By Thomas Leturgey
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
Former Allegheny County Councilor John DeFazio passed away quietly on February 26 following a battle with cancer.
Word of DeFazio’s death spread quickly on Social Media, but not just because of his work as an elected official. Aside from his work as a politician and union official, Johnny Defazio was a fixture for years on Pittsburgh’s legendary Studio Wrestling program.
For many, Shaler Township’s DeFazio was a valuable and respected United Steelworkers union leader and political mainstay. As “council member-at-large,” he was one of the first members of the “new” Allegheny County Council, and served from 2000 to 2019, until he lost a Democratic primary re-election bid to first-time candidate Bethany Hallam of Ross Township.
But for many, DeFazio was “Jumpin’ Johnny” a Studio Wrestling good guy, a baby-face, who debuted on the popular WIIC-TV Channel 11 program in 1962. He was arguably the Saturday evening staple’s second-most beloved athlete behind Bruno Sammartino. His popularity was on par with stars Battman and Dominic DeNucci.
“John was a mentor, a friend, a colleague, and a guiding voice who taught me about what it is to be an elected official,” said Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald in a statement Friday, Feb. 26. “For all of us who served on that first Council, he taught us about this new government that he had helped shepherd in that so many of us now take for granted. And as part of that education, he stepped to the side and pushed us, his colleagues, into leadership positions. I would not be County Executive today if it were not for John’s influence and encouragement.”
Studio Wrestling remains a term synonymous with professional wrestling in Pittsburgh thanks in large part to larger-than-life personalities like DeFazio. In fact, “Jumpin’ Johnny” was so respected that both Sammartino and George “The Animal” Steele mused that he could have very well been the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF) Heavyweight Champion if it weren’t for Sammartino’s immense popularity. Instead, DeFazio stayed close to home with his wife Marsha, raised a family, and compiled a long career with the union.
DeFazio started his love of bodybuilding early. He entered bodybuilding contests at 15, wrestled, and played football for his Shaler High School. He also trained in judo and karate, both of which later helped in his wrestling career. He went to Point Park College and earned a degree in business administration, with a minor in of all things, anthropology.
The young athlete would meet local promoters Rudy Miller and Ace Freeman, who trained the husky high-flyer.
From Wrestling Monthly, 1974. “From the time he could read, his library consisted of bodybuilding and weight lifting magazines and his dream was to train and workout until his body would share the pages with the other muscle devotees. Starting to lift iron at the age of twelve is not encouraged in the average gymnasium and Johnny soon discovered that he would have to improvise at home and this is exactly what he did. Working after school, and weekends, he would save his pennies until he had enough for a ten or twelve-and-one-half pound plate.”
DeFazio was a former four-time Junior Heavyweight Champion and a WWWF International Tag Team Champion (with Geeto Mongol). DeFazio never had to leave the Pittsburgh region to perform. When he wasn’t appearing on Saturday Night’s “Studio Wrestling” or on the East Coast circuit, DeFazio worked in Pittsburgh’s Steel Mills. He became the United Steelworkers of America’s Union Director in Pennsylvania. He was also a long-time Democratic committeeman for his home township.
According to Pittsburgh wrestling historian and ring announcer Hank Hudson, “Over the years DeFazio had countless bouts with longtime enemies Frank “Slip Mahoney” Durso, Killer Joe Abby/The Red Demon, Hangman Jim Grabmire, and Baron Mikel Scicluna! DeFazio did not have a wide variety of finishing maneuvers earning most of his victories with either a series of flying-dropkicks, a sunset-flip cradle, or the reverse-rolling “DeFazio Cradle”. I cannot recall DeFazio ever winning any bout via a submission hold!”
Hudson continued in a Facebook post: “For the next decade (1975-1984) following the demise of Pittsburgh’s Studio Wrestling’ DeFazio was still being booked on the vast majority of W.W.W.F./W.W.F. shows around the Tri-State Area by new promoter Gorilla Monsoon. DeFazio next would appear on occasional independent cards promoted by Gene Dargan and by Geto Mongol/Newton Tattrie using his trainees from 1984 into early 1986!”
DeFazio would wrestle in his final match on March 25, 1988 when he would defeat “The Sicilian Beast” Ken Cerminara at Shaler High School. Fellow Shaler product Brian Hildebrand was The Beast’s manager during that match and Hank Hudson called the action for a local wrestling television show.
In 2013, DeFazio, “Chilly” Bill Cardille and Chuck Martoni would be inducted into the Keystone State Wrestling Alliance (KSWA) Hall of Fame and all three were on hand to receive their awards.
More recently, DeFazio was at the funerals of his friends Martoni, Bruno Sammartino, as well as “Hurricane” Bobby Hunt. Among those who had significant stints on Studio Wrestling, Dominic DeNucci, “Battman” Tony Marino, “The Fighting Cop From Carnegie” Frank Holtz, James J. Dillon, Steve Novak, as well as late-comers Greg “The Hammer” Valentine and Larry Zbyszko remain.
Johnny DeFazio, born November 30, 1942, was 79.