Bruno Sammartino Remembers when wrestling promoters blackballed him for refusing to lose matches

The Evening Bulletin – Weekend Edition

Friday, 7 October – Sunday, 9 October 2005

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Talk of the Town

Still Ripped At 70, Bruno In Philly To Lead Columbus Day Parade

by David Block


If you watched professional wrestling in the ’60s and ’70s, you would remember Bruno Sammartino. He was champion of the World Wide Wrestling Federation, (WWWF) from 1963-1971, then again from 1973-1977. (The WWWF is now called World Wrestling Entertainment, WWE.)


During Sammartino’s wrestling career, he was 270 pounds of solid muscle with cauliflower ears.


Due to his tremendous popularity, he frequently wrestled in front of sold-out crowds at Madison Square Garden, the Philadelphia Spectrum and other arenas across the U.S. and throughout the world.


Sammartino loved the fans. “They always treated me well, no matter where I wrestled,” Sammartino said.


Philadelphia was meaningful to him. “I have a lot of fond memories of Philadelphia, wrestling at the Spectrum and the Arena (located at 4530 Market Street). The Philadelphia Fans were wonderful. I also liked going to the Academy of Music for the opera. I’m a big opera fan, and the Academy had some great talent.”


Sammartino, 70, still makes trips to Philadelphia. In fact this Columbus Day, at the request of the Sons of Italy, he will be the grand marshal of the Columbus Day Parade.


He recently joined that organization because he was impressed with their charity work. Like many of the members, he is one of Italy’s native sons.


Bruno Sammartino was born in Italy October 6, 1935. He has both fond and disturbing childhood memories of growing up in “The Old Country.”


On Death’s Doorstep


Bruno Sammartino had a normal childhood living in the town of Pizzoferrato. Unfortunately, after the Partisans ousted Mussolini in 1943, his whole world changed. Germany invaded Italy. “The SS Troops marched through Pizzoferrato and were killing people,” Sammartino said. “No one was safe. My family and I fled to the mountains and hid there 14 months.”


While hiding, Bruno developed Rheumatic Fever and almost died.


His mother placed leaches on his body. “She thought that they would take away the poisonous blood in my system. She boiled some melting snow and had me inhale the steam. I don’t know if what she did worked or not, I know that I was near death, and I survived.”


Hello USA


During the Second World War, Bruno’s father was in the U.S. The war made it impossible for Bruno’s father to remain in touch with anyone in Italy. After the war ended, Bruno’s father was reunited with the family.


“My parents decided that it would be best for the family if we moved to America because the economy in Italy was very bad,” Bruno said.


In 1949, at age 14, Bruno and his family moved to Pittsburgh, PA because his father had a job there working in the steel mills.


“It was a tough adjustment,” said Sammartino. “When I came here, I couldn’t speak a word of English. I was also skinny and sickly.” He added: “Kids can be cruel. My brother and I got beat up so much.” He and his brother joined a local YMCA to learn self-defense. “There I learned how to wrestle. I started lifting weights on a regular basis.” He no longer had to deal with bullies. “I became a fanatic with my training. My health improved, the more I saw the change, the more drive I had to train. I trained for many hours at a time.”


In 1959 he set a weight lifting record bench pressing 565 pounds.


Professional Wrestling


In 1958, Sammartino won the North American Weight Lifting Championships in Oklahoma City. Afterwards, on a local Pittsburgh TV show, he told the interviewer that he also wrestled. A wrestling promoter who saw the show was impressed with this young man. Without hesitation, he approached Sammartino about breaking into professional wrestling. The young Bruno eagerly accepted this offer. Thus began the long and illustrious wrestling career of Bruno Sammartino.


Sammartino’s first two years were frustrating because wrestling promoters booked him in preliminary bouts. “I wasn’t getting main events like I wanted,” Sammartino said.


In a 1960 Madison Square Garden bout with Haystacks Calhoun (William Dee Calhoun) who allegedly weighed close to 600 pounds, Sammartino thought that he could make a name for himself by lifting up this enormous heavyweight. “No one was ever able to do it,” Sammartino said.


When Sammartino lifted up Calhoun, the fans were excited. “I thought that the roof in the Garden was going to pop off,” Sammartino said. “For some reason, that feat didn’t make a difference as far as promoters doing something more with me.”


He finally got his break in Canada after wrestling promoters throughout the United States blackballed him.


Grappling Business


Sammartino hated to lose matches. Worse, he objected to losing because promoters told him to do so.


“I wouldn’t cooperate with promoters,” Sammartino said. “I told them ‘if anybody can really beat me, fine. But that’s the only way I’ll go down.’ I was a real young guy, and I wanted to establish myself. I didn’t want to be a preliminary boy, so the promoters took a negative stand against me by black balling me all over the country.”


When asked to compare the degree to which the matches were prearranged when he wrestled versus today, Sammartino emphasized that in his day the established wrestlers could get away with refusing to lose. “The wrestlers in my day were independent contractors. There were many territories, so the wrestlers would try to protect them. It wasn’t so easy like today, where it’s now one league.” Today, there are independent professional wrestling leagues in the United States, but they are equated to the minor leagues of baseball. The WWE is the only league where a wrestler can gain recognition.
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Sammartino said that now the wrestlers can’t get away as easily with disobeying orders to lose because of no alternative territories to wrestle. “In my day if a promoter said, ‘tonight you’ll lose’ the top guys were not about to be brought down a notch. When you lose, you’re not in demand, you’re not a main event like when you were a winner. When I wrestled, the guys did a lot to maintain their reputation. It’s not as simple as people thought. If a promoter told a wrestler that he wanted him to lose to somebody because they wanted to build up the other wrestler, the one (told to lose) could tell that promoter what he could do and move on because he had an established name.”


Sammartino’s career stalled due to promoter sabotage when he refused to lose matches. Wrestling promoters booked him without his knowledge and then suspended him for being a no-show.


“I wound up wrestling in Canada, because I couldn’t get matches in the states.”


In Canada Sammartino became the Canadian heavy weight champion from 1961-1963.


To the surprise of the U.S. promoters the fans in the states wanted to see Sammartino wrestle. “Those same promoters who blackballed me were now asking me to come back,” said Sammartino. “I said only if they booked me in a championship match.”


Bruno The Champion


On May 17, 1963, Sammartino fought his proudest match, defeating Buddy “Nature Boy” Rogers (Herman Rohde) in 48 seconds to become the WWWF champion. “Rogers was one of the great wrestlers of his era, (the 1950s and 1960s),” Sammartino remembered. “That match meant so much to me because that put me at the top. You couldn’t achieve a higher goal than winning the title.”


Preplanned Matches?


When asked if all his title defense matches were preplanned, Sammartino gave an emphatic no. In discussing the issue of matches being predetermined, Sammartino said: “Whether people want to believe it or not, not all the matches were prearranged. In many cases they were arranged in a way, but not like how media people thought. For example, if I wrestled a guy and we knew that that guy was not that good, I would be asked to carry him for 15 minutes for the sake of the people who bought the tickets to see the match. Just like in boxing, a wrestling match could last seconds, but how many times are you going to have matches that only last seconds where the people are going to keep spending their money? People want to see the excitement, sometimes when I wrestled, there’d be a disqualification, which was easy to do. All you had to do was disobey the referee. If I’m pounding someone in the corner and the referee says break and I don’t, I’d get disqualified. Then people would want to see a return match. They want to see this situation come to a conclusion – Who can beat who? If it was the case where you only win and lose with no disqualification or a return match the fans might not have been as eager to buy tickets.”


Contrary to popular belief, Sammartino said that professional wrestling is more real than a lot of people think. “We really do get hurt,” said Sammartino. “I had my nose broken 11 times, I broke my forearm, my fingers, and my collarbone. I needed back surgery due to getting hurt in the ring. To this day, I have cauliflower ears. I even got my neck broken.”


His injuries were getting so unbearable that he told one of the chief promoters Vince McMahon, Sr. that he wanted to bow out as champion.


January 8, 1971 Sammartino lost his title to “The Russian Bear” Ivan Koloff (Oreal Perras). In truth, “The Russian Bear” was a Canadian.


Second Reign


Bruno Sammartino had no intention of regaining the title. However, Vince McMahon Sr. asked him to become champion again. McMahon promised Sammartino that this title reign would only last a year, so at age 38, Sammartino regained the title. It was December 10, 1973, Madison Square Garden, Sammartino defeated Stan “The Man” Stasiak (George Stipich) and to the fans delight was champion again.


A year went by, then a second one, and Sammartino was getting frustrated. His body had taken its toll.


In April 1976 in Madison Square Garden, Stan Hansen (John Stanley Hansen) broke Sammartino’s neck. “He dropped me on my head,” said Sammartino.


While Sammartino was recuperating in the hospital, Vince McMahon frequently phoned him – because he wanted to make a return grudge match.


According to Sammartino, McMahon needed to come up with a lot of money to help pay for the fight between Muhammad Ali and the Japanese wrestler, Antonio Anoki. Wrestling and boxing fans on the East Coast had the opportunity to see this match on closed circuit TV, but not too many people were buying tickets. McMahon wanted Sammartino to wrestle Stan Hansen on the same card. Sammartino said that as soon as the wrestling fans learned that they would also see him fight with Hansen in addition to seeing Ali fight Anoki, ticket sales improved immensely. (Closed-circuit TV presaged Pay Per View.)


The wrestling fans may have been ecstatic that Sammartino was going to have a returned grudge match, but his family and doctors were outraged. Today Sammartino admits that he made a stupid decision to wrestle while his neck was healing.


To avoid worsening his neck injury, Sammartino decided to end the match as quickly as possible. As Hansen entered the ring, Sammartino attacked him. “I meant to kick him in the chest, but I accidentally kicked him in the face,” said Sammartino. “He was bleeding. When I saw that, I punched him repeatedly until he fell out of the ring and was counted out.” Sammartino was worried during the return match that he was going to worsen his neck injury, so when he saw that Hansen was hurt, he capitalized in order to avoid further damage.


Sammartino spent the next few months recovering, refusing to wrestle until he was 100 percent.


“At that point I really got disgusted,” said Sammartino. “If I hadn’t been champion for so long the second time, maybe I wouldn’t have gotten my neck broken.”


He refused to continue his reign as champion. On April 30, 1977 in Baltimore, Maryland, Sammartino lost the WWWF title to Superstar Billy Graham (Wayne Coleman).


A New Order


In the early ’80s, Vince McMahon, Sr. died and his son Vince McMahon, Jr. became the new owner of the league. He changed the name to the World Wrestling Federation (WWF).


McMahon asked Sammartino to be a TV commentator.


“I agreed to do it because he promised to give my son (David Sammartino) some breaks. David was just starting out as a wrestler.”


However, Bruno disliked how the wrestling industry changed.


“When I came back, I saw a different world than the one that I knew. It seemed like everyone was using steroids. Yes, in my day there might have been a few wrestlers using steroids, but the number of people taking them was very low. Now I saw that drugs were rampant and I was bothered by it. I didn’t like the turn wrestling was taking, but I put up with it longer than I wanted to. I worried that if I quit, would David (Sammartino) still get opportunities? Finally, it got to the point, I wanted nothing more to do with that organization or Vince McMahon, Jr.”


In the late 80s Bruno Sammartino left the WWF – now the WWE. Not only does he refuse go back in any capacity, he refuses to watch it on TV. He doesn’t think about the WWE because he is too focused on exercising. He works out seven days a week. Four days he power walks 6 miles. “It’s hard because I had my hip replaced,” said Sammartino. On the other three days, he still lifts weights. “I don’t lift anything like I used to. The most I bench press now is 250. For me, exercise is so important. As mentioned, I started exercising because I was sickly, then I became healthy. Getting healthy and strong was such a wonderful feeling, I don’t ever want to let go of that. The healthier you are, the better your life will be.”


Both in and out of the ring and even now, wrestling fans refer to Bruno Sammartino as the living legend. To learn more about Bruno Sammartino, log onto