Pride, which often goeth before a fall, hath in the case of Bruno Sammartino stuck around.
If a man is to be weighed by his comportment within said chosen profession, then Sammartino, formerly the Strongest Man in the World, and for the past 20 years the most familiar name in professional wrestling, offers 255 pounds of proof of the value of a personal code.
He is a soft-spoken, articulate man whose English is almost perfect. A gentleman a connoisseur of opera, though the immediate evidence belies it. His 6-foot frame, slimmed down from the earlier fighting weight of 285, has been broken and twisted by fate, war, elevator shafts and the ministrations of one Eric the Red, a 6-foot-8 Swede who broke Bruno's neck four years ago in a New York ring. His nose is flattened, his ears are cauliflowered, and he moves now with the rolling, clanking gait of a Sherman tank that has just crossed Africa.
He is 44, and in the imperfect world of pro wrestling, where goons bump noggins in burlesque choreographies of violence, he has always wrestled according to his code: "scientific," not "rule-breaker." He has never worn a mask, he has publicly sorrowed over the gimmicks of his trade, and he says he has never taken a fall. Twelve times he was World Wrestling Federation champion.
Bruno Cools Karl With Crabhold; Bruno Flips Ivan to Retain Belt; Bruno Staples Gorilla In Flip , the headlines read.
He is semi-retired now. Were it not for Larry Zbyszko, described in contemporary wrestling literature as his "deranged former pupil," he would be simply retired.
On Saturday night, however, at the Capital Center, Bruno Sammartino will takes on Larry Zbyszko for the second time in five months. The match will be "lumberjack" style meaning that eight fellow practitioners of the sweaty science will encircle the ring in order to toss back either contestant should he seek escape into other than unconsciousness or submission. There will be no referee, no time limit, no holds barred, no count-outs, no disqualifications, no escape.
"Promoters," Sammartino says quietly, shaking his head. "Such vultures. Always trying to make it look like murder is going to be committed. What is at stake is pride."
Professional wrestling is fixed. Everybody knows it is fixed.
Sammartino's eyes, which are ordinarily lit not with flame but with a gentle inquisitiveness, still narrow a bit at the old presumption.
"Years ago," he explains, "I would have been very offended by that question. However I would be a fool to tell you that there was no fixing. How do I know? Promoters are promoters. But I honestly feel in my heart that there was never a need to do that in my case."
"You ask if wrestling is for real -- well, I think my own body answers that question. I have broken more bones than any of the others -- my neck, collarbone, both arms, wrists, knuckles, all of my ribs, my back. A hairline fracture of the kneecap. My job has been wired and rewired. It's incredible to think people would fake that.
"The cauliflower ears are really the worst. There is nothing, no broken bone, no busted nose, as painful. Now you see these ears of mine, they are hard little ears, but when it first happens they are swollen with blood. Even walking down the street, the breeze that passes causes excruciating pain.
"And yet I have been asked, 'Did you have surgery to make your ears look like that?'" Sammartino makes a face. "People ask the most doggonna questions.
"Four years ago I almost died. I was wrestling the big Swede, he weighs 340, and he threw me down head first so hard I couldn't twist away. That broke the neck. They said I would never wrestle again. But I came back. I didn't want it said that some Swede could end my career."
Sammartino, who explains and corrects wrestling history with the stylized detachment of Lord Mountbatten recalling Burma, says the most colorful pro wrestlers have been genuinely intemperate fellows. To get in the ring with them is to earn your money.
"No, Killer Kowalski did not bite off Yukon Eric's ear. He actually knocked it off, with a knee-drop. It was cauliflower anyway. Only the lobe was left after that. Eric was very embarrassed, and had to let his hair grow long.
"There was a fellow named Lord Leslie Carlton. Wore a doggonna monocle all the time. A specialist in submission wrestling, which means he got you in a special lock where you submitted. A pretty sadistic guy. There was reason to be afraid of him."
The outcome -- the ending -- of pro wrestling matches, even the fans would agree, is perhaps less important than in, say, the Olympic 100-yard dash. But Sammartino says the conclusions are real, particularly if one man is pinned, or there is a "submission."
"In a championship match you move at a tremendous pace. I always excelled because of my stamina. When you see guys thrown out of the ring, maybe they like it because it gives them a little breather. But many of my matches have gone for more than an hour. In Tokyo, against the sumo wrestlers, we went two hours for one fall. I've had 100 bouts of more than an hour. People submit honestly, or they get pinned. What else can you do when you can no longer move?"
Sammartino was born in the Abruzzi region of Italy is 1936. In 1944 the Germans arrived in his village.
"We had bad luck," he says. "They were SS troops. Extremely mean. The entire village fled to the mountains, and we lived there for eight months. It was winter, and there was no food. We ate the snow. Many of the old people passed from starvation. In the spring, we ate dandelions.
"When the war ended in 1945, we came back to the town. Our house was rubble, we moved into the cellar. I was very sick with pneumonia, but there was no medicine. My mother put leeches on my body to draw away the bad blood. It was a miracle that I survived. Even when I was 15, I still weighed only 80 pounds. All this time, since 1939, my father had been stuck in America, and we were trying to join him there. He finially heard that we were all right. But he also heard that his brother, and his brother's wife, and their 13 children, had all died.
The tiny Abruzzian town had been bombed flat, but still had one famous resident. He was Georgio Battista, winner of the gold medal in Greco-Roman wrestling in the Olympics of 1936. "In a mat in his basement, Battista taught me to wrestle," Sammartino says. "I loved it, and I built myself up. Finally I was not only healthy but very strong. We emigrated to Pittsburgh in 1953. We had tried several times before that to come to American, but each time I failed the physical."
In Pittsburgh, he pinned his hopes on the Olympic Games of 1960. In 1959 he had set a world weight-lifting record by bench-pressing 565 pounds, and had a job as a carpenter's apprentice building a hotel in town. Then he fell down an elevator shaft on the construction site, breaking his collarbone, wrist and elbows.
"So I just shot for the 1964 Olympics. But I was married, with a son now. I had won first place in the World's Strongest Men Competition, and about that time the Pittsburgh Steelers invited me to become a guard. I love football, but the pay was somewhere around $8,500, and I hated to turn pro for that. At the same time, some wrestling promoters offered a $35,000 contract. Hey, what did I know? I was a naive kid. But they saw me as a valuable ethnic.
"My first match at Madison Square Garden sold out, too. Always after that I was introduced as Bruno Sammartino of Abruzzi, Italy. I said, 'Hey why not Pittsburgh?' They said, 'No, kid, people want to see the Italian wrestle.'"
So the Italian wrestled. And he won. He won because he was strong, and had great pride. He was a good guy of course. He was expected to win.
"I complained about the gimmicks," Sammartino says. "All the nonsense and garbage. After a while I just said I would not wrestle with the guys wearing masks, or guys that had some get-up on. It was demeaning. I refuse to go onto the mat against a Christmas tree."
There was a lot of money coming in, though. And a lot of televiosn exposure, as pro wrestling discovered an unusual way to pull itself up by its bootstraps.
"See, what happens is wrestling pays TV stations to put on our tapes. The stations even get to keep the ad money they sell. What happens is, a TV wrestling show has a lot of promotion for upcoming bouts in arenas. That makes attendance good. And that's why we're on TV. The fact is, though, that TV treats us lousy. We make a lot of money, but we're the wrong image. How can it be the wrong image if the audiences are so big?"
In fact, pro wrestling, whatever its reputation, has never been healthier, the promoters insist. Last week in New York, 40,000 fans attended a card at Shea Stadium which grossed $531,000 for the promoters.
"The impressive thing was that the Yankees and the Orioles were playing that same day, and so were the Giants and the Steelers, over in the Meadowlands," said Vince McMahon, who is usually described as a pro wrestling "kingpin." "When we figured it out, we saw that we had far outgrossed both of those sports in New York that day."
Bruno Sammartino does not consider himself a violent man.He would, in fact, rather talk about opera.
The very memory of Mario del Monaco, singing his entering phrase in Verdi's "Otello" ("Esultate ") makes him smile and lean forward, acknowledging the topic as he seldom does wrestling.
"Yes, I guess my favorites are 'La Boheme' and 'Otello' -- and all the opera of Verdi. The French opera I also like very much, though I do not know it as well. The German? Wagner is harsh to my ear, but perhaps I could acquire a taste.
"I know that if I had had the chance, I would have become a singer. But I must sing only in the shower because I have a terrible, terrible voice. Not a good voice at all."
Sammartino says he has visited opera houses all around the world, and is most puzzled by the spectacular Sydney, Australia, Opera House, with its sail-like skyline at water's edge."The acoustics were not good at first," he says, "but I understand they are improved now. The most puzzling, through, was the parking. They forgot to allow for the doggonna cars. There's no place to park."
When the opportunity arose for a strongman to participate in the operatic art, Sammartino was delighted to be of service.
"Franco Corelli is my favorite tenor, although of course there's Lanza and Bjorling and De Stefano, too. But what happened was, just before Franco was to perform in New York, somebody threatened to break both his legs. So he called me up. Would I be his bodyguard, he asked me.
"I could tell Franco was pretty scared, and since I didn't know how serious it was, I brought two of my friends with me. I went to his apartment and watched him while he got dressed. Then I sat nearby during the performance, then took him home afterwards. Nothing happened, but I was honored."
Pride, honor, opera and the Pittsburgh of the Steelers. Loyalty and toughness and the bounds of friendship. Marraige and children and may the next generation be architects. And the strange case of Larry Zbysko, also of Pittsburgh, whom Sammartino faces Saturday in Largo.
"When Larry was a little boy, he idolized me. I taught him to wrestle on my front lawn. Then his mother said the boy must go to college, He begged to be allowed to wrestle instead, but I said, go to college first, than I will give you a start.
"After college -- he got a wrestling scholarship to Penn State -- he was true to his word, and I got him matches. Vancouver for six months. Then the Carolinas for six months. He could learn. Then Japan, Europe. The kid had such dogggonna talent.
"What happens, he gets married. I said, no. The traveling is too hard on a marriage. So at age 23, he's married, then divorced. He gets despondent, starts living a little high. Buy a wild motorcylce. This is my protege, doing this."
"Finally it comes out that he believes I am keeping him down. It's me that he wants to wrestle. He says -- to my face -- I'm not as young as I used to be. No, I said. So that was the falling out.
"Then the fans write in, because Larry zbyszko's making so much noise. So in Allentown Pa., we had a match and he struck me with a chair, causing 12 stiches in my forehead. He broke the rules.I decided my punishment would be this: that never again would I wrestle him.
"Then the vultures come. The promoters. Frankly, they said it was worth a lot of money, and now we fight again. In April, we drew 15,000 to the Capital Centre, which I won when he was disqualifed. That is the big draw this Saturday night."
The Zbyszko-sammartino match is a free-for-all in which both men will be thrown back into the ring until one of them gives up or is pinned. It is being billed as the biggest match ever, which Bruno Sammartino does not mind, even though there is no championship of any description at stake.
"The only thing I really mind," Sammartino says reflectively, "is when they say we're going to kill each other. I'm not killing nobody. It's not necessary to say that stuff. I don't like it when they say things that aren't really true."
He says he is genuinely put off by the "deranged" behavior of his former pupil. But he is not confused about why Zbysko acts as he does.
"A good wrestler, why he can make from $150,000 a year on up. I have done it. Now Larry wants to do it, too."