Joe D’Orazio, who died aged 99, was one of Britain’s last active professional wrestlers in the 1950s and a popular referee at the Royal Albert Hall.
Having started out as a jiu-jitsu practitioner, D’Orazio competed for several years as “Kito Tani”, a Japanese warrior who entered the ring wearing raised wooden clogs and a kimono. In this guise, his opponents included a young Tony Scarlo (“The Cockney Kid”) and Al Tarzo. In 1958, D’Orazio signed Scarlo to his own promotion, Matsport, which was formed as a rival to the television syndicate Joint Promotions.
At the same time, D’Orazio began to take on refereeing duties, presiding over staged bouts at Blenheim Palace and Olympia, and traveling further afield to Belgium and Jordan. He became resident referee at the Royal Albert Hall in 1968, after a back injury ended his time as an in-ring competitor. Known for his gentle but firm approach, he remained in the post for the next 20 years.
This sympathetic side was also manifested throughout a parallel career as an oil painter and poet. The “biff business bard” wrote hundreds of poems, scribbling ideas from the first lines on scraps of paper he kept in his pockets. His paintings sold well at exhibitions and he spent several years giving art lessons to adults with learning difficulties. His students have seen their work exhibited at the Royal Academy of Art and the South London Gallery.
He was born Giuseppe Augusto Antonio Loreto Mario Scala in Bermondsey on July 27, 1922, the son of Italian parents who owned a fish and chip shop on Old Kent Road. After the English Martyrs RC Primary School, he started working in demolition, clearing bombed buildings during the Blitz, then served for four years in the RAF.
After the war, he started judo lessons, earning a black belt in just over a year. He began wrestling with the encouragement of a cousin, light heavyweight Mike Marino, and by 1950 he was receiving regular bookings in the south of England.
He was initially hostile to the idea of working with Joint Promotions, then the dominant force in British wrestling, and preferred to compete in overseas tournaments. But he struggled to recruit the talent required for his own shows with Matsport, and later took up refereeing duties with Dale Martin Promotions in London.
Under the name Bob Scala, he worked in Dale Martin’s publicity department, writing promotional material and articles for magazines such as The Wrestler. In 1971 he published The Who’s Who of Wrestling (written with Pam Edwards), a series of short but vivid pen and ink portraits of such figures as John “Tiger” Delmonte and “Peerless” Pat Roach (likes: “winning money money”; dislikes: “losing money”).
At the peak of his in-ring career, D’Orazio was also in demand as a stuntman in such films as The Camp on Blood Island (1958) and Terror of the Tongs (1961). A favorite gig saw him play the stuntman role for J Carrol Naish in the crime drama series The New Adventures of Charlie Chan (1957). “Every time Charlie Chan fell down the stairs, it was me,” he recalls with some pride.
Later, Joe D’Orazio was heavily involved in organizing the British Wrestlers Reunion. The gathering of wrestlers and fans first took place in referee Mal Mason’s back garden. By the time D’Orazio stepped down as Reunion president in January this year, it had become the biggest event of its kind outside of America.
He and his wife Tina had two children.
Joe D’Orazio, born July 27, 1922, died March 9, 2022