WWE Hall of Fame 2013 Special: Bruno Sammartino
The WWE Hall of Fame Class of 2013 can certainly be considered one of the biggest classes in recent memory as, after twenty years of trying and failing, the WWE has finally convinced “The Living Legend” Bruno Sammartino to be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.
Not only is the longest reigning WWE Champion in history getting inducted on April 6 in Madison Square Garden, but “The Hardcore Legend” Mick Foley, seven-time Women’s Champion Trish Stratus, celebrity inductee Donald Trump, the second longest reigning WWE Champion of all-time Bob Backlund, and the five-time WCW Champion Booker T will take their place among the great legends in professional wrestling history. In this special article we will be taking a special look at the career and accomplishments of “The Living Legend” Bruno Sammartino.
Bruno Sammartino’s Career Highlights
• Two-Time WWWF Champion
• First & Fourth Longest Reigning Champion in the History of Men’s Professional Wrestling
• One-Time NWA United States Heavyweight Champion (Toronto)
• One-Time WWWF United States Tag Team Champion (w/ Sprios Arion)
• Two-Time WWF International Tag Team Champion (1x w/ Dominic DeNucci & 1x w/ Tony Marino)
• One-Time NWA International Tag Team Champion (Toronto) (w/ Whipper Billy Watson)
The Italian-born legend had an appropriately dominant debut as, on December 17, 1959 in Pittsburgh, Sammartino made his professional wrestling debut, defeating Dmitri Grabowski in an astonishing nineteen seconds. Sammartino continued to work for the Pittsburgh-based Studio Wrestling promotion and, only seven years into his career, Bruno would purchase the Spectator Sports promotion in Pittsburgh. Despite Spectator Sports only lasting eight years under the new ownership, countless national stars made stops in Pittsburgh for the promotion. Names like Gorilla Monsoon, “Cowboy” Bill Watts, Johnny De Fazio, The Crusher, Bobo Brazil, & George “The Animal” Steele would all make appearances for the promotion, but Bruno would ultimately sell the promotion in 1971, continuing to work for the new owners until the promotion closed its doors in 1974. It was not long after this that Vincent J. McMahon’s Capitol Wrestling Corporation would take over the Pittsburgh wrestling scene as the CWC began their national expansion that would ultimately transform into today’s WWE. During his time competing in Pittsburgh, Sammartino would begin wrestling for the CWC promotion on January 2, 1960 and, less than a year after his professional wrestling debut, Bruno was headlining “The World’s Most Famous Arena” Madison Square Garden. Only a couple years into his career, Bruno would be a part of a life-changing event on February 18, 1961 as, on that date, Sammartino was facing Chick Garibaldi in a match at Sunnyside Gardens in New York when, after a bodyslam Garibaldi suffered a heart attack and died in the middle of the ring. This incident would change Bruno’s life forever as Sammartino later stated that it took him several years to get over it.
Tired of being underpaid and having promises to him broken, Bruno Sammartino would leave Vincent J. McMahon’s Capitol Wrestling Corporation, opting to join McMahon’s rival and former partner, Kola Kwariani, where Sammartino frequently wrestled his former tag team partner, Antonino Rocca. With Kwariani’s hold on the New York market weakening due to low attendance and the involvement of the athletic commission, Bruno would be convinced to go back to working for McMahon. However, Bruno would find himself working even less and for less pay that his first stint with the CWC and Sammartino soon gave McMahon his notice before heading to San Francisco, where there was a big demand for Italian wrestlers at the time, but upon arriving San Francisco, Bruno would be informed that he had been suspended by the athletic commission as a result of missing an apparent booking in Baltimore. Sammartino would immediately suspect that McMahon had intentionally double-booked him to get him suspended as punishment for Bruno working for Kwariani. With a nationwide suspension putting his wrestling career on hold, Bruno would work as a laborer in Pittsburgh until a new opportunity arose.
With his suspension keeping him from competing anywhere in the United States, Sammartino would get in touch with Toronto promoter Frank Tunney and, despite Vincent J. McMahon’s attempts to blackball Sammartino in every territory he tried to work, Tunney would decide to take a risk and book Bruno in Toronto. Bruno was an instant hit with Toronto’s Italian population and quickly gained a large following in Canada and, in September 1962, Sammartino won his first championship as he and Whipper Billy Watson won the local International Tag Team Titles. While still working in Canada, Bruno would wrestle a series of matches against then NWA World Heavyweight Champion Lou Thesz, though he never actually won the title from Thesz as their matches typically ended in a time limit draw. While Sammartino’s success continued to grow, Bruno’s former employer, Vincent McMahon, was having a hard time drawing fans with WWWF World Heavyweight Champion Buddy Rogers (the first World Champion after the Capitol Wrestling Corporation broke away from the NWA and McMahon created the World Wide Wrestling Federation). Realizing the marketability of Bruno in the New York area, McMahon would swallow his pride and, together with Toots Mondt, they would pay the $500 fine required to clear up Bruno’s suspension from competition in the United States.
Sammartino would not rejoin McMahon’s promotion without a fight, however, as Bruno demanded that he get a run with the WWWF Title or else he would not compete for the company. McMahon would agree to the terms and, on May 17, 1963, Sammartino defeated Buddy Rogers to become the WWWF Champion just four years into his professional wrestling career, but not without controversy. Bruno would reveal several years later that, in a “screwjob” that pre-dates Montreal, Buddy Rogers had to be tricked into defending the title. Rogers was led to believe that the match would end in a disqualification and he would keep the belt, but in a match that only lasted 48 seconds, Bruno broke the news to Rogers that “The Nature Boy” was giving up the title, threatening Rogers by saying that they can do things the “easy way or the hard way”. While the crowd was shocked to see Buddy Rogers lose so decisively, nobody was more surprised than Rogers himself. After the match, Rogers claimed that he had a heart attack a week earlier and he was dragged out of the hospital in order to have the title match, but Bruno argued that Buddy was cleared to compete before the match began.
As has been noted on several occasions recently (especially towards the end of CM Punk’s WWE Title reign), Bruno’s first reign as WWWF Champion is still the longest title reign in all of men’s professional wrestling as Sammartino held the title for a total of 2,803 days, which breaks down to seven years, eight months, and one day. Bruno would lose the title to Ivan Koloff on January 18, 1971, but Bruno would regain the title on December 10, 1973. Though Bruno’s second title reign was not as lengthy as his first, Sammartino still held the belt for 1,237 days, the fourth longest reign in history. When Bruno initially lost the title to Koloff, the fans in Madison Square Garden were beside themselves as the entire arena went silent to the point that Bruno was concerned that he may have lost his hearing. Soon after, hardcore Sammartino fans actually began to cry once they realized that their hero had lost the title. Fearful of a riot, the belt was not even handed to the new champion in public.
When McMahon wanted Bruno to carry the WWWF Title for a second time, Sammartino demanded that he get a lighter schedule, requesting that he only work major arenas. Sammartino would remain the WWWF Champion until April 30, 1977 where he lost the belt to “Superstar” Billy Graham. The reason behind the title change was that Bruno requested that the belt be taken off of him due to a broken neck and several other injuries. Bruno would remain in the title picture for several years, but was never given another reign as champion. At the famous Showdown at Shea in 1980, Sammartino had the most emotional match of his career when he faced his former protégé, Larry Zbysko in a Steel Cage Match in the culmination of one of the biggest feuds in wrestling history.
Plagued with injuries, Bruno would decide to retire from in-ring competition in 1981, but would remain in the now World Wrestling Federation (WWF) until 1988, mostly to try and get his son, David Sammartino, over in the company.
Following his retirement, the controversy between Bruno and the WWF began as, in an interview conducted at a weightlifting exhibition in 1984, Bruno stated that he did not watch the WWF product and that the direction of the company made him “sick”. Not long after, Bruno found out, through a former WWF employee, that Sammartino had been cheated by Vincent J. McMahon on the entire gate percentage during his second WWWF Title reign. As a result, Sammartino would file a lawsuit against McMahon, but after Vincent J. McMahon passed away, his son, Vincent Kennedy McMahon, settled out of court with Bruno. Per the terms of the settlement, Sammartino would briefly work for the WWF as a color commentator.
Sammartino would later be convinced to come out of retirement and would often team with his son, David, but once David realized that Vince was just using him in a ploy to get his father to wrestle, David would quit the company on countless occasions. However, Bruno would continue to wrestle in the WWF in an attempt to try and convince McMahon to let his son return. Bruno would compete at the first two WrestleMania events before having his final WWF match, where he teamed with Hulk Hogan to defeat the team of the One Man Gang & King Kong Bundy. Sammartino would return to commentating until leaving the company in March of 1988.
Bruno would make appearances for some other promotions, most notably WCW and the UWF, but would eventually keep his distance from the wrestling business altogether. After his departure from the WWF, Sammartino would repeatedly blast the WWF and Vince McMahon, accusing McMahon of pushing his talent to use and abuse steroids, illicit drugs, and obscene storylines. Bruno would also refuse to be a part of any WWF/WWE produced videos or DVD’s and repeatedly refused to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, often publicly stating that he would not have anything to do with the company until Vince McMahon was no longer in charge. However, it was Vince’s son-in-law, Triple H, that would finally convince Sammartino to agree to be inducted into the Hall of Fame as Bruno and “The Game” developed a sort of friendship over their phone calls with each other and, after years of trying and failing, WWE finally made the big announcement on February 5 that “The Living Legend” Bruno Sammartino will take his rightful place in the WWE Hall of Fame.