After I graduated from college in 1991, I was awarded Columbia’s Henry Evans Traveling Fellowship, which allowed me to travel around the United States and interview people in the professional wrestling business. I collected eighteen interviews, which will be now be released twice a month in the PWSA Ringside blog series “Before Shoot Interviews.”
In part 2 of this 1991 interview with Bruno Sammartino, Sammartino reflects on the early years of his professional wrestling career, up to his momentous match with Buddy Rogers in 1963.
SAMMARTINO: 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 him 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.
Thoughts from 2022: Manipulative behavior by WWWF/WWF owners does not seem to be unusual, whether it was Bruno Sammartino’s blackballing in the 1962 or the Montreal screwjob of 1997. Frank Tunney’s nephew, Jack Tunney, would serve as the WWF figurehead president from 1984 to 1995.