PART I:THE RISE
Back in the 1980’s, the World Wrestling Federation (as it was then known) was a real sight to behold. The very personification of larger-than-life, characters with arms as big as boulders and face paint with all the colours of the rainbow flashed across our television sets every week. Some of these characters were seven-feet tall. Some claimed immortality. Some even carried around exotic animals like birds or snakes.
In short, the 1980s era of the WWF was simply awesome.
Between the furious in-ring action and the unpredictable interview segments in such locales as a barber shop, funeral parlour and….pit(?) there was a lot going on. The company was virtually bursting at the seams, a veritable rocket careening around the earth at hyper speed. Fans, lapping up every second of it with great enthusiasm, strapped themselves in whenever they could and happily joined the ride.
With all of that (and much more) going on, the company needed a strong leader in charge. A man with a firm-but-fair attitude. A man whose sole mission was to simply do right by the company and the fans. A man who wouldn’t flinch in the face of controversy or confrontation.
That man was Jack Tunney.
Born in 1935 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada (my de facto “hometown” for wrestling shows) it isn’t a stretch of hyperbole or imagination to say he was born into the wrestling business. Five years before he was even born, his father John Tunney was one of the founding members of the group responsible for the “Queensbury Athletic Club” (alongside Jack Corcoran, Frank Tunney, and Toots Mondt). The QAC, which of course came to be known as “Maple Leaf Wrestling”, was one of Canada’s most recognizable promotions in professional wrestling.
It was simply the natural way of life that Jack, when ready and able, would follow the family footsteps and enter the wrestling business.
In 1952 he would begin working with the company, in an official capacity, as a referee. It wouldn’t be long, however, before Jack began making power moves in an attempt to scale up the corporate ladder. He quickly found himself as part of the booking team, working alongside (amongst others) “Whipper” Billy Watson.
The booking group had great Canadian success, promoting shows throughout southern Ontario, at one point even procuring the agreement to be the sole professional wrestling company able to run events in the famed Maple Leaf Gardens.
For a period of time, their head office was even in the Gardens itself.
Maple Leaf Gardens, of course, is most notably known as the home of the Toronto Maple Leafs. However, its place in professional wrestling, particularly the Canadian history of it, is deeply rooted.
Lou Thesz’ seven-year NWA Championship reign came to an end in the Gardens. And some years later, in 1963, Thesz would defeat Buddy Rogers for the NWA Championship in the same building. Vincent J. McMahon, however, refused to acknowledge Thesz as the champion. He decided to break off his affiliation with the NWA, start his own territory, and recognize Buddy Rogers as the true World Champion.
And with that, the World Wide Wrestling Federation was born. All because of events that transpired in Maple Leaf Gardens deep in the heart of Toronto, Canada.
While the wrestling world was expanding and booming at a rapid pace, Jack Tunney himself was also on a meteoric rise. Routinely selling out shows at the Gardens using shared talent from NWA and the WWF, he and his family had a headlock on any and all pro wrestling competition that dare stand in their way.
And in moves that surely caught the attention of Vincent K. McMahon, Tunney would routinely react to other promoters trying to run shows in Toronto by scheduling his own on the same day. Tunney’s cards, of course, had incredible star power, and he would perennially blow these start-up companies out of the water, drawing thousands to their hundreds.
By the time 1978 rolled around, the Tunney’s had brokered a deal with NWA and Jim Crockett Promotions to use their talent for Toronto shows. Ricky Steamboat and Ric Flair would become the main attractions, and would help Maple Leaf Wrestling continue to be the dominant game in town.
At one point their influence was so great on the Toronto scene that other promoters didn’t necessarily protest to them booking talents from multiple rival organizations. This led to events which featured multiple World Championship matches on the same card. It was a wrestling fans dream as AWA Champion Nick Bockwinkel tangled with WWWF Champion Bob Backlund.
If that wasn’t enough, Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat would entertain in the undercard.
Times were good. But professional wrestling as an industry was evolving, and the good times simply weren’t built to last.
As the decade of the 1980s began, promoters were becoming increasingly less likely to work together. The changing landscape was a blow to Maple Leaf Wrestling and the Tunney’s, who could no longer promote such lavish cards, despite having the Southern Ontario geography still very much in their grip.
In the early 1980s the Tunney’s and Maple Leaf Wrestling ran a show in Buffalo, NY (a short trip from Toronto). The show was a success, garnering over 8,000 people in paid attendance. It also marked a collaboration between WWF and the Tunney’s that would be a harbinger for things to come.
On May 10th, 1983 Frank Tunney passed away. This opened the door for Jack, who had been taking on more of the head office responsibilities anyway. Seizing his opportunity to leave his indelible mark and change the direction of the company in general, Tunney officially changed the name to Maple Leaf Wrestling (until this time it had been officially known as the QAC, with most fans resorting to calling it Maple Leaf Wrestling, anyway). Tunney also booked two massive shows at the CNE fairgrounds, an outdoor venue in Toronto.
The shows were main evented by NWA World Championship matches between Ric Flair and Harley Race and were a success, generating over 31,000 attendees. Much like he had done prior, however, Tunney was preparing another power move. This one would pivot him, and Maple Leaf Wrestling, in a direction and height that was previously unknown.
With Vince McMahon and Jim Crockett battling to be the king of the wrestling world, Tunney found himself once more in a position to benefit greatly from simply being in the right place at the right time. With the Toronto and Southern Ontario market under his thumb, he sat in an advantageous spot, and was destined to become a key player in the expansion of professional wrestling going forward.
Jim Crockett began sending his B-squad wrestlers for Tunney to use in Toronto shows. The reason for this has never quite been uncovered. However, many feel like Crockett had a mistrust of Tunney, who still had an open working relationship with other promotions, notably the WWF.
With Crockett’s unwillingness to send the NWA’s top talents, numbers for Toronto shows were starting to dwindle. Tunney knew he had the means to make a move, and knew the time was right to strike.
Whether he sensed the boom period from WWF coming, or whether he simply felt scorned by Crockett, Tunney made the move to align himself full time with World Wrestling Federation, giving Vince McMahon exclusive right to shows in Toronto (or more specifically, Maple Leaf Gardens).
While Tunney and Maple Leaf Wrestling were among the first of the territories to leave NWA and align with Vince McMahon, they certainly weren’t the last. Once more it seemed Toronto was at the centre of professional wrestling history.
By 1984, Jack and his cousin Eddie had agreed to give controlling interest of Maple Leaf Wrestling to Vincent K. McMahon and the World Wrestling Federation. The resulting deal breathed new life into the Tunney-owned venture, and solidified Toronto, Canada as a WWF town.
Having drawn a sparse crowd of just 3,000 a few years earlier, Maple Leaf Wrestling and the WWF packed over 65,000 into the CNE Exhibition Stadium in 1986 as Hulkamania was reaching its apex. By 1990, they would smash the indoor attendance record for the Toronto SkyDome, drawing some 68,000 fans to watch Hulk Hogan battle the Ultimate Warrior in the main event of Wrestlemania XI.
As one can imagine, it isn’t easy to find the inter workings of the deal between the Tunney’s and World Wrestling Federation. But one quick look at the basic parameters and it isn’t difficult to see that it was a deal ripe with complexities.
For starters, Maple Leaf Wrestling was absorbed into the WWF administration, with Jack Tunney and his cousin Frank running the “WWF Canada” offices out of their Toronto location. However, despite this absorption, the WWF wasn’t free to run shows in Toronto without the blessing and direct involvement of the two.
To further cloud and complicate matters, Frank wasn’t given nearly as much power as Jack despite being promised this at the initial onset of the deal. As one can imagine, this led to issues down the road (including one that nearly derailed the aforementioned Wrestlemania XI, as the deposit for the stadium and the Canadian trademark for the show were both made in Frank’s name).
Though the move to solidify Toronto as a WWF-exclusive town seemed risky, it was a part of Vince McMahon’s bold national expansion strategy, and was a power move that paid off in the long run. AWA had tremendous difficulties running shows in Toronto (at the CNE, of course, because the Tunney’s and WWF would not allow another company to run at Maple Leaf Gardens, remember). Even WCW made very few visits in the early 90s before giving up almost entirely, only returning in 1999 as the company was gasping its final breaths.
As for Maple Leaf Wrestling, it was beginning to fade from the lexicon of professional wrestling.
The Canadian Heavyweight Championship was gone (it has since returned). Maple Leaf Wrestling as a television product still aired on CHCH out of Hamilton, Ontario, but was essentially an abridged version of “WWF Superstars Of Wrestling” with some Canadian-themed content or matches sprinkled in throughout.
The legacy of Maple Leaf Wrestling, and the QAC, was dissipating. But the rise of Jack Tunney in the world of professional wrestling was only beginning.
Tunney would become chief promoter for all WWF shows in Canada, as well as the President of Titan Sports Canada. He and his cousin Frank retained one-third controlling interest in what remained of Maple Leaf Wrestling, were in charge of booking all WWF events in Toronto and Southern Ontario, and benefited financially from every show run in the area.
And while all of that was very important in the history of professional wrestling, it was his on-air persona that fans will forever remember the wily businessman for.
In September of 1984, Jack Tunney would begin his role as on air President of World Wrestling Federation, a title he would hold for over a decade, until 1995.
Obviously the decision to name Tunney as on-air President was done for many reasons. For one, it gave WWF fans in Toronto (and Canada) a familiar face to associate with the company as they expanded into the country. It also allowed him to be the foil for many memorable on-screen moments. Tunney oversaw the WWF through its Hulkamania years and beyond, and was used as a pivotal character in many of the company’s most memorable storylines of the time.
While he was little more than an on-air character (his influence backstage was very small, save for the Canadian tours), Tunney’s approach to his duties was regarded fondly by fans. His level-headed, fair decision making the perfect counterbalance to the craziness that was the WWF of the era.
Tunney was a key figure in the Andre The Giant suspension angle which eventually saw the eighth wonder of the world return under a mask as “The Giant Machine”. He also oversaw many of the confrontations between Hulk Hogan and Andre in the build up to their legendary Wrestlemania III encounter.
He found himself tangled up in the famous moment in which Andre The Giant and Ted DiBiase used the evil twin of referee Earl Hebner to con Hulk Hogan out of the WWF Championship. The angle lives to this day as one of the most famous from the WWF’s heyday, with Hogan’s overacting, pleading for answers on how it was possible, and Andre handing DiBiase the Championship.
The moment was the catalyst for the WWF Championship tournament fans were treated to at Wrestlemania IV.
Tunney was also highly involved in the Randy Savage-Jake Roberts feud which escalated to the point where Savage was bitten by one of Roberts’ snakes in a moment that still haunts the dreams of anyone who was young enough to be traumatized by the event (read: me).
He would go on to oversee the entire WWF Championship debacle surrounding Survivor Series 1991 and This Tuesday In Texas. After Undertaker defeated Hulk Hogan for his first WWF Championship (with assistance from Ric Flair) Tunney sat ringside to ensure a fair title match with a legitimate ending. Flair got involved anyway, and in the melee Tunney was knocked over. With chaos encasing the ringside area, Hogan used the ashes from the urn to blind Undertaker and defeat him for the belt.
Tunney, unsatisfied with the outcome, declared the title vacant, and announced the winner of the 1992 Royal Rumble would go home as the WWF Champion. This led to what many believe is the best Royal Rumble match ever.
His presidency would also oversee the stripping of Shawn Michaels of the Intercontinental Championship, as well as the controversy surrounding the steel plate in the arm of Lex Luger and whether or not it was a weapon or simply part of his body.
In what was one of his final appearances on camera, Tunney handed out admittedly one of his weaker rulings. When both Bret Hart and Lex Luger went over the top rope and had their feet touch the floor simultaneously to end the 1994 Royal Rumble, Tunney simply appeared the following night on RAW and flipped a coin, granting the winner the coveted Wrestlemania X WWE Championship match.
But all told it was a pretty impressive mark that the Tunney character left on the WWF. Heck, who can forget what was surely one of the greatest rulings ever handed down by an athletic commissioner, which occurred when he suspended referee Danny Davis for “life plus ten years!” After Davis was found to be performing his duties as an official with a bias toward certain performers (namely, the heels).
In this era of WWF wrestling, the authority figure wan’t biased toward one particular wrestling or faction. In fact, it could be argued he wasn’t even a regular character, only appearing on screen when a big decision was to be made. This seemed to bring a real air of legitimacy and importance to both the character and his rulings.
This fact, combined with Tunney’s no nonsense demeanour, made him a crowd favourite. But with his appearances becoming more and more sporadic, the man who was once a staple of WWF programming was fading away into obscurity, with little to no fanfare.
And it wouldn’t be for the last time, either.