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A Clean Finish – by Brendan Higgins

By Brendan Higgins, contributing writer

     He knew from a young age what he wanted to do. When he was 13, his father took him to a wrestling show for the grand opening of Powerhouse Gym in Johnston. He approached the promoter expressing his love for wrestling. He asked how he could break into the sport. He was given the cold shoulder and told he was too young. That didn’t stop Don Vega (real name, Richard Adorno) from pursuing his dream of entering the squared circle. He would meet that same promoter again later in life.

     Vega was born in Hoboken, New Jersey on October 25th, 1981. His family moved to Puerto Rico when he was 4 years old. That was where he was introduced to professional wrestling. His grandfather was a big wrestling fan and Vega would sit with him and watch World Wrestling Council (WWC) television. He saw all the top stars from the promotion like Carlos Colon, TNT (Savio Vega), Hercules Ayala, Pedro Morales, Huertas Gonzalez, Miguel Perez, Ricky Santana and Chicky Starr. Many American wrestlers would also make appearances in Puerto Rico including the NWA World Heavyweight Champion Ric Flair, Bruiser Brody, Abdullah the Butcher, Tony Atlas, Barry Windham, Al Perez, Rick Martel, Ricky Steamboat and a whole host of others. Vega was hooked. He loved what he was seeing on TV and dreamed of being in the ring someday.

     His family moved to Providence in 1993. Vega played a little football in school, but he really enjoyed one on one combat sports like wrestling and boxing. He trained at the former Cranston Boxing Club on Park Avenue.

     As a teenager Richard was uninterested in what they were trying to teach him at Central High School. He couldn’t relate to learning about another culture that had absolutely nothing to do with his history and had an even harder time understanding why he needed to learn any of it, while his culture was ignored. He decided to educate himself by going to the library and reading the limited books he could find. He took the initiative and learned how to work on cars. He knew he needed to make his own path in life. He landed a job at a car dealership doing reconditioning and minor repairs. He was taking matters into his own hands preparing himself for life.

     While all his ambitious actions were taking shape, his true love was professional wrestling. He was ready to step in the ring. He convinced his parents to sign a waiver when he was 16 years old so he could start learning the art of professional wrestling. Back then there were very few places locally to break into wrestling. He called himself “The Punisher.” He was barely old enough to drive and already weighed 230lbs. He started out with a local Rhode Island group called the New England Wrestling Alliance (NEWA). This was an opportunity for Vega to get in the ring, but he quickly realized he was not going to get the necessary training needed to become a pro. Some people are satisfied with wrestling fantasy camp, but Don Vega wanted more. He was serious about becoming a professional wrestler. He knew a few of the NEWA guys were going to another wrestling training facility. He was invited to come along and that’s when Vega ventured to Massachusetts Seacoast and Yankee Pro Wrestling. Today they are known as Top Rope Promotions. This group is the longest running wrestling organization in New England. They have a storied history with a who’s who of wrestling talent competing in their ring over the past 4 decades. Anyone can buy a pair of boots and call themselves a wrestler. The individuals who do that never get very far because serious training is required to effectively compete in a pro wrestling match.  

Don “The Punisher” Vega vs WWE Hall of Famer Tony Atlas

     At just 17 years old, Vega met and began training with Mike “Brickhouse” Baker. This was when Vega went from self-taught wrestler to understanding how much there is to learn in order to be considered a pro by his peers, promoters and the fans. Baker is a respected veteran wrestler and trainer. When Vega began training under the guidance of Baker it didn’t take long before Vega was ready for a real professional match. He was very sincere discussing his trainer saying, “If it wasn’t for Mike Baker, I doubt I would be sitting here talking about my wrestling career with you. He taught me so much. I love him.”

     Once he was a trained professional wrestler The Punisher returned to the NEWA to compete for them, once again never forgetting where he came from. One night at Cumberland High School he was wrestling in the main event. The referee for the match was Scott Dickenson. This is a classic story about how things happen in the wrestling community. At the time, Scott was a well-known referee for World Championship Wrestling (WCW) in Atlanta, Georgia. He also worked for the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) in Boston, for legendary promoter Tony “The Boston Bad Boy” Rumble. Scott liked Vega and arranged a tryout with Rumble’s high level organization. His first match was against Beau Douglas in Sommerville, Massachusetts in 1999. Back then television tapings were held at Good Times Emporium. Rumble liked “The Punisher” but wanted a real name to be on his shows, and Rumble suggested Don Vega. He also told him he should keep the nickname “The Punisher”, and Don “The Punisher” Vega was born.

     Having this new opportunity to work for the NWA was a major step up for Vega. This was the highest level of independent wrestling in the country at the time. The only place to go from here was World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) or WCW. In a relatively short period of time Vega went from a glorified backyard wrestler to a professional wrestler.

Don Vega vs “Nasty Boy” Brian Knobbs

     He used a combination of brawling and technical wrestling as he fought his way into contention in the NWA. He also stayed busy working for as many other promotions around the Northeast as he possibly could. The promoters trusted Vega and his ability to put on a good match. He found himself standing across the ring from wrestlers he was watching on television only a few years earlier. Many of them were WWE Hall of Famers like Tony Atlas, Brutus Beefcake, The Nasty Boys, The Bushwhackers, King Kong Bundy, Jim Duggan, Greg Valentine, Tatanka, Billy Gunn, X-Pac and his personal favorite opponent, Tito Santana. Vega was making his dream a reality and he was only getting started.

    In 2005 Vega found himself in the very desirable position of returning to Puerto Rico, only this time as a wrestler. Vega said, “In some ways this was bigger than WrestleMania for me. This was seeing my 5-year-old self-making my dream come true.” He was booked for his first tour with the International Wrestling Association (IWA). The person responsible for bringing him to Puerto Rico was WWE Hall of Famer “Bushwhacker” Luke Williams who worked in the IWA office. After Vega competed against the Bushwhackers in a series of matches around New England, Williams arranged for Vega to wrestle in Puerto Rico on multiple tours. However, this was not just a wrestling tour, it was a homecoming. It also meant he would be wrestling most every night for a solid month. The best way to improve in the ring is to wrestle as often as possible. Don Vega was about to do just that. He wrestled the top stars from the promotion, including Spectro, Mr. Big and IWA Heavyweight Champion Michael Judas.

     When he returned to America, he continued making new connections on his way to uncharted territories, including New England Championship Wrestling (NECW). This organization came into existence after the passing of Tony Rumble. It was, and still is, run by legendary wrestling historian and promoter Sheldon Goldberg. Vega would go on to win the NECW Tag Team Championship with another Rhode Island grappler Jose Perez. They defeated

Ric Flair, Don Vega, Ricky Steamboat

the very capable team of the Crown Jewels comprised of Darling Damon and former NWA World Junior Heavyweight Champion, Jason Rumble. He also started wrestling for another long-time Massachusetts based promotion called Chaotic Wrestling. He was at the top of his game which led to a tryout with Total Nonstop Action or TNA wrestling.

     It’s important to recognize just getting opportunities to have one match in any of these National promotions is a major accomplishment. The reason is simple. There are thousands of men and women all over the world who want one of the limited precious spots available in a high-level professional wrestling company. The amount of hard work, sweat, and at times blood spilled to see even the tiniest bit of advancement in building a wrestling career can take years to achieve. In most cases it never happens at all. Years of chasing a dream can be washed away with the cold truth that not everyone is going to make it. That would not be the case for Don “The Punisher” Vega. After years of paying his dues, he was finally booked for the WWE. This is the major leagues of pro wrestling. Not only was he getting an opportunity with them, but he would also be doing so in the most famous arena of them all, Madison Square Garden, in New York City. On August 13, 2007, Vega was granted access from security outside the building and walked through the door for the very first time. To be crystal clear, very few ever get this far and it’s usually not at MSG. Vega made his way down the hallway looking at the posters of the legends lining the walls who had performed in this historic venue over the years, including Hulk Hogan, Mike Tyson, Patrick Ewing, and Michael Jackson, just to name a few.

     As a former amateur boxer, Vega got much more than he bargained for that night when he found himself face to face with former World Heavyweight Boxing Champion Evander Holyfield. It was a special day in Don’s life that just kept getting better as it unfolded. His role that night was not in a wrestling match but as a plant in the crowd, but his foot was in the door and he would eventually get to show off his wrestling ability at a future show in Manchester, New Hampshire, making his in ring debut against Luke Gallows. Since then, Vega has maintained a working relationship with WWE to this day making his last appearance in late 2021.

     While I was interviewing him for this article, he opened up to me saying, “I never wanted to do this for the money. It was always my love for wrestling that kept me in the ring.” Vega also told me he was grateful to me for doing this story in the first place because I was the promoter who told him he was too young to wrestle when he was 13. I’m extremely proud to report that Don Vega never gave up on his dream.                

Photo courtesy of Big Time Wrestling
Vega vs Atlas                 Vega vs Dykstra                   Vega vs Boogyman

Vega went on to compete in over 1000 professional wrestling matches. He captured many titles along the way and fufilled his dream to wrestle in Puetro Rico as well as the WWE.

     Outside the ring Don is a quiet family man. He is the proud father of 2 children. His daughter, Alaina, is 18. Don and his girlfriend Issa just welcomed the newest addition to the family on December 22nd, 2021. A beautiful baby girl, Gisselyz. They live in the Elmwood section of Providence.

Don as a child with his father Julio            Don as a father, with his child Gesselyz

  

Don with his daughter, Alaina

     Vega explained to me that all of his family support him in the ring but his father, the late Julio Adorno, was his biggest fan. When Don received the call that he was booked for the granddaddy of them all, WrestleMania 35, his father was filled with joy hearing the news. The circumstances surrounding the news was not all good. Julio was very sick. He was battling multiple myeloma cancer. He was dying. Don wanted his father to see him on the biggest wrestling stage there is. This particular event was being held at Met Life Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Just 10 minutes away from Julio’s home in Hoboken.

     Over the years Julio came to all of his son’s wrestling matches. He drove him up and down the east coast supporting his son’s dream of making it to the WWE. Don became emotional talking about his father. He said, “I wanted him to see me on the biggest wrestling event of them all before he died – and that happened.” For this show, Don Vega was part of Batista’s CIA team in his match against Triple H. The entrance included SUVs filled with agents and Don was one of them. He went on to say, “Even though I was not physically wrestling in the ring for this show, it was my way of saying thank you to my father for supporting me while I tried to fulfill my dream all these years.” Julio Adorno died shortly after the event, but he was able to see his son at WrestleMania from the comfort of his home before he passed.

     Don Vega is 40 years old and after over 25 years in the ring he is still going strong. He continues to wrestle on a regular basis and has a big match for Showcase Pro Wrestling on February 25th in Franklin, Massachusetts at the Elks Lodge located at 1077 Pond Street with a 7:47 pm bell time. He will be in the main event against former 4-time WWE Intercontinental Champion Carlito who is also the son of Carlos Colon. This is sure to be an outstanding match pitting 2 great wrestlers who still have plenty to prove to each other and the fans. Tickets are available at showcaseprowrestling.com.

     Vega is also looking to give back to the sport he loves. He wants to transition working behind the scenes helping with the production of the show and most of all helping younger talent as they follow their dream. He is currently training wrestlers at Showcase Pro Wrestling’s school located at 126 Main Street in Woonsocket. Anyone interested in becoming a wrestler is welcome to walk in on Monday and Wednesday nights at 6:30 pm. In addition to the show in Franklin, Showcase Pro Wrestling will be in Taunton, March 18th at the VFW Hall located at 82 Ingell Street with a 7:47 pm bell time. Vega will be facing yet another legend, Savio Vega, in what is sure to be an exciting match.

     In 2020 Don “The Punisher” Vega took his rightful place in the New England Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame. HOF President Joe Bruen said “Don Vega has done it all in wrestling. He competed in every promotion and wrestled all the top wrestlers in the world. He deserves to be in the HOF.”

Don Vega will be put to the test by former 4-time WWE Intercontinental Champion Carlito

_____

Brendan Higgins, writer and author, RIPTA bus driver, former professional wrestler (Knuckles Nelson), and North Kingstown resident.

We welcome Brendan as a contributing writer to RINewsToday.

To read a story about Brendan, from our sports department, go to: https://rinewstoday.com/knuckles-nelson-waking-up-from-the-wrestling-ring-to-the-yoga-mat-john-cardullo/

Higgins is the author of “Waking Up: From the Wrestling Ring to the Yoga Mat”

1 Comment

  1. Dan Bidondi on February 16, 2022 at 11:46 pm

    I’ve known Don Vega for decades in the wrestling business.
    We’ve went head to head, tagged in one occasion, been in battle royals, etc.

    Don is one of the most dedicated, hard working individuals in the business.
    I’ve had the honor to know his Dad.
    Both Don and his Father came to every show, both class acts and very respectful to everyone.

    I wish Don God’s speed and I can see him wrestling for WWE really soon.

    Keep rockin Don and God bless
    -Bionic Dan Bidondi