Category Archives: Profiles

Chief White Owl

Al Friend: I was the referee for a match in Akron between Chief White Owl and Cowboy Frankie Lane against the Love Brothers that nearly caused a riot before it was over. I let the Love’s make a heal of me for a while by not letting Owl in the ring because of me not seeing a tag. When he finally got in the ring and did a comeback the roof nearly came off the top of the building.

Johnny Powers: I don’t know if any of us were able to make him a consistent main eventer but on the way up the ladder he was good. In tag teams, he was good.

Bruce Swayze: He was very popular in Buffalo. He was in semi-main events. They used him in some pretty good stuff. He had a running feud with Hans Schmidt, believe it or not. Hans put the boots on him pretty hard.

Jim Lancaster: White Owl was involved in one of the strangest main event finishes in the Farhat territory.The Kangaroos (Al Costello & Ray St. Clair) were the main event against Owl and Bobo Brazil. They traded falls, but in the third fall, Owl was making a big comeback. He threw that famous Tomahawk Chop at Costello who ducked, hooked both of Owl’s arms behind him and fell back for a clean 1-2-3 Neck Bridge pin right in the middle.

The fans were shocked because no heel EVER won a main event with a straight legal pinning maneuver in Farhat’s territory. The crowd was literally silenced as we got up and left the building after watching heels win clean. I thought I was going to be sick…He was always got a good reaction from the fans even though he lost more house show matches than he ever won.

Rick Gattone, ring announcer during many White Owl matches: He was a great guy. He had a very nice demeanor about him; certainly not a prima donna, not a big head. He was one of the guys. He was very down to earth, he was a soft-spoken guy. he was a complete gentleman and I remember him like it was yesterday. He was a beautiful guy and we did a lot of shows together; I mean, a lot of shows.

 

 

The Baron Gets a Haircut

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Before the days of Pampero Firpo, Baron Gattoni was known for his curly, wild, out-of-control locks that extended as much as 12 inches from their roots.

 
So when he dropped in at a Syracuse hairstylist in December 1956, it was … well … news. Leroy Natanson, a reporter for The Post-Standard in Syracuse, followed Gattoni through one of his rare hair appointments in advance of a match with Killer Kowalski.

 
As Natanson noted, Gattoni was active from dawn till dark. At the time packing 280 pounds on his frame, he was wrestling almost every night, staying on top of his collection of cars and motorcycles, lifting weights, and perfecting English to add to his multilingual talents.

 
“With all these activities keeping him busy, the baron neglected his hair. Since he doesn’t go to barbers, usually, he made an appointment with Richard De Toto, Syracusan who specializes in coiffure creations.

 
“So last week, the baron slipped into a slat at Mr. De Toto’s downtown hair style palace and had his top mop transformed into the latest fluffy style,” Natanson wrote.

 
Imagine the site of Gattoni in curlers, under a hairdryer, in downtown Syracuse. It must’ve made many a disbelieving customer take a second look. “Despite the affected hair style, Baron Gattoni is all man,” Natanson cautioned.

 
Gattoni received an unusual amount of cheers in the match against Kowalski, who was getting a push as a national-level monster heel. Gattoni took the first fall in 12:56, while Kowalski won the second with a kneedrop in 2:53. He continued battering the Baron — and his ‘do — in the third fall when the referee stopped the match. Gattoni reportedly suffered a “serious” neck injury and underwent X-rays at St. Josephs’ Hospital. “He is not believed to be seriously hurt and is expected back in the mat wars in a few days,” the Syracuse Herald Journal reported.

 
There was no word about the condition of his newly flowing tresses.

 

Steven Johnson
August 2007

 

Crusher in Pittsburgh

Crusher Lisowski liked to say he was the man who made Milwaukee famous. But for a brief time in the early 1960s, he did his damndest to put Pittsburgh wrestling on the map, as well.

Reggie Lisowski started wrestling after World War II—he said in newspaper accounts that he started wrestling when stationed in Germany, following weightlifting as a youngster. He debuted around 1947, even as he worked as a bricklayer, according to the most reliable information. In a 1956 article in the Chicago Tribune, he claimed to have an expanded chest of 59 inches, and 19-1/2-inch biceps.

Crusher and Stan Lisowski

Crusher and Stan Lisowski

Lisowski was well-known in the Great Lakes area well before promoter and wrestling impresario Toots Mondt started to breathe new life into Pittsburgh wrestling in 1960. His first appearances in the area were in Buffalo in 1952, against Wild Bill Zimm, “Dirty” Don Evans, and Frederich Von Schacht.

With “brother” Stan, Reggie formed a solid, rough-and-tough tag team that wrestled often in the Buffalo-Cleveland area in the late 1950s. Perhaps the highlight of that run was a heel versus heel tag team clash with Mike and Doc Gallagher in Cleveland in April 1959 that drew nearly 10,000 to the old Public Auditorium. The Lisowskis won, under the watchful eye of referees Ilio DiPaolo and Lord Athol Layton.

In 1960, he entered Pittsburgh as a singles wrestler, playing the role of “Crusher,” and not just “Reggie Lisowski,” and took the town by storm, thanks to his gruff manner, his powerhouse style, and a series of interviews that have fans talking to this day. No insult to Pittsburgh, its citizens, its sports teams and the surrounding regions in Ohio and West Virginia, was beneath him. While it was probably just promotional publicity, he was said to have won his first 43 matches in the area until he lost by disqualification to Zivko Kovacic in McKeesport, Pa., in late April 1961. True or not, it only added to his mystique.

Writer Evelyn Lesh: The Crusher arrived in town like a Sherman tank run wild and proceeded to bowl over each and every opponent tossed into the ring with him. The fans hated him but at the same time they felt a kinship with him because of his Slavic ancestry.

Crusher wrestled every name in the territory during his two-plus-year run, and a few that fans might not expect, such as former boxing great Primo Carnera, Swede Hanson, and The Mongol. While much is rightfully made of the incredible drawing power of former NWA champion Buddy Rogers, Crusher also had an impact on the area’s box offices in 1961 and 1962. Lisowski and Johnny Valentine headlined Forbes Field twice in 1961 – Valentine was the good guy. The two shows drew a combined 22,500. Two subsequent cards that showcased Rogers and Lisowski drew a combined 26,000. Rogers and Valentine then drew about 8,500 to the Civic Arena.

The [Connellsville, Pa.] Daily Courier (August 1961): The Crusher, signed after quite a bit of dickering by promoter Eugene Dargan, is much in demand and Fayette County fans are anxious to see him in this wrestling show. Of Polish descent, he is anxious to renew acquaintances with friends here. The Crusher, who weighs in at 242 pounds, is the hottest thing in wrestling today.

Dem biceps!

Dem biceps!

His appearances on Pittsburgh Studio Wrestling became must-see TV. While tapes of the eras have long since settled into dust, Lesh fortuitously chronicled some of his public showings for the occasionally accurate, and always entertaining, Wrestling World in 1962. Oh, and please note, star athletes from Mike Tyson to Terrell Owens—Crusher was speaking in the third person before you were born.

On his upcoming match with Giant Baba in April 1962: I’m going to get an axe and go around Pittsburgh to find the biggest tree, so I can chop it down and whittle a box out of it to send that guy back to Japan. So what if he knows judo and karate? That doesn’t worry the Crusher.

Crusher beat Baba in 3:48, by the way.

After a draw with Rogers in 1962, Crusher appeared on Studio Wrestling wearing a championship belt with his picture on it: I beat Rogers, so I’m the champion. This belt is recognized as the official belt in this country as well as in Canada, England, France, and Spain … That bum didn’t beat me, so he’s not champion. All he’s got is a homemade belt from old beer caps. 

One night, a snowstorm forced him to walk up a hill to the TV studio, and he was in full, mad character as he proclaimed: No wonder the women of Pittsburgh have such good legs, with all the hills they have to climb … I coulda broken a leg walking up that lousy hill. It’s a good thing the Crusher’s in condition to climb a hill like that and still wrestle when I get here. You know, this is the only town in the country where people can commit suicide by jumping out the basement window.

During a 1961 feud with Argentina Rocca, Crusher raced in front of the TV cameras to destroy a bouquet of flowers fans had given to the high-flyer: I don’t like the stink of flowers. I don’t want any flowers cluttering up any place I rassle.

When announcer Bill Cardille, who dubbed him “The Incomparable Crusher,” presented Lisowski with a bouquet from 23 “female admirers” a few weeks later:
I don’t know. I can handle four women at once but 23 is too many even for the Crusher. Besides, I hate flowers.

On female fans, generally: Why don’t these women stay home and do their dirty dishes – must be an awful lot of dirty dishes in Pittsburgh with all these women up here to see the Crusher.

And on and on it went. When Crusher lost on a count out to Rogers at Forbes Field in September 1961, he announced the stadium’s infield was too hard, and that smog pollution contributed to his woes. Asked if he had seen the new Civic Arena in 1961, he retorted: “No, I don’t go slumming.” He was allegedly “suspended” by state athletic commission head Paul Sullivan in July 1961 for “acts detrimental to wrestling.” He choked out promoter Rudy Miller on the air, which long-time fans said added to his shock value.

Dennis Black: I’ll never forget him choking out Rudy Miller on TV and Bill Cardille screaming, ‘Crusher, he’s an eighty year old man … When he appeared in our hometown of New Castle, Pa., our art teacher allowed us to make a huge banner that said “Crush the Crusher.” He simply walked right through it on the way to the ring.

Now, that’s charisma. Eventually, Crusher turned from a bad guy to a good guy en route to being one of the sport’s early antiheroes – there was no change in his tactics, of course. Against Rogers in 1961, Crusher was cheered for the first time in Pittsburgh:

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: A crowd of 14,415 made a hero out of the Crusher, who was despised exclusively in 45 previous local showings.

Bill “Masked Superstar” Eadie, Pittsburgh area native: He’d come out an do an interview with a six-pack of Iron City beer on his shoulder and talk about going to the Polish and the Croatian clubs and dancing with all the ladies. I didn’t know he was a bad guy. I just liked him. Bruno was the local hero, but Crusher was over.

By fall 1962, it was time for the blue-collar beer swiller to move on. Crusher had been wrestling in the Midwest regularly during his Pittsburgh run, and he worked there for most of the rest of his career, as the feud between Rogers and local hero Bruno Sammartino took center stage in the Steel City. Crusher returned for a few bouts later on. In the fall of 1963, he headlined against Sammartino twice at the Civic Arena, losing by disqualification once and submission once; his name still spelled dollars as more than 15,000 fans flocked to see the cards.

In late 1966 and early 1967, he re-emerged in the territory, again as a heel. In a January 1967 match at the Civic Center, he fought with tag partner Bill Miller against Sammartino and the Battman, and ended up bloodied and unable to continue. His babyface turn – the fans more or less forced it on him – became his modus operandi in the American Wrestling Association, as well, where he also became a good guy, in particular against Mad Dog Vachon, without abandoning his kick, punch, and gouge style.

Lisowski died in October 2005 at the age of 79; he had been in declining health for years. Appreciations after his passing focused mostly on his work in the Midwest, and his long-time tag team with Dick the Bruiser, which was appropriate. But, for a while more than 40 years ago, Crusher and Pittsburgh had the ultimate love-hate relationship.

Crusher Lisowski: I’m the strong rassler, da most scientific and I got da highest IQ.

Steven Johnson, July 2006

Credits: Wrestling World, for snippets of interviews that confounded Bill Cardille; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, George Lentz, The Daily Courier, The [Monessen, Pa.] Valley-Independent, our Studio Wrestling friends at Kayfabe Memories.

For more on Crusher’s career, see Lentz’s site.

Ivan Koloff

Still Climbing 

Shortly after 10 p.m. on the night of Jan. 18, 1971, a young Canadian of Russian descent climbed to the top rope of the wrestling ring in New York’s Madison Square Garden. He went about his business quickly and systematically, just as he had done hundreds of times before. He looked down at the canvas and leaped so that his lower leg would strike his prostrate opponent across the upper chest. He then covered his foe for a quick 1-2-3 count.

And time stopped.

Rome had fallen.

Bruno Sammartino had been defeated.

The kneedrop heard ’round the world belonged to Ivan Koloff, “The Russian Bear,” nee Oreal Perras of Quebec, Canada, a main event fixture in Pittsburgh in the 1960s and 1970s. It ended Sammartino’s unprecedented seven-and-a-half year reign as WWWF World Heavyweight champion and brought a deathly hush to 21,166 fans that realized they had witnessed a moment of passage in pro wrestling history.

Bruno Sammartino: When Koloff hit me, he hit me pretty hard. He knocked the wind out of me and I went “Ooooph.” I thought maybe he had done something to my ear because I could not hear anything. Then Arnold Skaaland [Sammartino’s manager] got in the ring and asked me, “Are you all right?” and then I knew I could hear. And I looked around, and there was nothing. Total silence. And the fans, they were crying, and some were saying, “It’s OK Bruno, we still love you.” That was quite a feeling.

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Ivan Koloff: What really impressed me was the idea that it was something right in the middle of the ring. As big as Bruno was in wrestling, that’s what really caught the people. They figured it would be a fluke maybe, but not something in the middle of the ring. And the people just went quiet. And I was wondering, “What happened? Somebody’s hairpiece fall off or something?” Dead silence. It was so quiet you could head a pin drop, literally. It was the type of thing where I got up, I raised my own hand, and said to the referee, “Where’s the belt?” He said, “No, just a minute, kid. Go back to the dressing room. Go back to the dressing room.” I said, “No, I just won the belt. Give me the belt.” He said, “No, no.” I didn’t realize, but they were afraid of a riot. So as I was leaving the ring, I could hear people telling Bruno, “It’s OK, Bruno, you’re still our champion,” and women crying and everything like that. Then, I started feeling like a real heel, saying, “Well, I hate myself now."

The climb to the top rope in Madison Square Garden symbolized the long climb of Koloff from an underprivileged childhood on a Canadian dairy farm a full 10 miles from the nearest town. Yet it would represent just one of many difficult climbs that he made in his life. Born Aug. 25, 1942, Koloff was one of 10 children. Big and strong, he was expected to contribute to the farm, which lacked electricity or a car. From the age of eight, he dreamed of becoming a pro wrestler. But he punctuated his dream with a series of troubling transgressions. He angrily quit school just two weeks away from graduating from 11th grade after being suspended for playing ping-pong during class time. After being laid off from a job, Koloff ran afoul of the law. He and his brother were caught stealing cattle, a serious crime in an agricultural community.

Ivan Koloff: Needless to say, I didn’t know it at the time, but maximum security prison is not a place to go to, and I even witnessed a guy getting kicked to death. Everybody joked with everybody else that their crime was worse, and that type of thing.

In 1960, Koloff moved to Hamilton, Ont. at the behest of one of his younger brothers and started training at Jack Wentworth’s famed wrestling school. At 6-1 and 235 pounds, he had the size and strength to make an immediate impact in the ring. He initially wrestled as Red McNulty, an Irish villain with a black eye patch and a full head of hair. In that guise, he met Sammartino, the idol of his teenage years, for the first time in 1963 when he took Ron “Bull” Johnson’s spot at a Pittsburgh TV taping.

Ivan Koloff: “I didn’t know it at the time, but I was going to wrestle against Bruno on TV. I remember one of the old guys – I can’t remember who it was – told me in the dressing room, “Get him when he goes down and makes the sign of the cross in the corner. Attack him because, kid, if you want to be noticed, you’ve got to do some things like that.” I ended up doing it and I remember Bruno looking up at me like, “What’s the crazy kid doing?” He threw me around and I think he put the bearhug on me. He was a strong guy.

In 1967, McNulty morphed into Koloff in the Montreal territory. Dan Koloff had been a star in Montreal some 30 years prior, and Ivan was hailed as his nephew. In his new persona, he beat Jacques Rougeau for the International title. In late 1969, he started the first of many runs against Sammartino, winning some matches that were stopped due to Sammartino’s bleeding.

Bruno Sammartino: I wrestled Koloff — oh, my goodness, I don’t know — 50, 75 times. I don’t know how many. The reason why I enjoyed wrestling him so much was that after each match when I left and went back to the dressing room, I felt in my heart that the fans who came out and bought that ticket, that they went home feeling they got their money’s worth.

Koloff said he was surprised to be recalled to the WWWF for the January 1971 match against Sammartino because their program had ended so recently.

Ivan Koloff: I was 29. I couldn’t believe it. I had just wrestled Bruno for a solid year, three times all around the territory. Then I had left and went to Australia for 10 weeks and was wrestling a couple months in Hawaii when I got the word to come back and they had a match for me. It was the best thing I could have done even though I just stayed a couple of months.

Koloff’s reputation was made. Sammartino beat Koloff by disqualification in a rematch in Pittsburgh on Feb. 12, 1971. But the legendary win meant Koloff could travel internationally as a former world champion, the man who had vanquished the incomparable Sammartino.

Lou Albano: I was managing Ivan at the time. That match will never be forgotten … They had some great matches back and forth.

From the WWWF, Koloff headed to the AWA, where he emerged as a credible contender for the belt of perennial world champ Verne Gagne. The program culminated in a match at Soldier Field in Chicago in September 1972, which Gagne won.

Ivan Koloff: In ’72, ’73 when I was wrestling, I lived in Minneapolis. Like a dummy, I had bought at that time 10 acres of land just down by Orange, south of Minneapolis, and I sold it too soon because right now today it would be worth about $1 million an acre.

However, Koloff’s stay in the AWA was marred by an injury that would haunt him for much of his career. In 1973, Koloff teamed with Superstar Billy Graham against Wahoo McDaniel and Billy Robinson.

Ivan Koloff: I ended up taking a backdrop in the ring in Minneapolis and I think a board was out because I know, when I hit, I had sharp pains. That really bothered me. As a matter of fact, I took about two-and-half months off. They wanted to operate but I didn’t do it. Then I had another one rupture after that. People can’t really appreciate the fact that the scheduling we had. That’s why a lot of guys back then got involved in so much alcohol and drug abuse. It was to try and find relief because it was the type of thing back then where you didn’t have a written contract. You had a job and you had to produce. So if you had a broken shoulder or broken ribs back then, no health insurance, you couldn’t take time off. You had to wrestle with it. So you had to wrestle with injuries.

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A promo shot of Ivan Koloff with the Mid-Atlantic title.

For about 18 months, Koloff took painkillers, sleeping pills, and muscle relaxers so he could continue to wrestle. He became addicted to them. Once the prescriptions ran out, Koloff sought medication on the black market.

Ivan Koloff: I could get them on the street. It was very accessible on the streets and I ended up taking them and getting into situations where even the drugs weren’t enough. Looking back, I could say, “Well, I deserve it. I worked hard. I get up every morning and go to the gym and work out. I work hard in the ring, so I need this for my body. It’s OK then to not only take these drugs but to find some relief in marijuana. And marijuana wasn’t enough, then maybe cocaine.”

Koloff continued to work as one of the most in-demand performers in wrestling. When Sammartino regained the WWWF title in 1973, Koloff renewed his rivalry. The two had the first ever cage match in Madison Square Garden as part of a three-bout series of contests. Sammartino regards that as one of the greatest bouts of his career.

Bruno Sammartino: If I may say so myself, I think we set a standard because I’ve seen quite a few cage matches since then and I don’t think any of them live up to that one because he was a horse. I mean, he was tough.

Koloff landed in the Mid-Atlantic area in 1980 — he had appeared there in 1974-75 — and started feuding with Jimmy Valiant. He eventually moved to tag team wrestling, joining Don Kernodle as NWA World Tag champions in 1984. When Jim Crockett Promotions brought in Nikita Koloff as his wrestling “nephew,” a pair of destruction-minded Russians turned on Kernodle and beat him senseless.

Don Kernodle: That was a heckuva an angle. I was supposed to be the turncoat — this is when Russia was still our enemy — so teaming with Ivan brought us a lot of heat. Of course, Ivan is nothing like that in real life. He’s a gem.

Because of his vast experience in the ring, other wrestlers loved to work with Koloff, when had dropped about 60 pounds from his first run in the WWWF. Veteran George South recalled his experiences in a six-man tag match in Rock Hill, S.C. designed to prep the Russian team of Koloff, Teijo Kahn, and Vladimir Petrov for a program against the Road Warriors.

George South: It was George South, Gary Royal, and Tommy Angel against these giants. And we all three had the same idea without saying so much as a word to each other. As soon as they hit the ring, we all ran to Ivan because we knew he wouldn’t hurt us. So there we are, all three of us running toward Ivan, and these other two guys are standing there with nobody to fight.

I’ve been there when he gave me $100 out of his own pocket. He didn’t have to do that. For a guy like me who wasn’t making much money – and a lot of times, you’d do well to make $300 a week for Crockett – for somebody like Ivan to come up and give you $100, well, he’s special.

Yet Koloff’s personal life was one harrowing escape after another. He bears a scar on his neck where the iron Sheik bit him during a fight aboard an airplane at 20,000 feet. Koloff said he was drinking at the time, and took exception to the Sheik. “I was drunk. It was my fault.” The Russian Bear wrecked a car when he wrapped it around a telephone pole in the 1980s, the result of too much to drink at a wedding reception.

Ivan Koloff: I look back many, many times at the hundreds or thousands of times I could have been killed because I can’t remember the trip back. I’d wake up and say, “Man, I drove last night but I don’t remember a thing.”

It was a call from his wrestling nephew that changed Koloff and started him on the longest climb of his life. Nikita persuaded Ivan to attend church services and give his life to the Lord. It was the hardest battle of Koloff’s career, and he admitted that he struggled with the decision.

During a two-year period in the 1990s, he cleansed himself of alcohol, dugs, tobacco, and chewing tobacco. Now living in North Carolina with his wife, Koloff started his own ministry, and regularly lectures at detention homes, prisons, youth groups, and churches. For the last 11 years, he has signed autographs at Wal-Mart on behalf of the Children’s Miracle Network.

Ivan Koloff: When I started straightening up, things started working in my life. The Lord came and died for our sins. Once I understood that, that it wasn’t going to be on my power, it was going to be on his power, I now had a tag team partner who truly was a world champion, that I could reach up there and tag him and know without a doubt that he’s there for me.

© September 2004 SteelBeltWrestling.com

Sources: Interviews with Ivan Koloff, Bruno Sammartino, Lou Albano, Don Kernodle, George South and others.

Steven Johnson

Baron Gattoni

The Baron of Buffalo 

In the glorious annals of wrestling in Buffalo, only one grappler held a world championship while he actually was a resident of the city. No, not The Destroyer – Dick Beyer is from Akron, N.Y.

That singular honor goes to Jose Richardo Gattoni, better known to area wrestling fans as Baron Gattoni, who held the AWA tag team championship with Ivan Kalmikoff in 1959. And although the barrel-chested Gattoni might not be known to legions of fans today, he was a fixture in rings in New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania for the bulk of his 20-year run in wrestling.

Official Wrestling Magazine (1959): A more colorful fellow to watch or talk to is hard to find. He’s big, 6 ft., 1 inch, 280 pounds, but he’s quick as a cat.

A native of Milan, Italy, in November 1919, Gattoni’s family emigrated to Argentina when he was young. He came from a huge family – he was one of 10 brothers and sisters – and was known early on for his feats of strength as a weightlifter.

Image In fact, newspaper accounts said Gattoni lifted 300 pounds overhead with one arm in a single snatch. While he was involved in businesses in Buenos Aires, he also boxed and wrestled on the side, and that’s what convinced him to strike out from Argentina in 1949 and enter a wrestling career at the unusually advanced age of 29.

Rick Gattone (son): He loved Argentina. He always talked about it. Till the day he died, it was an important part of him. But he came here [the United States] because that’s where the money was. He got in his Cadillac, drove the Pan-American Highway, and met Pedro Martinez.

Gattoni’s alliance with Ignacio “Pedro” Martinez, a former wrestler and the most important promoter in the history of the Steel Belt area, would pay big dividends for both. Rick Gattone recalled that Martinez and his father butted heads a bit when they first met – the two strong-willed men reportedly met one time on a boat in the Gulf of Mexico, with Martinez landing in the water. Either way, Gattoni would work with Martinez throughout most of his career, even after he stepped aside from active wrestling.

Generally a heel, Gattoni came to the ring in a cape designed for royalty and, occasionally, a crown that mimicked the crown on the Cadillacs he loved – he owned 36 Cadillacs during his life, his son recalled with a laugh. He had a low-center-of-gravity, punishing, powerhouse style – think Crusher Verdu or a larger Pampero Firpo. At 6-1, and 280-290 pounds, he overwhelmed opponents with pure strength, usually using the bearhug as his finisher.

Wrestling Fan Book (1952): Like the amazing [Argentina] Rocca, Ricardo is an Italian-born who spent many years in Argentina before reaching the U. S. A 265-pounder, 29-year-old Gattoni has a beard, the same as his recently arrived cousin, Luis Bigliardi. He was South American weightlifting champ before turning to wrestling six years ago.

Gattoni was in the New York-New Jersey area in the early 1950s; that’s where he met his wife, Evelyn, in 1952. In 1955, he had a strong run in the San Francisco area, mostly as a bad guy. He fought Rikidozan and Sandor Kovacs, and teamed with veteran villain Aldo Bogni against the Stanlee Brothers. He spent a spell in Georgia in 1957 in 1959, as well.

Official Wrestling Magazine (1959): His long hair and beard are one of the Baron’s trademarks. He is a world traveler, having wrestled in Europe, Central America, Hawaii, Mexico, California and now wants to create mayhem on opponents in the South.

In 1958, Martinez took over the Buffalo area matchmaking from Ed Don George, and Gattoni became a fixture on cards there, and surrounding territories like Syracuse, Rochester, Toronto and Detroit. In 1959, he lost to Yukon Eric in Buffalo; it was the first of several bouts between the two pounders that were considered among the most hard-hitting of their era.

By the early 1960s, with his family living in Buffalo – Rick was born in 1954 – he was staying a bit closer to home and fighting on the mid-card against the likes of Billy “Red” Lyons, Miguel Perez and Danno O’Shocker. He played a footnote in one of wrestling’s most memorable chapters, losing a match to Detroit Lions star Alex Karras in January 1960 – KarrasImage would use his victories as a wrestler to springboard into a memorable “football versus wrestling” brawl with Dick the Bruiser in 1963. Coincidentally, Gattoni would drop a match to another footballer, Sid Youngelman, in Cleveland two weeks later.

Later that year, he figured prominently in a heel versus heel match against Waldo von Erich that sold out the 2,500-seat high school gym in New Castle, Pa., winning by disqualification. As one fan recalled, the event fared so well that promoters thought that they discovered a goldmine, only to find a show that replaced Gattoni and von Erich with Pat O’Connor and Eddie Faietta killed the crowds. Even though Gattoni was associated more with heels than heroes, he gave and received his share of adulation.

Rick Gattone: I remember many times going down to the hospital with him to visit the kids. You see, he looked threatening in the ring, but the kids loved him because he had that beard and that commanding presence. And he’d always sign autographs for everyone. I think he enjoyed the spotlight and kids sensed that and responded to it.

In 1963, Gattoni won a “two versus one” handicap match in Pittsburgh to set up a world title match with Bruno Sammartino in July. Sammartino won two out of three falls to retain his belt, but Gattoni stayed near the top of the card against foes like Duke Hoffman (Bob Leipler, also of Buffalo) and Edouard Carpentier. He also formed a regular tag team with Klondike Bill in late 1963, which was one of the largest teams of the time.

Gattoni toured Japan with Lyons, Beyer, and others in 1965, and even dropped by Bakersfield, Cal. for a draw with Don Chuy of the Los Angeles Rams – yet another football-wrestler. He started to slow down in the mid-1960s.

His last big run came in Quebec in 1966, headlining against Edouard Carpentier in Montreal and Quebec City, at the same time he was beating a young Dewey Robertson on Pittsburgh television. His last match of record was a loss in Quebec City in May 1967 to Eddie Auger. He also was involved in an auto accident, and effectively ended his wrestling career then.

But he stayed active behind the scenes with Martinez, helping with the ring crew and administrative tasks, and taking Pedro to task for his occasionally stingy ways.

ImageRick Gattone: He had a funny relationship with Pedro, not unlike a lot of people. He was close to him, but he wasn’t afraid to tell him off when he thought he was messing with the boys. I could hear him from the other side of the door at the Aud [Buffalo Memorial Auditorium]. “Look, he doesn’t have enough money for gas!” “All right, all right.” I really think Pedro had him around because he knew dad would keep his feet to the fire, whether he liked it or not. He was loyal to Pedro, but he looked out for the boys.

In 1978, Evelyn died after 26 years of marriage. She and her husband loved to sing and enjoyed classical music. “I never heard them argue. Not once,” Rick Gattone said. After her death, the Baron went downhill quickly, gaining about 100 pounds and displaying an uncharacteristic indifference toward life.

Rick Gattone: I told people I felt like I went to two funerals that day, my mom’s and my dad’s. He aged right before my eyes. It took everything out of him. It was his heart that got him in the end, but I tell everybody it was really a broken heart.

Gattoni died in 1982. In Argentina, the Baron is not forgotten. Rick Gattone recalled that he bumped into Dick “The Destroyer” Beyer at Ilio DiPaolo’s restaurant near Buffalo in 2000. Beyer said someone asked if he known Gattoni, and put the son in touch with the correspondent. In an e-mail exchange, Gattone learned about his father’s family in Argentina, and visited family members in March 2001.

Rick Gattone: He is still remembered there. I went there in 2001 and it was like he was a national hero. It was just amazing to see him recalled so fondly.

How fondly? Search for "El Gran Gattoni," and you'll find a book, albeit in Spanish, on the Baron's extraordinary life and times, authored by Claudio G. Peroni, a grandson of the Baron.

ImageFrom publisher's literature on "El Gran Gattoni:" "To almost win, it is just like to lose," assured Baron Gattoni, the most mysterious and legendary figure of catch sometimes Argentine. An erratic and luminous being, a volcanic man of found passions and loves, of unforseeable character and extraordinary strength, Gattoni was a great one of the free fight.

The Great Gattoni reconstructs the saga of this great fighter of the hand of its grandson, Claudius Peroni, that step by step it is discovering the adventurous life of its grandfathers, the "mythical superhero" of its childhood that seems to rejuvenecer as they spend the years. Peroni portrays and astonishment warmly, with an almost involuntary skill, the relation of Gattoni with the women and the hardest atmosphere of the fighters.

Gattone, a Buffalo area businessman active in civic affairs, has followed his father’s footsteps in wrestling, in a somewhat different way. From hanging around the ring with Martinez’s son Ron, he graduated to ring announcing, and worked in the south with the International Wrestling Association in the mid-1970s. Gattone – the “e” is the proper family spelling and his father never changed it from “I” after an immigration screw-up — is as traveled a ring announcer as there is, 33 years strong, still actively calling events across the country, working on many occasions with Jerry Grey.

He still has the ring bell from the Aud, when his father was ring manager for Martinez. Baron was a contributor to President Nixon, and his son has been very active in Buffalo politics in the Lovejoy District.

He also could be going to Argentina one more time to do some ring announcing. Gattone family members are considering a possible wrestling card in Buenos Aires dedicated to the Baron's memory. Rick Gattone would do the ring announcing, translated into Spanish, of course, marking the first time in 50-some years that a Gattone was in a ring in Argentina.

For more on the Baron, check out this cool clip of him in action.

© January 2006, SteelBeltWrestling.com, updated August 2007 Thanks to Rick Gattone

 Steven Johnson

The Gallaghers

The Brothers from Bayonne
 

From the late 1950s through the mid-1960s, the Gallagher Brothers ruled the tag team roost in the Great Lakes area. The team of Doc and Mike were a pair of real-life brothers from Bayonne, N.J., who brought a blend of heel tactics, innovative moves and comedy to their matches. They headlined dozens of cards during those years, often on a weekly basis.The Gallaghers’ years at the top marked the strongest period of arena attendance in the history of Buffalo, Rochester, and Cleveland.

Official Wrestling Magazine (1959): Scribes call the Gallaghers fabulous, fantastic, fearless and frightening. They call

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Mike Gallagher, left, with brother Doc

themselves powerful, polish, poised and proud. Wrestling fans call them vain, vicious, violent and, much to their chagrin, must admit they are also victorious.

Though they were brothers, Doc and Mike were separated by 17 years. John J. Gallagher, who would gain fame as Doc, was born Sept. 24, 1916. Mike – his given name was George – was born Oct. 11, 1933.  From an early age, John was interested in bodybuilding and physical fitness. He was a cover model for Strength & Health magazine in 1940, and served as a model for the Seabees during World War II. In the meantime, his kid brother played football in high school in Bayonne. Later in their careers, the Gallaghers said they developed their wrestling skills by defending their parent’s heritage, as their father was from Ireland and their mother from Czechoslovakia.

Doc and Mike Gallagher promotional interview: The result was that we had to stand back to back and fight both groups. This gave us great satisfaction because we never had to look for a fight – there was always one waiting. It also gave us a basic background for the style we now use in tag team matches.

Of course, given their age differences, it’s unlikely that John, at, say, age 20, was back-to-back with Mike, who would have been three.

“John Gallagher of Buffalo” started wrestling professionally after World War II, billed as as a newcomer on Paul Bowser’s New England circuit. He eventually picked up the nickname of “Doc” because had allegedly had given chiropractic a whirl after his years in the service. When George graduated from high school, he followed in his brother’s boots — it might have been a case of wanderlust, his son, George Gallagher Jr., speculated.

The brothers first teamed up in the Pacific Northwest in October 1951, as Doc and George. In 1953, they held the Northwest tag Team Title in Vancouver. While they tagged on and off for a few years – they squared off against the likes of Joe Blanchard and Dick Brown in Kansas City in May 1954, they were apart as much as they were together for a few years. Part of that was no doubt attributable to George’s home life – he married Juanita Coffman, the nearly full-blooded “Queen of the Amazons” in 1953.

Soon, George morphed into Mike, which his son George Jr. believed was the result of a screwed-up promo by an announcer. His first recorded match as Mike came in Little Rock, Ark. on June 8, 1954, where he beat Bob Clay. With Bob Geigel, Mike won the Southwest title in the Amarillo territory in 1955.

The brothers reunited in the winter of 1955-56 and rained terror on the profession for most of the next decade. They worked together in Spartanburg, S.C. on Jan. 21, 1956, beating Farmer Jones and Pete Managoff and were seldom apart after that. They regularly displayed their mayhem in the Carolinas, and held the AWA World tag team championship three times in 1958 in the lucrative Minneapolis region.

They first appeared in upstate New York for promoter Pedro Martinez in Syracuse in 1957, and were in tag team heaven with feuds against the Brunettis and the Millers. They would be fixtures from Detroit east to Utica, N.Y. for years. In 1960, two cards with the Tolos Brothers battling the Gallaghers in main events in Cleveland for an advertised International tag team title drew almost 12,000 and 10,000 in back-to-back weeks. The Web site, wrestling-titles.com, references an Ohio tag team title that the Tolos and Gallagher brothers exchanged the same year, as well.

Terry Dart (fan and historian): The Gallaghers used the knuckles to the temple of their opponents; also they had a habit of holding an opponent and pulling back on the helpless opponent’s neck, while Doc or Mike would jump off the top turnbuckle with an elbow to the poor guy’s exposed throat, then Mike or Doc would pin the guy. I saw it backfire one time here in London [Ontario] when Mike jumped off the top turnbuckle intending to hit Whipper Watson with the elbow; however, Watson moved and Mike hit poor ol’ Doc and Watson quickly pinned the scoundrel Doc to the joy of the crowd.

Drawing heat and drawing cards were what the Gallaghers were all about. Their style was a perfect fit for the abrasive, hot-shotting wrestling that fans around the Great Lakes preferred. Their creativity knew limits that other wrestlers could only dream of. In 1957, they got into an angle with long-time rival Ilio DiPaolo in the small upstate New York town of Dunkirk. On Feb. 16, Mike, in street clothers, interfered in a bout involving his brother, setting up a match the following week with Mike in his wrestling gear and Doc barred from ringside. But Doc had other ideas and came up with an amazing little tactic.

Dunkirk Evening Observer: He stood outside the dressing room and used a flashlight to signal his brother. DiPaolo spotted the flashlight and asked Referee Piney Johnson to stop the signals. As DiPaolo stood at the ropes talking with Johnson, Mike Gallagher hit him from behind and successfully floored him for a pin. The fans went wild but Johnson said the pin was legal and ruled Gallagher the winner. DiPaolo protested but to no avail.

Want more? They habitually took their time getting into the ring and slowly discarding the sequin-laden ringwear that Juanita sewed for them.

Billy “Red” Lyons: They were both real showboats and funnier than hell, especially Doc. Him and I had a lot of good times together. We made quite a few trips together. He was a real character … They were entertaining. They could make ’em laugh one minute and cry in another. They had that comedy and you'd be trying to keep a straight face, keep from laughing. Then the next minute, they'd have them wanting to climb in the ring.

A good example of that blend came Mar. 10, 1961, in a Buffalo bout against Bobo Brazil and Ilio DiPaolo. The Gallaghers showed that Brazil’s famed coco butt (head butt) could not hurt them, as Mike launched into a long microphone diatribe, then smashed his brother over the head with a chair to show Doc was immune to Brazil’s signature move. Brazil then raced out, and coco-butted Doc into defeat in 96 seconds.

Dick Beyer: We’re in Rochester doing a tag team. And a good looking girl comes up and she wants to see Mike. So Doc is standing out watching the matches and this girl comes up and says “Mr. Gallagher, I would like to talk to Mike.” He says, “What do you want to see him for?” “Well, I’d like to go out with him.” He says, “Mike likes sex.” “Well, I like sex too.” “But

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Horseplay

he kind of likes it a little funny.” “What do you mean a little funny?” He says, “He’ll take you out and go by the pizza shop and he’ll buy a pizza. And he always has his dog along.” She says, “Well, I like pizza and I don’t mind dogs.” He says, “Then he’s going to go up to his apartment and he’s going to want you to get your clothes off. And when you get your clothes off, he gonna slap that pizza on your ass and the dog is gonna eat the pizza.”

The Gallaghers’ reach stretched into Indiana, where they won another tag title in 1964. By then, though, Doc was 48, and starting to wind down his career in favor of work in gyms and health clubs. Mike went on to win the Southwest tag team title in Texas with Nelson Royal in the Amarillo promotion later that year.

After retirement, they came back in the winter of 1968-69 for one more shot of glory. As Johnny Powers and Bobby Bruns ran the Buffalo-Cleveland promotion, which had stalled big time in the late 1960s, they brought the Gallaghers back for a final run. Billed as world champions upon their arrival in Cleveland, they headlined and drew decent crowds against the likes of Powers and Argentina Rocca, getting about 4,000 regularly in markets that had been very slow. They lost the world titles (Cleveland version) to Powers and Moose Cholak in January 1969 and exited wrestling after that.

Mike moved successfully into the restaurant business, opening one of the earliest Shakey’s Pizza stores in his adopted home of Charlotte, N.C. He fiddled with opposition to Jim Crockett Promotions in 1971 with former regional hero George Becker, but spent most of his time in his new industry.

Billy “Red” Lyons:
Mike went on to run a Shakey’s Pizza. It’s funny. He had quit. I’m out in California, Dick [Beyer] and I, and we’re in a Shakey’s Pizza Parlor in L.A. one night. This group of people come in, and there’'s Mike Gallagher. He was there and he was taking their training program out in L.A. Of course, he had bought a franchise for Charlotte, and made a ton of money. That was the last time I saw Mike. He was surprised to walk in and here’s Dick and I. My God.

After some time in Alabama, Mike and his family relocated to Florida, where Juanita died at the age of 65 in 1987. Three years later, Mike and his son were lifting weights when Mike noticed a weakness in one arm. It was the onset of Lou Gehrig’s Disease, which would claim him in 1990. Doc was an active member of the Cauliflower Alley Club for many years. He and his wife Jean retired to Ft. Pierce, Fla., where Doc died in October 1994.

Dick Beyer:
They drew money wherever they went and that’s the true meaning of a tag team. Can they draw money? They created heat and drew money. I would rate them up there with the Tolos Brothers, The Von Erichs, The Kangaroos … I would put them against any of the teams.

Read more about the Gallaghers in The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Tag Teams, by Greg Oliver and Steven Johnson, where the Gallaghers are recognized as one of the top 20 teams of all time.

Credits: J Michael Kenyon, Dick Beyer, George Gallagher Jr., Don Luce, Billy "Red" Lyons, Bob Bryla, Terry Dart

—Steven Johnson, March 2006, updated May 2006 and January 2009