Joe Babinsack looks at what happened leading to Sammartino's first title win 50 years ago

Fifty years ago on May 17th, the “Age of Sammartino” began.
Over the next two decades, Bruno Sammartino would hold the WWWF Heavyweight Championship for nearly 12 years, headlined around the globe with or without that belt, and dominated the professional wrestling scene like few others in history.
The story surrounding his return to New York, after a few years in the Canadian promotions is the stuff of legend. It really deserves a full telling and I hope to have that opportunity. Until then, let’s review some of the basics:
To begin with, Bruno was “blackballed” from professional wrestling because he missed a show in Baltimore, when he had given notice and was leaving the WWWF. There’s a lot more to this part of the story, and it is an example of promoters doing things to cause problems, in this case double-booking a wrestler to cause problems with the State Athletic Commissions.
Was Bruno a trouble-maker?
Or was he just concerned with his career and saw the writing on the wall when Buddy Rogers and his crew came into the New York Territory?
Well, reasonable minds can disagree.
For a long time, Bruno was traveling the country and having problems staying in any territory, as the Commissions had arrangements by which a wrestler suspended in one State would be barred from others. The frustrations of not working his profession and trying to raise a family forced Bruno to quit and return to Pittsburgh to work construction.
Along came Yukon Eric, who worked for Frank Tunney in Toronto.
Eric (the man who lost an ear and made Killer Kowalski much more famous, and who tragically took his own life a few years later) convinced Bruno to give wrestling another shot, and Frank Tunney (not to be confused with Jack, the figurehead of the WWF in the 1980’s) gave Bruno that opportunity that launched his career.
Sure, 400,000 Italians in and around Toronto helped, but Bruno sought an opportunity, and ran with it.
Just like he did with Haystacks Calhoun and just as he was main-eventing Madison Square Garden before running afoul of promoters and their promises in New York, Bruno seized the chance and self-promoted himself and became a name across Canada.
Even in those places where Italians didn’t dominate the demographics, as he would in later days in Baltimore and Washington DC and Japan. (Yeah, Australia had a lot of Italians).
What’s fascinating to me is that Bruno came into Toronto doing the “Strong Man” gimmick – tearing up phone books, bending bars, displaying feats of strength, but he grew into a Championship level wrestler by expanding his repertoire and learning how to work with different styles.
Bruno has always railed against the top guys who did the same match every night, even his one time tag partner Antonio Rocca. He’s railed against others, but I’m not intending to stir that up.
It was in Toronto that Bruno moved away from Strength and worked as a Wrestler (he had the opportunity to get a scholarship at Pitt after working out with the Wrestling Team, but for an immigrant five years after coming to America, he was not confident about the academics). He would also incorporate drop-kicks and dabbled with some of the “high spots”, but these aren’t exactly the same as we’d call them today.
The point is, Bruno learned how to work with guys with different styles. He knew that working the same sort of match, as a “Strong Man”, would limit his ability to be a drawing power. (As he’s told me, there’s no way you last 8 straight years at the same major arena, often every 3 weeks, doing the same thing each time.)
So, while Canada is enjoying the Italian Superman while he is becoming the Italian Champion, New York is seeing the end result of Buddy Rogers and his crew’s impact on yet one more promotion (remember, he drove Bruno out of the promotion).
There’s a lot to be said about Buddy Rogers, and let me be clear that Bruno has never, ever said anything about Buddy’s talent, drawing ability or looks. But Buddy’s reputation as someone who wasn’t to be trusted in the ring was legendary (especially in terms of hurting guys).
There are those who question the storyline, but the realities are this:
Bruno Sammartino was on the outs with the New York Office for about two years.
Buddy Rogers was the Champion, and won the Belt in that mythical Tournament just three weeks earlier.
Why did Vincent James McMahon and Toots Mondt want Bruno to replace Buddy?
There’s an ongoing question as to Buddy’s health, but on one side you have Bruno and Tim Woods and Bruno’s reputation. On the other side you have Buddy Rogers and his New Jersey Banquet declaration and his talks with a lot of respectable journalists (plus Wikipedia) and his reputation.
I know who I believe, but yeah, I wasn’t there.
The interesting things about the return or Bruno Sammartino include the negotiations between Bruno and the soon to be called WWWF. Those lasted for months. If we think about the time frame, we have to wonder if those negotiations started before or after the infamous “easy way or hard way” match where Lou Thesz defeats Buddy Rogers for the NWA Heavyweight Title.
(That same title that would be offered to Bruno a few years later, knowing that he would be defending it ½ the time in the WWWF and half the time in the NWA).
Which makes me wonder about timing and the real reason the NWA had to get that belt away from Rogers….
But there’s another side to the story, and that involves what it took to get Buddy in the ring, and how things went down, and while Bruno adamantly says “it was not a shoot”, there’s a fascinating blend of reality and working and what really happened that would surprise a lot of people on a lot of levels.
But that’s not a story to tell right now….
Bruno’s defeat of Buddy Rogers in 48 seconds, setting aside the controversies and the working shoes is one that put an exclamation point on the old promotion and the new WWWF promotion and helped to launch a Champion that would dominate for the next two decades, and was one of the foundations for an unprecedented eight year run.
Unlike so many other Champions, Bruno really did control his own destiny, all he needed was opportunity.
His talent, charisma and understanding of the artform, plus the opportunity and experience as a headliner in Toronto, set him up to be able to lift the New York Office on his back and establish himself as one of the all-time greats, given that next opportunity that happened on May 17th, 1963.

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