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Local wrestler ends career with hall of fame induction

Tribune Chronicle / Andy Gray Pete Lucic, a former Trumbull County Sheriff’s Office deputy and professional wrestler, shows off some of the tricks he would use when wrestling as the “Heel” instead of the “Face.”

YOUGNSTOWN — Pete Lucic has six screws and a plate in his left ankle, herniated disks in his neck, caps on his teeth and a nose that’s been fractured three times.

He’s separated his shoulder, suffered a couple of concussions and received assorted scars, and he has a story to go with every one of those injuries.

The one the Girard native doesn’t have a story for is his bad left hip. It wasn’t caused by one specific incident; it’s accumulated damage from 30-plus years as a professional wrestler under such names as Preston Steele, Doink the Clown, American Patriot and Sheriff Steele. Thirty-three years as a Trumbull County Sheriff’s Office deputy contributed to the wear and tear as well.

Now the injury does have a story — it’s the one that ended his wrestling career.

Lucic, 58, wrestled his final match earlier this month against his son John (who wrestles as Johnny Mercury) in Cincinnati. And before he has hip replacement surgery on April 10, he will be inducted tonight into the Keystone State Wrestling Alliance Hall of Fame, where he’ll be enshrined alongside such greats as Dominic DeNucci, George “the Animal” Steele and Bruno Sammartino.

“I’m really excited about it,” Lucic said during an interview at his home in Youngstown. “It’s quite an honor. There are several wrestling hall of fames, but KSWA is a very prominent one.”

Lucic got his start in wrestling in the mid-’80s when he got laid off at the sheriff’s office. He began training with DeNucci near Pittsburgh and learning alongside such future pros as Mick Foley, Shane Douglas and Cody Michaels.

“Three months later, I had my first show,” he said.

Over the course of his career, Lucic faced off against such wrestling stars as King Kong Bundy, the Iron Sheik, Koko B. Ware and Ax and Smash of the tag team duo Demolition. He never wrestled against Andre the Giant, but he played cards with him after that first match with Bundy and watched him polish off a case of longneck beers in about two hours.

“His hands were so big you couldn’t see the bottle,” Lucic said.

Lucic wrestled around the world for Rob Russen, founder of IWA Championship Wrestling, traveling to Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Australia, Japan and Italy. Promoters have made and sold Preston Steele action figures and fabric dolls at events, and he’s been featured in a variety of wrestling publications.

Until he retired in 2014, he did it around his job at the sheriff’s office, wrestling on weekends and taking comp time instead of overtime to be able to participate in those world tours.

“When I first started, I was married and had a kid and didn’t want to leave the area,” he said. “I had benefits, a pretty good job. People say, ‘I wish I’d done this, I should have done that.’ I was an orphan — my parents both died when I was young — and I was an abused child. When I was 14, 15 years of age, I wanted to be a policeman because I wanted to help kids. I also wanted to be a professional wrestler. I got to do both.”

His wrestling career came in handy on occasion as a deputy. Lucic remembered responding once to a domestic disturbance.

“The guy’s yelling and screaming and started dropping F-bombs. In the middle of it, he stops and goes, ‘Hey, aren’t you the wrestler?’ We started talking and everything was diffused,” Lucic recalled.

Lucic had a chance at a WWE contract as Preston Steele. The week before his audition during a tune-up match in Cleveland, his foot went through a board in the ring. He got six screws and a plate in his left ankle, and the Big Boss Man got the gig with the WWE.

“It’s OK. Everything happens for a reason.”

Someone can tell whether a wrestler usually wins or loses by looking at his boots, Lucic said. The winner’s boots are worn out on the toe from pinning his opponents. The guy who usually gets pinned will have scuffed leather on the back of his boots.

Lucic has both in his closet. When he wrestled locally, Lucic usually played the role of the “Face,” the good guy in the match. On the road and around the world, he mostly was a “Heel” (he was voted most hated bad guy in Germany two years in a row). As Sheriff Steele, he’d use a pepper pray to blind his opponents. As Preston Steele, he would hide chains in his boots or use a thin black strap to choke his competitor when the ref wasn’t looking.

“The first time I was a bad guy, a Heel, I was sad about it. Dominic asked, ‘What’s wrong?’ ‘People hate me. They’re booing me, calling me names.’ Dominic goes, ‘Kid, that means they love you.’ I never forgot, the more they boo me the more they love me,” Lucic said.

“The younger generation doesn’t understand that. The bad guy makes the hero look good. If I don’t cheat, if I don’t do terrible things, you’re not going to be popular. The young guys you see on TV today don’t get that. You may have a good body and are handsome, but no one would care about you if the Heels aren’t doing all those terrible things.”

Lucic may have been a Heel in the ring, but he used it to be a hero for many. Lucic is being recognized by the KSWA for his charitable efforts as much as his prowess in the ring. He organized benefit wrestling matches for everyone from injured law enforcement officers to children battling cancer, and he donated his time to countless events organized by others.

That’s what he’s afraid of missing most.

“I think what’s been bothering me is maybe I won’t be able to help, I won’t be able to make a difference anymore,” he said.

He already has several personal appearances scheduled at charity events later this year, so Lucic is finding ways to make a difference that won’t involve enduring a suplex or a sleeper hold. He’s also been offered the chance to play the role of a manager on the professional circuit, but for now he’s looking forward to a break.

“I might just lay back and be a fan for awhile,” Lucic said. “I haven’t done that for a long time, and I miss it.”

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