Michele Leone (June 8, 1909 – November 26, 1988), known by his ring name Baron Michele Leone, was an Italian professional wrestler. He was one of the biggest stars and most prominent heels of the early television era of wrestling and, in May 1952, was a part of professional wrestling's first $100,000 gate, when he faced Lou Thesz in a title vs. title bout.
New York, East Coast and D.C. territories
After completing his training and gaining ring experience in Europe around 1935, Leone migrated to the United States, arriving in New York City in early 1938. On April 18th, Leone won his American debut by defeating Vanka Zelezniak in New York City. On June 28, 1938 he wrestled his first known main event in the U.S. against Dr. John "Dropkick" Murphy. In June, 1940, Leone began wrestling in Joe Turner’s Washington, D.C. territory. It was whilst wrestling here that the United States entered World War II. The U.S. was now at war with Leone's native Italy, which made him an instant heel. As an Italian citizen, Leone was exempt from being drafted into the military and as more and more wrestlers were drafted, it opened up new spots on cards for Leone as a top heel. He would become a headliner in DC, notably feuding in headline bouts against “Gentleman” Lou Plummer. Attendance rose steadily with Leone in the main event. Memorably, he headlined one such event against Hans Kampfer, a German, where he worked as the heel. It is said that this match illustrated his abilities as a 'bad guy', having gotten boos from the fans in a match against a German during World War II. Leone left the D.C. territory at the end of the war in 1945 and began wrestling throughout the East Coast. He briefly returned to Europe in 1947 before returning to the U.S. East Coast in 1948.
Leone known for his rough style and heelish tactics would sometimes be cheered as a baby face. Such instance occurred on November 27th, 1944 in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Facing Duke Keomuka (a Hawaiian portraying an evil Japanese wrestler) Leone went out prior to their match and gave a passionate promo against the Japanese. For his effort, he sold $2,000 is U.S. War Bonds prior to defeating Duke Keomuka. He would also appear at charity events to sell U.S. War bonds in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania often taking place at the Navy Yard Receiving Station in that city.
On June 26, 1944 Leone received his first "World" title match against Babe Sharkey (claimant to an East Coast version) in Wilmington, Delaware. Leone lost but it was noted that this title match drew one of the biggest crowds ever in Wilmington. The weekly average was roughly 900 but this match drew over 1,800 fans.
Michele made his debut in Johnny Doyle's Los Angeles/Southern California territory in October 1949, where he took up the mantle of "Baron" Michele Leone, an Italian aristocrat. It is here that he would find his greatest success.
With an abundance of wrestling television outlets in Southern California, and possessing the gift of the gab, Leone - working for Doyle - became the biggest star in the L.A. territory. The still relatively new medium of television helped transform him from journeyman to superstar. Leone headlined several events at the Olympic Auditorium against opponents such as Leo Garibaldi, Jack Claybourne and Kimon Kudo. He would also tag with former opponent Gorgeous George.
World Heavyweight Championship and Feud with Lou Thesz
Leone faced Enrique Torres at the Olympic Auditorium on November 22, 1950, in front of a reported 10,400 fans in a two-out-of-three falls match for the Los Angeles version of the World Heavyweight Championship. He captured the second and third falls of the match to win the world title.
As world champion and with a growing television audience, Leone became one of the biggest sports stars in Southern California and the biggest draw in the territory. Appearing on television shows such as Charlie Aldridge, Dennis Day and Horace Heidt's Family Night Show, Leone raised his profile, with few wrestlers throughout the United States getting the exposure he was. An appearance at a store in the city of Oxnard drew over 1,000 fans, despite heavy rain. Leone gave female fans an orchard and gave every fan an autographed photo of himself.”
Leone, with a combination of heel heat and broad appeal, carried the territory to new financial heights. NWA World Heavyweight champion Lou Thesz came to the territory in July 1951 and, finding himself overshadowed by Leone, was reportedly unhappy with this status. Thesz addressed these concerns at the annual NWA member's meeting in Tulsa, where the prospect of eliminating the California-version of the world title (held by Leone) was discussed. Doyle - a member of the championship committee - agreed to not book Michele Leone (or Enrique Torres) as champions outside of California. This did not assuage the NWA's concerns of a growing regional "world champion" and Doyle, who had been suspended briefly by the NWA, agreed to a unification bout. On May 21, 1952, Leone lost the L.A. "Olympic" version of the world title to Lou Thesz at Hollywood's Gilmore Field in L.A. in a unification match. The event drew 25,256 fans and took $103,277.75 at the gate, making it the first professional wrestling match to garner over $100,000 at the gate.
Junior Heavyweight Championship and Later Career
Though having lost the championship, the Baron remained the top draw in the Southern California territory. In December 1952, he defeated Rito Romero at the Olympic Auditorium to win the Pacific Coast Heavyweight Championship. Leone would go on to defeat Danny McShane for the NWA World Junior Heavyweight Championship on August 16, 1953 at Hollywood's Legion Stadium in Hollywood.
Leone's television popularity made him an in-demand talent and he was able to take bookings throughout the United States. He remained a regular performer in Los Angeles while working a semi-regular schedule in the Georgia territory. He left L.A. in 1954, and relocated to Texas. He would wrestle Lou Thesz in losing efforts three more times for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship; on February 16, 1954 in El Paso, Texas, October 13, 1954 in Tulsa, Oklahoma and February 25, 1955 in Miami, Florida.
Shortly after his final bout with Thesz, Leone retired from professional wrestling, being independently wealthy from his career. He returned to Italy along with his wife, Billie, whom he married 1954. They returned to the United States and relocated back to Leone's apartment building in Santa Monica. Michele and Billie travelled frequency and Leone spent his later days partaking in various leisure activities by the Pacific Ocean.
Michele Leone was one of the first wrestling stars of the television era. His colorful interviews, 'bad guy' characteristics and affable personality, endeared him to viewing audiences as an entertaining performer. He was one of the first professional wrestlers, along with the likes of Gorgeous George, to be famed for his showmanship as well as his in-ring prowess.
In the 2000s , his wife Billie donated $100,000 in Michele's memory to the Santa Monica Historical Society Museum. Symbolically, this was the same amount which Leone drew with Lou Thesz during their May, 1952 bout for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship; the first $100,000 gate in wrestling. The amount was donated to help support construction of the museum's relocation. Billie Leone stated: “my husband moved to Santa Monica in 1949, and that began his lifelong love affair with Santa Monica. He loved everything about the city”. The museum now houses a permanent exhibit featuring the highlights of The Baron’s career.
Championships and accomplishments
- National Wrestling Alliance
- World Heavyweight Championship (Los Angeles version) (1 time)
- NWA World Junior Heavyweight Championship (1 time)
- NWA Pacific Coast Heavyweight Championship (Los Angeles version) (2 times)
- Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame
- Class of 2019