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Weight: 226 lbs.
From: Buenos Aires, Argentina
Years in WWE: 1953-62; 1975-77
Career Highlights: U.S. Tag Team Champion (1957, w/Miguel Perez); 1995 WWE Hall of Famer
Finishing maneuver: Argentine Backbreaker
- Famed maestro Arturo Toscanini, a rabid wrestling fan, was good friends with Rocca.
- Rocca was depicted wrestling Superman on the cover of an August 1962 comic book.
- The 1976 horror film Alice, Sweet Alice, featuring child actress Brooke Shields, includes Rocca in a bit part.
In the 1950s, there was no bigger wrestling star on the East Coast than Antonino Rocca. With the exception of Gorgeous George, he was the greatest box-office attraction of his era. During the infancy of Capitol Wrestling, the company that would become WWE, Rocca was the key to the success of upstart promoter Vincent J. McMahon. For the first decade of Capitol's existence, he was the undisputed king of the ring. His amazing acrobatic feats made him the forerunner to innovative performers like Mil Mascaras, Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka, and Rey Mysterio.
Rocca was born Antonio Biasetton in 1923 along with a twin sister in the Italian town of Treviso, near Venice. At fifteen, with the threat of war looming in his Fascist-controlled homeland, he and his family immigrated to the city of Rosario in the South American nation of Argentina, a popular destination for expatriate Italians.
During his lifetime, Rocca had a penchant for outrageous exaggeration and outright fabrication, so what is known of his prewrestling career is shrouded in doubt. What's for certain is that he was a remarkable athlete, excelling in rugby and soccer. He nearly became a successful soccer player in Argentina, but a knee injury ended that.
In 1947 Biasetton began wrestling professionally in Argentina, where Stanislaus Zbysko, a famous World Champion wrestler of the early twentieth century, was running the local promotion. Biasetton changed his name to Rocca, playing up his Italian heritage, and adapted the incredible flexibility and agility he had used on the soccer field to the wrestling ring. Former American wrestler Nick Elitch spotted the high-flying Rocca while vacationing in Argentina in 1948.
Elitch convinced the twenty-five-year-old, who barely spoke any English, to make him his manager and come with him to the United States. In June 1948 he arrived on American soil and went to work for Houston promoter Morris Sigel, an associate of Elitch. He had his first matches in Galveston and Houston, where he defeated Lord James Blears.
An immediate success, Rocca wowed fans who had never seen an athlete of his type in a wrestling ring. In an era when wrestlers never left the mat and often clinched in holds for minutes at a time, Rocca brought a new, fast-paced excitement. He couldn't wrestle very much and this often made him unpopular with his peers but his flashy repertoire of aerial maneuvers like dropkicks, hurracanranas, and victory rolls dazzled spectators and made up for any lack of grappling technique. This was unprecedented, and literally changed what pro wrestling was for the generations that have followed.
Before long, other promoters were requesting Rocca, and Sigel began lending him out. In 1949, while competing in St. Louis, he was approached by veteran wrestler Kola Kwariani. The grizzled Russian convinced Rocca that New York was where the real money was, and stole him away from Elitch and the entire Houston contingent.
Kwariani became Rocca's manager and brought him to the Big Apple to work for Joseph "Toots" Mondt, a longtime promoter who was struggling to resurrect the wrestling business in the New York area. With a unique performer like Rocca, Mondt knew he could finally accomplish that.
Rocca agreed to an exclusive deal with Mondt's Manhattan Booking Office and took a three-room apartment on West Fifty-seventh Street. He made his area debut in Brooklyn at the Ridgewood Grove with a victory over Benito Gardini. On December 12, 1949, Mondt brought Rocca to Madison Square Garden, where he defeated "Mr. America" Gene Stanlee. A crowd of 17,854 witnessed the match, the largest Garden crowd in eighteen years. Just like that, wrestling in New York was back in business.
"He was the star of the Manhattan Booking Office," remembers longtime referee and wrestler Dick Kroll. "A very nice guy, very flamboyant, given to great exaggeration. He would claim he'd never been defeated; he would claim that he killed a man in South America. He was a braggart, but a fun braggart to be around."
In addition to his groundbreaking wrestling style, it was Rocca's ethnicity that brought in the masses. An Italian from Latin America, he had tremendous drawing power among both populations in the New York area. Not only did he become the greatest New York attraction since 1930s World Champion Jim Londos, but his agent, Toots Mondt, began booking him for promoters all over the country and raking in a hefty chunk of the profits. Inspired by his client's limber acrobatics, Mondt once remarked, "Rocca has done more for legs than Betty Grable."
Lesser promoters throughout the Northeast area were given access to Rocca on a regular basis. One of these was Vincent J. McMahon, whose Capitol Wrestling Corporation had begun presenting matches in Washington, D.C., at the start of 1953. Rocca was a fixture on the earliest McMahon cards, and helped the fledgling promoter carve out a successful territory for himself.
"Who could forget him?" asks WWE chairman Vincent K. McMahon. "In the old Madison Square Garden, I used to see Rocca perform. Oh my God, what an unbelievably charismatic and athletic performer. The stuff he could do was incredible. All kinds of aerial stuff."
When Vincent J. McMahon secured a national television deal with the Dumont Network in the summer of 1956, he persuaded Rocca to leave Mondt and work for him. An old-school promoter, Mondt had never had much faith in TV, which proved his downfall. Rocca became McMahon's attraction, and by the fall of 1956 Capitol's stock had raised to such a degree that McMahon had the leverage to move Mondt out of the Garden.
On November 26, the first McMahon-promoted event was held at the Garden, and featured Rocca beating Dick the Bruiser. Over the course of the late 1950s, McMahon's power in the Northeast grew, and Rocca became a bigger star than ever. He bought a $6 million textile mill in Argentina and was given his own daily radio show. Eventually McMahon and Mondt set aside their differences and, with Rocca as their top star, joined forces to become the most powerful promotional force wrestling had seen since the Gold Dust Trio of the 1920s (of which Mondt had been one).
"I used to tag team with Rocca," says veteran WWE wrestler and manager Arnold Skaaland. "He was a great guy. Good talker. He liked to b.s. a lot. I'd say, 'Rocca, where you been?' And he'd say, 'Arnie, you wouldn't believe it, but these Navy pilots took me over Cuba!' He'd come up with a lot of stuff like that. But he had a good heart."
"He was a great bullshitter," adds Vince McMahon. "But half his stories were true, and you didn't know what to believe. 'I'm working for the CIA down in Ecuador....' I think that was true. He would go on these missions and shit. What was fact, what was fiction? You never knew with Tony."
In 1957 Rocca entered a new chapter of his career, forming a legendary partnership with Puerto Rican Superstar Miguel Perez. They would be a regular Tag Team for the next four years. In March 1957, they defeated Jackie Fargo & Don Stevens to become the first holders of Capitol's first title the U.S. Tag Team Championship. Their feud with Dr. Jerry Graham & Eddie Graham would go down in wrestling history. From 1958 to 1960, Rocca & Perez headlined the Garden against the Graham Brothers on seven different occasions.
By 1960, Capitol Sports had become the uncontested ruler of wrestling in the Northeast. But it was just about that time that Rocca's star began to wane. Buddy Rogers was overtaking him as the company's top draw, and a new ethnic hero, Bruno Sammartino, was swiftly gaining steam. By the end of 1962, with McMahon and Mondt planning on breaking away from the NWA, starting World Wide Wrestling Federation and making Sammartino their top star, Rocca walked out on the promotion in bitterness.
Feeling vindictive toward his former employers, Rocca allied himself with Mid-Atlantic promoter Jim Crockett Sr., a leading member of the NWA whose members also had an axe to grind. With the Argentine as its top star, Crockett Promotions attempted an invasion of McMahon territory in the mid-1960s, running shows in places like Long Island, Brooklyn, and New Jersey. They even got television coverage, but it was still a resounding failure.
Rocca had not managed his money very well during his heyday preferring to live the high life and was now feeling the effects. Not only his financial status suffered, but his health as well, as years of heavy boozing took their toll.
"The poor bastard only got a third of every nickel he ever made," recalls Vince McMahon. "A tremendous draw, but he didn't get what was due him financially. He had his demons as well. Tony was the kind of guy, when you're having a good time, he was the greatest guy in the world to be around, but when you were having a bad time, you didn't want to be around him."
Rocca continued competing in obscurity into the 1970s, and in 1975, an amazing thing happened. Choosing to let bygones be bygones, McMahon, now the sole kingpin of WWWF, hired Antonino as a television announcer. Recognizing he still had appeal to the area's Italian and Latino populations, Vince Sr. paired him up with his son, future WWE chairman Vincent K. McMahon, as a regular broadcast team.
In early 1977 Rocca took time off from announcing to briefly come out of retirement in Puerto Rico. He returned to the States with an acute case of food poisoning that, coupled with his already weakened constitution, caused his kidneys to fail. He passed away on March 16. Although he was either fifty-three or fifty-four at the time, embellishments surrounded Rocca in death as in life, and it was publicly stated that he was only forty-nine.
One of the most successful performers to ever work for the McMahons, Rocca is often overlooked because his glory years occurred before the creation of the WWWF name. Yet to disregard him in any rundown of the company's top Superstars would be doing a tremendous disservice to wrestling history. Antonino Rocca was one of those rare performers who combine box-office appeal with genuine innovation, leaving the sport different from the way they found it.
Copyright © 2006 by World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved.