Reflecting on Legends of Wrestling's Past
With the recent resignation of WWE President Vince McMahon Jr., pro wrestling was thrust into the major headlines across news sources. With pro wrestling already having been a hot commodity for years, this news release brought the entertainment company to the forefront of newsworthy stories.
On a personal front, I am not a fan of the WWE and do not follow this entertainment business or have an interest in it. But don’t get me wrong, as a kid growing up in Pittsburgh, back in the 1970s I was a big fan of pro wrestling. After my teen years, as the WWF became the WWE and the business began to evolve into what it is today, I began to find the pro wrestling no longer what I remembered it for.
Today with all the drama, sexual innuendos, stories of steroid usage, and many other “theater” like scripts, for me it’s a total turn-off but not for millions of fans who continue to follow the WWE and in thousands attend the many events staged. With McMahon’s resignation, it made me think of the days when I watched pro wrestling way back in the early to late 1970s. It’s hard to believe that is now 50 years ago.
When I was growing up in Pittsburgh, I often traveled to the old Civic Arena in the ‘Burgh to watch Friday Night Wrestling and on Saturday afternoons tuned into channel 11 to watch “Studio Wrestling.” Back then, even a casual pro wrestling fan could recognize some of the wrestlers of the day, many of them household names. As a kid in Pittsburgh, my city was the home of probably the most well-known wrestler of all time, the late Bruno Sammartino. Known as “The Living Legend” Bruno Sammartino and his profession of the day put aside all the antics they act out today and instead tried to make Pro Wrestling appear as though it was a real sport. I found that more entertaining than what the WWE has to offer today.
I have my own story about Bruno Sammartino that I often repeat. My father who passed away in 2009, once told me a story of how he was in his bank one day in the North Hills area of Pittsburgh standing in line while wearing a neck brace because he had neck issues. Someone in front of him asked him what happened to his neck so the joker my father was responded with, “I was wrestling with Bruno Sammartino and hurt my neck.” Little did he know Bruno was standing behind him. Sammartino heard the comment and replied, “I’ve never hurt a man in my life.” Red-faced, I’m sure Dr. Aronson (my father was a dentist) apologized. Ironically, Sammartino would have his neck accidentally broken in about years later.
As a dentist, one of my father’s patients was another Pittsburgh wrestler, Baron Sicluna who was always introduced as being from “The Isle of Malta” which he was. Back to Sammartino, I also went to high school with his son David. But in the 1970s the most popular wrestlers were a colorful bunch with well-known nicknames and images. Some of the most popular characters of that era follow with updates where they are today when I could find them and unfortunately, some are no longer with us having passed away. Bruno Sammartino is one of them.
Andre the Giant - Just looking at Andre the Giant was impressive in itself. Born as Andre Rene Roussimoff, the Giant grew to be 7’4” and weigh 520 pounds at his peak. Tragically, his lifestyle and body girth probably cost him his life which ended at the young age of 46 after suffering congestive heart failure.
Gorilla Monsoon - Good trivia question here, what is Monsoon’s real name? I would not have known that if not having looked it up on Wikipedia. It was Robrt James Marella. Monsoon might be best known for a meeting with Muhammad Ali who stepped into the wrestling ring on June 1, 1976, and began taunting Monsoon with a boxing style. Monsoon got a hold of Ali and put him into an airplane spin then body slammed him to the canvas. This led to the infamous “boxer vs. wrestler” when Ali and Japanese wrestling star Antonio Anoki staged a match on pay-per-view that I paid to go see. But like Bruno Sammartino and Andre the Giant, Gorilla Monsoon is no longer with us having died prematurely at the age of 62 in 1999.
Ivan Putski - What I remember about Putski was his muscular body. Called “The Polish Power,” Putski had a body-builder-like stature. This is not his real name and he was born in Krakow, Poland as Jozef Bednarski. Putski is still alive today at the age of 81 and has a son who also became a wrestler, his name being Scott.
Jay Strongbow - “Chief Jay.” What a colorful character he was. Given political correctness these days, Strongbow’s character would probably cause waves if he was active today. That’s because he portrayed himself as a Native American however, Luke Joseph Scarpa, Strongbow’s birth name gives way to his true heritage which is Italian. Still, Scarpa became Strongbow and his signature war dance in the ring was well known. Scarpa led a long life passing away in 2011 at the age of 83 after suffering injuries from a fall. He too had a son that wrestled, Joe Jr (adopted), and went by the ring name Mark Young. Five years after his father passed, so did Young. The cause of death was never revealed and Junior passed earlier than he should have at 48.
In Pittsburgh, a show premiered on local WIIC-TV in 1959 (ironically the year of my birth) that featured professional wrestling. It later became known as “Studio Wrestling” but began in the section of Pittsburgh called Fineview. Matches were then held in the Civic Arena and ran until 1972 before moving to Erie, Pennsylvania, and a different network, WPGH-TV also in the ‘Burgh. Another nearby neighbor of mine, Bill Cardille (you may remember he was the reporter in the infamous movie, “Night of the Living Dead”) was the long-time host of Studio Wrestling. So a name that became synonymous with this show was that of Dominic DeNucci. Most wrestlers come up with stage names and DeNucci was no exception. Born Domenico Nucciaronem, DeNucci was highly popular on Studio Wrestling and his career spanned from 1958 to 2012. He too has left us having passed just last August at the age of 89. DeNucci was no dummy with the ability to speak English, French, Spanish, and Italian. Like some of the others, he had a son that wrestled, his name is Tony who kept the wrestling last name instead of his father’s birth name.
You’ve heard of Billy Graham, right? No, not the religious guy but rather the “Superstar” version. Superstar Billy Graham was a bodybuilder turned wrestler. Graham made his pro wrestling debut in 1969 and stayed in the ring until his final appearance in 2015 at the age of 72. Born on June 7, 1943, this wrestler’s birth name was Eldridge Wayne Coleman. But in tribute to the evangelist Billy Graham that became his wrestling name.
Ivan Kolof - One thing that has never changed about pro wrestling is the advent of heroes and villains. Ivan Koloff was one of the villains who posed in the ring as a Russian wrestler but in reality, he hailed from Montreal, Quebec. His real name is Oreal Donald Perras but inside the squared circle he was the “Russian Bear.” In 2017 he lost a battle with cancer and died at the age of 74.
Jimmy Snuka - “Superfly.” Mention that to a diehard wrestling fan and they will tell you that was Jimmy Snuka. The Fiji-born pro wrestler had a life that ended in controversy. In 2015 Snuka was arrested and charged with third-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter after his girlfriend at the time Nancy Argentino was found deceased in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Snuka pleaded not guilty and was found the next year to be unfit to stand trial due to dementia. Less than two weeks later he died from an undisclosed terminal illness. He was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2015 but his legacy had been established with his long wrestling career that spanned nearly 50 years.
Mr. Fuji and Professor Tanaka - Often as a tag team these two men represented Japan in the wrestling ring. Tanaka’s real name was Charles Kalani and Fuji’s Harry Masayoshi Fujiwara. Mr. Fuji was of Japanese and Hawaiian descent and Tanaka born with the name Charles Kalani is Hawaiian. Both became famous for using the tactic of throwing salt into the eyes of an opponent. Both have passed away, Mr. Fuji on August 28, 2016, at the age of 82, and Tanaka 16 years earlier on August 22 at 70 years old. Tanaka can be remembered for his thick build wrestling at 280 pounds on a 5’11” frame. Mr. Fuji was not far behind at one inch shorter and just 20 pounds lighter.
Ernie Ladd - “The Big Cat” Ernie Ladd was not just a pro wrestler but a very good football player with the San Diego Chargers. His team won the AFL title in 1963. As a defensive end, Ladd stood 6’9” and weighed 320 pounds. He wrestled from 1961 until 1986 when a knee injury forced him to retire. In 2007 at just 68 years of age, Ladd lost his fight with colon cancer.
George The Animal Steele - One of the craziest, zaniest acts in pro wrestling ever had to be that of George “The Animal” Steele. With his hair-covered body, bald head, and desire to chew up turnbuckles, you would think could he be this crazy in real life? Well, of course, he was not. Hailing from Detroit, Michigan, Steele’s real name is William James Myers, and believe it or not, he was a school teacher. His wrestling name came from his job as a wrestling coach and a rival coach named George Steele whom Myers had asked if he could use his name in the ring and the former gladly obliged. The rest is history. The Animal might best be remembered for his appearances on Studio Wrestling and many matches against Bruno Sammartino. Steele lived to be 79 losing his life in 2017 due to kidney failure.
Larry Zbyszko - Perhaps Bruno Sammartino’s biggest rival was Zybszko now 70 years old. Born in Chicago as Lawrence Whistler, he took his wrestling name from another wrestler, Stanisiaus Zbyszko who was Polish-American. Zbyszko was another staple of Studio Wrestling. He retired from wrestling in 2012.
Stan Hansen - The only serious injury Bruno Sammartino suffered in the wrestling ring was that at the hands of Stan “The Lariat” Hansen. With his signature move, Hansen body slammed Sammartino which was done improperly resulting in a broken neck for Bruno. But Hansen will tell you it happened because of his lariat. Regardless, Hansen had a long career that began in 1973 and he wrestled until his retirement in 2001. Hansen is still alive today at 72 years old.
Freddie Blassie - What would a wrestling story be without naming a few managers? Blassie and Lou Albano mentioned next are probably the two most popular wrestling managers in history. Blassie had two nicknames, “Classy” and “The Hollywood Fashion Plate.” He also became famous for using the term “pencil-neck geek.” His real name is Frederick Kenneth Blassman and was born in St. Louis, Missouri. Blassie passed away in 2003 when he turned 85 but he left behind a storied legacy that included a movie short with Andy Kaufman titled “My Breakfast with Blassie” which if you haven’t seen you must. Hilarious. Blassie was also a pro wrestler before he turned manager.
Lou Albano - “Captain” Lou Albano will be remembered not just for his wrestling but for his music video with Cyndi Lauper. Like Blassie, Albano left behind a legacy to be remembered including his iconic rubber band around his beard. Albano was also a pro wrestler with a career that began in 1953. Incredibly he married his high school sweetheart Geraldine Tango in 1953 and they stayed married until he died in 2009. A heart attack caused his death but his son Carl Albano is a member of the Putnam County legislature earning that role in 2011.
Gene Okerlund - While this article has been about wrestlers and managers, worth mentioning is one of the most famous wrestling announcers in history, “Mean” Gene Okerlund. A wrestling host from 1970 through 2018, the WWE put him in their Hall of Fame. In 2019, after three kidney transplants and an accidental fall, Okerlund passed away at the age of 76.
Fabulous Moolah - What would this article be without mentioning the most popular female wrestler of all time? That would have to be the “Fabulous Moolah.” Born as Mary Lillian Ellison, her wrestling name derived from former wrestling promoter Jack Pfefer who called her “Slave Girl Moolah” which eventually became Fabulous Moolah. Moolah would have a long and storied wrestling career that stretched an amazing 60 years. Because of a heart attack, Mary Ellison passed away in 2007 at the age of 84.
I’m sure that there are plenty of wrestlers from this era that I did not mention but what was profiled here are some of the more popular wrestlers from the 1970s and 80s and beyond. Again, I don’t follow wrestling anymore and haven’t since about 1980 but those memories of these men and women from yesteryear will always live on in memory.