The "EXCELLENCE IN COLUMN WRITING" is upon you as I, Mr. Tito bring to you a column that several newer readers have requested. As the wonderful author of the On This Day in Pro Wrestling History... (idea for the series inspired by YouTube's On This Day in Gaming History videos), I've had several inquiries to write a column about former World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF) (now WWE) superstar Bruno Sammartino. I believe that most younger fans were caught off guard when the WWE suddenly announced that Bruno would join the 2013 WWE Hall of Fame class on RAW this past Monday. The video package praised Bruno heavily as if he was one of the WWE's greatest of all time superstars. Many have sent me messages like "who was this guy and why is the WWE touting him as one of the greatest WWE wrestlers of all time?"
He was one of the greatest WWE superstars of all time. But for the past 25 years, however, you didn't know that by the way the WWE never mentioned him.
There was legitimate heat between Bruno Sammartino and Vince McMahon Jr. towards the end of Bruno's WWF career during the late 1980's. Vince McMahon Jr. purchased the World Wrestling Federation (Vince Jr. removed one "W" in 1979) during 1982 from his father Vince McMahon Sr. and began swift changes to the pro wrestling industry. Bruno Sammartino was Vince Sr.'s major superstar during the 1960's and most of the 1970's in a business that was much different than what Vince Jr. started changing up during the 1980's. That change in culture between Vince Sr. to Vince Jr. cause a lot of eventual friction between Bruno and Vince McMahon Jr. that kept Bruno away from WWE activities for the last 25 years. Worse yet, Bruno was outspoken on his opinion of Vince Jr. and what the WWF had become since Vince Jr. took over. Regardless of what you think about Vince's son-in-law and Executive Vice President of Talent Triple H, the fact that he's convinced Bruno to join the Hall of Fame is an outright miracle to the wrestling world. Triple H pleaded with Bruno for the past year to make amends with Vince and be honored for his great career in New York City for the 2013 induction.
Bruno Sammartino is significant because he made the newly branded World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF) (now WWE) credible and increasingly popular as a wrestling territory. Vince McMahon Sr. and his associate promoters had a dispute with the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) in 1963. Most of the major territories belonged to the NWA through the 1960's and each of the territories had a voting member who would help decide the NWA Champion. The NWA Title was positioned on top stars of territories and it would allow for the crowned NWA champion to travel to other member territories. In 1954, Vince McMahon Sr. joined the Capitol Wrestling Corporation when his father and promoter, Jess McMahon passed away. A year before in 1953, the Capitol Wrestling Corporation became a member of the NWA. During 1961, the Capitol Wrestling Corporation was able to crown one of its own Northeast territory wrestlers as NWA Champion and that was "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers. Disputes over what territories NWA Champion Rogers would travel to and/or the $25,000 deposit required by the NWA for champions to place on the championship belt caused for prompt booking by other voting members the NWA. During 1963, the NWA opted to have Rogers drop the title to former NWA Champion, Lou Thesz in a one-fall match as NWA Title matches were typically 2 out of 3 falls.
Capitol Wrestling Corporation was furious over the title change from their guy, Buddy Rogers, and opted to break away from the NWA and create their own World Championship title. Rebranded as the "World Wide Wrestling Federation", the WWWF promoted the fact that a wrestling tournament was held in Rio de Janerio, Brazil and that "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers was crowned the brand new WWWF Champion on April 25th, 1963. Of course the title tournament was fictional... Thus, if you're complaining about the WWE Title today, consider that it was legitimately created out of thin air in 1963! Rogers, however, was only WWWF Champion for less than 1 month. Rogers would suffer a minor heart attack and WWWF promoters (as the story goes, pulled Rogers out of a hospital bed) made Rogers drop the WWWF Title to Bruno Sammartino in a 48 second match on May 17th, 1963. This would officially begin Bruno's 7+ year record WWWF/WWF/WWE Title reign that, to this day, has yet to be broken (fellow WWE Hall of Fame inductee, Bob Backlund, is the closest with a 5+ year title reign).
Bruno was a solid, sturdy champion in what was becoming a strong wrestling territory in the United States. Born in Italy in October 1935, Sammartino and his family would move the United States during 1950 in Pittsburgh, PA. He took a dedicated interest in lifting weights and almost made the 1956 Olympic Team. Bruno would use his strength for strongman exhibitions, catching the eye of local media in Pittsburgh but also local wrestling promoters. Wrestling promoters liked Bruno's look but they also liked the fact that he had an Italian heritage. In the Northeast, there existed a large amount of Italian immigrants between New York and Pittsburgh. Bruno's look and Italian bloodline set the stage for a perfect star in the making for the WWWF. Funny thing is that Sammartino had some payment and booking issues with Vince McMahon Sr. before becoming WWWF Champion in 1963 and was actually crowned WWWF Champion during the last minute due to Buddy Roger's health issues. Yet, McMahon Sr. opted to keep the WWWF Title on Sammartino for 7+ years as the second ever WWWF Champion in the newly branded promotion. WWWF was popular with its homebase in New York City, playing to the Madison Square Garden regularly, but Bruno's drawing power among other parts of the territory made the WWWF stronger. There was a noticeable dropoff in house gates after Bruno lost his first WWWF Title during 1971 within non-New York area territories, as it has been observed.
Bruno lost the WWWF Title to the "Russian Bear" Ivan Koloff during January 1971 to the shock of many WWWF fans in Madison Square Garden. Bruno would regain the WWWF Title during December 1973 and would hold the title until April 1977, another lengthy reign. Bruno's drawing power remained and he engaged with major battles with Stan Hansen that drew very well. However, father time was beginning to catch up with Bruno as injuries began to amount. Sammartino broke his neck in a match against Hansen during 1976 and this injury, among others, bothered him enough that he requested to drop the title by teh start of 1977. "Superstar" Billy Graham, with the feet on the ropes, defeated Sammartino to win the WWWF Title. Sammartino would try to regain the title from Graham but failed despite repeated attempts. Sammartino would then leave the WWWF briefly to wrestle in other regions of the United States and the world. However, Sammartino would return to the WWWF to feud with "the Living Legend" Larry Zbyszko which drew huge in 1980 (Zyszko was a former student of Sammartino's and turned heel on his mentor!). After this great feud, Sammartino would wind his career down and retire from in-ring action during 1981. Vince McMahon Jr. would buy the renamed World Wrestling Federation (WWF) during 1982.
Bruno, however, would return to the WWF in 1984 but in support of his son, David Sammartino. With David wrestling, it tempted to get Bruno back into the ring. Bruno would often tag up with his son David at first before being used elsewhere within the promotion. Vince Jr. liked using Bruno for the 1980's WWF because Bruno was still loved by his Italian fans in the Northeast and could be used as a draw in addition to the wrestlers that Vince Jr. was heavily pushing. Bruno, for example, was actually in the Wrestlemania 2 Battle Royal in 1986 and was even victim to the Honky Tonk Man's Intercontinental Title reign which saw Honky escaping loss (countout or DQ, titles don't switch on those types of results). He was no longer employed with the WWF by 1988.
25 years later, many fans "in the know" about Bruno and the WWE's relationship are considering it a "miracle" that Triple H convinced Bruno to join the 2013 WWE Hall of Fame class.
Why? Because Bruno Sammartino became a major outspoken critic of the pro wrestling industry and the WWE in particular. It seemed that Bruno had issue with the changing pro wrestling industry, notably by Vince McMahon Jr., from what he observed during the 1980's. And Bruno held NOTHING back, as indicated by the following post-WWE quotes for the last 25 years:
BRUNO:"My specific problem...when I retired in 1981, I guess in 1983 or 84 when Vince Sr stepped aside, his son took over. I was contacted in 1984 to come back as a commentator and to take advantage of my expertise. I agreed to come back, and I saw a nightmare. The steroid abuse was obvious and rampant, and there were other problems with cocaine and pills, and other drugs. You name it, they used it. It appalled me, and I knew it wasn't the wrestling I knew. I didn't belong and had to get out. For me it was a nightmare to see a business I loved for all those years become what I saw. It was disgusting and I knew I could be no part of that so I had to get out. " -Solie.org, 1997
BRUNO:" If it was the World Wide Wrestling Federation, I would feel good because that would mean I would be inducted to the organization I was identified with most of my career. The WWF is an organization I never had anything to do with other than a couple of years as a commentator. I don't really care to be in that Hall of Fame because it isn't something I participated in. It's a completely different organization and I really don't belong in it and frankly I don't even want to be part of it. " -Solie.org, 1997
BRUNO:"If it was for the WWWF that I represented for all those years, but I don't consider myself a part of the WWF. It's a different organization and I don't like what it represents. I really would not like to be inducted in it and wouldn't want to be present anyway. I don't take it seriously. Look at the Hall of Fame. It's a joke. How can you get inducted. In Baseball or Football there are 360 writers that vote. In the WWF it's McMahon that decides. I was World Champion for 12 years, and yet there are people in that Hall of Fame that never headlined one arena. One of the really nice people in the Hall of Fame, and I don't want to say bad things about him, but Johnny Rodz is in the Hall of Fame. He never headlined. To be in the Hall of Fame, you should have achievements and stats that qualify you to be in it. Look at some of the names and wonder how they made it into the Hall of Fame and you will see like I see that's it's a joke. I have no desire to be any part of it. " -Solie.org, 1997
BRUNO:"When I came back as a color commentator and I saw what was going on I couldn’t believe it. You know how much of it (drug abuse) had been going on. Before that I am sure there were some people that were into some things, some substances but now it seems like. One time I said 95%, and someone said more like 99%. That’s how ridiculous it was and the thing is this okay. I got out of there (the WWF). I didn’t want to stay with what was going on. I just didn’t want no part of that. I became outspoken for one reason, even though I became the enemy to a lot of the wrestlers and promoters of course. Because already there had been two, three deaths, drug related deaths. " -Camel Clutch Blog, 2010
BRUNO:Not only that, there are young guys that want to get into the business and the mentality is, whether anyone wants to admit it or not, because I know. I talk to young people all of the time. They think that if you want to get into the big-times, you have to get juiced up, because that’s the look that they want. This is the mentality, why? Because they see the stars on television and that’s what they are, a lot of them are all juiced up. The sad thing is that a lot of parents don’t understand that by having their kids look up to these guys, I remember kids at the arenas since I came back as a color commentator in 1984. Kids that are 6, 7, 8, 9 years old with their parents exposing them to nudity, vulgarity, profanity, as if this is okay and normal behavior, and then for these kids to look up to these guys, and the parents should understand that their kids know about steroids, and if they believe that steroids can help them look like these people who look like heroes to them, they are going to get involved with this thing and they want to be like them, they want to be the wrestlers, therefore it continues. It continues because the more who get involved with these drugs, the more deaths you are going to have." -Camel Clutch Blog, 2010
BRUNO:"What's this I hear that Vince has a club where guys have to kiss his butt? Come on. That's just ridiculous. I can't believe that's the state of the business nowadays and I can't believe that's what people watch for. Cable companies should be ashamed for even showing that garbage on television in the first place." -Slam! Wrestling, 2011
BRUNO:"It was great working for Vince Senior. There's no comparison between Senior and Junior. Nowadays, Vince makes the wrestlers depend on him. Back in my day, Vince Senior depended on me. We didn't have pay-per-view or WrestleMania, but we would sell out (Madision Square) Garden no problem 12-15 times a year and that's all we had back then were house shows. Vince depended on me. When he would want to bring in a new wrestler for a program with me, he'd run it by me first and if I liked the idea, we'd go with it. If not, then we'd come up with something else. Junior, he just doesn't care. He'll do whatever he wants. He's just a sick-minded idiot. I mean, who else books a match where you wrestle God. How low can you go? It's disgusting." -Slam! Wrestling, 2011
BRUNO:"They've called plenty of times. I turn them down every time. What's the point to a Hall of Fame? Is it a building I can actually go to? No. Give me a break. If I gave in and was inducted, what would that say about me? It would make me a hypocrite and then Vince would turn right around and sell DVDs about me and my career and make more money." -Slam! Wrestling, 2011
^^^ This is in addition to the many other chatroom, audio, or televised appearances where Bruno Sammartino ripped the WWE and Vince McMahon.
It's safe to say that Executive Vice President of Talent, Triple H, has performed his job well as an executive by bringing back a WWE Legend after 25 years of non-existence in the WWE Universe. Considering Bruno's tough criticisms of Vince McMahon and the pro wrestling business, this turnaround is remarkable. And Bruno is quoted by WWE.com giving credit directly to Triple H:
BRUNO:"Well, I guess the main reason would be Triple H. He’s the one who contacted me months ago and we got acquainted with each other. We had only met once, very, very briefly. I only really knew Triple H as a Superstar with WWE, but in person I think we only met for maybe 20 seconds... ...Triple H contacted me and he started telling me everything that was going on with WWE. There had been issues and things that I was not happy with, but when I saw the changes, I was very, very impressed. Triple H was a very sincere guy and he was trained by someone who I had the most respect in the world for, and that was Walter “Killer” Kowalski. And then, of course, when he told me that it’s going to be in Madison Square Garden, that was huge for me, too, because of my history in the Garden." -WWE.com, 2/6/2013
The 2013 Hall of Fame class is going to be a historic one with Bruno getting inducted along with fellow late 1970's/early 1980's superstar Bob Backlund, hardcore legend and multiple time WWE ChampionMick Foley, and the greatest WWE Diva of all time, Trish Stratus. Bruno getting inducted just boosted the ticket demand in New York City for the Hall of Fame induction and just gave the WWE Hall of Fame some legitimate credibility by linking the 1960's and 1970's officially to the 1980's WWF and beyond. Younger fans will now finally learn about the man who helped give the WWWF credility for Vince McMahon Sr. at a time when the break-up from the NWA could have been a disaster. 25 years is too damn long not to honor one of the forefathers of the WWE.