Sammartino returns to MSG for WWE Hall call
Bruno Sammartino remains a mountain of a man.
He works out six times a week. At age 77, his shoulders and chest still bulge under his sweater.
But at the mere mention of an old arena in New York City, a smile cuts through the chiseled edges of Sammartino's face, and the legendary Pittsburgh tough guy becomes a little boy again.
“My God — Madison Square Garden. I keep thinking of all the things that happened to me there,” Sammartino said recently in his North Hills home. “Fifty years ago I became champion there for the first time. I picked up Haystacks Calhoun and thought the roof was going to pop off, it was so loud. I lost my championship there and I regained it there. I broke my back fighting in Madison Square Garden.
“So much history. And to think, at this stage of my life, that I get to make one more appearance there. How great is that?”
As great as it is unlikely.
Sammartino, the longest reigning champion in professional wrestling history, will return to the famed venue on Saturday to be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame. His inclusion will end a 25-year feud with WWE owner Vince McMahon. The men have not spoken since a short phone call in 1988, when Sammartino quit.
“We will talk privately, face to face, in Madison Square Garden, but not until then,” Sammartino said. “It's better face to face, eye to eye. So we can discuss whatever needs to be discussed.”
Few people thought this day would come.
Not Sammartino — who washed his hands of McMahon's professional wrestling organization after watching it slide from a contest of strongmen to a theatrical, drug-ridden spectacle.
Not McMahon — who in 1992 sat on the set of “The Phil Donahue Show” as Sammartino and other wrestlers dredged up accusations of drug abuse and sexual harassment.
Certainly not Sammartino's fans — who adored the strongman when he wrestled, but grew to admire him even more after witnessing his public criticism of WWE.
But something changed last summer, thanks to McMahon's son-in-law, Paul Levesque, who wrestles under the ring name Triple H. Levesque trained under Walter “Killer” Kowalski, an old-school wrestler like Sammartino. Under Kowalski's tutelage, Levesque said, he learned to appreciate the history of wrestling.
Last summer as he started vetting names for this year's Hall of Fame class, Levesque realized that the ceremony would be at the Garden, and thought: What a shame. The wrestler who brought more fans to Madison Square Garden than any other won't be present.
“Not having Bruno in our Hall of Fame is the equivalent of not having Babe Ruth in the baseball Hall of Fame,” Levesque said recently in an interview with the Tribune-Review. “Babe Ruth was the first guy in baseball that became a household name. (For wrestling), that was Bruno.”
He told McMahon he wanted to reach out to Sammartino. McMahon replied: “If you want to waste your time, go ahead.”
“And when I got off the phone with Bruno the first time, I thought, ‘Maybe Vince was right,' ” Levesque said. “It was clear there were a lot of issues.”
Sammartino's issues began with steroids. They're dishonest, he has said repeatedly, a form of cheating. And Sammartino takes pride in building himself through hard work and determination, not by taking short cuts.
Beyond that, Sammartino loathed what he called the “vulgarity and profanity” of the new WWE.
“The girls, the sexual things, the profanity. … I found that so damn offensive and obscene that it drove me nuts,” Sammartino said. “So I quit. I didn't need it. I live a very simple life. Simple, but happy.”
Still, Levesque called.
He told Sammartino that he admired him for his public stance against the WWE, and he refused to hide from the organization's past.
“I'm not denying any of it,” he told Sammartino. “All I can do is tell you where we are today and where we are moving.”
Sammartino listened, in part because of his deep respect for Kowalski, who was a villain in the ring, but in real life “a straight shooter, very ethical, very religious,” Sammartino said. “The guy's legit.”
But he told Levesque that he had to find out on his own whether the WWE really had changed.
He started by calling an old friend.
Dr. Joseph Maroon — the Steelers team doctor for 25 years and a nationwide expert on concussions — three times operated on Sammartino's spine, which had been badly damaged from his wrestling career. The WWE turned to Maroon when it wanted to launch a new wellness program. Under Maroon's leadership, the organization now has a drug testing policy so strict that wrestlers are suspended without pay for first- and second-time offenses and fired after three positives.
“The WWE, quite frankly, is now cleaner than baseball,” Maroon said recently at UPMC Passavant. “The WWE, in its wisdom, realized that these guys are role models to an awful lot of kids. To ignore drug use would be a disservice.”
Convinced by his friend, Sammartino took the next step: He started watching.
“I turned on the TV,” he said. “The nudity, the vulgarity, the profanity — it was completely gone. As critical as I've been of them, now I have to give them credit. They changed.”
Sammartino had reached a crossroads.
For years he had rebuffed WWE officials who urged him to enter the Hall of Fame. For years, he said no, because to accept while remaining so critical of WWE would make him a hypocrite, Sammartino said.
But the product had changed. And Levesque kept calling.
Eventually, Sammartino accepted his invitation.
“It's time,” Maroon said. “He's someone who sold out Madison Square Garden 187 times. He's a legend. And at his age, with his articulateness, he's in a position to deliver a very good message. He can be a crusader for what's right.
“Bruno was in exile for 25 years. But he stuck to his beliefs. Now he's being vindicated.”
In his prime, Sammartino weighed 270 pounds and bench-pressed more than double his weight. He worked out with other celebrity body builders — including Franco Columbu and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who will deliver Sammartino's induction speech. He famously lifted Haystacks Calhoun — who weighed 640 pounds — above his head before dropping him to the mat in a 1960 match.
But it wasn't just his freakish strength that drew crowds. Sammartino resonated with fans thanks to his humble demeanor and unlikely beginnings.
During World War II, his family hid from Nazis for 14 months on a mountaintop above his native Italian village of Pizzoferrato. When Sammartino contracted rheumatic fever, his mom wrapped him in hot blankets and covered his body with leeches, to suck out the bad blood.
He barely survived. When Sammartino came to the United States, he was a sickly 14-year-old boy. Bullies picked on him for his heavy Italian accent and weak, gangly limbs.
Once he discovered weightlifting, however, Sammartino grew and quickly became a local celebrity.
“Bruno couldn't do nothing wrong,” said Bucky Palermo, a former wrestling referee who owns a leather-working shop in Morningside. “He could've brought a gun in the ring and shot the other guy and they'd have cheered him. I'm not kidding. I've never seen a guy in sports loved so much by the fans. … Small kids, big kids, old people — everybody loved him. Especially the Italians.”
For Levesque, adding Sammartino to the hall — and at Madison Square Garden, of all places — is “like destiny, like it was written to happen this way.”
He added: “He's a class act, a true pro. If Bruno tells you something, you know it's going to happen. One thing I admire about him immensely is he felt something and he was willing at all costs to stand by what he believed in. He said, I'm standing by this, and I admire that.”
Chris Togneri is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com.