Bruno Sammmartino

The legendary Bruno Sammartino recently fielded questions at a fan festival in New Jersey put on by Legends of the Ring. For 45 minutes, Sammartino fielded dozens of questions about his career with forthright and fascinating answers. Here is a small excerpt of some of Sammartino’s responses about matters of interest to Steel Belt Wrestling fans.

Sammartino appeared virtually everywhere in the world during nearly a quarter-century as a wrestler. Asked about his favorite arenas, he recalled that some felt particularly special.

Sammartino: I loved Madison Square Garden. I loved the Boston Gardens. I loved Philadelphia. Not because of the size of the arena, but because of the fans. They used to give me goose bumps. I mean, I’d be down sometimes and all of a sudden, I’d hear the whole arena chant my name, “Bruno, Bruno,” and it used to give me goose bumps. I loved the fans for caring that much.

In 1963, Sammartino won the WWWF world championship from “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers. The victory propelled Sammartino, and the federation, to the forefront of wrestling. While he respected the former NWA and WWWF champion, Sammartino said he had unexplained friction with the controversial Rogers.

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Bruno Sammartino held the WWWF title longer than any other wrestler.

Sammartino: Look, Buddy’s gone now. I will never tell you that he wasn’t great because that wouldn’t be true. But he and I, I don’t know how it happens in life, I don’t know, Buddy and I never liked each other from the first time we ever met. We just didn’t like each other. He didn’t like me and I didn’t like him. What can I tell you? That’s the truth.

But I’m not telling you anything about his talents or anything like that because Buddy, when he went into the ring, two things — you always saw him in very good shape and you always saw a terrific match out of him. No question.

It’s probably unfair to ask Sammartino to single out favorite opponents, but he took a good-natured stab at naming some of his most memorable adversaries and bouts.

Sammartino: Don Leo Jonathan was a guy, you folks remember him, he was a guy about six-foot-six or seven, 320 pounds, and he was amazing. He had the agility of some of these guys you see that weigh 200 pounds that could really fly around. You’d throw him out of the ring, and he’d get the top rope and he would spring himself and shoot into a dropkick and practically land on his feet. Don Leo Jonathan was an amazing, amazing guy for his size.

Big Bill Miller, if you guys remember him. Not only was he a national AAU wrestling champion as an amateur, but he was an All-American from Ohio [State] in football. Another big guy, six-foot-six, six-foot-seven, 320 pounds. I wrestled him a lot.

And one time I wrestled Shohei Baba for over an hour in Japan. I’ll tell you what made that match very memorable in my mind because it was in Tokyo, it was in August, it must have been at least 90-95 degrees and the humidity was every bit as much, and in that arena, huge arena – by huge, I mean about 20,000 people – and there was no air conditioning, nothing. In there, it felt like about 130 degrees. It was so hot and we went a little over an hour and I remember that because it was extremely grueling because the heat was unbearable. What made it so tough for me was, after a 36 hour flight — in those days, that’s how long it took to get to Japan — they picked me up at the airport and took me right to the arena for that match. And you’re already screwed up from not sleeping or anything for practically two days and then you go an hour under those conditions, believe me, I was glad to come out of that thing alive.

But there were a lot of people I really respect. I respected Tanaka, Kowalski, Koloff, I had great respect for Koloff. Gene Kiniski, I respected. Ray Stevens, I wrestled him in California a number of times. Just a lot of guys. [Gorilla] Monsoon. Here was a guy was who 420 pounds. I wrestled him in the Garden for an hour and 20 minutes one time to curfew. I mean, just think, 420 pounds. That’s amazing because that weight was against you as time goes on. Yet he went an hour and 20 minutes. He was unbelievable for a man that big … These guys were big men and I thought they were pretty darn great.

In September 1972, Sammartino fought WWWF champion Pedro Morales for the world title in a match at Shea Stadium. In front of 35,000 fans, the two wrestled to a 75 minute draw. It was a classic scientific match — good guy versus good guy. The bout remains one of Sammartino’s favorites, and he regrets that promoters did not see the possibility of more such matches.

Sammartino: I loved that. [Vince McMahon Sr. and WWWF officials] weren’t so much into matches like that. They said people wouldn’t go for something like that, two popular guys, two babyfaces, as the term was used. I disagreed with him. I thought if people had the opportunity to see a great, clean , scientific kind of match, I thought people would like it. I think I proved my point because in that one hour fifteen minutes, 70 minutes, whatever it was, there wasn’t one punch, there wasn’t one kick. It was strictly action, wrestling action. I think it proved to a lot of people if promoters would only thought about it more, there should have been a lot more matches because I think the public would have loved it and appreciated those kinds of matches. I really do. I always felt that.

One of Sammartino’s favorite times in wrestling was the period from 1971 to 1973, between his two WWWF title reigns, when he was a free agent. The reason he loved his interregnum is obvious.

Sammartino: I loved my time in between titles and I'll tell you why. The first eight years with that belt, they had me going seven days a week. There were two Sundays out of the month that I was able to get home and see my family and my parents. So those were very hard times. Even though I appreciated it, becoming champion and doing that kind of stuff, it still was very, very rough because I was never getting any time off.

Then when I lost the title, I really got to re-energize and love the business again because I was my own boss. For example, I’d get calls from around the country, like [promoter] Sam Muchnick from St. Louis would call, and I’d say, "OK." I’d accept a match and then I wouldn’t take another match for four or five days. That way, I always had a lot of time to myself to work out, not to get hurt. I’d go to Japan and I’d go for maybe 10 days and not take any bookings for two weeks. So I loved that.

With his many international travels, Sammartino was one of the first major wrestlers to encounter Andre the Giant. Sammartino recalled that he was an occasional companion to Andre, but also felt a bit sad for the Hall of Famer.

Sammartino: I got along well with Andre. In fact, I’ll tell you a little story about him. I met Andre the first time when he was maybe 19, 20. I was touring Australia and from Australia, I went to New Zealand for a couple of matches, and he was there. You want to hear something funny? You know how tall he was. We weighed the same. This was in the 60s. I was 270. Andre was only about 270-275. He looked like a basketball player, he was so tall.

I didn’t see him for years. I was in Montreal, Canada maybe four years later, five years later, something like that, and when I saw him, I didn’t know it was the same guy because by this time, he weighed well over 400 pounds.

Then when he started coming around the Northeast there, in Baltimore, for example, we used to go to Little Italy. We used to go out to dinner. Andre liked to hang around the bar. He was one guy you didn’t try to keep up with or anything [laughter]. I can honestly say I was never a drinker. I could have a couple of beers or, being Italian, with dinner, I could go for a glass or two of wine. But that was about it. With Andre, he could hold a lot more.

He didn’t like to be alone, so I used to keep him company a lot. To be honest, I liked him a lot, but I felt bad for him at the same time. At times, he struck me to be a lonely man who needed company. He didn’t like to be by himself. I had a good relationship with him. We tag teamed a couple of times. I never had any negative things about Andre.

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Bruno Sammartino took his share of injuries, including a broken neck, during his career.

In April 1976, Sammartino suffered a broken neck during match with Stan Hansen at Madison Square Garden. Popular lore holds that Hansen cracked Sammartino’s neck with a clothesline, called the “lariat.” In fact, that was Hansen’s long-standing claim, and it was picked up on the cover of wrestling magazines of the day. In fact, in response to a question by former REMATCH editor Tim Johnson, Sammartino said the injury occurred in a much different way.

Sammartino: One thing I will tell you is it was not that nonsense they wrote about the lariat. That had nothing to do with anything. What happened was we had been going for 15 minutes, somewhere around there, pretty good action stuff.

The thing that I did that wasn’t smart of me was because I’d wrestled in Madison Square Garden every single month … not realizing that a lot of guys were intimidated by Madison Square Garden. And this Stan Hansen was a young guy, you know, he was a big guy, 310 pounds and all. We were going at a pretty good pace. I think that the nerves — because Stan became good in the ring — I think nervous and what have you, he tired, I really think, because nerves can do that to you. I think that when I was coming off the ropes, shooting tackles, he went to try to scoop slam me and he couldn’t quite do it and he just dropped me and I came right down on my head. That’s what broke my neck, not the lariat, and I did break my neck. In fact, my doctors told me that I came within a millimeter of being paralyzed from the neck down. So that was by far the worst injury I ever had.

Asked if he remembered continuing the match after that incident, Sammartino said he was in a fog.

Sammartino: You know what? The film says that I did, but I have no recollection of that at all. I really did not. Everything is a blank after I got dropped on my head. It’s a good thing there wasn’t too much inside the head! [laughter]

Sammartino retired in 1981, but made a comeback in 1984 when Vince McMahon suggested it might help to advance the fortunes of his son, David. Sammartino said that did not happen and he considers his comeback to be less than a footnote to his career.

Sammartino: I didn’t want to do that, but my son wanted me to. I didn’t want to get him into everything, that, because of me, he can get a break. So I put on the tights, and he and me tag teamed, but then David would go right back to being preliminary. But McMahon … knew that I had to accommodate him, so to speak. Those were very unhappy times. I didn’t go in there with a great feeling like previous matches because this was after I had retired, circumstances were not the same, and I have no good memories of any of those matches.

On the 68-year-old Sammartino's current state of health.

Sammartino: I’ve had some very major back surgeries that laid me up for a while. I had to have a hip replacement. I had to have knee surgery and followed that up when I broke my neck in ’76, I had more problems for 10 years.

But I’m very happy to say I’ve got my weight down, as you can see. I’m down to 210 pounds, which is the lightest I’ve been in my adult life. Today, I’m doing seven miles of roadwork and in the morning I’ve been pumping iron three days a week.

August 2004
Steven Johnson