One of the Italian-Canadian wrestling greats, Tony ‘Cannonball’ Parisi, has passed away.
He died Saturday, August 19, 2000 of a heart attack in his hometown of Niagara Falls, Ontario, at the coffee shop that he went to every morning. He was 58.
Parisi is best known to today’s fan for his hotel and restaurant in Niagara Falls, the annual legends show in Buffalo, and for running the annual wrestling shows at the CHIN Picnic over the Canada Day long weekend at Toronto’s CNE grounds.
Born in Cosenza, Italy in 1941, Parisi immigrated to Canada with his family in the 1950s.
“He came here in search of a better life for his family,” said family member Luciano Butera.
He started competing as an amateur wrestler at 16, after joining the YMCA in Niagara Falls. Parisi turned professional at 19.
He broke into the business in 1961, and learned the sport from Detroit promoters Bert Ruby and Harry Light. Gino Brito, his long-time friend and best friend, first met him there. “He had his second or third match against me in Sarnia, Ontario,” Brito recalled today.
“Tony was, even for his day, very spectacular. That’s why they called him the Cannonball. He used to have that finish where he’d climb up on the top rope, slam the guy in the middle. A little like they do today, but he would jump, sitting down on the guy’s chest. That was the Cannonball,” Brito remembered.
“Another thing he used to do, let’s say it was a tag team match, he’d arch on his back into a bridge and slide all the way to tag his tag team partner.”
Parisi also wrestled as Tony Pugliese in the WWWF as a protege of Bruno Sammartino. There was even a time in Detroit when he was a heel called ‘Tenor’ Parisi, where he wore a white tuxedo and sang opera before his matches.
‘The Tenor’ was a huge opera fan. Brito recalled a time in Vancouver when he was there with Parisi and Klondike Bill. “Tony Parisi in those days had all these LPs. … All the top opera singers. And Klondike Bill, he’s a country guy, right?, from North Carolina. So they’re there, on the 12th floor of the hotel, and Parisi’s got the record on and Klondike Bill came in and kind of looked at the box of records. He’s looking through them and Parisi says, ‘You like that stuff?’ Bill doesn’t say a word. He grabs the whole box of records and threw it right off the balcony. Parisi says, ‘What the f*** are you doing?! Those are my prize possessions!’ He said, ‘I can get Burl Ives for $1.98.'”
Looking back, Brito recalled their first break together with Nick Gulas in Nashville in 1962. “We were pretty green in the business, but even so, within two weeks there, we had the tag team belts. We were drawing money all over the place.”
Much later in 1975, Parisi and Brito (wrestling as Louis Cerdan) beat Blackjack Mulligan & Blackjack Lanza for the WWWF tag team titles, losing them to the Executioners (Killer Kowalski and Big John Studd under masks).
Parisi also formed successful tag team partners with the likes of Dominic Denucci, Dino Bravo, Bruno Sammartino Jr. (David Sammartino) and even Gino Brito Jr.
“He did very, very well in Australia, there being a lot of Italians in Australia,” said Brito. “He was there for 13 weeks working for Jim Barnette and that’s where he really put some money together to buy his first motel in Niagara Falls.”
Upon his retirement in the 1970s, Parisi bought the Niagara Family Inn in Niagara Falls and later opened a local restaurant and lounge there called Big Anthony’s. The restaurant is like a wrestling museum, complete with hundreds of pictures, memorabilia and other vignettes of Parisi’s career.
“Everyone is totally devastated. I know he’s gone, but I keep looking at the door waiting for him to show up,” said friend Keith Hammond. “He enjoyed being with people and loved life. He’s the kind of guy who would do almost anything for anybody.”
Parisi was also heavily involved with the legends show that ran with a WCW house show in Buffalo every year along with Dennis DiPaolo, the son of the late Buffalo star Ilio DiPaolo.
“Tony was a key person bringing the legends back,” recalled Dennis DiPaolo from the restaurant that his father started in Buffalo. The WCW legends shows have been going on for five years now, and has raised over $250,000 for charities like the Ilio DiPaolo Scholarship Fund, Hunter’s Hope, the Autistic Foundation and children’s hospitals in Buffalo and Alberta.
DiPaolo said that he has already talked with WCW and that there will be a special tribute to Parisi at the WCW Fall Brawl pay-per-view at the HSBC Arena in Buffalo on Sunday, September 17th.
Visitation will be today and Monday at the Morse & Son Funeral Home on Main Street in Niagara Falls from 2-4 p.m., and 7-9 p.m. The funeral will be Tuesday at 10 a.m. at the Funeral Home.
Parisi is survived by his mother, his wife Clara, their daughter Ida, and a brother and a sister.
— with files from Sharon Lem, Toronto Sun, wire services
Dear Parisi Family, I was shocked to hear the news over the weekend, my best friend and best man Nick Siggia, married to Giselle (Parise), cousin of Tony “Canonball” Parisi called me Sunday afternoon to tell me the news. I was a big fan of his when I was a kid, watching him on T.V., and became a bigger fan of his after having the opportunity to meet him a few years ago through Giselle Parise. Since that day I have been back to the resturant (Niagara Falls) a couple of times, but it will never be the same when I go back again. Truly one of the greats, as a wrestler and as a human being. I just saw him at this years CHIN picnic, and now he’s gone, we will all miss him. My condolences to the family.
Tony was very popular in the old WWWF in my hometown of Pittsburgh, PA in the late 60’s and early 70’s. While not a main eventer, he was a solid wrestler, a good worker, and very popular with the local fans. He also got a big push by being billed as Bruno Sammartino’s “cousin” in Bruno’s adopted hometown of Pittsburgh. I remember Tony wrestling many 20-minute draws with the heel-of-the-month, such as Waldo Von Erich, Baron Mikel Scicluna, etc, at the old Civic Arena (now the Igloo) after Bruno had recently polished off in a recent main event match.
Ron Ripple, Honolulu, Hawaii
I remember watching Tony Parisi, wrestle when I was a child. It was a big thrill for me, especially as a son of Italian immigrants, to watch a great Italian athlete on TV.
I remember some of the cruelty that I had to endure, being called names like dago and Wop. That really hurt me, to the point that I hated who I was.
But I remember watching great Italian athletes like Tony Parisi and feeling nothing but pride. Thank you Mr. Parisi. You will be truly missed.
My memories of Tony Parisi were from the CHIN picnic. It was my first time going to the picnic and was surprised to see wrestling. I was even more suspired to see my father cheering on Tony because now a days he is a causal wrestling fan. The next day we went back to the picnic and me and my brother got a picture with him. Every year after that we went to the picnic cheering for Tony. Last year we went to his restaurant and again saw Tony and his daughter and got a picture with him and an autograph. When I heard the news on CHIN Italian TV show I could not believe it. In closing thank you Tony Parisi for the memories you will always be remembered.
What a shock to our family when we heard of the untimely death of a very dear friend of our father. We just saw him last year at the Legends of Wrestling as myself and my sister Alison attended in memory of our father Kurt Von Hess who passed away March 13, 1999 of a sudden heart attack. Tony was so kind to us and showed the ultimate compassion for our loss. My sister and I went to the ring proudly as my father was honoured along with Owen Hart and Rick Rude with a ten bell count.
We certainly know the Parisi family’s loss. It is a feeling that never goes away. When your father is taken away from you it is as if a part of you is gone forever. Think of him often and always remember the happiness he gave you and always remember he is always with you no matter what.
Paige Sutherland 11/27/00
I remember them calling him what sounded like (Pull-Yay-Si)..I remember as a boy of about 8-9 watching with my grandfather from Italy, Tony wrestle the likes of Baron Sicluna, (from the Isle of Malta), and Eric the Red, Bull Orgega, and his partners Dominic Denucci. I saw him wrestle once live a the Boston Garden, and I remember how gracious he was with the children, and how my grandfather used to enjoy him speaking in Italian at the end of a promo…what a great man…
Bill Marcario / Lansingburgh,NY