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Updated: Saturday, 14 Jul 2012, 11:06 AM EDT
Published : Saturday, 14 Jul 2012, 11:06 AM EDT
TORRINGTON, Conn. (AP) — In his hometown, Tranquillo Nardi, who emigrated from Italy at 14, was known as the bartender at his brother's restaurant on Wolcott Street.
But in the pro wrestling ring, this giant of a man was "Lilo Nardi, the Italian Strongman." Or perhaps "the Italian Wildman" or the "Butcher Boy of Venice." It all depended on what burg his bout happened to be in and which nickname struck the promoter's fancy.
No matter the tag hung on him, Nardi was part of a show that kept fans entertained and enthralled during the 1930s, when times were tough, jobs were scarce and people craved distractions from the Great Depression.
Built with the neck of a moose, ham hocks for forearms and a barrel chest, Nardi was billed at different times as the champion of Connecticut, the champion of the southern United States and the champion of Europe.
Standing 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, he traveled far and wide while grappling some of the top wrestlers of the era in what was then a balkanized sport.
Lilo died in 1974 at age 78. But his career in the ring is kept alive by his two sons, Bruno, 73, and Ernie, 83, in scrapbooks crammed with yellowed newspaper clippings, thumb-worn Ring magazines and publicity posters, made frail by time, that once lured thousands to arenas from Connecticut to Texas.
And it was all due to the circus coming to Torrington.
Here's how the family legend goes: While a young man, Lilo attended the circus with some friends. As one attraction, the ringmaster would offer $5 — a small fortune at the time — to anyone who could last three minutes with the circus wrestler.
Egged on by his buddies, Nardi, who had a reputation for being tough, jumped into the ring "and got the stuffing beat out of him," related Ernie.
Nardi began training religiously at the Torrington YMCA. When the circus returned to town the following year, he stepped back into the ring with the same wrestler.
"My father beat the living hell out of the guy," said Ernie, "and the circus wanted to hire him!"
He began wrestling around the state, at places like Waterbury's old Buckingham Hall. One day, according to his son, Nardi caught the eye of promoter Jack Pfefer, who told him, "I'll put you on the big circuit."
There was no WWE in those days. Pro wrestling was divided up into regional fiefdoms ruled by rival promoters. Pfefer, a Polish immigrant and one-time opera impresario, had gotten his start in the Midwest and then become one of the top promoters in the New York tri-state area.
He was quick to use ethnic rivalries to stir up interest in the large immigrant communities, filling his fight cards with such grapplers as Ivan Poddubny the "Russian Cossack," Phil Olafsson the "Swedish Angel," and Abie Fields the "Jewish Octopus."
Nardi, also known as the "Italian Sensation," was a darling of the large Italian population in the Northeast. He wrestled in New York, at such big-time places as the Broadway Arena and Madison Square Garden, and in smaller venues from Connecticut down to Delaware.
And he also traveled to smaller cities like Opelousas, La., and Beaumont, Texas, where he'd wrestle such foes as Dr. Nick St. Lurk, "Chicago's wrestling pharmacist." Playing up the ethnic angle, newspaper accounts would describe Nardi as "the giant spaghetti bender."
At some events, he was announced as being from Italy; at others, from Chicago. Inside the state, he was from Torrington. His origin depended on the whims of the promoter.
Pfefer, a member of the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame in Amsterdam, N.Y., became infamous for squealing about the sport, according to his Hall of Fame biography. In 1933, after a deal between rival promoters left him out in the cold, Pfefer went to Waterbury's Dan Parker, the sports editor of the New York Daily Mirror, and described in detail wrestling's "fakery."
Nardi's sons, however, insist their father's bouts were all legit.
"He always said that when you went in the ring, it was a fight to the finish, until you couldn't stand up anymore," said Ernie.
There was only one instance when the son was aware of his father losing on purpose.
"He was wrestling one of the top contenders," related Ernie. "Pfefer told him, 'You will lose.' My father said, 'I want to win.' He said, 'No, you will lose.' All the betting money was on the other guy, and the Mafia were all at ringside. When they show you a gun, you know they mean it."
The Hall of Fame's records show Nardi fighting 33 bouts from 1932-37 in the New York area, winning 17 and drawing two. But his family says he wrestled closer to 120 matches at rings around the country before retiring in 1942.
Lilo would earn maybe $25 for a bout, according to his sons, which made tending bar necessary when he wasn't on the road wrestling.
"He made a living, but he never made the big bucks like they do today," said Ernie. "At 75 cents (for admission), there wasn't
In the mid-1940s, Lilo opened Nardi's Meat Market on Highland Avenue in Torrington and ran it for about 25 years. After retiring as a butcher, he turned the store into a small gymnasium and taught youngsters how to wrestle there and at the YMCA.
Described in wrestling promotions as "capable of upholding at one time 10 average men," Nardi remained a fitness fanactic even late in life. His son's scrapbook includes photos of him lifting weights while in his 70s.
Upon his death, the memorabilia from his wrestling career was handed down to the brothers and their older sister, Lillian. The collection would even be more extensive, said Bruno wistfully, if their brother-in-law hadn't accidentally burned up some of it while getting rid of old newspapers years ago.
Bruno was too young to witness any of Lilo's bouts, but his older brother was at ringside for a half-dozen, including one at Torrington's Fuessenich Park.
"I was just a kid," Ernie recalled. "It was very exciting."
Especially when Lilo's opponent wrapped him up in a headlock and had him down on the canvas. Ernie remembered yelling at his father that he had to break out of the hold.
"Then my father turned him over," he said, "and won the match. He was very, very strong."