Niagara Falls is seen as a bucket list tourist town to many. Millions of people flood into the city to be mesmerized by the ethereal wonder that is the Falls. At its core, once you step away from the great cataract, the city of Niagara Falls really feels like a small town. Like many thousands of small towns spread across the North American continent, it too has its hometown heroes that seem to live in legend long after they are gone. Sometimes a hometown hero is a wrestling legend that reaches out from the great beyond to send a message of love.
Tony “Cannonball” Parisi (Tony Pugliese) was a Niagara Falls sporting legend. He was known not just for being a famous professional wrestler, but for his generosity and big personality. Even today, people still talk about Tony and have a story or two about interactions with his family — wife Chiara (known as Clara) and daughter Ida, the shows he promoted at the Skylon Tower or his celebrated restaurant in the heart of the Falls tourist district called Big Anthony’s which featured pictures and memorabilia from his extensive wrestling career.
Niagara Falls Comic Con operations manager James Ponce remembers going to Tony’s restaurant as a kid after the local matches let out. “That is where I met Andre the Giant outside the restaurant,” Ponce gushed.
As a teenager I would convince my friend Brad to drive us to Big Anthony’s. I would order the spaghetti and stare at the former WWWF tag team champion, too shy to talk to him. Tony Parisi was even inducted into the Niagara Falls Sports Wall of Fame. The legend and man stood large in Niagara Falls.
I shouldn’t be surprised that a wrestler might have reached out and nudged me in a direction to help a sad heart, put a smile on a daughter’s face and to let a family know that folks remembered Tony Parisi. Here is my interesting tale.
It was the winter of 2023 when I pulled into a plaza in Fonthill, Ontario. I noticed an antique store and decided to look around. The owner asked me if I was looking for anything in particular. As always, I asked if he had anything to do with professional wrestling. His eyes lit up and he ushered me to the back of the store where he showed me two black and white pictures with clearly handcrafted wooden frames. The one picture featured wrestlers from the Montreal circuit from the 1960s. The other picture was of Tony Parisi in his warm-up jacket with Dominic Denucci and Gino Brito. On the back of the frame, in beautiful cursive writing were the names of the wrestlers. I asked how much he wanted for the pair and he requested $20. I paid up and headed home.
Weeks later, I wondered what I would do with the pictures. Sure they were cool but I really didn’t have a place to showcase them. I asked my wife, Danielle, her opinion. She looked thoughtfully at the pictures and then told me that our youngest daughter has a friend whose grandparent was a wrestler named Tony. I asked her for the phone number of the friend’s mom, Ida, and gave her a call. I just had a feeling that these pictures should be with family and not be sitting in my basement.
I called Ida and described the pictures to her, right down to the warm-up jacket. She let out a gasp. Ida told me that they were from the restaurant her family used to own and the pictures were somehow lost in the closing. Then she said, “You won’t believe this, but my daughter went looking through some old boxes today and found my dad’s warm-up jacket. The one in the picture. She has never seen the jacket before or ever worn it, until today. She has it on right now!”
We continued to chat and realized that my daughter would be at a playdate with Ida’s daughter at Clara’s house in a few days. We agreed that the pictures would go to Clara. My wife brought the pictures with her when she dropped off our daughter at the get together. Clara was overjoyed to be reunited with the treasures of the past. She toured Danielle through the house and then showed her Tony Parisi’s weight room, still lovingly preserved. It was there that Clara revealed that she doesn’t normally believe in fortune tellers or psychics, but earlier in the week she had been missing Tony so much she went to see one. There she was told that there would soon be a sign. A teary Clara was so very thankful to have received the sign she desired, the pictures from Tony, the message of his love and watchful gaze from afar.
A short time later Ida phoned my house just to thank me for making her family so very happy. We got talking about wrestling and all of the grapplers families she grew up with. Ida clearly loved spending vacation time with the Poffo family in Florida. Soon enough she brought up the famous Hart family from Calgary. She knew Stu and a few of his sons, but the one she always wanted to meet was Bret Hart. As a teenager she had opportunities to meet Bret. Her dad would bring her backstage to talk to the wrestlers at WWF and WCW events and she would chicken out of talking to the handsome Bret as soon as he came near.
Instantly my antenna went up! I knew Bret Hart would be signing autographs at the Niagara Falls Comic Con that June and I reached out to the owner, Chris Dabrowski to set up a meeting. He remembered Ida from high school and like a true Niagara Falls guy went on to praise Tony Parisi. After telling him the story of the pictures Chris said he would make sure Ida got to meet Bret.
Dabrowski tasked Marianne Bologna with arranging the details, but I was warned that sometimes Bret can be a bit prickly after signing autographs for hours. The day of the Niagara Falls Comic Con was amazing. I met Ida and her family at the media entrance and ushered her in. The private meeting was pushed back a few times but Marianne kept us in the loop and made it happen.
Our group went into the green room and waited. Soon the Hitman entered and took a load off after signing and meeting fans. He was clearly tired. Dabrowski came up to me and said that we would do the introduction together. I said to Bret, “I would like to introduce you to the daughter and family of Tony Parisi.” Bret looked me in the eye, smiled and said, “I know Tony.”
A few hugs between Ida and Bret completed the journey that Tony sent me on. After a few pictures we left the green room and entered the hallway. An overwhelmed Ida gave me a hug and just couldn’t believe the meeting she just had or the events of the last few months.
Whether or not I was guided by the spirit of a wrestler or not really isn’t the point. It is just so nice to bring joy to others and to see others, like the Niagara Comic Con crew give to a family that gave them joy as kids. Thank you Tony. It sure was a special sign.
TOP PHOTO: Ida Pugliese Fretz and daughter meet Bret Hart. Photo by Caleb Smith; inset, the photo Caleb Smith gave to the Parisi family.
- Aug. 19, 2020: Tony “Cannonball” Parisi photo gallery
- May 5, 2004: Big Anthony’s gets a facelift
- Aug. 20, 2000: Tony Parisi dies of a heart attack
- Archive of Caleb Smith stories
Caleb Smith would like to thank Chris, James and Marianne for going above and beyond to make Ida’s day special! Please check out the Niagara Falls Comic Con, Hamilton Comic Con and Icon Autographs.