willing to maim for money.
Here's a swell example of Funk around this very time, teaming with Ole Anderson and deeply upsetting young Terry Taylor.
And of course, Chief Jay Strongbow picks the winner of the headdress contest. Congratulations, whoever you are. Hope you still have it.
We'll continue this saga another time, Cagesiders. Please let us know what you think of this new feature, and share any great memories you've had from wrestling magazines.