Posted May 1st, 2017 by 1Wrestling News Team

Chris Cruises Closes Out “Extraordinary” Class On Bruno Sammartino

By Trapper Tom Leturgey

Pittsburgh–Bruno Sammartino didn’t immediately recognize the date. Exactly 41 years prior on April 26, Sammartino’s career would change forever when Stan Hansen unceremoniously dropped him on his head in the middle of the ring.

As the in-ring story goes, it wasn’t the drop on the head, but Hansen’s near-lethal lariat that sends Sammartino to the hospital. In reality, a sweaty, 26-year-old Hansen mishandled the body slam that drove the sweaty 40-year-old neck-first onto the ring canvas. One week later, in a stellar, 14:52 audio interview by Bill Apter at Divine Providence hospital in Pittsburgh, the two-time champion said the slam “great bit of damage” but sold Hansen’s lariat as the maneuver that damaged the 6th vertebra in his muscular neck.

Sammartino says the doctors in New York scared him, saying he was mere millimeters away from being paralyzed. The doctors wouldn’t release him. Dr. Bernard Speigel in Pittsburgh got him out of the hospital. “My Mom and Dad were old. They would be scared to find out that I was in the hospital with a broken neck,” he said. “[But] any movement could have finished the job.” In fact, Sammartino’s brother and sister had to come along to help break the news of the injury to their parents. Bruno was worried that his parents, who were both around 80 at the time, would have a heart attack.

Bruno’s wife, Carol, was more understanding, but family did encourage him to retire. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette covered the injury and the aftermath.

After endless telephone calls, two months later, Bruno was back in action against Hansen. Sammartino would win the quick match

The second and final class of Christopher Cruise’s initial “The Extraordinary Life of Pittsburgh’s Living Legend Bruno Sammartino.” (Cruise hopes to bring the class back next Spring with added content.) The class at Pittsburgh’s CCAC North culminated with about 30 students in the class. Each participant was awarded a “Certificate of Completion,” signed by Cruise as course instructor and Sammartino as simply, “The Champ.” The certificates were courtesy of Johnstown businessman Michael Migut and his family-owned Valley Printing.

Cruise, who was director of media for the WWF’s initial Wrestlemania, but is best-known among wrestling fans as a commentator for WCW wrestling, chronicled Sammartino’s career from Italy until today.

Before the guest of honor arrived, Cruise had an opportunity to catch up with Bruno’s longtime friend, Dominic DeNucci. DeNucci and Sammartino have been friends since briefly meeting in Canada circa 1960 before meeting while on the same wrestling card a year or so later in Melbourne, Australia. It’s interesting to note that the two men were born in two Italian villages approximately 35 miles from one another.

Cruise asked Dominic about being at Madison Square Garden the night Bruno’s neck was broken. DeNucci says he and Vince McMahon Sr where standing together in a doorway, watching the match when Hansen dropped Sammartino. DeNucci says he immediately knew Bruno was injured and that McMahon Sr. “Took off like a shot” to the ring. DeNucci still feels that Hansen meant no ill-will with the move and that Bruno absolved the big Texan of any malicious blame after neck surgery. It took Hansen three weeks to call Sammartino after the incident.

That night, DeNucci held ice on Bruno’s neck and traveled with him to the hospital.

Cruise showed DeNucci a YouTube video of him defeating George Lackey with an Airplane Spin. The YouTube video reports the match took place in 1965.

DeNucci, who entertained the crowd with his typical wit, explained that he and Sammartino nearly cleaned out a restaurant in Australia of its lamb chops. Between the two hulking athletes, they ate more than 50 lamb chops in one sitting, thus exhausting the inventory and exasperating the wait staff and chefs.

Cruise asked DeNucci about the students he trained and his decision to stay in Pittsburgh. Cruise asked if DeNucci regretted setting roots in Pittsburgh. Without missing a beat, DeNucci said, “Yes.” It was clear he was joking. Dominic noted that he trained 18 wrestlers, including Shane Douglas, Mick Foley, T-Rantula, Cody Michaels and Brian Hildebrand.

DeNucci also noted that “No one can copy what Bruno did in New York. No one could beat him as a draw.”

Then, the Champ arrived. Sammartino, dressed in sport coat and slacks, drew applause as soon as he walked in the door. Cruise asked Sammartino about the anniversary of the neck injury, and the discussion took off from there.

Bruno still gets emotional talking about visits back to his hometown in Italy. He also talked about his in-ring exploits with Killer Kowalski. Cruise showed a video of the real-life vegetarian Kowalski biting the head of Sammartino in a classic showdown. It was “absolute mayhem” in Madison Square Garden.

Cruise showed some of the videos of Bruno, in his 50’s, being forced to work a program with “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. Bruno’s last match was in 1987 Baltimore, tagging with Hulk Hogan.

Sammartino also discussed his infamous matches with Larry Zbyszko, from the student’s “turn” on his mentor to the “Showdown at Shea” in August, 1980 that drew 36,295 to the Flushing, New York.

Bruno considers his final match to be in 1981. He doesn’t like to go into details, but Sammartino says that Vince McMahon, Jr. called him back into action after son David’s turn in the squared circle wasn’t successful. In addition, Ricky Steamboat took some time off and Sammartino was called in for a series of matches against then-Intercontinental Champion The Honky Tonk Man.

In 1988, Bruno leaves the WWF because he was concerned with the direction the company was taking. As a result, Sammartino refused to ride with other wrestlers. Chief Jay Strongbow, who Sammartino didn’t have the warmest relationship with, was the point man to take Bruno around.

The disagreement with WWE turned personal in 1992. In a video, Vince McMahon said Bruno was “a confused individual, probably suffering from dementia. But he had a great reputation.”

The discussion then took to Bruno accepting the invitation into the WWE Hall of Fame. Sammartino said it took a while to accept and if it weren’t for his friends urging him to accept the offer to headline one more time at Madison Square Garden, he probably wouldn’t have done it. Sammartino and McMahon would ultimately make up, but are not extraordinarily close today.

Sammartino says he plans to go to Italy in the fall to as a new statue is to be dedicated in his honor and his childhood home will be converted into a museum. Additionally, the trip will be filmed for an updated and recut documentary on his life.

Interestingly, in addition to the anniversary of the neck injury, the 40th observance of Sammartino losing the WWWF title to “Superstar” Billy Graham occurred just a few days later, on April 30. The title change took place in Baltimore, which through off fans who believed that the championship could only take place in Madison Square Garden.

At the conclusion of the course, Sammartino and DeNucci took pictures with all of those in attendance. For local, Pittsburgh wrestling fans, there was a rare opportunity to see four Keystone State Wrestling Alliance (KSWA) Hall of Famers in the same room as DeNucci (Class of 2010) held court along with all three members of the 2012 KSWA Hall of Fame: Sammartino, as well as class attendees Lord Zoltan and photographer Howard Kernats.

Other attendees of the class included Pittsburgh resident Randy Bodell, who had Sammartino serve as his Best Man at his 2017 wedding, local Bruno Sammartino expert and PA State Athletic Commission representative Ron Russitano, and MMA ring announcer and Studio Wrestling fan Dan Bogan, among others.

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