Grantland logo

The Question of Bruno Sammartino

What does the ex-champion mean to pro wrestling, and what does he have to do with WWE’s CM Punk?

Bruno Sammartino/CM Punk

Sunday, at Elimination Chamber, CM Punk and the Rock will meet again for the WWE title, Alberto Del Rio and Big Show will tangle over the World Heavyweight Championship in Part 3 of their ehh-pic rivalry, and the Shield will take on the superheroic holy trinity of John Cena, Sheamus, and Ryback. Oh, and there’s the titular match, a six-man Thunderdome of relatively recent vintage that will determine the no. 1 contender for the World Heavyweight Championship. For what’s normally the pre-WrestleMania warm-up lap, that’s a pretty stacked card ? and it’s all the more compelling because WWE has given little indication of what the WrestleMania lineup will be, so the contents of this show actually matter.

But even with all that, the biggest move WWE made in the past month ? if one takes at face value the eruption of the WWE fan base and the excitement-to-the-point-of-hyperventilation of WWE’s talking heads ? hasn’t involved any of these feuds. It didn’t even happen in a ring. It was the announcement that the headline inductee at this year’s WWE Hall of Fame ceremony would be Bruno Sammartino.

Members of the WWE’s preteen target demographic ? even those accustomed by video games and DVD retrospectives to Methuselahs like Mick Foley and Trish Stratus, who are also on this year’s HOF roster ? could be excused for failing to join in the Sammartino hysteria. You could even forgive casual fans if they only remembered Sammartino as a marble-mouthed interviewer who got into an on-camera backstage scrap with Randy Savage, or as the guy who looked like your grandfather in his underwear when he beat up the Honky Tonk Man. His two matches on the History of the WWE Championship DVD notwithstanding, Bruno’s living-legend status1 hasn’t exactly been burnished during his decade-long self-imposed exile from the company that he carried as it hoisted him to stardom all those years ago.


1.

That’s actually what they called him during his ’80s run: “The Living Legend” Bruno Sammartino.

Older fans, or those more attuned to the history of the sport, will of course be familiar with Sammartino, the hairy, barrel-chested Italian powerhouse, “the strongboy from Abruzzi,” as the sports page in the New York Times referred to him back in the ’60s. The older fan will remember Sammartino’s interminable reign2 atop Vincent J. McMahon’s WWWF as well as his rather inglorious return to the Fed as the gray-pelted paterfamilias of the grappler game under Vince Jr.’s management.


2.

The living legend of Times sportswriters, Robert Lipsyte, referring to Sammartino’s long, plodding run, once called him “uninspired but unbeatable” and politely bludgeoned him with “The Sameness of Bruno.”

But Bruno was never a great fit for the WWF of the 1980s. He was mostly a throwback, a walking acknowledgment of wrestling history that goosed a certain purist fan base into buying tickets. He was a product of another world that was too big and too profitable for the WWF to ignore. You could almost say that he was the precursor to CM Punk.

At first glance, Sammartino and Punk couldn’t be more different, aside from their Speedos. Bruno was the face of the company, the long-reigning baby-faced champ, the Madison Square Garden headliner for more than a decade. Punk, despite the way he has clawed his way into the top tier of WWE superstars in recent years, has always been wrestling in the shadow of John Cena, the Sammartino-esque golden boy. But the truth of the matter is that Bruno was never the golden boy. He was a product of necessity to Vincent Sr., just like Punk is to Vince Jr.

Sammartino had an early run in the WWWF, but he left on bad terms and ended up as a big star in Canada, where he was a hit with the Italian population. When he finally made his return to New York, it was no doubt due to Vincent Jr.’s desire to cash in on that same ethnic base. I checked in with esteemed wrestling fan Dr. James M. Thomas of the University of Mississippi to go over the demographics, and they underscore how vital a move this was for the WWWF. Prior to the 1930 U.S. Census, Italians weren’t even in the top five of American foreign-born populations, but in 1930, almost out of nowhere, they become no. 1, totaling roughly 1.8 million. Italian Americans remained atop the foreign-born Census charts until 1960. I’ll let Thomas take it from here: “Now, we know that the vast majority of these immigrants entered through Ellis Island, and that many of them settled either in NYC, or the New York area, due to access to jobs, kinship networks, etc. We also know from prior research that acculturation/assimilation processes for most immigrant groups take at least two, and often three, generations. So by the time Bruno gets the belt in the 1960s, we’re almost at that third-generation threshold.”

The WWWF had long featured heroic stars like Jim Londos and Antonio Rocca to bring in the patronage of New York’s disparate ethnic groups, but when Bruno came back, the longstanding champion of the territory was “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers ? a tanned, blond heel who, in retrospect, may have subliminally represented the unchanging Anglo institution as he fought off immigrant upstarts. The Italian immigration wave overwhelmed this model, however, and it made the arrival of an Italian champion all but mathematic. When Vince Sr. finally lured Bruno back to New York, it was with the promise of great money and fame.3 You could argue that the Italian onset in New York was neatly paralleled in Bruno’s 1963 championship-winning match, when he stampeded Rogers in a shocking 48 seconds. It’s purported to be not only a shoot fight but also the little-known Original Screwjob, a precursor to the infamous 1997 Bret Hart?Shawn Michaels match in Montreal. Vince Sr. sent Bruno out to take the belt from the recalcitrant Rogers, who had been told prior to the match that he would win. Bruno supposedly said “we can do this the easy way or the hard way,” and Rogers, understandably perplexed, was subjected to the hard way.


3.

Bruno first left the WWWF in the early ’60s when he was supposedly fed up with Vince Sr.’s backhanded dealings. He joined a rival promotion in New York and then tried out the West Coast, only to find out that Vince Sr. secretly scheduled a match for him in Baltimore, which of course he missed, and which caused him to be suspended by the athletic commission and thus blackballed by much of the American wrestling industry. So it’s unclear whether McMahon’s promises were more believable when he convinced Bruno to return, or if the money was just too good to pass up.

One doesn’t have to squint too hard to see Punk parallels: WWE’s acknowledgement that Cena, the institutional champ, wasn’t expanding the audience, along with Punk’s embrace by an insurgent fan base, begat WWE’s realization that there was money to be made by giving them what they wanted. (Yes, meta fans, we are the immigrants in this analogy, and 6-year-old boys are the establishment. Deal with it.) If it took Punk a bit longer than 48 seconds to win the title, it wasn’t any less of an upheaval. And when Punk lost the title last month, he didn’t hesitate to call it the latest in a long line of screwjobs.

Despite their respective successes, neither Sammartino nor Punk was ever fully at home within the WWWF/WWE. Punk had to threaten to quit to elevate his stature, and Bruno not only walked out on the WWWF in the ’60s, but he was also ignominiously dethroned by fresh face Pedro Morales in 1971, only to be begged back into the championship two years later.4 His more recent silent vendetta against the WWE, purportedly caused by his disgust at the debauchery that pervaded the Attitude Era, is what has kept him out of the Hall of Fame for this long.


4.

Technically he lost the belt to Ivan Koloff and won it from Stan Stasiak, but both were straightforward transitional champs.

But both Sammartino and Punk transcended their original roles: As champion, Bruno became more than an ethnic draw. Paralleling the immigrant experience, he became an American ? nay, the American ? defending the U-S-of-A in turf wars against menacing foreigners like Killer Kowalski, the Sheik, the Mongol, Gorilla Monsoon, Hans Mortier, and Toru Tanaka. Punk, perhaps paralleling meta fans’ dissatisfaction with the modern WWE, turned heel, formally becoming the indignant underdog set against the status quo.

Monday night on Raw, after Punk laid out the Rock (whose return prompted Punk’s heel turn, and who beat Punk at the Royal Rumble to claim the WWE championship), Punk walked out with the championship belt. He didn’t win it, but he took it. It’s a fairly common heel maneuver, and it’s one Sammartino is undoubtedly familiar with, since Gene Kiniski did it to him in 1964. Punk fancies himself the champion in exile because he scored a pinfall against Rocky at the Rumble, only to have the match restarted by Vince McMahon and to then lose. Kiniski suffered the same fate ? he had Bruno pinned, or so he thought, but the referee reversed the decision. Kiniski found a way to abscond with the strap, but soon thereafter Bruno formally reclaimed the belt by beating Kiniski. It remains to be seen how Punk’s unofficial reign concludes on Sunday, but his claim to 455 days as champ ? even if only 434 of those are legitimate ? is astounding, considering that he never seemed to be WWE’s top choice for the title. And let’s just get this out there: When Sammartino held the belt for 11 years, he wrestled at MSG once a month. Nowadays, champions are on TV upwards of five times a month. If 455 days isn’t exactly 11 years, it’s not far from it.

Everything moves faster now. Prior to a couple of weeks ago, Bruno was on strike against the WWE for 20-plus years. Punk was “on strike” for a couple weeks in the summer of 2011 after he won the WWE championship at Money in the Bank. It’s hard to argue that Bruno’s strike had any greater impact.

Your average 10-year-old wrestling fan probably still doesn’t quite understand why Sammartino is so important. Even if he’s plugged into message boards, it’s likely that the boy only knows Bruno as a specter of WWE’s dishonor ? that feeling around the Internet that Sammartino’s omission from the Hall of Fame is WWE’s greatest organizational indignity, second, perhaps, only to Randy Savage’s absence from the Hall.

The problem with Hall of Fame critiques is that even in such hallowed territory,5 everything is transactional. For many inductees, admission into the Hall is just a formal way of sealing a working relationship with the WWE; in some cases, like the Von Erichs a few years back and like the mysteriously absent Savage, a larger-scale negotiation is in play. For the Von Erichs, it was the WWE acquisition of the WCCW video library. For Savage, a few factors are in play, supposedly one of which is his family’s odd insistence that the whole clan ? Savage, father Angelo Poffo, and brother “Leaping” Lanny Poffo (a.k.a. the Genius) ? be inducted together. Inevitably, the WWE and the Poffos will come to some agreement, and when they do, fans will be exultant if a little bit let down. It’s like an argument between mommy and daddy that’s keeping you from getting your new bicycle.


5.

Which, for the record, do not exist. The WWE Hall of Fame doesn’t have a Canton or a Cooperstown — last time I checked, its legendary contents are housed a couple backslashes into the WWE website.

Which is probably why WWE made such a big deal about Sammartino’s return, with an exclusive to ESPN’s Jon Robinson that told how Triple H (newly empowered as a respectably shorn, full-time front-office executive) reached out to the aggrieved Bruno and assuaged his trepidation. Next came an excellent dual interview on WWE.com. One might posit that Triple H is an odd emissary, being that he was the Fed’s frontline crotch chopper in the Attitude Era, but he’s an old-school stretcher at heart and he has been WWE’s informal righter of all things wrong in recent years. Hunter’s passion for the business is doubted by no one, and compared to Vince McMahon, his father-in-law, Triple H is quite amiable. So it’s not all that surprising that Trips convinced Bruno to accept the accolade.

But this is the WWE, so of course there are some ironic loose ends. It’s maybe a little odd that Bruno agreed to mend fences when the current champion, the Rock, is a conquering hero of the Attitude Era whose wrestling shtick is still somewhat reliant on dick and poop jokes. But it’s inarguable that, much to the derision of the meta fans who cheer for CM Punk ? and, strangely enough, the same fans who are applauding the return of wholesome Bruno ? WWE has forsaken the Attitude Era’s immoderation and focused on producing entertainment suitable for fans of all ages. It’s a perfect home for Bruno’s return, even if few of its current occupants really remember him that well.

But I suppose all’s well that ends well. Everybody will be reintroduced to Bruno over the next weeks and months and years, presuming his reintegration to the WWE mafia entails an ongoing contract for public appearances and DVD voice-overs. We’ll hear about his epic feud with Larry Zbyszko, the time he got a private audience with the Pope, the time he wrestled an orangutan, the time he broke his neck in a match with Stan Hansen and then came back less than two months later to fight him again at Shea Stadium.6 And I’ll wager that at some point, we’ll get CM Punk, sitting in a studio room, a talking head in a documentary, telling us how Bruno inspired his career.


6.

This match was on the undercard of the legendary Muhammad Ali–Antonio Inoki fight. The main event was broadcast from Japan, but the Shea card also featured Andre the Giant versus Chuck “The Real Rocky” Wepner.

It’s a testament to the modern WWE, as pro wrestling’s lone remaining megapower, that two iconoclasts, two guys from different eras whose chief commonality has been raising their middle fingers to the WWE, have such prominent roles in the company. The night before WrestleMania, at the Hall of Fame induction at MSG, Bruno will be front and center. It remains to be seen where Punk will end up on the Mania card ? whether it’s in the main event alongside Cena and the Rock or elsewhere ? but his place in the modern hierarchy is assured. In a decade or two, I wouldn’t be surprised if Punk is reluctant to accept the WWE’s invitation into the Hall, standing strong on the moral grounds of whatever perceived disrespect or institutional wrongheadedness suits him. And eventually he’ll accept their invitation, because they’ll really need him, or vice versa. But for now, just be thankful that Bruno’s back, and be happy that Punk’s in the main event.

I’m sure Sammartino never thought his avatar in modern wrestling would be a heavily tattooed, smart-mouthed heel. But at Sunday’s Elimination Chamber, Punk isn’t fighting against just the Rock; he isn’t fighting against just the looming presence of the Attitude Era’s ratings; and he isn’t fighting just for the meta fans. He’s fighting for Bruno.