AL COSTELLO, "THE" Fabulous Kangaroo
by Bob Siler
THE EARLY YEARS: 1921-1957
Al Costello was born Giacomo Costa in Sicily, Italy in 1921, but when he was six years old, his family moved to Rockdale, New South, Wales, Australia, where he grew up.
His father owned a fruit store and young Giacomo would help out after school as a stockboy.
Al first became interested in sports at an early age and joined the school football and track team. It wasn’t long before he was making a name for himself around school as one of the top athletes.
When he wasn’t involved in a game against a rival school, or working at the family store, Al could be found in the school weight room, lifting weights and working out (exercise and fitness became a life-long passion, which is probably why he out lived all of his partners and managers).
Al was sixteen when he became an amateur boxer, and for the next two years, he collected victories like Sinatra collected dames. When he was around 18 years old, he was considered to be one of the amateur boxers in his area and people started to take notice.
One night after he’d finished his match, Al was approached by a man who introduced himself as Basher Bonas, the Middleweight wrestling champion of Australia. He asked Al to hang around and watch the amateur wrestling matches with him. When the matches were over, Basher asked the young boxer if he’d like to give wrestling a go. Al gave it a shot and later said "the featherweights, the middleweights, the whatever weights stomped the crap out of me."
This was something new to him, and though he had no experience and no concept of balance, he kept coming back towatch, wrestle, and to learn. He took his lumps, and never complained, which earned him some respect from the other wrestlers. Within a month, he had turned the tables and was now the one dishing out some payback to those who had used him as a punching bag. He said goodbye to amateur boxing and became a full time amateur wrestler.
Al was still the new kid on the block when, in his rookie year, he won the Australian Junior Heavyweight championship.
"I became fanatical about wrestling," he would later say. It wasn’t too long ago that he had no interest in wrestling, and now, it became his life. Al decided that the next step was to become a professional wrestler, but there was one person standing in his way. His father.
He had other plans for his son, and pro wrestling wasn’t apart of them.
Imagine seeing the Three Tenors — Luciano Pavaratti, Placido Domengio and Giacomo Costa — or reading that opera star Giacomo Costa had sold out all the major opera houses in Europe instead of selling out sporting arenas around the world. Don’t laugh, it could have happened, and if it had been up to his father, it would have happened. If his father had had his way, Al would have been belting out operettas, instead of knocking out opponents, in which case there would have been no Fabulous Kangaroos. Frightening.
The senior Costa wanted his son to become an opera star and enrolled him into opera school. Whenever Al brought up anything that had to do with wrestling, his father would lose his temper. Al learned not to talk about it when dear old dad was within ear shot.
He studied hard at school and continued working out at the gym. One day, he met former professional wrestler Dr. Len Hall, and they started working out together. Hall would get a handful of amateur wrestlers together and have Al lock up with each one of them, one at a time, wrestling amateur style. Al told an interviewer about how he got started in wrestling:
"Well, first off, my dad wanted me to be an opera singer, so I studied voice for some time. Then I felt I needed to go to the gym to strengthen my chest, or so I thought. At the gym, I got into boxing for some unknown reason, until a fellow called Basher Bonas, who was a star at the time, he was a middleweight champion, said to me, ‘What are you doing boxing?’
I said, ‘Well, I like it.’
He said, ‘Why don’t you watch us working out and see what you can do.’
After the boxers had finished, and they put the wrestling mats down, he showed me what they were doing. Basher said, ‘Why don’t you have a go?’
Well, I didn’t know a thing about wrestling at the time. I had no idea of balance, timing and leverage, but I stayed at it and kept training with Basher until I could actually beat all the guys in the gym. After that, I entered into a contest — the Junior heavyweight championship of Australia (amateur wrestling). I won that against George Lapstone. After that, I went into the pros and my first match was against Johnny Gilday (Alan Pinfold)."
In 1938, 17-year-old Al Costello made his pro wrestling debut against Johnny Gilday in Sydney. His second match was against Frank Hurley. One day, when he was working at the fruit store, he started talking to a man named Ainsworth, who ran a drug store. "I said to him ‘I’ve got dreams. I want to go to America, to Madison Square Garden.’
He said to me, ‘Al, all you’ll ever do is sell cabbages.’ That’s what he told me. You know, I don’t criticism because I found out that if you supersede someone in some way, they hate you for it, and if they supersede you, you’re a great guy."
Giacomo didn’t want to let his father down and concentrated on his opera lessons, but his heart wasn’t in it. His dad had no idea that he was still wrestling, or that he was now a professional wrestler.
Knowing that his future was in the squared circle and not on the opera stage, Al decided to go against his fathers wishes and drop out of opera school. He would never lose his love for opera and he had a fine singing voice. He loved singing and was known to surprise the wrestling crowd by letting loose with an opera tune while standing in the ring before the match started.
"I struggled for three years against guys like Leo Demetral, Labriola, and George Pencheff. One day, this promoter – a fellow called Bob Marshall – came up to me and looked me over. He said, ‘Nah, you’re not big enough.’ Leo Demetral saw all this and said, ‘Come with me.’
He gave me his coat to put on and then had a word with Marshall, who said ‘Okay, I’ll take you up.’
I ended up going to Perth — five days and five nights on the train. I got there and wrestled Jack Higgins, who had a version of the Australian heavyweight championship. I wrestled him to a draw over eight 8-minute rounds, and at the end of the third round, people just cheered the fact I was a young guy. All this for the equivalent of $10.00 for the whole night. There was one condition. If I got over, I stayed, but if not, I’d get sent back. As it was, I got over okay."
During the war years, he was in Adelaide, where he was a member of Jimmy Shaman’s group of boxers and wrestlers. "We’d challenge anybody in the crowd, all valuable experience. So this was in Adelaide. They kicked me out of the army because I was medically unfit. I had flat feet. So I joined the fire brigade and wrestled as well."
In 1949, he went to South Africa where he had some of biggest successes wrestling guys like Marnie Maritz and Woody Leibenberg. He also had a few title matches. One night, during a match with Maritz, he was forced to leave the arena through the back entrance because the crowd tried to set the place on fire. In Pretoria, he locked up with Leibenberg in front of 30,000 fans. He was in South Africa for a month and wrestled in Pretoria, German Southwest Africa, Durban, and Cape Town. He then returned to Australia, but was sent back to Adelaide where he sold out two nights. When he returned to Sydney, the promoters were impressed with him and treated him like a pro.
From 1950 [or 1951] to 1956, he wrestled in New Zealand. Because wrestling is seasonal, going for six months before shutting down in the winter, he went to Singapore. In 1952, he made his first trip to America. When he returned from America, he headed for France, but only for a short time before the New Zealand promoter called him to come back.
CREATING THE COSTELLO DREAM TEAM — THE FABULOUS KANGAROOS
In 1956, Al was in Honolulu, Hawaii, working with Lord James Blears and Joe Blanchard (Tully’s father). He’d had this idea in his head for years of using kangaroos, boomerangs, and bush hats. One day, he was kicking his idea around with Blears and Blanchard, telling them that his only problem was that he needed the perfect partner to make his dream successful. He and Roy had worked together back home and he had been a perfect partner, but they had lost contact after Al came to America in 1952. He had no idea where Roy was. Blanchard told him that Roy was in Calgary working for Stu Hart. Al wasted no time in getting to a phone.
"It was my idea," Al told Andrew Prentice. "It was something I thought of for a long time. I couldn’t get the idea out of my mind. Well, I met a fellow called Joe Blanchard in Honolulu while I was wrestling there. I told him about my idea of forming a tag team called the Kangaroos. He said, ‘Why don’t you get ahold of Roy?’
I used to train with Roy in Sydney, but I didn’t know where he’d gone. Blanchard told me he was in Stu Hart’s territory, so I called Roy — and that’s how it came about."
From 1957 to 1965, the Fabulous Kangaroos and their manager, "Wild" Red Berry, tore up the wrestling world, stomping on anyone who stood in their way. They held almost every major championship title in professional wrestling. But, all good things come to an end. On July 5, 1965, Al and Roy wrestled their last match as the Fabulous Kangaroos, losing to Don Leo Jonathan and Jim Hady in Toronto.
Roy moved back to Australia, which left Al one man short a tag team. He was as successful in singles matches as he was in tag matches, and he didn’t let Roy’s departure stop him from proving it to anyone who thought his career was over.
THIRD FALL — FROM KANGAROO, TO GLOBETROTTER, TO THE INTERNATIONAL
In 1965, Roy Heffernan left the kangaroo pouch and headed down under to Australia. They had been wrestling for the WWWF, but with Roy gone, and the Fabulous ‘Roos no more, Al needed a change of scenery. He made his way to Atlanta, where he met Louie Tillet. They decided to team up as "The Globetrotters."
The NWA World Tag Team Tournament final was held on February 4, 1966. Al and his new tag partner defeated The Mysterious Medics to become the new champions. They held the belts for only one week. On February 11, they were defeated in Atlanta, Georgia, by Kurt and Karl Von Brauner. Shortly after dropping the title, the Globetrotters went their separate ways.
"We didn’t see eye to eye," Al told Scott Teal in 1993, "and I left for Nashville, Tennessee in 1966, where I met up with Karl Von Brauner. With "Playboy" Gary Hart as our manager, we wrestled as ‘The Internationals’ in Texas and Detroit."
While he was still in Tennessee, and before teaming up with Von Brauner, Al hooked up with Herb Welch and they won a tournament in Memphis on May 31, 1966 to become the new NWA World tag team champions (Tennessee-Alabama version). They held the belts until August 3, 1966, when they were defeated by Karl Von Brauner and Luke Graham.
That same year, Al and Karl, as The Internationals, captured both the Texas World tag title and the Texas U.S. tag title. Al and Karl had a successful run as tag champions, but when the titles were gone, so was the team. The Internationals went their separate ways, and once again, Al Costello was without a partner.
Al decided to take some time off and go to Australia. On his way home, he had a stopover in Detroit, during which time he met Cleo Williams. They fell in love and got married, and remained together for the next 34 years. Tag partners came and went, but only death could separate this tag team.
NEW ROO - NUMBER TWO
Al wanted to bring back the Fabulous Kangaroos and started searching for the right man to fit the bill.
"My second choice for a Kangaroo was Ray St. Clair," Al recalled to Scott Teal in issue #3 of WHATEVER HAPPENED TO …?. "I had seen Ray wrestle in England years before under the name ‘Tinker Todd.’ We got together in 1967 and he got over fantastic, but he didn’t have staying power. Two months of tough campaigning and traveling, three tapings per day, flying all over the place, must have taken it’s toll on Ray. One day, he just took off and returned to England."
The New Fabulous Kangaroos defeated Fred Curry and Billy Red Lyons for the NWA Detroit - Central States Tag title. Curry teamed up with Dan Miller and went kangaroo hunting. They reclaimed the belts, but it wasn’t long before the gold was back in the hands of Al and Ray. They lost them to Chris Colt and Ron Dupree, aka The Hells Angels, at Detroit’s Cobo Hall.
After dropping the belts, Ray went back to England and, once again, Al was roo-less. He continued to search for the perfect partner, one that would fit the kangaroo image. But, filling Roy Heffernan’s wrestling boots wasn’t going to be an easy task. Al knew that somewhere down the road, he’d find his man. And that man was just a body slam away.
Late 1967 found Al Costello on a card at Detroit’s Cobo Hall.
"One evening, while waiting in the wings at the Cobo Arena, I was watching the matches. On the card was a young man called Joe Smith. Fred Blassie, who was on loan from Vince McMahon (Sr.), was standing there with me and mentioned that Smith had good potential. I later learned that Joe had been the booker in Phoenix, Arizona, and obviously knew his wrestling. I waited until the following week and approached Joe with the idea of being a Kangaroo and he loved the idea. Nick Gulas had billed Joe as Don Kent in Tennessee during the late ‘50’s, so we decided to use that name. Don and I wrestled together until 1974."
Al had found his third Kangaroo, and this one had no problems filling Roy Heffernan’s boots.
Smith started wrestling professionally in Oklahoma in the 1950’s. By the late 50’s, he was in Tennessee working for promoter Nick Gulas, as "The Black Dragon." Gulas changed his name to Don Kent and he wrestled under that name whenever he worked for Gulas. Otherwise, he used his real name.
Between 1963 and 1964, Smith headlined matches at Madison Square Garden in Phoenix, Arizona, where he was the booker. When he teamed up with Al, he dropped his real name and became Don Kent. He kept the name for the rest of his career.
THE SECOND COMING OF THE FABULOUS KANGAROOS
The history books may claim Ray St. Clair as having been a Kangaroo, but in reality, besides Al, there have only been two true Kangaroos — Roy Heffernan and Don Kent. With Don Kent at Al’s side, the Kangaroos were back and better than ever. Their matches were as exciting as they had once been, and they went on to hold more championship gold than they had ever held in the past. This truly was the Fabulous Kangaroos second coming.
In 1968, Al and Don went to Japan, where they captured both the International and the TWWA Tag Team Championships.
Another new addition to the new Roos, besides Kent, was a new manager, George "Crybaby" Cannon, who weighed in at 460 pounds. Al, Don, and George spent the next few years laying waste to the wrestling scene, breaking bones (sometimes their own), and collecting championship titles everywhere they went. As the decade came to an end, Al Costello and Don Kent spent the past two-and-a-half years winning more gold than Al ever had with Roy. They were so well known that if you asked a Kangaroo fan who was better, Roy Heffernan or Don Kent, they might look at you like a confused dog and ask - "Roy who"?
Don had also held both the Arizona and Oklahoma belts before joining Al and in 1969 he became the Central States champion in Missouri.
SECOND FALL — THE 1970’S
Al and Don left the 1960s behind like the many broken bones they left in their path. Al Costello turned 49 in 1970 and Don Kent was 37. Al was still in great shape, and with 50 approaching, he showed no signs of slowing down.
On July 17, 1970, the Kangaroos defeated Dick The Bruiser and Bill Miller for the World Wrestling Association (WWA) tag title in Indianapolis, Indiana. It was their first championship as a tag team. They kept the gold for six months, but on December 26, 1970, our heroes locked up with Wilbur Snyder and Moose Cholak in Indianapolis, and when the dust cleared, the Roos were beltless. They chased Snyder and Cholak for the titles, but it wasn’t until June 18, 1971 that they defeated them to win the back the belts. Two months later, on August 21, Snyder and Paul Christy defeated the Kangaroos and walked away as the new tag champions.
In 1971, the Fabulous Kangaroos traded in their wrestling boots for baseball cleats when they met the Pittsburgh Pirates at a Celebrity All-Star Game in Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, PA. The wrestling Roos became the stars of the game. Al went 3 for 4 and Don went a perfect 4 for 4, including a two-run homer with Al aboard. Al would later say that his fondest memories from this exhibition was meeting the late Roberto Clemente, Bob Moore, Willie Stargell, Richie Hebner, Nelson Briles, and Dock Ellis.
Not long afterwards, Al and Don were on the card of an all-star wrestling event at the Cincinnati, Ohio Gardens. Before the matches, they participated in a home-run derby at nearby Riverfront Stadium. Pro stars from every sport were involved in the contest. There was a jockey, a bowler, two hockey players, two football players, a golfer, and the Kangaroos. They didn’t win the contest, but they did indulge in a fair amount of horseplay with two stars from the Cincinnati Reds baseball team — Pete Rose and Johnny Bench.
Al and Don began feuding with NWA tag champs, Guy "The Stomper" Mitchell and Ben Justice. When they locked up in Tennessee with the titles on the line, Mitchell and Justice were left battered, bloodied, and former champions. When they returned several months later, they wasted no time in going after the Kangaroos with a vengeance. This time, the tables were turned and it was Al and Don who were left battered, bloodied, and beltless.
JANUARY 25 — THE WAR MEMORIAL AUDITORIUM, ROCHESTER, NEW YORK
Tony Marino and Dickie Steinborn had the misfortune of meeting the Fabulous Kangaroos in the ring. The fans cheered as Tony and Dickie made their way to the ring, but as Al and Don made their way to the ring, the mood in the arena changed from one of happiness to one of anger. The fans booed and showed how much they hated the Roos, but Al and Don couldn’t have cared less what they thought. They only cared about breaking bones and winning championship gold. They gave their much beloved opponents such a brutal beating that the audience erupted into a riot. The violence got so out of control that eight fans were rushed to the hospital, including one person that had been shot. It was just another fabulous evening with the Fabulous Kangaroos.
In April, Al and Don added the Mid-American tag titles to their list when they captured them in Tennessee. On April 11, the belts were on the line in Knoxville as the boys battled Ron and Don Wright, but it was a fabulous night for wrestling fans when the ‘Roos lost the match and the gold. In a rematch that same month, things went a lot better for Al and Don when the reclaimed the belts. They held onto them until September 22, when they were defeated by Lorenzo Parente and Randy Curtis. This was the last tag team championship title that the Fabulous Kangaroos, Al Costello and Don Kent, would hold together.
Out with the old and in with the new. In 1973, Al and Don did just that when they replaced George Cannon with a new manager — Sir Dudley Clements.
THE CINCINNATI GARDENS, CINCINNATI, OHIO
In 1975, much to everyones’ surprise, including his own, Al Costello returned to the world of professional wrestling. He was the manager of The Love Brothers in the IWA.
JULY 28, 1975 — MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE
Al and new Kangaroo Tony Charles defeated Dominic DeNucci and Chris Markoff for the WWA tag title. In Tennessee, Al managed The Spoiler (Frank Morrell) and Bruce Swayze.
APRIL 30, 1977 — INDIANAPOLIS, EXPO CENTER
Al managed Phil Hickerson and Dennis Condry in Tennessee. Al also teamed up with a new Kangaroo, Bob Heffernan, who was said to be related to Roy. Throughout the 70s, Al would continue to wrestle, win titles, and work as a wrestling manager.
In April 1980, Al and Don reunited for several tag matches in America and Puerto Rico. In 1982, he put together a new Kangaroo team with Don and Johnny Heffernan ( Bob Delasero) that he managed. They wrestled in Puerto Rico and became the number one team in the Caribbean. They held the WWA tag title from May 1 1982 to June 26, 1982.
When Al had to attend a business meeting in Michigan, he signed a short-term contract with future Four Horsemen manager, James J. Dillon, who would sub for him as Kangaroo manager while the team was in Tampa. But, when he was ready to return to his managing duties, he found that Dillon refused to turn over control of the Kangaroos to Al, and he had the backing of both Kent and Heffernan (so the story line went). After 45 years of bloody matches and broken bones, Al Costello decided to retire from professional wrestling. He went to work as a security chief in Detroit.
NOVEMBER 16 - EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY, THE BYRNE ARENA
MAY 21 - DEARBORN HEIGHTS, MICHIGAN
THE REST OF THE STORY
In 1989, Al and Cleo moved to Clearwater, Florida, where he became Captain of Security at the College Harbor Retirement Rehabilitation Center in St. Petersburg. He continued to work out the gym, and to keep his legs strong and powerful, he rode a bicycle. In 1992, he retired from his security job. To fill his time, he played golf, taught wrestling, and played the piano.
On January 22, 2000 (Saturday), Al Costello died at the age of 80. He’d been suffering from heart problems and pneumonia. He was survived by his widow, Cleo, and two daughters from a previous marriage. He and Cleo had been married for 35 years.
Al would sometimes recite poems in the ring. One of his favorites was "The Indispensable Man" by Saxon White Kessinger.
THE INDISPENSABLE MAN
Sometime when you feel that your going
Take a bucket and fill it with water,
You can splash all you wish when you enter,
The moral of this quaint example
Al Costello is surely an indispensable man.
His favorite wrestler was Lou Thesz
In his autobiography, Lou Thesz says that his favorite tag team was the Fabulous Kangaroos.
Al and his partners have appeared in more than 30 countries and have held nearly 20 tag team championships. They are the only tag team to win every single major tag team championship in the world.
MAY 3 1957 — CALGARY, ALBERTA, CANADA
AUGUST 9, 1958 — NEW YORK CITY, NY
JULY 5, 1965 — TORONTO, CANADA
Al and Roy would enter the ring to the tune of "Waltzing Matilda."
Al and Roy’s famous finishing move was "The Boomerang." It consisted of grabbing a downed opponent by the legs and bouncing him into an upright position. When he is hauled upright, he is met by Kangaroo fists.
In 2003, The Fabulous Kangaroos, Al Costello and Roy Heffernan, were inducted into the Professional Wrestling Hall Of Fame.
Al outlived his fellow Kangaroos and managers:
"WILD" RED BERRY (66)
SIR DUDLEY CLEMENT
DON KENT (Leo Joseph Smith Jr.)
GEORGE "CRYBABY" CANNON
His other tag team partners were:
Al Costello on his wrestling style (1979):
AL COSTELLO’S CHAMPIONSHIP TITLE HISTORY
1939, Malaysia, Singapore
1949, South Africa
Date and year unknown, Dublin, Ireland
1959, January 6 - Dallas, Texas
1963 European Heavyweight Championship
NWA Southern Junior Heavyweight Championship
An interview with Al Costello can be found in issue #3 of Whatever Happened to …?
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