There are many talented educators who have earned accolades in fields other than education. This is the case with Angelo Poffo, a physical education teacher from Chicago, Illinois, who had already established a reputation as a professional wrestler.
Angelo was born April 10, 1925, in Downers Grove, Illinois, the son of Italian immigrants. When he first started school, Angelo spoke no English. “I remember, my first day, it got to be around noon, and I didn’t know what was going on, so I went home,” he once said. “That didn’t go over real well.” At school, young Angelo got tough in a hurry, learning to defend himself from kids who picked on him. But his immigrant parents were strict and overprotective. They insisted that he stay at home to study and do chores, and forbade him from working out in the high school gym or playing sports.
After his high school graduation, Angelo enrolled at DePaul University in Chicago. As a young man, he thought that baseball was going to be his ticket to success. He earned a spot on the university baseball team as a catcher. “My catching was good and everything, but my hitting was bad. So I had to give it up,” recalled Angelo. At DePaul, Angelo studied physical education and played competitive chess. Before being hit by a baseball and getting plate-shy, he played ball with George Mikan, who would later become the first big NBA star. DePaul is also where Angelo met his wife, Judy Sverdlin. The pair married on June 6, 1949, and had two sons, Randy and Lanny. Both of Angelo’s sons also became professional wrestlers.
During World War II, Angelo served his country in the US Navy. The first time he saw the weight room, he remembered, he felt like a kid again. “I thought I was in heaven,” he once said. As a 24-year-old pharmacist mate, his unit was stationed at the Naval Destroyer Base in San Diego. Angelo hit the gym for hours on end, sculpting his 6-foot, 200-pound physique. On July 4, 1945, the young sailor set a world record of 6,033 sit-ups in four hours, ten minutes. “Somebody did about 5,000 and his abdominal aorta broke and he died. So I did 6,000 and I was so happy that I was still alive, I did 33 more sit-ups, one for each year of Jesus Christ’s life,”Angelo once recalled. He became an instant celebrity on the base, and word soon spread beyond the Navy. Ripley’s Believe It Or Not showcased his achievement in their newspaper strip and presented him with a gold belt emblazoned with his record.
After his discharge from the Navy, Angelo launched a 35-year career as a professional wrestler. He was strong and determined, and it turned out he was a natural. First came billings at small events and carnivals. During the 1950’s, his fights were televised on the DuMont network, but much of his time was spent on dreary long-distance drives. On one trip, he drove former boxing champ Joe Louis, who had become a wrestling referee, to a match in Minnesota. They stopped at a restaurant, but Louis was refused service because he was black. Angelo brought dinner back to the car so Louis could eat. But as a pro wrestler, Angelo’s crowning achievement came December 27, 1958, when he dethroned Wilbur Snyder for the U.S. TV Title in Cincinnati.
When Angelo decided to retire from professional wrestling, he accepted a position as a physical education teacher and wrestling coach in Chicago. “I was just getting older,” he admitted. “I saved all my money and I was happy with the money I got,” he recalled. “Then I started teaching school in Chicago, physical education.”
In 1995, Angelo Poffo was inducted into the World Championship Wrestling Hall of Fame. On March 4, 2010, this dedicated educator, talented athlete, and US veteran passed away at the age of 84.