You don't become a legend in professional wrestling without knowing how to send a message. And Dominic DeNucci has no trouble communicating, whether it's in a wrestling ring or at a table for two at the Cranberry Township Denny's.
"Hey!" he interjects with a sharp clap of the hands when I begin to ask a question from my notebook moments after he sits down.
"First we eat the breakfast," he says, scooping the colorful menu full of seasonal pancake specials into his large hands. "Then," he continues with a huge smile, and a paternal wag of the finger, "then we talk the business."
He's in his mid-70s, but he's maintained his solid build along with much of his Italian accent. He's also a regular here, a fact made obvious by the hugs he gets from staff, along with the sugar-free syrup that accompanies his strawberry and blueberry pancakes — "hold the strawberries." And in the end, we end up talking business and eating breakfast at the same time after all.
"Now listen," DeNucci says, leaning in across the table. "These things I'm going to tell you, I don't tell you to pump myself up. I tell you because, hey [soft hand clap], that's the way it happened."
DeNucci came to Canada from Frosolone, Italy, in 1955. He was an upholsterer by trade, having learned the businesses from his uncle in Italy. "It was a lot of money," says DeNucci, who uses his fork to demonstrate the rapidity with which he could re-cover a piece of furniture. "That's why when the chance came to get into wrestling, I wasn't sure I wanted to do it."
But DeNucci had a strong amateur wrestling background, which is what a lot of promoters were seeking at the time. And he was good at it. He loved performing in front of the crowds, and the crowds loved him — a big, handsome Italian kid who could move. Soon he was performing everywhere: Detroit, then Calgary, Southern California, even Australia, where he sold out venues in Sydney and Melbourne.
DeNucci was one of TV's biggest stars, known to Pittsburgh-market fans in the 1960s and '70s for his regular appearances on Channel 11's studio-wrestling show. It's for that early TV work that he's being honored May 18, when he'll be inducted into the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame in Amsterdam, N.Y.
"I'm going up with Jugan and some of the boys," he says, referring to one-time wrestler and sometime show-promoter Ken Jugan, who will emcee the induction ceremony. ("Kenny lied about his age and has been wrestling since he was 14," says DeNucci, laughing.) He touches his hands to his heart. "It will be ... a nice honor."
DeNucci was a baby-faced good guy who took on all of the great heels of the day. He worked programs with legendary wrestlers like Ray Stevens, Karl Gotch and Killer [Walter] Kowalski. His early-1960s matches against the brutal, but brilliant, Kowalski were the stuff of legend.
"I so loved working with Walter," says DeNucci. "He was a great wrestler, and smart. So smart. You know, he could drive the plane? Me, I couldn't even drive the donkey."
In public, he feuded with Stevens, the 1960s-era NWA U.S.champ champ, after Stevens completed a lengthy program with Gotch, who was a great technician. "Karl Gotch could do 50 moves a second," DeNucci recalls, his hands moving rapidly back and forth. "He was one of the best."
But even though Stevens and DeNucci were inferior technicians compared to Gotch, they could pack venues like the San Francisco Cow Palace almost to capacity. Gotch asked Denucci what the Italian had that he didn't.
Denucci leans across the table, voice just above a whisper. "I said, ‘Karl, all due respect. ... The people got no goddamned idea what you're doing. It's too fast!'"
He leans back in his chair and puffs up his chest imitating the German grappler, "He said, ‘You shut your goddamned mouth, you stupid wop! What do you know?'"
DeNucci laughs again. "I knew how to work for the people," he says.
DeNucci has since parlayed that knowledge into a comfortable retirement on a Cranberry farm, where he's lived since 1971. Local legend Bruno Sammartino, DeNucci's longtime friend, suggested he move from California because Pittsburgh's airport made for cheap, easy travel.
The story about how DeNucci bought that farm — from an auctioneer he found less-than-scrupulous — will not be told here, for the same reason several other anecdotes are being omitted. When I started to write the story in my notebook, DeNucci's large hand dropped down over mine, pinning it to the notepad. The table shook.
"That's not for the paper," he said. "I just tell you, so you know."
But if you want to hear that story, you might try stopping by the Route 19 Denny's and asking him yourself. He hasn't forgotten how to entertain an audience.