September 10, 2005
Graham Cawthon

Bruno Sammartino: Wrestling's Living Legend (1986)

In the days before Hulkamania (B.H. for the more religious), wrestling not only existed, it flourished. No, it didn’t air every week on network television. However, if you were to visit Miami, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Toronto, Greensboro, St. Louis, or New York City, the venue would be packed week after week and month after month by the likes of Jack Brisco … Verne Gagne … Pedro Morales … Andre the Giant … Ric Flair … Superstar Billy Graham … Dusty Rhodes … Bobo Brazil … Nick Bockwinkel … Terry & Dory Funk Jr. … Harley Race … Chief Jay Strongbow … Ole & Gene Anderson … and the Sheik.

One of the most popular and profitable names during the 1960s and 70s was that of Bruno Sammartino. Deemed ‘the Living Legend’, Sammartino drew a loyal, diehard audience to all the major cities within the McMahon-controlled northeast territory, whether it be to the Boston Garden, the Philadelphia Spectrum, or Madison Square Garden. Personifying heart and courage inside the squared circle, the crowd did not see the rugged Italian-American as merely a wrestler playing the role of ‘good guy’; they saw him as a hero and role model.

Following one of his many fallings out with the McMahon family, Bruno returned to the WWF in 1984 to co-host Championship Wrestling. Two years later, after the company had broken away from its regional boundaries and began a national campaign, Sammartino became one of the first to receive his own personality profile videotape from Coliseum Home Video.

Wrestling’s Living Legend: Bruno Sammartino

We begin with the classic Coliseum Video intro and theme music. Maybe I’m imagining things but I think this version has a few clips that don’t appear in the other openings (Uncle Elmer hitting a splash in the corner, for instance).

We’re taken to Mean Gene Okerlund at ‘Video Control’ who introduces us to Sammartino. Gene then runs down the opponents who are featured on the video as Bruno listens.

October 25, 1976; Madison Square Garden
Bruno Sammartino © vs. Nikolai Volkoff

We’re joined in progress. Vince Jr. is on commentary. This bout, as with most of the matches on the video, is clipped but not heavily so.

This is a match based purely on power as the two use tests of strength to attempt pinfalls, in-between kicks, punches, and choking. By today’s standards, it’s not a wrestling classic but it does show that Volkoff could do much more than what we saw from him 10 years later. There’s no finesse here as the two just kick, punch, and stomp each other in and around the ring. Bruno eventually reverses an Irish whip, sending Volkoff into the corner, and uses a roll up for the 1-2-3 at 18:34.

March 28, 1977; Madison Square Garden
Bruno Sammartino © vs. Baron Von Raschke

We see Freddie Blassie escort the challenger to the ring before Von Raschke jumps Sammartino from behind to begin the bout. Because the claw was as feared in the 70s as the ankle lock and Crippler Crossface are today, Bruno avoids the hold at all costs, utilizing arm drags and take downs to curb the German’s momentum.

Late in the bout, Bruno begins boxing his dazed opponent but the challenger places his foot on the rope to avoid being pinned. Moments later, the champion knocks his foe to the floor but Von Raschke fights back by tying Bruno’s foot in the ropes, then bringing a chair into the ring and assaulting him with it until Tony Garea, future Sammartino rival Larry Zbyzsko, and another babyface came out for the save. The champion gets the DQ victory at 17:35. Several weeks following this battle, Superstar Billy Graham would take Bruno’s title at the Baltimore Civic Center.

August 29, 1977; Madison Square Garden
Bruno Sammartino vs. Ken Patera (Texas Death Match)

In voice-over commentary, Bruno puts the match over as being a great battle of strength and scientific skills. Again, Vince is on commentary.

Bruno punishes Patera from all four corners of the ring but Patera fights back and lands an obvious low blow, with Vince saying Patera was reaching for Bruno’s abs but was dazed and shouldn’t be held responsible for his actions as a result. Yep, you can quote him on that one.

With momentum on his side, Patera throws Sammartino into the corner, hits a big bodyslam, and then gives a Kurt Angle-like celebratory yell. Bruno fights back and pummels Patera into the corner before throwing him into the opposite corner. Moments later, Patera applies the dreaded full nelson from the apron, with Bruno dragging him into the ring moments later with the hold still applied. In an act of total desperation, Sammartino maneuvers himself near the corner and kicks off the top rope, falling backwards onto his foe. The referee counts to 3 and Bruno is declared the victor at 12:13.

Very smart finish that would be used in many a Bret Hart match two decades later. Though in defeat, Patera and his finisher still looked strong.

April 29, 1974; Madison Square Garden
Bruno Sammartino © vs. Killer Kowalski

Bruno notes that he once had a match with Kowalski that went 90 minutes. I feel sorry for that crowd. There went $5 that they’ll never see again.

This battle probably has the most heat of any so far. A lot more brutal and unrefined than the previous matches. It’s basically just punches, kicks, stomps, biting, forearms, ramming into the post, etc. but, as with every Bruno match, the crowd is very much into it. And that’s what counts.

Bruno is eventually cut open in the corner following a series of forearm blows. The champion continues to take a beating but starts to shake and makes his own Hulk Hogan comeback, pounding and assaulting Kowalski from all four corners as the crowd goes nuts.

The bell rings at 24:15, with the two still brawling in the ring, and it takes a host of other wrestlers to separate the combatants. The match is ruled a draw. Kowalski goes backstage as Chief Jay Strongbow, Arnold Skaaland, Pedro Morales, and an Asian wrestler I’m not sure of congratulate the champion.

We’re back to Video Control as Okerlund notes Sammartino headlined MSG 211 times. A photograph is shown of Bruno celebrating his world title win over Buddy Rogers before Sammartino talks about how he broke into weight training and amateur wrestling. As he mentions his weightlifting accomplishments, a photograph is shown of him slamming the 620lb Haystacks Calhoun. Gene asks Bruno about the Shea Stadium battle against Pedro Morales, with Bruno stating it was the greatest scientific battle he ever had, despite the horrible weather conditions. I think if you ask anyone aside from Bruno about the match, George Steele included, they’ll tell you it sucked.

Gene asks Bruno to compare the wrestlers of today (1986) to those of yesterday. Bruno puts over Don Leo Jonathan and Bill Miller as two giants of his day that could wrestle as well. He then puts down the ‘screaming’ aspect of today’s wrestling, stating he never went out and threatened to break someone’s leg. Sammartino states that he’s financially secure enough not to have to step back into the ring but he does so to prove that age is not a factor as long as you stay in shape.

October 21, 1985; Madison Square Garden
Bruno Sammartino as a guest of Piper’s Pit

“Ladiiiiies … no, we’re in New York, aren’t we? There aint none of those here. … Peeeeeeoooople of New York, I would like to introduce you to the Living Legend, Mr. Bruno Sammartino!”

Immediately after his intro, Bruno demands Bob Orton Jr. go backstage or Bruno will go to the back and bring out one of his friends. Piper agrees and Orton leaves. The two sit down in the ring and Piper is gold here.

“Garlic for lunch?” – Piper

The crowd cheers every word Bruno has to say, with Piper responding, “Did you bring your whole family?”

“How stupid can you be to fight 211 times and not realize that you’re all washed up?” - Piper

“I fought 211 times and my 211th time I kicked my opponent’s butt so I couldn’t have been too washed up.” - Bruno

“By the way … in Italy, we don’t wear skirts.” - Bruno

“I faced the best in the world and if you were around 15 years ago, I would have squashed you like a grape and I’ll squash you like a grape now!” - Bruno

“… You stupid wap, man …” – Piper

Bruno responds by shoving Piper out of his chair but Piper soon hits him over the head with the weapon and tears off Sammartino’s shirt. The kilt comes off and Piper continues his assault but Bruno fights back, swinging the chair as Piper escapes to the back.

December 7, 1985; Boston Garden
Bruno Sammartino vs. Roddy Piper

Gorilla Monsoon & Jesse Ventura on commentary. The two discuss the fact that the previous month in Boston, during Piper’s Pit, Piper referred to Bruno as an old man to help add fuel to the fire.

Bruno gets most of the offense and Piper repeatedly tries to run backstage after having his head busted open. Sammartino pounds on Piper in the corner, with Orton coming out moments later to cause the DQ. Bruno tosses Orton to the floor and turns his attention back to Piper, repeatedly ramming his head into the mat. While distracted, Orton slides back in the ring and uses his arm cast to beat down Bruno. We leave the segment after Bruno is tied in the ring ropes and double teamed.

January 11, 1986; Boston Garden
Bruno Sammartino & Paul Orndorff vs. Roddy Piper & Bob Orton Jr.

Both Orndorff and Orton are wearing casts on their arm in this encounter. Monsoon & Ventura are again on commentary.

Sammartino is attacked by a wooden chair on the floor early in the contest, with Orndorff quickly making the save. Several minutes later, with momentum back on his team’s side, Orndorff attempts the piledriver on Piper but is hit by Orton’s arm cast behind the referee’s back. Paul is seemingly knocked cold but kicks out at 2 when Piper makes the cover. A dazed Orndorff stays in the match by reversing Orton’s piledriver attempt into a backdrop, then drops Orton with a big clothesline.

Sammartino gets the hot tag, with Bruno and Piper battling around ringside as Orndorff and Orton fight in the ring. A head-on collision between Orndorff and Orton sees Orton fumble out to the floor. Bruno throws a wooden chair at Piper, which misses, but sustains a poke to the eye allowing Piper to slide back inside the ring and beat the 10-count. Piper & Orton take the count-out victory. The feud between Bruno and Piper would end the following month when the two battled in a steel cage match.

July 25, 1970; Philadelphia Arena
Bruno Sammartino © vs. George Steele (Steel Cage Match)

The cage is very primitive and resembles a fence even more so than the later chain link cage matches.

After a good amount of offense, Steele notices that his attacks are having little to no effect. He shakes his head in dumbfounded disbelief and runs to climb up the cage (which wouldn’t have ended the match in this format) but Bruno follows him and attacks him all around the ring, finishing by twice ramming his challenger into the cage. Sammartino calls for the referee (who I believe is Arnold Skaaland in this case) to open the cage door and then walks out to claim his victory.

My View

Good stuff. I will admit that after growing up on the pro wrestling of the 80s and 90s, I do view Bruno’s style as dry in comparison. That’s not to take anything away from his skills, his accomplishments, or how over he was with the fans. The crowd heat was always there even if the match wasn’t Flair / Steamboat or Angle / Michaels.

In terms of the WWWF of the 1970s, I enjoy the unscripted promos quite a bit. But at the same time, the unscripted matches – in my opinion when it comes to those featured on this video – leave something to be desired. Despite that, I would definitely recommend picking this one up, if only to see a glimpse of what the old WWWF was all about. Plus, the Piper’s Pit segment is a keeper.

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