I spoke with 2013 WWE Hall of Fame inductee Bruno Sammartino for an interview last week. In the first part of the interview below, "The Living Legend" discussed the last time he was at Madison Square Garden, winning the WWWF title nearly 50 years ago, his last meeting with Vince McMahon and more.
Make sure to check back tomorrow for the second part of our interview, where Bruno discusses upcoming films based in his life, if he'll meet Vince McMahon before the Hall of Fame, WWE under Triple H, current stars he enjoys, appearing on RAW after WrestleMania and much more. You can get more information about Sammartino on his official website at BrunoSammartino.info.
Wrestling INC: The reaction since the announcement has been made about your induction has been overwhelming across the board. You haven't been on TV in a full-time wrestling role since 1988. Were you surprised by the reaction, not just by the press, but also the younger and older fans?
Bruno: I'm not surprised, I'm shocked. [Laughs.] I think shocked is more the word. Honestly, when I left the business, in time, some people might remember you and some might say they knew the name. But, people move on and there are new interests and all kinds of different things go on all the time.
So, it surprised me how people have not forgotten. But, all this times and all these years I've been totally out of the picture. Then, when I started negotiating with Paul Levesque, who is better known as Triple H, we got together and I finally agreed to do this. When they announced it, I was hoping there would be some positive reaction. But, never in my wildest imagination did I think that it would be the way it's been.
It's unbelievable. My phone hasn't stopped ringing during the last two weeks and I cannot tell you how many interviews I've done. Not only throughout the United Stated with radio shows, magazine and television shows, but overseas.
I did one or two and I got one coming up from London on Thursday night. It's just been unbelievable. Paul Levesque, Triple H, he told me they were just flooded with calls and e-mails and all that kind of stuff. So, yeah, I'm pleasantly surprised. But, I'm really quite shocked. [Laughs.]
Wrestling INC: You're synonymous with Madison Square Garden, the most famous arena in the world. You've sold out the Garden 187 times. When was the last time you were at the Garden?
Bruno: Oh, gosh. When I officially retired in 1982, I had made the last appearance then. But, then, when I came back [to WWF] as a color commentator in I believe it was September of 1984 and stayed during color commentating until 1988. I was asked to put on the tights -- which I wasn't thrilled to do. Believe me when I tell you. [Laughs.]
But, my son was in the business then, too, to I agreed. So, I appeared in the Garden a number of times. Maybe three or four times, somewhere around there. That was '87-'88, that was the last time I ever appeared there.
Wrestling INC: Have you been there as just a spectator or anything?
Bruno: No, I have not been in the Garden for at least 25 or 26 years. I have not been in the Garden at all.
Wrestling INC: This May, it'll be the 50th anniversary of you defeating Buddy Rogers at the Garden for the WWWF in 48 seconds. There have always been a lot of stories about that match and that he didn't want to lose to you. And that you basically told him in the ring that he was going to go down to you that night. Was that how it happened?
Bruno: Just about. [Laughs.] Yeah, that's how it happened.
Wrestling INC: What was Rogers' reaction after that match?
Bruno: Well I don't want to say we were bitter enemies -- we didn't like each other very much before. Ever. Afterwards, there were obviously bad feelings. Very bad feelings. We never spoke again.
We never spoke for many, many years until -- I don't know if you remember Georgiann Makropoulos, she used to write a lot of wrestling stuff. There was a convention one time in New York where they invited some wrestlers from yesteryear where we signed autographs and so forth.
I didn't know it at the time, I don't even think Buddy knew it at the time but we were both booked there. We, of course, did not speak or anything. But, Georgiann went to him and he then went to me and she said, 'Please, it's been all these years. Can we bury the hatchet more or less and we'll take a picture and I'll be between the two of you.'
She had been the president of Roger's fan club and then she became the president of my fan club some time later. So, I told her, 'Well, I don't want to keep holding grudges. If he's willing, then fine.'
It was funny, because Georgiann went and got him, got me and she stood in the middle. We took a picture, but we never spoke a word to each other. [Laughs.]
Wrestling INC: I know you've had so many great moments in the Garden. If you could pick one moment or match -- is that even possible?
Bruno: Well, it is kind of impossible. But, as far as meaning and what meant the most to me, it was, no doubt, that match with Rogers. That made me the number one guy, I was going to be the headliner after that, you know? So, that was the big break, if you will.
But, of course, a lot of wonderful things happened in the Garden. It was in Madison Square Garden, for example, that I was the only guy when he was legitimately well over 600 pounds to pick up Calhoun. I mean, I remember that night as special. I thought the roof of the building was going to pop off with the way the people went absolutely crazy.
It was at the Garden that [I had so many things happen]. I held the title for almost eight years the first time and then I lost it at the Garden. But, then I came back and took it again for another four years.
I also had a terrible thing happen to me there when I broke my neck [by Stan Hansen] in 1976. I came within a millimeter of being paralyzed from the neck down.
But, the Garden was a lot more than that as far as these wonderful memories. It was how much they contributed to my career. As you said, the Garden is the most famous arena in the world. There are arenas throughout the United States that are bigger and maybe even more beautiful, I haven't seen all of these new arenas.
But, you go anywhere around the world and nobody will know about any of them. But, if you mention Madison Square Garden, and everybody knows the Garden. Everybody. So, if you headline the Garden, you were automatically a headliner in other parts of the world that you went to.
So, with headlining the Garden as many times as I did, because of the publicity you got from the Madison Square Garden -- you know, I went to Japan, Australia, South America, the Philippines -- anywhere I went, I was really well known and I was strictly brought in as the headliner because of the publicity I got out of Madison Square Garden. So, the Garden did a awful lot for me. [Laughs.]
Wrestling INC: Obviously, you've had your problems with WWE and you've spoken at length about the problems you've had throughout your career and later on. You finally did go back in, I believe, 2004 and there was discussions about doing a possible DVD on your career. Is that correct?
Bruno: No, if you're talking about the meeting that me and my attorney had, we had a meeting with Vince McMahon and his attorney here in Pittsburgh at the Civic Arena. The lawyers got together, [his attorney] contacted [my attorney], and wanted to see if he could get me to agree to come and meet with Vince.
I was really very reluctant. I, to be honest, was not interested in that. But, [my attorney] was not only a lawyer for me, but a really good friend of mine, a real friend, my best friend. He wanted it and I said, 'OK, I'll go along.'
But, when we went there, hard feelings were still there and it just didn't work out. I excused myself after about 15 minutes and I left the room. Of course, [my lawyer] by himself there couldn't agree to anything without me being there.
So, they were talking about things that they might be able to do. I turned it down because of the state of wrestling at the time in which I just didn't want to be involved. That was basically the reason.
Wrestling INC: It seems like you were ahead of the curve on that issue. After you spoke out about a lot of these things, you started seeing these tragedies happen. Wrestling finally did change for the better and it's a much healthier sport and a much healthier business. When did you realize that changes were being made for the better?
Bruno: Well, I hadn't followed it for many, many years. As you said, I had been very outspoken about all the different things that had been bothersome for me. Then I found out after a good period of time -- probably close to 2 years -- that nobody seemed to care. State Athletic Commissions or any other organization or anyone -- nobody seemed to care to want to take any steps to bring any changes.
So, I finally thought 'I gave it my best shot, it didn't do anything. So, it's time for me to go on for the rest of my life.' So, I was OK with that and I moved on. So, I never followed it anymore and I didn't watch it anymore.
Then, Triple H contacted me and he introduced himself -- not that I didn't know who he was I certainly knew his name because he was one of the superstars in wrestling. But he introduced himself and he seemed very nice on the phone. He started telling me that he more or less wanted to get introduced to me so we could discuss the situation. He said that he understood my feelings in the past, but he wanted to assure me that steps had been taken and changes had been made and they were continuing to make more changes.
It was all sounding good to me but I guess I was still a little skeptical even though he came across very straight-forward and very honest and sincere about everything he was saying.
Then, I started watching it and noticing that these guys were no longer beefed up like they had been. They looked like athletes but they didn't look like the Hulk Hogans, the Billy Grahams, The Ultimate Warriors, the British Bulldogs -- you know, all those guys. There were many, many other but I'm just naming a few. But, there were so many that it was very, very obvious what they were doing.
Besides wrestling, in my younger years, I also competed in Olympic lifting and power lifting. I knew a little bit about training and what it took to transform your body into something impressive looking. It takes a lot of years, a lot of hard work and a lot of discipline. When you see people transform themselves in a matter of months, it's very obvious what's going on.
Then, the big thing was that he, Triple H, mentioned to me that they had hired a Dr. Joseph Maroon to head that department of drug testing and all that. Well, it just so happened that I knew Dr. Maroon very well. He's a world-renowned neurosurgeon. He operated on me as a matter of fact three different times.
He's a guy who really saved me a lot because I was headed for a wheelchair. I had done so much damage to my back that I could hardly function, I could hardly stand or walk or anything. It took three surgeries but he put me in shape to where I do four and five miles of road work three days a week and the other three days I'm still pumping iron at this age.
So, I had some meetings with Dr. Maroon and I wanted him what exactly what was going on. I know this man and he has a tremendous reputation. He told how strict the testing was and that nobody tied his hands. The fact was that WWE actually wanted him and his team -- he had about five or six other doctors with him -- that they wanted to really test everybody and they were interested a wellness policy. Not only with the drugs, but with concussions and the general health overall of the individuals to perform in the ring. Well, after a few meetings with Dr. Maroon, everything that Triple H told me was absolutely true.
Then, Triple H told me about the changes that they made as far as things that I had spoken up about. The nudity, the vulgarity, the profanity. Again, he encouraged me to watch because he said they had made all the changes. Frankly, I started watching it and I watched it for a couple of months to be convinced of what I was seeing.
And, absolutely, there's been no nudity, to vulgarity of any kind and the profanity is all gone as well. I must say, I was very impressed with all these changes and Paul was very convincing and, like I said, he seemed to be a very honest and sincere individual. He convinced me that these changes were not only there but he was a student of yesteryear wrestling and he even told me that he wants to add more and more [from] that kind of wrestling.
All this was of course music to my ears. I had been asked many a time about going into the Hall of Fame and I said, 'No, I'd be a hypocrite if I did because I had been very outspoken about all these things that bothered me.' But I was also asked, 'What if these changes come about and these things are changed to your satisfaction?' I said, 'Well, of course, I would change as well. I would hope that they would happen. I would welcome the chance to go into the Hall of Fame.'
And in fact, that's exactly what happened, Raj. All the changes were made. I've been watching it now for months and I'm convinced of it. As a result, I accepted.
Make sure to check back tomorrow for the second and final part of our interview with Bruno Sammartino, who discussed the upcoming films based in his life, if he'll meet Vince before the Hall of Fame, WWE under Triple H, current stars he enjoys, appearing on RAW after WrestleMania and much more. You can get more information about Sammartino on his official website at BrunoSammartino.info.