Bruno Sammartino Interview
Bruno Sammartino is possibly the greatest ever wrestler to step foot inside the ring.
The 77-year-old from Pizzoferrato, Abruzzo, Italy grew up during the Second World War and spent the early part of his life hiding from the Nazi’s up in the Valla Rocca Mountain.
After the war was over Bruno joined his father over in America and quickly became involved in wrestling. He made his debut in 1959 pinning Dmitri Grabowski in just 19 seconds and this was just the start of things to come in an impressive career.
Bruno went on to become the longest-running WWWF Champion, holding the title across two reigns for over 11-years (4040 days), as well as the single longest in professional wrestling history holding the belt for over eight-years (2803 days).
This year Bruno is being inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame at Madison Square Garden a venue he performed in 211 times with 187 sellouts.
We caught up with the legendary Bruno Sammartino to talk about, why was now the right time to enter the WWE Hall of Fame, selling out Madison Square Garden one more time, Olympic wrestling, having an audience with the Pope, and much more.
You grew up in Italy and your family hid from German soldiers during the Second World War, could you tell us a little more about that time?
When I was in Italy during the war we had to leave our town because we were occupied by the SS Troops, so we went up to this big mountain where we hid for fourteen months. During that time we suffered greatly because there was no food and in the winter it was very bitter, we barely survived and there were a lot of people that did not survive. The last two months up there I got sick and nobody knew for sure what the problem was and I was getting sicker by the day.
When the Germans were finally driven out of our town and we came back I was very sick and when a doctor finally came to our village he checked me out and they discovered that I had rheumatic fever. We didn’t have any hospitals or medication but my mother who had already lost two children, I lost a sister and a brother, she was determined that I was going to live and she did everything she could and even put leaches on my body because they believed in those days the leaches took the poison blood out of your system. She would make me inhale fumes from boiling water that is supposed to be good for the lungs, she did everything she could and I don’t know if it had anything to do with those treatments, all I know is that I lived.
My father had come to America just before the war and when the war began they had closed all passages so he was stuck in America, he had gone over to work and with the intension of coming back home, like so many Europeans did in those days. After the war when we connected with our father, he asked the question should he come back home or should he try and bring us over to America. My mother said it would be better for the children especially if we came to America because our town was bombed very badly and destroyed, so my father took action to try and brought us to America.
How did you first get involved in professional wrestling?
When I arrived in America in 1950 I was just 14-years-old, but I was skin and bones, I was very sickly. As I started to eat a little bit better somebody introduced me to the YMCA, and when I went there they had weightlifting, which I had never seen before. Even though I could not lift anything I began exercising very lightly and as time went on I got a little bit stronger and my appetite was growing and I was starting to put on some weight.
That encouraged me to keep going and to train harder, I then started school and they had a wrestling programme, I loved wrestling so I got onto that programme so I was doing wrestling and weightlifting. I was training very hard and nine years later I was a big guy about 270lbs and I had two opportunities, one was with the Pittsburgh Steelers, they wanted to take me to camp to train with the team because they felt that I could be a great lineman, but they weren’t paying much money back then in 1959, for a lineman they were only paying $7000-a-year.
At the same time a wrestling promoter approached me and said that they would probably start me on about $35,000, and back then that seemed like a lot of money to me and that’s how I chose wrestling. I trained for several months and I started.
Who were some of the wrestlers that you enjoyed watching?
I enjoyed watching Argentina Rocca because he could fly up in the air and do all those things, I also enjoyed watching Yukon Eric, I admired his size and strength. I saw guys like Lou Thesz, Ralph Silverstein, and The French Angel (Maurice Tillet).
The people that impressed me the most that I watched on TV were guys like Yukon Eric, because of his strength, Killer Kowalski because he seemed like he was very good looking, his body was great before he became a vegetarian and Don Leo Jonathan, I couldn’t believe the size of the guy he was 6’7 350lbs and he moved so well in the ring, I also liked watching technical guys like Verne Gagne.
I admired all of them I really did, so you can imagine when I turned pro and had the opportunity to wrestle these people, it was quite a thrill for me to be able to go in the ring with all these who I looked at being such great stars in the wrestling world.
You joined the WWWF and had such a legendary career with two title reigns lasting over 11 years (4040 days), during your time what were some of your highlights?
In those eleven plus years that I was champion I wrestled all over but some of the most memorable matches that I had were against the likes of, Killer Kowalski, Ivan Koloff, Don Leo Jonathan, Dr. Bill Miller, Gorilla Monsoon, and Hans Mortier who was also European and the list goes on. I had some big matches in Japan against Shohei Baba and we fought for over an hour many times, I wrestled guys in Australia, Mexico, and Spain.
One of the highlights of my career was when I picked up Haystacks Calhoun, who was over 600lbs, that was exciting because no one had ever been able to lift him and when I did lift him I thought the roof of Madison Square Garden was going to fly off, people went absolutely wild.
Wrestling Buddy Rogers even though it was a short match it was great because that was my opportunity to become the headliner. I was very fortunate because I got to wrestle some of the truly great heavyweights in the business, I wrestled them all so today I look back and I’m very proud and happy.
Bruno Sammartino with Ivan Koloff
What was Vince McMahon Sr. like as a boss?
It was good, he had a different mentality than his son, he was probably the biggest promoter because where he promoted that is where all the big arenas were. He was a fair guy, he would have requests from other promoters about giving some dates on me for example and he always tried to cooperate with other promoters, so I would go to wrestle in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Texas and Florida.
I went all over because Vince would try to accommodate other promoters, he was a guy that really wanted to get along with other promoters; he didn’t want any war because occasionally there were wars amongst promoters where one would try to conquer the other one.
McMahon and I got along, sometimes we disagreed on certain things, like sometimes he would want to get someone who I didn’t believe would be a great opponent but most of the time he was very cooperative like if I was travelling and I saw a talent I really liked I would tell Vince and he would trust my judgment. Overall we had a good relationship.
Have you spoken to Vince McMahon Jr. since it was announced you are going to be in this year’s WWE Hall of Fame?
No, we have not spoken at all during this time, I have not spoken to Vince McMahon in years. Paul Levesque (Triple H) told me that Vince wanted to give me a call to break the ice so to speak because of our situation the way it was, but he suggested that it would be best if we meet at the Hall of Fame in Madison Square Garden privately face-to-face and have a talk and I told him that is fine with me so that is the way it is going to be.
You are entering the WWE Hall of Fame this year, why was now the right time?
I have refused many times in the past to enter the WWE Hall of Fame, and the reason was because I did not like what became of the WWE. For example there was much steroid and drug use that is something that I was very appalled by. There was also the way they changed the wrestling, there was nudity, there was some vulgarity with the things that they did and the profanity bothered me.
I hated to see the business that I was in for 25 years come down with all these different issues and so I spoke up about it, I tried to bring some changes, I spoke of the dangers of doing drugs but nobody seemed to care so I just put wrestling behind me and I went on with my life.
About six or seven months ago this fellow Triple H, who is Vince McMahon’s son in law, he called me up and he started telling me that they would like me to come into the Hall of Fame but he understood that in the past I was pretty outspoken about a number of different things, but he assured me that they had made a lot of changes.
He told me they had this famous doctor who I knew, Dr. Joseph Maroon, and he was in charge of all the drug testing and he said that they had been very strict with that and that they had made great gains from it. He also told me that they had stopped all of the nudity, vulgarity and the profanity and they’ve done away with all that because they wanted to make it more family friendly.
I started watching it again for a few months and I saw the wrestlers looked like athletes but they did not look like steroid freaks like those from the past. I was happy to see that and then I talked to Dr. Maroon and he assured me that they were doing very strict drug testing and that he had a team of other doctors working with him and that they were very serious and that things were under control. After a few months of watching it, I saw that all of the nudity, vulgarity and profanity had all gone and I was then convinced that this was the case.
I had many long conversations with Paul, and he told me that they wanted to go more and more back to what wrestling used to be like. When he told me all of that it was the key and the main reason why I then said okay under those conditions I would join the WWE Hall of Fame.
How has your relationship been with Paul (Triple H) since you began talking to him?
I didn’t know him before, I just knew of him as Triple H, but I did not know him personally or had ever spoken to him before, but I must say after all the conversations I had with him on the phone and then meeting him, he impressed me, he came across being very honest and very sincere.
What I liked most about Paul was that he admitted what I was against before, he agreed and understood why I was so turned off with it but he assured me that those things had all changed and he intends to make wrestling even better. He convinced me that he has a legitimate love for the business.
I think that if Paul becomes more and more in charge we will see even more improvements, I really believe that. In fact this is the main reason I’m going in the Hall of Fame because he did such a good job of making me believe in what he’s done and what he’s going to do.
The venue of this years Hall of Fame is Madison Square Garden, a venue you headlined 211 times, was that a factor in your decision and does it make it even more special?
In the beginning I did not know it was going to be in Madison Square Garden, but as we discussed all these issues and then I finally agreed that I was willing, then I found out that it was going to be at Madison Square Garden. Of course once Paul said Madison Square Garden that made it much more special for me because I have such a history with Madison Square Garden.
So yes, that absolutely made it even more interesting and a happier occasion for me, but when I was discussing all of these issues I did not know it was going to be in Madison Square Garden.
What are your thoughts on Arnold Schwarzenegger inducting you into the Hall of Fame?
There were a few people who I wouldn’t have minded inducting me into the Hall of Fame, but they asked me if I would allow them to choose someone that is worthy and famous to do this. They told me they were going to come up with a couple of names to see if I agree but when they mentioned Arnold I agreed as we have been friends for quite a while.
This year is the 29th WrestleMania, what have you made of WrestleMania’s in the past?
I have not been watching any wrestling, I had not watched wrestling for many years until just recently like I have said. As far as WrestleMania, my son, David wrestled in the first ever WrestleMania and I was in his corner, but I have not watched it at all since then but this time after the Hall of Fame ceremony, which will be on the Saturday April 6th and on the Sunday April 7th I will be attending WrestleMania itself and I’ll be introduced at the stadium as well. I will also be making an appearance on Raw the night after WrestleMania.
You’ve begun watching wrestling again recently, who are some of the guys that have stood out for you?
The guys that I am watching today, don’t get me wrong, they are good and they do a lot of beautiful acrobatic moves but in my day we had guys like Bill Miller who was 6’6 330lbs, you had Bobo Brazil, Monsoon, these guys went in that ring and did not fly around like some of the guys today do, but they were big guys in great shape and they did a lot of good wrestling in the ring.
The guys that I see on the TV today do very good acrobatic moves, a lot of very impressive stuff but I don’t see the big men of my era, so it is quite hard to compare my era with today, it is like two different worlds of wrestling.
Pedro Morales, Bruno Sammartino and Ivan Koloff
What have you made of amateur wrestling being dropped from the 2020 Olympics’?
I was very surprised when I read that and saw it on the news, I did not understand it and I still do not understand the decision to drop wrestling from the Olympic games. Wrestling is probably the oldest sport in the world and it has been around since ancient times and it has always been popular.
I have a feeling there are going to be a lot of protests about wrestling being dropped from the Olympic games and maybe if enough voices are heard then they might change their minds. If they do take it off I think it’s tragic, it will be a shame because wrestling in my opinion definitely belongs in the Olympic games.
You were honoured with a private audience with Pope Paul IV, what was that experience like?
My wife and I met Pope Paul IV in 1966 along with our son who was five-years-old at the time. We had gone back to Italy to visit my hometown where I grew up and we had that audience with the Pope. Frankly it was quite an experience and I’m sorry to say that I was so nervous that I had a very difficult time saying anything to him other than how honoured we were to be there and my wife of course expressed it a little bit better than I did, what it meant in our lives to have this audience with him.
If it was years later maybe I would have handled it a little bit better but at the time I was extremely nervous and I didn’t understand why because I’ve met a couple of Presidents of the United States and other leaders from around the world but for some reason with the Pope it was just very difficult for me to find the proper words to express my feelings.
If he was a fan of wrestling or myself he didn’t say anything but he allowed the photographer to take photos of him and my family, which I was thrilled to have.
There is a documentary about you coming out and also a movie is in the works, what can we expect from these projects?
I’m very pleased with the documentary and it has been completed, I’ve seen it and I was very happy with it because it’s one hundred per cent the truth. We made three or four trips to Italy and we even went up that mountain where we hid from the Nazi’s and filmed up there and we even interviewed the people of my town that are still around who went through the same ordeal as myself.
I did a lot in telling the story and they interviewed a lot of people, it’s about two hours but I was very pleased with it because it was very honest, very truthful and I’m very anxious for it to show. We are speaking to a number of distributing companies as there is a lot of interest from people in Japan, Germany, Italy and England that want to see it and it will be broadcasted by one of the networks over here in America later on in the year.
The movie, they have finished the screen writing and I’ve been told by the producer that there are two studios in Hollywood that are interested in the film but there are some independent producers that would like to produce it as well. They are at the process of who is going to fund it, but the producer Scott Rosenfelt has told me they are going to start casting people who are going to play the part of myself and other people that are going to be involved.
To be honest I’m more excited about the documentary because the documentary is all factual and it involves the people that were actually involved.
If you had the choice who would you pick to play you in the movie?
(Laughs) that is a difficult question to answer, from what they have told me there are going to have to be three or four different people playing me, because we will have to have someone play me during my young days in Italy, then they will have to show me as the kid that came over to America at 14-years-old and very skinny, and then at 18-19-years-old when I became a professional wrestler and throughout my professional career.
In my heyday I was about 270-275lbs so I don’t know in Hollywood who would resemble me in anyway. The producer told me that there was a German wrestler he’s seen that might fit the bill because he said there was a similarity in our looks.
As far as who I would like, I don’t know because I really don’t know anyone in Hollywood that would fit that role.