Editor’s note: This column originally appeared on http://slam.canoe.ca and was written by Greg Oliver.
Angelo Savoldi, who will be laid to rest Wednesday after 99 years of full life, was billed as the brother of the legendary “Jumping” Joe Savoldi, but it was his real brother who got him into professional wrestling.
It’s a great story.
Sit back and enjoy.
Mario Louis Fornini Sr., was born on April 21, 1914, in Castrocielo, Italy, near Naples, and arrived in the United States in 1919, settling in Hoboken, New Jersey, where a childhood friend was reportedly a skinny kid named Frank Sinatra.
Fornini started wrestling at Demerest High School, and was always a fan of bodybuilding, so built his body up. He didn’t finish high school, though, dropping out during the Depression to help his family, cutting metal tubes at Cleveland Container. The attempt to become a pro wrestler meant giving up the day job.
In 2009, he told this writer the origin of his name, in part for the biography of “Jumping” Joe Savoldi, a star football player turned wrestler, in the 1930s, for the book, The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: Heroes & Icons.
“I had a brother wrestling by the name of Lou Fornini, and he was wrestling for Jack Pfefer — he was a promoter in New York. I went to see him, and I was just an amateur wrestler at the YMCA,” recalled Savoldi.
Next, Savoldi boldly told Pfefer that he wanted to be a professional wrestler.
“He looked at me and said, ‘This is what you’ve got to do, kid. Run around the block about a half dozen times, and come to see me again.’ I don’t know what made him say that. So I said, ‘I’ve got my brother, Lou Fornini, wrestling here.’ He said, ‘Oh, you’re Lou’s brother? Why didn’t you say so! But you can’t go under that name anyhow. You’ve got to have a better name for drawing crowds.’ So he thought of the name, and he gave me the name Angelo Savoldi.”
The first bouts for Savoldi were as early as 1937, but it wasn’t until 1938 that he was a regular, mainly around the Northeast to begin.
Filed away in the Pfefer Collection at the University of Notre Dame is a letter where Pfefer talked about Savoldi: “Angelo is a pretty rough, tough character. He wants his hand raised and he doesn’t care how he goes about it. Kicking, biting and scratching is the usual procedure. He figures that in a match with a champion anything can happen. He wants it to happen with him.”
Fornini served his country in the Navy during the Second World War. After he got out of the service, his big break came when he was invited to return to the Oklahoma wrestling territory, a haven for light-heavyweights, where he had had a couple of bouts before the war.
Oklahoma was the key to his career, he said. “I was there for 22 years,” Savoldi recalled. “I drew a lot of money there, I was one of their biggest stars at that time.”
He is downplaying his accomplishments a bit. Savoldi would reign as World Junior Heavyweight champion on five occasions, from 1958 to 1964.
As champion, he did a lot of traveling. A young Pierre Clemont, later known as Pat Patterson, caught Savoldi in action. “I saw him wrestle a few times in Montreal when I was a kid. He was a good heel. He was not a big guy, but goddamn, his facial expressions, he looked like a mean son-of-a-bitch. He was good.”
In a 1947 program in California, promoter Hardy Kruskamp described Savoldi: “His style is the slashing, ripping, slamming attack.”
There was also a lot of travel when Savoldi was tasked with shepherding the famed Argentina Rocca around. Since Savoldi spoke Italian — Rocca could handle Italian, Spanish, and some Portuguese — he was designated as his road manager, so the cash cow wouldn’t stray or get lost. “Anywhere he went in the country, I don’t care where he went in the United States, from the East to the West, North and South, standing room only for Argentina Rocca,” Savoldi said in Heroes & Icons. “When he got into New York, he made history there. Believe me, he was outstanding. Every match he had in Madison Square Garden, you couldn’t get a seat, standing room only. He got so famous in New York, and then of course TV starts showing him all over the country, everybody wanted him, every part of the country wanted Argentina Rocca.”
Savoldi’s two greatest foes in Oklahoma were Danny Hodge and Hiro Matsuda, though some might say that it was Danny Hodge and Danny’s father, William.
During a bout at Oklahoma City’s Municipal Auditorium on May 27, 1960, Savoldi was facing Hodge when Hodge’s dad hopped in the ring and stabbed Savoldi with a pen knife. Savoldi later filed a $125,000 damage suit in district court against the Hodges, promoter Leroy McGuirk, and two Oklahoma City ticket agencies.
The Daily Oklahoman reported on the case: “Howard K. Berry Jr., attorney, who filed the action, said Savoldi was slashed so severely it required 60 stitches to close his wounds and the wrestler suffered permanent injuries and is unable to continue his profession. The suit alleges police and sheriff’s officers were present at the public exhibition but failed to restrain the elder Hodge in his attack on Savoldi.”
In a December 1981 article in the Jersey Journal, Savoldi described the incident: “I had beaten him a couple of times, but on this night I had him down and was on top of him when this guy comes into the ring from out of nowhere. I felt something brush my back and the next thing I knew there was blood all over the place. The kid’s father was in such a rage at seeing me beat his son again that he came after me with a knife. It took 247 stitches across my back to close the wound and I was laid up two or three months. When I came back Hodge beat me for the title, but we wrestled two years later and I won it back.”
The old adage is that any publicity is good publicity, and Savoldi was soon invited to Capitol Sports in the Northeast. Run by Vincent J. McMahon, with New York City’s Madison Square Gardens as its mecca, the WWWF was far more convenient for Savoldi, who had been commuting to Oklahoma from Parsippany, NJ — his home from 1946 until his death on Friday, September 20, 2013.
McMahon wanted Savoldi to act as an agent as well as an occasional wrestler. His last bout would come in 1972.
In 2011, Savoldi recalled being approached by Vincent J. McMahon about becoming an agent. “He was after me. He asked me if I would like to control all New England, in other words, the Boston Garden and all through Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, all through that area,” said Savoldi. “[McMahon Sr.] he did all the bookings. I was the agent only. In other words, I took care of the show, I took care of everything else.”
He stressed that his relationship with “The Boys” that he used to wrestle with didn’t change when he became an authority figure. “I always treated everybody equal. I never made one guy better than another guy,” he said.
“Angelo was a good man, a very good man. I’ve known him since I came into New York in 1970,” said Dominic Denucci. “Angelo was still wrestling once in a while at that time, but then he became an agent, and he stayed there a long time — until Junior took over. He always traveled with us all the time.”
Helping people came natural to Savoldi, who was always a gentleman.
Don Leo Jonathan was a second generation wrestler — his father was Brother Jonathan — and said Savoldi guided him. “He knew my dad and he helped me,” said the Mormon Giant.
“Irish” Davey O’Hannon saw Savoldi as a father figure and willingly took his advice to leave the Northeast to learn more about pro wrestling.
“He was an agent. It was just a really, really good relationship we had. I’m very fond of him. I was at his 95th birthday party; in fact, it was [Bob] Backlund and myself that were the two guys that were invited, along with his family — he’s got a huge family,” said O’Hannon. “I go back quite a ways with him, and have a special spot in my heart for him. His accomplishments in the business, a lot of people might just remember Angelo working here in New York towards the end of his career. But I’m going to tell you, if you really know the business and appreciate it, this guy was a top draw out in Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and that area. People don’t realize that he drew big money, and I mean big money — they sold places out — before there was a saturation with TV and cable, and before there was some public transportation in these places.”
Mike Ryckoff was a young kid in Oklahoma, a wrestling fan who wanted to break into the business — and did, alongside childhood friend Skandor Akbar. “We became friends,” said the late Ryckoff in 2010. “I was just a youngster, but I used to go to the matches. He was wrestling.”
Yvon Robert was in the ring, and Ryckoff went over to ringside to feel his robe.
Robert challenged, “Ah, kid, you want a part of me?”
“And Angelo said, ‘Hey, he’s just a kid. Slack off a little bit.’ I thanked him, got to know Angelo. We became friends. It was coincidental that he started working for Leroy McGuirk up in that area; that’s where I was working. We went to visit with Angelo and his family in ’65, with the world’s fair.”
The Savoldi family, even if they are not truly Savoldis or related to Joe Savoldi, made quite the name for themselves too.
Angelo and Mary J. Gaglio were married for 74 years, and had four sons: Mario, John, Albert and Robert. Besides the wrestling, Angelo owned a tape and record shop in Parsippany, NJ with his son Mario. The Savoldis also promoted ICW wrestling in the Northeast for many years.
During his lengthy career, it’s fair to say that Savoldi could spin a story on anybody.
Sky Low Low: “Sky was a funny little guy. I enjoyed his company, going around with him. In fact, the greatest thrill I got from him was seeing him walk with Andre the Giant together down the street. That was something for the people to see. … the matches I watched with Little Beaver and Sky Low Low were the most scientific matches I saw from two little midgets. They were great. The admission was well-paid for.”
Jack Brisco: “Jack Brisco wanted to be a professional wrestler. I was asked by Leroy McGuirk if I would train him. I said, ‘Beautiful, good kid, just got out of college. I think he’s going to do fantastic.’ Well, believe it or not, he did do fantastic. Then I called a friend of mine in Florida, Duke Keomuka. I says, ‘Duke, there’s a kid here who’s fantastic. Why don’t you take him down there?’ He said, ‘If you say he’s good, send him down.’ So there he went, and believe it or not, he became a sensation.”
Earl McCready: “He was a great champion. I wrestled in a town, Muskogee, Oklahoma. It was an old book, I’ll never forget that. It was an old book. I went through it. It was a wrestling book. I opened it up, and going through pages and pages, and who do I come across but Earl McCready when he was going to college as an amateur wrestler. I said to myself, ‘My God, that’s Earl McCready when he was an amateur wrestler.’ I wish I had kept that book! I probably couldn’t have taken it out of the building, but I would have tried, believe me!”
Stu Hart: “I wrestled Stu many, many times. … I remember him when he came out of Canada. He came to New York City in 1947, I believe it was. I wrestled him in New York, Delaware, Jersey. He was a good, good wrestler.”
Throughout his life, Savoldi kept himself in good shape, so many were surprised that he passed away, even at the age of 99. Infection set in last weekend, and he passed away at home on Friday.
Survivors include his wife Mary J.; his sons and daughters-in-law: Mario L. Jr. and Lorraine; John and Cindy, Albert C. and Lynne, and Robert and Christine; and his 11 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren; and his “adopted” daughter, Luanne Davis. He was cremated and the funeral is on Wednesday, September 25th at St. Christopher Roman Catholic Church in, Parsippany.
It’s worth ending with a life lesson from Angelo Savoldi, his last line during his 2003 speech at the Cauliflower Alley Club reunion, where he was presented with the Art Abrams Lifetime Achievement Award: “One thing I want to say before I leave: You can have a good match, you can have lousy match, but don’t forget the finish!”
September 23, 2011: Savoldi PWHF dinner a labor of love for O’Hannon
Previous SLAM! Wrestling obituaries
Greg Oliver is the Producer of SLAM! Wrestling, and got to spend time with Angelo Savoldi here and there over the years. A true class act. Rest in peace, Angelo. Greg can be emailed at [email protected], and you can follow him on Twitter @gregmep.