For decades, Bruno Sammartino wanted no part of the WWE, including its Hall of Fame.
His beloved sport had changed so much that he no longer recognized it. WWE, in his mind, had become far too vulgar and had morphed a den of drug use.
With as passionately as Sammartino detested the new WWE, it was impossible to imagine that he'd one day make peace and accept induction into the Hall of Fame.
Thankfully, Sammartino has shifted his stance, and with his entry this year, he will, in many people's eyes, legitimize the WWE Hall of Fame. To paraphrase Trish Status' statement on WWE.com, Sammartino not being in the Hall would be like the Hockey Hall of Fame being without Wayne Gretzky.
The integrity that, in part, made Sammartino such a popular champion during the '60s and '70s was a big reason he rebuffed WWE for so long.
The changes that WWE and pro wrestling underwent from his prime to the Attitude Era and beyond were considerable.
Sammartino's WWE had far less spectacle. They were no pyrotechnics. Ring wear was simpler. The line between good guy and bad guy was distinct.
The business has since changed.
Imagine an NFL player who watched football evolve from a sport without face masks, from a game without the forward pass, to what it is today. That's similar to what Sammartino experienced.
Of all the changes, though, there were two major ones that irked Sammartino the most. In this recent interview, he explicitly states why he took issue with the new WWE:
Sammartino speaks about steroid abuse and the deaths it caused. He points out that profanity and nudity turned him off to the product as well.
Triple H convinced him that WWE's most recent changes address those issues. The WWE Wellness Policy and other changes have been enough to satisfy Sammartino, and now the WWE Hall of Fame can claim the company's first megastar.
The Infiltration of Steroids
Sammartino had long been critical of steroids in wrestling.
In a 1991 interview with Lee Benaka, Sammartino talked about how much steroid use in WWE bothered him. He goes on to say the business is "infested with drug abuse"and to call Vince McMahon's initial steroid testing "a sham."
WWE (then WWF) suffered a major public relations black eye in 1990 when several WWE wrestlers, including Roddy Piper, were subpoenaed by a federal grand jury to testify about steroid distribution.
Chris Benoit's murder-suicide in 2007 reignited the steroid debate when the media questioned whether "'roid rage" explained Benoit’s actions.
Sammartino must have been frustrated seeing the sport and business he helped make famous become fodder for media criticism. As he told Dan Abrams, he'd been trying to bring attention to the steroid issue long before the Benoit tragedy:
From what he says here, it's clear that he was passionate about protecting pro wrestling, but more importantly, he was ardent about keeping wrestlers healthy.
Sammartino held out hope that changes would be made.
He told Benaka in his 1991 interview, "I'm hoping some wrestling-minded people will come back into the scene and perhaps start back from basics, get some good-looking athletes, get away from the steroid crap and painted faces."
A Generation of Degeneration
WWE's most successful period came when Steve Austin, Triple H, The Rock and others transformed the product into something more edgy.
Wrestlers did crotch chops and waved around middle fingers, and there was an inordinate amount of talking about things being shoved into candy asses. As entertaining as that irreverence was, it was not the vision Sammartino had for WWE.
He saw it as inappropriate and callous.
When asked about his thoughts on Steve Austin, Sammartino said, "I didn't care for him because of his mouth. He was a very, very vulgar individual."
Austin was WWE's centerpiece for several years during a time when he was certainly not the only one stretching the boundary of appropriateness.
Sammartino wasn't shy about sharing his thoughts on WWE's newly profane ways. When World Wide Wrestling Alliance inducted Sammartino into its Hall of Fame, the Living Legend used the opportunity to take a few jabs at WWE:
He told Bill Apter that he enjoyed the WWWA product because it's a show where "you can take your kids, and you can take your mother and don't have to be embarrassed as to what they might see."
This is clearly a reference to WWE. At times, Sammartino came off as a father who disapproves of his son's life choices.
WWE has since toned down its product. Its TV shows are now rated PG, and apparently that has helped change Sammartino's view on WWE.
Fans of the more adult Attitude Era product may lament WWE cleaning up its act, but Sammartino seems to think it's a sign that WWE is heading in the right direction.
Today's WWE is still vastly different than the one Sammartino was the king of, but it has made enough strides that Sammartino is willing to join the Hall of Fame ranks and make that institution far more complete.
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