An article by Mike Mooneyham
February 8, 2004
Bruno Sammartino once had a passion for the wrestling profession. It’s now a business, however, the mat icon wants no part of.
Sammartino, a former WWWF (World Wide Wrestling Federation) champion who was one of the biggest draws in wrestling throughout most of the ’60s and ’70s, looked on with disdain as the industry began to dramatically change in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Leading a charge against the rampant use of steroids and drug abuse, Sammartino was an integral figure in focusing widespread media scrutiny on a burgeoning problem that would affect the entire business.
Sammartino’s eldest son, David, had himself used the muscle-enhancing drug despite his his father’s warnings. But when wrestling personality Mark Madden related David’s claims in a 1991 interview that Sammartino’s younger son, Darryl, had used steroids, Bruno became enraged, vehemently denying the allegations and setting off a war that still exists today.Officially the 64-year-old Sammartino, who holds the distinction of headlining Madison Square Garden more than 200 times, will make his final wrestling-related appearance Saturday night at the Hamburg (Pa.) Fieldhouse where he and Larry Zbyszko began their classic feud more than two decades ago. Unofficially, though, he’s already broken all ties with the business.
The “last straw,” according to Sammartino, was when Madden, now a color commentator for WCW, recently declared on a Nitro broadcast that David Arquette’s title reign probably had various world champions – such as Pat O’Connor, Buddy Rogers and Bruno Sammartino – “turning over in their graves.”
“That really ticked me off,” said Sammartino, who obviously is very much alive and well. “I contacted an attorney. It’s their business if they want to hire garbage, but when that garbage makes remarks like that because we don’t particularly care for each other, that’s something I felt I needed to do something about. I gave them a very simple choice. Either he apologize or I take him and WCW to court, and let the chips fall where they may. They made him apologize, and I washed my hands of professional wrestling.”
Sammartino said he personally didn’t hear the apology because he no longer watches wrestling shows.
“I don’t watch that garbage. An apology was made, and that’s good enough. I don’t want to get involved with lawsuits. It was done. The hell with them all.”
Sammartino added that he later learned that Madden went on “another rant” about him on an edition of WCW Live, but believed that (WCW booker) Vince Russo put him up to it.
“He just thought that it would create controversy,” said Sammartino. “He (Russo) was a big fan of mine, and he said so many times. He has nothing against me. He thought it (the controversy) might be beneficial to them.”
Sammartino made it clear that he had committed to the Hamburg show “months and months ago,” otherwise he wouldn’t have agreed to appear on a wrestling pro gram at this point. But he gave his word, he said, and he will fulfill his commitment to do an autograph session prior to the show.
“It’s not that I’m participating in a wrestling show,” he said. “I have nothing to do with wrestling, and I want nothing to do with it in the future. After this I will not do anything at all. But I had made this commitment.”
Sammartino said he recently was approached by a company from England that wanted to send a film crew down to inter view him about the present state of wrestling.
“I told them I’m not in the business any more. That’s it. Enough is enough. It’s not the business I was in. It’s over with, and I don’t want to talk about it or do anything concerning wrestling. Wrestling and my self are history. I absolutely will have nothing to do with it ever again.”
Sammartino, who held the WWWF title for 12 years during the ’60s and ’70s, had said several months ago that he might be interested if something he considered to be positive for professional wrestling was presented to him. He now says the business sickens him and points to drug abuse, gratuitous violence, sex and vulgarity.
“Wrestling was my way of making a living,” said the Pittsburgh native. “I did the very best I could. It was an even exchange. But it’s a completely different world now, and it’s one that I don’t belong in any more.”
Sammartino first retired from the business in 1981, but later returned for special matches and an announcing stint that lasted until 1988.
“When I was color commentating with (Vince) McMahon, I was making very good money. But when I found out what it was all about, I gave it all up. It wasn’t me, and I wasn’t going to be part of that garbage, regardless of how much money was involved. These guys today will sell their soul for the money. They have no respect for the business, they have no respect for themselves.”
Sammartino’s taste for the business began souring at the tail end of his career with the WWF and his son’s foray into the profession. His “feud” with Madden, a for mer sportswriter for the Pittsburgh Post- Gazette, dates back to a steroids story Madden once wrote in his newspaper. Sammartino insinuated in a 1991 interview with Madden that he had suspected son David was using steroids but never knew for sure until a 1989 health scare during a tour of Japan which led to David getting off the drug.
David, who is now 39 years old and works as a personal fitness trainer in Atlanta, claimed that his father knew about his steroid abuse from 1981 until 1989. He said that he first took steroids in 1981 while working in Atlanta and used them off and on until 1989, describing himself as a heavy user at times, particularly between 1987 and 1989. While working in Japan in 1989, David was suffering severe chest pains and went to the hospital where an EKG revealed an irregular heartbeat and the doctor told him that he was “a walking time bomb.”
“David had a couple of physical scares,” said Sammartino. “He thought I was an old man from the old school. I found out that McMahon was going to use some people to question how I could feel so strongly about steroid use and my own son was taking them. I said in an interview with Mark Madden that the tragedy was with all the young wrestlers coming up – that they were led to believe that unless they got on the juice they had no shot of making it. My son fell into that trap. But I said I believed he was off it at the time, and thank God for that.”
“Sure, my dad tried to discourage me from taking steroids, I mean, this is a guy who’s never taken a drug in his life,” David said in a 1991 interview with Madden. “We argued and everything and he was mad, but it was my life and my decision. But I never hid it. He knew about it all along. He’s the one denying it, not me. In his autobiography, he says he has three sons that have never taken steroids. Well, I have, and so has Darryl.”
Bruno, denying that son Darryl ever took steroids, warned Madden not to print the allegations.
“Madden sent David a copy of the interview, and David, to hurt me, which was his specialty, gave Madden something to print,” Sammartino said. “He said that his father talks about all these drug users, but that his brother Darryl also used steroids. If you saw Darryl at the time, you would have said `give me a break.’ Darryl was a high school kid throwing the javelin and was about 5-11 and 145 pounds. I told Madden not to print it because it was a lie. I had always cooperated with him. His mother was a teacher at the school where my kid was going. I told him to talk to his mother about Darryl, and she spoke very favorably about my son. I told him to just look at Darryl and talk to him. David was using this to hurt me. Madden gave me his word. So what did he do? He gave it to someone to print in a newsletter.
“If someone had told me about David (taking steroids), I would have said, yes, unfortunately, David choice to listen to the wrong voices rather than his father, and he did take steroids. If you knew my other sons, however, you would realize how ridiculous that claim was. I strongly resented him for that.
“David was on the road. The other kids were living here. Did he think I’d be stupid enough to know if they weren’t on that stuff? I had been a weightlifter all my life in addition to wrestling. They didn’t choose to hear the truth. The guy didn’t have the guts to print it in the Pittsburgh paper, so it was printed in a newsletter. He’s just a wonderful fellow. That blows my mind.”
A verbal confrontation ensued, and Sammartino said Madden’s “been knocking me ever since.”
“This is a guy who has a radio show in Pittsburgh who calls me a hypocrite. There are guys who actually kiss up to this piece of garbage, and that’s why I have no respect for his friends. If in my day some jerk like a Mark Madden would say some derogatory things about a wrestler … That’s why I’ve divorced myself from the business. If they can’t stand up and say to this garbage, don’t you dare talk like this about one of our people. How can they even associate with a guy like this? How dare he talk like this about one of his peers? Something like this is not accept able.”
Ironically Sammartino and Madden had their first face-to-face meeting last July at a benefit show for the late Brian Hildebrand in Rostraver, Pa. Madden was there doing his local radio show at the arena.
“He is the most gutless individual I’ve ever known,” said Sammartino. “When they did this benefit for Brian Hildebrand last year, I was there because I was invited. I had never met this guy (Madden) and didn’t even know what he looked like until somebody pointed him out to me. I went right up to him and asked, `You’re Mark Madden?’ and he started backing away. I asked him why he was acting so shy, since he had been acting so mighty on the phone lines and the radio. He said he didn’t want any trouble, yet he wanted all the trouble in the world when he was on the radio. I just asked him why he didn’t stand up for what he had been accusing me of. I’m an old man, but I kept walking toward him and calling him everything under the sun, because I was hoping, if he had an ounce of guts, that he might get mad enough to do something. I didn’t want to take the initiative, because I knew what I would have liked to have done. He never even tried to retaliate verbally. It was one-sided. He just kept backing off and saying he didn’t want any trouble. He ran off like a thief.”
Sammartino also had been at odds with Madden over comments Madden made on his Pittsburgh radio show that six-time NWA champion Lou Thesz, when he was in his 50s, challenged Sammartino when he was in his 20s and Sammartino “chickened out.”
“That is such a lie,” said Sammartino. “I don’t believe that Lou Thesz ever made that statement, but if he did, then he’s as low as Mark Madden because it’s a blatant lie and it never happened and I never chickened out. Because anybody who knows me, not that I’m suggesting I was the greatest or the toughest guy who ever lived, but I would never put my tail between my legs and just walk away. Those kinds of stories anybody would have known about back in those days. There was never such a thing. He’s been putting me down ever since.
“I take pride in what I was. Thesz said he never said that, and if anybody said that, they didn’t hear it from him. Thesz and I are not friends because he has been outspoken in a way I don’t appreciate. He’s been saying a lot about who was good and who wasn’t in the old days as far as shooting. My question is who in the hell did he ever shoot with? So I resented that.”
Sammartino said he also took exception to comments Thesz, now in his 80s, made in his book “Shooter.”
“Lou Thesz comes along in a book and says Argentina Rocca couldn’t wrestle. What’s his problem? The people that came to see him thought Rocca was pretty darn great. Lou Thesz wants to paint a picture like he was the greatest wrestler and nobody else was around. Where does he get off saying all these things? Maybe he could whip me. But I worked with this guy, and I never saw him try anything with me. Whether he could or not, I don’t know. But when I wrestled him, I was about 25 years old and 270 pounds. I didn’t like what I had seen him do with Rocca and (Buddy) Rogers in Toronto. They stunk the joint up.”
Sammartino said at the time Vince Mc Mahon Sr. had blackballed him all over the United States, and he was working strictly for Frank Tunney out of the Toronto office.
“Frank had given me a break, and I was starting to get over. Because Thesz was the NWA champion, you had to use the champion once or twice a year. So they brought in Thesz,and supposedly he didn’t like Rogers. Rogers and I never got along, but I was there so I saw it with my own eyes. Rogers tried to make a match, but Thesz wouldn’t cooperate. People were bored and were stomping their feet. What the hell is with this guy? He wouldn’t do anything. He had Rogers in a hammerlock on the mat and wouldn’t let him up. Rogers tried, tried, and just laid there after a while. Same thing with Rocca. If you didn’t go along with Rocca with his flying head scissors and dropkicks, you didn’t have much. Again Rocca tried to have a match, but the same crap on the mat and people were hollering boring. Then it was my turn.”
Sammartino said he wasn’t impressed.
“Being young and cocky and 25 years old, I thought I was the strongest guy in the world. I had some wrestling training. I went in a very aggressive fashion, and don’t misunderstand me, I didn’t go shooting with the guy, but I was very aggressive. I was pushing him because I was curious to see just how good he was, but nothing ever happened. And he’s saying in his book all these years later that `I know he’s a nice fellow, but I know from wrestling him that I could take him.’ How does he know? I set the stage but nothing happened.
“I don’t appreciate all the things he says about all these guys. It’s sad because it’s like he wants to tell the world, `I’m legit. I was for real. The other guys weren’t, but I was.’ The worst house in the history of the Garden was when McMahon and Toots Mondt brought him to wrestle Argentina Rocca. They didn’t draw crap. Not because of Rocca, because he had drawn plenty of money there, but Thesz was just not a great drawing card. When I saw him with Rogers in Toronto, they drew about a third of a house, and with Rocca it was even less. I did better with him because at the time Frank had tried to make me a star and I was getting over. We didn’t sell out, but we had about three-quarters of a house. But he never drew. They can say whatever. I wasn’t around in the ’30s or ’40s, but 1958 and after, he wasn’t a big drawing card as far as what I saw.”
Sammartino said the rift between him and David unfortunately has widened, and the two haven’t spoken to one another in nearly nine years.
“David caused me a lot of heartaches. I wanted him to go to school like his two brothers, but he refused and went into wrestling. He cost me a lot of embarrassment and pain. He burned more bridges than any wrestler I’ve ever known in this business. He didn’t seem to understand or care who his father was and what he was doing to me and my name and reputation with his behavior.”
Sammartino claims he bailed out David on numerous occasions when he “would quit every other day.
“David would have no place to go. McMahon was using that to have me put on the tights when I really didn’t want to since I had retired. David quit seven different times. He would get mad over nothing and just quit. He’s a very temperamental guy and very unreasonable. He could never take blame. He would always find some reason for it.”
Sammartino said McMahon used David as a pawn to get Bruno back in the ring.
“David said I was in the way of his big break if I didn’t put on the tights to team with him. So I put on the tights and we did very well. I finally told David that I was old and I couldn’t keep doing it. McMahon was also asking me to wrestle, and I kept begging David and telling him that Vince loves the fact that he keeps skipping out. I had a lot of injuries. But he would disappear again. I finally told him that he better be real good, because I was getting out of there.” Shortly afterward David was arrested for nailing a fan who spit on him at a New York show.
“He was done,” said Sammartino. “They kicked him out, and he couldn’t get booked anywhere. But he blamed us. Tragically he never, never took responsibility for anything. It was always some body else’s fault.”
Sammartino’s spot in wrestling history was solidified many years ago. Affectionately known to a generation of fans as “The Living Legend,” he fled his small Italian village as a youngster at the end of World War II and spent 14 treacher ous months in the mountains before returning to his ravaged homeland after German troops moved out. He and his mother moved to America in 1951 to join his father. Sammartino would eventually push his 90-pound frame as a teen-ager to a bulked 275-pound Olympic style weightlifter who would set records with a (drug- free) 565-pound benchpress and the title of North American weightlifting champion.
Sammartino became known as the `Abruzzi strongman” and the “Italian superman” and joined the pro wrestling ranks in 1958. A list of some of his memorable opponents reads like a “who’s who of professional wrestling” Gorilla Monsoon, Fred Blassie, Bill Watts, Johnny Valentine, Ray Stevens, Argentina Rocca, Killer Kowalski, Dr. Jerry Graham, Superstar Billy Graham, Ernie Ladd, Waldo Von Erich, Bull dog Brower, Ivan Koloff, Prof. Tanaka, Pedro Morales, Dr. Bill Miller, Johnny Valentine, Buddy Rogers, George Steele, Don Leo Johnathon, Stan Hansen, Bobby Duncum, Larry Zbyszko, The Sheik, Dick The Bruiser, Giant Baba, John Tolos, Bruiser Brody, Black Jack Mulligan, Black Jack Lanza, Bruiser Brody, Nikolai Vol koff, Jimmy Valiant, Harley Race, Randy Savage, Roddy Piper, Paul Orndorff.
Sammartino spent the ensuing decades not only as one of wrestling’s top draws and most respected world champions, but also as a goodwill ambassador for the business who prided himself as champion and made a point of wearing ties and suits at public appearances.
In recent years, however, Sammartino says he has become appalled at the circus atmosphere and the increasing raunchiness of the business. He also targeted Hulk Hogan, who is widely credited with transforming the business in the mid-’80s.
“I’ve always considered Hogan a cancer to the wrestling world. A lot of people try to make him out to be the greatest thing that ever came into professional wrestling. That’s the biggest myth in the history of wrestling. I remember when I came back into wrestling as a color commentator in 1985. Vince McMahon practically kissed my ass to put on the tights to go into Boston because Mr. Hogan was the big deal and these clubs were taking nosedives. And he’s looking to a 50-year-old guy to see if I could bring it up because I had been so hot in these clubs in the past. I did and we brought Boston right up to a sellout crowd – the same thing in Philadelphia, the same thing in Pittsburgh. Hogan was such a dud it’s incredible, yet they try to make him out like he’s the greatest attraction in wrestling history. The guy is limited. Was he good in merchandising? Yes. I won’t argue that. During my era we never had merchandising.”
Sammartino questioned WCW’s “obsession” with keeping Hogan in the spotlight.
“Why doesn’t the guy leave? Why does he hang around? They’re a glutton for punishment. They deserve each other.” Sammartino also challenged the record-breaking figures allegedly generated at Wrestlemania III in 1987 at the Pontiac Silverdome.
“A lot of people don’t know that McMahon gave away over 30,000 seats. The place holds 90,000. They were able to sell 60,000. How can you give Hogan the credit for that? They think Hogan is a valuable asset. Guys like Hogan and (Kevin) Nash and (Scott) Hall are a cancer to the organization.”
Sammartino, who first retired in 1981, said McMahon has tried to approach him in recent years through third parties, but he had absolutely no interest in returning to the WWF.
“Two years ago when he was down and out, I got a message from Vince’s son (Shane) through another party that he wanted to bury the hatchet. I don’t hate anybody. I dislike some of the things they do. I said as long as he’s in that kind of trend, I wouldn’t be interested. I’ve known him well for a long time. Vince McMahon surrounds himself with yes men. Every body pats him on the back. Vince McMahon only has control and power over people who allow him to have control and power. I’ve known this guy for many, many, many years, and he’s the lowest of the low. They don’t come any lower than him. Look at the roles he’s got his own son and daughter playing. He has no sense of decency or morality. But watch out if you’re critical. I once told him that this kind of garbage was going to kill him down the road. Of course he hated that. I was very critical about the drugs, and I didn’t want to be around it. I said that one of these days it was going to be a scandal. He gave me the BS about `Pop being gone’ when I decided to retire. And who better than me? That’s how he lured me to come back. But it didn’t take long to see what was going on. I had to get the heck out of there.”
Sammartino left for good in 1988. “Vince had given me a contract (the year before). I skimmed through it and signed it. When I wanted out the first time, he said I couldn’t leave. I went to my attorney, and found out he had me hooked. For the next two years I was like the silent partner. I was just biding my time.” Sammartino said he has no desire to be in McMahon’s WWF Hall of Fame. “It’s not a hall of fame. What kind of hall of fame is it when he decides who will be in it? I wouldn’t want to be in that. Having fans tell me how much they enjoyed watching me wrestle and that I was a role model means a heck of a lot more than McMahon putting me in the hall of fame. That’s very rewarding. It makes me feel very good.” “There were a lot of people who I had tremendous respect for while I was in the business. But from what I see today, I have none.” Sammartino, who was born Oct. 6, 1935, maintains a strict training regiment. His weight dropped from 270 to 250 after breaking his neck in a match with Stan Hansen and is now at a steady 215. He alternates each morning between a seven- to eight-mile jog and lifting weights for several hours. “I run and watch my diet, and I’m down to 215. But that was by design.” Sammartino says the final chapter on the wrestling business is far from being written. “They can say this and they can say that. McMahon’s riding high right now. Now he’s come back because of all this crap they’re doing. But when you talk about the history and longevity of wrestling … Let’s see the long-term future for all this garbage. It will run its course. Don’t be too shocked. This XFL deal might do him in. People like (Donald) Trump with the huge bucks failed. So we’ll be here to see where this thing goes. We’ll be watching.”