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.
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 – Karras 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.
Rick 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.
From 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