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The inventor of dropkicks fought fascists and got kicked out of Notre Dame

What have you done?

Art by Tyson Whiting

Giuseppe Antonio Savoldi is a legend. His accomplishments don’t make sense together as a list, because when you write them all out they look like the ramblings of a compulsively lying grandfather. His story is literally incredible, and now that I’ve heard it I think it’s my job to spread the good word and make sure everyone is aware of the absurdity that was his life.

I learned about Savoldi during an afternoon spent scouring for the term “charity wrestling.” No real reason. Thought it was a funny term. Turns out there used to be a ton of charity wrestling events. Anyway, that search led me to this headline.

The Los Angeles Times Sports Section, November 18, 1930

Good work, long-dead LA Times sports editor! You got me hooked. That combination of words, the fact it’s not just in the sports section but it’s the leading headline, I needed to know more.

I needed to know Joe Savoldi.

Pissing off the Catholic Church

The Savoldi family emigrated to Michigan when Giuseppe was a kid. In addition to anglicizing his name, our future star took up all the sports offered by his new, strange home. That led Joe to Notre Dame, where he played fullback on some preposterously talented, Knute Rockne-coached teams. I mention Rockne not because he was a very good and famous coach but because I wanted to say that (in a longwinded way) he’s responsible for Ronald Reagan’s presidential slogan, “Win one for the Gipper.” Maybe I’ll expand on that in the comment section if someone reminds me.

As for the dude we actually care about, Joe brought unmatched physicality out of the backfield. He paired that with some previously unheard-of acrobatics, diving over the pile for touchdowns when he didn’t feel like bulldozing his way in. Folks called him “Jumping Joe” or “Galloping Joe,” despite “Local Meat Monster” being the nickname that fit best. In addition to those wildly imaginative titles, after the 1929 season Joe could also go by “National Champion”. He helped pave Notre Dame’s way to the title and had them set up to be even better in 1930.

But trouble came in the final month of the season. It turned out Joe had gotten married in secret to a high school girl a few years prior. This news broke only after Joe filed for divorce, and boy did the Catholic Church not like that. Joe was forced to leave Notre Dame and without him the Fighting Irish nearly blew their chance at another national championship. Unfortunately (for Joe), they pulled it out against Army and finished undefeated for back-to-back titles.

Despite the abrupt ending, Joe got what he needed from his time at college. Those days at Notre Dame put him on the map and made him a hot commodity.

Pissing off the Packers

Green Bay’s owner Curley Lambeau liked what he saw in Joe. After Savoldi left Notre Dame, rumors quickly popped up that he’d been signed by the Packers. The trouble was that college athletes couldn’t be signed until their class had graduated, so Green Bay backtracked a bit and made it clear they weren’t going to do that — any honorable organization would never look to break the rules in order to acquire talent. This gave the Chicago Bears a window through which to scream “lol fuck that” and sign our hero to a contract.

Lambeau’s fumings are humored by the Green Bay Press Gazette, November 27, 1930

This was a pretty big deal, especially in the eyes of Lambeau, who sure complained about it a lot. He went so far as to point out the league could even kill off the Bears franchise because of the move. It never reached that point, but once Lambeau got all the jealous rage out of his system the league did fine Chicago $1,000 for every game that Joe played for them. The Bears happily paid the Joe fee and won their final three games — which included a 21-0 shellacking of Green Bay. Well worth the money.

Joe hadn’t lost a football game in over two years. Whether he’d grown bored or became annoyed at all the rules keeping him in check, it was time for him to move on. That’s when Joe found his true calling: wrestling.

Jumping Joe the Dropkicking Foe

As a wrestler, Joe got off to a rowdy start. After just his second match Joe received a 30-day suspension. Why? Because he head butted his opponent into the hospital (his first opponent also found himself in the hospital after their match). Ignoring the hospitalizations, Joe won that second match thanks to multiple “flying tackles,” which I think we can all agree is cool as shit.

Fast forward a couple years and Joe’s status in the wrestling world had erupted. Headlining events as a heavyweight, Joe proved he knew how to create spectacle. In 1933 he debuted his soon-to-be favorite weapon: the Flying Dropkick. He used it to blast opponents out of the ring, dazzling spectators with a move that in the words of 1930s sportswriters sounds especially brutal:

The drop-kick is the latest “hold” Savoldi has perfected, and like the flying boot, is used from a standing position without warning. Joe simply drops to the mat on the back of his neck in front of his foe and shoots his feet straight into his opponent’s face.

Bettmann Archive

That’s pretty much what he did for the next decade. He toured the world dropkicking fools, turning teeth into souvenirs until his next role came calling.

You know Mussolini, right?

So, World War II popped off and everyone agreed it was a bad time. The U.S. military, though, had a secret weapon: Joe. According to his son, they approached Jumping Joe because, “he could speak fluent Italian and knew all the dialects. He was put in Italy six months before the invasion of Italy.” Hand-selected to be part of the Office Strategic Service in their Special Operations branch, one superior declared that Joe was, “built like a gorilla and moved lightly as a leopard.”

The stories of his missions, now declassified, are well worth reading about. We’ll focus on Joe’s final exploit, which involved a race with the Nazis to track down Italian scientist Carlo Calosi. That race was won, naturally, by the team that included Galloping Joe. They yanked Calosi out of Italy, therefore keeping his knowledge of some newly-engineered torpedo technology out of German hands (and keeping a bullet out of Calosi’s head).

Once his time serving in the OSS was complete, Joe celebrated the only way that made sense: he went back to wrestling. Joe eventually settled down in Kentucky, retired from wrestling, and taught high school science for 11 years. That last statement may have been his most harrowing feat. Joe’s life was ludicrous at a nearly nonstop rate.

Meanwhile, I’ve put off getting groceries for three days so I’m going to go do that. For Joe!