Bruno Sammartino Comes Home

Rarely does news from pro wrestling shock anyone. It is a scripted form of entertainment, one that leads to endless speculation on the interweb. Trolls abound. Just check out the reaction on wrestling websites to the Rock winning the WWE title from CM Punk last Sunday. Indeed, wrestling fans can be a strange breed, and, in some places, indeed, strange in-breeds. To the fans who follow on the internet, and especially the particularly jaded ones who have been following online for years (myself included), there really isn’t much that is going to make us leap out of out chair, grab our heads and scream “HOLY SHIT!!”

I actually miss those days, that forgone era of innocence. Its kind of like being a lifelong baseball fan and finding sabermetrics. It almost ruins your passion, your childlike joy in following the proceedings. I mean, with pro wrestling, it sure was fun being there at the advent of the online movement in the mid nineties. Especially seeing as how pro wrestling was exploding on pop culture with the ferocity of ten thousand roman candles. To be privy to the backstage machinations and politics, the lingo, the men behind the characters, well, that was even better than the product onscreen. Unfortunately, it destroyed the lost art of kayfabe, the practice of pro wrestlers to “keep it real”, to keep the fans in the dark. The internet killed that in many ways. It used to be a lot more difficult in the nineties to find accurate intel on what was likely to happen on any given show. Today, there are a million websites offering a million bogus stories, but since they all seem to report everything they find anyway, they all occasionally stumble upon a kernel of truth. It is in this environment that the truly earth-shattering almost never occurs watching wrestling anymore. With all these sites, its widely speculated, rightly or wrongly, for months on end. From Brock Lesnar’s return to WWE last year to the results of each weekly Smackdown, it is hard to have those truly memorable, once in a lifetime HOLY SHIT moments watching pro wrestling anymore.

Monday was different.

So, okay, the news was reported a couple of hours before Raw began, and had been ruminated for several days prior. But this rumor had been repeated for years upon years upon years, with no resolution apparent. But it finally came to fruition Monday, and, as a fan of wrestling for 25 years now, it may have been the biggest HOLY SHIT moment of all:

Bruno Sammartino was announced as the next inductee into the WWE Hall of Fame.

A word, here, on the WWE Hall of Fame: its a farce, much like the “sport.” But its fun. Once a year, just like a legitimate sport, the WWE gathers a bunch of wrestling legends to a central location (there is no physical Hall, so the event is held the day before WrestleMania at a smaller venue) to expound on their careers. The process, much more so than the NFL, NBA, or baseball, is highly politically charged. But it is a fantastic spectacle that allows us longtime fans to shower some appreciation onto wrestlers who so entertained us in our formative years. I don’t know many males who did NOT watch wrestling as young boys, so for most of us, it is a thrill seeing a Greg Valentine, a Bret Hart, a Hulk Hogan, etc. etc. coming to the stage, now old men, reminiscing on their careers, no matter how significant or insignificant. Really, its just all in good fun. However, for years, two names have been bandied about by hardcore fans, who state without these two inducted, the Hall is a farce.

The first is the recently departed “Macho Man” Randy Savage. And, yes, this is a true miscarriage of justice. Macho Man was one of the biggest stars of the 80’s and 90’s, and even non-wrestling fans can quote him and his maniacal interviews. In the mid to late 1980’s, only Hulk Hogan was a bigger star than Savage, and that is certainly debatable in some circles. He was a tremendous in ring performer who ALSO ranks as one of the best talkers the business has ever seen. Tell me, once Savage passed , that you were not looking up classic coked-up Macho promos? Want an example?

So, yeah, Macho is a slam dunk Hall of Famer. But remember how I said the WWE Hall of Fame is highly political? Well, the Chairman of WWE, Vince McMahon, seems to have some sort of grudge, even in death, with the Macho Man. Even if Savage is partially (if not largely) responsible for a good portion of Vinnie Mac’s vast fortune and portfolio. The urban legend surrounds Savage having an illicit sexual encounter with a then teenage Stephanie McMahon (Vince’s daughter and current head TV writer). Its so ridiculous and so far fetched that I can only surmise it to be true. Or not. But this is not to be a bully pulpit to impose my beliefs on WWE trying to strong arm a favorite into their questionable Hall of Fame. I’ll save that. Let’s get to the man of the hour.

The second man who belongs in the WWE Hall of Fame was so illustrious in his career with the then WWWF that he really should have been the inaugural entrant to the club. Without a doubt, he is the greatest WWF Champion of all time. Not Hogan. Not Savage. Not Rock. Not Austin. Not HHH. Not any of them. In a very different era, where gates drawn at an arena were the tell tale marks of a champion, not buyrates and Nielsen ratings. A much simpler time. No man was ever a greater champion, with the possible exception of Lou Thesz, than Bruno Sammartino.

For the uninitiated, Bruno Sammartino is the biggest draw in the HISTORY of Madison Square Garden. Bigger than Ali, Frazier, Jordan and Kobe combined. Bruno drew on the heartstrings of the immense Italian population of New York in the sixties and seventies. Born in Abruzzi, Italy in 1935, he emigrated to Pittsburgh in 1950. Almost upon touching the shores of America, he became a nationally recognized strongman champion, displaying freakish all around and tendon strength. Never a true amateur wrestler, a local Pittsburgh commentator realized the appeal of the Italian strongman, and arranged for a future in the wild, willy world of pro wrestling.

Bruno is the greatest draw in the history of the WWF/E. Not Hogan, not Austin, not Rock, not Cena can match Bruno. He sold out Madison Square Garden a remarkable 187 times. The Knicks wish they could do that. In fact, I would have paid good money to see Bruno fight either Isiah Thomas or James Dolan in a New York Street Fight just once.

It is further remarkable to consider that the owner, the head man in charge of the WWWF, and, in turn, Sammartino, during those years was an Irishman named Vincent James McMahon. Vince Sr. was the one who pushed Sammartino during those times, and for good reason: Bruno = $$$. New York was heavily populated with Italians from the dawn of the 20th century, and Irishman McMahon tugged on those heartstrings. Hard. For all the talk of CM Punk’s recent 434 day title reign, Bruno’s first reign clocked in at TEN TIMES that: 4.040 days. The man was a force of nature. Bruno lost the title to Ivan Koloff , the evil Russian, in 1971, after an astounding EIGHT YEAR reign.

Bruno was never what you what call a classically trained wrestler. No, he was the epitome of the word DRAW. If you worked a program with Bruno in New York, you were financially set. If you wrestled him, win lose or draw, you were going to draw some pretty good money, more than you had ever accrued in any one program (feud…a series of matches) of your career. THAT, more than anything, is the beauty of Bruno. Be it Superstar Billy Graham, Larry Zbyszko, or even Andre the Giant, Bruno, for a good twenty years, was, in wrestling, the guy you wanted to work with. He paid the mortgage on your house.

Then Vincent Kennedy McMahon took the reigns of the WWF in 1983. Bruno was non-plussed. Bruno preferred the more straight forward competition of two gladiators. Vince wanted spectacle. Bruno and Vinnie Mac danced around the issue for a few years, until 1986. Bruno had long since retired, in 1981, from the in-ring component of the business. In 86, Bruno was a commentator (and a bad one) who witnessed the “Macho Man” drop the ring bell on Ricky Steamboat’s throat. The old man was livid with Savage’s boasting of the event, and decided, at his advanced age, to show Savage the errors of his heel ways.

In a way, it seemed like the act of a man caught in kayfabe. But in reality, Bruno put Savage over, big time. Bruno, old lion that is was (and is) made the Macho Man. And, then, he left.

The real problem for Bruno was the “Superstar” Billy Graham Effect. Namely, steroids. Bruno hated, and still hates, them. For the next part of 25 years, every time there is a slight against WWE, and believe me there are many, Bruno has been front and center railing against a man he has no respect for, Vincent Kennedy McMahon. And, again, I cannot blame him…too much. Ring boy scandal? There’s Bruno. Steroid scandal? There’s Bruno. Eddie Guerrero dies? Billy Graham presides over the funeral for no good Goddamn reason. But there’s Bruno. Don’t get me started on Chris Benoit. Every error the WWE makes, Bruno is all over it.

Which is why this settlement makes my interest peak. Listen, Bruno Sammartino is the GREATEST WWF Champion of all time. Some will say “At what cost to the man’s integrity?” The fact is this: Bruno doesn’t owe any member of the so-called IWC an explanation. Its Bruno Sammartino. And he is the best WWE Hall of Famer ever.



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