- Where does one start when covering nearly 50 years of professional wrestling and Championship lineage? The beginning always seems like the obvious solution, but sometimes the meat of the story is somewhere in the middle. After all, George Lucas envisioned his Star Wars saga in the middle of the saga, and we saw how things fell apart when he tried attaching a beginning to that. This introduction is obviously setting the table for a direction I'm forced to that: I will do what I can to detail the origins of the belts, but the meat of my series will cover the national (and eventual global) expansion of the company in the mid 80's and forward from there. As for the WWWF era under Vince McMahon Sr., and the early 80's, when the company was still just a regional company working out of the Northeast, I'm afraid it'll be bullet points on reigns, some personal thoughts on the wrestlers who held the belts, and a few tidbits here and there.
So... the beginning. Much like the origins of other WW(W)F Championships, the first reign is shrouded by mystery. In the early days of June 1971, the team of Luke Graham and Tarzan Tyler were recognized as the winners of a tournament, defeating Dick the Bruiser and The Sheik in New Orleans, LA. Spoiler alert: There wouldn't be a legitimate change of the titles outside of Pennsylvania or New York until 1985. At least they went without a reasonable kayfabe location, unlike the Intercontinental Title being decided in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (as a rib on Pat Patterson, who couldn't pronounce it), or the Women's Tag Team Titles being won in CAIRO, EGYPT. I'm sorry, no matter how many times I've typed that tidbit, I can't help but go full Vince Russo and go with all caps to describe our absurd that is. We're in 2020, and I don't think the WWF ever ran a legitimate show in Egypt, and if they did, it wasn't in the early 1980's.
I wish I had a lot to say about some of the earliest Champions, but I'm afraid I don't have personal thoughts or memories. Luke Graham was a kayfabe brother of Dr. Jerry Graham (Vince McMahon's all-time favorite wrestler growing up), "Superstar" Billy Graham, and Eddie Graham and held the United States Tag Team Championship in the mid 60's with Jerry. Outside of the WW(W)F, he held gold in various NWA territories, Puerto Rico, Stampede Wrestling, and Mid-South, among others, before retiring in the mid 80's. I've honestly never seen a match with Tarzan Tyler, and the only interesting tidbit floating around is his untimely death on December 24th, 1985 in a car accident traveling from a show working for Lutte Internationale, the Quebec-based promotion ran by Gino Brito.
Graham and Tyler would lose the belts to the tandem of Karl Gotch (yes, KARL GOTCH) and Rene Goulet, bested at Madison Square Garden on December 6th, 1971 in two straight falls. Gotch is one of the more well-known shooters of his era, influencing a style of work that greatly impacted Japanese promotions, but with very little history with the WWF, wasn't a name fans of later generations would hear or read about unless they were dedicated enough to find material not produced in-house. I can honestly say I didn't know the name until I was well into my teenage years, at the turn of the millennium. Rene Goulet, on the other hand, I am very familiar with, and if you're reading this, that means you're like in my age range, and recognized him more for his appearances as a random suit more than his in-ring career, attempting to break up fights between the modern day Superstars, a role that he held for most of the 1990's. If you still aren't sure, he was the one with blonde hair and obvious male-pattern baldness, and usually was wearing glasses.
Their reign wouldn't last 2-months, dropping the belts to our next set of 1st (and only) time Champions, King Curtis Iaukea and Mikel Scicluna, on February 1st, 1972. Scicluna (born in Balzan, Malta) is another former U.S. Tag Team Champion, predating the WWWF Tag Team Championship, and at times was paired up with Bruno Sammartino and Pedro Morales in fights for the Heavyweight Championship. By the end of the decade, Scicluna was relegated to prelim worker and retired before the mid 80's boom. Iaukea also retired from in-ring competition around the same time, but would pop up here and there as a manager, with two notable (and very brief) runs, one for the WWF in the mid 80's working as the mouthpiece for Kamala, and in the mid 90's for WCW as the "Master" of the Dungeon of Doom (the old, decrepit man covered in baby powder screaming at the top of his lungs? That's Iaukea). In the late 90's, WCW introduced the world to Prince Iaukea, no relation to the King, just given the name by Kevin Sullivan as tribute. Both Scicluna and Iaukea passed away in 2010, Scicluna from pancreatic cancer, while Iaukea's cause of death was never released to the public.
While the next team to hold the gold isn't much to speak of on paper, it does include one historical note: Sonny King, our 2nd man in the lineage of the belts I've never seen in action, is the first African-American wrestler to hold the gold, predating the team of Tony Atlas and Rocky Johnson by more than a decade. His partner is our first Italian-American masquerading as a Native American, the legendary Chief Jay Strongbow. Strongbow had quite a lengthy career, already a 25 year vet at this point, and well into his 40's. Strongbow would remain a fixture in the Northeast, keeping his in-ring career alive through the mid 80's, and then made occasional appearances in retirement, notably trying to give the rub to the "new generation" by giving Tatanka his seal of approval. Unlike Strongbow, Tatanka (real name Chris Chavis) was a legitimate Native American, minus the charisma that carried Strongbow to beloved levels. After his retirement, Strongbow's son had a brief career as a professional wrestler, including a short run as a prelim worker in the WWF as "Mark Young." Strongbow and King would have the shortest reign to date (winning the belts on May 22nd and losing them on June 27th, 1972), and the shortest legitimate reign until it was broken in 1982... also by Chief Jay Strongbow.
With the reign of the Fake Native American over, we're introduced to a pair of Fake Japanese stars born in Hawaii, Prof. Toru Tanaka and Mr. Fuji. Both men grew up and went to school together, and both made their professional debuts after turning 30. Tanaka's career in the business wouldn't last nearly as long, but made a mark in the world of entertainment to non-wrestling fans like myself, having short appearances in films like "The Running Man" (as stalker "Sub-Zero") and "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure" (as the Buxton butler), as well as a wrestler vs. kids segment on the Nickelodeon series "Wild and Crazy Kids." Mr. Fuji's in-ring career was practically over when I started watching wrestling, having transitioned into a managerial role in 1985 despite speaking broken English that at times was beyond comprehension, a far cry from managers like Captain Lou Albano or the Grand Wizard who could generate heat with their words, as well as their actions. The most distinctive aspect of Fuji's character during that era was inexplicably dressing up like Oddjob from the James Bond franchise. If you were to watch a match featuring a Fuji protégé, the chances were high he would whack someone with his trusty cane (or flagpole when he managed Yokozuna in the mid 90's). Throughout the 70's and early 80's, Fuji would become one of the most prolific Superstars in the Tag Team Ranks, holding the belt on 5 occasions, a shared record that would stand until the Attitude Era when title changes became far more frequent, and the record was broken by noted Tag Team specialist MICK FOLEY (which was broken days later by Billy Gunn, but we're getting ahead of ourselves).
The man who shared the record with Fuji for all those years was New Zealand-born Tony Garea, and the two would trade the belts back and forth a few times across all their reigns. Garea, like Rene Goulet before him, was close to retirement by the time the WWF had their big national expansion but was a regular presence as one of the suits who broke up fights through the late 80's and mid 90's. Across his 5 reigns with the Tag Team Titles, Garea co-held the belts with 4 different Superstars, another record broken (originally) by Mick Foley. The first man to share the honor with Garea is probably the most unique, the 600+ pound Haystacks Calhoun (winning the belts on May 30th, 1973), one of the many in the long list of hillbilly gimmicks that professional wrestling has produced over the years. In the era of tall and lean or muscular superstars, Calhoun's enormous frame was a site to behold. Unlike Andre the Giant, who tipped the scales throughout the decade in the 400 pound territory, Calhoun was wide as a house, and you could even debate his announced weight might've shortchanged how much girth he was carrying around the ring. More known as a special attraction than a Championship contender, Calhoun didn't have many accolades other than an occasional reign with the tag team belts in various promotions. Poor health forced him into retirement, including the loss of his left leg due to diabetes. Calhoun would pass away on December 7th, 1989 at the age of 55.
Fuji and Tanaka would become the 1st 2-time Tag Team Champions, regaining the belts on September 11th, 1973. The reign would be a scant 64 days, the shortest of Fuji's 5 stints as co-holder of the straps, as Tony Garea would snag the belts again, this time with the Hawaiian born (and not typecast as a Japanese menace) Dean Ho. Like many pro wrestlers from the Islands, Ho caught on in wrestling after competing professionally in bodybuilding. Ho would find success around the world, usually finding success in the tag team ranks, whether it was in the WWWF, Big Time Wrestling (Roy Shire's San Francisco based promotion), or All-Star Wrestling based in Vancouver. Ho, like many others from this era, stepped away from the ring by the mid 80's, and went on with his life, leaving professional wrestling behind. When the WWE first launched their 24/7 On Demand service, I wasn't too keen on watching their content from the 1970's. The WWWF wasn't a work-rate promotion, it was about the babyface hero conquering the foreign heels and recycling the formula over and over. I did see a few matches of Garea and Dean Ho as a team, and while it wasn't a spectacular showcase, if you were watching them in 1973, it wasn't the typical lumbering formula, they chain wrestled and kept a decent pace. The hardest part of looking back at wrestling from bygone eras is that you can't judge them based on modern expectations. You have to wipe your mind clean of expectations and try and transplant the thought process to the era you're watching, and judge accordingly. (Note: Don't take this as too much praise for Tony Garea. I still think he was garbage by the time the mid 80's rolled around; his best days long gone by that point).
The foreign menace concept was abandoned for our next Champions, a title reign that spanned 370 days, and held the record for longest reign until it was broken 15 years later. "Handsome" Jimmy and "Luscious" Johnny Valiant debuted in early 1974 and quickly established themselves as a big deal, defeating the super-team of Dick the Bruiser and Bruno Sammartino for the WWA Tag Team Titles. Immediately after signing with the WWWF, they unseated Garea and Ho on an episode of All-Star Wrestling. Ho and Garea would chase them for the remainder of 1974, usually failing in matches held under "Best out of 3 Falls" stipulations. On a brief glimpse of the record books, you'll see the Valiant Brothers listed as 2-time Champions, but it must be pointed out that when they "regained" the belts four years after their defeat, it was no longer Johnny and Jimmy, it was Johnny and "Gentleman" Jerry, as Jimmy briefly retired due to a health scare. Despite the new combination of "brothers" (none of the three men were siblings, a classic trope in wrestling), the Valiant name is mostly remembered by the original duo. Johnny would continue to work for the company through the boom of the 80's, managing names such as Brutus Beefcake and Greg "The Hammer" Valentine, while Jimmy returned to the ring (outside of the WWF) and adopted his well-known "Boogie-Woogie Man" persona that he continues to use to this day. Jerry's career was far less remarkable, though he held his share of gold around multiple territories, though he never reached the same level of stardom.
When you hear or read the name Dominic DeNucci, odds are you're going to recognize him as the man responsible for training Mick Foley (among others, like Shane Douglas and even Moondog Spot). DeNucci, born in Venice, Italy, first broke into pro wrestling in the Canadian territories, including Stampede Wrestling, working under the name "Dominic Bravo", the kayfabe brother (see?) of "Dino Bravo" (not Adolfo Bresciano, the man who worked under the name Dino Bravo throughout the 70's and into the early 90's). DeNucci moved on to the Australian "World Championship Wrestling" arguably having his greatest success as a solo star. He would work for the WW(W)F over a 15 year span, though he was never much more than a mid-level talent in his prime, and eventually settled into a prelim role. Despite the lack of singles success, DeNucci collected two reigns with the Tag Team Titles, with the distinction of having three partners credited with those reigns. The man who helped DeNucci defeat the Valiant brothers was Victor Rivera, who found most of his success working for NWA Hollywood based out of Los Angeles. Rivera ended up qutting the company in the middle of their reign, and instead of doing a title switch, DeNucci was allowed to have a new partner to recognize as co-holder. "Irish" Pat Barrett would fill the void, though it was obviously meant to be a short-lived choice. DeNucci would have one last taste of WWWF gold, winning the belts in March 1978 with... Dino Bravo. Talk about a career coming full circle with two guys named "Dino Bravo". It's unique that Dino Bravo was credited as a "Canadian Heavyweight Champion" (a title invented and abandoned immediately), but his reign with the tag team belts was NEVER acknowledged during his peak with the company.
On August 25th, 1975, the make-shift team of DeNucci and Barrett lost the belts to two mean Texans known as the Blackjacks, Lanza and Mulligan. With thick mustaches and cowboy boots, they were the prototypical brawlers from the lone star state (even if Lanza was really from Minnesota), a tradition that carried on through the years by names such has Stan Hansen and John "Bradshaw" Layfield. Mulligan, born Robert Windham, would be followed in the wrestling business by his sons, Barry and Kendall, and then his grand-children, Windham and Taylor Rotunda (Bray Wyatt and Bo Dallas). Lanza would retire from the ring in the mid 80's and join the ranks as a backstage producer, along the same lines as Tony Garea and Rene Goulet. His most memorable moment in one of those random on-screen appearances is comically trying to explain to someone he needed a power source to use a drill to open the sealed coffin that the Undertaker trapped the Ultimate Warrior inside of. (If you're questioning these very brief synopses of careers; again, I stress this isn't a detailed biography on any particular superstar, so if someone you like seems slighted, I apologize).
We've finally reached a Championship reign I've dreaded covering... because I thought I would have nothing to really say about either man who held the belts other than "they worked in Canada together, so there you go." Louis Cerdan and Tony Parisi ended the Blackjacks reign on November 18th, 1975, and while I can at least say I've seen a match or two of Parisi (nothing in particular pops out about his work in that small sample size), the name "Louis Cerdan" doesn't ring a bell. That's because I knew him by a different name: Gino Brito. Brito is ANOTHER name connected to Dino Bravo, both professionally and personally, promoting shows for Lutte Internationale with Bravo, and being one of the few professional wrestlers that remained in contact with Bravo before his murder in March of 1993. Tying this in 2020, Brito popped up recently as a talking head on "Dark Side of the Ring" in an episode that covers Bravo's rise and fall in professional wrestling, his dealings with the Canadian-based mafia, and his execution-style murder. Sure, Louis Cerdan as a name meant nothing to me, but Gino Brito instantly pops up an interesting story that could be talked about for hours.
Killer Kowalski, by the time 1976 rolled around, was a 30-year veteran with the reputation of a ruthless rule breaker who's taken the top stars of the territory like Bruno Sammartino to the limit and would punish his opponents with his signature claw hold. Over the years, especially following his retirement from regular in-ring performances, Kowalski became a well-known trainer based out of Massachusetts. Modern era fans know him as the man who trained Paul Levesque (best known as Triple H) among many of his graduates, but one of, if not his first, student was John Minton, who would gain his greatest fame as the iconic foil of Andre the Giant in the WWF, "Big John Studd." In 1976, Big John wasn't an established enough star, so the WWWF took Kowalski and Minton, put them under masks, and labeled them "The Executioners", faceless mercenaries looking to dominate the tag team division. The duo took the titles from Cerdan and Parisi and held them for the majority of 1976, never losing them in competition. By the Fall, a 3rd Executioner (Nikolai Volkoff) was introduced, and illegally entered a match to defend the belts, resulting in the straps being vacated.
A four team tournament was created to determine the new Tag Team Champions. The Executioners received one spot, for the obvious reason of them being the most recent Champions. Nikolai Volkoff, unmasked, was allowed to pick a partner, choosing Tor Kamata, likely due to the conspiracy that he may or may not have had a claim to the belts, because all three Executioners were masked (but eagle-eyed viewers know Volkoff was a solid 4-5 inches shorter than either Kowalski or Studd). The third team of Gorilla Monsoon and Jose Gonzalez was added to the mix, as Gonzalez was a regular opponent of the Executioners, looking to capture the gold, and enlisted the enormous Monsoon as his latest partner. The fourth and final team, fighting for the good of Americana, would be Chief Jay Strongbow and Billy White Wolf. White Wolf is another in our legendary list of fictional Native Americans, being of Iraqi descent and allegedly was a schoolmate of Saddam Hussein. He would ditch the Native American persona in the 80's and transition into a more managerial role as Sheik Adnan Al-Kaissie. He would return to the WWF in the Fall of 1990 as Sgt. Slaughter's manager, General Adnan, and guided the turncoat Slaughter to the WWF Championship in January 1991.
The tournament to crown the new Champions took place at a TV taping in Philadelphia, PA on December 7th. Strongbow and White Wolf pulled off the upset over the Executioners, while Volkoff and Kamata defeated Monsoon and Gonzalez. In the tournament finals, it was Strongbow and White Wolf walking away with the gold. Unfortunately, the reign was cut short when White Wolf needed time off for neck surgery, with the kayfabe result being a brutal attack suffered at the hands of Ken Patera. The injury must've been well known, because the tag titles were practically a non-factor in the company for all of the Spring of 1977. With the titles held up, ANOTHER tournament, this time one much more fictional, "took place", with only the Finals presented. At the TV tapings in Philadelphia on September 27th, 1977, Mr. Fuji and Prof. Tanaka pulled off the first "three-peat" of the Tag Team Championship. At WrestleMania VI, Gorilla Monsoon claimed on that night Demolition was the first team to accomplish that feat. Even if you disregard the "WWWF" and "WWF" being treated differently, there's yet ANOTHER team to pull off the same task in the early-mid 80's, after the change of the company name to the WWF.
Fuji and Tanaka reigned for a little more than 5-months, which seemed to be the median of the Championship reigns during the 1970's. Fuji and Tanaka dropped the belts to DeNucci and Dino Bravo on March 14th, 1978, but it won't be the last time we'll see the devious Mr. Fuji chasing Tag Team Gold. DeNucci and Bravo would carry the belts through the Spring, losing them to the Yukon Lumberjacks on June 26th, 1978, our first title change to take place outside the state of Pennsylvania since Strongbow and Sonny King won them at MSG in May 1972! When it comes to a foreign menace, I'm not quite sure if "Yukon Lumberjacks" fit the bill. Geographically, the Yukon is as far removed from the US border as you can be when it comes to Canadian territories, but two guys in flannel with bushy hair seems like the definition of a short-term solution as they look for more interesting teams to promote. In another classic example of one name meaning more than the other, I originally thought I had little information on Yukon Pierre or Eric. When it came to Pierre, there isn't much to say, as he retired from professional wrestling after his run with the belts. Eric, however, would continue with his career. Real name Scott Irwin, he would move South and began teaming with his brother for the majority of his career. Shedding the "Yukon" gimmick, the brothers would form "The Super Destroyers", and after being unmasked, continued on as The Long Riders. Unfortunately, Scott retired from an inoperable brain tumor and passed away in 1987.
Tony Garea is back on the radar, picking up his third reign with his third partner, the young up-and-coming Larry Zbyszko. While most know Zbyszko for being a loud-mouth heel and after retiring a loud-mouth color commentator, in the mid-late 70's, Zbyszko was a mid-level good guy who idolized Bruno Sammartino, both in real-life and in storylines. Winning the belts on November 21st, 1978, Garea and Zbyszko would carry the belts into the new year, dropping them to the updated incarnation of the Valiant Brothers. With the WWWF shortening the company name to "World Wrestling Federation" that Summer, the Valiant Brothers would be the last team recognized as Champions under the World Wide Wrestling Federation banner, and with that, I think it's time to take a break from recapping our hall of Champions, and we'll pick things up with the pre-Expansion days of the officially branded WWF.
You're no doubt thinking "with all of these title switches and tag teams, weren't any of them represented by a manager?". As you might have guessed, the WWWF was home to some of the most legendary managers of all time. Throughout the 1970's, and into the 80's, there were three key managers that were usually attached to the top heels in the company: "Classy" Freddie Blassie, The Grand Wizard, and last but not least, Captain Lou Albano. While Blassie and the Grand Wizard (a knock on the name of the leader of the KKK, as Ernie Roth was Jewish) dabbled in tag teams from time to time, they were more known for the men they guided to solo glory. On the other side of the coin, Albano managed some solo stars, but it was the tag team division where he claimed the most fame. Over the span of his WW(W)F career, Albano managed an alleged 15 different teams to the Championship gold. While records aren't available for all of them, there's a good understanding that outside of one or two heel combinations, Albano managed most of the Champions of the 70's and 80's, and that total of 15 Champions might even extend into the reigns predating the Championship established in 1971, so mentioning him with all of the different teams I do know he managed would've been tiring and repetitive. If you're a newer, or younger fan, questioning why someone would change protégés on a regular basis, the product of the era was to cycle stars in and out, basically hitting the reset button. Albano would bring in a team, win the belts, lose them, lose the rematches, rinse and repeat. It was such a successful formula that it was used for the Heavyweight Champion, minus the amount of title changes, since the formula there was to keep the belt on the babyface for as long as possible, have him drop it to a heel, who was to drop it immediately to the next man to carry the promotion.
- Since the quality and quantity of television content is limited, here's a select few matches featuring some of the teams of the era, as a window into what the product was like at the time...
Fall #2: Back to live action, Barrett has Lanza in a full nelson, holding him in place for DeNucci to take a shot. Lanza fights out of the corner and they trade right hands, with DeNucci gaining the upper hand. Mulligan tags in, and thanks to Lanza grabbing the trunks, is able to take control. Whip and Mulligan with a diving elbow for three at 0:53. Fall #3: Mulligan and DeNucci trade blows, and again it's DeNucci getting the best of the exchange. Lanza cuts him off with short rights on the chin before tossing him into the turnbuckle. Barrett tries to save, but all it does is allow Albano to get more shots in. Lanza whips DeNucci into the boot of Mulligan, but he no-sells and gives them a DOUBLE NOGGIN KNOCKER. Whip and DeNucci with a weak sledgehammer to the chest for two. Barrett escapes a hammer-lock and sweeps the leg of Mulligan, trapping him in a spinning toe hold. DeNucci with headbutts and an airplane spin but Lanza saves. Barrett with more shoulder tackles and a rolling cradle on Lanza for two. DeNucci with another airplane spin but Mulligan with the save. Barrett with another jaw breaker and cover of Mulligan. For whatever reason, the referee is busy with DeNucci, allowing Lanza to come off the top with a flying knee, and Mulligan rolls on top for the third fall and the tag team titles at 3:33. You know what hit me? How do you put an Italian and an Irishman together as a team? That's ridiculous, even for pro wrestling! Honestly, a match that doesn't showcase either team well for me. Lots of bad selling and awkward segues with the babyfaces. I've seen better from the Blackjacks, so maybe it was bad chemistry.
Final Thoughts: When you're watching professional wrestling from the mid 1970's, especially the WWWF, you can gauge the quality of the workers based on their style and match structure. You could tell a team like the Blackjacks were working a more progressive style, but Dominic DeNucci and Pat Barrett were workers of a bygone era where you had to make it look legit and weren't very giving in the ebb and flow of match structures. Killer Kowalski, who you would consider in that department based on age and experience, was doing stuff that while it dated his offense a little, had a few other tricks up his sleeve to show why he was a legend in the ring, and a good trainer for the next generation. The 1970's tag team division was all about the heels, with interesting characters and gimmicks spread throughout the decade. This era of wrestling isn't for everyone, and I don't think I'd want to sit through an entire card unless all the pieces fell perfectly into place.
When we return with Part 2 in our History of the Tag Team Championship, the World Wrestling Federation is officially born, and we are only a few years removed from the National Expansion riding the waves of Hulkamania and the Rock ‘n' Wrestling Connection. Some familiar faces of the tag team division will continue to make their presence felt, as well as some other legendary tag teams making their presence felt in the promotion. Part 2 will likely follow the same structure as this one, with Part 3 becoming a bit heavier on match recaps as well as recaps of the careers and reigns themselves.