Posts Tagged ‘ GEORGOUS GEORGE ’

OLD PRO WRESTLER RELIVES THE GOOD OLD DAYS

YESTERDAY, TODAY AND TOMORROW

DANTE  GRAPPLED WITH IMMIGRATION;

EVEN BEAT MAN MOUNTAIN DEAN ON THE MAT!

by Boots LeBaron

    More than a half century ago Leonardo Rica, a 22-year-old Italian-born immigrant accompanied by his mother and younger brother, arrived by ship in New York Harbor.

     Like millions of foreigners who come to America, their mission was to find a better life. They spoke no English, only Italian and Spanish.

     Leonardo, a ruggedly handsome, mustachioed 225 pounder who grew up in Argentina and trained as a Greco-Roman wrestler in Buenos Aires, was determined to become a professional wrestler.

     With no command of the English language, finding his way around New York City was at times difficult. “If I was in Brooklyn asking directions to 33rd Street and someone would call it, ‘toity-toid’ street, I’d be lost,” said Leonardo, laughing.

     A long time resident of Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., Leonardo had initially intended to compete as a wrestler in the Olympics. Instead, he began “free-style” wrestling in Argentina before coming to America.  

     His childhood hero was Argentine Rocca, a world famous “no nonsense” champion known as the Bare’footed Warrior. Rocca helped bring his young protegé Leonardo into the profession where even in those days theatrics sold tickets.

     It was a non-steroid world dominated by a collection of powerful characters using box office monikers like Gorgeous George, Man Mountain Dean, The Great Moto, The Destroyer, Killer Kowalski

The Strangler, The Syrian Assassin, Chief Blue Eagle, Mr. America, Kayo, Mister Terror, The Jumper and Gentleman Jim (who was anything but a gentleman).

     As a professional wrestler, the Italian kid from Argentina became Dante.

     “I liked that name because it sounded evil. Most of the hundred or so matches I had on the East Coast, I was the straight man.”  

     Playing the bad guy, he said, “was part of the act. If the audience booed, hissed, or even threw objects into the ring, it was a successful performance. One time, a little old lady was so mad, she climbed into the ring and hit me over the head with an umbrella.”

     For Leonardo, “that was like an Academy Award nomination. Just like today, there was eye gouging, arm twisting, body slamming, lifts and drops — all sorts of spectacular moves.”

     Of course, he noted, the “big guys” who dominate the sport today could overpower most of the pros when I wrestled.

     “In those days, we didn’t rely on steroids. My enhancement drugs came from Argentina: Beef, beef, beef and more beef.

     “We were gladiators just like they are now,” he said. “We were like a team. You helped an opponent lift you over his head. He knew how to slam you to the canvas or throw you out of the ring. And you knew how to land. I can’t tell you how many times I was thrown out of that ring. More than a dozen.

     “We didn’t have mats at ringside. So the safest way to be thrown out of the ring was to land on the audience.”

     Man Mountain Dean was one opponent he couldn’t lift or heave anywhere. He sported a black beard, wore dungarees, weighed 450 pounds and was built like a Sumo wrestler.

     “I wanted to beat him,” said Leonardo. “Believe me, I tried. But lift him onto my shoulders! Are you kidding? When he finally pinned me and the referee counted me down, he refused to get off of me. When the crowd started booing, they gave me the match. So I beat Man Mountain Dean.”

     Although he wrestled on the same card with the legendary Gorgeous George, who climbed into the ring wearing a golden cape accompanied by a corner man who played the violin, Leonardo never locked arms with the glitzy celebrity who was also known as “The Orchid Man”.

     “Before every match, George would have his hair curled. Like Argentine Rocca, women were crazy about him. He’d strut around the ring pulling bobby pins out of his hair tossing them to lady admirers. They scrambled after them like hungry sharks.”

     But Dante was developing his own fan base. “Kids would circulate in the crowd selling my autographed photos for $2. That was a lot of money in those days.” Despite only a year of professional wrestling, in 2008 he was inducted into the New York State Wrestlers Hall of Fame.

     So his promising career as grappler ended abruptly in 1954 when he was drafted into the Army. When the Korean war veteran was honorably discharged, instead of returning to wrestling, he went into the wholesale jewelry and the photo-finishing business in Yonkers, New York.

    A memory he would forever cherish was the sight of the towering Statue of Liberty that greeted his family when they arrived in New York Harbor from Argentina.

     “I’ll never forget that beautiful lady holding the torch,” said Leonardo. “If she wasn’t so big, I would have hugged her. What do you expect, I was an immigrant, born in Belvedere Marittimo, a small village about 30 kilometers south of Naples in southern Italy.  

     “I was only five when my mother (Victoria), who did without to feed and cloth me, brought me to Argentina so we could be with my father (Francisco).   My mother meant everything to me. We were very poor. As an infant, she would chew up the food and spit it into a bowl to feed me.

     “She sacrificed so much. My father was a decent man with ways of the old country. He taught me to rely on common sense. Throughout life, I have tried to do that.”

     “I was an immigrant twice,” he noted. “Once as a very young boy coming from Italy to Argentina. Again, as a young man immigrating to the America. I can identify with people from any country wanting a better life.  

     “We open the door for them,” he went on. “Finally, they have something to eat, money to raise a family. Yet, there are those who complain: ‘They are taking my job!'”

     What he would tell immigrants arriving in the U.S.A. today?

     Here’s his quick reply: “You want to live an honorable life? Welcome to America! If you are a criminal, GET OUT! Never come back. Never!

     “As for sending millions back to poverty — good people who work our fields, cut our lawns, build our highways, do so many menial tasks for so little money — punishing these innocent men, women and their children is un-American. Come on! It’s so unfair to turn them away. They come here like so many of us with hope in their hearts.  

     “I believe in amnesty. They deserve it,” said Leonardo. When we met, he had three sons, grandchildren and was divorced. He lived with his brother, Carlos, an aerospace/missile scientist, in Palos Verdes, Calif.

     He died in 2012 at the age of 83. Leonardo recalled the words written by Emma Lazarus inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning

to breathe free…”

 

 

(THE HUMAN RACE, written by Boots, is an

inspirational self-help book interspersed

with stories about people, essays and light

poetry. It’s available on Kindle as well

as in paperback on Amazon)

 

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