I was born in a little town in a place called Abruzzi, Italy. It's the central part of Italy. I was born there October 1935. I had a very normal childhood until about the age of nine or so, when World War II affected my particular part of Italy. This was after Italy had fallen, and Germany didn't take too kindly to the Italians. And we unfortunately were occupied by the worst soldiers we possibly could have been occupied by–the SS troops. So we had to evacuate the town, and that was really something because they were very brutal. A lot of people of this very small village of about a thousand people made it out, and a lot of people did not. But we made it to a town where we hid for the next 14 months. I guess it was really one horrible period of our lives, because this mountain where we had to spend the winter was awesome. The winters were beyond description, they're so vicious. And besides that, you had to worry about the bombings that came on, and starvation. A lot of the elderly and young died from starvation.
So after 14 months, finally the war ended in my particular area, because the [fighting] moved up north. This was coming toward the end of the war. And we came back in our towns, but the only thing that stopped for us as far as the war goes was the bombings, because starvation continued, the town was devastated, there were bodies literally everywhere, diseases, it was just hell. My father had come to America prior to the war and was stuck here because they closed passages. So he was stuck here and we were stuck there. When we finally connected again, my father asked my mother, through the mail, should he come back to Italy or should he bring us over here. My mother more or less told my dad that everything was destroyed, we had nothing over there, and if we could come to America, then it would be much better for all of us, especially for the kids. My father took the initiative to bring us over here. In 1947 we were going to come over, and, believe it or not, because of the war I got very, very ill with pneumonia and almost died. I couldn't pass the physical that you had to take to come here. Everything was in quotas in those days, so we had to wait until the next time, which was 1950. In 1950 we came. When we came over here, to abbreviate the story so that I can get into wrestling, I was a very frail kid. I was not quite 15 years old, because we came in the month of March, and my birthday would have been next October, so I was 14. But I was extremely frail, both me and my brother and my sister. I had lost two brothers and a sister in Italy during that period. We came over here, and the shocker to us was that as a child, I had heard that America has streets paved in gold. And as a little kid I literally took that to mean that America was so filthy rich that I thought, "Wouldn't it be great to go to America, away from this poverty and this other stuff and be rich all of a sudden?"
But when we finally came over, my poor father had bought a home near the steel mills where he worked, because he didn't drive. It was an old home. He paid $5,000 for that home. And we came in this house and were shocked, because we come to America, and here the plaster was half-broken. And smoke! We come from these mountains where the air was so fresh, and here we were right up next to the steel mills. In those days, Pittsburgh was known as a smoky city. The smoke was unbelievable, the air was terrible. And then to top it all off, my dad was one of the first Italians to move out of what they called Little Italy, and he moved into this particular area because of the convenience to where he worked.
And as it is often in this country, we were not well-accepted because we were different, you know. So my brother and I were going to this school to learn how to speak English, and every day we were getting the heck beat out of us. My father found it so frustrating because of what we had gone through during the war, and he came to this school and told the teacher, "You know, these kids have gone through hell, they're very frail as a result of the war, and now they're getting beat up daily. This is one thing they don't need. Can something be done?" So it worked out OK, my brother and I could go to school 15 minutes later than everybody else, and get out 15 minutes early. But the frustrations and anger were there.
I met a Jewish kid by the name of Maurice Stein. I'll never forget him because he was a good, good guy. He felt sorry for us, he really did, and he said, "I belong to the YMHA, that's the Young Men and Women Hebrew Association. If you could join, if you could scrape up the money, I can show you how to work out. You'll get healthier, you'll get stronger." This sounded good to me. So my brother and I, we went to this well-to-do area called Shenley Farms, and we asked people if they needed their grass cut. They would give us a quarter, or fifty cents. But we did it long enough until we raised $13 for the membership. And we joined the "Y".
I can tell you that I became addicted almost immediately to physical fitness. They had a wrestling program, amateur wrestling, and they had weight training. But, I learned the language a little with that, and we would go to high school. By night we were working out, getting healthy, getting to look better, and so forth. I always used to try to get guys on the mat to work out. My gym teacher was friends with a guy named Rex Perry, who was a wrestling coach at the University of Pittsburgh. Perry wanted to know if I'd be interested in going up there and working out with the big wrestlers. I started going on that program six days a week, religiously, no matter what work I did, like summertime when I was working construction. It didn't matter. At night I'd be at that gym when the gym closed. I did that religiously for years.
I became, I thought, a pretty good wrestler. And I became a pretty strong guy to where I started competing in both Olympic lifting and power lifting. I stated setting some records, first city records, then state records. In 1959 I set some power-lifting record. That's when I did my 565-pound bench press. I did a 715-pound squat and a 690-pound dead lift. By now I'm a big guy, about 265 pounds, 270. I had just gone to Oklahoma to compete in the North American Weightlifting Championships. And I came back–I don't know if you every heard of Bob Prince. He was the "Voice of the Pittsburgh Pirates," and he had a TV show. I appeared on his show at different times to give a weightlifting demonstration, or even a wrestling demonstration. Whenever I won a contest, he invited me to come on. One time when I came on, we were talking about this contest that I won, and Prince mentioned on the air, "Bruno, do you still go up to Pitt, the University of Pittsburgh, to work out in wrestling?"
And I said, "Oh yeah, because that's my first love, wrestling. I want to be a professional wrestler. But for weightlifting, I've gotten pretty good at it, and I love to compete, so I do both." Well, who was listening to this? A guy by the name of Rudy Miller, who was a representative of Capitol Wrestling, which later became the WWF. He was running the TV wrestling show in Pittsburgh, which was on live. He happened to watch this show, and he immediately started inquiring if anyone knew who I was. People at the station knew, of course, because a couple of those guys there had gone to high school with me. They said, "Yeah, that's Bruno, he's a friend of ours.
Miller said, "Jeez, I'd sure like to meet him."
Anyway, to make a long story short, they contacted me. The following week, they asked me if I would come down for studio wrestling, because this promoter wanted me. And of course this is what I wanted anyway. So when he saw me, he was very impressed. I weighed 270 pounds. He said, "You really can lift what they said on that TV show?"
I said, "Yeah."
He said, "Jeez, you gotta come to Washington. I have two promoters, Vince McMahon [senior, not junior, who currently is owner of the WWF] and Toots Mondt. I would like them to look at you, because you have a wrestling background."
I said, "Yeah, that's my ambition, to become a professional wrestler."
He gave me some money that bulged my eyes–$300. I'd never seen $300 in my life. He told me to catch this plane and go to Washington at such and such a date. I went to Washington, I met Vince McMahon, I met Toots Mondt, and they'd arranged for me to go to the old Capitol Arena in Washington. It was an old arena but a popular one there. They sent a couple of professional wrestlers that up there for me to work out with. They wanted to see what I had. I impressed them pretty well because I was strong and I could wrestle. So from that, they said, "You know, kid, you've got a lot going for you. We'd like to train you for a couple of months and then turn pro."
And I said, "Wow! I didn't realize it was that easy."
I had just gotten married. I went home, and I told my wife. My wife was very much against it. She said, "Well, my God. You had thought you were going to be a carpenter. Why do you want to wrestle?"
I said, "It's always been a dream of mine, you know that. I have to give it a shot." Anyway, to make a long story short, I told my people at work that I appreciated them giving me work for the last two years, but I had to pursue this, and they wished me luck. Then I went to Washington, and for the next two months I was there and trained. I trained, and then–boom–I went back to Pittsburgh to my first professional match, and that was October 1959. That's how I got into it. I had problems with the WWWF. I started with them, I was wrestling for them, but then certain things were happening, and I wasn't happy. We were doing TV in New York, and the [New York State Athletic] Commission was very strong about strictly going by the rules. You weren't allowed to throw punches, you weren't allowed to throw kicks. You had to go strictly wrestling. To make a long story short, my New York boss eventually folded due to these rules, and McMahon took over the whole thing. At this point, I thought McMahon was sincere. I went back to McMahon, but it was obvious that what he wanted to do was make a doormat out of me. And of course, I wasn't going to allow them to make me a "curtain-opener," as we call it, every night. So I finally told him that if this is the way I was going to be treated, that I wanted to move on. So McMahon said, "Where are you going?"
I said, "Well, I've contacted Johnny Doyle." You probably don't remember that name, but he was partners with a guy named Roy Shire, who was promoting in San Francisco. "I'm going out there," I said.
Then they played a nice little trick on me. After I was supposed to finish at such and such a date, McMahon booked me after that date but did not let me know anything about it. He booked me purposely in Baltimore so when I'd leave, naturally, I wouldn't show up in Baltimore. And he told the Commission, "Sammartino's supposed to be here, but he's not here, so I think he should be suspended."
So I'm in San Francisco wrestling, and one day a guy from the state athletic commission in California came and said to me, "You're Sammartino?"
I said, "Yeah."
He said, "You're not wrestling here, you're suspended."
I said, "Suspended for what?"
He said, "I don't know. It came from headquarters in New York. You're suspended." And it was a big mystery. In those days in the state athletic commission, there was a lot of corruption, and promoters literally bought them. This was an illegal suspension because by law–see, I didn't know all this stuff because I was a very naive young guy. The law at that time, as I found out years later, was that if you were to be suspended, before they could suspend you, they'd have to have a hearing with you, and you'd have to be found guilty or innocent. I never had any kind of a hearing. No one even notified me what I'd been suspended for, or by whom. Well, it got to be very brutal because everywhere I went, the suspension followed me to the point to where I couldn't work anyplace. I couldn't wrestle. So I went back to construction work, went back to Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, I had met Yukon Erik. He was one of the big guys of that era, and he was a big star in Canada. He was wrestling in Pittsburgh for a show. I went to see him, and he said to me, "I hear you're back in construction."
I said, "Yeah, they've got me blackballed all over the country."
He said, "Well, I'm good friends with Frank Tunney." Frank Tunney was the promoter in Ontario.
He asked me, "Would you like to go up there?"
I said, "Yeah, I want to get back in wrestling, but can I? They've got me blackballed all over."
He said, "Well, Canada's got nothing to do with the United States." So he contacted Frank Tunney, and then they called me and asked me if I would go to Toronto. So I flew to Toronto. Frank Tunney said that yeah, he would use me, because there were a lot of Italians in Toronto. He said that there were about 450,000 Italians. If I spoke the language, which of course I did, he said that he could use me. Well, after the WWWF got word I was there, McMahon contacted Tunney and badmouthed me very bad. He said that I was irresponsible, not dependable.
So Frank Tunney, thank God, he replied by saying, "Well, you know, my business is terrible. We're doing very poorly here. There's over 400,000 Italians. This boy's Italian, and he's very impressive." And I was 270 pounds at this time.
Tunney said, "If he can draw me a percentage of those Italians, he might turn things around for me. If on the other hand he turns out to be what you say he is, a troublemaker, this and that, then I'll tell hm to pack his bags and go back to Pittsburgh." So thank God that he was that kind of a man, because he gave me an opportunity. The Italian media covered me, they came to the gym to watch me lift, and I appeared on Italian radio, and the Italians started coming. Frank Tunney was happy. But more importantly, Frank Tunney got to see that I was not a troublemaker, that in fact I was a pretty good guy. So I stayed there in Toronto for the next year and a half. In the meantime, the New York market had gone dead. Buddy Rogers was the champion, the gates had just gone to hell, it was very poor. They started hearing the success that I was having in Canada and contacted Frank Tunney. Frank Tunney talked to me about it, and I said, "No, they treated me very, very badly. I don't want nothing to do with those people. As long as you want me here, I'd rather be here."
He said, "You're welcome to stay here as long as you'd like."
I was thrilled with that. After a while, I came home on a Sunday. Every two weeks I used to go home on a Sunday. I used to wrestle in Ontario on Saturday night, then I would catch a ride with Yukon Erik to Buffalo, because he lived in the Buffalo area. And he would take me to the bus station because there was a midnight bus from Buffalo to Pittsburgh. I would get home by about seven in the morning, and I'd spend that day there, and Monday I'd go back to Toronto. My son had just been born, when I got a message that Vince McMahon wanted to talk to me. My reply to him, which I guess was a little arrogant, was, "You tell Vince McMahon that if he wants to talk to me, he'll call me."
Sure as heck, two weeks later, Vince McMahon called and said to me, "Bruno, I hear you're doing OK in Canada. I'm happy for you."
I thought to myself, "Yeah, right."
He said, "But you really belong in New York. We've got to forget the past, bury the hatchet, and start fresh. If we start fresh, I think you can do well, you can do real well."
I said, "Well, there's only one way I would even consider that."
I didn't like Buddy Rogers, so I said to him, "The only way I'd come back in the WWWF is if you give me a match with Buddy Rogers in Madison Square Garden."
He said, "I don't think that would fly."
I said, "I'm happy where I'm at, I don't need to come to New York. Good talking to you, good luck, but I'm staying where I'm at." Things got worse in New York–I was getting my report from friends–it was really down. Philadelphia was nothing.
Two weeks later I got another call from McMahon. He said to me, "Look, Bruno, why can't you come back here? I'll put you on a weekly guarantee." In those days that didn't exist. He wanted to guarantee me $500 a week, which was pretty good money. I'm talking the beginning of 1963.
I said, "No, I'm averaging that over here. Why would I leave here to come back to New York?" Then he checked it up to $700 per week.
I said, "Look, I want to make it real clear, the only way I'll ever come to New York is if you put me in the ring with Buddy Rogers." Rogers was still the champion.
He said to me, "Rogers won't wrestle you."
To make a long story short, things got so bad in New York, he says, "OK, you'll get your match with Rogers." And then, of course, you've heard about the 40-second match. I hated Rogers, bad blood. I went in there to beat Buddy Rogers. I'll let it go at that.
Overnight, everything turned around. The Italians started following me. Not bragging, but the WWF became the number one organization. I had an enormous career, a long, long one. In 1971 I retired. I had held the [championship] belt for almost eight years, and I was sick of it because I was on the road seven days a week. I did that for years. Finally, I had had it. I was shot. I said, "I can't take this anymore. I'm really tired. My body aches." That's the time Ivan Koloff became the new champion. I started enjoying the business again after that because I was wrestling at my own pace. I was accepting matches from different promoters. I would go to St. Louis for Sam Muchnick, I went to Indianapolis for Dick the Bruiser, I went to Toronto. I'd go to Japan for two weeks, then come home and stay home for three weeks.
This was great, but it didn't last, because what happened was, Pedro Morales became the [WWWF] champion. Not blaming Pete, but after two years the business in New York really started going down again. And Vince McMahon started asking me if I would consider wrestling there again. I said, "I'll come in for a match now and then."
He said, "No, on a regular basis."
I said, "No, I don't think so."
He said to me, "Bruno, please, it's just for one year."
I went back, became the new champion, and the one year went to two, two went to three, and three went to four. And I started getting angry again. I said, "I don't want any part of that. I have to get out."
In the meantime I broke my back, wrestling Stan Hansen in 1976. I stayed out for a while, and then came back, and I told McMahon that I had to get out. So then I got out in 1977 when I lost the title to Billy Graham. And then, believe it or not, I again started enjoying the business, because I again was wrestling at my own pace. And I was doing well, I was making money. In fact, I was very lucky then because a lot of people had the impression that the [championship] belt made you a better attraction. I drew equally with or without the belt. In fact, if you remember, in 1980, when I was in my mid-40s, I wrestled Larry Zbyszko, and we set records everywhere. At Shea Stadium there were 44,000 people–every place we were selling out. Then 1981 came, and I felt that, at my age–I was 45 or so–I felt it was time to get out.
My son [David] was wrestling against my wishes. I never wanted my son to be a wrestler. I wanted him to go to college, and after college if he wanted to wrestle, he had my blessing, and I'd help him. Because I felt that if he was put through any of the stuff I'd been put through, maybe he might not want to deal with that, and he could have something to fall back on. That's why I so desperately wanted him to go to school. But he told me, with or without my help, he was going to go into wrestling. And he got other people to help him. Honestly, I can't take credit for him wrestling because I did not help him, absolutely not.
But by this time I also had to face up to reality in 1984. David had been wrestling for about four years or so at that time, and there was a question of now accepting that fact. When this guy [Vince McMahon, Jr.] offered me the chance to come back to New York for my input and color commentating, he also said, "We can keep the Sammartino legend going with David." I thought, since David is stubborn, if I can help him, why not?
When I went there, it was false promises. First of all, all [McMahon Jr.] wanted me for was because of my name and reputation with the WWF. I was never asked for any input about anything. In fact, what he wanted was for me to put on my tights again. I refused, but then he got to my kid and he said, "You know, if you can get your father to put on the tights, it'll be a big break for you."
My kid and I, unfortunately, never saw things the same way. He said, "Why can't you, Dad? You're in great shape, you're still running. You're not heavy, but so what, you don't have to be 275 pounds anymore." To not be accused later, if things didn't go well with my kid, I put on the tights. But I was very angry about it.
I saw the changes that were going on in the WWF, and I didn't like it. The ridiculous bizarreness, the gimmickery, the painted faces, stuff that I just didn't believe. Stuff that I didn't like. And I felt that if I don't believe or like this, I shouldn't be here. So I tried to get out, and David said, "You're going to blow it for me to get a chance." So I stayed, but then David became disenchanted, and he quit. And then I knew he had no place to go because by this time, it seemed like all the other territories had gone under. So I stayed in there because I knew David would want to come back, but he's a hot-head. I stayed, McMahon asked me to put on the tights, and I did, because I felt that if I didn't meet his wishes, then how could I bring David back. I felt very angry and frustrated because I felt I was being used to a certain degree, and I blamed McMahon and my kid, I blamed them both.
Finally, I reached the point where I said to myself, "I have to get out of this, because I'm embarrassed to be associated with this organization." I got out, I quit.
A lot of people accuse me of being critical of wrestling. I'm critical of what they're doing to wrestling, because I love wrestling. I've always loved wrestling. How do you think I feel, everywhere I go people look at me and say, "Bruno, boy, wrestling sure has changed," and they start laughing. It hurts, and I don't like that. Then I started seeing the drugs with that organization [the WWF], and it bothered me. It was horrible. And despite this garbage that they want to do testing, they knew it was going on before. The only reason why testing came is because they got such negative publicity.
See, the way it works is like this: if something terrible happens, and there's a lot of attention focused on that, then they get their heads together–"How can we handle this?" If the people don't respond to it, it's forgotten, like it never happened. That's why the whole thing is a sham. They started drug testing, which was a sham, because the only guy who gets to see the result is Vince McMahon. That tells you right there.
Now the steroid situation, we knew how serious it was, and it bothered me an awful lot. I was outspoken about it long before this stuff came out. And of course, I made a lot of enemies along the way. The wrestlers themselves don't appreciate it. But I feel that this is wrong, it shouldn't be. And the worst part about it is young wrestlers that come up, they feel compelled to get into it, the steroids. Otherwise they won't believe that they're going to have the opportunities to get the so-called break. McMahon doesn't have to say a thing, because it's all there in front of you. You're just told, "Well, you need to be more cut-up, you need to be bigger." How do you do that? Well, there's the magic pill, you know, the magic needle. It's the way it is, everybody knows. But of course that sickens me, what this business has become. Infested with drug abuse, and I'm not talking about steroids, I'm talking about other drugs. It's just a terrible situation. Wrestling was good to me, and I hoped to be good to it. I don't like what's happened to it, and I don't like what's ahead in the future.
I've been very outspoken about steroids, and I've been told that the WWF was looking for any means to get something on me. Which, they couldn't get anything on me, because anybody who knows Bruno knows that Bruno never did anything. So they were looking for something to discredit me, so then maybe they could shut me up, because I've been the guy that's been most vocal. They were planning to use my son, because my son David, unfortunately, fell into that trap, and he got into those drugs. Well, I had not been one to talk about the WWF only. When people asked me about my son, I've said my son never admitted it to me, but I knew. And I confronted him with it, because I knew he was on the stuff. I knew, I could tell. I could tell when anybody's on the stuff. And I said that I was very heartbroken and hurt by it. So I said it, but it was never printed.
So now I have this newspaper guy in Pittsburgh interviewing me, his name is Mark Madden, and I came open with that. I didn't bury my son, I merely suggested that my son fell into the trap of the young wrestlers who want to make it, and they feel that unless you get on the juice and get the Superman look, there's no chance. And even though I preached so strongly against that stuff, my son went against my wishes and joined that group, and he was on it too. So it was printed in the paper. The reason why I did that was, number one, because I did want to be truthful, and not just accuse others, when in fact someone in my own family was on it.
A lot of people who just watch TV, they have the impression that wrestling is bigger than ever, it's thriving. But if you follow the gates, the gates are terrible. My town, Pittsburgh, we used to run every single month, sometimes every three weeks. They shut down for three years because it was so bad. Now they've reopened, they run maybe three shows a year. And what a big attraction [Hulk] Hogan is! To me an attraction is somebody who fills those seats in the arena. I keep hearing about what an enormous attraction this guy is, and I see Madison Square Garden with five or six thousand people. He's the head liner? What would he do if he had to be like me, be in these clubs every single month, you're in and you're out, you're in and you're out. He only appears there maybe three times a year. If people saw him with his seven-minute routine every single month....
The only thing I'm hoping for is when, people like McMahon, it's no longer profitable for him to stay here, he'll get out. And when he gets out, I'm hoping, and maybe it's wishful thinking, but I'm hoping some wrestling-minded people will come back into the scene and perhaps start back from basics, get some good-looking athletes, get away from the steroid crap and painted faces. Get people who can really impress people with their skills in the ring, and start back with territories. Maybe someone will start in California, somebody else in the Northeast, somebody else in the Midwest. Like it used to be. And I see that happening one day, I really do. And I think that will be the salvation of wrestling.