When it comes to wrestling legends, perhaps no one is a bigger legend (literally and figuratively speaking) than Bruno Sammartino. Sammartino has the longest title reign in WWE history, having held the World Wide Wrestling Federation Championship for more than seven years in the '60s and '70s (regaining it for another four-year reign in 1973). Now in his 70s, Sammartino was arguably the biggest wrestling star of the pre-WrestleMania era, though he did take part in the first two WrestleManias. Appearing as the keynote speaker at the WrestleReunion fan fest Sun., April 3, this living legend makes his last appearance outside of his hometown of Pittsburgh just hours before WrestleMania XXVII begins.
Atlanta's always been a big wrestling town, but you mostly competed in the Northeast. Did you have many matches here in Atlanta?
Yeah, I wrestled at the Omni and other places. But the problem was that we had so many big clubs — not just Madison Square Garden, but the Boston Garden, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh — they all had their arenas that held 18,000-20,000 people. So it left little room for me, back at the time when I was the top guy, to appear anywhere else. I would go to Atlanta, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Texas for shots, but only for just a couple of shots because they wouldn't let me go for too long because we always had some of our major clubs running. And they wanted me to be there because that was my main headquarters.
[Professor] Tanaka was the one big match I remember [in Atlanta] because we sold it out, so that was a pretty big deal.
Wrestling has obviously changed quite a bit since you were active. Do you think today's fans have the same emotional investment in what goes on in the ring as the fans that watched you wrestle for so many years?
No, I don't think so. In my day and before me, of course, the arena was the big thing and we did draw big crowds. It was the norm to sell out Madison Square Garden or the Boston Garden or the Capital Centre in Washington. I wrestled at Shea Stadium three or four different times, the last time just before I retired against Larry Zbyszko, we drew 44,000 people. Today it's mostly a TV show. They do it in arenas, but as far as going to the same arena like we did month after month, for them it doesn't work anymore because it has changed so much and people watch it on TV on a regular basis.
There are rumors that you have refused to accept WWE's invitation to be inducted into its Hall of Fame. Is that true?
That's very true for a number of reasons. First of all, when they started all this garbage with the nudity and these girls always having accidents where a bra will fall off or whatever, then the vulgarity and the Kiss My Butt Club and the profanity that they use and stuff like that, I find all that appalling and I was very, very outspoken. Then the drug use, of course, was the most appalling for me. So what kind of a person would I be to accept that ridiculous Hall of Fame after being as outspoken as I was? I think it would be very hypocritical on my part and I would never accept that because I don't believe in it.
Do you think there's anything that might ever change your mind about that?
I guess one should never say never, but I would have to see an awful lot of change before I would even think of it. A lot more than what I'm seeing now.
Is it true that your first match was against an orangutan?
I did wrestle an orangutan at a carnival, but I wouldn't consider it one of my first matches. That's when I was working construction and one of the people at the job came to me and said, "Bruno, how would you like to make $25 for five minutes?" I was an apprentice carpenter making $2 an hour, so $25 for five minutes, I said, "Yeah! I'll do that." I was about 19 years old. I had gotten out of high school and had a chance to go to college on a wrestling scholarship, but I didn't do it because I didn't believe I could cut it academically. Coming from Europe, my English wasn't great and I didn't exactly breeze through high school. So I just didn't have the confidence that I could do it academically in college. So I chose to learn a trade because my father new a contractor who could get me in the union. So this thing came about while I was working construction, but that was a few years before I ever got into professional wrestling. I had had a lot of matches in amateur wrestling, so I don't know if that would be considered one of my first matches. It was just a bizarre, ridiculous thing that I shouldn't have done and, believe me, when it was over I wished I hadn't done it because I certainly got the worst of that one.