Q&A with Bruno Sammartino
I conducted a phone interview with wrestling's "Living Legend," Bruno Sammartino, who talked about what he's been up to lately, his thoughts on the WWE Hall of Fame and his memories of wrestling in Baltimore. Sammartino, 72, also spoke with Sun reporter Childs Walker about drug testing and the state of WWE nearly a year after the Chris Benoit tragedy for an article in Friday's editions of The Sun.
I know that you still work out on a regular basis. What else keeps you busy these days?
There are people interested in doing a movie of my life, and so we have been busy with that. We went back to Europe to show where we hid from the Nazis during the war, so we went back and shot that. And we’ve done a lot of interviews. I also do some personal appearances. I don’t do a whole lot of them because I like to be home. My wife and I, thank God, we’re together. You never can make up all those years when you were on the road, but now that I’m here I will not keep myself busy because I want to be home. I have my sons here and my grandchildren here and I like to spend time with all of them, and I can’t get enough of that.
You know, in my day, it wasn’t like it is today where these athletes make millions of dollars. In my day, you made a good living, and I’m extremely grateful for everything that came my way after coming from Europe, but you didn’t make the big bucks back then. Don’t get me wrong — my wife and I, we’re fine — but if you have the opportunity to go pick up a payday someplace, I don’t turn my back to it. It’s not that I really enjoy the traveling because I despise traveling. The only thing I like about doing autograph shows is that the people who used to be fans are so wonderful. They’ll come over and give such wonderful compliments. Younger people say, “You were a role model for me growing up. My parents love you.” You hear these wonderful comments and it really touches you that people have these positive things to say about you. It makes me feel good that I never did anything negative.
I tell you how seriously I took my role in my life and what I was. I was the world wrestling champion, and I would be in restaurants, and being Italian, especially if I was in an Italian restaurant, a lot of time I’d go for dinner and people would say, “Let’s have a glass of wine.” I would loved to have had a glass of wine, but if it was during the afternoon and there were people there with kids, I would never, never touch it because I was afraid that if they recognized me and saw me drinking, I thought it just wasn’t a positive thing. I wanted people to have a positive image of this wrestling champion. I really tried to conduct myself properly.
During the war, I should have died. I lost a brother and a sister, and I came down with rheumatic fever. After the war, my mom brought me back to our home — what was left of it — and for three years I laid there. My mother swore that she had lost two children and she wasn’t about to lose another one. We had no doctors, no medication — nothing. That’s why when I came to America I was such a skeleton. My mother is the reason why I lived. She did more for me than any doctor could have done to keep me alive. So, that’s another thing that I was very, very strong about when I started to make a name for myself. I was never going to do anything that would have brought shame to my family. I owed too much, and I wanted them to be proud to say that they were Bruno Sammartino’s mother and father.
You have been an outspoken critic on some of the problems in the wrestling industry. Do you think wrestlers need a union, and will that ever happen?
No. I tried to get a union organized in the 60s. It will never happen. They guys that are making money don’t want to do anything to rock the boat with the promoters, and the little guys are afraid to do anything or say anything because they’re afraid of being fired on the spot. That’s the mentality, unfortunately.
I understand that you have no interest in being inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame. How would you feel if they inducted you without your consent, just because they feel you deserve to be in it?
When they started that Hall of Fame, Vince McMahon was going to show me, so he never considered me to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. What he didn’t expect was the outcry of the fans. They said, “How the heck could you call this a Hall of Fame when Bruno’s name was never even mentioned?” It backfired on him so bad that the following year or two years he didn’t even have a Hall of Fame. He figured let it die down. And then when he started again, again I wasn’t mentioned and again he got bombarded pretty darn big. So then because of all the pressure, he finally got his attorney to call my attorney to try to talk me into coming to their Hall of Fame.
The thing is this: I have been extremely critical of everything that this man has done to wrestling since he took over — extremely critical. I so resent all the vulgarity, the nudity, the profanity and all the ugliness, and I really was outspoken about the drugs going back to 15-20 years ago. And after that, I got away from it all, but still, if anybody ever questioned me, I remained that way. Now, what the heck kind of a guy would I be if, after expressing myself so loud and clear about how I feel about this organization, that then I would accept to be part of them into this Hall of Fame. I’d be the biggest hypocrite there was. And besides that, when fans tell me, “Yeah, but you belong,” I tell them, “OK, if I went in the Hall of Fame, where would you go to see it. You know, baseball has Cooperstown. If I’m in the Hall of Fame, wouldn’t there be a place for you to go and see it and see all these people that have been inducted?” They said, “Uh, I don’t know.” “Yeah, because it doesn’t exist.
McMahon started this — it’s all just a moneymaking thing. He puts out DVDs of the new Hall of Fame inductees, and then his TV goes to 126 countries and they’re selling these DVDs, and they don’t even give these guys anything. I understand when you get inducted into the Hall of Fame, they give you $5,000, and then they go ahead worldwide and sell the DVDs and I don’t think you get anything. So, it’s all a gimmick. It’s nonsense. But more than that, even if it was legit, I simply would never accept for the simple reason of what I’ve told you. Now, your question was, “Well what if they decide to do it whether you like it or not?” Well, I don’t know if there is anything I could do by law — probably not. But I would again be outspoken and make it very clear that this is being done and by no means do I approve of it or want any part of it. I’d want all the fans to know that.
You reportedly had a meeting with Vince McMahon in Pittsburgh a couple years ago to discuss some kind of business arrangement. Were you ever close to an agreement?
I’m glad you brought that up because I want to clear the air with that. [The Wrestling Observer’s Dave] Meltzer said something about how resentful I am, yet I actually met and tried to negotiate a deal with McMahon. Not true. This is the time when I told you we went to Europe to shoot my town, the mountains where we were hiding during the war and all that kind of stuff. Jerry McDevitt, McMahon’s lawyer, was contacted by Marty Lazzaro, my lawyer, because we were doing our story and we needed to use the Civic Arena, which is where I wrestled all those years, and that’s where wrestling still is. It turns out that WWE was going to be there for one of their TV shows. We knew that there was going to be a ring put up for that. Marty contacted the arena and asked if we could use the ring to film for about 15-20 minutes. They gave us the permission to do that, but because it was McMahon’s show, they’d have to get it OK’d with them, too. So that’s when I told Marty that I didn’t want any part of this. He said, “Wait a minute.” He said he heard from McDevitt and it was fine. He said all [McDevitt] wanted was to have a meeting between him and McMahon and Marty and me when we come there to do the filming. I said, “Marty, I’m not interested in meeting with the guy.” Marty said, “What have you got to lose? Please, let’s meet with them. I want to see this guy in person and I want to hear just what they have to say.”
I cannot tell how you how much I didn’t want any part of this, but, for Marty, I said OK. But I said, “Marty, I’m telling you right up front. I’m not interested in anything with these people.” So we met with them. Vince acted like there were never any ill feelings between he and I. He acted very friendly — “Hey, you son of a gun, you look great.” So we went in a room, and somebody said that Vince has nothing but respect for the old-timers. And boy did that give me the opening. That’s when I had to open my mouth and I have no regrets about it. I said, “I’m sorry, but I think you have shown nothing but disrespect for the old-timers. You bring some of the old-timers here, whether it’s Lou Albano or [Killer] Kowalski or Domenic DeNucci or [Baron Mikel] Scicluna or whoever, and whether it’s a big show or a pay-per-view, and you toss these guys $1,000, $1,500 or maybe $2,000 if they’re really lucky. But yet you bring in Mike Tyson and you give him $3.5 million to be outside the ring refereeing a special event. You brought Pete Rose and other athletes from baseball and football and you give them six figures for an appearance. People that have done nothing for this business, and a lot of them look at it as a joke. But those who have given their whole life to this business and never made any real money, what do they get for all those years of banging their bodies up? And a lot of them are physically practically handicapped. They get a bone thrown at them. This is respect for the old-timers? Give me a break.”
I said to Vince: “You could never use me in any way and show the disrespect you have shown for wrestlers. If you and I could ever work out anything, you would have to show me the respect you showed Mike Tyson.” That was my way of slamming the door and having him be the guy to refuse, because I know them. When it comes to wrestlers, they’ll throw you a bone. But if it’s a baseball player, football player or movie star or Mike Tyson, they want to show that they’ll make big-money deals and they’ll give out hundreds of thousands or millions. So at that point, I got up and said, “Whatever you want to discuss, discuss it with Marty, because there is nothing else here for me to talk about.” To those who think that I went there to really have a serious meeting to work something out with him, they couldn’t be more mistaken. I did it to please Marty Lazzaro, but there’s no deal they would have made that I would have come out of there and said, “Hey, great, let’s go for it.”
You were a big favorite in Baltimore for many years. Do you have any special memories of wrestling in Baltimore?
I loved the Baltimore Civic Center. I have nothing but pleasant memories. It was a nice arena, and I was there from the time they opened it. The fans used to make me feel like I was really, really welcome. Not that Baltimore was unique in that. I used to get goose bumps at Madison Square Garden. Every time I went to the ring the place would explode and they would chant my name. Boston was like that. Philadelphia, too. I always loved going to Baltimore because I loved the arena and the whole atmosphere. But also, there was Little Italy and a restaurant called Sabatino’s, and I used to go there and eat after the matches. Sometimes [DeNucci] was with me; a couple times I went with Andre. I always looked forward to that because I would eat around 1 or 2 o’clock in the afternoon because I wanted to be fully digested by the time I went to the ring. But afterwards I would be as hungry as can be. In every city, I had my favorite place. In Baltimore, it was Sabatino’s. You ever hear of it?
Oh, sure, I’ve been there quite a few times.
Is it still there?
Oh my God. Anyway, Baltimore was great for me because, if it was a Saturday night, for example, it was a short trip to get to Pittsburgh the next day. And like I said, the fans were always extremely great with me, and I knew where to go to get a terrific meal afterwards.
One of your most famous matches took place in Baltimore on April 30, 1977, when you lost the WWWF title to Superstar Billy Graham. What are your thoughts of that night? I know at that point you were looking to slow down your schedule. Was it a relief to finally not be the champion anymore?
Well, it was more than that. Let me tell you what happened. When I was champion for the first eight years, they had me on such a ridiculous schedule. I was hurting from head to toe. I was wrestling every single night. Two Sundays out of the month, I would go to Toronto because I had spent two years there and I had promised [promoter] Frank Tunney — who gave me a break and was a good man — that when I went back to [the WWWF] that I would still come in when he wanted me for the Maple Leaf Gardens. So, two weeks out of the month I would wrestle seven days a week, and the other two weeks I would wrestle six days a week and get to go home on Sunday. I was also making tours to Japan and Australia. [Vince McMahon Sr.] would not run Madison Square Garden without me, so he would always arrange my trips so that I would wrestle in the Garden on Monday and leave Tuesday morning for Japan or Australia. And I’d have to be back for the next Garden show. When I got through with a tour, I wouldn’t even go home. I’d be flying in from Australia or Japan to New York to be there in time for the Garden.
After eight years, I was hurting so bad. And anybody who really knows me will tell you that I will never even take an Aspirin much less anything stronger for the aches and pains. It just reached a point where I told McMahon that my body hurts from head to toe; I can’t train properly because I hurt. I have to get out for a while. I need a layoff from wrestling. Other people said I retired, but I never said I was retiring; I needed to heal. I said to McMahon, “I have to bow out.” I did this on my seventh year. He kept stalling me and stalling me until I got angry and I said, “Vince, if you don’t make arrangements for whoever you want as your next big guy, I am just going to take a plane to Pittsburgh and I’m going to take three, four, five, six months off.” So at that point they went and got a new guy — Ivan Koloff. After I lost the belt to Koloff and I came home, I really took care of myself and I rested real good. Now that I was no longer tied up with the WWWF, all the promoters from everywhere were contacting me and trying to get dates on me because now they didn’t have to go through McMahon. I refused until I really started feeling well. And then I really started loving wrestling again. I would go to St. Louis for [Sam] Muchnick for a match or two, and then I would be off five days. If I went to Indianapolis — Dick The Bruiser and I teamed up there — I would take three shots but then I would take off six, seven days. I would go to Japan for two weeks and then take off two weeks. So I loved it and I was getting a good buck. The promoters all wanted me and they were willing to give me a little bigger percentage of the gate. I was happy because I wasn’t battering my body, I was home a lot and I was making a good buck for that era. I was making as much money as I had been making as the champion.
So, McMahon contacts me and he says, “Bruno, please, we have to have you back, just for a year.” I said, “No, I can’t.” He met me at the airport with his son — Vince Jr. — and he says to me, “Look, Bruno, one year is all we ask until I can get somebody else really ready to take over.” The other part of the deal was that I wouldn’t have to wrestle on the secondary clubs; I would just do all the major clubs. Well, I thought that’s not too bad. That would mean maybe wrestling three times a week, sometimes four. I thought I could handle that for one year. Well, one year went to two, two went to three and on the fourth year I broke my neck. I was scared for a while because I couldn’t feel anything on my left side, but thank God there were some great neurosurgeons here and things started coming back. Anyway, I came back and I said, “I’m done. If I wrestle anymore, it’ll be a shot here and there, but not this title thing.” So I wrestled Billy Graham in Baltimore, and he took the title and became the champion for like nine months. I went on and wrestled here and there, and at the very end of my career, I wrestled Larry Zbyszko. We sold out everywhere. In fact, we had a 1 o’clock show at the Capital Centre in Washington, and then that night we wrestled in Baltimore and we sold both buildings out. In Shea Stadium, we packed the place. So that was a pretty nice way for me to retire. Japan heard I was retiring and they begged me to come and do a farewell tour. They treated me well through the years, so I couldn’t say no. On Oct. 4, 1981, I wrestled at The Meadowlands. Oct. 5, I took a plane for Tokyo, got there on the 6th, which was my 46th birthday, I did my tour, I came home and I was retired.
I know that you have spoken in the past about how WWE talked you into making sporadic appearances in the ring after you had officially retired and your son, David, was starting out. Your final match took place in Baltimore on Aug. 29, 1987, when you teamed with Hulk Hogan against King Bundy and One Man Gang. Did you know when you stepped in the ring that night that was going to be your last match?
I was very angry when I found out I was put in that position. In 1985, they wanted me to go back in the ring because Boston wasn’t doing well. Hulk Hogan, who everybody thinks is such a big attraction, was the champion. I turned it down. But then they went to my kid and said, “You know, we could make a tag match if you could talk your father into putting the tights on, and it would be a great boost for you in establishing yourself.” My son came to me, and I said, “David, if they want to push you, they can do it with you just like they do everybody else.” Anyway, I didn’t want it to be said that I didn’t want to help my kid, and I did, but I was resentful of it that McMahon put me in a situation like that. It happened more often as time went on, and I thought, “That’s it. It’s time for me to make my exit.” I didn’t even know about that match [in Baltimore]. When I found out about it, I didn’t say a word to anybody, but I was disgusted and angry. I came to Baltimore, and I thought to myself: “That’s it. They got me into this one, and I’ll do it, and then they can all go you know where.” That night, I hated being there — not Baltimore, but the whole situation. And that was my last match.
How did you feel about being teamed up with Hogan and doing the posing routine with him after the match?
I was light. I was down to about maybe 230 at that time. Look at who was in the ring: Hogan was all juiced up and he was 300-310 pounds; the other two guys — Bundy was like 450 pounds, and One Man Gang was like 400 pounds. Here I am at 230 pounds, a shadow of the 275 pounds I was when I first broke into the business in 1959, and they came to me and said that the orders were that I had to pose in the ring. I said, “What do you mean I have to pose?” And they said that’s what Vince emphasized. I guess they wanted me to look foolish next to a guy like Hogan. Here I was at 52 at the time, and I looked in the mirror when I got dressed and I did a pose and I thought to myself, “You know, maybe these people are aware and maybe they’re not. Maybe they know about steroid freaks and maybe they don’t. But they remember me from my heyday when I was a much bigger guy.” I’m looking at myself and I thought: “You know, I’m only about 230, but I’m well-defined. So, yeah, I’ll pose. Two guys are big fat guys, so they aren’t going to make me look bad, and this other guy here I think everybody knows is a steroid freak. Let them see what a person looks like who does natural training without any chemicals and is in his 50s.” Out of anger more than anything else, I went and did those poses.
Is there anything else you wanted to bring out in this interview before we wrap things up?
The McMahon camp say that I won’t go into the Hall of Fame and stuff like that because I’m a very bitter guy. You know, I cannot tell you how much I resent them saying that. I wish that most people on this globe were as happy as I have been in the past 15-20 years. No, I don’t have money to burn, but I’m comfortable and I’m happy because I’m with my family — my grandkids and my sons Danny and Darryl are close by. I work out every day — sure, I had some setbacks with some surgeries, but I always bounced back real good. I tell everybody that I’m dating my wife again. Every Saturday, we go out to dinner. I think, “My God, if this could only continue.” So, for people who haven’t seen me in so many years to say that I’m a bitter guy, they just haven’t a clue of what a happy, happy guy I really am at this stage of my life.