Review: Chris Cruise’s “Bruno 101″ Is An Intriguing Look At All Things Sammartino
by Trapper Tom Leturgey
Pittsburgh–Bruno Sammartino wanted Larry Zbyszko to be World Wrestling Federation Heavyweight Champion. That was one of the litany of remarkable asides reported by Christopher Cruise on Day One of his Pittsburgh-based class on the life and times of the original “Living Legend.”
It didn’t quite turn out the way Sammartino wanted, as Zbyszko would ultimately leave Pittsburgh and the Northeast for an impressive run in Vern Gagne’s AWA and other areas.
A class of about 30 students took in the class at Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC) North Campus, on Wednesday, April 19, 2017. Cruise created the class based on his 30-year friendship with Sammartino. Armed with a power point presentation, magazine articles and a treasure trove of obscure online videos, (and a pre-class lunchtime visit with Sammartino at “The Champ’s” favorite North Hills eatery), Cruise was a masterful documentarian and story teller.
The former WCW announcer started the class by saying that the modern-day WWE is the billion-dollar success it is today largely because of Sammartino’s two championship reigns, which lasted a total of more than 4,000 days. “He carried the WWWF on his back for 11 years as champion,” Cruise noted.
Early in the presentation, Cruise also acknowledged the contribution of those in Bruno Sammartino’s realm who have passed away in recent years. In fact, he dedicated the first day of class to the memories of Ivan Koloff, George “The Animal” Steele, “Chilly” Bill Cardille and fan club historian Georgiann Makropoulos. (As an aside, Cruise says it is “unfortunate” that Koloff is not in the WWE Hall of Fame.)
Cruise focused a great deal on Sammartino’s high moral standing, and the Champ’s desire to “try and be as good as I could,” and behave like a champion in life and the squared circle. Sammartino was reportedly offered a role on the long-time HBO favorite “The Soprano’s.” But after seeing the script—flush with vulgarities and profanity—Sammartino turned down the part.
In addition, Sammartino always embodied class and sophistication in the cars he drove (he favors Rolls Royces), suits he wore, and the fact that he has remained married to his wife Carol for 58 years.
Sammartino’s twin sons, Darryl and Dan, were in attendance for most of the class. They relayed some little-known information about their family. The tale isn’t new for fans of Bruno Sammartino…his family evaded Nazis in the in Germany before immigrating here. His father, Alfonso, came to America and back to Italy nine times during their early years. For years during WWII, Alfonso didn’t hear from his family and had no idea if they were still alive. He reportedly went from 1936 to 1950 without seeing his wife and children.
Sammartino’s mother, Emilia, was shot in the shoulder during one of her many missions from the mountains to provide food and sustenance for her children. The clan hid for 14 months. Sammartino’s sons confirmed that their grandmother was also stabbed during those daring raids for survival.
On March 11, 1950. Bruno gets to the United States, and Pittsburgh. His father had purchased a house in the Oakland neighborhood within the city for $6,000. Darryl and Dan Sammartino said that their father had “never seen a car, a toilet, or a toothbrush” before coming to the United States. Conversely, Oakland boasted no one of Italian decent. Bruno “couldn’t speak English” and routinely got beat up. He continues to have “terrible memories” of getting beat up.
In January, 1951, an 84-pound Sammartino wants to join the local YHMWA, a version of the YMCA. He didn’t have the $12 initiation fee, so he knocked on doors to do odd jobs for quick cash. When the weather broke, he mowed lawns. He earned the fee and quickly began lifting weights. Only a few years later, Sammartino weighed in at 230 pounds when he graduated high school.
A self-styled Strong Man, Bruno set a world record bench press of 565 pounds in 1959. It was his strength that drew the interest of Dr. Rudy Miller and others in the pro wrestling game.
Cruise says that the earliest match anyone can find, and what Bruno himself considers his first match, took place on November 9, 1959 at the Aliquippa Hopewell High School Gym. Haystacks Calhoun and Johnny Valentine were also on the card, which drew 1,600 fans.
Cruise touched on a number of highlights, including his match against Pedro Morales in which neither combatant threw a punch in 17 minutes of a match, before as many as 24,000 people. Bruno said the match would have drawn as many as 40,000 fans if it didn’t rain at Shea Stadium.
He went over the Sammartino/Zbyszko feud and detailed how Bruno wished Larry would be elevated in the WWE. It wasn’t the first time that Sammartino promoted a Pittsburgh-area wrestler. According to George Steele at KSWA FanFest in 2011, Sammartino reportedly said that area talent “Jumpin’” Johnny DeFazio could have easily earned his “spot” in the business. That has yet to be confirmed.
Cruise played at least two songs he found on YouTube that were based on Sammartino. In addition, it’s been reported that modern entertainer Peter Gene Hernandez was given the stage name “Bruno Mars” in part by his father. The elder Peter knick-named his son “Bruno” because of the youngster’s stocky build. This telling annoys Dan and Darryl Sammartino to no end.
Cruise detailed the 1976 Stan Hansen match in which Sammartino’s neck was broken (6th and 7th vertebra were damaged) and Bruno’s rushed return to action in an attempt to save the WWF from bankruptcy.
The championship match between Buddy Rogers and Sammartino was explored, as was the fallout and legacy of the showdown. He also ran through the match—seven years later—in which Ivan Koloff defeated the Champion in front of a packed, surprised and silent crowd.
Much more was reviewed before the rapt crowd. More will come next week. It was announced on Thursday, April 20 that “The Living Legend” Bruno Sammartino himself will attend the next class on Wednesday, April 26 and make a rare public appearance.