One of my favorite aspects of wrestling history is the strange multitude of small splinter promotions that appear as once-great wrestling promotions fizzle and fall — and here’s a great example from the Buckeye state of Ohio.
Ohio Championship Wrestling
Canton Memorial Civic Center, Canton OH
January 23, 1981
- Dominic Denucci vs. “Tiny Tim” Hampton
- Bo-bo Brazil vs. Gorgeous George Jr.
- Ladies tag team event
- Plus three other matches, including Luis Martinez
The Canton Memorial Civic Center in scenic Canton, Ohio, was a generous-sized building for OCW, with a capacity of around 5,000 for wrestling. The venue has hosted other wrestling events, most notably two WWF TV events in 1995 (Superstars and Raw, if you were wondering).
This was the debut card for Ohio Championship Wrestling, a local independent promotion looking to fill the void left by the demise of the National Wrestling Federation in Buffalo and eastern Ohio roughly half a decade earlier. Sure, the famed Sheik still ran his territory in Detroit, but that promotion was on its last legs and would shutter in a year. The people of Canton needed regular wrestling action — and Bruce Baker and Dominic Denucci came to the rescue.
Who is Bruce Baker? I have no clue beyond his listing as the owner of parent company Madison Square Garden East. Yes, they really called it that, despite being west of the real Madison Square Garden. But if I had to guess on a biographical entry for Mr. Baker, it would likely read, “local wrestling fan with more money than sense.”
Ohio Championship Wrestling sought to be a full-service promotion for the eastern Ohio, western Pennsylvania, and northern West Virginia fans. This included (possibly) having a wrestling show on Channel 2 (Tuesday at 4 p.m.) in the Canton area. To draw the crowds, Baker needed an experienced wrestler to help wrangle talent and book matches. He found his man in Dominic Denucci.
Denucci, born in 1932 as Domenico Nucciarone, in Frosolone, Italy, had a long-established reputation by 1980. A longtime friend of Bruno Sammartino, he had become a perennially popular performer on Pittsburgh’s Studio Wrestling for years. He also regularly worked local dates for the WWWF when he joined forces with Baker to promote Ohio Championship Wrestling.
Denucci’s wrestling journey began in Montreal, where he competed as the mysterious Masked Marvel. From there, he enjoyed popular stays in numerous territories, even teaming with the original Dino Bravo as “Dominic Bravo,” as revealed in this 2021 Slam obituary after the great man’s passing; that was nickname he would also use in Tony Santos’ Big Time Wrestling.
What Denucci brought to the table was his expertise, his connections, and his inscrutable business sense. These connections included the legendary Bobo Brazil, at the very twilight of his illustrious career and Luis Martinez.
Martinez was an experienced and well-traveled grappler with a heart of gold and plenty of promoting experience — having served as one of the frontmen for the Johnny Powers-owned NWF, giving him extensive local knowledge. He was also a fixture in Eddie Einhorn’s short-lived IWA in 1975, where the fun-loving wrestler was not above-poking fun at legendary masked wrestler Mil Mascaras, with the following anecdote from a wonderful piece on the man from the equally wonderful Steve Johnson:
“It was late at night, everyone was tired, and Luis came on and said he knew the real reason Mascaras wore the mask,” longtime friend Ron Martinez said. “He looked straight at the camera and said, ‘Mil Mascaras wears a mask because he is one ugly mother—,’ then spat on the floor. Everyone broke up, a much-needed break after four hours of doing interviews. We trashed the tape, of course, but Mascaras got all huffy. That was Luis’ sense of humor, and he made no apologies for it.”
Interestingly for younger fans, Martinez is also responsible for Tito Santana’s most popular catchphrase ‘Arriba!’ The cry was guaranteed to rally any throng of supporters, according to Buffalo-based ring announcer Rick Gattone: “Not a lot of the boys had a single word like he had — ‘Arriba!’ That’s how he got the people up with just that one word, he got the whole audience doing that. He was ahead of his time with that,”
But Ohio Championship Wrestling brought in far more than Bobo, Luis, and Dom. Several other grapplers appeared with the group in its short history — with varying degrees of fame. Henry Robinson wrestled as “Fireball Harrison,” Brady Howard, “Trader” Tim Hampton, and “Bad” Bill Coleman, local wrestlers with sparse resumes to document their careers.
But there were also established names from other regional territories: Dr. Jerry Graham Jr. and Zoltan the Great of the Bruiser’s WWA (and later, Bruiser Bedlam TV), and “Gorgeous” George Jr. of Memphis fame. Interestingly, this Gorgeous George (Richard Phelps) also legally changed his name to George Wagner to get around legal cease-and-desist threats in California from the real “Gorgeous” George Wagner.
And for fans of goofy Jack Pfefer soundalikes, don’t worry. OCW featured illustrious names like “the Mad Iranian” and “the Incredible Bulk.” Here is some more OCW talent from an ad for the promotion. What exactly it’s promoting, however, I have no clue.
While we don’t have the show’s results, we can make an educated guess about some of the other performers. The ad lists a women’s tag team match, for example. Coming through the brief press mentions of OCW, we can identify two female grapplers: Joyce Grable and Carol Summers. Summers is a mystery, as records of her career have it both beginning and ending in 1981. This means this show was likely Summers’ first pro match.
If this was indeed her first match, Summers at least could rely on the expertise of Joyce Grable. A native of LaGrange, Georgia, Grable was a 10-year veteran, having broken into the business in 1971, learning from the late “The Fabulous Moolah” Lillian Ellison.
“I went to Atlanta with another girl to the wrestling,” Grable recalled in a 2010 article. “She wanted to talk to Moolah about training after the match. Moolah said, ‘What about the blond next to you? I will train you if you bring her too.’ I went and made it, and the other girl didn’t.”
Grable, often styled as “The Golden Goddess of the Mat,” was known for her movie star good looks and no-nonsense wrestling acumen, which guided her to several titles throughout her career, including the NWA Women’s Tag Team Championship, the NWA Women’s U.S. Championship, and the WWF Women’s Tag Team Championship.
After this debut card, Ohio Championship Wrestling continued promoting in the Canton and Mansfield (at the Union Hall) areas for the next few years. It even experienced slight growth, branching out to Cleveland (briefly) and Akron, and also ran in the impossibly confusing Indiana, Pennsylvania.
The promotion even had titles, with the following claimants:
- Ohio State Champion: Dominic Denucci
- National Junior Heavyweight Champion: Brady Howard
- Ohio State Tag Team Champions: The Akron Connection (Jim Banks & Bill Coleman)
Interestingly, this small independent opted for a tag team trophy, in lieu of belts. Some southern promoters used City Champ jackets.
As OCW grew and expanded, it also brought in big name talent, including the ever-popular Mr. Wrestling II in August 1981. Perhaps OCW was Georgia’s first foray into Ohio wrestling — a state it would seek to monopolize in coming years.
Around late 1982, OCW seemingly vanished, and a new group of familiar faces took its place in Allentown, Pennsylvania. That promotion saw Dominic Denucci joining forces with another entrepreneurial spirit in the wrestling business — Walter “Killer” Kowalski. But that’s the story of International Wrestling, and we’ll save it for my next instalment.
Henry Klimkowski on Facebook read the initial story and shared these results:
JANUARY 23, 1981, CANTON (OH) MEMORIAL CIVIC CENTER, OHIO CHAMPIONSHIP WRESTLING
REFEREES: Bruce Baker, Kent Clarke
(1) “Arriba” Luis Martinez pinned Bad Billy Coleman in 15:00 with a flying “Thesz Press” takedown
(2) Chief Bold Eagle pinned Gilbert Guerrero in 12:00 via a reverse full-nelson and backslide cradle
(3) Brady Howard defeated Jo Jo Andrews, disqualification, in 8:00 for pulling the official in front of his foe’s flying dropkick
(4) “Fireball” Robinson pinned The Mad Iranian in 11:00 by countering his foe’s attempt for a second consecutive backdrop with a “sunset flip” cradle
(5) Bobo Brazil vs. Jerry Graham, Jr., double disqualification, in 10:00 after both men had shoved down the official
(6) Judy Martin/Jill Fontaine defeated Joyce Grable/Carol Summers (Martin pinned Summers with a “small-package” cradle) in 11:00
(7) Dominic DeNucci defeated Reverend Tiny Hampton, disqualification in 10:00 due to the “outside interference” of Jerry Graham, Jr.