The Original WWE Superstar Finally Comes Home

Bruno Sammartino played a sold-out Madison Square Garden practically as many times as the Knicks. But for decades, the Old-World Italian and the ever-edgier WWE wanted nothing to do with each other. Here’s what happened the night they made up. posted on

Bruno Sammartino at home in his North Hills, Penn. Andrew Russell / AP

Once upon a time, Bruno Sammartino was a hirsute, Atlas-sculpted ex-bodybuilder who wrestled 13 out of every 14 days in front of adoring crowds all over the globe. He fought an orangutan and won; he set a world record in the bench press; he received a private audience with the Pope. He became wrestling “champion” of the world during John F. Kennedy’s only term and didn’t lose the title for good until a few months after Jimmy Carter was sworn in, holding the honor of being the industry’s most popular draw for somewhere near 4,000 days.

Today, he sits in the lobby of the Westin in Jersey City, wondering if wrestling fans still know who he is. He keeps reminding one of his sons that they’re on a tight schedule, and that he still needs to shave his head for the fully bald look. Most of his hair is already gone, and what’s left is flecked with gray. His body shows the damage of a work-intensive career and multiple spinal surgeries. There are large indentations in his elongated, mammoth hands, and he’ll ask me to speak up when we first sit down because his ears are nearly swollen over with scar tissue.

But he’s in good enough shape to exercise regularly, and has lots of thoughts about how the world he once dominated has changed — and how he’ll be received during a ceremony at Madison Square Garden that’s partially being held in his name. The day before World Wrestling Entertainment’s flagship event WrestleMania 29, which will take place at the Meadowlands, Bruno will be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, a relatively new internet-only institution which exists to fête wrestlers for their part in a sport that isn’t always on good terms with its own past. Bruno played a sold-out Garden a record 187 times during his heyday, but he’s worried that at WrestleMania 29 there might not even be 187 people in the building who saw him wrestle, even on television.

“I don’t know what to expect tonight because these are younger people,” he wonders in a gentle Italian accent. “They weren’t around for my career. They heard of me, of course, because today with the internet and all this stuff, they know who you are. But I don’t know that I can expect what I used to get there because in those days, every time I stepped up in the ring, people would start screaming my name — ‘Bruno, Bruno’ — and the whole 20,000 people or whatever.

“Somebody said to me, ‘Tonight you’re going to hear that.’ I said, ‘I don’t know!’ I don’t know what to expect tonight.”

Focus on Sport / Getty Images

In a fair, world Sammartino would’ve been honored in 1993, when the WWE Hall of Fame officially opened with just one inductee, Andre the Giant. He certainly should’ve been honored 11 years later, when the Hall idea was revived and began inducting an ever-widening stream of retired stars. But Sammartino was on the outs with WWE Chairman and godfather Vince McMahon over the increasingly lurid direction of the organization — remember when “Suck it!” was a cultural slogan? — and uncontrolled usage of performance-enhancing drugs, which had come to light soon after his retirement.

It was actually McMahon’s father (Vince McMahon Sr.) who’d recruited Sammartino into what was then the World Wide Wrestling Federation in the early 1960s. Born in Abruzzi, Italy, in 1935, Sammartino emigrated to Pittsburgh with his family 15 years later, trained as a vaudeville “strongman,” and got in the ring for a local promoter who thought he might make an appealing folk hero to Italian wrestling fans. It was an astute observation: Bruno rose to the height of popularity within just a few years, wrestling all over the country. McMahon Sr. promised him the championship belt for his participation with the WWWF, which he earned (“earned”) by beating Buddy Rogers on May 17, 1963. That was the start of the aforementioned title run, which saw him grapple with greats like Killer Kowalski and George “The Animal” Steele. He’d wrestle for up to an hour at a time before eventually putting his foe away with his famous finishing move: the bear hug. He didn’t lose the belt until nearly eight years later in front of a stunned crowd at Madison Square Garden, but then gained it back and held it for another four years.

As injuries piled up, Sammartino tried to retire from American wrestling in 1981, though he was constantly prodded back into the ring every now and then over the next few years. But his distance from the league began to grow as stars as big as Hulk Hogan admitted to boosting their superhuman physiques with steroids and the league was investigated by the FBI for promoting a pro-steroid environment. Sammartino saw himself as wrestling’s public conscience, splintering his relationship with the company where he’d reigned for so long. He took any opportunity to badger McMahon. When a WWE employee named Terry Garvin was accused of carrying multiple inappropriate affairs with younger employees, Sammartino appeared on Larry King Live with McMahon and Barry Orton, one of the wrestlers who claimed he’d been molested, and what transpired was a famously tense exchange. Sadly, all versions of it have been taken off YouTube, but it involved McMahon seeking to undermine Sammartino’s credibility by implicitly suggesting he was going a little senile. Sammartino popped up over the years in similar settings — here’s a clip from Live With Dan Abrams following the murder-suicide of Canadian pro-wrestler Chris Benoit — and in acting as such a willing Cassandra of doom and gloom in the state of wrestling, excluded himself from the version of wrestling history the WWE had begun to curate.

“They were all resentful of me because I was very outspoken about those issues and of course they didn’t like it,” he says. “Yes, there was much resentment. But I resented them as well because to bring wrestling down, to bring this kind of damage to the business I’d spent 25 years — I was very outspoken about it because I was hoping maybe somebody would listen and something would be done to stop it, because guys were dying from drugs and steroids.

“And so I didn’t care who liked it or who didn’t like it — I was doing it because of the love I had for the business when I was in it, and I wanted it to stop and change direction. I was outspoken about it for a couple of years. When I saw that nothing happened I said, ‘Well I gave it my best shot and now it’s time for me to go on with the rest of my life.’ And that was it.”

Flash forward to 2013 and a different WWE, one that’s unafraid to suspend its biggest stars for violating the drug policy, and has toned down the ribald humor and blood splatter that drove the company’s popularity in Bruno’s absence. They’re downright family friendly — in Wrestlemania’s media room, we’ll be handed flyers announcing a new partnership with the Special Olympics. Some of the change has to do with the (failed) Senate campaigns of Linda McMahon, matriarch of the McMahon family and the company’s former CEO, who pushed a PG direction so that political opponents wouldn’t connect her to the WWE’s juvenile material. (They did it anyways.) Some of it happened because the WWE could no longer be lax toward drugs after years of deaths — out of good taste, yes, but probably also out of a desire to avoid lawsuits and federal investigation.

Whatever the cause, it was enough of an improvement that Bruno agreed to come back into the fold after being approached about a year ago by Paul “Triple H” Levesque, a star of the ’90s who married into the McMahon family and is now an executive within the front office. “It feels fine because I’m coming in the proper condition,” Bruno says. “I would not go into the Hall of Fame unless they cleaned all these things out.” He watched wrestling programs for a few months until he was satisfied that his long-standing problems had been resolved, and planned his return with perfectly poetic timing: The 50th anniversary of capturing the World Wide Wrestling Federation title for the first time at Madison Square Garden.

Sammartino playing with his children. John Olson/Time Life Pictures / Getty Images

It’s a picturesque resolution, the righting of so many wrongs in one night. But a picturesque resolution isn’t the only reason why Bruno — and others with outstanding grudges against McMahon and the league — might agree to be inducted into the Hall of Fame: There’s money, and access to the WWE’s network of promotion. “I wouldn’t do anything outside of the company because why would I even?” says Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat, a former star who held one of the all-time legendary matches with “Macho Man” Randy Savage at Wrestlemania III. The Dragon still does signings and marketing through the WWE. “You do it within the company because they’ve got all the resources. It’d be silly, stupid to do an outside company thing.” Sammartino says he signed a contract that’ll increase his visibility, though I didn’t press him for financial specifics and have no reason to believe he particularly needs the money. “My involvement is going to be very limited,” he says. “I agreed with the merchandising part and videogames or whatever. All that kind of stuff for a couple years’ agreement, and that’s about it.”

So there will be things like action figures and DVD retrospectives and videogame characters and maybe a round-table discussion of the old days on the WWE Classics On Demand subscription channel. Sammartino has already been reintroduced to the WWE’s public mythology: The Rock mentioned him among a list of great champions during a promo in the weeks before Wrestlemania, and at the event itself, one of the announcers shouted him out when a current wrestler used his bear hug move to finish off an opponent. (It’s hard to imagine him picking up the microphone and stepping back into the ring to cut a promo, as so many other retired superstars have done, but you never know.) Already, there’s a T-shirt I keep seeing during the weekend: A black and white photo of Sammartino in his prime, superimposed against a black background, captioned with “THE LIVING LEGEND BRUNO SAMMARTINO.” Two fans claim they bought it on site, though I can’t seem to find it for sale at any of the merchandise stands. I imagine they paid $30, same price as the rest of the T-shirts, for the right of representing a wrestler whose heyday was decades before they were born.

James Thomas, an assistant sociology professor at the University of Missouri who’s working on a book about how pro wrestlers are trained, is familiar with the way the WWE merchandises its history. “You’ll notice that shortly after he announced he was going into the Hall, the WWE did announce that they were going to be releasing a very special Bruno Sammartino DVD package that you have to imagine they had been sitting on for a very very long time, waiting for the right moment to capitalize,” he says. Reducing the steroids and the vulgarity was obviously important for Sammartino — multiple people I talked to offhandedly referred to him as a man of extremely stout character, and he’s adamant that he wouldn’t have agreed to induction if the WWE were still nonchalant about ferreting out drug use. But now that it’s settled, he and the company can focus on doing business.

That there is so much business to be found in nostalgia is obviously a point that underlies the WWE’s version of pro-wrestling history, one that presents no unmediated conflict or stray fallen from the flock. They can legally monetize footage of stars with whom they no longer have a working relationship. Even while he was a self-ostracized critic, footage of Sammartino appeared in documentaries like The 50 Greatest Finishing Moves in WWE History and Top 50 Superstars of All Time. In his new Hall of Fame entry on WWE.com, there’s no disclosure of the disagreement between the two sides — just a note about Sammartino’s final match, followed by a warm mention of his induction. (Levesque at least acknowledged Sammartino’s gripes in a joint interview run on WWE.com, though he wasn’t specific about them.) This all makes it impossible to find anything resembling a definitive history of professional wrestling. “If anybody’s going to do a real historical chronicle of the development of professional wrestling, they’re really going to have to consult primary sources. They’re really going to have to look at the newspaper and the magazine articles that are coming out prior to the 1980s,” Thomas says. “At this point it’s such a tightly controlled corporation and entity that to do an account of contemporary professional wrestling, you’re really kind of stuck doing an analysis of what you see on TV. It’s very, very difficult.”

Wrestling is of course part of a larger tradition, one that dates back to the “Epic of Gilgamesh” as mankind’s oldest sport, the only one that’s mentioned in the Bible. (“When God sent down the angel, he didn’t send him down to play basketball, golf or soccer,” says Mike Chapman, who served as executive director of the Dan Gable International Wrestling Institute and Museum. “He sent him down to wrestle Jacob.”) For better or worse, the WWE is the primary lens through which most Americans see wrestling when the Olympics aren’t on — and if the International Olympic Committee doesn’t vote the right way, they might soon become the only one. The more stars the WWE is able to bring under the company’s big tent, the easier it is to consolidate their version of history.

Still, that version of history is deeply engaging. WrestleMania is a veritable Happening, a mecca that draws fans from France and Germany and Pittsburgh and everywhere else. The fans are jazzed to blanket themselves in all the relics the WWE has to offer, to pose with stars of yesteryear, and it’s impossible not to appreciate a real sense of legacy and camaraderie while walking around the grounds. “Look around you,” “Dragon” Steamboat says about why he keeps coming back. “God, who wouldn’t want to keep the ball rolling?”

It explains why Bruno, for all his problems with the company, returned as soon as they’d righted all those wrongs: He felt he had to. “I’ve always felt that my responsibility, especially because I was the headliner, was that I had to go in there and always give more than 100%. And I really in my heart believe that I did,” he says. “And I hope that they saw that, and I think they did because it’s why they kept following me because I stayed on top for 24 years. I may have been champion for 12 years, but the other 12 years there was still, I was still the headliner because people kept coming.

“So they supported me and in turn I gave the best that I had to give. And you can’t do more than that — you can’t give more than what you have. So I always tried to be that way, and I hope they still think of me that way and remember me that way.”

Sammartino at his induction ceremony. Courtesy of WWE / Via wwe.com

Three hours into the Hall of Fame ceremony at the Garden, the packed crowd is growing a little feisty. There are five wrestlers and one Donald Trump being honored, and the lengthy run time of each speech combined with the bullshit detector of your typical wrestling fan means that the arena is rippling with dissenting opinion despite the taped-up signs warning them that there will be no “cat calls or chants of any kind tolerated at all.” It’s remarkably formal, but this is one of the events that validates Wrestlemania’s status as the biggest deal; here, wrestling’s past and present are gathered in black tie apparel, shedding the invented rivalries for a night.

The tone and content of each speech is about the same: The speaker recounts the hard work they did in their career, tells an endearing anecdote or two, and thanks the fans for supporting them all along. That last part isn’t just a speechwriting cliché. Athletes in other sports can thrive without being loved — Barry Bonds — but in wrestling, it’s not possible to have a successful career if the fans aren’t on your side. And fans are always quick to boo whatever they don’t like: Tonight they become upset every time Diva of the Decade Trish Stratus talks about how much she loves her husband Ron; they are unhappy with Maria Menounos for a plodding speech about inductee Bob Backlund that goes a bit too heavy on biographical minutiae (it’s also baffling that she’s inducting him, but apparently they’ve been friends for years); Trump is slagged from the second he hits the stage and is barely given a quiet moment to recite any part of a speech that’s less than five minutes long. (To quote one guy in front of me: “FUCK YOOOOOU! FUCK YOOOOOU! FUCK YOOOOOU!”)

None of that happens when Bruno Sammartino comes out. He gets an adulatory introduction by no less a star than Arnold Schwarzenegger, who talks up his physical accomplishments number by number — he once lifted 565 pounds! — and hails him as “a great immigrant.” Other wrestlers got bigger cheers during the pre-speech video montages, but the second Bruno appears, he’s engulfed in “BRUNO! BRUNO!” chants, a pair of standing ovations, multiple Italian flags unfurled across the arena, an ecstatic din that doesn’t stop for nearly two minutes. He’s dressed in a sleek silver-on-black ensemble and showing that freshly shaved head. “I almost felt like I was going to run back into the ring,” he says after the roar dies down, only to stir again in raucous demand for “ONE MORE MATCH.”

After that, the audience falls reverentially silent. Bruno talks about his childhood in Italy and losing multiple siblings to Old World diseases like rheumatic fever, which nearly took him before he emigrated to America; about coming to America and being bullied as a sickly kid; how he went from being an “84 pound bag of bones and skin” to a record-setting bodybuilder. He talks about what an honor it was to headline Madison Square Garden so many times, what an honor it is to do it one last time. After 21 minutes of slow, deliberate speech that sketches his career from beginning to end without mentioning the troubles he’s had with the WWE, he cuts himself off by saying he doesn’t want to keep everyone out any longer, and launches into the final segment of his speech.

“I’m very grateful for tonight, for Arnold, for the WWE who gives me the opportunity to appear in Madison Square Garden one more time. I’m very grateful for that,” he says. “But most of all, but most of all, I want all the fans to know, whether in this country or around the world if this gets televised everywhere, that whatever success I’ve had I owe it all to you, because if you didn’t come out and support me I never would’ve become anybody.”

The building erupts. The strains of a truly cheesy song by The Script called “Hall of Fame” (naturally) filter in as the five other honored stars take the stage to hold each other’s hands and mug nice for the cameras. (The song’s chorus: “Standing in the hall of fame / And the world’s gonna know your name / ‘Cause you burn with the brightest flame / And the world’s gonna know your name.”) Sammartino clasps hands with Vince McMahon, who he hadn’t talked to through the reconciliation process, and pulls him in for a hug.

I talked to Larry Zbyszko, a retired legend who trained under Sammartino in the ’70s before embarking on a successful career of his own, the next day about the storybook ending. “You know, I thought it wouldn’t get me, but him up there telling his story, I started cracking up, and him and Vince hugging, I’m getting some tears and I’m trying to wipe them out so the boys don’t see,” he says. “It was real kind of emotional for me because it was a 30-year kind of climax. It was a happy ending. And it worked out for everybody. Very cool, very cool.” When the event is edited for televised broadcast the following Tuesday, Sammatino’s segment receives by far the most of its original run time, and the show credits fade out showing him and Vince standing hand-in-hand on stage.

This is the indisputably positive part, the one redeeming element of the WWE’s tricky self-history. There are dead wrestlers pushed to the side and contentious relationships buried under the gloss of public relations. But there is also Bruno, soaking in the cheers at the Garden — and later at the Meadowlands, where he’ll stand with the rest of the inductees in front of the sold-out stadium. Fifty years after he conquered the wrestling world, Bruno Sammartino has gotten to take the final bow he deserves.

Jeremy Gordon is a New York-based writer.

Andrew Russell / AP

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