The International Gazette Philadelphia, PA Summer 2013
Wrestling’s Living Legend Bruno Sammartino Gets Inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame
By David Block
Paul Levesque who wrestles in the WWE (World Wresting Entertainment) under the moniker, Hunter Hearst Helmsley/AKA Triple H, has made a number of accomplishments inside the squared circle, including winning the WWE title on 13 different occasions. Outside the ring, Levesque is Executive Vice President of Talent and Live Events for the WWE. In that role, he has also landed impressive coups, such as persuading one of professional wrestling’s all time greatest superstars, the Living Legend, Bruno Sammartino to allow the WWE to induct him into their Hall of Fame. For years, Sammartino turned down the WWE’s offers because he left the organization in 1988 on bad terms.
Levesque wanted to see Sammartino inducted.
“The WWE has become the caretakers of wrestling,” said Levesque. “To me, it was like baseball having a hall of fame without Babe Ruth in it. When Bruno wrestled, he was the most recognizable name in the entire business.”
Sammartino was one of the most popular wrestlers in his day. Levesque said: “My dad grew up watching Bruno. He was a huge Bruno fan.” When the WWE inducted Sammartino into the WWE Hall of Fame at Madison Square Garden this past April 6, the night before Wrestlemania 29, Levesque’s father was there. “My dad was like a little kid. He didn’t care what else he did that Wrestlemania weekend. He just wanted me to introduce him to Bruno. My dad told me how important Bruno was to him.”
When Levesque set out to get Sammartino inducted, he knew that the Living Legend had had serious problems with WWE Chairman Vince McMahon, Jr. He also knew that Sammartino objected to the WWE’s vulgarity, profanity, and nudity. “Times had changed,” said Levesque. “The WWE had changed. We had to show Bruno that we cleaned up our act. I knew that if we could all get together and look at today instead of the past, we would all be on the same page.”
When Levesque told Sammartino that the WWE hired Dr. Joseph Maroon to head their wellness and drug testing programs Sammartino was impressed. The doctor and Sammartino were close friends. In fact, he operated on Sammartino three times.
Sammartino spoke to Dr. Maroon. “He told me that the WWE were doing very, very strict drug testing,” said Sammartino. “Paul assured me that the WWE wanted everything to be more family friendly. They did away with the nudity, the vulgarity, and the profanity that existed. I started watching it on television for about eight months to make sure it was so. I must say that Paul was straight with me, very honest. I told Paul that I would be happy to be inducted.”
The Night of the Hall of Fame Ceremony
Sammartino and McMahon had a private meeting at Madison Square Garden. When they shook hands for the first time in over 20 years, McMahon said, ‘Welcome home,’ according to Sammartino. “We talked a bit about what the problem had been, my feelings, and his feelings,” said Sammartino. “He was gracious. He said, ‘we made a lot of changes here. We’d love to bury the hatchet. The past is the past. Let’s go with the future.’”
When Sammartino’s long time friend, Arnold Schwarzenegger, inducted him into the Hall of Fame in front of a sold out Madison Square Garden, the Living Legend was greeted with resounding applause and the chant, “Thank you, Bruno!”
“I didn’t know what to expect,” said Sammartino. “When I wrestled there years ago, the fans were the parents and grandparents of the people who were there for the induction. When I came out there, and received the applause, I can’t deny that it was a great, great feeling.”
That night all the WWE wrestlers thanked Sammartino for paving the way for them.
When Sammartino wrestled, he weighed 270. He came to the ring with just a pair of tights and a pair of boots. There was nothing fancy about him. Unlike many other pro wrestlers, Sammartino never had a moniker or wore an outlandish costume.
Throughout his career and even today, Sammartino is one of the most popular wrestlers. Levesque explained: “Bruno has an honesty about him. Bruno represented a lot of things to a lot of people. The biggest one – he was the immigrant who came to the U.S. with nothing in his pocket. He was sickly. He worked hard, he built himself up. He became an international superstar. He became wealthy and famous. To a lot of people, he represented possibility and hope. Over the years, as Bruno continued his career, I think people saw that. They saw how he lived his life. He was – in that time frame – a role model.”
Bruno and the American Dream
Bruno Sammartino was born in Italy October 6, 1935. Sammartino had a normal childhood living in the town of Pizzoferrato, about two and a half hours away from Rome.
After the Partisans ousted Mussolini in 1943, his whole world changed. Germany invaded Italy. “The SS Troops marched through Pizzoferrato and were killing people,” Sammartino said. “No one was safe. My family and I fled to the mountains and hid there 14 months.”
While hiding, Sammartino developed Rheumatic Fever and almost died. His mother placed leaches on his body. “She thought that they would take away the poisonous blood in my system. She boiled some melting snow and had me inhale the steam. I don’t know if what she did worked or not, I know that I was near death, and I survived.”
During the Second World War, Sammartino’s father was in the U.S. The war made it impossible for his father to remain in touch with anyone in Italy. After the war ended, his father was reunited with the family.
“My parents decided that it would be best for the family if we moved to America because the economy in Italy was very bad,” Sammartino said.
In 1949, at age 14, Bruno Sammartino and his family moved to Pittsburgh, PA because his father had a job there working in the steel mills.
“It was a tough adjustment,” said Sammartino. “When I came here, I couldn’t speak a word of English. I was also skinny and sickly.” He added: “Kids can be cruel. My brother and I got beat up so much.” He and his brother joined a local Y.M.C.A. to learn self-defense. (Y.M.C.A. stands for Young Men’s Christian Association. It is a place where people come to become physically fit.) “There I learned how to wrestle. I started lifting weights on a regular basis.” He no longer had to deal with bullies. “I became a fanatic with my training. My health improved, the more I saw the change, the more drive I had to train. I trained for many hours at a time.”
In 1959, he set a weight lifting record, bench-pressing 565 pounds.
In 1958, Sammartino won the North American Weight Lifting Championships in Oklahoma City. Afterwards, on a local Pittsburgh TV show, he told the interviewer that he also wrestled. A wrestling promoter who saw the show was impressed with this young man. Without hesitation, he approached Sammartino about breaking into professional wrestling. The young Sammartino gave an enthusiastic yes.
Sammartino’s first two years were frustrating because wrestling promoters booked him in preliminary bouts. “I wasn’t getting main events like I wanted,” Sammartino said.
In a 1960 Madison Square Garden bout with Haystacks Calhoun (William Dee Calhoun) who allegedly weighed close to 600 pounds, Sammartino thought that he could make a name for himself by lifting up this enormous heavyweight. “No one was ever able to do it,” Sammartino said.
When Sammartino lifted up Calhoun, the fans went wild! “I thought that the roof in the Garden was going to pop off,” Sammartino said. “For some reason, that feat didn’t make a difference as far as promoters doing something more with me.”
A Grappling Business
Sammartino hated to lose matches. Worse, he objected to losing because promoters told him to do so.
“I wouldn’t cooperate with promoters,” Sammartino said. “I told them ‘if anybody can really beat me, fine. But that’s the only way I’ll go down.’ I was a real young guy, and I wanted to establish myself. I didn’t want to be a preliminary boy, so the promoters took a negative stand against me by black balling me all over the country. I wound up wrestling in Canada, because I couldn’t get matches in the states.”
In Canada, Sammartino became the Canadian heavy weight champion from 1961-1963.
To the surprise of the U.S. promoters, the fans in the states wanted to see Sammartino wrestle. “Those same promoters who blackballed me were now asking me to come back,” said Sammartino. “I said only if they booked me in a championship match.”
Bruno Becomes Champion
On May 17, 1963, Sammartino fought his proudest match, defeating Buddy “Nature Boy” Rogers (Herman Rohde) in 48 seconds to become the WWWF (World Wide Wrestling Federation) champion. (Note: When the organization was established in 1963, it was the WWWF. In 1979, its name was changed to the World Wrestling Federation. In 2002, the name was changed to WWE – World Wrestling Entertainment.) “Rogers was one of the great wrestlers of his era, (the 1950s and 1960s),” Sammartino remembered. “That match meant so much to me because that put me at the top. You couldn’t achieve a higher goal than winning the title.”
Contrary to popular belief, professional wrestling is more real than a lot of people think, according to Sammartino. “We really do get hurt,” said Sammartino. “I had my nose broken 11 times; I broke my forearm, my fingers, and my collarbone. I needed back surgery due to getting hurt in the ring. To this day, I have cauliflower ears. I even got my neck broken.”
Nearly eight years into his first WWWF title Reign, Sammartino wanted out. He explained: “I was hurting so bad. I would never take an aspirin. I told Vince McMahon, Sr. I didn’t believe I was doing the fans justice because I was hurting and I was not as good as I had been. I felt it was time to get someone fresher and younger to take over the role as champion. Even though I still gave it my all, I didn’t feel it was good enough. I didn’t feel the fans were getting what they had paid for.”
On January 8, 1971, Sammartino lost his title to “The Russian Bear” Ivan Koloff (Oreal Perras). In truth, “The Russian Bear” was a Canadian.
Bruno Regains Title
Sammartino had no intention of regaining the title. However, Vince McMahon Sr. asked him to become champion again. McMahon promised Sammartino that this title reign would only last a year. At age 38, Sammartino regained the title. On December 10, 1973 at Madison Square Garden, he defeated Stan “The Man” Stasiak (George Stipich).
A year went by, then a second one, and Sammartino was getting frustrated. His body had taken a terrible toll.
In April 1976 in Madison Square Garden, Stan Hansen (John Stanley Hansen) broke Sammartino’s neck. “He dropped me on my head,” said Sammartino.
While Sammartino was recuperating in the hospital, Vince McMahon Sr. frequently phoned him because he wanted Sammartino to have a return grudge match.
According to Sammartino, McMahon needed to come up with a lot of money to help pay for the fight between Muhammad Ali and the Japanese wrestler, Antonio Anoki in Japan. Wrestling and boxing fans on the East Coast of the U.S. had the opportunity to see this match on closed circuit TV, but not too many people were buying tickets. (Before Pay per View, fans could see live big events on closed circuit TV at local arenas and venues.)
McMahon wanted to add the Sammartino/Hansen grudge match to the closed circuit TV event. He also added another wrestler/boxer match to increase ticket sales: Andre the Giant (Andre Rene Roussimoff) against Chuck Wepner. These two matches took place at Shea Stadium, and were filmed for inclusion in the Ali/Anoki closed circuit TV event.
“Vince feared that if he didn’t book a return match with Stan Hansen and me, the company (WWWF) could go bankrupt,” said Sammartino. “I explained to him, ‘how could I accept the match! I have a broken neck!’ He kept saying, ‘we could pull it off. We could pull it off.’ Sammartino reluctantly agreed to the match. “I had my doctor at ringside. I took no chances, as soon as Stan Hansen approached the ring, I blindsided him. He was bloody and he took off. The fans were happy to see me get my revenge.”
The fans were ecstatic, but Sammartino’s family was irate. Sammartino said: “My family was upset that I had the return match because I had come within a millimeter of being paralyzed from the neck down. The doctor said I wasn’t healed enough to have the match. My family begged me, ‘you can’t do it, you can’t take the chance.’ I felt obligated to the company. If I didn’t have the match, if the losses were great, it could have put the company under, so I felt it was my duty to do whatever I could not to let that happen.”
After that match, Sammartino refused to continue his reign as champion. On April 30, 1977 in Baltimore, Maryland, Sammartino lost the WWWF title to Superstar Billy Graham (Wayne Coleman).
Change Isn’t Always Good
In the early ’80s, Vince McMahon, Sr. died and his son Vince McMahon, Jr. became the new owner of the league. McMahon asked Sammartino to be a TV commentator.
“I agreed to do it because he promised to give my son (David Sammartino) some breaks. David was just starting out as a wrestler.”
However, Bruno disliked how the wrestling industry changed. “I saw a different world than the one that I knew. It seemed like everyone was using steroids. Yes, in my day, there were some wrestlers using steroids, but the number of people taking them in my day was very low. Now I saw that drugs were rampant and I was bothered by it. I didn’t like the turn wrestling was taking, but I put up with it longer than I wanted to. I worried that if I quit, would David (Sammartino) still get opportunities? Finally, it got to the point I wanted nothing more to do with that organization or Vince McMahon, Jr.”
Today Bruno Sammartino still keeps fit by power walking and weight lifting. “I just do it to stay in shape,” he said.
For more info about Sammartino, you can buy his book: Bruno Sammartino: An Autobiography of Wrestling’s Living Legend with Bob Michelucci and Paul McCollough (2008).