Every year, I compile a list of 50 legendary pro wrestling icons who have yet to be inducted into the illustrious WWE Hall of Fame. You never get to see the list because I actually never have the attention span to write out a full article hashing out 50 cases which practically speak for themselves.
Then there are times when I start working on the list, and the WWE makes the surprise announcement to induct a few of those names, and it completely f***s up my writing momentum. Without question, “The Living Legend” Bruno Sammartino was always in the top three on EVRY list. Other than “Macho Man” Randy Savage, I can’t think of another name that deserved it more. Yet, Sammartino not only firmly denounced Vince McMahon and the WWE, but the entire wrestling business as a whole. And while I’m happy to finally see him enshrined, I kind of feel like he sold out… Yeah, I said it!
There have been over two decades of well documented bad blood between Sammartino and Vince McMahon. Bruno never turned a blind eye to all the drug and steroid abuse during the golden age of the WWE. From a business standpoint, I can understand the benefits in the dirty part of the business. After all, pro wrestling is nothing more than a pre-determined pseudo-sport. There was a time when adults were ashamed to declare themselves wrestling fans. Vinnie Mac knew he had lightening in a bottle at the first WrestleMania. He also knew that the larger than life, bulked-up Hulk Hogan was an attraction that no other sport could replicate. So why not make a whole locker room full of them? Look at the controversy in major league baseball today: professional athletes have tarnished their careers and legacies, and have been shunned by the Cooperstown Hall of Fame for trying to enhance themselves to be better players. Do I condone their actions? Absolutely not. But there is a apart of me that says, “F*** IT! They’re getting paid MILLIONS of dollars to play a game, and I have to pay top price to watch it! Let those millionaire douchebags juice up as much as they want so they can hit the ball 8,000 feet and make this game more entertaining”. That’s what I’m really paying for, isn’t it – the entertainment?
As much as I respect everything that Bruno Sammartino accomplished during his legendary career, I sometimes wonder if he refused to embrace the evolution of the industry simply because he was a bitter old man. I understand and respect that he was a purist, but you can’t tell me that there wasn’t a part of him that was green with envy when he saw the amount of money Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, Ultimate Warrior and the scroll of others were making in this new era of wrestling. This man busted his hump for peanuts compared to what these new guys were making for a single WrestleMania payday. The glitz, the glamour, the fame, the media attention for headlining a WrestleMania –all things he never experienced. You’re telling me that old man didn’t wish he was twenty years younger and that there wasn’t an immigrant Italian voice in his head saying, “That-sa sa-baton-bitch! That-sa coulda been you-a!”
You can’t take anything away from Paul Levesque (Triple H), who diligently spent months negotiating with Bruno and finally came to terms after proving to him that the business has changed from the horror show Bruno had perceived it to be. It’s not an easy task to change the mind of a stubborn old man who is set in his ways, especially when he’s cemented in good reason. Levesque had full control of the negotiations and used nothing but persistence, respect and integrity to get the job done. It’s highly doubtful that anyone else could have ever pulled this off. And while he deserves all the credit for sealing the deal, no one will ever know exactly what is going on in the mind of Bruno Sammartino.
WrestleMania approached its 30th anniversary, and Sammartino had never really celebrated the WrestleMania experience. He failed to give an effective rub to his son at the first WrestleMania, and was literally lost in the shuffle of an NFL Battle Royal at the second Mania. Bruno has never really had his moment, and at his tender age, he knew that it was a now or never situation. Regardless of how good he may still look, his health isn’t at its peak anymore, and every year that passes is another missed opportunity to pay tribute to the “Living Legend” while he is still actually living. This is a regret the WWE faced when finally opening the doors to the Hall for Randy Savage, and what they’ll encounter the day they decided to induct Chyna – and the dozens of others who passed before their time.
Now that Bruno Sammartino has been enshrined into the Hall of Fame, the WWE can attempt to introduce his legacy to legions of new fans in the WWE Universe. Why not? There’s a profitable opportunity and money on the table now that they can officially whore his name again. And some whores make good money. There are people out there who will pay to see an old whore because it takes them back to a time when that whore was king…even the whore knows it.
I’m sure that the change in the WWE product is a HUGE part of what converted Samarrtino’s beliefs, but I’m sure he knew deep down inside that time was running out, and he’s spent a lifetime cutting off his big Italian nose to spite his face to prove a point to Vince McMahon. Bruno knew that the light on his legacy was fading, and while no one could ever deny his achievements, they would be nothing more than legend and folk tales for generations to come. He worked too hard for too long to just be forgotten, and while it may not be the same business he was a part of, it’s STILL the wrestling business he WAS a part of.
Today’s generation of wrestling fans will never understand what the business was like thirty years ago, unless they lived it. And what’s the point in having to stop and re-explain history when the business is moving forward at a faster pace and earning a larger profit than it ever has? Why reminisce about the days when everybody was poor and struggling to stay in business? It’s like growing up in the ghetto and hitting the lottery – you ain’t ever looking back again!
I admire Bruno Sammartino sticking to his guns for so long, and his firm stubbornness for being prepared to take it with him to the grave. That’s some old school gangsta s***! But on the flip side of that coin, I admire him just as much for selling out to give new life to his legacy. Bruno Sammartino returning to Madison Square Garden to get inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame is the equivalent of Yogi Berra returning to Yankee Stadium after his bad blood with George Steinbrenner. It’s the proper book end to officially bring the story full circle.
Did Bruno Sammartino sell out? Maybe…but, wouldn’t you?
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