Monday, February 04, 2013

#519. Bruno Sammartino in the WWE Hall of Fame

For wrestling fans, the biggest news that will happen all year was just delivered.  Bruno Sammartino will be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.

For those who have no idea why this is significant, let me make a few concise bullet points:

  • Sammartino was "the man" in WWE prior to Hulk Hogan.  He was champion from 1963 to 1971 (really!) and again from 1973-1977 (really!).
  • He became increasingly bitter and alienated from the company with the changes made during the Hogan and Steve Austin eras.
Now, prior to the Hogan era, WWE was a regional promotion just like every wrestling promotion at the time, meaning that companies only competed within specific regions.  WWE's region was New York, which was the reason why Madison Square Garden became known as wrestling's mecca, and mostly because Sammartino headlined so many successful cards there.  As you can tell from how long he was champion, Bruno was the centerpiece of the company for many years.  

By the dawn of the WrestleMania era, Sammartino was retired from active competition, although his son David competed at the first one in 1985.  Bruno himself participated in a battle royal at WrestleMania II, which was won by Andre the Giant.

I've had a pretty tenuous relationship as far as being a fan of Sammartino over the years.  I've had a hard time respecting his position on modern wrestling, although certainly I no doubt have a far different perspective, and my actual experience of his career was originally about as limited as you can get.  The more I saw of him, though, the easier it became to admire his legacy.  By necessity, though, Sammartino's legacy has always been just out of focus in WWE's retrospectives, because he himself had tried so hard to reject what brought him national fame.

Famously in 2010, Bret Hart reconciled with WWE and Shawn Michaels, following a similar estrangement that began with the infamous "Montreal Screwjob" at Survivor Series in 1997.  No one thought it would ever happen, even though several years prior he'd cooperated enough to at least put together a DVD retrospective.  I was intimately familiar with Hart's career, actively watching during his peak period.  A more recent surprise was Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's comeback starting in 2011.  He hadn't been active in wrestling since 2004, transitioning to a movie career starting in 2001.  No one ever expected that to happen, either.

Bruno was never comfortable with the cartoonish Hogan or the irreverent Austin.  WWE has become more and more kid-friendly in recent years, and apparently someone finally convinced the "Living Legend" to have another look.  He now sees that the product is respectable again, at least as far as he's concerned.  

Selfishly, I hope this also means a career retrospective DVD compilation.  Even if the matches aren't filmed to the quality expected by modern fans, it will still be a huge opportunity to reclaim history.  Wrestling is an art.  Sammartino favored a strongman style, but he was also quick on his feet, in ways that you can only appreciate by seeing him in action.

The original Italian sensation, Bruno will always loom large over wrestling.  I'm glad and relieved and shocked and thrilled that he's finally come to an agreement with the company he helped establish fifty years ago, putting aside the disagreements of the past.  

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