Dominic DeNucci – Wrestling’s Shining Light

He wrestled across seven different decades throughout his illustrious career. But all of his accolades take a distant second to Dominic DeNucci, the man.

Dominic DeNucci with Madison Square Garden in the background, an iconic venue he created many memorable moments in. [Photo of DeNucci: Worthpoint.com / MSG Photo Copyright: 2002 Getty Images]
Dominic DeNucci with Madison Square Garden in the background, an iconic venue he created many memorable moments in. [Photo of DeNucci: Worthpoint.com / MSG Photo Copyright: 2002 Getty Images]

Polaris – The Dominic DeNucci Story

If you’re celestially-impaired like me, your first reaction might be, "What is Polaris, and what on Earth does that have to do with Dominic DeNucci?"

Throughout history, there have been many iconic duos, both in entertainment and sports. Being a lifelong baseball aficionado, the first one that comes to mind is Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. In music, there were Daryl Hall and John Oates. I was also going to add the ’80s sensation "Wham," but if anyone knows who Andrew Ridgeley is, I will hop on the next plane, visit a nearby haberdasher, purchase a lid, knock on your door, doff my newly purchased cap, and ride off into the sunset.

But getting back to the two duos I mentioned, Babe Ruth is, of course, always in any GOAT discussion. But I would vehemently argue that the greatness of Babe Ruth was significantly enhanced by the almost equal greatness of Lou Gehrig. Many a pitcher was forced to pitch to Babe, due in great part to the looming presence of one Mr. Gehrig kneeling in the on-deck circle. On any other team, Lou Gehrig would have been THE star. Few rival his individual greatness in the history of the sport. But, in baseball annals, Lou will always be the star that shone brightly, but not quite as bright as the Babe’s.

Hall and Oates reigned supreme as on the Billboard charts from the mid-’70s to the mid-’80s. Most, if not all, of their hits, saw Daryl Hall singing lead. I’d wager even odds that back in the day (and even now), most people didn’t even know Mr. Oates’s first name was John. But there he was, writing hit after hit for the duo; a bright shining star, but again not quite as bright as his musical partner’s.

This brings me back to "Polaris."

Polaris — aka “The North Star” — isn’t the brightest star in the sky. That designation would go to Sirius. But Polaris is very important because of what it does. It guides, it’s unwavering, and it’s dependable. As we dive into the legacy of Dominic DeNucci, including tributes from his friends and contemporaries, you will see how this all fits.

Early Wrestling Career

Dominic DeNucci was born Dominic Nucciarone on January 23, 1932, in Campobasso, Italy. On November 5th, 1958, Dominic made his wrestling debut as The Masked Marvel, battling Johnny Rougeau to a double countout at the Palais des Sports in Montreal, Quebec.

Some 54 years later, Dominic, at 80 years young, teamed with his star pupil Shane Douglas to defeat Lord Zoltan and Shawn Blanchard at Sal Corrente’s WrestleReunion event in Toronto, Canada.

To fill in the 54+ year gap between these matches would require a volume the size of an encyclopedia. With Dominic’s permission, I would be more than happy to write this tome, but I will give you the Reader’s Digest version for the sake of brevity.

After his Masked Marvel days, Dominic wrestled in the Maritimes, a region of Eastern Canada that includes New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island. There, Dominic wrestled as Dominic Bravo with his (kayfabe) brother, the original Dino Bravo. This Dino Bravo is not the same Dino Bravo who won the WWWF World Tag Team Championship with him many years later.

Dominic DeNucci and Dino Bravo as the WWWF World Tag Team Champions back in 1978.
Dominic DeNucci and Dino Bravo as the WWWF World Tag Team Champions back in 1978. [Photo: @WrestlingIsKing on Twitter]
Dominic, still under the moniker of Dominic Bravo, got his first taste of wrestling gold on January 18, 1963, when he and his partner Ronnie Etchison captured the Stampede International Tag Team Championship. Dominic and Ronnie went on to win this championship on two other occasions.

Becoming Dominic DeNucci

Dominic, finally wrestling as Dominic DeNucci, captured his first singles title in the NWA San Francisco territory, where on January 24, 1964, he won the territory’s version of the United States Championship, wresting (and wrestling) the title from Ray Stevens, subsequently dropping the title back to Stevens on February 29th. From there, Dominic added to his gold collection all over the world.

Dominic was a 4-time IWA (Australia) World Champion, defeating the likes of Killer Kowalski, Ray Stevens, and Curtis Iaukea. Territorial titles were highly coveted in this era. Both Killer Kowalski and Ray Stevens were, at this time, ranked amongst the top 10 in the world. Dominic had a huge following in Australia, and many regard him as the "Australian Bruno."

Dominic DeNucci with the IWA World Title in Australia.
Dominic DeNucci with the IWA World Title in Australia. [Photo: prowrestling.fandom.com]
Dominic also won the National Federation (NWF) Heavyweight Championship from Waldo Von Erich on December 8, 1971. Dominic won this federation’s version of the North American Championship twice and captured the NWF World Tag Team Title twice with Bruno’s "cousin," Antonio Pugliese.

 

For a short period of time, the WWWF had an International Tag Team Title. This championship lasted only a few years, but Dominic is one of the select few to wear this gold. His partner? Oh, just some guy named Bruno Sammartino. Dominic’s last WWWF gold was captured on March 14, 1978, ironically with the OTHER Dino Bravo.

Due to the friendship between Bruno and the World Wrestling Association’s owner, Richard Afflis (better known as Dick The Bruiser), Dominic simultaneously held that federation’s version of the world tag team title with Wilbur Snyder.

Dominic was traveling back and forth to two major federations as a world champion at an age where most folks are looking for discounts with their AARP card.

For all intents and purposes, Dominic "retired" from active competition in early 1982. I purposely put the word retired in quotes, as for the next 30 years, Dominic continued to entertain fans all over the world with his unique style of wrestling.

Dominic DeNucci – Wrestling Well After “Retirement”

In 1984, Dominic DeNucci made several appearances for the Lutte Internationale territory, based out of Montreal.

By this point, Mr. DeNucci was 52 years old, an age when many athletes are on their recliner, telling tales of their days of yore. Dominic continued to wrestle throughout the decade, making stops in Mario Fornini’s IWCCW promotion and Italy, where, on his 56th birthday, he defeated Moondog Spuds in Milano.

With his March 27, 2010 appearance in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (in which he was on the winning side of a 6-man tag match), Dominic became one of the select few wrestlers who hold the honor of competing in seven different decades.

Post-Wrestling Career

After his illustrious career ended, Dominic DeNucci became a trainer. His most notable students are Mick Foley and Shane Douglas. However, he also trained Brian Hildebrand, who refereed in both Smoky Mountain Wrestling and WCW as Mark Curtis.

In May 2012, Dominic was inducted into the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame in Amsterdam, New York. Who inducted him? The Living Legend himself, Bruno Sammartino.

On that night, Polaris was the brightest star in the sky.

Tony Vellano, Founder and then President of the PWHF, said of the occasion, "[Dominic] came every year and celebrated all who were inducted before him. So, when he was chosen, it was just fitting that the Legend was there to do the honors."

Nice guys don’t always finish last. Sometimes, they finish BEST.

Dominic DeNucci makes his acceptance speech at 2012's Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame banquet.
Dominic DeNucci makes his acceptance speech at 2012’s Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame banquet. [Original Photographer: John Jewell]

WWE’s Shame in Not Having Dominic DeNucci in the Hall of Fame

When writing stories like this, it’s important to keep personal feelings out of the mix. However, it’s hard to keep silent on the fact that Dominic DeNucci is not in the WWE Hall of Fame.

While statistics (other than titles) are virtually non-existent in wrestling, Dominic has accomplished far more than many of those enshrined.

In Major League Baseball, a player has to receive a minimum of 75% of the ballots cast by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. This will usually require around 300 positive votes, as, on average, around 400 members vote. Contrast this to the nebulous world of the WWE, where this entire process exists solely in the mind of one Vincent Kennedy McMahon.

As a rule, with very few exceptions, Mr. McMahon has chosen to mostly ignore the organization’s fabled history before his takeover in 1982. Since the current demographic is comprised mainly of the younger generations, McMahon has conveniently forgotten about the men who, for over 300 days a year, carried his father’s company on their backs- many times wrestling while hurt or ill, missing Thanksgiving or Christmas with their families, and often working twice on the weekends.

Dominic DeNucci, The Man

Thus far, I have spent a lot of time penning a factual recount of Dominic DeNucci’s illustrious career. But all of this takes a distant second to Dominic DeNucci, the man.

In a moment, I will share some quotes, thoughts, and stories that I have received from some of Dominic’s friends, even those he faced in the ring for many years. But the question remains, who is Dominic DeNucci? Well, in this writer’s humble opinion, Mr. DeNucci is truly a Renaissance Man.

At the age of 88, he still works out 4 days a week at the YMCA (maybe training for that 8th decade?). He still makes his own spaghetti sauce. However, per his good friend Tony Vellano, he still calls it "gravy."

Dominic recently appeared on the Wrestling With The Future podcast. He mentioned to host Angelo DiSipio that he had spent ten hours the previous day doing some landscaping on his property. Spending ten hours doing yard work is a grueling task for anyone, let alone a gentleman who was soon-to-be 89 years old.

When I had the pleasure of meeting Dominic, he told me the story of receiving a payoff from Vince McMahon Sr. that he thought was less than fair. Dominic proceeded to take the check, fold it, and put it in McMahon’s pocket, stating, "I guess you need this worse than me."

Wrestling journeyman Davey O’Hannon also verified this story. When asked about the current state of wrestling by WWTF host Angelo DiSipio, Dominic used the terms "garbage" and "graceful."

The man might have pulled his punches in the ring, but he is not afraid to launch solid potatoes in interviews.

One of the most iconic moments in wrestling history occurred in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in June of 1998, when Mick Foley got tossed off the Hell in a Cell by The Undertaker, hurtling through the air, until finally coming to rest on an announce table, decimating said table. While Mick may have received a warm reception from the boys backstage and from the fans in attendance, Dominic DeNucci was less than impressed.

In total frankness, DeNucci told Mick, "You’re not a smart man. You have to be a complete idiot."

This is the quintessential Dominic.

During his WWTF podcast interview, Dominic mentioned that one of his friends suggested that he start dating. Dominic replied, "What for? My thing doesn’t go up anymore."

You see, the man is so frank that he’s even frank about his frank.

For those of you who love podcasts, this is an excellent episode.

Listen to Dominic DeNucci on the Wrestling With The Future Podcast:

The Man, According to His Peers

Let’s turn the wheel over to some of Dominic’s peers and good friends, where they share thoughts and stories of this beloved man.

"Dominic DeNucci is the essence of what a wrestler is SUPPOSED to be," says Angelo DiSipio. "He exemplifies the quintessential qualities of humility, sportsmanship, and personal integrity so sorely missing from today’s so-called athletes."

Sal Corrente, former wrestler and author of the recommended Bruno Sammartino: The Autobiography of Wrestling’s Living Legend, remembers, "When I first started watching wrestling, whenever a new bad guy came to town before he got a shot at Bob Backlund, he would have to get by Dominic DeNucci."

Corrente continued, "I saw many villains that appeared to be pushed to the limit, but somehow, they would pull out a victory then move on to face Bob Backlund. Dominic had a great headbutt. When The Samoans came to town, and Dominic headbutted one of them, they didn’t respond at all. Dominic stumbled backward, and I was shocked.

"Little did I know that in a few years, I would not only be friends with Dominic, but I would also be refereeing his matches and eventually wrestling against him as well.

"One match saw him in the ring against a good guy named Larry Winters. At the time, Larry was young, and Dominic was a legend, so Larry was apprehensive. I can remember Dominic telling him to lay it in, over and over. He didn’t feel Larry was hitting him hard enough, but Larry wouldn’t hit him any harder. Eventually, Dominic said, ‘Hey kid, let me show you how to do it,’ so he spins Larry around and nails him with a big forearm. At that point, he said, ‘That’s how you do it, kid.’

"When I wrestled him in a tag match, we had fun, but after the match, Sika ‘The Wild Samoan,’ my tag partner, said, ‘Sal, what is your rush working with Dominic? When he is sitting in the corner, take your time before you hit him. Roll up your sleeves and show the audience. Dominic will wait for you.’ It’s a talk I never forgot because, of course, the two legends in the match were helping the younger guys.

"I was most appreciative of Dominic arranging for Bruno Sammartino to meet up with us at a restaurant on the way to wrestle in Ohio. That was nice of Bruno and Dominic. The other guys on the card really appreciated it."

Corrente went on, "I am not 100% sure, but I am proud that my company WrestleReunion was able to use Dominic on several of our events and either promoted his last or close to last match in Toronto, Canada with Bruno Sammartino in his corner."

Tony Vellano, Founder and original President of the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame, once said, "I visited him [not long] ago and stayed over. We ate and talked about his travels. Just a great guy."

Vellano continued, "When we inducted Dominic into the PWHF in Amsterdam, Bruno came to induct him. It was a blast as they were friends for many years. As Founder and President of the PWHF at that time, I was glad that he was chosen for induction. I love him, respect him, and wish him health and happiness. He is comfortable on stage or in a locker room. He loves his chosen career and most of all his fans."

Johnny Rodz, The Unpredictable One and a long-time ring opponent of Dominic, once stated, "Dominic, wow, super great guy. We made lots of trips up and down the road. Very nice man. Lots of blessings to him and his family. Love you, Dom."

Mario Savoldi Fornini, promoter of International World Class Championship Wrestling, says, "I spoke to Dominic just last week about the old times and the car trips with the guys. They were great days, and Dominic is definitely one of the greatest wrestling talents ever."

Nikita Breshnikov, wrestler, manager, author, and a close friend, says, "I first met Dominic on November 28, 1997. It was at the St. John’s Arena in Steubenville, Ohio. That is a venue that Dominic wrestled at many times. It was the day after Thanksgiving, so travel from Baltimore to Ohio was challenging, but getting a chance to meet and work with a favorite of mine like Dominic made the holiday hell travel worth it."

Breshnikov continued, "Right out of the gate, it was as if I knew Dominic for years. He even trusted me to come up with the finish. To put him over and not kill Nikolai [Volkoff], I said, ‘How about put Nikolai in the abdominal stretch, and I’ll come in and break it up and get the DQ?’

"Dominic loved it, and so it went. But before we went out, Nikolai, who was never considered a technical wrestler, wanted Dominic to give him a sample.

"Now those of us DeNucci fans knew Dominic could do that move in his sleep. It was one of his finishers, that’s why I picked it. But watching him dance with Nikolai in the back, trying to demonstrate how the move would work, was like watching two drunk bears. Nikolai kept turning as Dominic tried to get the hold on, and so round and round they went.

"They even both wound up laughing about it. But when showtime came, the move went off smoothly. I came in and did my thing, and we got what we wanted.

"Afterward, I wanted Dominic’s critique. I was gathering as much knowledge and being critiqued as much as I could, and here I was working with a legend.

"Dominic said, ‘You did great. I love the gimmick. Looks great, but you were too soft. I didn’t feel it.’

"Then Nikolai came over, and as always, he said, ‘How was it, Dominic?’ ‘Fine,’ came the reply. ‘But he works too soft.’ Then Nikolai winked at me, and we started to get changed.

"Later, as I talked with Dominic, he started to tell me again I was being too soft. Then I said, ‘Well, Dom, Nikolai told me to do that.’ ‘What do you mean?’ came the reply. ‘Well, Nikolai said you were old and to take it easy on you.’ ‘Son of a bitch, who’s old?’ I said, ‘Wait, not me, Dominic. Nikolai said it!’ ‘Where is he? I’m gonna show him who’s old!’

"They locked up and then began hugging and laughing. Nikolai came clean and told him, but then Dominic understood. They were very close friends. Dominic is a good man and a friend."

Dominic DeNucci sharing a ring with Nikolai on August 27, 2005. [Photo copyright: Christine J Coons]
Dominic DeNucci sharing a ring with Nikolai on August 27, 2005. [Photo copyright: Christine J Coons]
Mike Migut, a close friend of both Bruno and Dominic, says, "I would like to say that other than Bruno being a great friend, he also introduced me to Dominic. Since that first meeting, Dominic has shown his true colors. What you see is what you get with Dominic. He is very humble and true, just like Bruno was. He tells you the truth even if it’s brutal. He doesn’t pretend to be something he’s not.

 

Migut continued, "If I am having an awful day, one phone call to Dominic has me laughing.

"Dominic always asks me how my mother and brothers are doing, and then he says, ‘How you doing, kid?’

"I still get a kick out of him, always calling me kid, even at my age. Loyalty means a lot to Dominic; he is a very loyal friend, a trait that seems to get lost in today’s world, but Dominic is old school. Respect and loyalty are traits he will always have."

The respect long-time wrestling opponent and friend Davey O’Hannon has for Dominic is clearly evident.

Davey told me the story of their first meeting. It was while they were both working for the NWF in the early ’70s. During his match, Davey fell out of the ring and landed on his head. He had to be helped back to the dressing room. Dominic was leaning against some bleachers, and as Davey was being assisted to the back, Dominic called out, "Hey Kid, did you hurta youself?"

After Davey got his marbles back, he found Dominic backstage and asked him, "Did you say to me, ‘Hey kid, did you hurta yourself?’

From there, a friendship was born spanning nearly a half-century and counting.

When describing Dominic, O’Hannon used terms like "brutally honest," "what you see is what you get," "very principled," and "hardheaded." Davey also told a story about Dominic visiting his home and hanging out with his son David.

At one point, young David was spotted in the backyard, sporting a De Nobili cigar, courtesy of Dominic. Davey went on and on about how good Dominic was with his kids, which is the telltale sign of a good man in my book.

Bruno Sammartino Shares His Thoughts on DeNucci

The friendship between Bruno Sammartino and Dominic DeNucci was close and genuine. As Tony Vellano mentioned, it was Bruno who inducted Dominic into the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame. And on one evening at Rico’s Italian restaurant and steakhouse in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania — a restaurant Bruno had his own designated table at for years — Bruno stood up and held court at his table, sharing a few words about his friend, Dominic.

[Photo by Howard Kernats.]
Bruno Sammartino in 2012, along with friend Dominic DeNucci at KSWA FanFest in 2012, his last independent professional wrestling appearance. [Photo by Howard Kernats.]
"For so many years, I’ve been honored with lifetime achievement awards, all kinds of different awards that I got," Bruno candidly shared from his table at Rico’s in November of 2017. "And poor Dominic, because they know we’ve been friends for many years, he always gets picked to speak about Bruno. There’s poor Dominic, saying that Bruno’s a great wrestler, which went on for years and years. And I said to myself, ‘This is very frustrating for me because here’s a guy that I’ve known throughout my professional career. I know everything about him; just about everything about him, and I have to keep hearing about how great I was.’

 

Bruno continued, "I wanted to have the opportunity to speak about what I know about him. So when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, nobody asked me to volunteer. I said to Dominic, ‘I want to be the guy to induct you.’ This was my opportunity to let people know what Dominic accomplished in the wrestling business, and then as a human being, as a father, as a husband.

"I expressed to the audience; I told them stuff they never knew about Dominic. For example, what a big star he was in Australia, in California, in Canada. He was a big deal in New York, too. And it allowed me the opportunity to talk about him as a teacher. He trained a lot of the top guys. And overseas, not only did he wrestle overseas, he promoted some shows after he retired. Finally, I got the opportunity to get that gorilla off my back and talk about my friend. I felt so proud. That trip was a piece of cake because of what it meant to me."

So as Howard Cosell would say, "There you have it, sports fans."

Sirius lights up the sky, but Polaris is the rock, the steady hand, and the guiding light.

Meeting Dominic DeNucci

On a personal note, I met Dominic DeNucci at Rico’s on December 16th, 2017. That was the night (courtesy of my good friend Mike Migut) that I had the chance to meet Bruno Sammartino and his friends and family for Christmas dinner. It was sadly Bruno’s last Christmas.

Dominic DeNucci and I at Rico's in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on December 16th, 2018.
Dominic DeNucci and I at Rico’s in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on December 16th, 2018.

I arrived first, but soon afterward, I spotted Dominic entering the restaurant. I introduced myself and told him why I was there (before he put me up in an Airplane Spin). I bought him a cup of coffee while I drank a very large glass of wine to calm my nerves.

We were able to chat for about fifteen minutes before the rest of the guests came in. As fate would have it, I sat next to him at dinner.

As I told him that I flew in from Minneapolis, that was my name for the evening.

I recently had the opportunity to chat with him on the phone (thank you again, Mike) and told him that he now had to call me Tampa. He treated me like I was his nephew, instead of a jabroni from Long Island.

I will never forget his warmth, his humor, and his graciousness. I am not sure if you can call someone you met only once your friend, but I’m going to do it.

Dominic, I hope I did you well. God bless you, my friend.

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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.