It’s that time again, time to dust off a wrestling card from history and see what’s to be found. This week, however, I plan to veer slightly from the path, instead telling the story of a lost promotion: International Wrestling. Also styled as International “Pro” Wrestling or the International Wrestling Federation, this small Pennsylvania promotion had grand ambitions long before Joel Goodhart, Paul Heyman, or Tod Gordon put Philadelphia-based wrestling on the map. But it vanished as quickly as it appeared. What went wrong?
For the sake of consistency, here’s our unfathomably long card from the first taping:
International Wrestling television taping
February 2, 1982 * Mountainville Memorial Auditorium, Allentown, PA
- Hans “Mad Dog” Schroeder & Ron Shaw vs. Manuel Soto & Rocky Jones – time limit draw
- Killer Kowalski d. Billy Berger
- Dominic Denucci d. Buddy Donovan
- Chief War Cloud d. Ed Bonzo
- Johnny Valiant d. Ron Lee
- Davey O’Hannon d.Dan Petty
- Dominic Denucci d. Jojo Andrews
- Killer Kowalski d. Mike McGee
- Chief War Cloud d. Zoltan the Great
- Davey O’Hannon d. Ron Lee
- Hans “Mad Dog” Schroeder & Ron Shaw d. Buddy Donovan & Dan Petty
- BB Coleman d. Larry Winston
- Manuel Soto v. Ron Shaw – time limit draw
- Dominic Denucci d. Ed Bonzo
- Ricky Jones d. Billy Berger
- Superstar Richard Brown & Dan Petty d. Greg Winston & Mike McGee
- Chief War Cloud v. Johnny Valiant – time limit draw
When we last left Dominic Denucci in our previous Card Exam column, he was the creative force behind the small independent promotion, Ohio Championship Wrestling (OCW). But Denucci was a hard worker and knew he could aim higher — and in late 1981 that’s exactly what he did.
While OCW had experienced some growth, it was relegated exclusively to local television and, as such, was limited in reach and, thus, profits. Denucci, a seasoned veteran in the Western Pennsylvania area, knew he had the drive, the ideas, and the connections to reach for something grander.
If OCW relied on older talent and WWA castoffs, International Wrestling would feature some of the best in the business, along with rising local talent. Denucci’s first call was to his best friend, Bruno Sammartino.
While the legendary Sammartino was retired in 1982, he still had plenty to offer, including his son, David, and his protege-turned-ruval, Larry Zbyszko. Bruno and Larry had set Allentown alight two years earlier, and Denucci knew there was still fuel to burn in the matchup.
But Bruno would only come after the first event, which was held at the Mountainville Auditorium in Allentown. That taping would rely on Killer Kowalski and some of the stars of OCW, including Johnny Valiant, Zoltan the Great, and others. Kowalski was a friend of Denucci’s and himself an experienced promoter in the New England area These friends helped fill the gap until Denucci’s handpicked roster and his color commentator, Bruno, materialized.
Next, Denucci needed a television deal, an announcer, and a venue. He found the first two at Service Electric Cable, thanks to Mike Mittman, who hosted several programs on the channel, including the weekly sports magazine show, In This Corner.
Mittman had deep roots in area wrestling, having worked with both the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission and the then-WWWF (now WWE). In fact, it was Mittman that helped facilitate the move from tapings at the Philadelphia Arena in late 1978, which was an emergency move that turned into a successful relationship between pro wrestling and the Allentown Agricultural Hall that continued throughout the rest of the 20th century.
But the Agricultural Hall was WWF territory, and Vince McMahon Jr. was none too pleased with Denucci’s plans. Denucci and company turned to the Hotel Americus Grand Ballroom. The hotel, set in downtown Allentown, had a long history of luxurious elegance, but by 1982 it was falling into disrepair. Still, it provided a classy venue that would elevate the International Wrestling TV presentation, thanks to its impressive windows overlooking the surrounding city.
There were a mix of national names and rising local prospects on the International Wrestling roster.
Beyond David Sammartino (billed as Bruno Jr.) and Larry Zbyszko, the taping featured established names like the Johnny and Jimmy Valiant, Hans Schroeder, Manuel Soto, and local talent such as Rocky Jones, Giant David, Ron “Bandit” Shaw, and the Kelly Brothers from Hamilton, Ontario.
Jones, a Kearny, New Jersey native, was a Johnny Rodz trained talent looking for a break. While he was now three years into his career, there were far more miles under Rocky Jones belt than matches. Finding sparse work as an enhancement talent in the WWWF as Mike Masters, the elder McMahon eventually shipped off the young Jones (with an equally young Jim Duggan) to Hawaii to work for Peter Maivia.
“The territory wasn’t doing real, real great and Peter needed wrestlers over there. Senior thought it would be a good place for myself and Jimmy to go, because we can learn a lot because we’d be working on top and learning how to do promos, and all of that stuff,” Jones told In the Ring Magazine, as retold in a 2022 obituary by Greg Oliver.
“There were a lot of guys that I got an opportunity to watch and talk to and learn from in Hawaii. We really weren’t making any money. Fortunately, I was really lucky that Vince Sr., he was kind of paying us for Peter, because there really wasn’t a whole lot going on there. And Jim Duggan and myself we were getting getting checks from WWWF while we worked in Hawaii.”
Despite his lack of in-ring experience, Jones was positioned as a key talent in International Wrestling, thanks to his regional roots, solid look, and most importantly, his small price tag. He was especially well positioned when the group would tour New Jersey, which was a frequent stop, along with more local spots, like St. Joseph’s Gym in Hazleton, PA.
Ron Shaw, a giant at 6’4” and 270 pounds, was another local grappler who had already established himself as an enhancement talent for the WWWF. Like Rocky Jones, Shaw saw International Wrestling as his chance to move beyond the preliminary bouts and establish himself as a name.
Interestingly, his time in International Wrestling would not be Shaw’s most noteworthy interaction with the Sammartinos — that would come a few years later, in November 1985 in Philadelphia, when David Sammartino had enough of WWF politics.
“They would never do anything with me,” David recalled in a 2010 article. “Here I am, I’m David Sammartino, I’m the son of Bruno Sammartino, I had this talent — when I say talent, not only was I a strong man, I was a good wrestling technician, which made me a little different than other guys… I felt like I really had something to offer.”
“In a sellout crowd at the Philadelphia Spectrum, they booked me with a guy, his name was Ron Shaw, and he was basically a jobber. And I had wrestled him on TV I don’t know how many times and squashed him. And when I found out that’s who I’m with at the Spectrum, I was angry. I was young and immature, and I said I’m going to cause a little hell tonight. So I went up to him and I told him, ‘You’re going to win the match tonight.’ And I just made it into a ridiculous situation where I had him attack me, bodyslam me like 15 times in a row, throw me in and give me the bearhug, and I gave up. If they didn’t care about how they were going to groom me, then I didn’t care.”
As noted, David’s father, the legendary Bruno Sammartino, joined Mike Mittman on commentary after the initial event. The two men were longtime friends and made a natural pair, feeding off each other’s energy and excitement.
But it wasn’t always smooth sailing in the broadcast booth, as the ex-champ gave Mittman a fright he would never forget. One taping, after a series of brutal body slams, Mittman exclaimed, “He’s in trouble Bruno!” When his colleague failed to respond, he lobbed the softball remark again: “He’s in trouble, Bruno, he’s on the floor!” But the grappler in the ring wasn’t the only one on the floor…
Bruno Sammartino, hulking strongman and the toughest man Mittman has ever met, was on the floor, drenched in sweat and doubled over in pain. Before anyone could register, Bruno was whisked off to the hospital, with everyone in a panic. It was gallstones. The visual of a heavily medicated Bruno on morphine, still in excruciating pain, is one that remains with Mittman to this day.
So, what was the grand vision of Denucci’s International Wrestling? It was a rematch, one that still has plenty of fuel in the rank in the Allentown area: Bruno vs. Zbyszko.
Both Mittman and Denucci were present for the heated angle, which saw the frustrated pupil, Zbyszko, turn on his legendary master in a wild scene that left the ring a pool of blood. The turn ignited the WWWF throughout 1980 and saw a staggering 36,295 fans pack Shea Stadium for the feud’s blowoff.
While Bruno had decisively beaten Zbyszko in a cage at Shea, the matchup was just as intriguing in 1982, if not more so. Sammartino was retired, while Zbyszko was in his prime. Could the aging Bruno, with the heart of a champ but years of rust, really shut up his loudmouth protégé? It was an exciting proposition, and one Denucci, Mittman, et al were keen to exploit.
The anticipation grew slowly, with the aged Sammartino serving as color commentator to Mittman’s play-by-play. Like a bee in a locked car, Zbsyzko was always buzzing around ringside, poking the Italian bear at every available chance. If Bruno was off on vacation, Larry would squirm into the commentary booth to continue his verbal assault of his erstwhile master.
To Mittman, the build was perfect, and was setting the stage for a major confrontation. But, as the famed Scottish poet is so often quoted, “the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley.” Before the match could materialize, the money vanished, and International Wrestling was no more.
What began as a dream had experienced impressive growth, reaching a total of 38 markets by its zenith, including broadcasts on Channels 2 (Service Electric Cable) and 69 in the Allentown area, Channel 68 in Pittsburgh, and Channel 68 in the New York metropolitan area.
Even a move to shift tapings from the Americus Ballroom to the John Miller Sound Studios in Bath, Penn., closer to the NY metro area wasn’t enough to save funds while building a larger audience. Financing in wrestling is notoriously difficult, and without a new benefactor, the dream was dead — only to be remembered by those who took part, and the lucky local fans who lived it.
But wrestling ran deep in the bones of those fans and the memories of International Wrestling were brought to life thanks to a wrestling historian/archivist and his YouTube channel.
Here’s International Wrestling from July 1982, courtesy of the KrisPLettuce YouTube channel:
The 1980s are a fascinating time in professional wrestling history, as the decay of older territories and the rise of Vince McMahon’s WWF and the NWA’s Georgia Championship Wrestling would alter the wrestling landscape in the Midwest, leading to warring brands and splinter groups. International Wrestling is one small aspect of that story, but it’s one that can finally be told.
- Jan. 15, 2023: Card Exam: Denucci’s short-lived Ohio Championship Wrestling
- Previous SlamWrestling Card Exam columns
NOTE: I would like to thank Benjamin Straughn for his assistance on this and other projects. His contributions to the preservation of wrestling footage cannot be understated. Additionally, the information available in this article is thanks to two wonderful Allentown locals, Mike Mittman and Ian Riccaboni. Their help in bringing the International Wrestling story to life cannot be understated.