wrestling / Columns

Shining a Spotlight 2.14.13: Bruno Sammartino

February 14, 2013 | Posted by Michael Weyer

The talk of the wrestling world this week has been a moment that hints hell has frozen over: Thanks to the work of HHH, Bruno Sammartino will be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame. The shock is hard for younger fans to understand as to say Bruno has issues with the modern pro wrestling world is an understatement. Compared to Bruno, Vince McMahon’s relationship with Bret Hart is sunshine and roses. Indeed, for years, Sammartino has made it clear he wants no part of what he calls a “joke of a hall” or wrestling itself so for him to agree to this is amazing. Yet maybe it’s fitting as without Bruno, there might not be a WWE as we know it. After long being ignored by WWE, it’s more than great to finally see Bruno get his just reward and for a new generation to discover what an icon he was.

Early Life

Even if he’d never stepped foot in a wrestling ring, Bruno Sammartino would be known for an amazing life. Born October 6, 1935, he was the youngest of seven children, four of whom died during his childhood. His family great up in a small village called Valla Rocca in the Italian mountains. When Italy turned on the Axis in 1943, the German army invaded the area. Sammartino’s mother, Emilia, would sneak into the town for food and supplies, wounded in one trip and doing her best to help her son. Bruno himself caught a serious fever that required blankets and leeches in the forest to keep him alive. Sammartino would later say that seeing his mother fight against such amazing odds instilled the sense of right and wrong he would use for his wrestling career. He finally recovered and in 1950, traveled to the United States where his father had emigrated just before the war in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was still rather sick and weak, picked on by other kids but a friend got him into weightlifting to help him build confidence and his strength.

Soon, Sammartino had built himself from a sickly youth to a powerful 270 pounds, making his due as a carpenter but his build caught the eye of announcer Bob Prince who recommended him to Pittsburgh promoter Rudy Miller. Sammartino made his wrestling debut in 1959 and in 1960 began his work for Vince McMahon Sr. in New York. He was protected at first but fought back against some pushes, leading to a reputation as a troublemaker. He did gain infamy in a 1961 match against Chick Garibaldi when he slammed the man, who suffered a fatal heart attack and died in the ring, shaking Sammartino for years to come. He also became the first man to lift the 640 pound Haystacks Calhoun up for a mini-slam. Upset over low payoffs and broken promises, Sammartino left to join short-lived rival New York promotion. When he tried to go to San Francisco, the athletic commission suspended him, claiming he’d been double-booked for matches on the same night in Baltimore and Chicago. Bruno remains convinced Vince Sr was behind it as punishment, forcing him to go back to Pittsburgh as a laborer. However, he was still quite skilled and determined to make it and quickly built his skills up in Toronto, he and Whipper Watson winning the tag titles. He also defeated NWA Champion Buddy Rogers by accidentally headbutting him in the groin so Rogers couldn’t continue their match. In keeping with his character in and out of the ring, Bruno refused to accept the belt. He also wrestled Lou Thesz twice, the first bout ending in a draw, the second by a fluke pin by Thesz after Bruno dominated their battle. It was here that he got a call from Vince Sr. who wanted to make him a world champion.

At the time, Buddy Rogers was the champion and although he doesn’t like to talk ill of the man, Sammartino had issues with the original “Nature Boy.” Their match on May 17th, 1963 only lasted forty-eight seconds before Bruno lifted Rogers in an over-the-shoulder backbreaker to win the championship. Supposedly, Rogers had no idea he was going to lose, thinking he’d get a DQ win and Bruno broke it to him in the ring with “we can do this the easy way or the hard way.” But it lasted a bit longer behind the scenes as Rogers secretly worked to manage Bill Watts against Sammartino but Watts warned the man instead. Sammartino also wasn’t happy that for years afterward, Rogers claimed to still be suffering from a heart attack a week before their match and used that as an excuse for the loss. By this point, however, Bruno was set as a champ who would put a stamp on wrestling to echo for years to come.

The Reigns

Bruno Sammartino was hardly what one would call a flashy performer. His matches included power moves and lots of kicks and punches, to the point where he came off more like a heel. However, Sammartino was able to adapt well to a differing style for his opponent and used every inch of the mat well in his battles. He would keep himself in constant shape, often the first one to an arena and doing laps around the ring, knowing his physique was key to his success. Also key was how he connected to the fans, his blue-collar roots perfect to pull people in and of course, the Italian fans went wild for him. He’d brawl and fight but could also break out some nice scientific moves before slapping on his bearhug which really was a power move that could make any guy tap out.

His first reign is still the record-holder for the longest ever for a WWF champion, seven years and in that time, he helped push the promotion to new heights. Month after month, year after year, fans would flock to Madison Square Garden to watch Bruno defend against every heel in the company. People forget the risk Vince Sr. was taking breaking away from the NWA, then the major chokehold on the wrestling world. However, thanks in no small part to the monster success of Sammartino’s reign, the then-WWWF became established as the powerhouse of the Northeast, a standing Vince’s son would use well. Every monster heel in the territory would be sent after Bruno although they would have to go through a gauntlet of his friends Tony Parisi, Gino Britto or Dominic Denucci. All four men were good friends thanks to their Italian connections and the three realized Bruno was the moneymaker and didn’t mind putting over a heel to later face the champ. Bruno’s schedule was so hectic that he actually refused a chance to beat Lou Thesz in a title vs title match because he didn’t want to add more dates to his time. His popularity grew massively as WWWF did great tours of Italy with the crowds frantic for their hero; Sammartino’s power was so great that he even had a private audience with the Pope.

Also during this time, Bruno bought the Pittsburgh-based Spectator Sports promotion with major stars like Gorilla Monsoon, the Crusher, George Steele and others. He was cited by workers as quite fair and always willing to pay off workers right, a concern everyone get over not just himself. He sold the promotion in 1971 just before WWWF claimed the city. In that same year, Bruno’s epic reign finally came to a shocking end on January 18th against Ivan Koloff, who dropped a knee from the second rope to pin him. Sammartino later said that the crowd was shocked silent to the point where he seriously worried he’d lost his hearing. Then they erupted in boos so the announcer and ref were afraid of actually giving the title to Koloff for fear of setting off a riot. Bruno realized this, staying in the ring to take some of the heat off Koloff. Perhaps pushed by the reaction of fans, WWWF had Koloff’s reign be only three weeks before he lost to Pedro Morales.

Bruno then took this free time to go to other territories, most notable Los Angeles where he won a 22-man battle royal later voted “Match of the Year.” By this point, business in WWWF was suffering as, while popular with ethnic crowds, Morales wasn’t the same great draw Sammartino had been. So he talked Bruno into coming back, promising a percentage of the gate and a lighter workload. The set-up was good as Bruno and Pedro were made a tag team in various matches, one of which had them blinded by powder and fighting each other. They kept on fighting even when their eyesight cleared. They then did a contract signing for a title match (something you didn’t really see on TV back then) with both men still having tension. On September 1st, they battled in a 75-minute draw at Shea Stadium through a terrible bout of cold rain for a massive gate. Surprisingly, McMahon failed to film this epic encounter, robbing modern fans of a true classic.

Eventually, Morales dropped the belt to Stan Stasiak but Bruno beat Stasiak just nine days later (December 10th, 1973) to begin his second championship reign. Once more, he was booked against various monster heels and in a trip to Japan, ending up schooling future legend Antonio Inoki in a stiff match. The highlight of his second reign came in 1976 when he faced Stan Hansen and a bodyslam fractured Bruno’s neck. The story quickly went out that Hansen’s lariat clothesline was the reason for the neck break, adding to the man’s reputation. Sammartino insisted on flying home against doctor’s orders for fear of worrying his elderly parents with a hospital stay. After two months off, Bruno returned to face Hansen in a hard match at Shea Stadium that was on the undercard closed circuit TV broadcast of the infamous Inoki/Muhammad Ali fight. This actually was a source of controversy as Bruno should have taken more time off but McMahon Sr saw the gate turning into a disaster and begged Bruno to come back to help the company in a dire time. He and Hansen fought hard with Bruno coming off on fire seeking revenge to the point of Hansen fleeing the ring and being counted out.

Bruno was only supposed to have a year as champ but kept receiving bigger paydays to stick around. Indeed, his pay was often more than guys in the NFL or MLB and with a very decreased schedule of only Madison Square Garden and other big arenas, Bruno had a deal that would rival anything Hogan or Flair could ever put together. But age was taking its toll as he just couldn’t keep up with the pace of being the champ for much longer. So on April 30, 1977, he dropped the title to Superstar Billy Graham, who used the ropes for leverage for the pin and embarked on his wildly flashy reign as heel champ.

Betrayal and Retirement

Sammartino came up short in rematches, including his only loss in a steel cage match when he accidentally knocked Graham through the cage door. With his schedule freed, Bruno traveled around the world for matches, including a great hour-long draw against NWA champ Harley Race in St. Louis. In late 1979, he began what would be his most famous program as he took under his wing a young rookie by the name of Larry Zybsko, training him well, Zybsko coming off a nice babyface who talked warmly of how honored he was to receive instruction from a legend like Bruno. However, in tag matches, Zybsko started to show a meaner side and argued with his mentor. It built up to Zybsko challenging Bruno to a match to prove who was better and Sammartino accepting. It started off a clean battle but then Zybsko turned on his teacher, brutally smashing him with a chair. The angle has been done before and a lot since but this remains the standard by which all other “student turns on teacher” stories are measured as fans were shocked at the brutal assault (which was pretty nasty by 1980 standards) and turned on Zybsko big-time. Bruno himself showed a harsher side as he vowed revenge on this “Judas” and their house shows sold like gangbusters. It all built to their classic war on August 9th, 1980 in front of 36, 295 fans of a packed Shea Stadium as Bruno unleashed a brutal fury on Zybsko in a steel cage to finally emerge victorious and take his revenge. You want a good laugh, listen to Hulk Hogan claim that the match between he and Andre was what drew fans to the Shea show when everyone knew it was Sammartino/Zybsko that made the money.

In 1981, Sammartino finally announced his retirement after a tour of Japan, saying he didn’t want to be one of those guys barely mobile in the ring as people talked of how great he once was. In 1984, he found out that Vince Sr had cheated him out of slews of money from gate percentages through his entire second title reign and naturally filed a lawsuit. By this point, Vince Sr. was dead, Jr had taken over and arranged a settlement of several hundred thousand dollars in exchange for becoming a color commentator for WWF weekend TV shows. Bruno agreed, a bit rough on the commentary but fans enjoyed seeing his face on TV again.

Bruno tried to use his new position to push his son, David but sadly, the young man didn’t have the skills or charisma of his father. Bruno hadn’t even wanted David to get into wrestling but did his best, in his son’s corner when David fought Brutus Beefcake to a double-DQ at the first Wrestlemania. He also came out of retirement to team with his son for a few times, actually coming off in better shape than guys half his age and drawing huge crowds. Realizing this, David quit the company and soon fell into rampant steroid and drug use, causing a rift between father and son that would last for years. Bruno also appeared in the wrestler/NFL player battle royal at Wrestlemania 2, dumping out the Iron Sheik before being eliminated by Big John Studd. Also, after having his Italian heritage insulted on “Piper’s Pit,” Bruno faced Roddy Piper in various pouts, including a cage match in Boston.

A notable comeback for Bruno was in 1986 when Intercontinental champion Randy Savage made his famous attack on Ricky Steamboat, injuring the “Dragon’s” throat. Bruno was backstage doing a report when Savage came up, gloating over what he’d done and taking pleasure in Steamboat sent to the hospital. Outraged at “this punk’s” pride in such an act, Sammartino attacked Savage and had to be torn off by officials. This set up a series of fights across the country which Bruno won handily while giving the rub to Savage (The matches were all non-title, the story being that Bruno didn’t care about the belt, he just wanted to teach Savage a lesson). He would also team with the likes of Tito Santana and even old foe George “The Animal” Steele to face Savage and various partners in tag matches.

However, Bruno was not happy about the direction WWF was taking into cartoonish action and the rampant drug and steroid use about. In 1987, he and Vince had one final argument ending with Bruno leaving the company. He’d go around various promotions as a commentator and was a special ref for 1989’s Halloween Havoc main event tag match. He’d make a few more appearances for WCW, including “Clash of the Champions XX” where he talked of being happy to be with a company that cared about actual wrestling…just before the airing of the “Spin the Wheel/Make the Deal” mini-movie with Jake Roberts and Sting in a bar and laser beams shooting out of their eyes. He soon faded into retirement in Pittsburgh, telling interviewers time and again how he hated the direction pro wrestling has taken and is often a guest on talk shows denouncing Vince and WWE. In 2004, he and Vince had a meeting about Bruno working with the company for a DVD but declined to participate. He also had a famous encounter with Ric Flair, who had run down Bruno in his autobiography, Sammartino claiming Flair saw him at a Pittsburgh show and ran off for fear of a fight.

Which makes his decision to be part of the Hall of Fame this year so shocking to many. Indeed, some have actually stated that Bruno has “sold out” to get in here and ignoring all the years of accusations he’s made about the business since. However, Bruno has talked about his reasons, pointing out how WWE is doing more drug testing and even willing to suspend a big star in the middle of a push if he violates the rules. This, combined with the new “PG-rated” action and mood of the shows seems to have swayed Bruno over. Perhaps the biggest reason is that Bruno knows that (while still in excellent shape for 77), his time on Earth is running out and so is the chance to speak on his legacy. Like Bret Hart before him, Bruno realizes that getting his story of success out to a new generation is more important than whatever beefs he may have with Vince over long-ago grudges. The fact that WWE has buried most of the talk about his amazing run only fuels that. Indeed, since the announcement, WWE is finally releasing long-absent clips of Bruno’s interviews, bouts and more to show fans how huge he was in his prime and already talk of a DVD release the man deserves.

We can argue the reasons on both sides but the idea of the man who made WWE in the first place finally returning to the company is something all wrestling fans should be happy for. It’s time for a new generation to see the power, prestige and respect Bruno Sammartino gave out, why he is still the longest-reigning WWF champion ever and how he helped put the promotion on the map. His entry makes this HOF ceremony a must-see as his speech should be something. It’s long past time WWE acknowledged the debt it owes to Bruno and fans realize how great an impact he had for the business as well as this veteran himself finally allowing his anger to fade to remember how the business was once and maybe could be again.

For this week, the spotlight is off.

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Michael Weyer

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