Vinnie Valentino is not a household name for most wrestling fans. If things had fallen differently, that may not be the case. In his ten-year career, Valentino wrestled in several National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) territories, spent time in three Canadian promotions, and toured Japan. During the mid-’80s, when the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) was buying up regional talent, he narrowly missed two opportunities to move into the New York promotion. “That’s the way life goes,” said Valentino over the phone from his home in San Antonio, TX. “You got to be ready when the door opens and when opportunities come, you better be able to take them.”
Many Internet references to Valentino describe him with the term “jobber,” but that’s not really accurate. He was a solid mid-card performer; young and athletic when those traits were not givens for wrestlers, with a ring style that stood out. There’s a fantastic moment in a match with Chavo Guerrero where, in the middle of a test of strength, Valentino and Guerrero wind-up inside out, with their backs against each other. Valentino is able to push himself over Guerrero’s back, use kicks to each of Guerrero’s arms to break the test of strength, and then use his right leg to smack Guerrero in the side of the face. You wouldn’t see those kinds of move in every match in the ’80s, and the wrestlers who could pull them off always stuck in your memory.
Valentino was born Vincent Bilotto in 1955 to parents who emigrated to the United States from Italy, settling first in Brooklyn and then Long Island. He wasn’t exactly a wrestling fan growing up, although his father was. “Long Island was pretty good to raise a family and I happened to be close to a Boys Club,” said Valentino. “I got involved in the club and was always there after school, playing all kinds of sports. As I was growing up, my dad used to watch wresting on TV and I used to watch it. The famous guy was Bruno Sammartino because he was Italian and there were a lot of Italians in our neighborhood.”
An all-around athlete, he excelled in the shot put. He attended Florida State University on a track and field scholarship and dreamed of making it to the Olympics. A shoulder injury in his sophomore year derailed his Olympic hopes and forced him to start looking for alternatives.
“As I was getting into my junior and senior year, a lot of the guys would always watch wrestling, Georgia Championship and Championship Wrestling from Florida, and they were all into it,” said Valentino. “They always used to tease me that I should get into it. I don’t know, but it was always in the back of my mind because I always wanted to do something athletic.”
After getting the cold shoulder from the wrestlers he approached, he was able to begin training after meeting Nicky Barnes, the Tallahassee promoter for Eddie’s Graham’s Florida territory. Valentino was connected with Tennessee promoter Buddy Fuller, who took him into his camp and prepared him for a proper wrestling career. “[Fuller] would train the wrestlers but for that you had to work a half a day on his farm,” said Valentino. “His farm was the Milky Way farm; it was actually owned by the guy who invented the Milky Way candy bar (Frank C. Mars). There was maybe about 30 of us being trained. We would work a half a day on the farm and then train at night in the ring. After that was over, he got me booked in Florida.”
He had his debut in Graham’s promotion in 1979. As a wrestler, he was a bit like Lanny Poffo when he first arrived in the WWF as “Leaping” Lanny; a mid-sized performer too small to be a convincing brawler, and who lacked a convincing gimmick to latch onto.
To help make him stand out from other performers, Gary Hart gave him the idea of wrestling barefoot, which he did in several territories. Valentino assumes that it was likely a reference to Antonino Rocca, as a barefoot wrestler was a fairly unusual site at the time he adopted the look. The name change to Valentino, he assumes was a reference to Rudolph Valentino, and intended to reinforce identification with his Italian heritage.
He found steady worker in Jim Crockett Promotions, travelling through the Carolinas and into Canada (a 1983 article in the Newport News Daily Press describes him as having “an Ivy league appearance”). In 1984, he was working in Jack Tunney’s Maple Leaf Wrestling when he received the opportunity to audition for the World Wrestling Federation. In the middle of his first significant push in a NWA territory, Valentino was hesitant to make a move.
“I was kind of scared at the time because if I go up there and the NWA finds out about it, they’re going to get mad at me and I was going to lose my position there. I was kind of naïve and I didn’t know how the WWF was going to turn out. So I decided not to go because I was getting a push. I just didn’t know which direction to go. I seen situations with guys where they left the NWA and they were kind of black-balled.”
He moved into Texas All Star Wrestling in the fall of 1984. “The Sheepherders were looking for somebody young and agile. I came in and they were going to give me a push. They were really good to work with, but unfortunately they left after a couple of months and the book changed and they had a new promoter coming in. Every time they would change bookers, it’s just like being a manager at any business; you bring in your own people that you know.”
It was in San Antonio that Valentino purchased his first home. “I thought I was going to be here a while, so I bought my first property. In college, I majored in marketing and real estate so I knew I always wanted to get into real estate, eventually.”
He continued travelling, making his way to the Central States territory. Through a connection to WWF road agent Chief Jay Strongbow (Joe Scarpa), Valentino wrestled a dark match with the WWF in 1987 and booked himself on a tour to Europe. “[Strongbow] told me to call the office and get set up,” said Valentino. “At that time, I was going through a divorce from my first wife. When I called the office I told them I had some court dates coming up because I was going through a divorce. They said, ‘Don’t worry about it. You take care of that and we’ll call you back later because it’s just not the right time for you.’ So I said, ‘Okay’. Little did I know that was the biggest mistake I ever made in my life.”
The WWF never followed through on the offer. Valentino moved on to the Portland territory, followed by Nova Scotia, and finally, Calgary, where a back injury forced him to retire in 1989.
He returned to San Antonio, where he focused his attention on real estate.
Valentino hasn’t participated in any wrestling reunions and has mostly put his wrestling career behind him. “In life you get busy doing your own thing and other things come up,” he said. “I’ve lost a lot of contact. I haven’t spoken with anyone in the business in years.”
He doesn’t look back with regret. His wrestling career gave him the opportunity to travel the world in a way he would have never been able to had he been locked down to something more traditional. “I’m doing really well for myself. I do a lot with the stock market. I’ve been pretty blessed. I didn’t make it big in wrestling in my career, but real estate and the stock market paid off. I know some guys who got into the business and they don’t have anything to fall back on and they keep trying to hang on. You can only [wrestle] for so many years.”