New York Post – March 16, 1977
By Paul Pucciarelli
Antonino Rocca, who once said he possessed the “secret of life” and would live to be 100, is dead at 49.
Rocca, one of the most famous and well-loved wrestlers in the world, died yesterday at Roosevelt Hospital where he was admitted two weeks ago for a urinary infection. The exact cause of death is not known, pending an autopsy today.
Rocca, who often slept more than 12 hours a day and sometimes for as much as 30 straight hours before a match, claimed he would live to be 100. “And why not,” he once said: “Next to good blood circulation, the secret of life is rest. I expect to live to be at least 100.”
“Next to Milton Berle, Rocca sold more TVs in the country than anyone else,” Vince McMahon Sr., a former promoter and close friend of Rocca, said last night from his Florida home. “He was wrestling on five different TV stations at that time. There was never a more likeable and more personable fellow in sports. There was nothing phony about Tony.”
Rocca’s bouts in the old Garden with the Graham brothers, Dick Carpentier, the Kangaroos and Killer Kowalski constantly drew full houses. And when the fans got out of hand, it took only a few words from their idol to cool them off. “My fans, they obey me,” Rocca once said. “I can start a riot or stop one. But I’d rather stop them.”
Always direct and outspoken, Rocca had an incredible rapport with the fans. And he was as comfortable with senators and kings as he was in the poverty-stricken reaches of Spanish Harlem. He was never at a loss for time from his busy schedule when it came to visiting hospitals, giving lectures at local CYO, PAL or YMCA functions.
“I am their hero,” he once said of the city’s Spanish-speaking population. “Poor people identify with me. I wrestle and I beat a bad, bad man and they are glad.”
His integrity was legendary. He once spent $122 to fly from Jacksonville, Fla., to appear in a Brooklyn court for a traffic summons. The judge, a wrestling fan, was so impressed with Rocca’s honesty he dropped the charge. “I was worried,” said Rocca. “I would have rather wrestled 10 men than go before a judge.”
Rocca, who had his legs insured for $250,000, earned $1 million in the ring and enjoyed the finer things in life. He was an impeccable dresser, and except for a cauliflower ear and a too-prominent nose showed little wear and tear from more than 4,000 bouts.
Rocca was born in Trevisa, Italy, on April 13, 1927, and at age 15 moved with his family to Buenos Aires. It was there he developed his unorthodox style of wrestling barefoot.
“I was poor,” he once said. “I didn’t have enough money to buy shoes. I wrestled barefoot. By being barefoot I get a better grip on an opponent and have better balance.” A size 13 1/2 E foot didn’t hurt, either.
After graduating from Rosario University in 1949 with a degree in electrical engineering, he came to this country and got a grip on the American wrestling public.
Rocca, also a fine rugby player, was introduced to wrestling by touring Russian wrestler Kola Kwariani in Argentina in 1945. Later when Kwariani became a matchmaker he sent for Rocca. In his peak years, Rocca, who was later to be called Argentina and Tony to his many followers, was earning more than $100,000 a year. He once had a string of 1,000 straight wins.
He retired from the ring in 1967 and had been working as a commentator for a TV wrestling show.
Rocca is survived by his second wife, Joyce, and their three children, Natella, 13; Antonino Mark, 11, and Eric Timothy, 8.
The body will repose at Campbell’s Funeral Home, 81st St. and Madison Avenue. Last night his widow had a word for his fans.
“I expect to have clergymen from all denominations,” she said. “It will be kind of an international service. Please tell his fans to wait until Thursday to come. I know how many, many fans Antonino had. So many people loved him.”