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Grappling with Success: N.J. DOC Educator Looks Back on Professional Wrestling Career
By Matthew Schuman, N.J. Department of Corrections
Published: 12/12/2005

Once upon a time, Joe Novo traveled the world. His passport was stamped all over Europe as well as in such locales as Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, South Africa and New Guinea.

“I went to all of these places, met a bunch of nice people and made them hate my guts,” related Novo, a vocational painting and decorating teacher at East Jersey State Prison in New Jersey who used to make a living as a professional wrestler.

“I was a villain, and they'd match me up against the locals,” continued Novo, whose wrestling career spanned 15 years. “My job was to infuriate the fans by the nasty things I said and did. I'd make my money and move on. Then, after a couple of years, I'd return and do it again.”

For most of his years in wrestling, Novo was known as Butcher Brannigan. His counterparts included Victor Rivera, the Valiant Brothers, Pedro Morales and longtime champion Bruno Sammartino.

“It was the greatest life in the world,” he remembered. “You saw so many different places, you stayed in shape, and you practiced your craft. It was a big party, more or less.”

For Novo, the party began a few years after he graduated from Woodbridge (N.J.) High School – class of 1966 – where he was a member of the wrestling team. He was big and barrel-chested, and one of his favorite pastimes was judo -- he was the state AAU gold medalist in 1969. Since there was no money to be made in judo, it seemed only natural that Novo would gravitate to the world of pro wrestling.

A meeting with promoter Vince McMahon Sr. – whose son and namesake would revolutionize the wrestling industry – led Novo into an apprenticeship of sorts with a wrestler from Carteret, N.J. named Chuck Richards.

“While I was with Chuck, I started putting up and taking down rings, and learning how to count heads to gauge how much money was in the house,” he said. “Basically, I was taught the business from the inside out.

“For the first six months, I didn't step into the ring, although I was constantly training. I remember Chuck telling me to forget everything I ever learned about wrestling, because he was going to teach me differently.”

In those days, each promoter oversaw a specific geographic region, known as a territory. McMahon Sr.'s territory was the northeastern United States. It was there that Novo made his pro debut in what was called the World Wide Wrestling Federation (now known as World Wrestling Entertainment or the WWE). His opponent was a burly native of Argentina named Juan Caruso. “A nice, funny man,” Novo recalled.

Before long, Novo -- who was performing as Joe Nova, a McMahon Sr. idea – was wrestling six or seven nights a week, earning approximately $40 per match. He'll never forget his first match in sold-out Madison Square Garden, where he battled Jimmy Valiant to a 30-minute draw.

“I got $225 and felt like I was on top of the world,” Novo said. “Here I was, 21 years old, having the time of my life. I'll be honest: If it wasn't for wrestling, some of those guys in the business would probably have been where I work now. But most of them were the nicest folks you'd ever want to meet. Toru Tanaka, Mr. Fugi, Karl Krupp. All of them were great guys. Gino Morella (better known as Gorilla Monsoon) was a prince among men. He was the kind of guy who wouldn't let anyone pay for a dinner. There could be 20 people at the table, and nobody paid but Gino. He'd insist.”

After a while, McMahon Sr. decided Novo needed a more flamboyant moniker. For a short time, he became Vinegar Joe Hooker. “Fortunately, that didn't last,” Novo said, chuckling.

Then, the promoter suggested that he be known as Butcher. He left it up to Novo to come up with an appropriate last name.

“I wanted to find a last name that rolled off the tongue if my first name was going to be Butcher,” Novo said. “I went through a phone book, and when I saw the name Brannigan, I said to myself, ‘That's it.'

“I wish I had a more dramatic story about my name change,” he added with a laugh, “but that's how it happened.”

In 1971, Novo embarked on his first trip to Japan, where he was paid $500 per week, plus a $500 bonus, for a month-long stay.

“I couldn't believe someone would pay me that kind of money to fly across the world and perform,” he said. “My father was a teacher who made $200-something a week, so at the time, it was all pretty amazing to me.”

As Novo gained experience, he began to wrestle in more and more main events. In Georgia, he had his body twisted and contorted by legendary Lou Thesz, who was more than 35 years his senior at the time. He feuded with Porkchop Cash (real name: Al Nelson) in California. He teamed with Bruiser Brody (real name: Frank Goodish) in Australia.

“I tried to stay in top condition, which, for me, was maybe 265 pounds,” Novo reported. “For a long while, I was into body building, big-time. So I had a pretty good look, and that was 90 percent of the battle. I had this hooded satin robe that I wore into the ring. I kept the robe on until just before the match. Then, I'd open the robe and wait to hear the audience reaction. When they reacted, I knew I had them. From that point on, anything I did out there, they believed it.”

Even though the outcomes of the matches are predetermined, the injuries the wrestlers sustain are very real. Novo broke his nose on numerous occasions. Once, a Danny Hodge forearm knocked out two of Novo's molars at the gum line. In fact, there are few areas on his body that haven't been bruised, battered or busted at one time or another. 

However, no pain Novo had ever felt prepared him for what proved to be a career-ending hip injury, which he sustained during a match in Paris. Throughout his career, Novo would climb to the top rope and drop, elbow first, on his fallen opponent.

“Every time I used that move, I'd land on my hip, which obviously took a toll on my body,” he said. “Anyway, this one night in Paris, I landed on my hip, like I always did, and the pain went straight through to my brain. The next day, I couldn't get out of bed. I kept wrestling a while longer, but I continued to favor the hip, so I couldn't perform like I wanted.

“I was 35 by then, and I'd beaten my body to death. It wasn't a hard decision to find another way to make a living. So many of the older guys I knew from the wrestling business were using walkers or even wheelchairs to get around. I didn't want to end up like that.”

In 1985, after a short stint in a machine shop, Novo responded to a newspaper ad and landed a job at what was then known as Rahway (N.J.) State Prison. He's been there ever since.

“This job agrees with me,” he declared. “I enjoy teaching, and I'd rather teach here than in a school system. The guys give you more respect here. They put their hearts into learning what you're teaching them.”

It wasn't until 18 years after his retirement that the final chapter of Novo's wrestling career was written. Shortly before 2003 turned into 2004, Novo was inducted into the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame.

“It was a wonderful affair, and it gave me an opportunity to see some of my old friends, guys I hadn't spoken to in years,” he said. “Most of all, it was nice to be recognized for all the years that I put into the wrestling business.”

To reach Matthew Schuman, email Matthew.Schuman@doc.state.nj.us


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