Collier: Bruno Sammartino gives WWE Hall of Fame a touch of credibility
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One day more than a month ago, during another earnest reading of One of America's Great Newspapers, a creature from the depths of this very section smacked me about the face and head with 100 unanswered questions, at least.
This is only about the first three.
Bruno Sammartino, it said, would be inducted into the World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Fame in a ceremony April 6 at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Question 1: Wait, there's a WWE Hall of Fame?
Answer to Question 1: Well, no, there isn't, at least not in the brick-and-mortar sense, but there's a list of inductees going back about 20 years.
Question 2: And these inductees do not include Bruno Sammartino?
Answer to Question 2: That is correct, but they do include Pete Rose, Mike Tyson, Bob Uecker and William Refrigerator Perry.
Question 3: Why would anyone take seriously -- even in the too often sordid and demonstrable warped context of professional wrestling -- a wrestling hall of fame without Bruno Sammartino?
Answer to Question 3: They wouldn't. Are you nuts?
But that's basically where the good news started, with the WWE's evident discomfort about the Hall of Fame void left by Bruno Sammartino, its longest reigning champion and a singular attraction compelling enough to have sold out the Garden, depending on the particular analysis, roughly 200 times.
So Bruno gets a call from Triple H, aka the WWE's Paul Levesque, whose ring personage was Connecticut blueblood Hunter Hearst Helmsley.
"Triple H has taken over in many areas, assuming responsibility," Bruno was telling me in the North Hills office of his attorney (Marty Lazzaro, 1-800-I-GOT-HIT, Honest to God). "He contacted me and said 'Bruno, I'd just like to open a conversation with you. We'd love for you to come into the Hall of Fame.' He was very honest with me. I was impressed with the guy. He said, 'Bruno until we get you to come in here people won't look at this as a legitimate Hall of Fame.'
But this was going to take more than pretty nice.
Bruno's absence from the WWE HOF wasn't so much an oversight as a favor, and, for most of 20 years, Bruno had been perfectly clear that his policy was, essentially, don't do me any favors.
You figure Bruno needed this?
There's no brick and mortar People Hall of Fame, either, but if there were, I know who'd be standing in the front hall.
Sammartino's life story by itself virtually demands to be immortalized in respect, which is why a locally produced documentary is expected to be ready for his induction weekend. Hidden from the Nazis by his mother in the remote mountains of Italy after the fall of Mussolini, he barely escaped death from disease at age 8, barely escaped being shot in a public square, barely escaped being starved to death, and, for all its cartoonish implications, barely escaped being killed by an orangutan in a carnival stunt just before the launch of his pro wrestling career.
But after he had made cultural institutions of Studio Wrestling and then professional wrestling, Bruno famously and publicly rebuked a business that had begun to revel in its own sleaze.
"I completely shut myself off from it," Bruno said. "I never watched it on TV. It wasn't just the drugs, the steroids. It was clear to me that Vince McMahon Jr. wasn't interested in wrestling. He was interested in what he called entertainment. So you'd have these beautiful girls and then you'd have some nudity. Then the vulgarity. The profanity. I watched this guy one time he was supposed to be the world champion and he had a beer in each hand, and they were bleeping out everything he said on TV, and then the camera would show the kids watching in the arena. And I think why do parents expose their children to this. And I felt just as bad for the TV stations because what is their responsibility in this. I thought they were all guilty of everything."
What enabled Triple H to drag Bruno's wrestling interest back from the grave was the WWE's recent association with Dr. Joseph Maroon, a renowned UPMC neurosurgeon and the Steelers neurosurgeon since 1981, who just happened to have surgically repaired Bruno's back three times.
"My involvement really started with them in 2007 or 2008, when they were really having problems with concussions," Dr. Maroon was telling me Wednesday. "They reached out to us, and we helped them set up a program. We instituted the ImPACT tests, and they made a whole lot of suggested changes. Subsequently, they asked me to be involved with their wellness program, which also involves drug-testing.
"There's very strict enforcement with the institution of a three-strikes-and-your-out policy. First violation, you lose your pay for a month. Second, two months. A third, and you're fired. We ended up firing a good number of wrestlers."
Umm, didn't they used to hire people for taking drugs? This might be one of those paradigm shifts I keep hearing about.
"So Bruno talked to me about it," Dr. Maroon said, "and I told him about the different programs we're setting up, psychological services, nutrition, and they've been very welcoming. I know they'd asked him to be in the Hall of Fame before and he didn't because of the drugs and the different things, he didn't want to be part of it. That's Bruno, the ultimate man of integrity."
Bruno still cares deeply about this. He's 77. He is convinced that Triple H is taking WWE in a more palatable direction. Fewer injectables, fewer sexual story lines, less vulgarity, less profanity, less of everything that drove him crazy.
And in three weeks or so, at least the Hall of Fame will have Sammartino in it. That will seem a lot less crazy, too.
First Published March 14, 2013 12:00 am