Dominic Denucci, the Pro Wrestling Hall of Famer, has died. He was 89.
Dominic A. Nucciarone was born January 23, 1932. He came to Canada from Frosolone, in the Italian province of Campobasso, in 1951 at the age of 19. He settled in Montreal, where his great-uncle lived. Denucci quickly found friends at the Palestre Nationale, where all the amateur wrestlers trained and the pros, like Maurice Vachon, would come by for a workout. He was approached by Yvon Robert and Tony Lanza about entering pro wrestling, and despite the fact that he really didn’t know anything about it, he trained under Lanza.
He did many interviews with this writer. “I’m a guy, came in from Europe, 19 years old. I couldn’t tie my shoes. I couldn’t come to the United States because I didn’t have nobody here,” he said, explaining that he needed a relative in the U.S., and had to choose between Australia, Argentina and Canada. Initially, he got a six-month visa for the U.S., and was deported from Detroit back to Canada one day after it expired.
Denucci started wrestling around Montreal, under a hood as a villainous Masked Marvel, in the late 1950s, but moved on to Detroit where he was teamed with the original Dino Bravo as Dominic Bravo. “We hit it off pretty well. They booked us mainly where the Italian ethnics were. We used to bring them in,” said Bravo.
He topped out at 6-foot-3 — “with my high heels” — and maybe 240 pounds — “when I was going for heavy-duty stuff, I was going about 240.”
Stints in Calgary, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Japan (nine trips) and Australia followed for the master of the airplane spin finisher. The Roy Shire-run San Francisco territory was an early highlight. “I think the best thing for me was when I was in San Francisco. That was the first one, when I beat Ray Stevens for the championship, United States champion. That, to me at that time was very exciting because I was still young,” Denucci said.
He said that Shire was “the best promoter that I ever worked for.”
“Roy was a tough son of a bitch to do business with, but he was straight, and he was paying good. He was paying the preliminary guys at the Cow Palace $500. If you weren’t working, and you stayed home, you got paid, the local guys,” recalled Denucci. “Roy Shire, a lot of guys didn’t like him. But you didn’t have to like him. Just do what you have to do, and you draw money and you make money.”
In Australia, he was a part of the initial Jim Barnett-led World Championship Wrestling crew and was a huge national star. In his column about the golden years of Australian wrestling (1964-1978), Ed Lock wrote that Denucci “one of the best and most popular grapplers ever to campaign in Australia.”
With his typical modesty, Denucci downplayed his stardom. “I did a good run with [Killer] Kowalski. I was over, not to say because it was a long time ago, but I was over,” said Denucci. “We did hell of a good business.”
Johnny Doyle promoted Australia with Barnett, and wrote to St. Louis promoter Sam Muchnick, on March 27, 1965, about Denucci:
In the next month we should let Kowalski and DeNucci take some time off. They have been here six months now and we agreed that would be the longest we would keep any one. Both are red hot here and we want them back but they should stay out six months. DeNucci is real good. He topped everything we had and you may remember he drew a number of gates around 40,000.00 for Shire. Just let him talk a little Italian on the TV and those guineas come running.
Hitting the WWWF in late 1969, the 6-foot-3, 245-pound “Italian Sensation” rose to prominence as a tag team wrestler, holding the tag belts with partners Pat Barrett, Victor Riviera and the younger Dino Bravo (Adolfo Bresciano) from Montreal. His favorite partner? “I’m not knocking Victor because Victor was a really good worker too, but Dino Bravo, I think was my best.”
His skills were well known and he was often used as a mentor, including working around the horn with a young Hulk Hogan in 1981. “The old man [McMahon Sr.] came in and said, ‘Dominic, we have to try to push this kid.’ … I said, ‘Okay. That’s all you have to say, don’t worry about it.’ … We did decent time too, 20 minutes. It was good. It was a good match. When we go back to the dressing room, the old man came in, and he said, ‘Thanks, Dominic. It was very, very good.’ … Then Hogan came in and said thanks. …. Hogan said to Vince, ‘Vince, book me with Dominic in all the big arenas.’ He did, from Pittsburgh to Bangor, Maine. I think that’s the best money I ever made.”
Superstar Billy Graham mentioned Denucci’s skills in his autobiography. “My first match at Madison Square Garden took place on December 15, 1975 against Dominic DeNucci. Like Bruno [Sammartino], DeNucci was a native of Italy. This was not a coincidence. Vince Sr. wanted to create interest in my impending confrontation with the champ by having me whip his paisan,” wrote Graham. “He understood his position and had a wonderful attitude. It’s a mindset he’d eventually pass along to the aspiring wrestlers he trained at his home near Pittsburgh, including future World Wrestling Federation Champion Mick Foley.”
Vincent K. McMahon and Denucci had a falling out in 1983, and Denucci left the WWF just before its big expansion. He wrestled around the world until 1988, organizing tours of locations like Saudi Arabia and the Philippines before retiring for good. Denucci got involved in running a wrestling school in Pittsburgh, and trained former world champs Mick Foley and Shane Douglas.
While hugely respected by his peers, they have been ribbing him about his English skills ever since he got into the business. “Dominic Denucci has been taught English for 50 years and still can’t speak it!” joked Angelo Mosca. At the 2013 Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame induction ceremony, Cowboy Bill Watts did his Denucci imitation: “You-a hava-to hava the grips to maka tha wine!”
Mick Foley liked to tell a story he’d heard about his mentor. “He was going to do a cage match in Chicago, and the cage that they had set up didn’t look quite as intimidating as it could have. Dominic was told under no means to refer to it as chicken wire. Dominic got out there for his interview and said (here Foley puts on a thick Italian accent), ‘I tell you what. This-a may look like-a chicken wire, but it’s-a no chicken wire!'”
Dominic and his wife, Jeneane, settled outside Pittsburgh in 1971, with money he made working the Buffalo territory. They had one daughter, Danielle; a son, born in Montreal, was stillborn in 1970.
Denucci explained the change he brought to the Buffalo territory, which ran west to Cleveland. “It was the Sheik and Bobo every week, every week. And the people got tired of that shit. Then when I came in, it was me, Ernie Ladd and Waldo [Von Erich],” said Denucci. “Luis Martinez says, ‘I never made so much money since you came in here.’ He told the boys in the dressing room, ‘Thank Dominic, because we make money now.’ We did really good for 14, 15 months.” Promoter Pedro Martinez sold to Johnny Powers and that changed the territory.
Years later, Denucci did patch up his relationship with the McMahons. He said that tickets were always set aside for him in Pittsburgh … but he didn’t like the new PPG Paints Arena — “my ass won’t fit in those seats” he cracked in 2017.
Denucci’s wife died in September 2017. In a chat months after, he simply said he had to keep living. “now, I’m all by myself, she’s gone on vacation. What are you going to do?” he said. “You can’t jump off a bridge, the water’s too cold.”
His old student, Douglas, wrote at the time, “She had been battling COPD for years and finally lost that battle. Knowing Dominic, I know he be feeling lost right now. After all, he had been her devoted and constant companion, nurse, caretaker, friend and husband since her battle began. Jeanine was a beautiful and intelligent woman who truly was Dominic’s rock. She was also a devoted wife and mother to Dominic and Danielle.”
Denucci himself had been making appearances up until recently, but had gotten more frail in recent years. Douglas and “Lord Zoltan” Ken Jugan would often take Denucci on trips to wrestling shows and conventions. He was at the KSWA 20th anniversary show in Pittsburgh in 2020 because he wanted to “see his friends.” The Cauliflower Alley Club was going to present Denucci with its Trainer Award at the pandemic-cancelled 2020 reunion, since rescheduled for September 2021.
In 2012, Denucci was inducted into the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame. His induction brought out Bruno Sammartino to the PWHF for the first time, and Sammartino got his ring from his 2002 induction.
News of Denucci’s death spread quickly on August 12, 2021.
For all Denucci’s ups and downs, his sense of humor never left.
When once asked about the so-called Italian Connection in the WWWF, referring to Sammartino, Tony Parisi, Gino Brito, and others, that supposedly intimidated, Denucci could only crack, “Some mob! … you put all four together, they couldn’t kill a bird.”
— with files from Tom Leturgey and Steve Johnson
EDITOR’S NOTE: Corrections have been made to: Denucci’s real name; his year of arrival; the spelling of Palestre Nationale; the spelling of his late wife’s name; and details on their stillborn son were added.
- Aug. 13, 2021: Mat Matters: ‘Why youa not call?’ asks Denucci
- May 19, 2012: Sammartino goes over at the Hall of Fame
- Nov. 11, 2011: Dominic Denucci roast to raise funds for PWHF
- Feb. 23, 2011: The original Dino Bravo put business first