The First High Flier
August 29, 2005 by Langdon Beck
When did high-flying wrestling first become popular in America" Some would cite the push of the WCW Cruiserweight Division in the mid '90s. Or the introduction of lucha libre to ECW a few years before. Or the emergence of Owen Hart, Dynamite Kid and the Rockers in the '80s. Or Superfly Jimmy Snuka. But they'd be wrong, because high-flying was popularised in America decades before. The pioneer was one Antonino Rocca.
Born Antonino Biasetton in Treviso, Italy, on April 13, 1927, when he was fifteen he moved with his family to Argentina. At age eighteen he was the star of the Rosario Athletic Club rugby team, who beat England in international matches three years running. In a 1952 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Rocca described the first time he saw a wrestling match:
"One time [the R.A.C] are in Buenos Aires for a match, and I got to see a wrestling match at Luna Park in the evening. It is the first wrestling match I have ever seen, but in two minutes my mind is made up. I know I want to be a wrestler."
It was in Argentina that Rocca met wrestler (and his future road manager) Kola Kwariani. It was also where he decided he would wrestle barefoot. There are two stories as to why. Rocca once said, "I was poor. I didn't have enough money to buy shoes... By being barefoot I get a better grip on an opponent and have better balance." The other version of the story is that when Rocca was being outfitted for his first match, there were no shoes big enough for him - he was a size 13 ½ E - so he just wrestled without them.
In 1949, wrestling promoter Toots Mondt toured Argentina, and everywhere he went, people wanted Rocca. Mondt got Rocca, and made money, and so brought him to America, where his career really took off. This is the commonly-held theory on how Rocca made it to America, but 'Nature Boy' Buddy Rogers remembers it differently:
"The guy that brought Rocca to the United States was Nick Elitch. And he brought him into Dallas, Texas... The promoter there tells me, 'Buddy, I want you to watch this guy... he's the eighth wonder of the world.' ... That night he wrestled the third match. When he climbed into the ring-well, right to this day, I must admit I've never seen anything like it... He was phenomenal... Nick [got] a booking to bring Rocca out to Los Angeles. [Word] had spread like wildfire about this guy... Johnny Doyle (manager of Gorgeous George)... calls up Toots Mondt and tells him about Rocca."
Mondt brought Antonino to New York and the Capitol Wrestling Corporation (now known as WWE), and made Kwariani his road manager. Mondt hired Rocca out to promoters in the North East, including Vincent J. McMahon. McMahon managed to persuade Rocca to join his roster full-time, helping to make him the top promoter in the territory.
As well as playing rugby, Rocca had been an excellent soccer player. Incorporating techniques and tactics he had learned in these other sports into his wrestling style, as well as wrestling barefoot, made for something unique, and something no fan in the US had ever seen before.
Now, in the days of Canadian Destroyers and Shooting Star Presses, it is difficult to put into words just how revolutionary Rocca was to the fans of the 1950s. Wrestlers rarely even left their feet, but Rocca performed flying body presses, dropkicks, headscissor takedowns and victory rolls before finishing opponents off with an airplane spin or the standing Argentine Backbreaker (now known as the Torture Rack). Several important wrestlers of the time have described his actions during matches:
"Agile, acrobatic-he could fly and head-scissors you from all angles... He'd just dazzle you with footwork... Man, he did some ungodly things... as you were getting up, he'd go around behind you, leap up on your shoulders, head-scissors you front-face, dive and throw his body out, and then wheel you through the air. He was just one big windmill." - Buddy Rogers
"Rocca could never stand still. He'd buzz all over the ring, doing cartwheels, dropkicks and leapfrogs, then hop onto his opponent's shoulders, grab him under the chin, and yank his head... If you were leaning against the turnbuckles, Rocca would do a headstand in front of you, hook his ankles around your neck, and use his legs to fling you across the mat. When you stood up, he'd slap you across the face with his foot."
- Freddie Blassie
This trailblazing style of wrestling was one reason for Rocca's massive fanbase, but perhaps the key to his popularity was ethnicity. "Rocca could sell out shows just because he was an Italian from Argentina," remembers Blassie. "The Italians would fill up one half of the arena, and Latinos the other side." He was the man fans came to see, and was such a big star that his matches were almost always the main event, even if the NWA Champion was also in town.
His popularity was such that he wrestled on five different TV stations, leading Vince McMahon, Sr. to state, "Next to Milton Berle, Rocca sold more TVs in the country than anyone else." At the height of his fame, he was one of the most recognisable men in any sport.
Over his career, Rocca had a lengthy reign as Capitol Wrestling International Heavyweight Champion, as well as one NWA International Title reign and two NWA Texas Heavyweight title wins, but he didn't need championship belts to be a big star: he was already one of the most famous wrestlers of all time. During his career, only Gorgeous George was a bigger star, but Rocca was the king of the East Coast territories. Rocca (as well as George) was one of the first to emphasise showmanship over tangible hold-based wrestling ability. In this respect, he was the Hulk Hogan of his day.
Wrestling events with Rocca as the feature would often be huge draws for fans. A non-televised 1957 match pitting Rocca & Verne Gagne against Hans Schmidt & Karl von Hess resulted in one of the largest Madison Square Garden crowds in twenty five years. Traffic was jammed, parking areas were completely full, and around 5,000 people were turned away. Rocca & Gagne won the match.
Rocca wrestled all the big stars of the era. On November 12, 1949, he went to a draw with former World Heavyweight boxing champion Primo Carnero. He wrestled the likes of Killer Kowalski and Crusher Lisowski. And on September 11, 1952 in Los Angeles, he went to an epic draw with Lou Thesz.
The match started out with exchanges of headlocks, toelocks and other holds (Rocca did not showcase his high-flying ability in this encounter). Thesz took a slap at Rocca and won the disdain of the thousands in attendance. Thesz survived four bodyslams and won the first fall with a Greco-Roman piledriver. Rocca then slapped Thesz with his foot, got him up for an airplane spin and hit the backbreaker to even the score. With two minutes remaining, Rocca called for ten minutes' overtime. Thesz's manager Ed 'Strangler' Lewis refused, but Thesz agreed. It was to no avail, as the ten minutes passed with no winner, setting the stage for a huge outdoor rematch.
In the late 1950s, Rocca wrestled matches against 'The Bad Man From The Badlands' Johnny 'the Villain' Valentine. Valentine used lots of kicks, stomps and questionable punching, wearing Rocca down in between yelling at ringside fans, before eventually falling to a move like the Argentine Backbreaker.
On October 27, 1961, Rocca challenged Freddie Blassie in LA in a match with a two hour time limit. Blassie got the first fall with a body press at 15:22 and Rocca levelled at 27:59 after the backbreaker. As Blassie was down, Rocca continued to kick him, not listening to the referee, and so was disqualified for unethical tactics. While it was true that Rocca rarely - if ever - lost in New York, in other territories a win was never guaranteed.
In the 1950s, it was not uncommon for riots to break out at wrestling shows. Rocca believed he could control the fans, claiming, "I can start a riot or stop one. But I'd rather stop them." But one infamous night in November 1957, not even he could restrain the crowd. Rocca and the "Flying Frenchman" Edouard Carpentier were taking on Dr. Jerry Graham and Dick the Bruiser at Madison Square Garden. Towards the end of the match, Graham hit Rocca, busting him open. Rocca grabbed Graham in a headlock, and ran him head first into a ringpost. There was blood everywhere. Fans had already begun throwing things into the ring, but at the sight of blood, they headed down the aisle and began to charge the ring. Fists, broken bottles and even umbrellas were swung, and large wooden chairs were flying all over the arena. Verne Gagne, who was in the audience that night, later recalled "it was like watching the lemmings go over." Bruiser took it upon himself to toss as many people as he could back into the stands, and it eventually took about thirty New York City policemen as well as MSG's security to bring the riot under control. But it was not without consequences; around three hundred crowd members were banged up, eleven fans and three cops were injured, five hundred chairs were smashed, and slightly less seriously, the referee's pants were torn off.
The four wrestlers involved were fined a total of $2,600 and the Bruiser was banned from wrestling in New York State for life. News of the riot made the back cover of the New York Daily News the following day, and was also featured on the cover of LIFE Magazine. The impact of the riot may have been far more wide-reaching, as an Associated Press report from the Soviet Union the following month shows:
MOSCOW, Dec. 22 -- The Russians don't think professional wrestling is a sport. They look upon it as just another evil of capitalism.
"We associate the word 'sports' with youth, strength, beauty, friendship, and smiles," the newspaper Soviet Sports said today.
"But the wolfish laws of capitalism, where strength is determined by a checkbook, turns honest competitions into distorted ones in America.
"These laws cripple men and breed base instincts . . . . There are no hold barred in this struggle-bribery, blackmail, and even murder." And you thought Meltzer was harsh!
A lot of Rocca's success came from tag team wrestling. In the late 1950s a partnership with the late Miguel Perez was formed, and together they became the first holders of the Capitol Wrestling United States Tag Team Titles, which later became the WWE World Tag Team Titles. Perez's hold-for-hold wrestling style complemented Rocca's high-flying, and feuds with the Fabulous Kangaroos of Roy Heffernan and Al Costello, the Fargos, the Golden Grahams (Eddie and Jerry) and more resulted in almost thirty sold out main events at the Garden between 1957 and 1960. Perez would take a beating, but never quit, somehow making it to his corner to tag in Rocca, and the building would explode with noise.
These matches may have been a dream come true for Perez; it was his admiration of Rocca that inspired him to become a wrestler. As a team they wrestled all over the world, from Mexico, Puerto Rico and Cuba to Venezuela and Brazil via India, France, and Italy, among others.
April 29, 1963. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. 'Nature Boy' Buddy Rogers defeated Antonino Rocca in a tournament final to become the very first WWE Champion. Or did he" As it turns out, probably not. Rogers had lost the NWA Title to Lou Thesz, but the promoters involved disagreed on this matter, and so the WWWF was formed as a separate entity with Rogers as its first Champion. The tournament never actually happened.
Outside the ring, Rocca mixed with the rich and famous. He knew James Cagney, wrestled Johnny Carson, and was good friends with the Italian composer Arturo Toscanini. He was a big opera fan, had a good singing voice, and released several music albums. This love of music has transferred to his son, Tony Rocca Jr., a DJ and producer.
Rocca was possibly the first wrestler to appear in a comic book, appearing in Superman #155 in 1962. On the cover, Rocca is in the ring as Superman is thrown out of it, as a man in the crowd says "Wow! That wrestler, Rocca, has thrown Superman right through the ropes! This is the greatest sports upset in history!" Inside the comic, Superman, Rocca, and others arrange a ruse to trap gangster Duke Marple into revealing where he has hidden his stolen loot.
His connection with the fans was not just confined to wrestling arenas. He regularly visited Spanish Harlem and hospitals, and gave lectures at local functions. He hardly ever lost a match in New York, but on Sunday walks in Central Park would always seem to be pinned by Puerto Rican kids who came to see their hero.
Vince McMahon, Sr. said, "There was never a more likeable and personable fellow in sports", and Rocca's integrity was well-known. He once flew from Florida to Brooklyn to appear in court for a traffic summons. The judge - a wrestling fan - was so impressed with Rocca's honesty the charge was dropped. Rocca later said, "I was worried... I would have rather wrestled 10 men than go before a judge."
Financially, Rocca did not do too badly. During the 1950s his average income was in the region of $100,000 a year, and over his entire career he made approximately $1 million. His legs were insured for $250,000. Despite gaining a degree in electrical engineering in 1949 and being fluent in six languages, he often made more money wrestling a single match than he would have done in a year had he followed that path instead. But it wasn't just money he earned; Rocca once told the story of how he (reportedly) made the grand sum of 25 shrunken heads when he was (reportedly) invited 3,000 miles into the Amazon to (reportedly) wrestle eighteen barefooted natives.
"Their style is called capoiera," Rocca told the LA Times in 1952. "When I got there the tribe's chief had lined up all 18, single file, and I took them on, one after another, for three hours. After I'd defeated them all, the chief solemnly handed me the shrunken heads as my prize."
Rocca retired from active competition in 1967, but returned to the WWWF as an announcer in the seventies, calling matches with a young Vincent Kennedy McMahon up until his death in 1977.
Fellow wrestlers appear to be in two minds about Rocca. The great Lou Thesz, never a fan of wrestlers who emphasised showmanship over technical ability, saw him as "the death of credible wrestling". They wrestled many times, but Thesz said he "refused to ever lay down for Tony, even in his own backyard, because I had such contempt for that style."
Buddy Rogers, however, is more appreciative. In a 1985 interview Rogers said, "Rocca was the most agile, tremendously-conditioned athlete-never got tired. I would sit back and admire this guy, really I would... I've never seen anything like him... What this business lacks today is a Rocca."
Many wrestlers admired Rocca personally for his skill in the ring. Pampero Firpo said "He was one of my idols when I was a kid", and Cauliflower Alley Club honouree Billy Darnell expressed admiration away from the squared circle too. "I was good, but Rocca... What a performer! I was jealous of him for years. Then we met up... and had a meal together. He was such a nice person, all my jealousy went out the window."
Rocca had a reputation of sorts in the locker room, which Freddie Blassie talked about in his book...
"He had the biggest cock most of the boys had ever seen. You should have heard them go on and on about it. They'd hold their hands apart and talk about the length. They'd cup their fingers together and describe the thickness. They'd talk about the sight of Rocca lying back on a bench in the locker room, with the head of his dick resting on the middle of his chest.
You can rest assured that Freddie Blassie never took part in these lively exchanges... I was never interested in cocks."
On March 15, 1977, Antonino Rocca passed away at the hospital where he had been admitted two weeks earlier for a urinary infection. He was 49. He once claimed that his sleeping for 12 hours a day would help him to long life, saying "Next to good blood circulation, the secret of life is rest. I expect to live to be at least 100."
He may be gone, but his legacy lives on. Inductions into the WWE Hall of Fame, the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame and many others keep his name in people's memories. His ideas on abdominal training - that the centre of movement for physical activity is the twisting and turning ability of the waist - are practiced by martial artists to this day.
But it's in the ring where you can really see Rocca's legacy. Every time you see a wrestler execute a standing dropkick or a victory roll, or a wrestler rises to the top thanks to an incredible rapport with the fans rather than on pure wrestling ability alone...you can thank Antonino Rocca.
(Sources: WWE, Online World of Wrestling, Wikipedia, mawn.net, Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame, Bill Apter, Freddie Blassie, WAWLI, Lou Thesz, Buddy Rogers, Billy Darnell, Supermanica, Dave McNair, Tony Rocca, New York Times)
by Langdon Beck --- [View Langdon Beck's Column Index]..
Colm Kearns wrote:
Fantastic column. A brilliant tribute to one of the legendary pioneers of wrestling.
Zach Goldman wrote:
A brilliant article on one of wrestling's true legends.
Ron Levao wrote:
Wonderful piece, filled with information, laughs and memories. It was especially great to read how generous other wrestlers were about his skill, given the fact that Lou Thesz looked down his nose at Rocca as a wrestler. Rocca was not only perpetual motion, but rhythmic motion-- aggressive yet balletic. My Romanian grandmother and I watched him together with great glee in the 1950s. As for that odd, anatomical detail, isn't it bizarre that the other great salesman of TV sets in the 50s, Milton Berle, was rumored to be similarly endowed? There must be a theory to cover that coincidence !
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