From wrestling for a few coins in the “Smokers” to being in the first integrated tag team in the segregated South (causing the KKK to picket and issue bomb threats!), Len Rossi was a good guy in the sport. He rarely gets his due, but the impact he left lives on.
“Wrestling lost a class gentleman, and many of us lost an amazing friend. One of the smoothest workers ever. Go with God, Len, as you will be remembered with much love and respect.”
– Les Thatcher, after learning of the passing of Len Rossi at age 91.
As a young boy, Len Rossi was a wrestling fan who’d regularly go to the matches. Eventually, he got into the business, becoming a consummate babyface in Tennessee, Alabama, and adjacent territories.
At first, considered merely a Yankee trying to gain acceptance in the south, Len Rossi persevered with an unpretentious yet convincing wrestling style, quickly gaining respect and admiration from fans and peers alike. He was a world-class athlete and an even better man.
Len Rossi – Life Before Wrestling
Len Rossi was born in Utica, New York, on September 24th, 1929, to Italian parents. At age 15, Len Rositano (later shortened to Rossi when becoming a pro wrestler) began working out at the local YMCA to gain strength to fend off bullies who made a habit of targeting him.
He could see other young men wrestling on mats in a separate room on his way to the weight room. This sparked a mild curiosity, but he looked down on the idea, thinking how easily he could throw them around. But on one fateful day, the YMCA wrestling coach Eddie Zysk asked Len to tryout for their wrestling team. Taking his first steps into the world of wrestling, Len Rossi had no idea what awaited him.
“[Eddie] asked me to try out for the wrestling team on several occasions, but I ignored him, thinking it was a bunch of nonsense,” explained Len Rossi on the Atomic Podcast in 2014. “But one day I did go out on the mat and wrestled with him. He took me down and rode me like a donkey! I couldn’t believe how he managed me, so I became very interested in the sport. I made the YMCA team, and we’d compete against other YMCAs in upstate New York.”
You have weight classes in schools where you wrestle kids the same age, but Len competed against much older and more experienced men at the YMCA. He also tested himself against local college wrestlers.
“I learned the hard way,” admitted Len Rossi. “The pretty rough way.”
Before Len Rossi turned pro, he wrestled semi-professional in what were called “Smokers.” During the ‘40s, these were clandestine clubs exclusively for men, where smoking and drinking were allowed while brutish boxing and wrestling exhibitions played out in front of them.
“Some of those drunks would jump in the ring, and it became like a street fight where you were fighting for your life,” said Len Rossi. “Afterwards, the people would throw coins into the ring, and the wrestlers would split the money.”
This is where he met a future welterweight champion and other boxers who had successful regional careers. Rossi became good at the sweet science, but wrestling was what he enjoyed, and he was determined to stick with it.
From an early age, Rossi learned how to defend himself in precarious situations that would come in handy when he transitioned to the pro game.
He did have several mixed matches against boxers during this time, and much later in 1969, when already a star in the Tennessee territory, he issued a challenge to Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali), but the match never materialized. Rossi proclaimed, “I’ll take him on any way he wants to fight. He wouldn’t have a chance against me.”
Years later, Ali fought Antonio Inoki in 1976 in an infamous match remembered but for all the wrong reasons. You can learn more about that here.
Len Rossi Turns Pro
When about 20 years old, Len Rossi pursued a career in wrestling. Looking back at this time of his career, he remembered one shocking instance when wrestling at the Utica Theater, where he quickly learned that he still had a lot to learn!
“I thought I was pretty good, coming out of the amateurs,” recalls Rossi. “So I went for a leg dive, trying for a one-leg pickup, and ‘boom!’ Up came the knee. I broke my nose, and there was blood all over. I got beat, and that was it. That’s how we were broken into the business back then. I was never told anything; what to do, what not to do. You just learned as you went along.”
Rossi admitted that this incident scared him, but he was determined to succeed as a wrestler.
He continued, “Some people won’t believe it, but I never had a lesson in my life as far as becoming a professional wrestler. Never heard of a school, never had an instructor. I just learned the hard way. Back then, most of the professional wrestlers had a fantastic background in amateur and college wrestling, or they were ex-boxers and football players.”
Recommended read: 6 Wrestlers Share Painful Horror Stories Of Breaking Into the Business
Watch Rare Footage of Len Rossi Wrestling in Chicago in 1955:
It was an ordeal to get booked because the business was very protected. It seemed like his big break was an impossible dream until an old-timer named Jackie Nichols — who often wrestled in Utica, Buffalo, and Syracuse — helped him get booked in Boston.
“I’d write letters and send them to all the territories I knew about so that I could get booked. It was very difficult to get into the business back then. Most told me that I needed more experience and that I was too young. There weren’t any schools like they have now.”
When arriving into the Boston wrestling office, a surly “old grinch of a man with cauliflower ears” greeted him and poked him in the chest. “What’s your name, punk?” growled the promoter.
“My name is Len Rositano,” was the response.
After taking a long puff of his cigar, the man remarked, “Too [blank] [blank] long. Your name is Rossi. Len Rossi.”
Len could only answer, “Okay. My name is Len Rossi.”
Rositano was too long to fit on the posters used to promote the matches.
The odd exchange continued, and the older man continued to torment Rossi. “Hey, punk. So you have a best friend who’s going to die in two weeks, what do you do?”
Len Rossi had no idea what to say, and the man kept on prodding with the question.
“You have a best friend who’s going to die in two weeks. What do you do, punk?”
Len Rossi finally answered.
“Well, I guess I’d do anything I could do for him. Help him, do what’s right and just be nice to him.”
With another puff on the cigar, the man responded, “Remember, punk, every person you meet in life has two weeks to live. You be a good boy.”
As someone new to the business, most of the wrestlers didn’t talk to Rossi. He also didn’t use the same dressing rooms as the more experienced wrestlers.
“Just like in all businesses, in wrestling, you had a lot of nice people and a lot of bad people,” he would say. “It was a matter of picking and choosing who you wanted to hang out with.”
Wrestling in the Tennessee and Alabama Territories
The business took a toll on Len Rossi’s marriage. Depending on the territories he worked, it was “feast or famine.” He would make a lot of money in one region, while in another, he would nearly starve to death. However, in 1958, this would all change after moving his family to Nashville, Tennessee. His son was going to start school soon, and his wife didn’t want to be traveling all over the country.
Although he did wrestle throughout the United States and countries like Japan, the south is where Len Rossi became a star.
At first, it was difficult for people to relate to Len Rossi because he had a “funny” Northeast accent, and few Italians lived in Tennessee. He was also relatively straightforward in his in-ring style. He wasn’t the flashy, over-the-top character that regularly engaged in free-for-alls common throughout the Tennessee and Alabama territories.
The fans soon accepted him as one of their own, and he became a prominent babyface and star. With a modest, sincere personality and a convincing wrestling style, Rossi got the people’s attention his way.
When moving to different territories, it took time to become a headliner because of the lack of TV. Nowadays, a wrestling star could be born overnight thanks to television and internet exposure. Before, you had to work every week to become known to the people. Because the wrestling business was very guarded, he found that many tried to dissuade him from staying in certain territories, often feeling their positions were threatened.
In the 15 to 20 years he worked in Tennessee, Rossi believed he consistently drew more money than anyone else. But with extreme popularity came constant attention from people outside of the ring.
“It was so big that my deceased wife and I couldn’t go out and eat. Chattanooga, Birmingham, Nashville- the people would mob you for autographs because I became a big local celebrity. It was unbelievable!”
Newspapers often cited Rossi as hailing from Nashville, Tennessee, and not from his hometown of Utica, New York.
“Older people come up to me to tell me that they use to watch me wrestle on TV on Saturday nights. I tell them that you had to watch me because there were only three channels!”
Rossi loved wrestling as a singles competitor, and he became a seven-time Southern Junior Heavyweight Champion (later renamed the Southern Heavyweight Title), but he specialized in tag team matches. Here he held the title with his various partners on at least fourteen occasions. His top feuds in Tennessee were against Jackie and Don Fargo, Don and Al Greene, The Masked Interns, The Medics, and The Corsicans.
“We drew money every week for 50 straight weeks of the year,” proclaims Rossi. “The wrestlers back then worked hard and wrestled hard. People got their money’s worth.”
One of the partners he had extraordinary success with was the older Tex Riley. They won numerous World and Southern Tag Titles in Nick Gulas’ Mid-America Territory, and they were arguably the region’s most popular team throughout the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.
Len Rossi called Tex Riley “a showman and a master manipulator who I learned a lot of ring psychology from. He knew what would draw and what wouldn’t.”
But Tex liked to play cards and gambled quite a bit. He also enjoyed ingesting adult beverages, which may have contributed to the embarrassing incident that followed.
“So I picked him up one day to wrestle in Jackson, Tennessee, and we were going to wrestle Don and Al Greene, The Greene Brothers,” relates Rossi. “I started this Two Out Of Three Falls Match and worked as hard as I could and as long as I could. When I went to tag Tex, he was sound asleep in the corner! So obviously, the Greenes beat me.
“When we left the ring to go back to the dressing room, one of the fans yelled, ‘What’s wrong with you, Riley?!’”
To this, Len Rossi answered, trying to play off the embarrassing incident, “Oh, he’s sick. That’s what’s wrong with him.”
The fan retorted, “Yeah, he’s sick, alright. I can smell the booze from here!”
Len Rossi remembers more current stars like Jerry Lawler, Bill Dundee, and Jerry Jarrett, who he wrestled. Still, he stresses the importance of the oft-forgotten rivalry between the blue-collar Billy Wicks and the incomparable Sputnik Monroe that drew record crowds at Russwood Park. In the process, they became two of the most recognizable figures in Memphis, Tennessee.
The First Integrated Tag Team in the Deep South
During racial segregation that plagued much of the south, when a black man came to town to wrestle, he usually only wrestled against another black wrestler. In Birmingham, Alabama, a hotbed of segregation during the ‘60s, Rossi asked the promoter to make Bearcat Brown (Mark Jewell from Atlanta, Georgia, and not to be confused with Bearcat Wright) his tag team partner.
The promoter was scared to partner the two because of fear of retaliation and even rioting. After incessant begging from Rossi, he finally agreed to give it a shot.
In a shocking turn of events, Bearcat Brown, a heel, came to Len Rossi’s rescue on Birmingham’s Live Studio Wrestling on Channel 42 in 1969. When they finally teamed up for an official match, Len Rossi claims thousands of people were turned away, and the Ku Klux Klan picketed the building and issued bomb threats.
Bearcat Brown became Len Rossi’s best friend in the business, and he fondly recalls that they “drew unbelievable money in every town we went.”
Bearcat Brown continued to wrestle into the mid to late ’70s, but little information on his whereabouts afterward is available. Dates on his death also vary greatly.
Recommended article: Black Wrestling Champions – Bearcat Wright, Bobo Brazil, and Art Thomas
Watch Early footage of Bearcat Brown Wrestling the Legendary Lou Thesz:
The Car Wreck That Ended the Career of Len Rossi
At the height of his popularity with Bearcat Brown, Len Rossi had a devastating automobile accident that forever changed his life.
“I was with another wrestler called ‘Cowboy’ Frankie Laine, who said he’d drive because I was pretty tired after wrestling that morning in Louisville, Kentucky. So we were heading for Tupelo, Mississippi. I was dozing off, and all of a sudden I woke up and I yelled, ‘Watch it, watch it!’ We were involved in a three-car pileup.”
Rossi continued, “It was pretty bad. There were two killed in the other cars. I happened to look behind me, and there was a big tractor-trailer coming. I thought we were going to be crushed. I couldn’t get the door open because my right arm was broken, so I managed to open it with my left hand and rolled into a ditch. How that tractor-trailer got through, I don’t know. It was a miracle.”
Len Rossi suffered a broken arm, broken ribs, a fractured ankle, and broken feet. After being in the hospital for many months, he attempted a comeback and teamed with his son Joey. This venture lasted only a couple of years until Rossi could not continue. He closed the door on his wrestling career for good in 1979.
“I had lost a lot of weight, and it was too rough; I just couldn’t do it anymore. We were one of the only father-son teams in the business other than Angelo Poffo and his sons Randy and Lanny later on.”
A Tough Business That Len Rossi Almost Didn’t Survive
Although Len Rossi respected boxing, he wasn’t impressed when he saw their records. According to his estimates, he had over 6,000 matches, sometimes several in one night and some lasting an hour or even 90 minutes.
“Let’s assume as people like to think and say that wrestling is 99% fake. Well, you’re being slammed 6,000 times, thrown to the turnbuckle 6,000 times, hit with elbow smashes 6,000 times. C’mon, let’s face it. It’s a tough business!”
With a plethora of injuries that come with being a wrestler, he also mentioned that he had to tape up a broken rib he’d suffered when his son was one-year-old. Still, he wrestled through it so he could make a living. He also recalled hardships like when he worked in the Northwest and lived off only peanut butter and bread and could only send his wife a couple of dollars a time.
“Back then, you really had to love the business to be in it, and to be successful at anything; you have to work at it. Nobody’s going to give you anything; you have to work for it.”
After his wrestling career ended, Rossi became a vegetarian, went back to school, and studied nutrition at Belmont University. Before this, he tried to cope with his injuries by drinking heavily and eventually developed severe stomach and colon problems until a radiologist told him that he could reverse his health issues through diet and exercise instead of surgery on his colon.
In 1973, he and his wife set up a natural health food store in Brentwood, just outside of Nashville, Tennessee, where he sold vitamins and nutritional products for over 40 years. He began promoting a healthy lifestyle and earned a doctorate in Naturopathy.
Looking back at his time in wrestling, Len Rossi was exceptionally proud of the product he and his fellow workers presented to the fans.
“We pioneered the road for a lot of guys who are doing it now, and making big money-which is good, more power to them- but it’s a totally different style now. We did wrestling. We did holds and tried to get out of them. Today it would probably be boring to some of the fans, but back then, people loved it and believed what we were doing, and we sent the message across in a believable fashion too.”
In a 2017 Tennesse Ledger article, Len Rossi was asked if pro wrestling was more real when he wrestled. To this, he answered, “It’s gotten 120 percent show biz now. But in wrestling, you always had to have showmanship to attract crowds.”
Rossi continued, “When people ask me about it, I say I wrestled for 25 years, and all the matches I won were legit, and the ones I lost were fixed.”
The Death of Len Rossi
On Friday, October 9th, 2020, Len Rossi passed away after a battle with cancer. He was 91 years old.
Sadly, Len Rossi’s son Joey passed away from lung cancer seventeen years before on November 28th, 2003.
Len Rossi is survived by his second wife, Jeannie.
Rossi is a 2004 Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum inductee. “It’s really quite an honor,” Rossi told The Tennessean of his induction. “I don’t know how much it means to people who aren’t in the profession, but it means a lot to me.”
In 2016, he was inducted into the NWA Hall of Fame.
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