“Yeah, I met him when he was in his early forties and starting to go into his semi-active retirement. He would take a couple of tours of Japan every year and do one or two big shows in New York, and if someone in Quebec was really persuasive he would do a show or two here, plus he would sometimes do a tour of the Maritimes because he owed Cowboy Leblanc a favour or two and he really liked lobster.
But mostly he ran his school out of the basement of the Roman Catholic Church in Parc X. Not that he made a huge amount of money doing that, but he didn’t pay rent either and he used to tell me he could make enough in one short tour of Japan to keep him going for a year. The advantage of the short tours of Japan too was that he could come in and play the monster for most of the tour, do no or very little bumping because he was just slaughtering people and it was only in the last match where some hero finally stood up to the monster that he would actually have to eat any offence and risk getting hurt or putting wear and tear on his knees and his back.”
“The thing I never understood about Brava is why he set up shop in Montreal,” Little Petey wonders aloud.
“Because he was from here?”
“He was born in New York City,” insists Little Petey.
“Sure, the same way that all the German heels were from Berlin. He was an Italian monster. If he didn’t come from Italy, he had to come from New York. Maybe Chicago or Las Vegas, but in the Fifties, he had to come from New York.”
“Mario Brava was a war hero, an American war hero; he got a medal, medals. I have the articles!” persists Little Petey.
“Do those articles talk about how he survived a scare with polio as a young child?”
“Yeah. That’s well documented,” admits Little Petey cautiously.
“Didn’t it ever make you wonder how a kid that survived polio ended up nearly seven feet tall and strong as an ox, with legs that looked like stone pillars?
There were two Mario Bravas. One was born Peter Brava here in Montreal. His cousin Mario was born in New York City, had polio, and walked with a cane. His cousin Peter never had polio, grew up strong as a bull. By the time he was fifteen he was six feet tall, two-fifty. This is in the middle of the Second World War. The local Army and Navy recruiters knew that he was underage, really underage, and wouldn’t take him until he was at least sixteen, so Peter went to New York, took the identity of his cousin who was three years older and they did look like each other, from the neck up at least.
So as “Mario Brava”, Peter Brava enlists in the Army and ends up in Easy Company, this monstrous Italian kid who can carry a two man machine gun by himself; this huge monster of a man who can’t even shave yet, killing Germans with his bare hands some times, while still home-sick for Montreal and his Mother’s cooking. I remember watching “Band of Brothers” with Mario before he passed and he could tell you what real people got used for what characters, usually they would take the lives of two or three guys and combine them into one character.
Same thing with the comics. Mario always claimed that the character “Bulldozer” from the Sgt. Rock comics was based on him and an Irish guy in Easy Company combined together into one comic book character.
Mario’s best friend in the Army was this fast talking Jewish kid, who was somehow related to the Kennedy wrestling family, despite the fact that they were Irish, and the Kennedy’s ran wrestling on the North-East, so when the war is over, Ralphie Levin shows up to visit the Kennedys with his best friend who is Italian, nearly seven feet tall and can bench-press a Buick and Mario is wearing a wrestling singlet before he can say - Hello and how do you do.
The Kennedys built their fortune on his back. The thing of it was though that they made a decision very early on that they were not going to put a title on Mario. They figured that the money was in sending Mario from place to place as a monster, kicking ass and then moving around to the next territory. After the war, there was a sort of National organization for wrestling, but it was like a fig-leaf that covered up the fact that everyone had carved out a little piece for themselves. It was like the Mafia, every family had their piece of the pie, the Johnsons in the South, the Garrisons in Texas, the Ryans in Minnesota, the Grants in California, the Carsons in Florida.
The Kennedy big advantage was that they had Mario and could send him wherever they wanted. You have a big blond hero that is tearing it up in Miami? Send him to New York with your best tag team and you get Mario to visit for a month. The problem for Mario was that it meant that he was on the road all the time. So, he started socking his money away. When it cam to money, Mario was the tightest man that I ever saw. He would never pay for what he could get free. The church basement was the perfect example. There were plenty of bigger, brighter, nicer places that he could have had to run a gym, but the Church basement was free, as long as he took on a few delinquents like me.
In every town that he went to, Mario would have a family who would feed him and give him a room. To keep from paying for a hotel. Besides that, staying at a hotel was always problematic because everything was always too small. Mario somehow found all of these families, of fans, of football players, of wrestlers, who had beds big enough for him, showers big enough for him, cars big enough for him. It meant that his life was never private, but at the same time, in a weird way it protected his privacy. If he had stayed at a hotel, all the fans would know where he was and would stake out the lobby. By giving one family total access to him, he had better privacy, because they guarded his secrets and kept his presence in their home a secret to protect their own privacy as much as his.
Still, after twenty years of roaming the world for the Kennedys, Mario had had enough and came back to the only city where - some - people still called by his real name, Peter.
“To open a wrestling school?” asks Little Petey.
“The funny thing is, everyone remembers Mario as this fake monster, this Gentle Giant. They tell stories about his ability to eat and to drink, especially to drink – the way that he would order three bottles of wine at a restaurant and then ask what everyone else was drinking – that sort of thing. No one really remembers that he was a sound technical wrestler, but that may be because that it was only in Japan that he ever had to prove that.
So, even though people don’t remember him as being this really sound technical wrestler, he had it and he could teach it to others.
See, Ralphie had grown up in that wrestling background and he taught him the basics when he could in Europe and then when the War was over, he started finding other people to train him. And Mario was always like a sponge. I mean, he took me with him to Japan a couple of times when I was in my teens, and he would watch EVERYBODY. Someone did something new in the ring and the minute they got backstage, Mario would be hounding them to show them what they had done. Guy goes out, works his ass off for thirty minutes in the ring and he does one little minute submission variation and Mario would be on him like a vulture once he walked through the curtain. And of course, no one was going to say no to Mario. Not in Japan.
He was a good teacher because he always kept learning himself.
When I met him, his spine was just starting that curve that became pronounced later. He was huge, six eight, six nine, but his shoulders were so broad that you could believe it when people said that he was seven feet tall. He was fat, but his fat was somehow muscular. Even with his gut, he looked like he had been carved from marble. He was never flabby. His students used to joke that you could break your hand chopping Mario across the chest.
He was very amused that this little eight year old Italian/Greek kid was his first reclamation project. “Billy the Kid” he called me.”
“He started training you at eight?” asks Little Petey, a touch incredulous.
“What? Are you fucking nuts? No, my job was to keep the gym clean, to put back and set up the equipment that the wrestlers left lying around. Pick up all the towels, clean the weights and exercise gear. As much as I could. I mean if a wrestler left the free weights all hooked up, I would have to dismantle the damn thing and move it piece by piece, weight by weight, because there was no way that I was moving the damn thing as a unit..”
“You didn’t bug him to train you?” Little Petey presses.
“Sure I did. The deal that he had with me was that when I could do his entire stretching routine AND assemble the ring by myself, he would start to teach me some stuff.”
“In Quebec, your stretching routine is a legend for its brutality. I guess that it is based on Mario Brava’s?” Little Petey speculates.
“Based? It is his stretching routine. God Mario used to love putting people through that. You would bring in this football player or amateur wrestler who thought he was hot shit. Looking for Mario to train him and Mario would put him through this routine. They would always think that it was going to be a cakewalk because this fat guy is doing it with them right. I mean if this tub of lard can do it, how hard can it be right? And the routine would just go on and on and on and on. I mean Mario taught us to stretch muscles most people don’t even know that they have. And the routine was so calm, so unhurried that people would be lulled into thinking that this was easy you know, but after twenty minutes, thirty minutes, more, these athletes would find themselves at their limits begging for mercy… and that was before Mario started teaching them about how you could incapacitate someone with a well cinched hammer-lock or an arm-bar.
People always used to joke about the pain of being stretched by Mario, but the truth was that he had already done most of the stretching without ever laying a finger on his victims. The stretching in the ring was just the coda to the stretching routine before you know?
Still, if you were trained by Mario, the one thing that you could never say is that you got hurt in the ring because you were too tight or because you were unprepared.”
“So how long did it take you to master the stretching routine and get trained?”
“A long time. Better part of a couple of years. Still that was easy compared to assembling a wrestling ring single-handed. That was the real bitch.”