Bruno Sammartino’s thoughts on Capt. Lou Albano
I spoke recently with pro wrestling great Bruno Sammartino about legendary manager Capt. Lou Albano, who died last week at 76. Sammartino and Albano were portrayed as bitter rivals for years in the WWWF, but behind the scenes, Sammartino played an instrumental role in Albano making the transition from journeyman wrestler to top-level manager.
What is your opinion of Lou as a manager?
As a manager, I don’t know anybody who could argue the fact that he was the best. And I say that sincerely; he was absolutely the best. I was the one responsible for him becoming a manager. As a wrestler, he was mediocre. Lou was not the best by any means and he wasn’t making much of an impact. He was just a regular preliminary guy on the card. Later, he and Tony Altimore became The Sicilians. I’m not going to tell you they became the hottest tag team in the world, because they did not, but they made a bit of an impact with the Mafia-style outfits that they wore. They got some main events, not in a major arena like Madison Square Garden, Boston Garden or Baltimore Civic Center, but in what we called the secondary clubs. They were just at a certain plateau and that was it. But I took notice of Lou every time he had a chance to do an interview – he was more the spokesperson rather than Tony Altimore. The Sicilians eventually had to break up because somebody didn’t think it them being The Sicilians was too funny, and they got a threatening little message [laughs], and it was decided they better quit that.
Every Thursday we had live TV out of Washington, D.C., and Vince McMahon Sr. had an office there in Washington. He would take me sometimes in a private room and ask me what I though about certain talents who wanted to come in. At one of those meetings I said, “Vince, you have to take Albano and try to make him a manager. As a wrestler he ain’t going nowhere, especially now that The Sicilians are over with. He’s just going to be a preliminary guy barely making a living. As a manager, this guy is such a terrific mouthpiece that he can really help make some wrestlers who couldn’t make it on their own really rise .” By that, I mean that they may have been very talented in the ring, but they were duds on the microphone – and the microphone plays a big role in getting you over. Vince thought about it and said, “What have we got to lose? Let’s give him a try.” With that, they put him with a guy named Crusher Verdu, a Spaniard who didn’t speak very good English. If you put a microphone in front of him, forget about it, he just couldn’t talk. Lou was his mouthpiece, and he could be so obnoxious that he not only could get you mad at him, but whoever he was managing. In that respect, he helped a lot of guys get to the top. He was the best at it. He was so hated by the audiences that he would sell out arenas – I wrestled him at The Boston Garden and the Civic Center there in Baltimore – because people wanted to see him get the heck beat out of him. He had that ability to really create that kind of situation with the fans.
During that era when the business was much more protected than it is today, people really believed that Lou was this crazy, loose cannon. Away from the ring, was he anything like the guy the fans saw?
No question about it, that was him. That’s why he was so good at what he did, because he brought himself in front of that mic every day. Most people wouldn’t believe it, but the way he was in the ring was mostly the way he was outside the ring. That was Lou 24 hours a day. Lou was a pretty fearless guy. A lot of times he would go a little over the edge, and if any [fans] attacked him, he’d fight. He was just that type of a guy. One time on an interview, he said, “This Sammartino is such a disgrace. I’m embarrassed to be an Italian if he’s Italian. From now on I’m changing my name from Lou Albano to Lou Alban.” Can you imagine how much that angered some people? But that was Lou. He would say and do things where he would literally put himself at risk. Believe me, there were many times when he had to fight his way from the ring back to the dressing room, but that never put any fear into him. He continued to be what he was. Now since Lou passed I’ve heard some people say that Bobby Heenan might have been the best manager, or Gary Hart, or Fred Blassie, or Ernie Roth (The Grand Wizard). No. I’ll tell you why Lou Albano was No. 1 and nobody could question that fact.
None of those other guys could create that kind of a situation that people were even interested in seeing them wrestle somebody. They wanted Lou to get in the ring. They wanted him to challenge me or challenge Pedro Morales or someone else. They wanted that because they so hated him because of the way he was on camera and on the mic. Nobody generated that kind of a situation. I never remember Ernie Roth, Bobby Heenan or Blassie literally attacked by the fans like Lou would be. That tells the whole story as to who the hottest manager was. I’m not saying it because Lou has passed on now. I’ve said that any time the question came up. What I’m telling you now I said 30 years ago. If there was any question about that it was never from the wrestlers, if was from the outsiders that think that they know this or that. The wrestlers all agreed that nobody was hotter than Lou. Lou would jump in the ring and take a shot at you. You’d pick him up and slam him and he’d run out like a coward, and people would resent him even more for that. Heenan was very good – I would never take anything away from Bobby Heenan. I’m just telling you that you could not put any of these guys with Lou.
You have any good stories about Lou – one that you can tell?
Boy, I’d have to think about that, because Lou, my God, he was in a class all by himself. Here’s one that just came to me. Lou was a spokesperson for MS (Multiple Sclerosis) and they were having a big fundraiser here in Pittsburgh. That night, Lou is at the hotel, and he has to catch a plane the next day. He’s hearing loud noises from the next room. He was getting more and more irritated because it was like 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning. So Lou being the hot-tempered guy that he was, pounded on the wall and used a few choice words in telling them to knock off the noise. The voices on the other side hollered back, “What are you going to do about it?” Lou being Lou said, “Step into the hallway you S.O.B.” Well when he opened the door and stepped out, Lou saw Mike Tyson and his entourage. Here was Lou standing in the hallway in his underwear. Tyson was a big wrestling fan, and he looked at him and said, “Lou?” And Lou looked at Tyson and said, “Mike?” Next thing you know, from this war that was going to take place, they hugged and it was like, “Oh, nice to see you again,” because they had met before. But I’ll tell you something about Lou. When he said step out, he didn’t know who he was talking to, nor would he care. I assure you if it wasn’t Tyson – or even if it was Tyson and he didn’t know him – it wouldn’t have made a difference.
Lou talked in his book about Vince McMahon Sr. firing him several times. With Lou’s personality, was he a pain in the butt for Vince Sr. and Vince Jr.?
He could be. Lou was outspoken, and sometimes he did things that he shouldn’t have done. Lou used to like to have a drink [laughs], and that would rile him up even more. It was easy for Lou to get himself in predicaments, let’s put it that way [laughs]. Yeah, he was fired a few times. A couple times I felt that it was not justified, and I stepped in and fixed things up to pull him back in. Sometimes he was wrong and I would tell him, “Lou, you can’t do that. What’s the matter with you?” But a couple times I thought he was right and I stood up for him. The thing about him that a lot of people don’t know is that they saw this crazy guy, but Lou was a good man. He was a very decent man. He was a very good father. He had five children and, my God, he loved those kids. He was as good a dad as you could be. He was married like 55 years to the same woman. All Lou would talk about was his wonderful wife and how blessed he was that God had him meet such a wonderful person, because Lou wasn’t always the easiest guy in the world, you know. When he got himself involved in MS, he did a lot of charity work for that. So he was a hothead guy and crazy in some ways, but at the same time he was a very, very good man.