The world of professional wrestling is one that is tainted by decades of tragedy. From the infamous double-murder and suicide committed by Chris Benoit to the murder of Bruiser Brody, the spectre of death has never been far away from the squared circle. Equally, rumours have always persisted of links between “the business” and the criminal underworld, with the likes of the Cosa Nostra and the Yakuza once having interests in professional wrestling in the United States and Japan respectively. At this intersection of wrestling and organised crime comes Dino Bravo, one of the World Wrestling Federation’s (WWF, now WWE) most notable stars of the 1980s. Bravo would be gunned down in his own home in 1993. Many link his still-unsolved murder to the Montreal criminal underworld.
Adolfo Bresciano was born in Campobasso, Italy, in 1948. Emigrating with his family to Canada, the Brescianos settled in the Centre-Sud district of Montreal. The neighbourhood was poor and working-class, and like many working-class immigrants, he turned to sport, training as an amateur wrestler from the age of 12. By the 1970s, Bravo was studying law at Sir George Williams College, yet his eyes turned instead toward a professional wrestling career, with Montreal having a significant legacy in the business. Taking the name “Dino Bravo” from a previous professional, he trained at Grand Prix Wrestling under Gino Brito, a personal friend and former tag-team champion in the then WWWF (later WWF and now WWE). Brito was well known in Montreal and well connected, undoubtedly opening doors for the young Italian, particularly when the two began to team together in a mentor-student grouping. His star would rise after little more than a year in wrestling, teaming with one of the greatest mat technicians of all-time Édouard Carpentier and the major attraction André the Giant.
The professional wrestling world of the 1970s was very different from the one of today, with none of the glitz and glamour associated with Vince McMahon’s WWE. Instead, the United States was divided into regional territories, mostly under the auspices of the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA). While each region would retain its own regular stars, they would also regularly rotate talent, meaning that wrestlers would often spend a short stint in one part of the country before moving on as a fresh face in another location. It was during a term at Jim Crockett promotions out of the Mid-Atlantic region that Bravo’s star would rise across the border, winning their version of the Tag Team Championships with “Mr Wrestling” Tim Woods. The team won the titles from the experienced Ole and Gene Anderson and Bravo was also involved in a major feud with the legendary Blackjack Mulligan. It was also during his time in Mid-Atlantic that he received his first shots at the NWA World Heavyweight Championship, the most prestigious belt in wrestling, fighting losing contests to the great Harley Race. With each six-month stint he spent in the United States, Bravo’s stardom would rise back home in Montreal.
Dino’s performances eventually earned him a push to the top of the card in Montreal, and by the end of the 1970s, he had become Canadian Heavyweight Champion. His popularity in the city made him a Canadian household name, with his fame equal to anyone in wrestling at the local level. His rising stardom also caught the eye of WWWF owner Vincent J. McMahon, father of current owner Vincent K. McMahon. Bringing in the young Canadian alongside Dominic DeNucci, the Italian tag team was a hit with New York crowds, the WWF’s home area. The duo would win the WWWF Tag Team Championships in March of 1978. However, this was a time of turmoil for the company, with the ageing McMahon nearing the end of his tenure as owner. In 1979, Vincent J. McMahon and his wife Linda founded their own company, Titan Sports. In 1982, they acquired control of the WWF.
Vince McMahon revolutionised professional wrestling in the 1980s and made a great many enemies doing so. Capturing the 1980s MTV and Cold War zeitgeist, McMahon presented a product taken out of low-quality local halls and into significant arenas. Unashamedly pro-American, the WWF moved away from displays of athleticism and instead offered a product based on over-exaggerated characters, storylines and the charisma of stars such as Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage and The Ultimate Warrior. The storylines were simple, often playing into national fears with the likes of the Iranian Iron Sheik and his Soviet partner Nikolai Volkoff. A mass merchandising machine brought in millions of dollars as wrestling eschewed blood and overt violence in favour of a child-friendly product. However, the immense success of the WWF came at a cost for hundreds of workers as McMahon aggressively expanded the former WWWF territory across the country, putting the old regions out of business, many forced to sell to the new game in town. One such territory was International Wrestling, the Montreal promotion that had been formed by Bravo, Gino Brito, Tony Mule and Frank Valois. After McMahon lured away the popular Rougeau Brothers and Rick Martel, the company collapsed, and Bravo ended up back in the WWF in 1985 for a short stint, leaving the next year.
Vince McMahon, an avid bodybuilder, had his favourite “look” for a superstar, that being the bigger, the better. In the era of Arnold Swartzangger and Slyvester Stallone, it sold. When Bravo returned again in 1987, he ensured that his physique matched McMahon’s vision, bulking up and dying his hair bleach blonde. Bravo would be allied on-screen with Greg “The Hammer” Valentine and Brutus Beefcake before returning to singles action and taking on a strongman gimmick. The gimmick was, again, more in line with what the WWF was looking for at the time, negating his technical skills in preference of big displays of power and strength. Bravo was said to be able to legitimately press over 500 pounds. Bravo would make appearances at each of the WWF’s major WrestleMania Pay-Per-Views between 1987 and 1991 and be on the card for the Madison Square Garden debut of the company’s second major event, SummerSlam.
Despite becoming a recognisable name in wrestling, Bravo wasn’t given an opportunity with a championship in the WWF besides the token “Canadian Championship” that he defended in the immediate aftermath of the WWF’s acquisition of International Wrestling. Following WrestleMania VII in 1991 he began to fall out of favour as his age caught up with him. Having recently feuded with Hulk Hogan and his partner Tugboat, Bravo was now in low card matches and often not featured at all. Some accounts say that Bravo had been considering jumping to the rival WCW promotion but didn’t want to move out of Canada. Instead, he decided to quietly retire from wrestling in April of 1992 at the age of 43. He planned to return to Montreal to work as a trainer, also becoming involved in the local boxing scene.
“Dino had painted himself in a corner. He tried to stay in the WWF, but he just couldn’t; Vince didn’t want to have him back. I remember I called [producer] Pat Patterson and I suggested that I team up with Dino — because I liked him.
I said, ‘I’ll take the bumps and do all the moving around, and he can do the strong stuff… I’m sure we can make it work, you know?’ He said, ‘No, no…we just think that Dino doesn’t fit any more in our plans…”
Rick Martel, Friend of Dino Bravo and then WWF Superstar
On March 10, 1993, Dino Bravo saw off his wife Diane and 6-year-old daughter from their $850,000 (now $1,500,000) home in an affluent section of Laval, Quebec. His daughter was attending ballet class, and Dino was left home alone. He last spoke with his wife around 9pm and was settling into watching the Montreal Canadiens vs New York Islanders ice hockey game. Arriving home at 12:20am on March 11, Diane and their daughter found Bravo shot to death in an easy chair, he had been shot seven times, including twice in the head. Thankfully, his daughter was asleep when the two arrived home, with Diane being treated for shock.
“He was so proud of that little girl. She was very close to him. He was over-protective toward her because he got her at such a late age. He used to take her skating and to ballet lessons. He felt bad when he had to leave her behind when he went out of town to wrestle.”
Gino Brito, Montreal Gazette
Montreal Police immediately began a significant investigation into the crime, noting that 17 shots had been fired in all from two different weapons, finding shells from semi-automatic .22 and .380 calibre guns in the living room. One of the stray bullets had broken a window, and the lack of anyone in the neighbourhood hearing a disturbance led to immediate speculation that the killers had used silenced weapons. They may have been professionals. One police officer on the scene was quoted in the media as saying: “whoever shot Bravo wanted to make damn sure that he was dead.”
There was no sign of a struggle in the house, no sign of forced entry and no evidence of robbery, with a large sum of cash found in place. It is believed that Bravo knew his killers and had perhaps even watched the hockey match with them. Over the years, details of the killing have become somewhat sensationalised, with the already large number of shots increased and claims made that Bravo was shot ten times in the head. Some contemporary sources suggest it was, in fact, seven shots to the head, perhaps accounting for the confusion.
There had long been rumours in the professional wrestling business that both Bravo and his friend Gino Brito had links to organised crime, with some even speculating the involvement of various Montreal wrestling offices they were involved in. Brito had been arrested for participation in a loan-shark ring just a few months before Bravo’s murder. Bravo himself had links to several people detained the previous week when over 1000 pounds of cocaine was seized by police, the drugs being smuggled in tomato cans. These links extend to the former wrestling star’s family, with Bravo’s own aunt being the wife of Vincenzo “Vic” Cotroni, also known as “The Egg”. Cotroni was the godfather of the Cotroni family who controlled part of the Montreal underworld, being an offshoot of the Bonanno family, one of New York’s “Five Families”. Bravo had even worked as a chauffeur for Paul Cotroni, another member of the family.
The Cotroni family are Calabrian and established their organisation in the 1940s, with their territory stretching across southern Quebec and Ontario at the height of their reach. In the 1970s, a civil war broke out between rival Calabrian and Sicilian branches of the family and the Sicilian Rizzuto family instead rose to prominence, becoming the leading mafia organisation in Montreal. In the 1950s, godfather Vic Cotroni worked extensively with New York’s Bonanno Family to make Montreal a centre for the import of heroin from overseas, planning to use the city to flood New York’s streets with the drug. After the violent war between the factions, Vic’s brother Frank Cotroni emerged to lead the Calabrian section following the death of the family patriarch.
Dino Bravo’s murder came as part of a series of killings linked to the mafia in Laval, with two others killed in the nine months before Bravo’s assassination. Both of those killed had extensive links to organised crime, with one being known to be involved in cigarette trafficking. The killing shocked ordinary Canadians, with Bravo’s shady dealings known to few outside of criminal circles, the police and wrestling insiders. Following the murder, however, these links began to spread across the Canadian Press, with Bravo being linked to the same cigarette trafficking ring that had already claimed lives. Quoting an anonymous source, the Montreal Gazette claimed police had found evidence in Bravo’s home that implicated him as being involved in the ring.
“Dino liked the high lifestyle — he had a sports Mercedes, he had a big home, you know — and suddenly wrestling was over. Dino couldn’t be a 9 to 5 guy; he didn’t have any business experience of any kind. Wrestling was his whole life. And back then, WWF was the only game in town. So if he couldn’t do it for the WWF, what could he do? His uncle was the head of the mafia in Montreal. And he was always saying, ‘Dino, come work for me…’”
Rick Martel, Friend of Dino Bravo and then WWF Superstar
Laval police formed a 12-man team to investigate the killing, and investigations soon firmly linked Bravo with well-known cigarette smugglers. Police believed that he had become involved in smuggling soon after his retirement from professional wrestling the previous year. Others contended that his involvement in organised crime stretched back even further in his life, covering his time regularly crossing the border with the WWF and working out of Montreal with International Wrestling. Bravo was suspected of having had a significant investment in the enterprise, yet police failed to definitively prove his exact role in such an operation. The smuggling of cigarettes across the border was a lucrative business, not only being considered safer but with none of the social stigma attached to drug running. The Canadian government had high taxes on Canadian manufactured cigarettes and the illegal importation of high-quality American cigarettes, which could be sold cheaper, was big business. The rings would often see more profit than those selling hard drugs.
Rather than an assassination by criminal rivals, police began to speculate that Bravo’s murder was retaliation from within, with the wrestling star having made major mistakes which led to a massive bust for the law. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP, commonly known as The Mounties) had recently seized an enormous haul of 234 cases of cigarettes and 69 cases of tobacco, worth more than $750,000 in today’s money. Some said that Bravo had become lax and failed to cover his tracks. Around the time of the bust, Bravo had apparently told friends including then WWF Champion Bret “Hitman” Hart that he didn’t have long to live, with Gino Brito stating in the press that Bravo had told him his life had been threatened.
Speaking in an interview with RF Video who produce tell-all “shoot interviews” with wrestling personalities, former WWF star Rick Martel went in depth of what he now knows of the affair. Martel contends that his friend Bravo was struggling financially following his retirement and became involved with a cigarette ring ran out of a First Nations reserve. The Indians were known to be big fans of wrestling and were impressed by Bravo, the relationship being a positive one. They would use the river to smuggle cigarettes, and Bravo carved out a monopoly for himself in dealings with the indigenous Canadians. However, he was so successful that the mafia began to take an interest with what Martel calls “the cocaine people” wanting their cut of the action. Bravo agreed that he would allow the mafia in on his cigarette operation in exchange for opportunities in their cocaine operations.
Martel agrees that the shipment of cigarettes that was busted by the police was the cause of his death. The former WWF star saying that the contraband was stored by Bravo at a warehouse and he left the shipment in storage for three days. The police were waiting when the mafia arrived to collect. Dino blamed the mafia, insisting that he had told them to collect it on day one, while the mafia likely believed he had ratted them out. Equally, it seems possible that individuals involved had sought to protect themselves by blaming Bravo to their own bosses. Being new to the lifestyle and with many undoubtedly jealous of his popularity and fame, Bravo probably had enemies he wasn’t even aware of.
Despite his legendary status in Montreal, Dino Bravo’s funeral was a relatively small affair, with the service being limited to around 100 close friends and family. Few wrestling personalities were in attendance, with only producer Rene Goulet and Rick Martel attending from the WWF, likely only because of personal friendships. Martel had been one of the major stars in International Wrestling and others in attendance from the promotion included Eddie Creachman and Tony Mule. Nobody from the Catroni family attended.
Who killed Dino Bravo is likely well known to Montreal Police and an open secret amongst many in Montreal. However, like many mafia killings, the professionally done hit is hard to prove, and few are willing to talk for fear of their own lives or mafia codes of silence. Bravo’s career was one that had led him to the dizzy heights of WrestleMania and Madison Square Garden, making him a household name and hero to millions in Canada and Montreal. However, poor life choices and links he simply couldn’t escape from led to his downfall, his superstar life ending in a hail of bullets.
1993 marked yet another turn in wrestling, with a New Generation of stars pushing pro-wrestling into the 1990s as the last of the old territory performers began to fade away. Bravo’s death stands at this crossroads between the carnival criminality of old and the new professional celebrity era of wrestling.
The manner of Bravo’s death and his underworld connections haven’t tainted his legacy, with a future place in the WWE Hall of Fame almost a certainty. While his death may be officially unsolved, the rest of his life and career remain well documented. Hundreds of matches from Dino Bravo’s career are watched every day on the WWE Network, a streaming service that his era can never have possibly conceived of.
The legacy of Dino Bravo lives on.
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