Sammartino’s Change Of Heart
By Jamie Kennedy
Many will argue that it’s long overdue, but no-one can say it’s ill-deserved. Bruno Sammartino’s entrance into the WWE Hall Of Fame has been a long time coming, but the wait will assuredly be worth it. As the longest reigning World Champion in company history, Sammartino held the championship on two separate occasions, with the first run lasting from May 17, 1963 until January 18, 1971 and the second from December 10, 1973 until April 30, 1977, for almost a combined 12 years.
These are reigns which will likely never be matched in longevity. The pro wrestling business may have changed – in part due to television and Pay-Per-View, wrestling is now faster paced. Champions come and go with sometimes alarming regularity, and promotions are continually seeking to offer things fans can digest quickly. In character on WWE’s Monday Night Raw, CM Punk (as WWE Champion) stated in the build to his match with The Rock at January’s Royal Rumble that he was a harder working champion than Bruno Sammartino and others, due to the amount of title defences those in the modern era faced. Clearly, these were not the opinions of the man behind the Punk persona, and nobody could be expected to take them as anything more than heel bravado designed to further the story.
Selling out the infamous Madison Square Garden a record 187 times, Bruno Sammartino will look to increase that figure to 188 come Saturday, April 6. Presenting their annual Hall Of Fame ceremony the night before the Wrestlemania supercard, WWE will honour Sammartino, Bob Backlund, Trish Stratus, Mick Foley, Booker T and induct Donald Trump into the celebrity wing.
Far from the biggest accolade in Sammartino’s illustrious career, this induction nonetheless represents a significant change of heart within the legendary Italian-American grappler. Long outspoken regarding his dismay at what professional wrestling – a profession he dedicated almost three decades to – has become in recent years, Sammartino has subsequently declined offers from WWE beforehand to be inducted, feeling it would be hypocritical should he accept after airing his grievances.
On the Ministry Of Slam wrestling radio show, my co-hosts (Chris Duke and Andrew Downs) and I were thrilled to present our own preview of the evening on which WWE honour those who have meant so much to the entire industry. Billed as the MOS Hall Of Fame special, we were fortunate enough to interview entrants such as Backlund, Stratus and Foley. With all due respect to those weighty names, Bruno Sammartino was the crown jewel of the list. Giving us over 30 minutes of his time, Bruno even delayed lunch in order to speak with us. As gentlemanly outside the ring as he was impressive inside it, the 77-year old athlete was nothing short of polite.
Chatting about everything from the beginning of his career to what he thought of pro wrestling today, Sammartino also discussed with us his hatred of drugs, giving advice to fledgling athletes on how to prolong their careers. As the main meat of the conversation, the WWE Hall Of Fame was spoken of at length, with Bruno describing exactly how his induction had all come about.
“I was in the business for almost a quarter of a century, and I’m very proud of my career”, Sammartino told MOS Radio. “I loved wrestling and so forth, but when I retired I saw changes that were very bothersome to me. For one thing, there were a lot of steroids and other drugs being used. That bothered me tremendously. Secondly, they had these good looking girls as wrestlers, but there was some nudity and some very vulgar stuff involved. The profanity they were using was also terrible, I hated to see the profession I held for 25 years come down to that.”
“As a result, because of how much it bothered me, I was very outspoken about it and tried to bring attention to the fact hoping that something maybe could be done. So, the main reason why I wouldn’t go into the WWE Hall of Fame was that I’d feel very much like a hypocrite if I did, because I resented all of these things. It just didn’t feel right then to accept entrance into the Hall of Fame.”
“When Paul (Triple H) contacted me about 7 months ago, I had long since quit watching wrestling. So he called me up and said that both him and WWE would really love to have me in the Hall of Fame. Paul was very kind, he said, ‘Our Hall of Fame needs to have you, to become legitimised, because you held the World Title almost 12 years and you were the WWF’. He said he’d heard a lot of the interviews I’d done over the years, but wanted me to know that WWE had made a lot of changes. They hired a doctor, Dr. Maroon and his staff, to do very strict drug testing and now had a complete Wellness program in place – checking out the overall fitness of the guys and making sure they weren’t suffering from concussions etc.”
“So, I knew of Dr. Maroon, he’s a very famous neurosurgeon, and had in fact operated on me before. I did a lot of damage to my back throughout my career, and he helped me tremendously. He’s a very ethical man with a wonderful reputation. I spoke to him about things several times, and he told me how strict things had become; he informed me how much WWE were doing to correct prior problems. As I started watching it all again, I noticed that the wrestlers looked normal – they looked like athletes again! They no longer looked freakish and over-developed, like Hulk Hogan, Billy Graham, The Road Warriors or The Ultimate Warrior.”
“Then Paul continued to talk with me, telling me that WWE had done away with all the nudity, vulgarity and profanity, because they wanted to be more of a family entertainment program. Without giving him a decision on the Hall of Fame quite yet, I decided to watch for a few more months to see if what he said rang true. They were legitimate changes WWE had made, which was good. After I was convinced of the drug testing and all of the other changes, I finally told Paul, ‘Ok, you guys are going the right direction and I’m willing to come in’. That’s how my pending induction into the WWE Hall of Fame happened”.
Showing clear gratitude towards Triple H for reaching out to him and highlighting the changes in the WWE system, Bruno Sammartino will no doubt continue his genuine politeness come that emotional evening at Madison Square Garden on April 6. As a good friend of Bruno’s, 1wrestling.com’s very own Bill Apter will be in attendance at the ceremonies, honouring a friend he has had for many years. It’s fair to say, without hyperbole, that Sammartino honoured us on the Ministry Of Slam with his interview.
The full interview with Bruno Sammartino is available on the Ministry Of Slam’s WWE Hall of Fame Special, also including interviews with Bob Backlund, Trish Stratus and Mick Foley. MOS airs live every Monday from 9pm GMT/4pm EST. Visit www.MinistryOfSlam.com for more information. Follow MOS on Twitter @MOSRadio.