By Tim Hornbaker
Enthusiasts attending the monthly professional wrestling events
at New York’s Madison Square Garden in Pennsylvania Plaza
during the 1960s and ’70s were accustom to seeing the name of
Willie Gilzenberg listed on the front of the official arena program.
Gilzenberg was identified as the President of the World Wide
Wrestling Federation, the sanctioning body behind the promotion of
Vincent McMahon, known throughout the wrestling world as a
revolutionary. While McMahon is thoroughly recognized for his
accomplishments at the top of a popular pro wrestling organization,
Gilzenberg is often overlooked for his contributions to the
development of the WWWF, the precursor to today’s WWE.
The fact is that Gilzenberg played a much larger role in the WWWF’s creation and expansion than most people know.
McMahon’s lofty vision for the northeastern territory was balanced by crafty ideas and a series of decisions that broke the
mold for a region of cities controlled by a central office. United, their conglomerate was strong willed and powerfully
constructed, and able to function without the aid of the National Wrestling Alliance, a long standing union of bookers which
had, illegally, monopolized the sport. The usage of television as a way to both promote and expand was as innovative as it
was controversial, but, in the end, demonstrated the competence of McMahon and his partners.
Gilzenberg, nicknamed the “Beard” for his perpetual five o’clock shadow, was a well known veteran of wrestling and
boxing by the time he linked up with Vince, and had done business with McMahon’s father, the esteemed “Jess” McMahon,
one-time partner of Tex Rickard. The McMahons had been ingrained in the culture of New York sports since the early
1910s, and based out of Newark, Gilzenberg had seen the highs and lows of the tumultuous promotional landscape.
Born on October 24, 1901 in Essex County, New Jersey, William Gilzenberg was the first child of Jacob and Pauline
Gilzenberg, Austrian born immigrants. He grew up on Springfield Avenue and heeded the lessons of his stern parents,
obtained an education, and became a student of professional athletics. In local gymnasiums, he found employment as a
corner man and trainer for aspiring boxers, and earned wages from the boxing industry as early as 1918 at the Ark-New
Club. Managing was a natural progression, and he took the contracts of many hopefuls, including George “Happy” Benkert,
Lew Seltzer, Lou Halper, Abie Bain, and Vince Dundee.
In the arts of boxing promotions, Willie was mentored by Paddy Ryan (not the original), and staged his first ever show in
1926 at the Grandview Amusement Park in Little Falls, New Jersey. The affair was between Pietro Couri and Frank
Montagna and the spectacle gave Gilzenberg the bug. Not an athlete of any repute, he was more suited for negotiations
and the conception of matches that enthralled spectators. Being a promoter was the job he was born for.
Going into the Great Depression, Willie was given the responsibility of matchmaking for Harry Mendel at the Velodrome
in Newark, and became acquainted with numerous “big-time” fighters and promoters in the New York City metropolitan
area. Possessing a youthfulness and spirit that rekindled the local boxing office, business flourished. Willie remained allies
with Mendel, who would go on to manage heavyweight prospect Tony Galento, but found a new partner in Thomas “Babe”
Culnan in March 1932. Culnan had resided in Newark since 1916 and had been a member of distinguished promotional
squad known as the “Four Horsemen” with Frank Black, Harry Blaufuss, and Nick Kline.
With Culnan’s experience and Gilzenberg’s enthusiasm, the two reestablished the fight game in Northern New Jersey
under the guise of Laurel Sports Activities, Inc. Willie also took on the management of the wrestling side of the Laurel
Gardens in Newark, obtaining grapplers from the Jack Pfefer and “Toots” Mondt booking offices of New York. The wild-and-
wooly grappling business always presented a challenge, but fans were given the best product available, seeing the likes of
Jim Londos, The Golden Terror, Chief Little Wolf, Angelo Savoldi, and the Dusek Brothers. He padded the cards with
talent, staged tournaments, and authorized all the mayhem wrestling could muster to draw up the excitement.
Gilzenberg proved his willingness to try new techniques to spark interest and believed in the diversity of week-to-week
“scripts” to keep things as lively as possible. A more than competent businessman, Willie wasn’t in it only for the money. He
wanted to preserve their operations for the long haul, and didn’t see the advantages in anything that could burn out his
main venue on a singular gamble. On more than one occasion, his patience and manners were tested by heartless
bookers of talent who were always concentrated on their bottom line.
Civic orientated, Gilzenberg was at the crux of many local fundraisers and regularly added benefits to his boxing and
wrestling programs, especially during the holidays. He was never ignorant to what the municipality of Newark meant to him,
and was cognizant of what he was personally getting out of paying customers, which were, essentially, his neighbors. In
1938, he pooled his resources with Culnan and William J. Patterson to construct the Meadowbrook Bowl outdoor stadium in
South Orange, a site of many of the region’s top athletic events.
Around 1933-’34, Gilzenberg met a young up-and-coming fighter from Elizabeth, New Jersey named Freddie Cochrane,
and became his official manager. The red-headed lightweight, and later welterweight, had built an impressive record. By
November 1935, Cochrane was 23-3 and looking for a match with Tony Canzoneri, but instead of streaking toward the top
of the class, he lost more than half of his 44 fights over the next three years, and sank into the doldrums of mediocrity. It
wasn’t that Cochrane lacked talent, or heart for that matter, as most of his losses were on points, but he wasn’t of
championship timber. Gilzenberg remained with Freddie, giving him consistent work in Newark through the end of the
Popular with the local crowd, Cochrane kept plugging away, using his sturdy jaw and quick hands to regain some footing
in the boxing world. Gilzenberg never gave up trying to establish something positive, and a series of nine victories in a row
set the stage for a coo of sorts, landing a World Welterweight Championship match for Newark at Ruppert Stadium on July
29, 1941. “Red” Cochrane was going in against the defending champion of nine months, Fritzie Zivic of Pittsburgh, and was
the definite underdog, with odds as high as 20-1. Needless to say, both Freddie and Gilzenberg had a lot riding on the
affair, but with the bout being staged in Newark, the challenger had home field advantage.
Pundits have examined and scrutinized the Zivic-Cochrane match for the last 65 years. There is a heavy leaning among
that crowd that the Newark bout was fixed, a sham that was concocted by men in dark suits under the cover of night. The
main reason was because Cochrane came out the victor in a heavily contested fistic battle, one that was decided on points
by a local referee/judge after 15 rounds. Large amounts of money traded hands in the aftermath and people cried foul, but
no matter what had been said or done, Gilzenberg had driven his top man to the championship of the world. And certainly
no one could pin-point him with any blame of wrong-doing. All that was left was accusations.
Most every fight manager and promoter in the United States absolutely had to have some sort of loose ties to the
criminal underworld. It just wasn’t an option on the table. Frankie Carbo, a reputed mobster, was neck deep in professional
boxing, and there wasn’t a major contest being staged that he didn’t have something to do with. Through the years, Willie’s
knowledge and understanding of how things were done grew, of course, but again, not a single person could say his
comprehension of subtle dealings compromised his ethical standards. He was a tough man in a tough business, and had to
“play ball” to make a living.
Cochrane’s championship victory appeared tainted to those who were a little less idealistic of upsets for the hometown
hero, but there was no proof on any level. Several weeks after the bout, Gilzenberg stepped out of his position in Laurel
Sports Activities to devote himself to the titleholder full-time. An untimely controversy of Cochrane’s reign occurred following
the fighter’s bout with lightweight champion Lew Jenkins at Madison Square Garden on October 6, 1941. The tedious
match went ten rounds to a decision in favor of Freddie, but an investigation by the New York Athletic Commission turned up
some disheartening news. According to the October 8 edition of the New York Times, Gilzenberg had told his fighter to
“take things easy in the early part of the bout,” which resulted in a six month suspension.
The sometimes overly righteous and moral New York Athletic Commission would be a thorn in the side of Gilzenberg and
many other promoters for decades. The members were not pleased with the outcome of the October 6 bout and had
tagged what they believed to be a worthy punishment for Willie’s actions. Cochrane disagreed, remaining loyal to the
manager that had carried him for so long, and refused to fight again in New York until Gilzenberg was reinstated. That
meant he was withdrawing from a planned Garden match on October 31 against “Sugar” Ray Robinson, and another good
Loyalty was a key word in the world of Willie Gilzenberg. His fighters were committed to him almost to a fault, as he was
to them, and that same sort of fondness was seen up and down the line from establishments he frequented to the staff of
the Laurel Gardens or the Newark boxing office. To some degree, that also included the New Jersey State Athletic (Boxing)
Commission, of which he had strong ties to for over 50 years. There was one particular employee that meant a little more to
him than the average commissioner or chairman. Lillian Lipkin was a secretary for the regulatory body, and Willie’s wife as
Cochrane did what he felt was right, and stood by his manager and friend, much to the chagrin of the New York
commission. Before the end of the year, however, Freddie did something almost as important as staying devoted to a close
ally, he enlisted in the United States Naval Reserve, becoming the first sitting champion to ever do so. The maneuver was
costly financially, forcing him to miss out on an estimated $100,000 in bouts. While Cochrane worked as a instructor in
Newport, Rhode Island, Gilzenberg had an operation to remove a cyst from his spine, and was on convalescent leave from
Injuries suffered in a hit-and-run accident in Newport, which hospitalized him for 24 days, were blamed for Cochrane’s 10-
round non-title loss to the Marine’s Garvey Young in Boston in May 1942, but Freddie was prepared to return for a rematch
with Zivic at the Gardens in New York City on September 10. Zivic won that contest on points in 10 rounds, but not the title
because it was not on the line. Two days later, he reported to duty for transportation to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, and
continued to fulfill his military obligations at a time of war.
In the meantime, Gilzenberg assumed the contract of Tony “Two Ton” Galento in 1943. The two went on the road,
traversing the country taking on all opponents, including professional wrestlers, in what the National Boxing Association said
was “barnstorming.” Not thinking too highly of their actions, the NBA announced on June 23, 1943 that all Galento’s future
matches would be labeled “exhibitions.” The organization’s president Abe Greene, former New Jersey chairman and one of
Willie’s pals, issued a statement, saying in part: “Galento has been bouncing around the country, knocking out a wrestler
here, an old-timer there, a couple of share hands as an extra bargain. But because the general impression has been that
he was on a come back tour, an unfavorable washback has resulted in those cities where he has played.”
The Galento tour was successful, and he knocked out such wrestling luminaries as Fred Blassie and Babe Sharkey. It
was apparent that a serious run at the heavyweight title was out of the realm of possibilities, and Galento’s weight climbed to
upwards of 245 pounds. The wrestling audience, however, was impressed by his act, and wanted to see more of him.
Promoters around the country were ready to oblige, offering Galento jobs as a special referee from California to New
England. For Willie, the “barnstorming” meant income, and professional wrestling seemed to be a natural step.
On the boxing front, Gilzenberg aided the careers of Benny Leonard, Mickey Walker, Bob Olin and managed the likes of
Larry Lane of Trenton and Freddie Fiduci of Newark. In September 1945, he once again met the long arm of the New York
Athletic Commission law. The body suspended him and Fiduci both for 60 days for failing to report a bribe attempt prior to
the latter’s Madison Square Garden bout with Fred Schott. In January 1946, negotiations for “Red” Cochrane’s first World
Welterweight Title defense were made against Al Weill’s product Marty Servo at the Garden on February 1. In the fourth
round, Freddie was knocked out, losing the championship, but earning a purported $50,000 guarantee. That bout
effectively ended his career.
Willie’s traveling days were seemingly over. He resumed operations with Babe Culnan at Laurel Sports Activities, Inc.
and tried to sign the biggest fights possible for area arenas. However, by the summer of 1947, he was back on the road
with Galento, which was not so surprising, this time as the manager of a full-time pro wrestler. Galento, Willie hoped, would
earn like ex-heavyweight champion Primo Carnera had been, but was somewhat disappointed in that respect. The two did
do well financially, making appearances around North America, and drawing some success.
In an article written by Oscar Fraley, sent to newspapers near and far along the United Press wire on January 14, 1949,
Galento spoke about his wrestling career: “I been beatin’ all these guys who call themselves world champions. Guys like
Orville Brown, Marvin Westenberg, Herman Rhode, who also calls himself ‘Nature Boy,” and Rudy Dusek. In over 125 bouts
I never been pinned.” Galento’s gimmick on the mat was of pure entertainment value to promoters, and he was never in a
place to capture a major claim to the wrestling championship.
While Willie continued to prosper in all avenues of athletic promotions, he suffered a serious family tragedy that might
have crippled the normal man. The Gilzenbergs resided in Irvington prior to moving to Vailsburg in 1944, where their young
son Harold Michael went to Alexander Street School and then Irvington High until his graduation in June 1950. Less than a
week after Harold celebrated his 18th birthday on June 29, he was killed in an automobile accident at Route 6 and
Changebridge road in Montville, New Jersey. His funeral was attended by dignitaries from throughout the sports world with
everyone paying their respects to the Gilzenbergs.
Willing to settle for the peace and quiet back in Newark for several years, Willie emboldened himself again, branching
out to become the “director” for Tex Sullivan’s London Sporting Club, a boxing unit, in New York City. He and his wife had a
daughter, named Holly Paula, and “Gillie” prepared to handle business objectives a little closer to home. His days of
catching planes, trains, and automobiles to towns of all shapes and sizes with a prized wrestler or fighter were over.
Beginning on May 17, 1954, the Manhattan outfit ran every Monday for 93 straight weeks from the St. Nichols Arena,
and had television coverage across the DuMont network. A “trust-buster” of sorts, Julius Helfand, chairman of the New York
Athletic Commission, targeted boxing in December 1955 with the intentions of weeding out the criminal element that was
controlling the sport. The first move he made was a promise to suspend the licenses of any manager affiliated with the
mighty Boxing Managers Guild after January 16, claiming that the group had knowingly operated with reputed crime figures,
specifically Frankie Carbo.
When it was made known that instead of following the new guidelines, the honchos behind the London Sports Club were
going to move their Monday night boxing program from St. Nichols to an arena in Baltimore, Helfand became very interested
in the motives. He openly claimed that Baltimore was being run by gangsters, and questioned the integrity of both
Gilzenberg and Sullivan.
Hefland was quoted as saying: “I intend to find out if Willie Gilzenberg and Tex Sullivan have been in violation of the law
forbidding association with known criminals such as [Benny] Magliano (Benny Trotta) and his partner, Angelo Munafo, and
through them with the boss of both, Mr. Carbo. If the facts indicate, the commission will take disciplinary action, looking to a
revocation of their licenses.”
Boxing managers and promoters were scrambling to pick up the pieces, but it seemed apparent that Hefland was going
to make an example out of the two promoters. The New York Commission, which had proven to be obstinate and
occasionally unfair, had eight charges against Willie and Sullivan, and established a hearing date to weed through the
evidence. The board’s inquiry occurred on January 24, 1956, but only Sullivan appeared to make his case. Gilzenberg
sent his resignation from the London Sports Club the day prior, and sold all interest, but Hefland was not going to let the
former fight manager off the hook that easy. After a month’s deliberation, the New York Commission suspended Gilzenberg
(treasurer) and Sullivan’s (matchmaker) licenses indefinitely, and fined Willie $5,000.
The New Jersey Boxing Commission had a different point of view on the situation, and boldly refused to follow suit.
Commissioner Joseph Walker issued a statement regarding Gilzenberg’s status in the “Garden State,” saying: “In
consideration of twenty-four years of operation of the Laurel Sports Club and your record in New Jersey of thirty-seven
years as a licensee of this commission, free of any suspensions, I therefore approve of you as a licensee of this commission
and also approve of the continued operation of the Laurel Sports Club.”
Remarking on the situation, Willie said: “It proves conclusively there is justice in New Jersey. My plans are to continue in
boxing in New Jersey.”
Gilzenberg’s unwillingness to share information with the New York Commission may have had a residual effect on the
outcome of his portion of the investigation over and above any particular finding. On the other hand, it was rumored that
Willie’s muted tone earned him great levels of respect with people on the other side of the law. However, just maybe tattle-
tailing on anyone, no matter their stature, wasn’t something he wanted to do, especially before a board that seemed to
have, for years, displayed some sort of private animosity toward him.
Right around the same time, Vincent McMahon, a wise Washington D.C. wrestling promoter, obtained a prime television
spot on Thursday nights in New York City. His presence locally on the DuMont network opened the door for many new
opportunities, especially a place in the hierarchy of Madison Square Garden, the heart of the city. Vince was the son of the
late Roderick “Jess” McMahon, a prominent fistic promoter going back to the days of Tex Rickard, and regarded as one of
the brightest grappling promoters in the east. Gaining exposure in New York City was a major accomplishment, and instead
of remaining confined inside the Beltway, he now had an interest in the largest, and most lucrative town in the United States.
Despite the personal achievement, McMahon wasn’t immediately embraced by the established tribe. Charley Johnston
and his nephew Walter Smallshaw, who held the license to promote grappling at the Garden, and Kola Kwariani, their
matchmaker, had an issue with the newcomer that wasn’t going to vanish with a handshake. Relinquishing power on any
level was something they wanted to avoid, but in this particular case, McMahon’s TV seized it right out from under them.
Added the fact that McMahon was a proactive and intelligent businessman, there was no doubt he was going to manipulate
things positively. Vince was not going to waste the great opportunity laid at his feet by the executives at DuMont.
With his father now deceased and his primary residence in Washington, McMahon sought allies in the New York area
that could assist in the day-to-day operations. His initial move was to partner up with the city’s most famous matchmaker
Joe “Toots” Mondt, a controversial, but bright former wrestler. Mondt was a skilled and complicated man with a vast
reputation. Harboring great financial and gambling problems, “Toots” always found himself in the thick of things despite his
active involvement in extra-curricular spending. Also considered an outsider to the Johnston clique, Mondt was the perfect
colleague under the circumstances, but there was never a dull moment.
The formation of the Capitol Wrestling Corporation was next, occurring on August 5, 1957, and was initially made up of
McMahon, Mondt, Phil Zacko, and Johnny Doyle. In the years that followed, the shareholders traded stock and positions,
but there was little question who the leader was. McMahon watched his empire slowly grow, using his television exposure to
enrapture fans from Maine to Virginia. Outgoing and very personable, he would edge into Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Detroit,
and Chicago, and had talent sharing agreements with the members of the National Wrestling Alliance. McMahon’s success
was adding up very quickly, but there was constant aggravation and a sense of mistrust in the New York office, where the
heart of Capitol beat just under the mat of Madison Square Garden. That’s were Willie Gilzenberg came in.
Gilzenberg’s relationship to McMahon grew from passing acquaintance to a vital component in the Capitol system. More
or less, Willie became the northern representative of McMahon’s interests, a trusted friend that would preserve the integrity
of their operations in the face of any spiteful maneuvering. McMahon called the shots, but slickly evaded most of the
constant heat and backstabbing that occupied just about everyone involved with wrestling in New York City. He called upon
Gilzenberg to act as sort of a mediator when difficulties arose among the principals, especially those involving Mondt.
The manipulation of talent was probably the main quandary facing the different individuals, and in the late 1950s and
early 1960s, most of the open discussion revolved around Antonino “Argentina” Rocca. Rocca was the most popular figure
in New York, transcending the business in many ways, and his appearances, from National Guard Armories to the Garden,
were always an event to behold. His numbers at the Garden were astonishing, and one didn’t have to wonder why
everyone involved with the precious arena were scrambling to preserve their piece of the pie. And especially the man who
controlled Rocca, absolutely had the power.
In one of wrestling’s biggest bombshells in years, McMahon obtained the contract of Rocca, and legend has it that soon
thereafter Johnston, Smallshaw and even Mondt bestowed the unconditional title of “boss” to him. New York remained
pressurized, and the struggle to present programs that fans were eager for continued. In a stark contrast to others in the
territory, McMahon’s intelligence was demonstrated time and time again when it came to utilizing talent from sharing
agreements with promoters in places like Los Angeles, Miami, Montreal, and Toronto.
Gilzenberg was a beneficiary of the same talent pool and his faithful responded month in and month out at venues in
Newark, Jersey City, Paterson or Elizabeth. He ballyhooed with the best of them and audiences witnessed some of the
wildest action this side of the Mississippi. One night at the Laurel Garden, Willie joined grapplers Rocca, Baron Gattoni and
The Zebra Kid in the ring as a singles bout between the first two quickly morphed into a three way dance. To gain the
upper hand, the fleet footed Rocca began launching dropkicks. Caught in the crossfire, Gilzenberg himself was sent flying
into the ring ropes and down to the mat.
Afterward, Gilzenberg said: “This morning, my daughter Holly wanted to play horse with me. I told her I couldn’t because
I’d been dropkicked. Now even she knows wrestling is on the level.”
On a personal level, Willie never tried to exceed his own authority or expand over the back of any of his associates. His
past experiences in Manhattan and with the New York Athletic Commission were enough to give anyone heartache, but he
watched the progression of business there closely. He stepped in when it was essential and provided McMahon some of
the best council found anywhere in sports.
A review of the letters written by Gilzenberg to the famous nomad promoter Jack Pfefer held by the Special Collections
Department at the University of Notre Dame reveals some potent information regarding the wrestling scene in New York
City. As noted earlier, the atmosphere was constantly shaky with heavy personalities and sharp egos. Reading the letters,
one would get the sense that the entire Garden wrestling business could snap in two in a split second. Despite the harsh
conditions, Gilzenberg never lost faith in McMahon, and expressed his confidence and allegiance to him regularly:
June 25, 1960 – Gilzenberg wrote:
“You say you wish you had brains like me to take care of yourself – Jack, you have enough brains for both of us. You are
only kidding Jack Pfefer taking or choosing the side you are on. It won’t take but seconds for your team to remove or farm
you out – with or without your money. They’ve done it before and will do it again, gleefully. At least, Vince McMahon, who is
my type MAN, didn’t stab you in the back – he only did what any business man would have to do when he was told your men
were working in clubs he didn’t book.
“Jack – I have told you this time and again – I won’t be afraid to tell this to the world – and this is NOT confidential – the first
time Vince McMahon is hurt by anyone connected with the New York Office --- and that goes for anyone – I will step in and
make – ‘em holler “Uncle.”
“This is no threat. I have the tools or ammunition to do it with.
“Because, should Vince get hurt – that means Babe and I will suffer, as well. We are both very definitely on his ball (Vince’
July 7, 1960 – Gilzenberg wrote:
“I feel badly about the ‘stealing’ of Bruno Sammartino – I only wish I was involved – the thief would wish a thousand times he’
d have left the boy alone. I will sink with Vince McMahon, if necessary, whom I consider the nicest man I ever dealt with in
wrestling. And, he will win in a walk. If he feels he is losing the battle – all he need do is send for me and I’ll take care of
many a bloke. Most important, I am able, willing and have the necessary material to do the job. And, I won’t worry who gets
hurt in the interim.”
Even the toughest and most skilled diplomats needed a break from the constant haggling, and Gilzenberg disappeared
from the angst of New York for greener pastures in Miami Beach. Despite the relocation, he maintained his partnership with
Culnan and McMahon, and refused to retire. He had many great years ahead of him, but Miami did offer a unique new
enterprises, and Gilzenberg was quick to size up the city for possible ventures. The town was “owned” and booked by
Cowboy Luttrall of Tampa and, in 1959, was seeing the budding of a promotional war with Chris Dundee and Al Ritchie
striving for position.
Trying to find a spot of his own in between the varying personalities, Gilzenberg found that it was better to be in support
of Ritchie or Dundee rather than battle to start his own promotion. The easing of tensions in Florida only helped trade
talent from New York to Tampa or Miami, and allowed certain wrestlers to wheel back and forth on a regular basis, which
was great for their wallets. Once again, Gilzenberg’s gift to negotiate settled a potential conflict, and opened the door for
McMahon’s ability to use television to market future wrestling events was revolutionary, and helped every single
promoter that he booked talent to from spot shows in Virginia to clubs throughout New Jersey and New York. In 1959, he
opened up a second TV outlet into New York City, this one from Bridgeport, Connecticut, and if fans weren’t already being
influenced by the shenanigans out of Washington, maybe the second offering would lasso them into the wild wrestling
world. It was a smart move, one that paid impressive dividends.
The importation of Buddy Rogers in 1960 was looked at by some as a risk, but McMahon knew what he was doing. A
“proper” exploitation of the blond haired heel boosted sales around the territory, and at the time of the annual NWA
convention, McMahon and “Toots” Mondt made a pitch selling the positive aspects of having Buddy as the national touring
world heavyweight champion. Their proposal was successful, and Gilzenberg was instrumental in the massive publicity
campaign to get the “Nature Boy” over throughout Capitol territory. Finally, on June 30, 1961, Rogers beat Pat O’Connor
for the championship in Chicago, and a new era under a heel titleholder was launched.
On Saturday, March 24, 1962, Gilzenberg and Babe Culnan celebrated their 30th anniversary with a program at the
Newark Armory. Several months later, the duo brought in world champion Rogers for a bout with Bobo Brazil. The affair
drew better than 6,100 fans and ended in controversy with Brazil winning by countout with Rogers laid out in the middle of
the ring. Fans celebrated as Bobo was given the victory and apparently the championship. Little did the audience know at
the time that the title hadn’t changed hands, but most certainly sold thousands of tickets for the highly anticipated rematch.
Gilzenberg and Culnan knew what they were doing and the Newark finish was compelling enough to bring their customers
back for another round of high impact drama.
Culnan passed away at his home on November 11, 1962 and ended the Culnan-Gilzenberg era. “I recall that Newark
had at least one boxing and wrestling card every week for more than 50 years,” Willie recalled. “The late Babe Culnan and I
promoted without a stop for 33 years, outdoors at the defunct Meadowbrook Bowl on South Orange Ave., and indoors at
Laurel Garden, now a public parking lot.”
In New York City, Chicago, Newark, and many other affiliated towns, Buddy Rogers drew astonishing crowds and earned
bundles of money for the syndicate. His reign met a certain degree of expectations within the NWA, but on a whole,
exemplified success. By 1963, after much controversy, belly-aching, and speculation, the Alliance requested their
championship back and sent the renown shooter Lou Thesz to regain the strap. In Toronto on January 24, Thesz won a
single fall and walked away the NWA World Champion. Buddy, however, returned to the northeast as a title claimant.
McMahon had a new vision for his expansive territory, one that varied greatly from the NWA and one that could have
dramatic implications. The formation of an independent sanctioning body would give credence to a new title lineage and
only strengthen the body of promoters McMahon was already sending wrestlers to. Mondt, Zacko, and Gilzenberg all
heeded the decision of their wise commander, and the World Wide Wrestling Federation was born.
As repayment for his loyalty, Gilzenberg was named WWWF President and his offices in Newark were regarded as the
organization’s headquarters, despite most decisions being made from Washington’s Franklin Park Hotel. Willie was
responsible, once again, for playing politics among promoters, and assisting McMahon in his endeavors in New York City,
specifically the management of northern promotions and television operations. Mondt’s dedication wavered as he aged and
his times was split among a series of hobbies outside of wrestling, some a bit more caustic than others. While Mondt spent
time on leisure, Gilzenberg fulfilled many necessary duties at the top of the budding WWWF.
Madison Square Garden thrived under Buddy Rogers’s replacement as heavyweight champion, Bruno Sammartino, from
1963 to 1971. Hot feuds, strong angles, and excellent advertising maintained the conglomerate’s status as the strongest
promotion in the United States, but McMahon and Gilzenberg did face some down periods. On August 13, 1967, Capitol’s
lone program into New York City on WOR was cancelled, and, without TV, the subsequent Garden show drew only 6,612
fans. The numbers were horrible and McMahon needed an outlet in the market if he wanted to continue monthly shows at
the famed arena.
The always proactive Gilzenberg went to work on his end, calling an old employee named Fred Sayles, now a program
director of the ultra high frequency station WNJU-TV (channel 47) out of Newark. His connection to Sayles got wrestling a
spot on Saturdays at 7:00 p.m., reintroducing their grappling from Washington into New York. The television publicity was
exactly what they needed and attendance rebounded altogether. Again, Gilzenberg’s value to McMahon as an associate
and friend was priceless.
By the early 1970s, Gilzenberg’s presence at the Garden was expected and his pacifistic attitude quelled many brewing
conflicts. He worked closely with the New York State Athletic Commission for more than 15 years without as much as a peep
about his ethics or obligations to the uphold the integrity of professional sports. It only reassured those who looked at his
record that his difficulties with certain members of the New York Commission years earlier had been nothing more than a
personal grudge. Willie was not going to be bullied by anyone, nor was he going to lay down and accept a scapegoat role
by a politically motivated commissioner, whose interests were unusually far from any boxing or wrestling ring.
As mentioned earlier, Gilzenberg was loyal to the people around him, and received the same kind of respect in return.
His bond to McMahon was extraordinary and their give and take relationship resulted in a world class operation that was
admired by their peers in the industry. There are likely dozens, if not hundreds, of examples of how the Gilzenberg-
McMahon collaboration benefited their promotional efforts, details that only occurred between two allies in business
together, that no one will ever know. This biography only serves as a simple illustration of their partnership and a reminder
of Gilzenberg’s place in the history of the WWE.
Longtime wrestling fan Bob Sand recalled what he saw as a youthful spectator of Gilzenberg’s programs in the late
1950s and ’60s:
“Willie was an intelligent, charming guy who'd always remember my mother's and sister's and my first names, after that
night, and who, on subsequent nights, always delegated one of his employees to escort us to the metal folding chairs that
served as our ringside seats. One of the things I remember about Willie was that on wrestling night, he always, without fail,
stood in the front lobby of the arena and “greeted” his customers. He always showed them respect, and, by doing so,
always seemed to “elevate” the occasion.
“His clientele was, for the most part, comprised of people whose individual journeys through life included a lot of things,
not foremost among which was respect from others. I'll never forget Willie for that; in those fleeting moments out in the cold,
wet lobby of the Jersey City or Newark or Teaneck Armory, he brought dignity to lives which, for the most part, had enjoyed
very little of same.”
William Gilzenberg was extremely appreciated for his contributions as both a promoter and humanitarian. He was
respected by the wrestlers that worked for him, the fans that attended his shows, and by the citizens of New Jersey that
embraced his concepts for entertainment. He was a responsible advisor and associate of Vince McMahon for more than 20
years, and his knowledge of all sides of promotions gave the WWWF a distinct advantage over all counterparts in the
business. McMahon also knew he always had a partner he could depend on, especially when situations got hot. A reliable
friend in professional wrestling was sometimes hard to find.
On September 25, 1978, Willie became ill after leaving his Newark office en route to a wrestling show at Madison Square
Garden, and was taken to a local hospital, where surgery was performed. He passed away of cancer in Miami on November
15, leaving his wife Lillian and daughter Holly.
Known for his strong sense of humor, Gilzenberg’s funeral was attended by scores of his old friends, people he did
business with, and by individuals who all had a story of the famed promoter. His influence was left behind in many ways as
was a strong, but unseen, connection to World Wrestling Entertainment, a promotion that harbors the incredible history set
in stone by Vincent James McMahon and William Louis Gilzenberg.
Gilzenberg’s induction into the WWE Hall of Fame pays homage to years of dedication and commitment to the
organization. Honoring the celebrated promoter and 15 year WWWF President would acknowledge his legacy and
enlighten current fans to another major cog in the formation of the WWE. Inducting Willie Gilzenberg into the WWE Hall of
Fame would mean a lot to his family, friends, and the fans who remember old time professional grappling in Northeastern
New Jersey and at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
What Are the Facts about Willie Gilzenberg:
· As a promoter of wrestling and boxing, over a 50-plus year period in Northeastern New Jersey, Gilzenberg drew
millions of fans to exciting programs. His brand of entertainment was always money well spent and his regular customers
received a level of professionalism unparalleled in sports.
· Gilzenberg presented thousands of hours of original boxing and wrestling on television throughout the New York City
· Established new records in terms of attendance and house gates throughout his territory
· Regularly held benefits for local groups and fundraisers in conjunction with his wrestling shows, donating vast
amounts of money to charity.
· Was the first ever World Wide Wrestling Federation President in 1963 and remained in that position through 1978,
setting a measurable standard for all following to emulate.
· Had his license to promote renewed by the New Jersey Boxing Commission 50 consecutive years.
· Was honored by the New Jersey Boxing Writers Association in January 1959 for Meritorious Service to New Jersey
Boxing during 1958
· Was honored by the Boys Club of Newark in Recognition of Meritorious Service and unselfish devotion in advancing
the cause of American Youth in April 1959
· Was honored by the Veterans Boxers Association, Ring 25, in February 1966, and brought WWWF champion Bruno
Sammartino to be his “personal sergeant-at-arms” More than 800 guests paid tribute including New Jersey Governor
Richard Hughes, Jack Dempsey, Rocky Marciano, Jimmy Braddock, Tony Galento, Rocky Graziano, Red Cochrane, Barney
Ross, Mickey Walker, and Joe Walcott. Congratulations via telegrams were received from Phil Zacko and Herb Freeman
out of the Capitol office in Washington, Ray Fabiani in Philadelphia, Ace Freeman and Rudy Miller in Pittsburgh, Chester O’
Sullivan – Maryland State Athletic Commission Chairman, Fritzie Zivic – who said “I’ll never forgive you for stealing my title.
Seriously, congratulations,” Goldie Ahearne, the Dundees of Miami Beach, and many others
· Was honored by the Old Time Boxers Association in May 1971 for his contributions to professional boxing throughout
· Was honored by Unico National for Distinguished Service in the Field of Mental Health Research Fund Raising in
· Was honored by the Veterans Boxing Social Club, posthumously, on December 2, 1978 in Belleville, NJ.
· Was called the “Maker of Boxing Champions” and New Jersey’s “One and Only Sports Promoter.”
· Proved over and over to be a outstanding matchmaker, fulfilling the desires of wrestling and boxing fans with the best
In 2010, Willie Gilzenberg will be inducted into the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame - an honor well deserved.
Copyright 2010 Tim Hornbaker
|Willie Gilzenberg Biography