Kayfabe, Lies and Alibis: Bruno Sammartino and Jim Cornette shoot interview!

If Nazis couldn’t bring Bruno down, what chance did the WWWF monsters have? Rest in Peace, Mr. Sammartino.

Taped in September 2006

Presented by ROH

Corny puts over Sammartino’s long and storied run on top of the WWWF, becoming one of the biggest draws of the 60’s and 70’s.

Bruno grew up in Italy, which was under the control of the Nazis. One third of his townspeople died under the rule of the Third Reich. His father was in America and was not allowed to return to his home. Bruno and his mother joined others in hiding up in a mountain in wintry conditions. His mother would climb down the mountain and sneak into her own home to take food as the Nazis patolled the town.

At the end of the war Bruno acquired rheumatic fever. With few doctors around, they tried to treat Sammartino with leeches to suck out his “bad blood” out. Bruno’s illness prevented him from being allowed to travel to the United States for 3 years.

Sammartino’s father worked as a coal miner and steel worker in Pittsburgh.

The fever cost Sammartino his strength and his early months in America saw him getting bullied over his heritage. Eventually, Bruno was introduced to the YMCA and weight training. He fell in love with building up his body.

Within 8 years, Sammartino was setting records by bench pressing over 550 pounds.

While his friends were chasing girls, Sammartino’s life revolved around school and weights.

Verne Gagne, Lou Thesz and others were on TV as wrestling stars, and Bruno took notice.

Sammartino’s 275 pounds of muscle caught the eyes of promoters, which led to him getting tryouts, then training, from Toots Mondt and Vince McMahon Sr’s underlings.

While wrestling in his debut match, Sammartino applied a bear hug and accidentally cracked a few of his opponent’s ribs.

Within a year, Sammartino was working at Madison Square Garden against “Wild” Bill Curry in a semi-main event position.

Haystacks Calhoun was picked up by Sammartino in a bout soon after. He weighed a legit 624 pounds. Bruno had not cleared that spot with McMahon and got heat for wrecking Calhoun’s gimmick of not being able to be lifted off his feet. Calhoun himself had not okayed the spot either, but Bruno just grabbed his leg and heaved him up anyway.

Over the years lifters added steroids and other aids to help them bulk up. Sammartino’s strength was all-natural. This leads to a sidetrack where home runs in baseball are discussed in regards to the roid use by the hitters.

Buddy Rogers was a draw, so promoters allowed him to bring his own crew of wrestlers from circuit to circuit. Rogers and Sammartino did not get along right from the start. Sammartino was warned that Rogers would try and politic his own friends to be put over Bruno. The way Bruno explains it, this seemed to lead to Sammartino turning heel (Bruno won’t use such a term) and working against mega star fan favorite Antonio Rocca. The fans were split because heels weren’t allowed to be dastardly when the New York Athletic commission was around.

Rogers eventually was able to get Bruno suspended after he was secretly double booked. The commission suspended him for missing his booking and this led to the whole country barring Sammartino from competing. Sammartino bounced around trying to find a place that would book him, but the ban was very effective.

Yukon Eric was working a show in Pittsburgh, where Bruno knew him from his brief run on top, so Sammartino went to visit him. Eric told Sammartino to call Frank Tunney in Toronto in order to get himself booked. Bruno got assurance that he would actually be booked and not screwed over, so he quit his job and moved to Toronto.

The local media were given a chance to see Sammartino lift heavy weights to put him over. Toronto had a large Italian population to play to in his native Italian.

The WWWF took note of their sagging business, compared to Toronto’s good business, and made overtures to get Sammartino back in the fold. Bruno insisted he wanted a World title match to in order to come back. Bruno won’t say as much, but I assume he’s trying to say he demanded a title run to return.

Rogers put Sammartino over in 48 seconds. Rogers would later claim he had suffered a heart attack before the match, but Sammartino calls that a lie.

Bruno defended the belt against Gene Kiniski, Bill Watts, Ernie Ladd, George Steele, The Sheik, Bull Ramos and many other monsters.

Watts is really put over as a big, burly, effective brawler who drew very well against Bruno.

The Sheik liked to use weapons, which burnt the fans out fast and kept him from being able to work on top more frequently in MSG.

Even lesser talents like Crusher Verdu drew huge attendance figures when paired with Sammartino.

Tag team matches were a nice diversion, which was needed from time to time considering that the fans were seeing Sammartino on top month after month, year after year.

The dominance of Sammartino on top worked due to the fact that the heels were just so cocky and despised. This lead to the fans flocking to the arena to see their hero smash them.

When Ivan Koloff finally beat Sammartino after a 7-year run on top the crowd was dead silent. Sammartino felt truly sad when fans came up and expressed their love for Bruno and how he’d always be their hero, even without the belt.

The nightly toll of wrestling had broken Sammartino down and he finally gave up the title in order to heal up.

Lou Thesz claimed he was proposed a NWA vs. WWWF title match against Bruno but Thesz wanted a $100,000 guarantee to make it happen. Sammartino retorts that Thesz’ claims are untrue.   Sammartino did not want to be the NWA champion because his schedule was already brutal and he wanted to spend as much time with his parents, wife and kids as possible.

Thesz had never drawn in New York, so Sammartino isn’t sure where such a dream match would have been held, since Bruno was king of the Northeast.

Sammartino ultimately worked a part time schedule in the early 70’s. He and WWWF champion Pedro Morales wrestled a babyface vs. babyface match at Shea Stadium after a TV angle where the men came to blows after a heel had tossed salt and blinded one of them. The advance ticket sales were over 20,000, but it rained in New York for 3 days straight at the time of the match and that killed any walk up business. Usually MSG would advance about a fourth of their overall ticket sales, however this show did not follow that rule. Bruno thinks a nice day would have drawn at least 40,000 fans. The match ended with a curfew draw after over an hour of wrestling.

Bruno refers to Morales as being “kind of lazy” as champion as he was happy drawing huge in MSG with the Puerto Ricans, but he didn’t expand his base and struggled to draw in other areas.

Sammartino was freelancing without the WWWF champion’s schedule holding him back and worked dates for Los Angeles, Japan, Houston, the Midwest with Dick the Bruiser, etc. and loved it. He made big money and worked limited dates. The WWWF came calling and gave him a big money deal to work only select, big arenas as World champ in order to give the promotion a year to build up his replacement. This turned into 2 years, 3 years and finally in year 4 Bruno broke his neck in a match against Stan Hansen and that basically gave him a totally valid reason to drop the title.

Hansen faced Bruno in Shea Stadium several months after his neck was broken due to Vince Sr. begging him to return and save the show as the ticket sales were not moving for Muhammed Ali against Antonio Inoki being shown on closed circuit. Bruno was still in the hospital with his neck braced up when McMahon called to try and convince him to work the match. He promised Sammartino would not have to take any risks. The night of the match Bruno took off his neck brace and made a go of it. As a final kicker, the WWWF promised Sammartino a percentage of the gate from other affiliates, but Vince Sr. made excuses that other promoters had reneged and Bruno never saw the money.

A few months later, Bruno threatened to retire as champion if the WWWF didn’t get it off of him.

Corny brings up the WWE Hall of Fame. This allows Sammartino to talk about the modern era of crazy angles, bloated steroid bodies and other things that bother Bruno.

The feud with Larry Zbyszko is gone over next. The feud sold out MSG for two matches, then they drew over $500,000 at Shea Stadium to blow the angle off in August of 1980. At points during the feud the men were selling out multiple arenas in the same day.

Zybyzko’s heat was so great that he had to either have a police escort or else be snuck out of an arena in order to avoid being attacked by the fans.

Bob Backlund lacked charisma and the WWWF had to load up the cards Backlund was on in order to help him draw.

David Sammartino went into wrestling against Bruno’s wishes. Sammartino was asked to come back and work with his son. Bruno didn’t want to return. The promotion then went to David and got it in his head that Bruno returning would be David’s ticket to main events. Bruno finally relented, but openly scoffed that the big star that Hulk Hogan supposedly was needed an old man to come back to draw a house for the company. Hogan couldn’t draw in the same place month after month like Bruno had.

The guys spend several minutes going into how these kids these days just don’t know how to work, can’t draw a house consistently, etc etc. If a cloud floated by, they would have shook their fist at it.

Andre liked Sammartino, but Bruno was not willing to drink excessively like Andre wanted him to. The Giant needed to keep moving area to area to keep him special, and Andre himself became more moody if he was in an area too long. Bruno wanted to run Yankee stadium with himself facing off with Andre. Vince Sr. didn’t want either of his big draws to lose, so the match never came off.

Vince Sr. would work with other promoters to make everyone stronger. Vince Jr. took over the world with TV but now he can’t sell tickets in a lot of areas that used to sell out every few weeks for the regional promoters.

Bruno is about to turn 71 at the time of this taping. He still lifts weights and runs 6-7 miles a day several days a week. He and his wife go out to eat at a nice restaurant once a week and once a year they go back to Italy. He names two of his sons and their families but does not mention David, who he remained estranged from all the way to his death.

Final thoughts: Sammartino has a very interesting story, and even his humble bragging and kayfabe protecting are worth sitting through to hear it.

 

Written by Andrew Lutzke

The grumpy old man of culturecrossfire.com, lover of wrasslin' and true crimes.

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