It’s the early 1970’s, and my local TV station airs Saturday morning and Sunday morning professional wrestling programs. The shows were part of what was then the World Wide Wrestling Federation organization, with babyface champions like Andre the Giant, Chief Jay Strongbow, “Polish Power” Ivan Putski, and tag team specialist Tony Garea. It also had diabolical heels like Stan “The Man” Stasiak, “Superstar” Billy Graham, Greg “The Hammer” Valentine, and many, many more.
The big champion at that time was the great “Living Legend,” Bruno Sammartino. To watch Bruno in action – to see him wrestle any and all opponents, to watch him use his powerful body to punch and brawl and force his opponents into submissions – it was awesome to watch.
Of course, as a kid, you’re not understanding wrestling as scripted theater. You know it as the good guy against the bad guy. And what I saw at the time was Bruno Sammartino – a man whose family escaped Fascist rule in World War II, a man who emigrated to America, a man who fought his way to the top of the professional wrestling world.
He escaped danger and became a champion.
That’s inspirational in and of itself.
Trust me, I wish I could have gone to those old WWWF wrestling matches when they were held at the Washington Avenue Armory back in the day; maybe a chance to see Bruno Sammartino beat the piss out of Larry Zbyszko – the case of the student who turned heel on his teacher.
Or the battles Bruno had against totally crazy George “The Animal” Steele, or against even crazier Bulldog Brower (who, it said, only wrestled when they let him out of the asylum), or against the big Russian Nikolai Volkoff (guy sang the worst Russian National Anthem ever). Those definitely were the days.
Let’s now spin forward to 2006. I’m writing an article for Toy Collector Magazine about the popularity of professional wrestling action figures, and I want to get some great quotes from some of the pro wrestlers who have been immortalized in miniature. This requires a trip to Valley Forge, Pa., where the wrestling convention is being held.
Now mind you, I’m being as professional as I possibly can, I’m chatting with wrestling stars like Ted DiBiase and Luna Vachon, and I’m having a great time.
Then, walking past me, as calm as you please, were Bruno Sammartino and his friend, professional wrestler Dominic DeNucci.
In the wrestling parlance, I marked out like a fanboy. Bruno Sammartino, the Living Legend, just walked past me. This is awe-some (clap clap clap-clap-clap)…
Okay, Chuck. Get yourself back in the mix.
Later that day, Bruno was gracious enough to sit for an interview, and we talked about many things. At the time, he was still avoiding his old wrestling company, now known as the WWE, because of several issues within the organization. But although he did express his opinions about the WWE, he was also very conciliatory and congenial about the current status of professional wrestling, including the rise of independent promotions like ECW and the growing market for wrestling show tapes and videos.
Of course, after the interview was over, I asked Bruno if he would pose for a picture.
Big smile. “Where’s your camera?” he asked.
That was an incredible moment for me.
And in 2013, the WWE did the right thing – they mended fences with their former champion – and Bruno Sammartino became a member of the WWE’s Hall of Fame.
Yesterday, I heard that Bruno Sammartino passed away at the age of 82.
Although I am saddened by the loss of one of my childhood heroes, I am thrilled by the fact that I got to meet him and shake his hand. Such moments you don’t forget. And such moments do inspire you to continue on and achieve, just as the great Living Legend did.
Rest in peace, Bruno Sammartino. And thanks for everything you’ve done, as an athlete, as an entertainer, and as a family man.