Rudy Shemuga walked into the Lawrenceville tavern with only the slight use of a cane.
That’s remarkable, actually, considering the almost 87-year-old recently spent time in the hospital from a fall. He’s accompanied by a friend, Dan Zigowski, who is carrying an envelope stuffed with programs, photos and newspaper clippings.
There are very few living professional wrestlers who can say they actually competed in the early 1950’s; Pittsburgh’s own Rudolph M. Shemuga is one of them. As “Steve Novak,” Shemuga is also one of the few living pros who can say he went toe-to-toe with the likes of The Swedish Angel, Angelo Cistoldi and “Gorgeous George,” among others. But despite that resume, chances are you’ve never heard of the grappler from Lawrenceville.
Born to Croatia’s Joseph and Fredericktown’s Susan Ulicne Shemuga, Rudy grew up in his family’s Cabinet Way home. He didn’t play football like a lot of aspiring athletes of the day.
“I was needed at the house,” Shemuga says. Rudy caught the wrestling bug in the 1940s as he and his friends routinely jumped the fence at Millvale’s Zivic Arena to watch wrestling cards.
After graduating from Schenley High School, Shemuga traveled west to California and its “original” Muscle Beach in Santa Monica. Rudy worked the second shift at Douglas Aircraft, which freed his mornings and afternoons for workouts. It was there that a wrestling promoter told him about training schools in Seattle. Young and always looking for ways to better himself, Shemuga uprooted himself again and went to the Northwest.
In the early days, someone thought Shemuga resembled Walter “Killer” Kowalski and was originally pitched as his cousin “Rudy.” That ridiculous idea never stuck, and as luck would have it, Rudy never met The Killer. In Portland, a promoter of a show at the Labor Temple asked him what his ring name was going to be, and “out of the blue,” he selected “Steve Novak.” The all-American name stayed with him for the rest of his career.
According to wrestlingdata.com, on December 15, 1952, Novak began his career when he defeated Paul DeGallas. On December 19, Novak fell to Bronko Lubich. In the December 22, 1952 issue of the Oregon Guard newspaper in Eugene, it was reported that Luigi Macera defeated Novak in one fall. A week later, Dale Kiser bested Steve. By the time 1953 rolled around, Novak was wrestling regularly throughout Oregon.
In July 1953 Novak wrestled Ben and Mike Sharpe (the father of famed WWF journeyman “Iron” Mike Sharpe) in tag team competition. He called them the hardest-hitting guys he faced. “They could beat the crap out of you,” he said with a laugh. In September of that year, Novak would take on Mike Dibiase, the adoptive father of WWF Hall of Famer “The Million Dollar Man” Ted Dibiase.
Even as he traveled throughout Oregon, Montana, California, Texas and other destinations, Novak was always billed from Pittsburgh. Some newspaper reports opined that his 6’3,” 235-pound stature was “too tall” for wrestling, but maybe better for basketball. He was called “the Battling Bohemian,” and “The Tall Matador from Pittsburgh.” Novak shutters at those nicknames.
“I was always a good guy,” he says. There was never a swerve to turn Steve Novak against the fans. Novak says he wrestled on television in Chicago many times later in his career; one newspaper article referred to him as a “TV Star.” In a related brush with celebrity, Novak tells a story of how North East promoter Toots Mondt took him aside in the late 1950s and said they were interested in Steve for a huge Hollywood film. Novak had publicity photos taken and jumped through several hoops in an effort to get the part. But, in the end, he wasn’t cast in the Oscar-winning Ben Hur. “Charleton Heston beat me by a smidge,” Novak continues with a huge roar of laughter.
So, instead of Hollywood, he got back to the grind of pro wrestling.
“We focused on wrestling,” he says. Novak traveled a lot by car, and even train, but rarely by plane. “I loved it when the money was good.”
Novak traveled everywhere, including the southern states where he competed for a version of the NWA tag team championship. A perpetual mid-card guy, Novak did participate in a Main Event six-man tag team match in August, 1953 with Roy Cooper and Sonny Kurgis versus Angelo Cistoldi, Lou Heiz and Pete Manus in Santa Cruz, California.
Novak battled the 6’6” Swedish Angel (not to be confused with Maurice Tillet the “French Angel” or Tor Johnson, the “Super Swedish Angel”) at least four times. “Once on an Indian Reservation in Great Falls, Montana,” he says. In one 1954 showdown in Charlotte, North Carolina, Novak won by disqualification over the fearsome Angel. The Swedish Angel beat Novak later that month in Asheville.
On March 23, 1962, Novak wrestled “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship in New Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. According to Wrestlingdata.com, the match ended without a winner and Rogers kept the strap. Within the next year, Rogers would lose the NWA belt, recognized as the first WWWF champion and lose it to Novak’s fellow Pittsburgh grappler, Bruno Sammartino.
By the early 1960’s, Novak wrestled primarily in the northeast. And while he wasn’t one of the first to appear on WIIC-TV’s “Studio Wrestling,” he did appear in the early 1960’s, even before the likes of other local legends like Joe Abby, Frank Durso and “The Battman.”
Reaching his mid-30’s, Novak realized that he needed to think about his future. He retired from wrestling in 1965 and took a job with Equitable Gas. He became “Rudy” again and worked for 27 years, “first on the outside; I was fixing meters at the end” and enjoyed life with his long-time girlfriend, Lana Florida. The two never married, and he treated her children from her first marriage as his own. Lana, a survivor of two Nazi Concentration Camps in WWII, died in 2009.
Although the records may not be complete, Carlos Rocha, 91, and Samson Burke, 89, are the only living professional wrestlers who were in matches before Novak’s 1952 debut. Both Rocha and Burke wrestled as early as January 1950.
Today, Rudy still works out with light weights three times a week. He meets with a small group of friends for dinner, drinks and conversation every other week. Still a sharp conversationalist, Shemuga recently wolfed down a dinner, a beer and three coffees at 9 p.m. in that Lawrenceville tavern. Not six months ago, Zigowski noted, someone approached Rudy with a, “You’re Steve Novak.” Of course, they talked Studio Wrestling.
Says Shemuga: “It still amazes me.”