Every week, the Masked Man, Deadspin's pro wrestling correspondent, honors the sport's fallen and examines their legacies — famous and obscure alike. Today: Dino Bravo, who was shot to death on March 11, 1993, in his Laval, Quebec, home.
The phrase "Canadian Strongman" might strike one as an oxymoron. We're more used to hearing things like "Canadian funnyman" or, say, "Canadian New Yorker writer." But although Dino Bravo — né Adolfo Bresciano — was certainly one of Canada's brawniest sportsmen, he was also part of the great Canadian diaspora that for decades has been a pipeline of wrestling talent to American audiences. Actually, Bravo was archetypal of a slightly outmoded sort of bad-guy wrestler in a number of ways — the bleached hair, the procession of weaselly managers, the my-buddy's-strong-dad physique. That he died in such a theatrically violent (but very real) bad-guy sort of way was both a grim coincidence and a lesson in the happy unreality of professional wrestling.
Bravo had a long run as a fan favorite in his home country (or adopted home, I guess; Bresciano was born in Italy), where he was renowned as a high flyer and mat technician (and, apparently, a sort of '70s playboy). But the WWF-era Bravo — his short but sweet moment of stateside celebrity — was older and so bulked-up that his ring prowess was reduced to lumbering clotheslines and a sloppy side suplex that he used as a finisher. He initially replaced Brutus "The Barber" Beefcake as Greg "The Hammer" Valentine's tag team partner after Beefcake saw the light and left his evildoer partner behind. Sadly, this tag work was just about the apex of Bravo's competitive WWF career. He achieved his highest marks from that point on more from spectacle than from in-ring endeavor. At the 1988 Royal Rumble, he famously, and phonily, bench-pressed a then-world record 715 pounds — with the none-too-subtle help of Jesse "The Body" Ventura. Bravo was a legitimate toughman — estimates of his actual bench-pressing capability range from 500 to 675 pounds — but through the distorting lens of pro wrestling television, he was turned into a farce, a sideshow muscleman with Styrofoam dumbbells.
The WWF announcers certainly served the role of carnival barker — billing him at various times as "Canadian Strongman," "Canada's Strongest Man," and "The World's Strongest Man," depending on how imposing he was supposed to seem at the time.
After an ongoing beef with Don Muraco and a seemingly never-ending rivalry with "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan, Bravo found what would be his greatest infamy in a short feud with The Ultimate Warrior that introduced the world to the monstrous Canadian Earthquake (later known at various times as Avalanche, The Shark, Golga, and by his real name, John Tenta), a dead wrestling icon in his own right. Earthquake's debut was nothing short of wrestling gold. Bravo and then-manager Jimmy Hart purported to pull the 6-foot-7, 400-plus-pound behemoth from the audience "at random." (Earthquake was "inconspicuously" dressed in tight bluejeans and a snug blue polo shirt, which in retrospect was somehow more lewd than the spandex singlet that he would later wear.) Then he sat on the backs of Bravo and The Warrior for a push-up contest.
The angle was so successful that it rocketed Earthquake to the position of top heel in the WWF, taking on not just The Warrior but Hulk Hogan, too, and Bravo was relegated to the role of Earthquake's attaché, his moral support, or, more often than not, the guy that Hogan would beat up to get the fans cheering. After that feud ended, Bravo's WWF career didn't last much longer, though I'm not sure anybody noticed at the time.
So when a midcarder falls, does he make a sound? The answer, sadly, is no, or at least not much of one. There was certainly a glass ceiling for villainous wrestlers in the Hulk Hogan era of the late '80s — almost to a man, Hogan's adversaries were monstrous goliaths (Earthquake, Andre the Giant, King Kong Bundy, Zeus) or good friends turned bad (Paul Orndorff, Randy Savage). Once a wrestler like Bravo made it into the spotlight — which is to say, once he shared a ring with Hogan — his fate was all but sealed.
After his career with the WWF, Bravo turned to training wrestlers back home in Canada. This is a fairly common post-ring pursuit, but even that career usually won't last too long. It's their first non-wrestling job that's usually hardest for recovering grapplers to find. Some work, perhaps not surprisingly, as car salesmen or real estate agents. Some, like Ventura, go into politics. Some go into the ministry. Bravo supposedly found a second career in organized crime. The details are sketchy (as is often the case with things having to do with organized crime and the backstage of professional wrestling). We know that Bravo was killed in a hail of bullets while watching television in his Laval mansion. Seventeen empty shell casings were found on the floor near the chair; seven slugs hit Bravo in the head. He was 44 years old. The story goes that he had been involved in a cigarette smuggling ring, and, if Bret Hart's autobiography is to be believed, Bravo knew that the end was approaching in the days leading up to his murder.
Wrestlers work without a net, and they work as independent contractors — even for the WWF — without a union or much in the way of contract security or retirement plans. And so it was a sad end even for a smarmy, musclebound scoundrel. In a way, that underscores the difference between fake TV violence and real-world brutality — we can boo you on TV and still mourn you when you're gone — and I guess it proves that my parents were wrong all along: I do know the difference between the two.
So we bid you farewell, Dino Bravo. For a brief moment, you made it to the top, which is all that just about anybody can say.
The Masked Man works in publishing.