Back in 1980, a new heel had joined the roster of the WWF. He was a mean, nasty former U.S. Marine who struck fear into his opponents. This new heel introduced a finishing hold that I had never seen before which he called the “Cobra Clutch”. It was a variation of the traditional sleeper hold but applied differently. His name was Sgt Slaughter and he was about to become a thorn in the side of the fan favorites of the WWF.
Almost immediately after his WWF debut, Slaughter, who was managed by the legendary Grand Wizard, was challenging Bob Backlund for the WWF Title all over the Northeast. In 1981, he was getting Intercontinental Title opportunities against Pedro Morales as well. While Slaughter was unsuccessful in winning one of those titles, one thing was certain, the WWF had a new top heel that was generating nuclear heat within territory.
It was around this time or shortly thereafter that Pat Patterson had replaced Bruno Sammartino as color commentator alongside Vince McMahon Jr. on the weekly WWF TV shows. Patterson had recently become a beloved babyface in the WWF after being one of its most hated heels. The Bob Backlund/Pat Patterson trilogy at Madison Square Garden in 1979 was a classic series of matches. Patterson was the first ever Intercontinental champion, “winning” the title in a fictitious tournament in Rio de Janeiro in 1979.
Sgt. Slaughter had been mowing down enhancement talent on a weekly basis with his dreaded Cobra Clutch. Slaughter was so confident that nobody would be able to break the hold; he introduced one of the best angles in the history of professional wrestling – the $5,000 Cobra Clutch Challenge. The rules were simple, Slaughter would apply the Cobra Clutch to any challenger, and if they could get out of the hold that person would get $5,000.
The first challengers were mainly enhancement talent that basically had no chance of escaping. Week after week the likes of Mac Rivera, Frankie Williams and others took the challenge but quickly succumbed to the Cobra Clutch. I remember watching and hoping that maybe one of these enhancement talents would get lucky and break out of it. This quickly became my favorite part of the weekly WWF TV show. After just about each challenge, Pat Patterson would interview Sgt Slaughter. During each interview The Grand Wizard and Sgt Slaughter would challenge Pat Patterson to take the Cobra Clutch Challenge himself. They even offered Patterson $10,000 if he broke out of it but Patterson always refused as he claimed to be “an announcer now” or “I’m not ready” or something to that effect. I remember the crowd getting pumped up with excitement whenever Slaughter challenged Patterson to take the challenge. The fans wanted Patterson to take the Cobra Clutch Challenge and were very vocal about it.
At the end of a WWF TV show in February 1981, it was announced that the following week, one of my favorites of the time, Rick McGraw, would be taking the Cobra Clutch Challenge. I was ecstatic to say the least! I knew my guy Rick McGraw was going to get out of the Cobra Clutch. I told just about everyone in my East Meadow, NY neighborhood that Rick McGraw was taking the Sgt. Slaughter Cobra Clutch Challenge. About 85% of the people I told had no idea what I was talking about.
The time had come for Rick McGraw to take the Cobra Clutch Challenge. I was glued to the TV. A nuclear bomb could have gone off but I was not leaving my spot in front of the TV. McGraw was in the ring seated in the wooden chair that was used for the challenges. Sgt Slaughter was in the ring as well, he applied the hold to McGraw and the challenge was on! McGraw quickly dropped to his knees and I became very disappointed as I thought the challenge was about to end. After a few seconds, McGraw got back to his feet! He had life left in him! McGraw ran backwards and drove Slaughter into the turnbuckle. The fans were on their feet cheering for McGraw. I yelled out “C’mon McGraw!” McGraw ran around in a circle dragging Slaughter with him trying to break free. McGraw then ran backwards again and drove Slaughter into the turnbuckle a second time. Slaughter dropped to his knees but held on to the hold. McGraw then tried to power out of the Cobra Clutch but to no avail. McGraw started to weaken and eventually fell victim to the Cobra Clutch. Sgt. Slaughter had won again. Up until that point, that was the best effort by a wrestler to break the hold. Even though he was unsuccessful, this 11 year old was proud of Rick McGraw.
As Slaughter was heading to the back, he confronted Patterson again and called him a “yellow belly” and a “chicken”.
The Cobra Clutch Challenge returned the following week. I was expecting an upgrade from Rick McGraw such as Ivan Putski, Tony Atlas or even Andre the Giant to take to challenge that week so you can imagine my disappointment when I saw The Black Demon in the ring. All I was thinking at the time was The Black Demon is going to collapse in about 10 seconds. Sgt Slaughter was about to apply the Cobra Clutch to The Black Demon when the Demon got up, waved off Slaughter and left the ring. I figured we weren’t getting a Cobra Clutch Challenge that week but I was wrong. What followed was, in my opinion, just about the greatest seven minutes in the history of WWF/WWE TV.
Pat Patterson walked over to interview Sgt Slaughter and asked him what happened with The Black Demon. Slaughter said he told the Demon he would never be able to wrestle again when they were done with the Cobra Clutch Challenge and he left. He then told Patterson that the Demon was yellow just like him and proceeded to slap Patterson. Slaughter and the Grand Wizard started to walk away but Patterson grabbed Slaughter and pointed to the ring. Patterson wanted to take the Cobra Clutch Challenge! The crowd exploded when Patterson made it known he wanted to take the challenge right then and right there. At first Slaughter refused but then he headed to the ring after speaking briefly with The Grand Wizard. I slid off our couch and move closer to the TV. Every ounce of my being at that moment belonged to Pat Patterson.
Patterson was in the ring, seated in that wooden chair and after delaying for a bit, Slaughter finally applied the Cobra Clutch to Patterson. Patterson quickly ran towards the turnbuckle, jumped up and catapulted himself backwards as he and Slaughter toppled to the floor of the ring. Slaughter held on and they both got back up. Patterson ran backwards and drove Slaughter into the corner then flipped him over but Slaughter still held on. The crowd was on fire at this point and I was literally screaming at my TV rooting for Patterson. They got back up again and Patterson drove Slaughter’s head into another turnbuckle. With Slaughter dazed, Patterson slid his arm underneath Slaughter’s and pushed up. I couldn’t believe my eyes as Slaughter was losing his grip on the Cobra Clutch. Patterson finally powered out of it and was free!! HE DID IT! The crowd was absolutely electric; I jumped up and screamed “Patterson did it!”
Things quickly took a turn for the worse for Patterson. Sgt Slaughter grabbed the chair and hit Patterson over the head with it busting him open. He re-applied the Cobra Clutch which led to Tony Garea, Rick Martel and Domenic DeNucci to run in to help Patterson. After a struggle, they were able to stop Slaughter from his attack on Patterson with the help of Gorilla Monsoon. This set up the legendary feud between Patterson and Slaughter that concluded with a series of classic Alley Fights, the most popular one being at Madison Square Garden on May 4th 1981.
I consider myself very lucky that I got to live through legendary moments in professional wrestling especially the one that this article is about. I feel very fortunate that I was able to watch them first run and experience the joy they brought to me as a kid. I can watch Pat Patterson taking the Sgt Slaughter Cobra Clutch challenge over and over again and never grow tired of it. Each time I watch it, I become that 11 year old kid again, screaming for Patterson to escape. These are the very moments that have made the world of professional wrestling near and dear to my heart.
You can follow Lewis Carlan on Twitter @ShootingUpNorth