Bruno Sammartino is to professional wrestling what Babe Ruth is to baseball.
The legendary grappler is the longest reigning WWE (then-WWF) champion of all time, with two title reigns spanning an eye-popping 11-plus years. And his legacy of headlining Madison Square Garden more than 200 times is what turned the Italian-born brawler into a worldwide sensation.
So it’s only fitting that Sammartino will be the main attraction at the WWE Hall of Fame ceremony on April 6 at MSG.
“Being inducted into the Hall of Fame at Madison Square Gardens is the biggest thing in my life,” Sammartino said in an exclusive interview for ESPN Playbook. “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.”
And while Sammartino had turned down the WWE’s previous offers of inducting him into its Hall of Fame due to a well-documented feud with the wrestling organization’s CEO and chairman Vince McMahon over a wide range of issues -- from Sammartino not liking the vulgar direction the product took during the Attitude Era to Sammartino’s criticism of drug abuse by members of the roster back in the '80s -- it was WWE executive Paul Levesque (aka Triple H) who stepped in and finally changed the legend’s mind.
“In talking to Paul Levesque, I made it clear, I’ve had issues with WWE and wrestling in general, because there were other organizations,” Sammartino said. “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.”
In finally signing Sammartino, WWE sees this as an opportunity to not only celebrate everything he has done for the business but also add legitimacy to its Hall of Fame.
“From a legitimacy standpoint, it’s important for us to get Bruno in,” Levesque said. “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.”
While Bruno has accepted the WWE’s offer to make an appearance at the Hall of Fame, he still hasn’t had the chance to speak to Vince McMahon, as Levesque is organizing a sit-down so the two can resolve any lingering issues face-to-face.
“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,’” Levesque said. “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.”
As for trying to keep the announcement a secret, “it’s not ‘Mission Impossible’ or anything like that,” Levesque says, laughing. “But to me, 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. 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.”