Interview - Bruno Sammartino

Interview: Bruno Sammartino "The Living Legend"
(Credit: Chris Yandek - New Era Of Wrestling & The Sports Interview)

He is without a doubt wrestling's living legend today. Bruno Sammartino sure has achieved everything you would want to as a two time WWWF World Heavyweight Champion. But more importantly he is living well, and still working out while being 67. I had the opportunity to speak to Bruno in a very long biographical interview of his entire career.

First off how are you?

"I am happy to say I am doing great. I just went through some major back surgeries, but everything went well, and I am back doing to pumping iron, so everything went well, and everything is doing well."

What are your thoughts on the WWE and the wrestling business in general today?

"I think I have made my point pretty strong. I am not sure, but I bet you or some other people saw me on the Phil Donahue show or Larry King Live with Vince McMahon, but my point is that I have been on many shows speaking about the changes in wrestling since I left, and frankly I am not a fan of it at all. I am very disappointed in the direction that they took wrestling with the nudity, vulgarity, and profanity. It was very upsetting to me to be perfectly honest, and the worries to do, all the deaths that are drug related, and then again it's very sad to watch the business I was in for 23 years come down to where it has."

What are your thoughts on Vince McMahon Jr., as far as where he has taken the wrestling business, and you also had your chance to work with Vince McMahon Jr., as a color commentator? How different is he from Vince McMahon, Sr.?

"Well, Vince McMahon Sr., to be perfectly honest, there were times when him and me didn't agree on things. I was very anti gimmick, and to a certain degree he preferred some of it, but I wouldn't even compare him to his son. I don't think so. I did some color commentating to Vince McMahon, Jr. from 1978 to 1981, and we worked well as a color commentating team, but it was the old style wrestling. I retired in 1981, and then Vince McMahon, Jr. called me to come back after his father passed away, but I came back and saw all these changes, and told him I just didn't care for it, and it was time for me to move on."

On May 17th, 1963 you defeated Buddy Rogers in 47 seconds to become the WWWF World Heavyweight Champion at Madison Square Garden. What are your thoughts on that night?

"Well, that was quite a night. The place was sold out, but back when they called it the felt forum. It was sold out downstairs and held another 4,500 people. That night was great for me because for the first year or two I had been kinda struggling, but then I went to Canada for a year and a half and did well. When I was offered the chance at Madison Square Garden, two things came to mind: first, how the crowd received me, but also a little bit of nervousness, and I was a little concerned about that because I didn't know if the fans would accept me. As time went on I got more and more confidence and the arenas doing well. I had come from being born in Europe and knowing nothing but misery, hunger, and pain, and all of the sudden I am the top gun over here. I sometimes wondered if I had dreamed it all. It was great."

Wrestling promoters Toots Mondt and Vince McMahon, Sr. literally dragged Buddy Rogers out of his hospital bed, took him to the garden, put the new belt around his waist, and sent him to the ring for the quick pin by you. Do you think that was fair to Buddy Rogers, and even possibly disrespectful to the wrestling business that a man with a heart condition was dragged out of his bed by the promoters to lose a title to you, and could not have been done at a later date?

"There is not one ounce of truth in that. This was Buddy Rogers after losing the belt who made these claims in a couple appearances that he made. Let me tell you a little story that happened here in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I used to come home from Toronto, Canada twice a month every Sunday because we would be at the Maple Leaf Garden shows every other Sunday. They had a show at the Civic Arena, but those were the days of the Buddy Rogers era, and Vince McMahon Sr. was trying to get me to come back because he saw my success in Canada. I told him that the only way I would come back is if he put me in the ring with Buddy Rogers for the title. I was in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in that territory, and Vince McMahon, Sr. was near bankruptcy because that was how poorly this place was doing. Pittsburgh has a new arena, which was the Civic Arena that held 19,000 people, and Buddy Rogers came in with a big cigar strutting around, and by the time it was 8:00pm he went to look at the audience, and the place was empty. I don't think there were 1,500 people in the joint. Buddy Rogers was a funny guy, and he thought he wasn't going to wrestle under these conditions, and back then we didn't have contracts like today, but more or less we strictly got paid on the gate. When Buddy Rogers saw the attendance he wanted to get out of there, and he told the doctor he felt a funny pain on his chest, and then when the doctor heard that he called Paul Sullivan who was the head of the state athletic commission, and the doctor who was at every show said to Paul Sullivan, 'I am checking Buddy Rogers blood pressure and I am listening to his chest and everything sounds ok, but he claims that he has a pain in his chest. I don't know if I should allow him to go in the ring.' When Pat Sullivan heard that he immediately stopped Buddy Rogers from going to the ring, but he also informed all the state athletic commissions that he was revoking his license until they found out if in fact there was a problem. When Vince McMahon, Sr. and Totts Mondt heard about this of course they got him to come to Washington, DC, and they put him in a famous hospital over there. Buddy Rogers was examined and re-examined, and they couldn't find a thing wrong with him, and then after that his license was reinstated. If you remember two weeks before the Madison Square Garden show I wrestled him on TV in Washington, DC that was live TV that went to New York. Buddy Rogers was wrestling every day, and he was not in a hospital. To renew your wrestling license every single year you had to go before the state athletic commission, and get a long physical exam, and I knew guys who couldn't wrestle for reason or another, and they wouldn't renew their license."

Lou Thesz in his book Hooker said about you, 'In fact, he was a very limited performer with almost no wrestling knowledge; his in ring product was limited pretty much to strength moves and brawling. He never became a star outside of his territory, but within this area, he was the absolute king, the "Living Legend," as he was called, and his success had a lot to do with incredible personal charisma.' What are your thoughts on that?

"I always liked Lou Thesz. I wrestled him in Toronto, Canada where we wrestled for one hour. When I first came to this country the school that I went do didn't have wrestling, but one of my friends was friends with the coach at the University of Pittsburgh. I used to walk from Shemi High School to the Pittsburgh Field House at the University of Pittsburgh where the Pittsburgh wrestlers trained. I worked out with the Pittsburgh wrestlers for four years, and then after that I was offered a scholarship for wrestling, but it was going to a year to year scholarship where I had to prove myself wrestling wise and academically. I wasn't concerned wrestling wise because I was doing well, but academically I was concerned because I couldn't speak a word of English when I came to this country. It wasn't a piece of cake for me going through high school with learning the language, reading, and so forth. I was barely a C student. I remember some of the Pittsburgh wrestlers would complain that they would be up at 4:00am, and I thought if it was hard for these guys, then what would my chance be to make it when I was struggling in high school? My father at the same time knew an Italian contractor, and my dad thought that learning a trade was the greatest thing in the world. This guy told my dad that he could me in to the carpenters union because that was the easiest union to get into, and he could get me in as an apprentice. After wrestling with all this for a while I decided to go in carpentry, and while I was doing construction I still went up and wrestled at Pittsburgh. That is Lou Thesz's opinion and that is fine, but I wonder how he came to determine that because there are other wrestlers who might tell you differently. I just don't know where he got those opinions, but when I wrestled Lou Thesz I thought I had a good match with him. I think anyone whoever wrestled me would tell you I was in great shape in the ring. I guess I would answer by saying I fully respect but disagree with Lou Thesz on his thoughts there."

In 1965 you were supposed to have a title versus title match with Lou Thesz that never happened at Madison Square Garden, and it would have unified two of the three important existing titles, and made important money for everyone involved if it would have occurred. It would have also been featured on closed circuit TV, and you would have been the planned winner. What are your thoughts on the match that never happened?

"It never happened because of me. They didn't let me in on such plans that were made a Vince McMahon, Sr., Totts Mondt, Sam Muchnick, and others were meeting. I really am not sure who was there. I know that Lou Thesz was in one or two of those meetings. I was never in any meeting, and nothing was discussed with me. Phil Zacko who was a friend of mine told Vince McMahon, Sr. and Totts Mondt to talk to me, and see what I thought about it because I found out later that Sam Muchnick the head of the NWA was demanding 17 days out of the month for the champion to use to book on their shows. Vince McMahon Sr. thought there were too many major clubs in the Northeast, and wanted to have to have the champion for at least 18 days a week. The big problem was the days as far as who was going to get what days. I called a meeting together with Toots Mondt, Vince McMahon Sr, and Phil Zacko, and I said, 'I know you have been having this meeting about the unification of the titles, but let me make one thing perfectly clear, I don't care who gets how many days, but remember I am on the road all the time, and I do have a wife and a kid. I want all four Sundays in the month off, and my parents are getting old, and I need to go home and be with my family.' That took care of everything. I know that Totts Mondt was never crazy about the idea. He told he was against it because we were doing so great at the time, and it was the NWA who wanted to do this because they weren't doing so great. Vince McMahon, Sr. told Sam Muchnick that they wanted the champion for 18 days, but the least they could do was 16, and Sam Muchnick wasn't going for 10 days since I already requested not to work the four Sundays of the month, and that is what killed the deal."

NWA head promoter Sam Muchnick could have easily forced Lou Thesz into this match, but if he did Lou Thesz says in his book, 'It only means I'll do what you order me to do. I'll take the match. But I won't lose. It will be a contest, and I'll simply go out there and beat him. If you want to order me to this match to take this match with Bruno Sammartino, then I'll have to do it. What I'm telling you, though, is I plan to beat him. You know and Vince McMahon, Sr. and Toots Mondt know and I'm sure Bruno Sammartino knows I can do it, too.' What are your thoughts on all of that, and as far as if that match would have happened, and Lou Thesz would have done a real contest with you?

"I have never heard that, but I do believe you. My answer would have been very simple. If that is how he felt, then let him do what he says he is going to do. I am willing to go in there, and see if he is right or wrong as far as what he says he is going to do."

What are your thoughts on Toots Mondt and Vince McMahon, Sr. as the wrestling promoters for the New York office?

"In the beginning it was a bad experience, but when I became champion it was ok. There were a lot of things we didn't agree with, but it was ok. I don't want to make it sound like it was terrible because it wasn't."

On January 18th, 1971 you were defeated by Ivan Koloff and lost the WWWF World Heavyweight Championship, which was a title you held for eight years. Do you think people were surprised when you dropped the title that night?

"They weren't surprised. They were in total shock. I thought something was wrong with me because when Ivan Koloff came off the top rope with his knee across my throat he did land pretty hard, and I thought that something happened to my hearing because if Ivan Koloff was the villain, I expected boos, and I couldn't hear a single thing. Arnold Skaaland came over to help me up, and I said, 'Arnold. Something is wrong with my ears.' Then he said something to me and I heard him well. As I was walking back to the dressing room a lot of people were literally crying saying that they still loved me, and that made me feel awful. It made me feel bad that those fans felt sad. I was looking ahead because when I lost the title it would give me time to go home and recuperate. They had me going seven days a week and I was hurting. Anyone who knows me knows that I would never take an aspirin or pain killer in my life, and I was really hurting as I needed time for myself to heal my body. I didn't not expect to the fans to be upset like they were."

On December 10th, 1973 you won the WWWF World Heavyweight Championship one more time with a victory over Stan Stasiak in Madison Square Garden. What are your thoughts on that night?

"I didn't want any part of it. This had been going on for quite a while. After losing the belt to Ivan Koloff, I really started to love the business again because Sam Muchnick would call me to come to St. Louis, and I wouldn't accept any other matches for that week. I teamed up Dick The Bruiser in the Midwest, and we would go to Chicago, Illinois, Indianapolis, Indiana, and I would take those two days with him, and nothing else. I would go to Japan for ten days, and then I wouldn't take any bookings for ten days after I got back. At times my body felt good and I loved the business, but when Vince McMahon, Sr. approached me about taking that position again that I wanted no part of, and Vince McMahon, Sr. said, 'All I am asking for is one year so we can get someone really ready to take over that position.' I told Vince McMahon, Sr. one year, but one year went to two, and they were still searching, and two went to three, and then I broke my neck in a match with Stan Hansen. I then told Vince McMahon, Sr. that if he didn't get someone real quick that I was retiring. In 1977 Superstar Billy Graham came into the picture."

On April 26th, 1976 you lost to Stan Hansen in a match where he ended up breaking your neck in Madison Square Garden. What are your thoughts on that?

"It was kinda frightening. If I remember right then sixth and seventh cervical vertebras were damaged, and I came within a millimeter of being paralyzed from the neck down. That was a very frightening situation, and to make things worse while I am in the hospital, Vince McMahon, Sr. got involved in the match between Antonio Inoki and Muhammad Ali. I was supposed to be in that match with Muhammad Ali, but Vince McMahon, Sr. couldn't raise the six million dollars, and the Japanese sure did so that's how it ended being Antonio Inoki. That match was a box office disaster. Vince McMahon, Sr. at this time had committed so much to the Northeast as well. Vince McMahon, Sr. contacted me in the hospital and said, 'If I don't make the match between you and Stan Hansen, we will be going into bankruptcy.' I said, 'How can I do that when I have this gadget on my head?' He said, 'The match is three months away, and by that time you will be a lot better.' After I left the hospital and went home he called me and said, 'You don't have to do anything. We will make the match real short, and it will save the company. Without this match the company is going to go under.' The closed circuits made great business on the match, but everywhere else worldwide they died with that match."

On April 30th, 1977 in Baltimore, Maryland you lost the WWWF World Heavyweight Championship to Superstar Billy Graham. What were your thoughts on that match as it ended your last run as the world champion?

"I was glad because I didn't want part of one year much less four years. Some people thought I retired, but I never retired like people thought the first time. I just wanted to go at my pace, and I wanted to choose where I wanted to go in the territories. I went where I wanted to go at my own pace, and now I was going to the same thing here. But then came 1980 when my neck went was bothering me, and I was having some back problems for quite some time. I stayed around long enough in 1981 to wrestle in Meadowlands against George Steele on October 4th, and October 5th I boarded a plane, and for the next ten days I did a tour of Japan, and I was done and retired."

What are your thoughts on the cage match at Showdown at Shea Stadium on August 9th, 1980 when you defeated one of your former protégés, Larry Zbyszko?

"It was a good match, but it wasn't as good as the matches I had with Ivan Koloff. I had my first cage match with Ivan Koloff in Madison Square Garden, and I thought that was the best cage match I was ever in, but the one in Shea Stadium was great because we had over 44,000 to 45,000 people there. The reaction from the people was awesome. I have to say it was a great cage match, but it was at the end of my career. I hope it was as good as I thought it was, but I never thought it was good as the Ivan Koloff match."

What are your thoughts on your son David Sammartino as a wrestler?

"Well, as a wrestler I thought his mechanics in the ring were very good. For one thing I think it is fair to say that I don't think he was given the full opportunity to see how far he could go. Would he have gone far? I really don't know. David was good in the ring as far as his mechanics, but as far as his interviews, which are very important, he wasn't the best at, and wrestling was changing drastically. It became more important than just to be a wrestler. You have to be more of a gimmick, and I don't know if he could have played in that part. I don't think he would have done well as a character playing something than he already had been. I think he would have had a better chance to make it my days than in the new era day."

You currently have three original movies under your belt. Tell me about all of these including Legends Never Die, which features Roddy Piper.

"Roddy Piper as you know went back to WWE, and you listen to him in this particular tape you would have never thought that he would go back to the WWE because he was very open about his feelings. Mick Foley was pretty out spoken, and Ivan Koloff, and some others. I like the other one which is called The Boys are Back, because it's a lot of wrestlers talking about their experiences, but you see some of the on goings with the promoters, talent, bitterness, feuds, suspensions, black balling, and things like that. It is different guys talking about their experiences including myself because back in 1961 I was black balled."

What are your thoughts on Hulk Hogan?

"I don't care to say much about him because you're getting into the chemical age, and I am not a big fan of Hulk Hogan."

What can you tell us about your experiences working out at Mid City Gym in New York City?

"When I started working out there the owner was a good friend by the name of Tom Minichello who would come in and work out with me. You could run into anyone in his gym like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sergio Oliva. It was a great gym that was so well equipped that it wasn't one of these beautiful places where you have all these machines. This was a place where you trained. It had the Olympic bars and dumb bells. This was a gym for people who were real serious about their training."

Is it true that you had one of the best bench presses of your time, and in that gym it was not uncommon for you to bench in excess of 315 pounds for 40 repetitions?

"I did 330 pounds for 38 repetitions non stop. I did 565 as my best with a two second pause on the chest."

What can you tell us about Mark Tendler and Lou Sedan ? Were they your training partners?

"No. Mark Tendler worked out, but he wasn't a guy who handled those kinda weights. I would bump into him once in a while, and he had a lot of jobs, and he would come in for a short workout and do some curls or whatever. Lou Sedan took it seriously and was a good wrestler. He was very respectable in the weights that he handled, and he trained regularly."

What are your memories of Tony Cosenza, Rocky Johnson, and Tom Minichello who owned Mid-City gym, which was a hot bed for wrestlers to train in New York City?

"Tony Cosenza I didn't know in his prime because he was a little bit older then me. I knew him well, and was as nice as a guy I have ever met, and I always heard he was a pretty strong guy and a good wrestler, but I never saw him live or worked out with him. I know he was a very strong guy. Rocky Johnson was more of a body builder to make his body look good. I used to compete in Olympic style lifting and power lifting, so if you're competing you're doing heavy training, and if you're a body builder then you're training to perfect the body, and its a whole different training altogether. Some of them had great physiques, but they were not great listeners as they were just body builders. I thought that Tommy was a real classy guy, and ran a great gym, and for a little guy of 160 pounds he was strong, and I saw him push 300 pounds over the bench, but he was as a guy, and fair as a guy you would ever want to meet. I was a judge in many of the contests he had when Arnold Schwarzenegger won the Mr. Olympia. I got a kick out of seeing all these great body builders and was one of the judges."

Did you know strength game legend and historian Vic Boff who recently passed away?

"I met him a few times. He was quite a guy. He was 87 years old when I met him. He was such a heck of a guy who had a sharp mind talking about old timers. He was just a library of knowledge of the whole weight lifting game and a nice guy."

What role did strength training play in your wrestling career?

"When I first came from Europe I was an 80 pound weakling and 14 years old, and me and my brother were always being picked on, and there was this Jewish kid by the name of Maurice Sime who felt bad for us said if we came to the YMHA, that he would show us how to work out with weights. The first time I went there, and I touched the weights I thought this was for me. It was almost an instant addiction, and I started really training, and then they had a wrestling program so that's how I got interested in that. I would go every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and work on the mat. I became in love with Olympic lifting, Olympic wrestling, and power lifting."

What message do you have for aspiring athletes that will keep them away from bad influences such as steroids?

"I have done so much of that as far as trying to talk to kids in schools, and the young minds have such a young hurry to get there, and become the best they can be, and sometimes you can talk and talk to them. I would say two things, number one when you build your body by using these chemicals you are not a building a legitimate body, and for example if these guys have to get off the chemicals, then their body deteriorates like they haven't worked out in two years. I remember when I was in California I went to the Gold's Gym, and I saw Arnold Schwarzenegger, and how deflated he was that he hadn't touched a weight for about a year. The other thing is supposed to be healthy, stronger, and better. I imagine you have heard about Superstar Billy Graham, and there have been so many young deaths due to these chemicals. I guess they always think it will happen to the other guy and not me. I was very open about my thoughts on steroids when I did announcing with Vince McMahon, Jr. in the WWE, and they didn't like that. They're going to do it any way they can and not listen."

Do you currently workout?

"I naturally do work out. Right now I do six days a week, and on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I have a gym here, and Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday I hit the road. After I broke my neck I went down from 275 down to 248. I got into running a whole lot after retirement. I can still do the 100 pound dumb bells for bench pressing, and 50 pound dumb bells for curling. I don't train like the old days."

What do you think of today's crop of wrestlers? Are they all show and no go?

"If you mentioned some of these wrestlers today I wouldn't know who you were talking about. I just don't watch it because I love this business, and I am very bothered by it. One of my kids once told me to turn on the TV and Steve Austin is the world champion, and he is chugging beer and every other word is getting bleeped out, they had someone crucified once or buried alive, and Vince McMahon once has his pants down, and he wants this little guy to kiss his ass. I am an old timer, what is there to understand? Do you consider this stuff appropriate stuff?"

What advice would you give to aspiring wrestlers and what they need to do to succeed?

"Well, I think it's very hard because in my day we had about 20 to 30 different territories, and right now it's only the WWE. I see it as a very bleak time for someone new to become a professional wrestler."

Final thoughts, and your thoughts on your website

"I think it is going good. We made new prints of my autobiography, and we do have a lot of different things over there."


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