Pro wrestling star Ilio DiPaolo's legacy continues to live on

Ilio DiPaolo made his mark as a professional wrestler, and later as a successful restaurateur and civic leader.

Ilio DiPaolo was one of pro wrestling's most popular and revered performers during the '50s and '60s, particularly in his home area of Buffalo, N.Y., where he established a family Italian eatery after retiring from the business in 1965.

The charismatic DiPaolo would later gain even more acclaim as a restaurateur and civic leader, giving more back to his community than perhaps any other in the long history of sports in Buffalo. As respected as DiPaolo was as a wrestler, the gentle giant would ultimately be defined more by his generosity and the size of his heart.

Tragically, though, the 68-year-old DiPaolo was killed in 1995 after being struck by a car while crossing the street during a torrential downpour on his way to a restaurant. Following his death, DiPaolo's oldest son, Dennis DiPaolo, took over operation of Ilio DiPaolo's Restaurant and Ringside Lounge.

The DiPaolo family learned their lessons well from their father. For more than 50 years, three generations have worked to keep the restaurant, which started as a pizzeria with only four employees, as one of the landmarks of upstate New York. There are now more than 100 employees, and the 12,000-square-foot building has undergone 18 expansions.

“As our family grew and the staff grew, business grew along with everything else,” says Dennis DiPaolo, 60. “We cater, do weddings and have a banquet hall that holds 300 and a restaurant that holds 150. We have a lounge and outside courtyard. There are a lot of families to feed out here.”

Last year the family held a 50th anniversary alumni dinner to thank former employees for helping to build the business into a Western New York tradition.

They also have made sure that the memory of Ilio DiPaolo lives on and continues to shine brightly.

The wrestler-turned-restauranteer firmly believed that education, athletics and community involvement were essential for success. Warm and gregarious with an old school work ethic, DiPaolo campaigned vigorously for a number of charitable causes and was well known for his humanitarian efforts.

He also understood the value of an education. DiPaolo went only as far as the fifth grade in his small Italian hometown.

“You had to go to the big city to get a high school education back then,” says son Dennis. “This was right after the war. You had to work to eat. He ended up working all the time.”

Known as the “Hercules” of the town, DiPaolo parlayed his strength and athletic ability into a professional wrestling career after leaving Italy at the age of 19.

Success didn't come easy for the athlete. But it was pro wrestling, says Dennis DiPaolo, that opened many doors for his father.

“Pro wrestling set the stage for my dad. Pro wrestling is what got him into this country.”

And Ilio DiPaolo never forgot his roots.

“America was a dream for my father,” says Dennis DiPaolo. “For him the streets were lined with gold. The Buffalo community and the people around the country embraced him. People brought him into their homes.”

And when his wrestling career wound down in the mid-'60s, it was DiPaolo who invited them into his home.

“He believed in giving back to the community as much as you could. He knew there always had to be an end game, and that he couldn't wrestle forever. He never wanted to be hungry like he was in Italy, so he opened up a restaurant. Once he made Buffalo his home, he built his restaurant on a handshake agreement. That was 53 years ago.”

DiPaolo's thriving business was literally built from the ashes. A fire in a laundromat next to the original restaurant temporarily put the family out of business. But, like many other setbacks DiPaolo experienced during his life, he persevered. He secured a loan and built a new pizzeria where the lounge is today.

From those simple roots blossomed a charitable movement that has raised more than one million dollars. But when Ilio died tragically in 1995, family members wondered how the famous restaurant would survive. It was as though the heart of the family unit — and even the city — had been cut out. Buffalo loved Ilio DiPaolo, and he had always loved them back.

“We didn't know where we were going to go with the restaurant and the business when he died,” recalls Dennis DiPaolo.

Ilio was the patriarch of an “extended family” that included thousands of Western New Yorkers and a long list of Buffalo Bills. He was a good-luck charm for the team, and his Old World Italian restaurant had become a second home for many players, coaches and front-office personnel.

It was Ilio DiPaolo's pleasant demeanor and warm hospitality that brought people in from all parts of the country.

And now it was gone.

Or was it?

Dennis DiPaolo remembered something his father had told him after another tragic death in the family several years earlier when Ilio's daughter and granddaughter were killed in an automobile accident.

“You've got to carry on and carry a good light into the community,” Ilio told his son. “No family is exempt from tragedy.”

“And it was so true,” says Dennis. “Every family goes through it. You've got to be able to carry on for the rest of your community and the rest of your family.”

And that's just what the DiPaolos did.

Former Buffalo Bills star quarterback Jim Kelly, a close friend of Ilio, was among the first to offer assistance. “Jim loved my dad,” says Dennis, noting that the two once held an all-day bocce tournament at Kelly's home. And it was at DiPaolo's restaurant that the Hall of Fame quarterback popped the question to future wife Jill.

“My dad was like a second father to Jim,” says DiPaolo. “Jim would love hearing wrestling stories about my dad. They'd have a ball.”

Kelly and longtime Bills head athletic trainer Bud Carpenter helped launch a scholarship fund in the elder DiPaolo's memory. Kelly immediately collected $10,000 from his teammates to make the idea a reality. Soon the entire community rallied around the close-knit family.

“It's remarkable how the whole community embraced him,” says Dennis DiPaolo.

A local sportscaster gave the family some perspective.

“It had to happen this way,” he told Dennis. “Your father was too great a man to go out being sick with an illness. He had to go out in a tragic way to bring attention to what his goal was.”

“Only thing is,” adds Dennis, “at that time we didn't know what that goal was. Jim Kelly came up with the goal, and that was to help the community with a scholarship fund.”

That was 20 years ago, and in that time funds have gone to a plethora of charitable and worthy causes, most notably handicapped and mentally disadvantaged children.

His dad, says DiPaolo, had a special connection with children. He never forgot what his father once told him.

“When those kids close their eyes, you are their hero. Even though they might be in a wheelchair, they know their heroes.”

As a youngster, DiPaolo remembers his father routinely signing autographs for fans after shows.

“He signed autographs before the matches and even after the matches. He would get dressed, and all the people would be waiting outside the locker room. He'd sign all their autographs. It was his way of giving back to the people. I once asked him if he ever got tired of signing autographs. He told me: 'You gotta take care of these people ... because they take of you.' And that was so true.”

To that end, a scholarship in the community benefactor's name was established to award support to many Western New York athletes. In addition, DiPaolo's support of the less fortunate has continued with monetary contributions to a number of local charities.

Dick Beyer, who along with DiPaolo received the New York State Award from the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2003, is a major supporter of the family's scholarship fund.

“As a person, you could trust Ilio one hundred percent,” says Beyer. “On any particular project he was involved with, whether it was wrestling or cooking, he was always a man of his word.”

Beyer, 86, who as The Destroyer was one of the greatest masked wrestlers in the history of the sport, recalled DiPaolo's immense mat popularity during the '50s and '60s. DiPaolo toured Japan with Beyer, who was one of that country's biggest stars, but it was in DiPaolo's home territory where the Italian grappler gained most of his notoriety.

“Being Italian and being up here in Buffalo, which has some very big Italian neighborhoods, Ilio was hugely popular,” says Beyer. “Toronto also had a big Italian community, so you had two places where he could go and draw. Hamilton was nearby, and that also had a big Italian community.”

Beyer says he still frequents the restaurant at least once a week.

“It's a very good restaurant. Service is great. They just do a fantastic job.”

Dennis DiPaolo, who says Beyer has been like a “second father” to him since his dad's passing, also gives props to the local pro football team for their loyalty.

“The Bills have been very good to us through all the years. Even when they leave town, they still keep in touch. When they come back, it's pretty cool. They stop by and it's like old times again.”

The influence that Ilio DiPaolo had on his community has been far-reaching. Monuments were erected in his honor and awards have been plentiful, although he never was one to put much stock in that kind of recognition, says Dennis DiPaolo.

“He was more concerned about helping others. Wrestling had a lot to do with that. Wrestling keeps you rooted. It always keeps your feet on the ground. You work hard and you take care of the people around you to be successful.”

DiPaolo says he just smiles when friends ask him why he didn't follow his father's footsteps into the wrestling business.

“My father told me it's easier to feed 'em than beat 'em,” he laughs.

With wrestling as a backdrop, it's not surprising that one of the biggest charitable events is the annual Legend of the Aud, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this month.

A wrestling show on July 23 will highlight a weekend of fundraising activities. Proceeds will benefit Women & Children's Hospital in Buffalo, as well as the Ilio DiPaolo Scholarship Fund.

“Pro wrestling has been very kind to my father and his wrestling legend,” says Dennis DiPaolo. “Still carries a lot of honor for the business, and giving back to the fans is what wrestlers do.”

The inaugural tribute show, which was held in 1996 and was the final event ever at Buffalo's Memorial Auditorium, featured a combination of wrestling legends and contemporary stars from the now-defunct WCW.

Legends such as Bruno Sammartino, Dick “The Destroyer” Beyer, Tony Parisi and Dominic DeNucci were in attendance along with a star-studded WCW lineup that included Ric Flair, Randy Savage, Sting, Lex Luger and Diamond Dallas Page. The event, which DiPaolo credits Gary Juster and the late Zane Brezloff with helping coordinate, drew more than 15,000 fans and raised more than $100,000 for Children's Hospital and the DiPaolo Scholarship Fund. Promoters said the gate of more than $190,000 was a Buffalo wrestling record. It also led to future shows and a partnership with WCW that brought nationally televised matches and pay-per view events.

This year's two-day gala will feature special appearances by former WCW head Eric Bischoff, Jimmy Hart, The Nasty Boys and Lanny Poffo, along with Buffalo media members, current Buffalo Bills, Sabres and their alumni.

Others scheduled on the wrestling show include Shane Douglas, Ethan Page, Bill Collier, Blackjack Phoenix, The Apontè Twins, Team Canada and Tim Horner Jr.

The weekend will begin with a meet-and-greet at Coca-Cola Field during the Buffalo Bisons' Friday Night Bash prior to the July 22 game against Gwinnett. The activities will continue at 7 p.m. July 23 at Buffalo RiverWorks, where legends will make special appearances with members of Buffalo RiverWorks Wrestling providing the in-ring entertainment.

“Wrestling has been so great to our community,” says DiPaolo. “They're all excited again about coming back.”

Coming off his unanimous-decision victory over Mark Hunt at UFC 200, Brock Lesnar has been flagged by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency because of a potential out-of-competition violation.

Lesnar's test failure occurred before his UFC bout on July 9. It was his first fight back in five years since retiring from UFC in 2011. The UFC said Friday it was notified by the USADA of the potential violation stemming from a sample collection on June 28.

USADA, as is its policy, did not release the name of the substance Lesnar tested positive for.

The former UFC heavyweight champ reportedly brushed off doping accusations in a media conference call before his recent fight, saying, “I'm a white boy and I'm jacked. Deal with it.”

It is unknown whether the drug-testing result will affect his standing with WWE. Lesnar, 39, is scheduled to return to the ring against Randy Orton on Aug. 21 at the Summer Slam pay-per-view.

Former WWE star Carlito (Carly Colon) will make his first Old School Championship Wrestling appearance on July 31 at the group's “Summer Heat Wave” event.

Also featured will be former WWE star Gangrel and PWX champion John Skyler.

Bell time is 5 p.m. Doors open at 4:30.

General admission is $10 (cash); kids 12 and under $5.

For more information, call 843-743-4800 or visit oscwonline.com.

Reach Mike Mooneyham at bymikemooneyham@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter at @ByMike Mooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham.