Angelo Savoldi – The Life and Legacy of Mario Louis Fornini

A notable wrestler’s father once stabbed him with a pen mid-match, and before passing away at 99, he was referred to as “The World’s Oldest Retired Wrestler.” For legendary grappler and promoter Angelo Savoldi, authenticity and magic were always involved.

The great Angelo Savoldi.
The great Angelo Savoldi. [Photo: Pinterest]

The Great Angelo Savoldi

Angelo Savoldi was born Mario Louis Fornini in Castrocielo, Italy, on April 21, 1914.

At the age of five, his family emigrated to the United States and settled in Hoboken, New Jersey. Fornini wrestled at Demarest High School (now known as Hoboken High), but like many of the youth of the Great Depression, left school to obtain employment.

His first recorded wrestling match was against Jim Austeri in Fort Hamilton, New York, on June 29, 1937. His final recorded match, almost 37 years later, was against one of my all-time favorites, “The Continental Nobleman” Joe Turco in Baltimore, Maryland, on May 4, 1974.

What we’re going to attempt to do is fill in the 36-year, 10 months, and 5-day gap in between. For the rest of his story, Mario Fornini will be referred to by his wrestling name, Angelo Savoldi.

Discovering Wrestling

In 1937, Angelo Savoldi approached promoter Jack Pfefer for a job in the wrestling business. Angelo’s brother Lou was wrestling as Joe Savoldi, so thanks to Pfefer, Mario Fornini became Angelo Savoldi, the ‘brother’ of Joe Savoldi, in a rare instance of kayfabe mirroring reality.

Per HouseOfNames.com, “The Italian surname Savoldi is derived from the word ‘savio,’ meaning ‘wise’ or ‘learned,’ thus it was likely originally a nickname for a wise or knowledgeable man.”

If the name ever fits the person, it surely does in this case.

Early on in Savoldi’s wrestling career, he befriended a gentleman by the name of John Bonica. At the time, Bonica was an intern at a New York City hospital and wrestling for Jack Pfefer.

For several summers, the two young wrestlers would work the carnival/fair circuits in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. As Bonica wanted his wrestling career to be shrouded in anonymity and separate and distinct from his career in medicine, he wrestled under the moniker Bull Walker (shades of George Steele aka “The Student”).

“My wife made good Italian sandwiches, and boy were they good,” Angelo fondly recalled in family recordings kindly passed onto us by Angelo’s son Mario Jr. “At the fair, we ran eight to ten shows a day. Let me tell you something; it was tough in Pennsylvania. There was Lehigh College, and most of the challengers were boys from that college. I made more money working at those fairgrounds than working at arenas for Jack Pfefer. So, I did that for about three or four summers. But, with the country at war, John was drafted in the Army, and that finished that.”

John Bonica would end up being in the right place at the right time. In addition to serving his country and having a decent mat career, he had an illustrious career in the field of medicine, specifically anesthesiology.

In 1960, he founded the Department of Anesthesiology at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle, where he established his Multidisciplinary Pain Center. He is acknowledged as the founding father in the science of pain medicine.

During the Second World War, Angelo Savoldi also took a brief hiatus from his wrestling career to serve in the United States Navy. Although Angelo did not capture his championships until later in his career, he was wrestling top stars early on.

Per cagematch.net, on October 30, 1942, Angelo defeated a gentleman by the name of Herman Rohde in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Rohde would later become known as the legendary “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers.

A couple of weeks later, Savoldi defeated Jack Vansky in Camden, New Jersey. Vansky has the dubious distinction of being the first opponent for one Bruno Sammartino.

On February 2, 1947, Angelo battled Lou Thesz to a draw, also in Camden, New Jersey.

Angelo Savoldi, left, has an opponent in a headlock during a 1948 match in California.
Angelo Savoldi, left, has an opponent in a headlock during a 1948 match in California. [Photo Courtesy of NJ.com and the family of Angelo Savoldi]
Wrestling on the East Coast for most of the early part of his career, Savoldi branched out in the mid-1940s. He started wrestling for many territories, including Ted McLemore’s Southwest Sports based out of Dallas, Texas, Eddie Quinn Promotions in Montreal, Paul Boesch’s legendary Houston territory, Capitol Wrestling (now known as WWE), as well as just about every other territory in the country.

Grabbing His First Championship Gold

During his travels, Savoldi wrestled for the NWA World Junior Heavyweight Championship against Leroy McGuirk and Verne Gagne, coming up short on both occasions. However, this all changed on February 28, 1958, when Angelo toppled Mike Clancy in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, to become the Junior Heavyweight Champion of the world! The match lasted 50 minutes and was a 2 out of 3 falls match.

NWA Junior Heavyweight Champion Angelo Savoldi.
NWA Junior Heavyweight Champion Angelo Savoldi. [Photo: Oklahoma Historical Society]
Many things from wrestling’s past are no longer a part of the present version of the product, one of these being longer, multi-fall matches. Except in extraordinary circumstances or special stipulations, a typical current match rarely lasts more than 15 minutes and is exclusively a one-fall contest. In this humble writer’s opinion, the longer, multi falls matches created a far greater air of authenticity and drama than their shorter counterparts of today.

 

Per WrestlingData.com, Savoldi made several successful title defenses throughout the NWA Tri-State territory, where, at least for then, he had made his home. Angelo, by all accounts, was a fighting champion and took on all comers.

Savoldi’s reign at the top was temporarily halted on June 5, 1958, when he was defeated by Dory Funk Sr. in Amarillo, Texas. Although Dory Funk Sr. is not as acclaimed as his NWA World Heavyweight Champion sons, Dory Jr. and Terry, he was a marvelous wrestler in his own right. Ironically, just three days before losing the championship, Angelo had defeated the legendary Gorgeous George in Memphis, Tennessee.

Just 36 days after he lost it, on July 11, 1958, Angelo Savoldi regained his title with a victory over Funk in Oklahoma City.

A 1950 photo of Angelo Savoldi, right, wearing his NWA Junior Heavyweight Championship belt, while standing in the ring in Amarillo, Texas with fellow wrestler Dory Funk Sr.
A 1950 photo of Angelo Savoldi, right, wearing his NWA Junior Heavyweight Championship belt, while standing in the ring in Amarillo, Texas with fellow wrestler Dory Funk Sr. [Photo Courtesy of NJ.com and the family of Angelo Savoldi]
From February 28, 1958, through April 23, 1965, the NWA World Junior Heavyweight Championship was held by Angelo Savoldi for a period of 902 days. Applying some Steiner math, this represents 34.9% of that 7-year period, a time when this title was one of the most coveted in professional wrestling.

 

When Angelo was dethroned to conclude his fifth championship reign, he was two days past his 51st birthday. Even in the unconventional world of professional wrestling, champions over a half-century old are very few and far between.

Angelo Savvoldi and the Time Danny Hodge’s Father Took Matters Into His Own Hands

On May 27, 1960, Angelo Savoldi and wrestling legend Danny Hodge squared off in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The match ended in a no contest, which was a frequent ending to the near fifty matches they had together.

Although the outcome was fairly ordinary, what happened after the match was far from it.

Angelo was stabbed with a penknife by an unruly fan.

While this has happened more than once in the annals of the squared circle, what makes this incident unique is that the perpetrator had the same last name as Savoldi’s opponent. This was no strange coincidence; the assailant was Danny Hodge’s father.

This was Danny Hodge’s first major feud and his father had taken the action in the ring as real. Savoldi required 70 stitches at a local hospital, while Hodge’s father was sent to jail.

After finishing up in the Tri-State promotion in early 1965, Savoldi ventured to Capitol Wrestling, promoted by Vince McMahon Sr.

Savoldi’s first known match in the World Wide Wrestling Federation was against Johnny Valentine on September 9, 1965. And although Angelo’s role had changed at this point to “giving the rub” to the younger, up-and-coming talent, he still recorded victories over Hector “Don” Serrano (who recently passed away), Tony Newberry, Tomas Marin, Pete Sanchez, and Steve Stanlee.

My introduction into the world of wrestling was in early 1968. I had recently received a 12-inch, black and white Hitachi TV for Christmas (in the ultimate swerve, I had convinced my parents that I had been a stellar child all year). While setting up and learning how to use my new gift, I discovered a setting called UHF. Although we didn’t use this setting in our family room, I decided to give it a try.

As fate would have it, I landed on Channel 47 out of Newark, New Jersey. It must have been a Saturday night, and my (tiny) TV was filled with images of Ray Morgan (complete with black coffee and what looked like an unfiltered Camel) from the National Arena in Washington, D.C. One of the very first matches I saw involved Angelo Savoldi. Although on the losing end, I was highly entertained by this older man who I distinctly remember wearing a singlet and yelling “nonononono” throughout the entire match.

The Legacy Angelo Savoldi Leaves Behind

Angelo Savoldi’s last recorded match was against “The Continental Nobleman” Joe Turco at the Baltimore Civic Center on May 4, 1974.

At this point, Angelo was a few weeks past his 60th birthday and had been in wind-down mode for several years.

Some of the legends he defeated during his illustrious career include Buddy Rogers, Danny Hodge, Dory Funk Sr., Pampero Firpo, and Argentina Rocca, to name just a few. And although active wrestling was in his rear-view mirror, there was plenty of life ahead in Savoldi’s windshield.

At one point, he was a minority owner in the World Wide Wrestling Federation. In 1984, Angelo, along with his sons, founded International World Class Championship Wrestling (IWCCW).

At a time when Vincent Kennedy McMahon was just beginning to take over the wrestling world, Angelo Savoldi was creating a new one of his own.

The promotion was initially based in Boston, Massachusetts, and partnered with the World Wrestling Council (WWC), headquartered in Puerto Rico.

On February 24, 1985, Dory Funk Jr. defeated Carlos Colon in Bangor, Maine, to capture the WWC Universal Heavyweight Championship. This was a historic occasion, as it marked the first time that this coveted title changed hands outside of Puerto Rico. The promotion featured Lou Thesz on commentary.

As a wrestling fan for over a half-century, I can tell you that someone with the stature of Lou Thesz gives instant authenticity to any promotion. IWCCW also cross-promoted with Championship Wrestling from Florida (CWF), bringing great stars such as Kevin Sullivan, Blackjack Mulligan, Bruiser Brody, and Austin Idol to the New England area. The promotion similarly worked with the American Wrestling Association (AWA), promoting joint cards in New England.

Angelo Savoldi is truly a marvelous example of the American Dream. He came to the United States with very little English and even lesser means and crafted a wonderful life for himself and his family with his determination and never say die attitude.

Angelo Savoldi, then aged 97, was the oldest living wrestler and member of the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame.
Angelo Savoldi, then aged 97, was the oldest living wrestler and member of the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame. [Photo: Robert Sciarrino/The Star-Ledger]
Sadly, Angelo Savoldi passed away on September 20, 2013, a little less than seven months shy of his 100th birthday. Before his passing, he had been nicknamed “The World’s Oldest Retired Wrestler.”

 

He was married to the same woman for 74 years and had four sons, two of which (Joe and Mario Jr.) also had careers in professional wrestling.

He has been inducted into several wrestling Halls of Fame, and in my opinion, any wrestling Hall of Fame without Angelo Savoldi as a member is incomplete.

As a child, I saw an older gentleman in a singlet on the short end of most of his wrestling matches. As a man, I see a true wrestling legend and a champion, not only in the world of wrestling but in the game of life. Salut Mario “Angelo Savoldi” Fornini!

3600+ Hours of Lost Footage – The Savoldi Library

As a postscript, a compilation of Angelo Savoldi’s great career, along with approximately 3,600 hours of lost footage, has just been released.

Entitled “Bill Apter Presents The Savoldi Library on HighSpots,” this is, in my opinion, the Holy Grail for any old-school wrestling fan. Bill Apter, like Lou Thesz, lends instant authenticity to anything he touches. You can hear Apter talk about this release below and gain access to this footage exclusively on the HighSpots Wrestling Network.

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Benny J. Scala
Benny J. Scala is a writer and co-host of the podcast Dan & Benny In the Ring. He works as a Senior Specialist for a major consumer finance organization and has been a fan of professional wrestling since the late '60s. He can be reached by email at bennyjscala@yahoo.com.