D: Joe D'Orazio
(Also known as Kito Tani)
There can be few fans of wrestling that did not know Joe D'Orazio. Maybe not all were fully aware of his place in our wrestling heritage, a place equalled by few and exceeded by none. For most he is remembered first and foremost as the dapper referee who kept control of thousands of contests and was a familiar figure on televised wrestling. Those a bit older recall a popular and skilled wrestler, or a wrestling promoter, a journalist, artist, poet, and most recently of all a founder, organiser and Life President of the British Wrestlers Reunion. Some just knew the delight of sharing time with a gentle, knowledgeable man at the annual reunion.
Joe D'Orazio did it all, and probably more besides. He was a man known, respected and friend of colleagues and fans around the world. One of those friends, going back more years than most, was Tony Scarlo. Tony was quite a few years younger than Joe, but knew him from his earliest memories and became friends in adulthood. Joe and Tony's familiy lived in the same neighbourhood and told us, "He went to school with my uncle Johnny, Steve Logan, referee and MC Harry Geoghegan, and also my father, who was older than the rest and in a more senior class, but they all went to King & Queen Street School in Walworth South London. Later when I was about 9 years old I was a regular visitor to Joe's fish & chip shop in the Old Kent Road." The chip shop had been started by Joe’s father and was just around the corner from where his grandfather, Old Joe, had owned a chip shop in Tower Bridge Road.
Joe was born in Bermondsey on 27th July, 1922. Giusseppe Augusto Antonio Loreto Mario Scala was the name on the birth certificate, so it's little surprise that he shortened it for wrestling purposes. One of Joe's school friends was a lad called John Logeland. That's a name which may not mean a lot to readers, but once we tell you he changed his name to Steve Logan it will seem more significant. Joe and John (or Steve) became the best of friends, a friendship that was to last until the latter's death in 2003. Another friend, a cousin no less, was Mike Harrison. Mike was to become known to wrestling fans as Mike Marino. Mike turned professional wrestler shortly after the war, a trip to Australia by Steve delayed his start, but it is clear that the environment in which Joe was brought up was one that was steeped in wrestling culture.
Wrestling may have been all around him but wasn't Joe's main sporting interest in his teenage years. Following service in the Royal Air Force during the war Joe was drawn towards judo and joined the South London Judo Society (later London Judo Society) in Kennington. Meanwhile cousin Mike was starting out wrestling and encouraged Joe to get involved. It didn't take too much encouragement as Joe was soon wrestling professionally. Precisely when that first pro match took place we cannot be sure. 1948 against New Zealand's Russ Bishop has been cited in a number of places. Well, that may be half true but no more. If it was 1948 the opponent was not Russ as he arrived in Britain in November, 1949. Such a detail is not important as we do know that by 1950 Joe was a popular wrestler receiving regular bookings around southern England. Opponents included Bob Archer O'Brien, Tommy Mann and The College Boy.
In October, 1950 the Western Daily Press noted the black belt judoka credentials of Joe D'Orazio and went on to report, "Best bout of the evening was the meeting between Len Britton and the Italian Joe D'Orazio, a ju-jitsu expert who wrestled in his bare feet. Both men were fast and exceedingly clever, with many holds at their command."
In the late 1950s there was trouble in the ranks. Television was becoming popular on television, certain wrestlers were gaining national exposure and quite a few felt they were being overlooked and receiving neither credit or their fair dues from promoters who were counting their profits. In May 1958 wrestlers George Kidd, Eddie Capelli and Joe formed their own promotion, Matsport, working independently of the television syndicate Joint Promotions. They put on first rate shows around the country using big names such as Bert Assirati and Ray Hunter in addition to themselves.
At this time Joe took on a new identity, capitalising on his judo credentials. Former wrestler Al Tarzo takes up the story, "Al Tarzo told us: "I was booked to fight a Japanese guy named “Kito Tani.” I got into the ring and awaited the arrival of my opponent. Looking back into the hall I could see this guy coming in with a Kimono on and wearing raised wooden clogs on his feet, but as he got into the ring and I could get a good look at him, it looked like he had yellow jaundice. It turned out to be Joe D’Orazio."
Yes, hard though it might be to believe, Joe became a Japanese warrior for three years. A young Tony Scarlo, just starting out on his career told us of being signed up by Joe and Matsport for a tour to Scotland, Tony’s first long distance tour and the first time he had to stay away from home. "My first date started in Glasgow, then Greenock, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, and finishing in Dundee, George Kidd’s home town. During this trip I wrestled Kito Tani three times. What a hard man, but then we were all hard, you had to be to survive, not like today’s wrestlers. Who was Kito Tani? Well Joe D'Orazio of course.”
Matsport Promotions continued until the end of 1961 when the wrestlers returned to the Joint Promotions fold. Whilst working within the independent circuit Joe had also taken up refereeing duties, which he now continued for Dale Martin Promotions. There was another dimension to Joe's varied career when he succeeded Charles Mascall in the Dale Martin publicity department. Joe penned much of the Dale Martin promotional material under the name of Bob Scala, and co-authored “The Who’s Who of Wrestling,” a book of pen portraits of many big names.
It is as an unobtrusive, that is the best sort of, referee that most fans now remember Joe. Usually dressed in a black t-shirt but occasionally spruced up as at the Royal Albert Hall where he became resident referee from 1968 and throughout the seventies.
Another dimension to Joe, and in no short measure, was Joe as a prolific poet. In 1971 the "wrestling poet" was featured in the London Weekend Television Arts show, Aquarius.
So, wrestler, promoter, referee, Master of Ceremonies, stunt man, poet, publicist. What else could Joe do? Well, something for which fans of the golden age would be forever grateful. With the first two attempts at forming a Wrestlers Reunion having proved less than successful Joe was called in. He got things sorted. Joe found a more suitable venue, designed an invitation, paid (along with Tony Scarlo) for the stamps and, hey presto, success.It became the biggest Wrestlers Reunion outside of the United States, and Joe D'Orazio was the first and only Life President.
Joe D'Orazio died on 9th March, 2022.
Ken Sowden, the organiser of the British Wrestlers Reunion told us: "Joe was the last of the great legends of wrestling and was ever present through its golden years. Joe was very instrumental in the careers of many wrestlers and was one of the great referees ever to step into the ring once his own wrestling career had ended. Until January Joe was the one and only President of The British Wrestlers Reunion and it was his final wish that the Reunion in its known form end when it left The Bridges earlier this year when Joe decided to retire from his role."
26/07/2020 Page added
26/07/2021 Page revised
10/03/2022 Page revised