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Wrestling: Sammartino to skip Hall of Fame induction

Friday, May 03, 2002

By Ed Bouchette, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

What if a Hall of Fame inductee refused to attend his induction?

That didn't happen last year after the Steelers' Lynn Swann was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame or after the Pirates' Bill Mazeroski was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

But this weekend, when another famous athlete from Pittsburgh is inducted into a pro Hall of Fame, he will boycott the ceremony.

Bruno Sammartino, the greatest star from the golden age of pro wrestling, will be among 13 inducted as the first class of the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame this weekend in Schenectady, N.Y. They will have to have the ceremony without him.

"Wrestling is how I made my living and supported my family, but it's over," Sammartino said yesterday from his Pittsburgh-area home. "I don't want anything to do with it anymore."

That, said George "The Animal" Steele, is a shame. Steele serves on the PWHF board and had many epic matches against Sammartino through the years. They are at odds on this one.

Steele said the Hall of Fame was started specifically with Bruno in mind.

"It hurts me, to be honest with you," Steele, 65, said from his retirement home in Cocoa Beach, Fla. "I consider him the greatest professional wrestler and one of the greatest human beings I've known. When he was champion, if somebody got a bad payoff or wasn't treated correctly, he spoke up for the boys, where most people would have just looked out for themselves. I respect him for that. He's god in our business."

Speaking up on another matter is what ultimately led to Sammartino's estrangement from the sport he loved and why he refuses to be recognized by any kind of wrestling hall of fame. This induction has the fingerprints of Vince McMahon Jr. on it, Sammartino said, and he wanted no part of that.

In the 1980s, Sammartino worked for McMahon's World Wrestling Federation as a commentator. Sammartino, however, said he saw too many things going on he did not like in the organization and began speaking out against them.

"It was unbearable," said Sammartino, 66. "Drugs, steroids, all the sexual stuff, bizarre things. I became very, very upset and angry about everything I saw going on."

Sammartino, saying young wrestlers were pressured into using steroids, went on national television shows and testified before government commissions to spread the word, to little avail.

"After I did everything I felt I could do, nothing happened. It went from bad to worse."

Not only that, Sammartino said McMahon blackballed him. He said McMahon was instrumental in keeping him out of the Madison Square Garden Hall of Fame and from getting any kind of mention in an A&E network documentary on pro wrestling. He did so, Sammartino said, by threatening to refuse to cooperate and hold back any video or interviews with WWF wrestlers.

Sammartino said he learned of the new Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame a long time ago and its plans to be the true shrine for the sport. But he was told by a representative that they were seeking the help of the WWF and the rival World Championship Wrestling. After the WCW collapsed, Sammartino believes McMahon refused to help the fledgling Hall. That, Sammartino said, is when the Hall of Fame became more interested in him.

"It's a joke, it really is," Sammartino said. "They can tell you McMahon has nothing to do with it, that's true, but at one time he was involved. Now that it's falling apart, they came back to me. I didn't hear from these people for over a year."

Sammartino said the new owners of Madison Square Garden are filming a documentary about him because he sold out more than 200 shows there, more than any individual in history. They asked why he wasn't in the MSG Hall of Fame, and he told them McMahon had blocked it. They promised to induct him next year.

Among the 13 who will be inducted Sunday in Schenectady are Andre the Giant, Gorgeous George, Buddy Rogers and Mildred Burke (under the category of "Lady Wrestler").

Steele said if Sammartino changes his mind, "We have a plane ticket waiting for him." There's also a Hall of Fame ring, but they won't deliver that to him. He'd have to pick that up in Schenectady.

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