Sunday, September 8, 2013
Profile of an Alpha: Bruno Sammartino
Many wrestling fans that grew up in the 90's or later are unlikely to know of him at first, but the foundations of the modern monolithic WWE (for better or worse), rest on his shoulders. Like Atlas, he carried the promotion, and reshaped the wrestling world in his image. Before Hulkamania ran wild, there was Bruno! Bruno! Bruno! He reigned nearly a total of twelve combined years as champion (including a seven-year reign) and sold out Madison Square Garden a record 187 times. He not only achieved such heights, but he achieved them with the integrity and class that has been a constant in his life, and set an example of not only how to perform at the top of his business, but how to do so with dignity.
This seemed like an impossible destiny for young Bruno Sammartino. He was born and began to grow up in a very turbulent time, facing hardship that would be unimaginable today. World War II was raging when he was a boy, and food was very hard to come by in Nazi-occupied Italy. He and his family lived atop a mountain for some time, hiding out, and to feed her family, his mother needed to sneak food to them, getting herself shot in the shoulder one time for her efforts. Understandably, Bruno's health deteriorated drastically, and even when the war was over, the results it produced for him would lead to more hardship, even on another continent.
Coming to America:
The Sammartino family immigrated to the United States in 1950, settling in Pittsburgh where his father already lived and worked. Bruno had a hard time at first. He recounts stories of being scrawny and sickly in school, and this plus his accent guaranteed that he would be an easy target for bullying. Every day at school Bruno was bullied.
This happened for some time until, as Bruno says, a sympathetic classmate told him about the Y. He began to lift weights and work out, and through dedication he got bigger and stronger. The kids that bullied him? They now wanted to be his friends! Bruno didn't seek revenge on these bullies and wasn't mean to them, but he never really had any respect for them. He goes on in the video to admonish those that engage in bullying in this day and age. And while bullying has certainly been overblown (there is no excuse to commit suicide or lash out violently, no matter how badly anyone has been bullied, nor is it a reason to impose restrictions on free speech as some would like), men of value and integrity such as Bruno never engage in or endorse it. There is no excuse to treat somebody poorly who hasn't done anything to deserve it, period.
Lifting weights and exercising was the turning point that changed Bruno's life. He went from an awkward kid that lacked confidence into a self-aware man that was ready to take the steps that would seal his fame in life.
Finding His Calling:
After Bruno got out of school, he became known in the Pittsburgh area by competing in local strongman competitions, which eventually got him the attention of a professional wrestling promoter in the area. Curiously, according to Bruno's Wikipedia page, one of his first notable matches was against an Orangutan. He was eventually disqualified.
Bruno went on to buy Pittsburgh's local promotion, and thus the Italian immigrant who had almost died now found himself owning a business in his new homeland. Through his time as the owner of the promotion before he sold it, he earned a reputation for excellence as a promoter by the other wrestlers that worked for him, as he showed concern for everybody and wanted to treat everyone well- a rarity in those times and now.
Professional wrestling was a different business in those days, as a polyglot of promotions stuck more or less to their traditional territories. One of the largest of these was the WWWF- the World Wide Wrestling Federation, which had the good fortune to be situated the large and densely populated territory of the northeast, which included cities like Boston and New York. Sammartino joined the promotion as the fateful 60's got underway, and quickly established himself as a major star, headlining Madison Square Garden for the first time only months after wrestling his first match with the promotion. The world's most famous arena would become his home away from home in the years to come.
Bruno began his record-breaking reign in 1963 after defeating WWWF champion Buddy Rogers. During these seven years, Bruno became world famous. He routinely sold out Madison Square Garden, as crowds flocked to the arena to see him take on the top heels of his time. As Bruno mentioned in his hall of fame speech, one of the things that made him widely known not just in the WWWF's northeastern territory, or even in the U.S., but indeed all over the world, were the publications in New York that featured him- because he headlined Madison Square Garden all the time. Madison Square Garden is known as the world's most famous arena for a reason (not the least of which is the considerable power of the press that New York commands), and he got requests to make appearances all over the world.
Bruno's fame had grown so much that when he eventually lost the WWWF Championship to Ivan Koloff, people were stunned into silence. The promoters actually refused to present the WWWF Championship to Koloff that night because they were fearful of a riot!
Sammartino's reign as champion had brought him such fame around the world- but especially in that area, that the people seemed to feel like he was actually part of their family. They cared about him so much that they may have been willing to actually express violent discontent at the fact that Bruno lost the championship. He was not just a celebrity that people saw on TV, he was a part of those people's lives.
An Ultimate Example in Dedication:
Bruno certainly had the charismatic personality that allows for stardom in show business, but that alone didn't guarantee him such success. He was a hard worker, dedicated to his business to such an extent that he was the guy that Vince McMahon Sr. wanted as his champion for so long, because he knew he could build his brand around Bruno- for years to come. The ultimate example of Bruno's dedication to his profession was his 1976 match in Shea Stadium against Stan Hansen. Bruno had broken his neck only two months before. Nevertheless, Bruno stepped into the ring for his rematch, despite being out of shape, and scored a decisive win, to the delight of the crowd. The match would go on to be voted match of the year.
A lot was riding on that match. Vince McMahon Sr. claimed that if it didn't go well, the WWWF could go bankrupt. The fact that he relied on Bruno despite his injury shows how much faith Vince Sr. had in him. Put simply, Bruno offered a lot on the table, so much so that the people around him would have been foolish not to take advantage of it. Everyone wound up winning as a result of his charisma and talent- Vince Sr., Bruno, and most importantly, the fans.
Nevertheless, despite Bruno's dedication and hard work to keep himself in shape, he was getting older, and his body was wearing down. Professional wrestling, though staged, is notoriously difficult on the body- a combination of its grueling schedule and hard canvas ring, along with the sheer physicality involved. As Bruno has explained, it was even tougher back then than it is now, as the boxing rings that were in use were even harder on the body than the current wrestling rings are. By the early 80's, Bruno was in constant pain, and, always against the taking of drugs, he refused to take any painkillers. He retired from the ring in 1981.
Bruno the Dissenter:
However, Bruno wasn't done in the wrestling world just yet. In his later years he saw some changes taking place in the industry that he was adamantly opposed to. The 1980's were very transformative for professional wrestling- Vince McMahon Jr. had taken over his father's company, Hulkamania was running wild, and most of the old territories began to fold or get absorbed, setting the stage for the Monday Night Wars of the 1990's between the WWF and WCW, which ultimately led to the monolithic world of professional wrestling of the present, with WWE being the hegemon.
But along with this transformation came an increased use of performance enhancing drugs, and a slow departure from the family-friendly values in wrestling that Bruno held in such high esteem. Bruno vocally spoke out about this, constantly criticizing the direction that professional wrestling had taken, and boycotting the industry, refusing to have anything to do with it. Many notable documentaries about the history of professional wrestling excluded Bruno, despite his being the biggest star in the business in the 60's and 70's, because he refused to appear for a product that he now abhorred. For years, Vince McMahon begged Bruno to be inducted into the WWE's Hall of Fame, and each time he was refused. In the meantime, Bruno constantly spoke out about the use of drugs in the wrestling industry, which have been linked to the death of many professional wrestlers over the years.
After the infamous Chris Benoit case, Bruno Sammartino was among those that spoke out in the media, blasting the industry for the rampant steroid use and for not paying enough attention to the health of its performers. Despite all this, to my knowledge, no one in the industry has anything bad to say about Bruno, to this day. He is so respected that he was still being begged to go into the WWE's Hall of Fame, despite his harsh criticism and self-imposed exile over the years.
And, eventually, like any actualized man should be capable of doing, Bruno changed.
Mindful of the fact that WrestleMania XXIX would be in the New York area, and that the Hall of Fame ceremony would be taking place at Madison Square Garden, Triple H, now an executive in the WWE, was determined to get Bruno Sammartino in the Hall, or at least begin the process of opening up communication. Triple H asked Bruno whether or not he'd seen the changes that had been made in the WWE, including its wellness policy against performance enhancing drugs.
It could have been easy for anyone to outright ignore this entreaty, after two decades of heavily criticizing something, most people's minds would likely have been made up. Bruno however, bucked this trend, and when he saw the changes that had been made in the industry, he himself was willing to change.
Bruno demonstrated again his balanced life with this decision. He refused to concede his integrity, but was not stubborn enough to wall himself off. When the industry changed, so did he, and his decision allowed him to have a fairy tale ending- being inducted in the Hall of Fame of the company he put on the map, in Madison Square Garden, the place he'd sold out more than anybody else in its history, all with his integrity intact.
Those that change at the drop of a hat are no better than thieves and fraudsters. Those that refuse to change in the face of compelling reasons are no better than troglodytes. Bruno was neither.
Aging in the Best Way:
Now, at the age of 78, Bruno Sammartino is again an ambassador for the industry that he loves, and is in great shape, still working out six days a week. His physique for a person of his age is remarkable- once again showing the benefits of vigorous exercise and good nutrition that was the foundation for all his later accomplishments. He is, as Jack Lalanne (another alpha to be profiled later) put it: "wearing himself out, not resting himself out."
A life well-lived, and there's still an ample amount of fire left in the tank.
Lessons from Bruno Sammartino:
1. Exercise and nutrition are vital components to living the Eudaimon life. I won't repeat all the many benefits that others have laid out before me on countless occasions: except that you will look better and feel better. There is therefore no excuse not to work out and eat right. I've fallen into the trap of laziness before, but I've recently begun again, and I feel much better, and more confident.
2. Drugs are a substitute to the dedication that is so vital, and are therefore a poor and costly thing to engage in that will harm your overall health. The use of steroids among high school kids is particularly lamentable.
3. Picking on those that are weaker than you, or being hostile to others without reason, is extremely beta.
4. Dedication to self-improvement, to your profession, and to the people around you is irreplaceable. Laziness must be actively fought at all times. Dedication may not be a sufficient condition for success (fortune and the randomness of luck are very active components in this world), but it is certainly a necessary one. In many ways, character determines fate.
5. Your integrity is not for sale. No matter the temptations or respect you command, don't sell your principles out. Your self-respect must remain intact at all times. Everything else that is good in life stems from it- including respect from others that is often so vital to carry you to success. Who will respect a man that does not respect himself?
6. While your integrity is not for sale, you mustn't become inflexible. In the face of compelling reasons to change, you yourself must change as well. Want to know the kind of people that don't follow this principle? The pity-partiers that compete over victim status, and demand that society change to suit their needs instead of changing themselves for the better.
Needless to say, these people will never be as accomplished as Bruno Sammartino.
One final note. Bruno even mentions refusing to allow a movie to be made about him in Hollywood, as he refused to allow his story to be muddled or "Hollywoodized" as he calls it. He wanted to tell his own story in his own words.
There's no better way to do it. Make your own story that you can tell yourself- a story worth remembering. Bruno Sammartino Professional Wrestling WWF WWE