Do you remember those colorful t-shirts that Cactus Jack wore as a heel when he antagonized ECW fans in 1995? The caricature of WCW’s Dungeon of Doom was featured during his run as an anti-hardcore persona in Extreme Championship Wrestling. There was also the portrait of Bruiser Brody and Stan Hansen that garnered the approval of the diehard Philadelphia audience before Cactus became tangled in barbed wire in a match with The Sandman.
Where did these creations come from?
Ironically, the apparel that the future WWE Hall of Famer sported in 1995 was designed by a young advertisement specialist that Mick Foley inspired to pursue a career of his own inside the ring ropes. Over two decades later, Sam Panico, known in the squared circle as Shirley Doe, has a lengthy resume of accomplishments, both inside and outside of the industry that captivated him during his formative years.
“I started watching before church with my brother. The first match I remember was Garea/Zybysko losing to the Samoans for the WWF tag belts. We hid that we watched it until Dec. 31, 1979, when we asked if we could watch it — and ended up knowing everyone. I think because we liked Tiger Mask so much when he was in the US, we just got every magazine article on him that we could and that’s how we got into Japanese tape trading at a really young age,” Panico explained.
The innovative style of Satoru Sayama as the comic book-inspired Tiger Mask suited Panico perfectly, as the young fan had remarkable artistic ability that he applied when he earned an Associate’s degree from Art Institute of Pittsburgh in the early 1990s. Around the same time that he dubbed grainy VHS to amass a collection of hundreds of wrestling tapes, he pursued a Bachelor’s in visual design from Point Park University, which he completed in 1995.
The same year that he earned recognition in higher education, he started his in-ring career after he trained to wrestle around the local scene. However, Sam knew he wanted to learn more than just the novice aspect of the business and sought the lessons of a wrestling legend, Dory Funk Jr. at the world famous “Funkin Conservatory” training center in the late 90s. The former NWA World Heavyweight champion gave his numerous students a college education in professional wrestling.
“I did his first post-WWE Funkin’ Dojo. I paid money, that’s how anyone gets anywhere. I didn’t know how to work, so a lot of what I learned was ring generalship and working toward center and when to do what I do and when not to. It totally changed the way I worked in ring. The difference was night and day,” Sam recalled.
The knowledge that Dory granted to Panico allowed for the Pittsburgh grappler’s career to flourish, as the early 2000s saw him expand his horizons when he began to work in several different states. A clever combination of Cactus Jack, metal music, and an influence from the Japanese legends he watched allowed for the genesis of the devious Shirley Doe.
Locally, Doe worked extensively for Norm Connors under the International Wrestling Cartel banner until the late 2000s when a slew of injuries from a rather risky style prompted a vacation from bumps. Still, his time for IWC provided many memorable moments for him. Connors, one of the godfathers of Pittsburgh wrestling, ran Steel City Wrestling prior to his time as the organizer for IWC. During Doe’s rookie year, he worked for Steel City, and after he became well traveled in later years, he became one of the cornerstones of IWC. Panico’s ability to use psychology and willingness to take risky bumps made his extended run as the promotion’s champion beneficial to the credibility to the championship. He worked with many stars as IWC champion, including Balls Mahoney, The Sandman, and others. He also had bouts where Mick Foley appeared as the guest referee, moments that he considers highlights of his 22-year career.
Doe’s admirable efforts got him noticed, and he had the chance to live a dream of wrestling in Japan, where he worked two different tours in 2004 and 2005 for various independent groups.
“Makio Kodama got me booked. It was a whirlwind, but a lot of fun. I worked the indy scene, which is pretty much the level of my talent, lol. I did get to work for WMF at the smaller Differ Araki arena and at Korakuen for DDT.”
When he wasn’t elbowing his opponents in the face in Pittsburgh or smashing foes with weapons in Tokyo, Panico worked in a very different setting for his usual routine. The talented artist and film buff used his design background to become a very respected contributor in the advertisement world, providing content for many major brands.
“I own my own agency now. It’s just another facet of who I am and the two sides interplay a lot,” he said.
Aside from his work in the ring, Doe trained other aspiring wrestlers, including Global Force Wrestling star DJ Z, and independent standout Gory in 2004.
“I saw their potential day one, they just had to be 18 to wrestle, so I kept them under my wing for 2-3 years. The most important part is not to become a mark for whomever you are training. You have to be tough on everyone. I believed in all wrestling for the first 6 months, no ropes, no strikes, all working. Then you learn the easy parts. No one gets a character until they are nearly done. I’m more about the mechanics of how to work versus drills — anyone can learn cardio, and from someone way better at it than me. I believe that wrestling is a language and I gave them the words, but it’s up to them to formulate how they speak. Anyone that tells you, “I’m gonna be your best student?” They are going to be horrible. I pushed hard for humble kids that could work hard and be tough. You can tell most of my guys, I hope, by how hard they hit and that they don’t give up or in.”
That mindset made Panico one of the most respect figures in Pittsburgh wrestling, and his contemporaries speak highly of him. In late 2008, after taking the time to heal many nagging injuries, he returned to the wrestling scene for Pro Wrestling Express, one of the longest running groups in the region. The reduced schedule allowed for Shirley Doe to continue to contribute to the sport he has a lifelong passion for, but also gave him time to build the agency that he runs today. In more recent years, he still wrestles, but took an active role to assist behind the scenes as well.
“His knowledge and stories make you want to live in his titanic shoes if only for a brief instance. He makes you swoon for professional wrestling. The proudest accomplishment of my time in wrestling is that he calls me a friend,” said Marcus Mann, Pittsburgh area manager.
After more than half of his life as a pro wrestler, Sam Panico wrestled many destinations, and is unanimously respected for his humble approach to the genre. But, after nearly two dozen years in the sport, what does he consider his best accomplishment?
“Honestly, it’s the fact that anyone remembers or cares or comes to a show. I’ve been really thankful to do what I do for so long and to have so much fun and make so many friends.”
Panico never made it to Wrestlemania as Shirley Doe, but he realized his personal sports entertainment dream of working in Korakuen Hall. Most importantly, his efforts and contributions for the past two decades certainly make him a credit to the industry.