Fans salute Sammartino on WWE Hall of Fame induction
NEW YORK — Bruno Sammartino cut ties with professional wrestling for a quarter-century, but he never forgot his legions of passionate fans.
“Everything I did was made possible by my fans,” Sammartino said Saturday night at Madison Square Garden, where he was to be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame after a 25-year feud with his former employer. “I've never kidded myself to think I was a big deal; if I was, it was because of the fans. Any successes I've had, I owe it all to the fans.”
Sammartino, the longest reigning champion in professional wrestling history, finally took his place alongside other WWE greats in front of a sold-out crowd of more than 13,000 wrestling fans who packed the Garden to honor the Pittsburgh icon.
The long-awaited induction ceremony came after Sammartino cut ties with the WWE in 1988, upset with what he called rampant steroid use among wrestlers and “obscene” content at events.
In New York City, it was clear that fans never stopped adoring the North Hills tough guy — who held the title from 1963 to 1971 and again from '73 to '77 — despite his public feud with WWE owner Vince McMahon.
During a 30-minute speech, Sammartino became emotional several times as fans chanted his name and gave him multiple standing ovations.
“He's class. He's orchestra in an era of rock ‘n' roll,” said Cody Wells, 34, of Queens, who used to watch Sammartino on tape with his Italian grandfather. “People talk about Hulk Hogan and say he built the foundation of wrestling. No. He built the condo that people can see from the street, but he didn't build the foundation. Bruno did.”
Even young fans born long after his reign described Sammartino as “the god of wrestling.”
“He's epic,” said Alex Kelly, 15, who traveled with his parents from Sydney, Australia, for Sammartino's induction. “He was the first one. He put wrestling on the map.”
Fans adored Sammartino for his humble demeanor and often-repeated message — which resonated strongly among blue-collar workers — that anything is possible through hard work. Sammartino was a skinny, sickly boy when he arrived in the country at age 14, but he built himself into one of the strongest men in the world through determination.
“He lived the same values that he portrayed as a wrestler,” Wells said. “He brings legitimacy to the WWE Hall of Fame.”
Sammartino's old friend, Arnold Schwarzenegger, delivered his induction speech, calling him “a true inspiration.”
Before Saturday, Sammartino and McMahon had not spoken since a short phone call in 1988 when Sammartino quit. The men met privately at Madison Square Garden, Sammartino said.
“I'm sure everything will be just fine — unless I walk into the room and see a firing squad!” Sammartino joked shortly before the meeting.
McMahon's son-in-law, Paul Levesque, who wrestles under the ring name Triple H, paved the way for reconciliation last summer when he reached out to Sammartino. He told Sammartino that he respected his criticism of the organization but insisted the WWE had changed. He said the content is now “PG” and that wrestlers abide by a strict drug policy.
“Right up front, I told Bruno, ‘I cannot change the past. All I can do is deal with today and moving forward,'” Levesque told the Tribune-Review. “It took a while to get there, but he realized the culture changed, and he was open to accepting that. I commend him for that.”
Some wrestling analysts have suggested that Sammartino's decision to drop his feud with the WWE is driven by money. The former champ dismissed the notion.
He will receive a small payment for making appearances this weekend, but no more than the other inductees, he said. And while there have been talks about a DVD featuring his most famous matches, nothing has been finalized, he said.
Sammartino pointed out that he left an untold amount of money on the table by refusing to work with the organization for 25 years. Money has never been his motivation, he said, adding that he is more interested in working with the WWE on an upcoming anti-bullying campaign.
“I don't know where some of this stuff comes from,” Sammartino said. “I always said, ‘If they (change), of course I'll change, too.' … So I finally gave them the OK. Everything I've seen, I take my hat off to them. They've changed, so I'll change with them.”
Other members of the 2013 WWE Hall of Fame class include wrestlers Bob Backlund, Booker T, Mick Foley and Trish Stratus. Donald Trump, who hosted consecutive WrestleMania events at Trump Plaza in Atlantic City, N.J., and famously shaved McMahon's head in 2008, entered the hall's celebrity wing.
“This year is very star-studded,” Levesque said. “We have a lot of really big names. It's like you had a great catch already, and then right before you pull back into port you get the whopper of all whoppers. It's a great class, but the icing on the cake is Bruno.”
Chris Togneri is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com.