A comment on my post about WWF referees from the 1980s brought up a moment that I hadn’t thought about in a long time: The day that Greg “The Hammer” Valentine seemed to become the WWF Heavyweight Champion at Madison Square Garden in October 1981.
Valentine was battling champ Bob Backlund. During an airplane spin, the referee got knocked down by Backlund’s leg, and the wrestlers also tumbled to the mat. Backlund covered Valentine and the groggy ref counted a pinfall, but Valentine was the first guy to stand up, so the ref raised his hand and awarded him the belt.
This angle was exclusive to New York City and MSG, as I don’t ever recall hearing this title change announced on Saturday morning Championship Wrestling here in Boston. I only found out about it through the Bill Apter magazines, which were a lifeline for those of us who wanted to learn what was going on in pro wrestling across the country.
Alas, Howard Finkel announced after the bout that WWF officials, in response to the unusual circumstances of the match’s finish, had held up the title. Backlund and Valentine fought in a rematch the next month at MSG, and Backlund won.
You won’t see this incident reflected in the WWE’s official title history (then again, the WWE also does not acknowledge Antonio Inoki’s brief run as WWF champ in 1979).
It would impossible to do a local house angle like this today with the proliferation of wrestling websites and social media. But it was a cool idea in 1981, and a pretty clever way to build the next house show up. And it worked, too. According to The History of WWE website, the October show drew 18,120, while the rematch brought in an impressive 21,104.
Those attendance figures are for MSG cards that were about five weeks apart. WWF house show business was clearly hot in 1981.