michael dworkis looks at one of the biggest moments in professional wrestling history …
We have all heard the news. Tonight, Bruno Sammartino is heading into the WWE Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame has been around since 1993, and includes legendary competitors such as Buddy Rodgers, Nick Bockwinkel, Pedro Morales, Antonino Rocca, “Classie” Freddie Blassie, and Andre the Giant.
The WWE Hall of Fame began in 1993, with its first and only inductee, Andre the Giant. It continued with inductees until 1996 when Vincent J. McMahon was inducted and then for some reason, the Hall of Fame was not brought up again until 2004, coinciding with WrestleMania XX. Since then, it has been a featured event the night before WrestleMania each following year. Since then, legends such as “Mr. Perfect” Curt Hennig, Gordon Solie, Gorgeous George, Harley Race, Junkyard Dog, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, Ric Flair, and Verne Gagne have been welcomed into what WWE promoted as the highest honor in sports-entertainment history.
Questions surrounding reasons for why Sammartino was never inducted persisted year after year. Many wondered why WWE never added his name to the list? For those more “in-the-know” with wrestling history wondered why he constantly turned it down? For younger fans, the question would be: “Who IS Bruno Sammartino?”
To shed some insight into all of these questions, I turned to former WWE Staff Editor and famed wrestling historian, Brian Solomon to answer these longtime questions.
“Bruno Sammartino was the longest-reigning WWE Champion of all time — he held the belt for a total of 11 years over two title reigns, nearly a quarter of the entire history of the belt. And while wrestling is of course predetermined and not a sport, that was a sign of the company’s confidence in him. He sold out everywhere he went, and was the company’s top attraction for the entirety of the 1960s and 1970s. There is nothing to compare to that today. There was never a time that he wasn’t complete beloved, and he helped establish WWE as an independent entity during a time when the NWA ruled wrestling in America.”
Sammartino was the definition of professional wrestler. He carried an aura of respect, integrity, and true sportsmanship to the wrestling business. He was the attraction of wrestling events, as evidenced by the consecutive sold-out shows wherever he went, and notably, at Madison Square Garden. As Brian Solomon accurately stated, it is a reason why he was champion for so long. He was the face of professional wrestling.
This leads to the next question. If Sammartino was such a big draw and was truly the image of professional wrestling, why has it taken so long to get him inducted? The historian and founder of Bedlam at the Bijou weighs in:
“In the beginning, I think WWE was intentionally leaving Bruno out because of all the bad blood between them. Sammartino had walked out of the company in 1988 on very bad terms — he was bothered by the drugs, and by the way Vince had transformed the business into less of a “sport” than it had been in Bruno’s day. He badmouthed the company, and in return they purposely left him out. Finally, when the company realized they couldn’t have a legit Hall of Fame without him in it, it was Bruno who became the holdout, refusing to be inducted on principle. Now, at long last, the two sides have finally come to terms. This is a VERY big deal, and a long time coming.”
The friction between Sammartino and WWE was due to his dislike of what professional wrestling was transforming into. Although he was with World Wrestling Federation as a part-time wrestler and part-time commentator, the aura of tension remained due to a settlement between the WWF and Sammartino, with the company paying Sammartino money owed to him from his second run with the championship. His son, David was competing at the time, but felt used by the company in order to get his father back in the ring. Bruno did so, and inevitably his son quit. After leaving the company, Bruno became very outspoken with his distaste of the evolution of professional wrestling, even appearing on newscasts, for example, on CNN to vent his frustrations with the product, such as the vulgar storylines of the “Attitude Era” and its constant push for extreme punishment and sex appeal, and at times even bringing up sore topics like steroids and unchecked injuries. Throughout the years, WWE tried to include Sammartino on projects, but he refused over and over. Finally, after a meeting with Triple H, Sammartino felt that the product was satisfactory, and obliged the request to join the WWE Hall of Fame, which this year will take place in the place he sold out night, after night, Madison Square Garden.
We are talking about someone who would defend the championship all over the world. Sammartino was recognized as THE wrestling champion. His popularity was so immense; he was honored with a private audience with the Pope. Many felt that the WWE Hall of Fame was lacking, and longtime wrestling fans felt it was just special to WWE and its core fans. Brian Solomon provides an interesting perception of the WWE Hall of Fame.
“This means that the WWE Hall of Fame is finally legit. For 20 years, people have been dismissing the Hall of Fame because Bruno was not in it. It was the equivalent of having a Baseball Hall of Fame and leaving out Babe Ruth. In the beginning it was politics on WWE’s part, and then in recent years it was politics on Bruno’s part. But now they’ve finally come together, and it couldn’t be in a more perfect location. The greatest WWE Champion of all time, inducted in the arena he headlined nearly 200 times.”
Finally legit. Even with legends like Buddy Rodgers and Gorgeous George, the WWE Hall of Fame never felt complete. As The Rock would say: “Finally…” We can now say “Finally … Sammartino has come home.”
Brian Solomon is a former WWE Staff Editor and wrestling historian. He is the founder and host of the Bedlam at the Bijou series, looking back at classic horror films. Information can be found at http://thebijoutheatre.com/film/bedlam-bijou