Bruno Sammartino finally gets his due

It’s something that one doesn’t expect to see in their lifetime.  And because of the years of animosity and distrust, of promises broken and connections destroyed, I thought it would never happen.

And last night, I was proven wrong.  Happily proven wrong.

Because last night, one of my favorite professional wrestlers was finally inducted into the Hall of Fame for the company he so proudly represented for nearly 25 years.

That’s right… Bruno Sammartino, the Living Legend of professional wrestling, is being inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, along with Bob Backlund, Trish Stratus and Mick Foley.

Right off the bat, this is a Hall of Fame for the ages.  Trish Stratus is one of the few people with no prior pro wrestling experience before joining the WWE, who essentially learned “on the fly” to become one of the company’s greatest female grapplers.  Bob Backlund carried the WWE Heavyweight Champion strap for over five years, and was one of the few wrestlers with a collegiate championship background (North Dakota State) to achieve success in the pro wrestling world.  And Mick Foley, the “Hardcore Legend,” went from brawling grappler to one of the sport’s most beloved and respected competitors.

But if you ask any pro wrestling fan who watched the sport in the 1960’s and 1970’s, they’ll tell you that Bruno Sammartino was the best.  An Italian strongman who could unify every ethnic group in the audience to cheer his name, “Bruno! Bruno! Bruno!”, Bruno Sammartino sold out Madison Square Garden every time he entered the squared circle.  He defeated all the legends of his era – Gorilla Monsoon, Spiros Arion, Stan “The Man” Stasiak, Haystacks Calhoun – all of them.

And in the pre-Wrestlemania days, Bruno could sell out Shea Stadium – and he did – in outdoor supercards against Pedro Morales and against Larry Zbyszko.

He made professional wrestling believable. He didn’t need to wear a cape or a mask; he didn’t need a gimmick or entrance music. You knew that the minute he put that crippling bear hug on you, you either tapped out or you passed out.

But over the years, Bruno Sammartino saw what had happened to the company he represented. He saw the World Wide Wrestling Federation morph into the World Wrestling Federation, and then into the WWE. He saw the drug abuse, the steroid abuse, the degrading storylines, the demeaning treatment afforded to those who gave their bodies and their hearts for the sport. He walked away from the company. He vowed to never come back.

It was only through the intervention of professional wrestler Jean-Paul Levesque, whom you know as HHH, to broker a peace between the WWE and Sammartino. As much as WWE chairman Vince McMahon has been a polarizing figure in the sport – you either hate him or you really hate him – HHH has become an advocate in the company, someone who wants to reconcile the past with the present, and build both into the future.

The fact that Bruno Sammartino, who has been extremely vocal about never getting involved with the WWE, has silently worked with HHH to accept an induction into the WWE Hall of Fame, is nothing short of miraculous.

Bruno was a champion in a different era. There were very few high-flying “off the top rope” maneuvers, you didn’t have missile drop-kicks or Randy Savage-like flying elbows. The men wrestled in a catch-as-catch-can style that ramped up the intensity in the crowd. Bruno Sammartino and Superstar Billy Graham could wrestle a 75-minute match and the audience would be totally into every single move and every single second. That’s how great Sammartino was.

And now for a personal story. It was probably August of 2006, and I was working on a magazine article for the travel publication RoadKing. The article involved professional wrestling reunion shows, where dozens of superstars from the past would get together in a hotel ballroom, recount stories and sign autographs.

I drove to Valley Forge, Pa., the location for the WrestleReunion show, and got ready to do my interviews for the day. My plan was to interview several of the stars who were showing up that day, including Bret “Hitman” Hart, Mick Foley, the Dudley Boyz, Jim Cornette and Joey Styles. And I did get to interview every one of them.

But as I was walking from one end of the hotel to the other, I saw two men exiting the hotel restaurant. I recognized them almost instantly. One of the men was Dominic DeNucci, a very popular wrestler from the 1970’s. The other – was Bruno Sammartino.

And in that very moment that I saw him, I almost froze up. It was like I was seven years old and watching his matches on a Sunday morning on WRGB, just before broadcasts of TV Tournament Time. I asked if I could shake his hand – he shook mine with a firm grip of a proud champion. We talked later on for the interview, and he even posed for a picture with me. That felt so good. So wonderful.

And now, after so many years of refusing to enter the pantheon of greatness in a company that he felt had lost its way, Bruno Sammartino and the WWE have finally agreed to an enshrinement. Bruno, along with Bob Backlund, Mick Foley and Trish Stratus, will be inducted prior to Wrestlemania in a special ceremony at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

How fitting is that. For all the years that Bruno Sammartino sold out the world’s greatest sports arena…

He gets to do it one more time. And once again, those cheers of “Bruno! Bruno! Bruno!” will be heard throughout Manhattan and throughout New York and throughout the professional wrestling world.

Congratulations, Bruno. You are a hall of famer without the WWE’s endorsement – but now the WWE has made it official. And your induction says more about the WWE’s changing future than anything else.

Man, I want tickets to this event. Who’s with me?