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Wrestling with fame: Bruno Sammartino still a hero to fans

Wednesday, October 28, 1998

By Cristina Rouvalis, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

He has a massive neck, rock-hard biceps and meaty, menacing hands. A nimble bear of a man, he looks like he could have played for a Steelers team in the '70s. When he jogs seven miles around his Ross neighborhood, people recognize him right away.

  Bruno Sammartino standing in his Ross home with a painting of himself in his younger days. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)

"Hey, Bruno," some man will inevitably call out. "May I ask you a personal question?"

"I'm 63," Bruno Sammartino will reply before even hearing the question.

The man is stunned. How did Bruno know that he was about to ask him his age?

Because it's the same question Bruno hears everywhere he goes - on cruise ships, in the supermarket, in restaurants.

That's the thing about being a living legend. You are a signpost in people's youth, a measure of all those years that zoomed by.

Bruno doesn't mind being the friendly neighborhood wrestling god and divulging his age again and again. He's good-natured that way.

People tell him he looks great for his age, which he does from all those long runs and three-hour workouts with weights.

On the other hand, fans figure that if they were just kids when they watched Bruno body-slam and bear hug his opponents, then the champ must be ancient by now.

"They don't realize that if they were 20, I might have been 23. ... They think I must be 85. They remember me from 100 years ago," he says, shrugging and smiling faintly.

It was really just 20 and 30 years ago when Bruno was always selling out Madison Square Garden in New York City, and the fans would shower him with chants of "Bruno, Bruno" the minute he stepped out in his tights and boots.

He was the ultimate good guy doing amazing feats, such as picking up the 620-pound Haystacks Calhoun and dumping him so hard that the center of the ring caved in. Or doing push-ups with two men on his back.

His life couldn't be more different now. He lives tranquilly in the suburbs with his wife of 39 years, Carol, and dotes over his tiny grandson, Anthony Bruno Sammartino. He loves to listen to opera, eat his wife's low-fat feasts of pasta and fish, and travel back to the Old Country with her.

Bruno has stayed away from pro wrestling for years except to lambaste what it has become - "an X-rated obscene sleaze show," in his words.

OK, pro wrestling wasn't all pure in his time, but Bruno said many matches were real, and tough guys really wrestled as athletes. Today, he says, it has degenerated into a joke.

  Wrestler Tom Brandy talks to the camera as Bruno Sammartino does the play-by-lay for the USCW in Washington, PA., last month. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)

But on a recent fall night, Bruno is ringside, inside a middle school in Washington, Pa. He is wearing a tux, doing color commentary for a young league, U.S. Championship Wrestling. It is a favor to a young promoter, Sal Conte, who is vowing to "bring back the Bruno era. Bruno was the true sport of wrestling."

Before and during breaks in the telecast, Bruno autographs photos of himself in his prime - a dark-haired muscleman with arms outstretched, ready to pounce. His blue eyes soften now as he politely signs his name and talks to fans.

It's steamy hot inside, and sweat drips down Bruno's face, down the wide nose that has been broken 11 times, past the cauliflower ears that were disfigured and hardened from all those headlocks, and down the sharp V-shaped jaw. "I sweat an awful lot," he says.

Here in the packed wooden bleachers of John F. Kennedy Middle School are two generations of wrestling fans - the older fans who grew up worshipping Bruno, and the younger ones who have new heroes.

Rudy Medved, a 42-year-old who lives in Washington, is thrilled to see Bruno. He snaps a Polaroid picture of Bruno, his young son and his friend and gets an autograph. "This is the champ, guys," he tells them excitedly.

"Ohhh, he was my favorite," Medved said. "He was my grandfather's favorite. These guys just seemed like heroes. It seemed more real back then."

Joel Nagy, a 26-year-old wrestling junkie who lives in Mount Washington, recognizes Bruno. "He's the living legend. They were brawlers back then. It was a sport."

But Nagy is a new-school fan, who prefers the theater of wrestling today. "It is a soap opera injected with testosterone with a little bit of fighting in between. If people think it's real, there might be a problem."

The show begins and smoke billows and rock music blares and the crowd shrieks as the Iron Warrior, a man with flowing blond hair and skin-tight white trunks and black tassels climbing up his calves, throws down the Beast, a stocky man in a baggy shirt. The Iron Warrior struts around the crowd in victory. Match after match is held.

Is Bruno seeing Bruno-style wrestling? Well, not exactly.

"Sal has good intentions, but he has a long way to go," Bruno says. "He needs better talent. He needs to weed out the bad ones who have bellies out to there.

"A couple of these young wrestlers were terrific amateurs. But the problem is that these young guys don't know wrestling from another era. They think to be a star, you have to go by what they see on TV - WWF and WCW," referring to World Wrestling Federation and the World Championship Wrestling.

New wrestling, it seems, dies hard.

Bruno Sammartino is the ultimate survivor - no, really.

He didn't survive the kind of childhood traumas that actors always complain about - a distant father, say, or being an unpopular teen-ager.

Bruno survived the German SS troops invading his hometown of Pizzoferrato, Italy, during World War II. His mother, Emilia, grabbed Bruno, his brother and sister and headed to the hills to a hideout in a mountain called Valla Rocca. For 14 months they hid there, shivering and hungry. His mother would keep them alive by sneaking down the mountain and snatching food from the basement of her house, while the German officers slept upstairs.

  At age 63, Bruno Sammartino still works out. But now he does curls with 40-pound weights instead of the 100-pound ones he used in his prime. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)

Bruno also survived coming to America as an 80-something-pound immigrant kid who couldn't speak English and got beat up all the time.

He survived an outrageous wrestling match with an orangutan, as well as a broken neck after Stan Hansen picked him up and dropped him on his head.

He survived fame and relative fortune, making $100,000 in 1964 along with Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays.

These storied details of the Bruno legend is why he is so popular when he appears occasionally on "NightTalk," a TV show on PCNC. "Bruno just lights up the lines," said host John McIntire. "It's phenomenal. People will call and say things like, 'I remember when you took on Killer Kowalski in 1968 and flipped him over.' They know the most arcane, dusty details."

He also attracts crowds of 700 when he makes guest appearances some weekends at P.C. Richard, an appliance and computer store chain in New York and New Jersey. (He never, ever sells his autograph at shows.)

Most of the time, though, he is out of the limelight, being the happy homebody in his nice stone house with the big lawn - something he was never able to do when he was wrestling and on the road six or seven times a week, year-round.

His days are filled with little rituals. Like his morning run or lifting weights. He works out on a "universal" machine and also does bicep curls with 40-pound weights, letting out bursts of breath from tightened facial muscles. This is no slouch workout, but in his prime, he would do bicep curls with 100-pound weights and bench press 565 pounds. "At this stage of the game I am not looking for muscle mass," he says.

He had to give away his Olympic free weight set last year after a bad car accident. His silver Mercedes is his lucky car because he survived.

He has other assorted aches and pains from his career. His mangled ears are prone to infection. His arms have so many chipped bones and torn ligaments that he can't lift them all the way. "It is a little embarrassing. I can't tie my tie. My wife helps me when I go out."

Over the years, he's had to modify both his workouts and his diet. Bruno, who is almost 6 feet tall and slimmed down to 215 from 270 in his early wrestling days, eats low-fat food now. He can no longer gobble 24 lamb chops or four pounds of steak at one sitting. Or eat breakfasts of 12 eggs, a loaf of bread, a whole box of cereal and two quarts of milk.

He is a family man, making up for lost time. He likes to say that he is dating his wife, Carol, a soft-spoken woman who couldn't bear to watch her husband wrestle. Every Saturday night, they have a standing date, dinner out. They listen to opera, especially the legend Franco Corelli.

But they never go to the movies. A man who spent decades body-slamming and hurling opponents can't stomach the profanities in movies. Bruno is old-school that way.

"To this day, my dad has never heard me swear," said Darryl Sammartino, a 30-year-old Allegheny County probation parole officer. He says his father was strict, but didn't try any wrestling moves on him. "My dad never touched us - ever."

The only drawback to growing up as Bruno's son, he says, was when he wrestled at Slippery Rock University. Other guys would sometimes test and taunt him with, "You think you are tough because of your dad."

His fraternal twin, Danny, is a local hairdresser. He and his wife, Michelle, are parents to Bruno's pride-and-joy, Anthony, age 2. "He is starting to talk real good," Bruno gushes. "Oh God, I just love him to death. He is just a great little guy."

But there is one fracture in this happy family portrait.

Bruno no longer has contact with his oldest son, David, the only one to follow him into professional wrestling. He said he strongly urged his son to go to college, but he didn't.

Although Bruno retired in 1981, he says he climbed back in the ring in 1985 to help David's career. The promoter for WWF came up with the idea of the father-son tag team. Bruno said he didn't want to return to the ring as a middle-aged man with injuries, but his son asked him to.

"I put on the tights. I am 49, 50 years old. You don't know how disgusted I am. Finally, I said, 'I will never put on the tights again. I have had injuries and I am old.'

"When I refused to put on the tights again, my son never forgave me. He hasn't spoken to me since. I resented that he didn't understand."

His son has quit wrestling and is living in Atlanta. "To be perfectly honest, I don't know what he is doing," Bruno said. "That's the sad part about it. We have such a close family and to have this situation happen."

David Sammartino, 38, said he hadn't seen or talked to his father in nine years. "It was a series of things - personal. It's very tragic."

His estranged son said, "He's my dad. I loved him. He was a big inspiration to me. He was the best there ever was."

Bruno is grimacing over what he sees on the TV screen on a Monday night. He is watching World Wrestling Federation matches, something he never does.

Bruno doesn't get cable, so he is critiquing it at the request of a reporter at his son Danny's house, where his Worldwide Wrestling Federation championship belt is framed above the mantel.

WCW comes on first to the explosion of fireworks. "Oh my God. Look at this fireworks and all this garbage," he says, shaking his head. "It looks like the Fourth of July."

A man in neon green is fighting a man wearing jeans. Bruno shakes his head at a wrestler in denim. "It's almost like a rebellious kind of thing. It's almost like the weirdos in the ring look like the ones in the audience."

He points to some wrestlers and says "steroids."

The old champ is disgusted at what wrestling has become. But was pro wrestling ever real? Isn't real pro wrestling an oxymoron?

"If I were to tell you that my day was all pure wrestling, I wouldn't be honest with you. Because there were crooked promoters. There were a lot of guys that knew that they couldn't even compete with other guys. But to suggest that every match was like that wouldn't be true. There were a lot of tough guys who were tremendous wrestlers."

It was a good life for Bruno, being the tough good guy. He loved wrestling and appreciated the fans. But he doesn't miss the limelight at all.

"Listen, when I was real young, I thought I was made out of steel. I didn't think anything could hurt me, I was so powerful. But as time goes on, you find out you are not made of steel.

"Do I miss it? Absolutely not. It was a job in every sense of the word."

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