In part 3 of this 1991 interview with Bruno Sammartino, Sammartino describes the stress of his long-term WWWF championship runs and his concerns about steroid use among professional wrestlers.
SAMMARTINO: 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 champion. Not blaming Pete, but after two years the business in New York [business] 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 gimmickry, 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 don’t believe that they are 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. When people asked me about my son, I 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 headliner? What would he do if he had to be like me, be in these arenas 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 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.
Thoughts from 2022: I wonder what Bruno would have thought about AEW, a promotion that looks to regional territories such as Mid-South for inspiration and puts a premium on in-ring athleticism for the most part. You can find a painted face or two in AEW, but overall I think Bruno might be a bit of a fan.