August 26, 2004
Sheldon Kane III
In 2003, I had the pleasure of getting to know a wonderful, charming woman named Rina Crugnale. Rina and I met at our mutual friend Steve Skalish's big birthday bash at the Kowloon resturant in Saugus, Massachusetts. I can tell you, she caught my eye and my attention right away. Rina and I hit it off very well that night, and we spent several weeks dating. Rina and I also discovered right away that we shared a common interest in the sport of professional wrestling. As it turned out, Rina had more than just an interest in wrestling; it's also in her blood. Her father was once a talent for WWE, when it was known as the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF).
Let me tell you what I learned about a man named Joe Crugnale.
Now, a lot of you may not have ever heard of Joe Crugnale. But believe me, while he may not have been very famous or held any WWWF titles, he was a talented, hard-working performer. He earned the respect and friendship of his colleagues in the WWWF during his tenure with the company, from the time he started there in the 1960s up until his retirement in 1979. One night last year, I had the privilege of seeing a number of pieces from Joe's WWWF career at Rina's home. I'll tell you, it was an eye-opening experience. His face looked vaguely familiar to me. It's possible I might have seen a picture of Joe in an old wrestling magazine at some point years ago when I used to collect them. I'm not exactly sure. Rina and her family saved a lot of memorabilia from Joe's WWWF tenure. I felt priviliged to be given a tour through the years of this man's career in the squared circle.
The first thing I got to see was some old 8mm films (converted to videotape) of Joe in action. There was a tag team match from the late '60s, where Joe and a partner I could not identify took on the legendary Pampero Firpo and again, a partner I didn't recgonize. I noticed right away that there were two particular moves Joe favored in his matches: the flying head scissors and the victory roll. Joe was also quite agile in the ring. For the record, Joe's team was victorious in that contest. I saw another match (mid-'70s) where Joe took on another opponent, the "Duke of Dorchester" Pete Doherty. From there, Rina showed me books filled with vintage newspaper and magazine clippings, as well as posters advertising upcoming WWWF events that Joe was appearing on. One of those clippings was for a Boston Garden show in 1976. Joe was on the undercard, taking on Nikolai Volkoff. There were also a number of articles--mainly from 1968--discussing Joe's upcoming matches. The names surrounding Joe on these cards was like a Who's Who of 1960s/'70s WWWF; Gorilla Monsoon, Domenic DeNucci, Haystacks Calhoun, Professor Toru Tanaka...man, I could go on forever. I also discovered that Joe competed on numerous occasions in Venezuela, under the name "Spartaco." Rina's family had saved many posters that plugged the wrestling events in that country, all of which prominently featured "Spartaco."
For me though, the biggest highlights of the tour were the stories Rina's mother had of her husband and of his friends in the business from back in the day. She told me of how she tailored Joe's ring jackets, and also made the first ring jacket for the great Victor Rivera. She also had stories to share about WWE Hall of Famer Chief Jay Strongbow and the friendship he had with her husband. The best friend Joe had in and out of the WWWF was none other than the "Living Legend", Bruno Sammartino. Bruno was Joe's closest compadre, and is also a longtime friend of the Crugnale family. She then showed me an 8 x 10 photo of Bruno with her father in the dressing room after a match at a World Wrestling Federation event. They also shared stories of her dad's encounters outside the ring of some of the legends of WWE lore, like Andre the Giant (who was acquainted with the Crugnale family), and young Vincent K. McMahon. (her dad said that he wanted to be a wrestler as far back as his days as an announcer). I wish Joe had stuck around just a bit longer in the ring; he could have faced Hulk Hogan in his rookie days if he had. As if I wasn't marking out enough that night, Rina then showed me the piece that impressed me most of all: a trophy given to her father by Vincent J. McMahon in 1973 acknowledging his hard work and dedication to the company. The trophy simply said "World Wide Wrestling Federation: Joe Crugnale." In a word, impressive.
I was hoping I'd get a chance to meet Joe Crugnale someday and hear about his exploits in the WWWF first-hand, but unfortunately I will not ever be able to do that. Sadly, Joe Crugnale passed away in 1997. Joe represented the old-school type of performer that is almost extinct in today's wrestling world (with a few exceptions). A no-frills, gimmick-free wrestler who just went out there, gave his all in the ring, and did all he could to provide for his family. Wrestling was his passion, and the fans, his peers, and most of all his family recgonized it. If there were more guys like Joe Crugnale in today's WWE, the business would be even stronger.