Facing George “the animal” Steele, Gorilla Monsoon, Bobo Brazil or being the last one standing in the 22 man Battle Royal in Los Angeles are instances that all amount to just another day in the life of Bruno Sammartino. On the other hand, fleeing to the Italian mountains from the Nazi’s during WWII made everything that followed seem like child’s play. But it still may be fair to ask, as the bombs were falling and his village being leveled, how much sense could a boy of nine actually make of this.
Including four of his siblings, “people were dying,” he says, “you’re damn right it made sense.”
Surviving 14 months of that and rheumatic fever, the fight of his mother exemplifies the strength Sammartino lived his life with. Otherwise, the family emigrated to America and Bruno certainly looked the part of the tragedy. “You heard of the 97 pound weakling,” he says. “I was 80 pounds.”
The slight frame and the bullying endured of his broken English sent him to the weight room and got him into high school wrestling. “I loved both sports,” he says, and began training with the University of Pittsburg Wrestling Team in 1959
Typical for wrestlers of that era to have an amateur background, the professional pioneers of the sport understood they needed to create a market for their passion. “You cannot have professional wrestling with the same rules as amateur because it would never be a spectator sport,” he says.
He went onto sell the garden out 187 consecutive times, held the heavyweight title for nine years, while navigating the pitfalls of his association with Vince McMahon Sr. and the eventual formation of the WWE.
In retirement, after years of self-imposed exile from professional wrestling’s main body, Sammartino recently accepted induction into the Hall of Fame because the shift he sees in regard to steroid use. Hiring Joseph Maroon, a world renowned neurosurgeon, Sammartino feels the WWE has finally gotten serious. “I give them credit because they’ve decided they have to do something about this problem,” he says.
Having fought all the battles, a feature film is in the works, while a documentary is already in the can. “We’re just looking for the right distributor. I wrestled all over the world, and we want it to be distributed in all the places I was,” he says.
But for his still huge following, learning how he rose to win his first fall will knock all those other places of the map.
Times Square(TS): Tell me about your flight to the mountains?
Bruno Sammartino(BS): We were occupied by the SS and literally had to run for our lives. That’s where we spent the next 14 months, and it was hell because there was no food, no nothing. My mother would go down the mountain in the middle of the night to steal food – even from our own home. We had made provisions in our basement, and while the Nazis were asleep upstairs, she would go through the back and return with anything she could find.
TS: When did you come to America?
BS: 1950. We had to wait a few years because I was deathly ill and only the care and love of my mother pulled me through.
TS: When did you first wrestle?
BS: In High School. After training at the University of Pittsburgh, I got my first professional contract.
TS: How was wrestling different back then?
BS: Since most guys had that amateur wrestling background, the matches were closer to that form. The guys today are great athletes – especially the lighter guys, doing all those flying, acrobatic moves.
TS: Could you see yourself doing that?
BS: I was 275 pounds. I was known for my strength and stamina. If I was around today, what the lighter guys do – flying around the ring, doing back summersaults, I couldn’t do that.
(TS): I have to ask you. How much of all that wrestling was scripted?
BS: As far as scripted – zero. As far as, were there matches that were prearranged – yeah. Promoters always did what they did. The thing about it was in those days, you had so many different territories and promoters. The top guys were protective of themselves when promoters tried in many cases to talk them off their pedestal. They would simply protect their positions. I know myself, I did the same thing. I wouldn’t cooperate, and I got blackballed, literally. So I wound up going to Canada for a year and a half.
TS: So wrestlers were just looking to protect your livelihood?
TS: You sold out the garden 187 consecutive times?
BS: Some people dispute that but if you ask me, I couldn’t tell you because I wrestled all over 3,4 times a week. Who keeps track?
TS: How about the show of wrestling, all the talk?
BS: Whenever we had the TV shows we would do interviews. They would have wrestling of course, but we would talk about the upcoming match.
TS: Was there this whole exchange with the audience that goes on today in the ring?
BS: No. You’d wrestle and go home.
TS: But you obviously had the ability to connect with people beyond what you did in the ring.
BS: When I did an interview, I was just being me. I’m wrestling Kenny Patera, and I think it’s going to be a great match because he’s a tremendous wrestler…That’s it. Then, of course, after I got through talking I would ask if I could speak to my fellow Italians. I’d basically say the same thing. I wanted Italians to know I was proud of my heritage because I thought that was important.
TS: Tell me about this 22 man cage match?
BS: You mean the Battle Royal. You win the match by being the last man standing. So everybody is trying to throw each other out of the ring. You can’t do that with a cage. Where you going to throw them?
TS: Sounds pretty dangerous.
BS: It is dangerous. Let me tell you, in my day, we used boxing rings. Those things were concrete, and there were no mats or anything. So when you’re flying over the top, you landed on cement.
TS: You broke your neck once.
BS: I came within a millimeter of being paralyzed from the neck down, and I’ve had a number of serious injuries.
TS: Most people would stop after breaking their neck.
BS: I kept going because in my day we didn’t make a lot, a lot of money. I came from the old country and barely got through high school. I wanted to go as long as I possibly could so my kids got the chance to go to college, and I had enough money to support me and my wife after retiring.
TS: What did your mom think of your career?
BS: She never watched it become she was scared to death to see me get hurt. I didn’t like to put her through it because I loved my mom but that was my living. That’s what I did.
TS: Were you ever afraid to get into the ring?
BS: No. I was never afraid. I had too much confidence in myself. I mean I wasn’t cocky, but in my heart I knew I could go against anybody. Plus, if you go in there with fear – forget about it.
TS: After you retired, you very critical of Vince McMahon Jr. and the WWE.
BS: Yes, I was.
TS: You wouldn’t promote for them either?
BS: No. I saw what was going on with steroids. I was appalled by it and started speaking up. When I was asked to join the Wrestling Hall of Fame, I rejected it. On the other hand, I had always said, if they changed, I would reconsider.
TS: And you recently did accept?
BS: Yes. They hired Dr. Maroon and the wrestlers look like great athletes, but they don’t look like the big muscle guys from that era anymore. They’ve changed and I’ve accepted their invitation.
TS: Tell me about the movie?
BS: The screenplay is completed, and a couple of studios are interested.
TS: Who do you want to play you?
BS: I have no idea.
TS: This must make you proud.
BS: I’m more excited about the documentary for the simple reason that it’s all factual. We went back to the mountain and interviewed people who were also there at the time.
TS: Had you been back there before?
BS: No. I never wanted to go back because the memories were too harsh, but the filmmakers made it clear that is was necessary to go back and relive it.
TS: How hard was this?
BS: It was a nightmare. We buried a lot of people up there, but I’m glad I did because it definitely did something for me and I have no regrets.
TS: Nice to talk to you. Thank you very much
BS: Nice to talk to you.