You’ve heard the news by now. The most highly anticipated WWE Hall of Fame induction is now a reality. The longest-reigning WWE Champion of all time, Bruno Sammartino, will return home to Madison Square Garden on the night before WrestleMania 29 to take his rightful place as a WWE Hall of Famer.
It’s no secret that WWE has attempted to induct Bruno in the past, but the Abruzzi, Italy, native did not accept. For many longtime fans, the WWE Hall of Fame was simply not complete without the beloved Italian hero. One of those people was Triple H, who was responsible for reaching out to Bruno and cultivating a relationship with, perhaps, the greatest Superstar of all time. In an exclusive interview, WWE Classics spoke with both The Game and The Living Legend himself, who reminisced on his spectacular career and revealed how his stunning return to WWE was orchestrated.
WWECLASSICS.COM: It’s great to speak with you both. This is obviously an historic announcement, but let’s start off with the elephant in the room. Why now, Bruno? Why did you feel like this was the time to go into the WWE Hall of Fame?
BRUNO SAMMARTINO: Well, I guess the main reason would be Triple H. He’s the one who contacted me months ago and we got acquainted with each other. We had only met once, very, very briefly. I only really knew Triple H as a Superstar with WWE, but in person I think we only met for maybe 20 seconds.
TRIPLE H: I shook your hand once in Pittsburgh.
BRUNO: Exactly. It was a very quick introduction and that was it. But since then, Triple H contacted me and he started telling me everything that was going on with WWE. There had been issues and things that I was not happy with, but when I saw the changes, I was very, very impressed. Triple H was a very sincere guy and he was trained by someone who I had the most respect in the world for, and that was Walter “Killer” Kowalski. And then, of course, when he told me that it’s going to be in Madison Square Garden, that was huge for me, too, because of my history in the Garden.
WWECLASSICS.COM: Triple H, how important was it for you to make sure Bruno became part of the WWE Hall of Fame?
TRIPLE H: For me, it was huge. From a business standpoint it was huge and from a personal standpoint it was huge. I’ve always said I love the history of this business. Without the history, there is no today and there is no tomorrow. To look back on the history of WWE, one of the most important figures in the long story of where this all came from wasn’t recognized. And that was Bruno. It’s important to be able to allow the fans that do know who Bruno is to have the opportunity to pay tribute to him one more time. And to allow the fans that don’t know who Bruno is, or have heard of him and don’t really know that much about him, the opportunity to learn who he is. Arguably the biggest name ever in the history of the business is Bruno Sammartino.
WWECLASSICS.COM: What are your thoughts on Bruno’s previous reluctance to be inducted?
TRIPLE H: Bruno has had his gripes about the company in the past and they were completely justified. But we’ve changed, we’ve grown and we’ve evolved as a company. We’ve evolved as a business. And I felt like if Bruno knew those things and was comfortable with those things, I felt like he would want to be involved. [Wrestling] is in your blood. It’s who you are. And it was important for me for a lot of reasons to have Bruno back with WWE.
WWECLASSICS.COM: What about Madison Square Garden makes the induction so special?
TRIPLE H: Bruno sold out and headlined Madison Square Garden more than anybody in the history of the world. He sold it out himself. The times he wrestled there, the times he headlined there, it’s unbelievable. For Bruno to be back in the business again and for it all to take place at Madison Square Garden, it really was a fairy tale story that wrote itself.
WWECLASSICS.COM: Bruno, when you won the WWE Championship for the first time from Buddy Rogers, it was actually at the old Madison Square Garden, which no longer exists. What was that night like for you?
BRUNO: I had been wrestling in Canada for a little more than a year at the time and was contacted by WWE to give me an opportunity to wrestle Rogers. I came back to New York and wrestled Rogers on May 17, 1963, and beat him with the backbreaker. We went 48 seconds. And like when I lifted Haystacks Calhoun, I thought the roof was going to pop off the Garden. That was the very beginning and after that, I was in Madison Square Garden every month.
WWECLASSICS.COM: What was your travel schedule like in those days to keep coming back to the Garden?
BRUNO: I’ll tell ya how Vincent J, McMahon treated me with the Garden. If I had to go to Japan or Australia or a country in South America, which we went to in those years, I would always leave the day after the event at the Garden to make my way to whichever country it was. I wouldn’t be going home from there. After three weeks in a country, I would make my way right back to New York to be there in time for the Madison Square Garden show that was coming. I never missed a Garden show in all those years. So the Garden has been very, very special for me and I must say, I owe great gratitude to Triple H for really making all of this possible. I’m very grateful to him.
WWECLASSICS.COM: And I think a lot of fans are very grateful as well. On the night of your match against Ivan Koloff when you lost the WWE Title, there was a famous reaction in the Garden. Legend has it that the crowd fell silent. What do you remember about the reaction being in the building?
BRUNO: It was something that I never expected. I cannot tell you what it did to me. We had a great match. It was a lot of action. At that time, we were both big. Ivan was about 290 and I was 275 and we were moving like two lightweights. But when the end came, he caught me with a bodyslam after a knee in the midsection. He went up on the top rope and came down with a knee drop on my neck and the referee counted, “One, two, three.” I thought something happened to my hearing because I couldn’t hear a thing. Everything was so quiet. Then my manager, Arnold Skaaland, came in the ring and asked me, “Bruno, are you all right?” And I heard him very clearly and thought, “What’s going on?” I expected to hear a lot of boos because I was pretty popular and Koloff was the villain. Slowly, I get up and it was so quiet it was spooky. Finally, I started making my way out of the ring and people were literally crying as I was going by. They were saying, “Bruno, we’ll always love you. You’ll always be the champion. Nobody’s better than you.” It touched me so deeply that when I went in the dressing room I was really depressed. I always busted my behind because I wanted people to go home happy and say, “Wow, what a great night.” But that night, when I saw that reaction, it saddened me that people felt so bad. I felt awful. I sat in that dressing room for a long time. I never expected that.
WWECLASSICS.COM: To say you were “pretty popular” is the understatement of the century. You faced off against so many legendary guys: Stan Hansen, Gorilla Monsoon, Pedro Morales, Spiros Arion, Killer Kowalski, as you mentioned. Who was your toughest opponent and are there any matches that stand out above all the others?
BRUNO: The guy who was my toughest opponent, because he was an amazing man — and Triple H thinks the world of him — was Kowalski. The first time I wrestled Kowalski, I was 23 years old and he was 33. He was in such great condition that a lot of guys didn’t particularly care to wrestle him because he had great stamina and the matches could go pretty long. So when I had to wrestle Kowalski, many, many times throughout this country, we wrestled one-hour draws. It was great because for me, it was this great challenge. Here’s this guy that I had the utmost respect for and to go toe-to-toe with him for a whole hour, you felt like, “Hey, I have to be in pretty great shape to have done that.” That’s how great he was. Walter really sticks in my mind more than anybody.
WWECLASSICS.COM: Who are some other opponents who come to mind?
BRUNO: Ivan Koloff was great. I had a lot of great matches with him. And a guy named Don Leo Jonathan. He was 6-foot-7, 350 pounds and he moved like a cat in that ring. And he was strong as a bear. I had some great matches with him. You mentioned Gorilla Monsoon. Here’s a guy who was 420 pounds and one time in Madison Square Garden we wrestled for an hour and a half in a one-fall match, nonstop to curfew. Toru Tanaka, the 300-pound Japanese wrestler, I had some great matches with him. Big Bill Miller was another guy — 6-foot-6, 340 pounds, from Ohio. He was an All-American football player and a national wrestling champion. He and I wrestled many, many long matches. All of these guys were super great and when I look back, I feel so privileged that I had the opportunity to go in the ring with all of them.
WWECLASSICS.COM: Three of your biggest matches came at the events known as Showdown at Shea against Pedro Morales, Stan Hansen and, of course, Larry Zbyszko in a Steel Cage Match. Many historians consider those shows the predecessor to WrestleMania. What was it like to wrestle at that ballpark with those three matches in particular?
BRUNO: I was thrilled with that first match with Pedro Morales and I’ll tell you why. When I first suggested it to Vincent J. McMahon, he never believed a match like that would work with two popular guys. No villain. But I always believed if you went in there and gave the proper match, people would enjoy it. When Pedro and I went in there, we went for one hour and 18 minutes in a nonstop match under the worst conditions. I think it was Sept. 30 and we happened to get hit with rain. It was cold. It was lousy, weather-wise. But there was not one punch thrown, not one kick thrown, it was a lot of good wrestling maneuvers. It gave me a great thrill because I wanted to show promoters who came from around the country that it could be a match that a lot of people would really love and enjoy. And they really did.
WWECLASSICS.COM: How about the match against Stan Hansen?
BRUNO: Stan Hansen was a different ballgame. I broke my neck wrestling him in Madison Square Garden. I spent a month in the hospital and for a while it was touch and go because the doctors told me I came within a millimeter of being paralyzed from the neck down. Vincent J. McMahon kept calling me at the hospital because he was very concerned. They had a match scheduled between Muhammad Ali and Antonio Inoki. The thing turned out to be a dud. They just weren’t selling tickets. But Vince had invested a lot of money with closed circuit, so he wanted to schedule a return match between me and Stan Hansen. I wasn’t in the best condition, but I came out of the hospital and started to train because there was not much time. I always used to get goosebumps in Madison Square Garden, because as soon as I started making my entrance, people would be chanting my name. “BRU-NO! BRU-NO!” But at Shea Stadium, when I made my entrance to the ring, those people gave me such an ovation; I never heard anything like it. That was quite an experience and they really ate up the match.
WWECLASSICS.COM: What was it like to wrestle your former protégé, Larry Zbyszko?
BRUNO: The Zbyszko thing was a different story. He had been my protégé, and then, of course, came the double-cross. So when we went to Shea Stadium, the place sold out. We had more than 35,000 people and the people, my God, they were absolutely so anxious and responsive to everything. They just went wild that night. It was crazy, the way those people reacted. It was a Cage Match, and you wanted to be there to experience it. It was just awesome. When I walked out, the whole place stood up screaming like you can’t believe. These are things you don’t forget. These are memories I’ll always have with me. There were only three shows in Shea Stadium and I headlined all three of them.
WWECLASSICS.COM: Triple H, what can current Superstars on the roster learn from Bruno?
TRIPLE H: When you look back at somebody like Bruno, it’s like looking back at the consummate professional. It’s tough today, and has been for a while, to be a star and to have the right mentality of what being in that position means and what it requires of you. In Bruno, you see a guy who lived up to that moniker of being a role model in every single way. That’s an important lesson for talent. It’s not just about you and your career; it’s about how you live your life. That’s a very important part of success. That’s something they definitely can learn.
WWECLASSICS.COM: Why is it so important for current Superstars to understand the history of WWE?
TRIPLE H: I’m a big believer in stepping back in time. Even when I was coming up in the business, and this comes from learning from Kowalski, I didn’t really watch the guys that were current. I watched the guys that came before me. I watched the Brunos, I watched the Kowalskis, I watched the Harley Races, the Backlunds, the Flairs — guys in generations that were before me. The business was different, but the fundamentals were sounder. There’s something to be learned in that for everybody. I feel like there’s a disconnect now. Everybody just wants to be a highlight reel. Nobody wants to have substance. They just want to be that moment in time when a guy flies off a cage. And that’s not really what our business is about. That’s an important lesson for talent to learn.
WWECLASSICS.COM: Do you think Superstars will be able to connect with Bruno?
TRIPLE H: That’s one of the reasons why I’m excited to have Bruno back in WWE. I’m hoping he can instill some of that when meeting and being around the talent in the coming years. It’s one thing to watch a video of somebody you’ve never met. It’s another thing to meet them and hear their stories. I’m jazzed up just sitting here. I feel like a little kid listening to Bruno talk about all these opponents and Shea Stadium. It makes me want to get a DVD and start watching Bruno matches. But if the talent meets him and talks to him, it leads to them wanting to find out more and wanting to learn that history. To me, that’s where the business needs to be. It needs to step back in time, not forward in time, to learn from the past. To me, that’s what will make it better.
WWECLASSICS.COM: Bruno, we’ve already talked about your history at Madison Square Garden, but what are you expecting the Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony to be like? What will it mean to you to step out onto that stage and hear the reaction from the Madison Square Garden crowd one more time?
BRUNO: As far as the crowd, I don’t know what to expect. As we mentioned, I won the title from Buddy Rogers 50 years ago. How many of those people that will be in the Garden were even around 50 years ago? [laughs] So I don’t know what to expect from the fans. But for me, yeah, at this stage of my life, to have this opportunity to appear one more time in Madison Square Garden where I have such a history and have such fond memories of, it’s such a thrill. To be honored with the WWE Hall of Fame, I cannot put into words how big it is for me.
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