In the eyes of many wrestling fans, suddenly all is right with the world following the bombshell Feb. 4 announcement that the “Living Legend” Bruno Sammartino would finally be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.
Though there is no shortage of era-defining legends in the Hall who helped make the company and the sport what it is today, from Buddy Rogers and Billy Graham, to the immensely popular Roddy Piper and Steve Austin, Sammartino's absence was a notable one.
It was not for lack of trying on WWE's part to court the Italian immigrant over the years, but content issues both on the air and behind the scenes had transformed WWE's greatest champion into one of its most vocal critics, a chasm many fans did not feel would ever be closed.
Sammartino once stated,
I've been kind of outspoken about [professional wrestling] and a lot of people have disagreed with my views, but you have to understand, I've had a tremendous love for—not just professional—[but] for wrestling of all kinds. I've had a tremendous, tremendous love for wrestling.
As far back as 1989, Sammartino was a lone voice speaking out against the infiltration of steroids into his beloved sport. When asked why the physiques of his generation were so disparate from the crop of current pros, the record-setting power lifter told Wrestling Talk:
What people don't understand, which is the tragedy that is wrestling today, most of these people are very heavy on these anabolic steroids...they blow themselves up like this, but they don't have legitimate conditioning [to] go an hour match or whatever. I've seen guys when I was still with the WWF, I used to almost laugh, because people, the audience, thought that they were such awesome guys, and I'd see them after a five, ten-minute match, they'd be in the dressing room and I could swear they were going to have a heart attack, they seemed so winded and out of shape. It's sad.
Sammartino stated in that same interview that he “never heard of steroids 'til about 1965.” He inquired about them to the owner of a gym he frequented, and was under the impression steroids were an unnatural edge only bodybuilders employed. As the years progressed, their use spread into other locker rooms, including the ones at Madison Square Garden:
I saw it became prominent in the wrestling game, and that bothered me a lot, because that's not a natural way, it's not the right way, it's not a healthy way, because as we've seen as the years have gone by, the effect that these anabolic steroids [have had] on the human body, some of these guys may not reach to be 45-50 years of age, as a result, because this is cumulative. Very dangerous.
In 1989, neither the media nor the industry were paying the retired champion's prescient concerns much mind.
By 1994, however, the United States government showed a zealous interest in Vince McMahon's business practices.
Sensational headlines trumpeted the fall of the “wrestling czar” when federal prosecutors indicted him on three counts “of conspiring with [Dr. George T. Zahorian III] to distribute steroids to his wrestlers, in violation of new Food and Drug Administration laws that criminalized distribution” (Sex, Lies and Headlocks, p. 122).
Hulk Hogan, the family-friendly former champion and Superstar whose manic popularity, exploited by McMahon's machine, ushered professional wrestling into modernity, publicly stated on the Arsenio Hall program that he did not do steroids.
In a 2007 CNN Special Investigations Unit interview, Drew Griffin discussed Hogan's trial statements.
Hogan admitted under oath that he had used steroids. He estimated as many as 80 percent of McMahon's wrestlers were using steroids. Hogan also testified McMahon knew his wrestlers were on the juice and said that McMahon had ordered steroids for his own use.”
McMahon, of course, was acquitted. Though the prosecution's case was troubled, Sex, Lies and Headlocks all but implies the scandal-ridden Pat Patterson perjured himself to protect the McMahons, denying any knowledge of steroid distribution, or Titan Tower memos regarding Zahorian and the federal investigation (p. 125).
The worse was yet to come, however, as Sammartino had chillingly predicted almost 20 years prior when the media once again scrutinized the industry after the untimely 2005 death of the revered Eddie Guerrero and the tragic murder/suicide involving Chris Benoit only two years later.
According to CNN's November 2007 broadcast Death Grip: Inside Pro Wrestling, the “combination [of pain medication and steroids] have fed a numbing statistic”:
[Dallas-based medical examiner] Dr. Keith Pinkard studied wrestling deaths over a twenty-year span, from 1983 to 2003. He found 64 professional wrestlers, all just 40-years-old and younger, had died. A CNN tabulation shows in just the past 5 years, 18 wrestlers under the age of 50 have died.
Pinkard relayed, “about a fifth of those were drug-related deaths, either accidental overdoses or suicidal overdoses.”
Just as he had been called upon by networks during WWE's sex scandals and other trials, news anchors once again sought the even-tempered Sammartino's insight, especially in the early days of the Benoit story breaking, when no one was certain if steroids played any role.
It appears that Benoit's strange behavior and uncharacteristic religious fixation in the waning days of his life indicate he had suffered from severe brain trauma as a result of his high-impact profession.
One of Benoit's signature moves was the Diving Headbutt off the top rope, done in tribute to the wrestler he most idolized, the Dynamite Kid, Tom Billington. The former WWE Tag Team Champion was also a steroid abuser, a contributing factor to why he is now confined to a wheelchair.
The move is said to cause significant spinal injury over time, and its creator, Harley Race, “would begrudgingly admit that he regretted inventing the move on account of the damage it dealt to later wrestlers who adopted it.”
Despite the Sports Legacy Institute's findings (h/t ABC News) “that Benoit's brain was so severely damaged it resembled the brain of an 85-year-old Alzheimer's patient,” WWE was initially skeptical of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE, what was commonly recognized as “punch drunk”) as a factor in the deaths.
In the years that followed, however, other athletes, including NFL players such as former Super Bowl quarterback Jim McMahon of the Chicago Bears—53 and already in the early stages of dementia—have become vocal about the long-term effects of impact sports.
The 2012 murder/suicide of Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher, and the suicides that same year of Junior Seau and Ray Easterling, are unfortunate evidence that Benoit's was not an isolated incident.
Interestingly, Belcher's murder/suicide was reported sympathetically and did not call the NFL on the carpet, yet Benoit's was greeted with sensationalism, and the entire wrestling industry was put on media trial.
Though WWE has made no formal declaration about CTE, it has publicly attributed two absences in 2012 (Superstars Randy Orton and Alberto Del Rio) to taking time off due to concussions, something which would have been unheard of only a few years prior.
Those brief mentions were blink-and-you'll-miss-it moments of TV time, but the gesture resonated loud and throughout that WWE was dealing with the issue in its own way, just as they offer substance abuse treatment to all current and former contractors and quietly pay the medical costs when their Superstars suffer injuries in the ring.
For all of the positive changes WWE has been undergoing the past several years, it took Triple H, WWE COO Paul Levesque reaching out to Sammartino with proof in hand before the Living Legend consented to HOF induction.
In an interview with Busted Open (h/t ProWrestling.net), Sammartino said,
Levesque comes across sincere, very honest, very straightforward. He started telling me all the changes they made, for example, when he mentioned that Dr. Joseph Maroon who had the drug testing with the WWE, that was big, because I know Dr. Maroon.
The “world renowned neurosurgeon” performed three operations on Sammartino's back.
I know what kind of dedicated man he is. When he took on this challenge with the WWE and the drug testing, I knew they were sincere about fixing this problem. I have to take my hat off to them because they did take the proper steps where some other organizations did not.
Upon reviewing the contemporary WWE product, Sammartino said he saw “a world of difference. I don’t see steroid users. These guys look athletic but certainly I don’t see the likes of what we saw ten, fifteen years ago or even later.”
Aside from the steroid and drug abuse, Sammartino has also been very critical of WWE's sometimes vulgar content over the years, from “Stone Cold” using profanity to sexually explicit scenes such as fellow 2013 HOF inductee Trish Stratus' infamous barking episode.
Sammartino had this to say about his concerns.
Paul then started talking about the changes in making it more family-friendly. He knew and understood some of the things I objected to. He told me all these things have changed, like the nudity and vulgarity. So I started watching it again. I haven’t watched wrestling in many, many years. I was totally turned off on it. So I started watching it again and what Paul told me, he absolutely made me a believer.
It may appear that Levesque and WWE have pulled off the coup of coups in making a believer out of wrestling's elder statesman, but the TV-PG programming choices and wellness policies have been established for a number of years.
Levesque, trained by Sammartino's ring rival “Killer” Kowalski, is a sincere student of the "old school," and obviously possessed the respect and diplomatic skills to open an overdue dialogue between WWE and her longest-reigning champion.
Sammartino's acceptance of the induction is a justification of WWE's post-Benoit and post-Attitude Era programming and policies. Bruno's blessing is the one unexpected thing that legitimizes WWE today and finally severs it from poor artistic decisions and the haze of tragedy and scandal.
Sammartino, as the HOF induction video proclaimed, truly is a champion in and outside of the ring. When he was the top draw, selling out all of those MSG shows, he made sure that everyone on the card shared the wealth, believing that was his role as locker-room leader and main-eventer.
Unlike Shawn Michaels, Sammartino never was at risk of losing himself and his storied career to drug abuse. Unlike Hulk Hogan, he never craved fame so much that he sullied his immortality in becoming a fixture on whorish reality TV and tabloid shows. Unlike Ric Flair and Scott Hall, he found nothing inviting nor comforting about perilous, self-destructive behavior.
Sammartino's voice has been as consistent as his delivery, still touched in his 77 years with a Mediterranean dialect. Bruno is who he says is, and that has never wavered. The story here, ultimately, isn't about him; that he accepted this induction is a reflection on the positive progress WWE has made.
Sammartino told Busted Open,
I criticized Vince. But I also know that these changes came about because Vince was a part of it. I’m sure Vince is the big boss. I’m sure Paul and Vince had many serious conversations and obviously Vince had to agree to everything. My feeling is yes I criticized, but I will also praise him because he took all the steps. I will criticize you if you deserve to be criticized, but I will praise you when that’s proper. He has made all these changes and I praise him for that.
Update: The WWE has issued a statement in response to this article:
WWE has a comprehensive Talent Wellness Program that has been in place since 2006 which includes cardiovascular testing, medical and wellness staffing, annual physicals, substance abuse and drug testing and health care referrals. WWE strictly prohibits the use of steroids. All WWE Superstars and Divas undergo random drug testing a minimum of four times per year, and WWE has a strict three strikes and you’re out policy.
Additionally, WWE has also been a leader in concussion prevention, education and management. All WWE talent undergo tests of brain function, including memory, processing speed and reaction time. Monitoring and analysis are done through the ImPACT™ Concussion Management Program, which is used by the NFL, NHL, MLB, MLS, US Olympic Training Center and in more than 400 colleges and 2,000 high schools.
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