Pro wrestling great Mario Milano - ‘Australia’s Elvis’ - dies at 81


Pro wrestling great Mario Milano - ‘Australia’s Elvis’ - dies at 81 - 17th December 2016

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By Mike Mooneyham

He was a hero to tens of thousands of fans during the golden era of professional wrestling in Australia in the 1960s. Tall, dark and handsome, Mario Milano just might have been the original Italian Stallion.

The iconic wrestler, whose career spanned more than four decades, passed away Dec. 9 at the age of 81. To many, he was regarded as the greatest star during Australia’s wrestling heyday.

Milano, whose real name was Mario Bulfone, was the prototypical wrestling babyface who preferred the good guy side of the fence despite some promoters’ pleas to turn heel. His image, he would argue, meant more to him than a temporary payday. As a land of immigrants, Australia required a specific type of hero, especially in towns like Sydney and Melbourne. Mario Milano fit that bill to a tee.

"I wrestled in Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, South Africa, North America, Mexico. My name, it was like Elvis," Milano said in a 2009 interview.

American promoters Jim Barnett and Johnny Doyle had created a wrestling goldmine in the Land Down Under during the ‘60s, bringing in a star-studded array of American performers and top-flight international talent. Australia would become a favorite destination for wrestlers who loved the area and the favorable pay.

For Milano, the list of formidable heels cycling through Australia only made him a bigger name as a fan favorite, engaging in money-drawing rivalries with such bad guys as Killer Kowalski, Curtis Iaukea, Gorilla Monsoon, Abdullah The Butcher, Killer Karl Kox, Ernie Ladd, Skull Murphy and Brute Bernard.

Charismatic and blessed with good looks, the 6-5, 265-pound Milano had been a star in several U.S. territories during the ‘60s but had been brought to Australia as an Italian babyface following in the footsteps of huge ethnic draws such as Bruno Sammartino and Domenic DeNucci. And along with “Golden Greek” Spiros Arion, they became heroes to the large migrant communities in that country.

“He was the people's champion, long before Dwayne Johnson (The Rock) had ever used or adapted the phrase for professional wrestling,” noted Australian media analyst Greg Tingle. “Mario brought warmth, trust, respect and an all-round good vibe to pro wrestling circles, when such attributes were not always parallel with that of the squared circle.”

While the popularity of pro wrestling in Australia waned in the early ‘70s when Barnett left after buying into the Atlanta promotion, Milano was still a hero to the Aussie audience and remained a household name.

A native of Italy who later moved to Venezuela, Milano broke into pro wrestling in the early ‘50s under a mask as Black Diablo. He wasn’t quite 18 at the time, and a local curfew in Venezuela prohibited anyone under 18 from being out on the street by himself after 9 o’clock at night, so the mask was Milano’s way to conceal his identity and age. When his age allowed, he began to wrestle under his real name.

Cyclone Negro, a popular Venezuelan-based wrestler who had attained success abroad, helped bring Milano to the United States and included him on a tour of Texas. Arguing that few fans would be able to pronounce Bulfone, a promoter convinced Milano to change his name, adding an “o” to the well-known Italian city.

Milano enjoyed runs in several American territories during the early ‘60s, teaming with Memphis legend Jackie Fargo to claim a share of the Southern and world tag-team titles, and holding the Southern tag belts on six occasions with Tennessee favorite Len Rossi.

Milano would become an even bigger name when Barnett brought him to Australia in 1967 for what initially was scheduled to be a three-month tour. During that year he would become the biggest star in Barnett’s World Championship Wrestling promotion, holding the IWA world heavyweight title on two different occasions and the IWA world tag-team title three times with Red Bastien.

Barnett offered Milano a three-month extension, after which the wrestler returned to his home in Nashville, where he had made a name for himself on the Southern circuit. Upon his return, a contract doubling his pay and airfare back to Australia were awaiting him. Once he arrived back in Australia, he never left, making that country his home and raising a family there.

Milano worked with some of the biggest stars in the business and held more titles than any wrestler in the history of the promotion.

"Oh, my goodness, years ago I was making $800 a week when the average wage was $30," Milano said of those early days.

“Just the mention of Mario's name on a wrestling card would draw fans, be it to Festival Hall, or a less glamorous venue such as suburban shopping centers in Sydney, as was sometimes the go back in the 1990s, as his in-ring career was ending,” said Tingle.

Milano used such traditional finishers as the abdominal stretch and the atomic drop. And with his size and believability, he made those simple maneuvers look convincing.

“Fans either like you or they don’t,” said Milano. “I was always nice to the people. It wasn’t just because. I respected the people. Especially the older ones. I loved kids and children. I like to be nice. It’s my nature.”

Milano almost left the promotion when Barnett demanded that he work as a heel. Despite his better instincts he would finally agree, setting up an angle with The Spoiler (Don Jardine) in which the masked man’s manager, Gary Hart, hypnotized Milano. Even then, many fans refused to boo him, and the heel run was short-lived.

Milano would remain at the top of the card until World Championship Wrestling, left with no TV deal, closed its doors in 1978.

“In a carny-like industry noted with a few questionable characters, to me (and I suspect thousands of others), Mario stood out as a king and a true gentleman, and it's no surprise that he will forever be known as the original people's champion,” said Tingle.

Milano, who had worked for Charlotte-based Crockett Promotions in 1964, competed in a number of matches that year at the former County Hall in Charleston. His stint, though, consisted mostly of preliminaries and was without the success he had attained in other territories and would achieve just several years later in Australia.

I last spoke with Mario several years ago, and he looked back at those times with fond memories. He told me that his formula for success was a simple one. “The people just liked me, and I guess I just liked them back.”

Nearly 50 years had passed since his time in the United States. He had long since been somewhat of an ambassador of wrestling in Australia, and was still in demand making appearances and signing autographs.

At the time, he said, he was working for an office supply company in Melbourne and also had run a couple of pizza joints in the past.

Humble and soft-spoken, he seemed almost surprised that he would be remembered so fondly by his Aussie fans.

“You learn about life. You meet different people and see different things,” said Milano, who was born in Trieste, Italy.

Mario also took pride in the fact that he had lived a relatively clean life. Never a gambler or drug addict. No excesses, he joked, except his (three) marriages. “I could have been a millionaire,” he laughed.

His father had been an upholsterer by trade, and his family had immigrated to Venezuela following World War II. His mother and father had both been accomplished stage actors. “I would love to be an actor,” said Milano, whose good looks and good physique helped him garner roles in a few movies and soap operas.

Knowing what he wanted to do as a young man, he broke into the wrestling business and never looked back.

“He was a wonderful family man, and his family loved him deeply,” Tingle said of Milano, who had five children. “I had the pleasure of speaking business with his daughter Olympia a number of times, and the trust, respect and love was ever-present in the conversations.”

Milano had long stopped following the product of the modern era, preferring to remember his wrestling heyday in Australia.

Many of those memories had faded with the passing of time, Milano said, but he still recalled what the business had meant to him all those years later.

“I loved wrestling. I really did.”

“From the ring, to promoter capacity, and even in the pizza business which Mario enjoyed success, there is only one - they broke the mold when God created Mario Milano,” said Tingle.

Reach Mike Mooneyham at bymikemooneyham@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter at @ByMike Mooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham

(Post and Courier)