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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Milano, Mario (1935–2016)

by Barry York

Mario Milano, by Barry York, 1997

Mario Milano, by Barry York, 1997

National Library of Australia, 13838735

The passing of pro-wrestling legend Mario Milano is sad news for those of us who followed the televised conflicts between "good and evil" on Channel Nine between 1964 and 1978 and who also had the privilege of attending the great spectacle of "light without shadow" at venues such as Festival Hall in Melbourne.

Before coming to Australia in 1967 as part of American Jim Barnett's World Championship Wrestling promotion, Mario (real name Mario Bulfone) held the United States Southern Tag Team title with Jackie Fargo in 1963 and with Len Rossi in 1964 and 1966, and the National Wrestling Alliance Tag title in 1964, again with Fargo. ​

In Australia, he was the International Wrestling Alliance's world heavyweight champion on four occasions between 1967 and 1969 and the NWA Austra-Asian champion in 1974. He also won the Brass Knuckles title on three occasions in 1974 and once in 1977.

Mario wrestled in many countries: throughout South America, the US, Canada, Hong Kong, Korea, New Zealand, Japan and South Africa, and all over Australia, including regional centres and towns. A highlight of his career was wrestling one of his idols, Lou Thesz. He lost, but said it was a real education. 

In 1997, I had the pleasure of meeting Mario several times at his home and recording his story for the National Library's Oral History collection, when I was living in St Albans. Mario lived nearby and was working in a factory at the time, while also still occasionally wrestling on the local scene at the age of 62.

Mario Bulfone was born in Udine, Italy on May 15, 1935. As with many other Italians leaving Europe after World War II, he first went to Venezuela. He worked with his father Vittorio in an upholstery business. His mother, Olimpia, died when Mario was one year old. 

Mario himself was a sickly baby and not expected to survive. He also fought shyness all his life; again, something hard to reconcile with his tall, muscular, confident charismatic persona in the wrestling ring. 

His wrestling career began in Caracas, about 1953, when he became the "Black Diablo", donning a mask because he was not of legal age to attend venues at night. He was trained by the Peruvian grappler Cicliaino, a decision made after trying out as a boxer and being knocked out by a much smaller competitor. 

Mario was  tall and handsome and destined to become a "face" (a wrestling industry term for "good guy").

On turning 21 in Caracas, he was able to remove his mask as he was now legal age. A match was arranged in which he agreed to do away with the mask if he lost. Thirty thousand Venezuelans turned up for the fight at the Nuevo Circo de Caracas. 

A big break came when promoter Blacky Guzman gave him opportunities in Tennessee. Guzman insisted that Bulfone wasn't a catchy ring name, and changed it to Milano. Mario also learned to speak English.

With his US visa about to expire in 1967, he responded to Jim Barnett's invitation to join his Australian stable for a few months. Barnett needed an Italian hero to replace Italo-American Domenic DeNucci, who had returned to the US. 

There were more than 260,000 Italian migrants in Australia at this time and they filled the stadiums in Melbourne and Sydney to cheer on their hero. Mario thrilled his scores of thousands of fans by defeating Killer Kowalski for the IWA's World Heavyweight Championship in September that year. The "few months" eventually became a permanent settlement. 

He was the perfect performer, with skill and charisma, and excellent at reading the crowds. In the wrestling business, it's all about "generating heat", and Mario was without peer among the "faces". His winning submission hold, the Abdominal Stretch, was inspired by a photo he saw in a magazine of an old Russian wrestler applying it. His is the most enduring name of the golden age of televised wrestling in Australia. He met many other greats in the ring, such as Bulldog Brower, Cyclon Negro, Skull Murphy, Ripper Collins, The Spoiler, Tiger Singh, Killer Karl Kox, Brute Bernard, Waldo Von Erich and Toru Tanaka. 

He sometimes wrestled four times a week. In one year in the mid-1970s he only spent three weeks at home. The stresses on family life were great and his first two marriages ended in divorce. 

Pro-wrestling was huge business, with the televised bouts creating the dynamic for grudge matches at Festival Hall and other stadiums. It was no coincidence that the Ford Motor Company would advertise jobs – usually for "process workers" – during the wrestling on GTV-9. 

The postwar migrants of Italy and Greece were the show's most loyal supporters. One didn't need a good grasp of English to understand the pantomime in the ring, and it was terrific for those of us who were also migrants (in my case Maltese dad, English mum) to have heroes such as Mario and, of course, Spiros Arion, "the Golden Greek" for the Greeks.

The Maltese had Baron Mikel Scicluna. The Lebanese were catered for, too, with Sheik Wadi Ayoub. There was even a "Hungarian freedom fighter", Czaya Nandor. But Mario Milano was special. Anyone who watched the wrestling back then will never forget him. His name is recalled even by those who weren't wrestling fans. The heat he generated still hovers in the air for the hundreds of thousands who experienced it. 

He is survived by his wife Irene, daughters Olimpia and Breanna and, from previous marriages, Mario, Chris, Vic and Nina, and five grandchildren

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Barry York, 'Milano, Mario (1935–2016)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/milano-mario-27058/text34531, accessed 28 May 2022.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2022

Mario Milano, by Barry York, 1997

Mario Milano, by Barry York, 1997

National Library of Australia, 13838735

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Bulfone, Mario
Birth

15 May, 1935
Udine, Italy

Death

9 December, 2016 (aged 81)
Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Occupation