Relocated Rossi still preaches gospel of good health

Friday, June 16, 2017, Vol. 41, No. 24

Len Rossi used to be known for using “the sleeper” and “the Boston crab” and especially for delivering “the dropkick” – his specialty – while slaughtering foes in wrestling rings all over the United States, Canada and even in Japan. (Gauging the extent of actual damage done to his opponents kinda depends on whether you are one of the folks believing pro wrestling, like Santa Claus, is 100 percent real and that Elvis is still alive.)

Regardless no one would disagree that Len – one of the South’s biggest professional wrestling stars – was mighty tough. Probably wouldn’t want to take him on even now, as he nears 88 years old.

But he’s not planning any sort of late-life comeback on the canvas. He just wants people to know he’s still in business after Franklin Road widening plans forced him to abandon his Len Rossi Health Foods building down on the extreme southern edge of Brentwood.

“I need people to know we’re still out here, alive and kicking,” says Len, who – within a week of having to vacate the Franklin Road building – had set up his business in his Nolensville home. Out back is a mini-warehouse loaded with the vitamins and nutritional supplements he’s been championing (and selling) in the years since a car wreck led him to throw in the towel on his wrestling career.

“We’re not kicking really hard, but we’re kicking,” he says, a frequent smile crossing the face of this very kind guy who was a wrestling world heartthrob and hero until 1972, when that car wreck “on the Big Sandy Bridge, I think they call it, on I-40.”

Three people in the other car involved in the chain-reaction wreck died, according to this former lord of the ring. “It was a pileup,” says Len, who suffered broken bones throughout his body.

“I was a passenger that day. Cowboy Frankie Lane was driving. It must have been a Friday, because we were on our way to Tupelo.”

That town, a dandy piece of civilization propped in the middle of Mississippi’s endless cotton fields, is, of course, best-known as the birthplace of the aforementioned Mr. Presley.

Back in Len’s day, it also was a major Friday night stop on the pro wrestling circuit.

The fact his wrestling career ended because of that I-40 wreck seems almost fate since he basically lived on America’s long and lonesome highways back in his glory days. From the moment he turned professional in 1951 until that wreck, Len barnstormed America, driving from town to town, taking on the bad guys and delighting crowds.

Wrestling was a pop-culture king back then, and Len was one of the most popular good guys, also called “babyfaces.”

“I all the time hear from someone that they used to watch me wrestle on television back when they were children,” he says. “I tell them, you pretty much had to. There were only three channels in Nashville.

“You either watched the real soap operas or you watched our soap operas in the ring,” he adds, of the plotlines carried out by big men in tight shorts, a good guy and a bad guy, or perhaps two tag teams.

Len stops for a moment when I press him more for details of the car wreck. It was long ago, of course, but “I had so many broken bones, I was incapable of wrestling anymore.”

He was recuperating from those injuries when he was dealt another near-death blow.

“I was out one Sunday, riding my bike, trying to get back in shape and I had this really bad stomach ache.”

When he got home, blood began rushing from his body and he was rushed to the hospital, where he was told he had diverticulitis and it had ruptured in his colon.

While health woes were “the pinfall” on his pro wrestling days, they dropkicked open the door for Len’s successful career in the health food and nutritional supplement business. He not only sells the supplements, he preaches the value of keeping the body in balance and can readily use his own story as illustration.

“I was facing surgery on my colon, but then the doctor came in and said ‘you do not have a life-threatening situation. It can be dealt with diet and medicine.’”

Len says he was told of research involving cultures in places like Africa, where “the natives were getting 40 grams of fiber a day and we (Americans) were getting 10 grams. Those natives had very little heart disease and very little colon problems.”

He slaps himself in the forehead much more softly than it appears. (He is a former wrestler and knows well the dramatic value of a good pulled punch).

“God walked in the hospital room that day and hit me in the head with a hammer and said ‘Wake up …. Go learn about the values of nutritional supplements and diet in general.’

“I didn’t really feel a hit (from God),” he says, again targeting his forehead with his hand.” But I felt like ‘Wow!’

“Something overcame me and told me to learn about healing the body.’’

Yes, he says he does believe it was God, but he can’t swear on it. Be pretty gutsy to swear at all in this home decorated with crucifixes and other things Roman Catholic.

That meet-up with God in the hospital room led him to follow “the boss” – “we all worship the same boss, after all” – and immerse himself in the study of nutritional supplements and dietary needs.

“After I got out of the hospital, I went to Belmont for a year and studied nutrition classes. Then I did a four-year naturopathic program and got a diploma.

“They taught me a lot about vitamins and nutritional supplements and how they heal the body,” he explains. “It’s a physical, nutritional and spiritual thing. The body has the inherent ability to heal itself … if you give it the right fuels.

“It’s what we put in our bodies that counts in the long run.”

Evangelizing that message “is what I’m supposed to do,” he says. “It became a ministry to me. I really mean that.”

He also points out that he has great respect for doctors, like the ones who saved his life.

“We don’t compete with doctors,” he adds. “Our nutritional supplements are for chronic conditions.”

With his diploma to prove his knowledge of the world of what he calls “nutraceuticals,” he opened up his health food business in 1974. That store had four different Brentwood locations before settling in the small house-like structure on the southern edge of that McMansion-filled boomtown 18 years ago.

He notes that when he first landed in Brentwood, there really wasn’t much there other than Huff’s Food Town and Lee’s Apothecary and Nobles Corner, with its good food and rooms for rent at the southwest corner of the Franklin Road/Old Hickory Boulevard intersection.

“Eddy Arnold would come in my store two, three times a week. He was a really nice guy. I liked Eddy. Always telling those jokes.”

Eddy, the great countrypolitan singer and a late friend of this writer, is given credit for “settling Brentwood” as a place where country music “hillbillies” could build nice houses and live comfortably far from the rich confines of Belle Meade, where back then they simply weren’t welcome among the old money and raised-pinky crowd.

If hillbilly cats weren’t welcome, you can only imagine how wrestlers were regarded on The Boulevard.

That sort of discrimination died out over the decades as the music business grew into a huge industry, greatly aiding Middle Tennessee’s growth and economy. Maybe those hillbillies weren’t so bad after all, mused some of the folks who regularly populate society pages.

That’s another story, of course. But the Brentwood and Nashville area continued to grow to the point where last Nov. 18, the beloved old wrestler and his microbiologist wife (she conducts tests to see what supplements, if any, will help people achieve nutritional balance) were driven out of their store, thanks to the demands of our heralded and ballyhooed “It City.”

“I’m from the old school,” says Len, thinking back to his forced departure. “Now (the Nashville area) is too thickly populated and the traffic has really increased. The little guy has to leave.”

Former pro wrestler Len Rossi, who will soon be 88, has been selling vitamins and nutritional products at his shop in Brentwood for more than 40 years.

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Len leans back in his dining room chair. Around him are wrestling mementoes, family photos, a red “Make America Great Again” ball cap, Christmas cards still on the walls … and a small Christmas tree.

“I keep that up all year. You know why I have that up there? Every day when I look at that tree, it reminds me of our Lord and Savior and why we’re here,” explains the gentlemanly old wrestler and natural healing activist.

“I was 40 years ahead of my time,” he points out. Now, natural healing is a trend and more stores have taken up the cause. “I never was good at marketing myself. I was just trying to feed my family.”

He points over his shoulder to a nicely crafted wooden box on the shelves that display so much of his life.

“My daughter, Adele, died about four years ago down in Florida. We have her ashes right there,” he says, pointing at a nicely crafted wooden box. He notes they were “estranged” at the time of her death. Still, he brought her back to be a part of the story of his life that is spread out on the walls and tables throughout his house and even spills out onto the front porch.

“Joe died 13 years ago (at age 51). Lung cancer,” he adds as I finally bring the conversation around to his son, the Nolensville alderman who, for a time, wrestled as his dad’s partner and, on his own, wrestled his way around the world.

“I think we may have been the only father-son team around,” says the proud father, voice cracking a bit.

Best-known as “Joey,” he also helped with the store and sold used vinyl LPs. “Some of them were really, really expensive. He had a lot of vinyl.” The record business was abandoned after Joey died.

“He was my best friend. He’s buried over in Nolensville Cemetery, right by his mama.”

“Nolensville wouldn’t be what it is if it hadn’t been for Joey. If he had lived, he’d be mayor.”

The son’s impact on the community is displayed proudly as the section of Nolensville Road that passes through the old city has been redubbed “Joe Rossi Memorial Highway.”

After Joey died “if I was alone down at the store, I would cry. He would have been 65 June 3. I went down to the cemetery and said ‘happy birthday’ and said a few prayers.”

This flood of recollections of Joey turns Len somber, thoughtful, for a few minutes.

Len gets up from his chair and crosses the living room to retrieve one of those “championship” belts – the heavy metal and leather ornaments draped around a title-holder’s waist. If nothing else, you surely saw Rocky Balboa wear one.

“I am so proud of this,” he says, of the belt that proclaims him Southern Heavyweight Champion, an honorary title bestowed on him by the Cauliflower Alley Club – a Las Vegas-based brotherhood comprised of former wrestlers and boxers and actors (“like Stallone”) who have portrayed them.

Membership is noted by a brass cauliflower ear – a swollen affliction suffered by guys hit in the ears too often – hanging on his walls.

The belt, brass ear and his induction in the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame in Wichita Falls, Texas, are emblematic of a long career well-spent in the ring.

Our conversation shifts back to the era when Len Rositano (Rossi is his professional name), the Catholic kid from Utica, New York, was among the most popular good guys on the nationwide pro wrestling circuit.

That profession had Len and his family living on the road before deciding to settle down in Music City. His wife, Lee, “was tired of living like a gypsy, and Joe was getting ready to start school.”

This image from Rossi’s Facebook page shows him executing one of his signature moves: the “Boston Crab.” Rossi was one of the good guys in the ever-popular good vs. evil  storyline that dominates pro wrestling.

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“So, we moved to Nashville in 1958,” he says. “You can say I’m a native Tennessean.”

This area is pretty centrally located, allowing him relatively easy access to wrestling bouts all over this half of the country.

Much of his highest acclaim and notoriety was earned on Friday nights when pro wrestling took over Nashville’s Hippodrome, a place where roller skating and even roller-skating baseball reigned most of the time. Benny Goodman and big band cohorts also stopped there for swing dances.

But on Fridays, the Hippodrome – it was across from Centennial Park near Vanderbilt University and basically in the same spot where a Holiday Inn resides – was filled with good guys battling bad guys for ring domination. The late and beloved bad guys, like Tojo Yamamoto and Jackie Fargo, for example, would take on one of the good guys. Like Len Rossi.

“Back then my first wife and I couldn’t go out to a restaurant without being swarmed by people wanting autographs,” adds Len, of his “movie star” days.

That first wife, Lee, “died on our 40th anniversary day,” says Len, who hollers to the other room to get his current wife, Jeanie, who he married 24 years ago, to take a break from her health foods and supplements orders and join us at the dining table.

“This is my child bride,” Len says. “You are lucky if you can find one wife who loves you. If you can find two, you are blessed.”

Jeanie – a former Presbyterian who converted to Catholicism for the love of her life – visits us briefly before getting up and going back to work, making sure not to step on Buddy Boy, a black fur ball who relaxes on the floor nearby.

“He’s our house cat,” Len explains. “Make sure he doesn’t get out.” Frankie, “our outside cat” is enjoying sunshine on the porch.

Pepper, a rescue dog that is “part black Lab and part traveling man,” according to Jeanie, is on this day at a doggie day care, getting lessons on socializing with other dogs.

Len leads me out to the warehouse filled with supplements that are for sale by mail-order or simply directly from the Rossis.

“We don’t heal people, God heals people. We just collect the money,” he says, with a laugh. “Same for doctors. They just collect the money.”

But, he points out that “so many” people don’t think about what they are taking into their bodies and how it could hurt. Basically, his little sermon is of the old “you are what you eat” philosophy.

“People need proper nutrition, proper diet, proper eating and proper exercise,” he points out.

While newer Nashvillians may know Len as the patron saint of health food, his true fans will always know he’s the guy who put the sleeper on The Sheik, Jackie Fargo or whoever he was assigned to vanquish. Maybe added a few dropkicks – his specialty – to make sure they stayed down on the canvas or begged for mercy.

So, the discussion leads to the point at which I’ve just got to ask. I’d watched videos of him in his wrestling days and I was impressed by his acting ability, particularly the grunting sound he made when a foe bent and twisted his arm.

Wanting neither to be rude nor dropkicked from the home, I had saved this question for the end of the long and lazy afternoon in the Nolensville shrine to wrestling and health food:

Most people know pro wrestling is outrageously scripted nowadays, but was it more real back when he reigned?

“It’s gotten 120 percent show biz now,” he responds. “But in wrestling you always had to have some showmanship to attract the crowds.

“When people ask me about it, I say I wrestled for 25 years and all the matches I won were legit.

“The ones I lost were fixed.”