Written by Marc Valeri
Finally, the WWE Hall of Fame can finally begin to mean something.
After decades of waiting, fans will finally get to see “The Living Legend” Bruno Sammartino return to the house he built–Madison Square Garden–the night before WrestleMania 29 (April 6), and officially be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in what appears to be the strongest class ever.
Sammartino, now 77, is arguably the biggest name in professional wrestling history. He’s the longest-reigning WWE Champion of all time, with two title reigns lasting more than 11 years. He’s best known for headlining the most famous arena in the world–Madison Square Garden–and selling out the joint a total of 187 times over the course of his professional wrestling career, including the first-ever wrestling event at MSG in 1968. He won the then-WWWF World Championship for the first time on May 17, 1963, when he defeated “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers in under a minute. He also became the first-ever two-time WWE Champion on December 10, 1973, and held the title for an additional three-and-a-half years. On August 9, 1980, Bruno main-evented a match that drew more than 35,000 people at New York City’s Shea Stadium, breaking box-office records.
Sammartino told ESPN Playbook about what the induction means to him.
“Being inducted into the Hall of Fame at Madison Square Gardens is the biggest thing in my life. Anytime that people feel that you accomplished enough to enter into a Hall of Fame, of course this is a tremendous, tremendous thrill for me. I had a lot of my success due to appearing at the Garden. I wrestled there over 200 times, it’s where I won the title, and it’s where I picked up 630-plus pounds of Haystacks Calhoun.”
For years, Sammartino has declined offers to join the HOF because of a long feud with WWE Chairman and CEO Vincent Kennedy McMahon. Despite a strong relationship with Vince McMahon Sr., the bad blood boiled over in 1988 between him and Vince Jr.. After transitioning from a wrestler to a color commentator, Sammartino eventually quit when he had had enough of what the wrestling business had become.
“In talking to Paul Levesque, I made it clear, I’ve had issues with WWE and wrestling in general, because there were other organizations. I didn’t like the direction they had taken. It was bothersome to me. I’m an old-school guy. I spent 25 years in this business. But after talking to Paul, and him explaining to me the changes they’ve made in their program, and how they’ve hired a doctor like Dr. Maroon, who is a world-renowned neurosurgeon, who also operated on me, and now that he has been put in charge of the company’s wellness program and their drug testing, that impressed me. I know what kind of a man he is, and he is a giant in that field, so I take my hat off to WWE because they took such huge steps to make things better for the wrestlers themselves and making sure they are healthy to perform. That was very, very important.
“But as Paul explained to me, WWE made a lot of other changes. There’s no more profanity, there’s no vulgarity in the current product, and that stuff had bothered me as well. When Paul first spoke to me and told me all the changes, I started watching it again, and I was very convinced that they are doing amazing things. I see the wrestlers and all the changes they made. There’s no profanity, there’s no vulgarity, and it’s a family-friendly program. That’s what it used to be, and that’s a huge role in the whole factor.”
But thanks to McMahon’s son-in-law, and likely future head of WWE, Triple H (Paul Levesque), Sammartino will finally get the induction ceremony he deserves. Levesque was on a personal mission to get Sammartino in the Hall, and while no inductor has been named yet, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see The Game do the honors. Levesque reportedly struck the deal on Friday, before having it officially announced on Monday Night RAW on February 4. He told ESPN,
“From a legitimacy standpoint, it’s important for us to get Bruno in. He’s one of the biggest names there has ever been in the business. So for us to not have him in there, for the legitimacy of the whole thing, it was a major issue. For me, the more important thing was that nobody deserves to be recognized for being a big star and paving the way for the stars of today more than Bruno. Everything that we have today in the business, Bruno was a cornerstone of that foundation. He truly is a living legend.
“As we started getting into Hall of Fame season, it’s almost like this storyline wrote itself. To have Bruno Sammartino brought into the Hall of Fame in Madison Square Garden, a building he sold out more than anybody in the world, that’s a remarkable achievement. It was an opportunity to honor Bruno, but it was also an opportunity for our fans.
“There has been this bad blood between Bruno and the WWE for years, and we’re not trying to hide any of it, but I just felt like we are at a point where a lot of it can be resolved. Our wellness program and the way our programming is now, a lot of people are unaware of it, so I felt like if I could get Bruno on the phone and I could run down a list of those things that he didn’t like, I could show him how we changed. We’re PG, family-friendly entertainment with a wellness program that is truly based on the wellness of our performers. We want them to be healthy and live long, productive lives. So I just felt that if Bruno knew about those things, he might feel differently, and eventually, that’s what came to be.”
Sammartino’s induction is not expected to be a one-and-done ordeal, as the Wrestling Observer reports that he will appear on WWE television in the future, and will appear in historical features and DVD interviews, among others. If this report is true, it’s quite possible that Sammartino does something with former WWE Champion CM Punk, who talked down to Sammartino several times during promos, and even discounted Sammartino as a champion because he only had to defend the title once a month at MSG. That sound you hear is wrestling fans licking their lips at what could be an epic exchange between one of the greatest the industry has ever produced, and the best talker and worker in professional wrestling.
In the meantime, Sammartino has still not spoken to McMahon, as Levesque has been the exclusively working with Sammartino. Levesque is even organizing a sit-down between Sammartino and McMahon so that the two can clear the air. It’s a complete 180 compared to Sammartino’s stance in 2006, when he said he had zero desire to have a working relationship of any kind with WWE. Levesque said,
“Clearly, Vince knew about this right from the get-go, and when I said I wanted to reach out to Bruno, Vince was probably thinking, ‘Well, good luck with that.’ So Bruno and I established this relationship, and as we came to an understanding on all of this, Vince asked me, ‘Hey, do you think I should call Bruno? I’d like to talk to him.’ At the same time, Bruno said, ‘Do you think I should have a conversation with Vince?’ And I said no to both of them. I didn’t think it was right to do over the phone. They had bad blood for a long time, and we’ve all kind of buried the hatchet here, and it’s a new beginning and a fresh start and everybody is in a great place with this. But going back to what Bruno said about being old-school, I think we should all get in the same room together and the two of them should look each other in the eyes and shake hands. This should be in person. I don’t think it’s right to do over the phone. They both agreed to do that, and while it hasn’t happened yet, Hall of Fame is probably where we’ll make that happen. Vince and Bruno will see each other for the first time in years and officially, in person, look each other in the eyes and bury that hatchet.”
And with that, we may now have seen the first unofficially official passing of the torch from McMahon to Levesque. Getting Sammartino into the Hall of Fame is an incredible accomplishment that was once thought to be unfathomable. There’s new hope that wrongs between McMahon Jr. and legends of the past can be repaired with a new heir in the company’s future. Deserving names like Randy Savage, Ultimate Warrior and Owen Hart remain on the outside looking in. Wrestling fans cried and pleaded for Sammartino to be inducted, and now their wish has come true. There are, however, more injustices that need correction.
I hope–and I believe I speak for the vast majority of wrestling fans out there–that Levesque can continue to mend broken relationships, and improve and build upon positive ones to give superstars like these a ceremony and enshrinement they deserve.
Hopefully, the day will come when they receive a call from WWE Headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut. And hopefully, the response on their end is the one that puts a smile on Levesque’s face.
But for now, we celebrate one of the greatest of all-time–”The Living Legend” Bruno Sammartino–finally accepting his invitation to join the WWE Hall of Fame.
“Bruno getting into the Hall of Fame in Madison Square Garden is the biggest induction we’ve ever done, and rightfully so. He deserves that,” said Levesque. “So to just have it leak out there, that would’ve been wrong. This is a huge moment in time, and a massive moment for our fans, for Bruno and for WWE. This is the history of our business. Without Bruno Sammartino, we aren’t where we are today.”