Dispatches from the Wrestling Underground: Bruno Sammartino, An Unreasonable Man

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.” ~ George Bernard Shaw

In the world of professional wrestling, opinions aren’t very hard to be come by. Everyone from the wrestlers themselves to their fans are extremely vocal in their views on every minute detail. Frequently, these opinions can be controversial. But, while it would be hard to pinpoint who exactly holds the most controversial views in the world of wrestling, an easy argument could be made for former WWWF World Heavyweight Champion Bruno Sammartino.

While in his prime Sammartino was never known to be a great talker, his words have taken on added clout in the years since his retirement, which itself presents an interesting contradiction – Sammartino, like many of his peers, was left by the wayside during wrestling’s ascension in the ’80s because he lacked that silver tongue and was unwilling to adapt to its cartoonish antics. He would pop up as an occasional draw, but it quickly became clear no one was listening to what Bruno had to say. As beloved as he was, he had quickly become irrelevant. So, to find that Bruno has become such a polarizing figure today, it seems a bit odd.

Bruno’s in-ring persona was never that of a braggart or a boaster; he played a large-than-life strongman, but always came across as humble. The opposite could be said today, as Bruno will be one of the first to point out his many accomplishments – selling out Madison Square Garden more times than any other man, being the longest reigning WWWF Champion ever, and generally being one of wrestling’s biggest draws pre-Hogan.

More interesting, Sammartino is the one of the only voices of his era that still openly mocks the evolution of wrestling into sports entertainment, noting that it’s lost the entire sporting side and replaced it with the glamor and decadence and all sorts of other distractions it used to stand in opposition to. Where many of his peers have caved on earlier negative reactions to Vince McMahon and his idea of wrestling, Bruno has stood firm is his disdain for the younger McMahon and his product. To this end, he continues to refuse offers to enter WWE’s Hall of Fame, explaining that the very idea of the Hall of Fame is a sham since it lends as much credence to the celebrity wing as it does the actual wrestlers, and, in many cases, even more so as McMahon will pay millions to get the celebrities but will outright short change the wrestlers with only a few thousand dollars.

Of course, there are Bruno’s detractors who would note that many of his objections today revolve mostly around the money. Bruno would even admit that part of his reluctance to accept a Hall of Fame bid is partly because of money, although, his idea is less based on the notion that he deserves those millions of dollars and rather on the respect that the money represents.

In Bruno’s era, money meant respect; you earned more because you were respected as a greater draw, and you were expected to deliver because of that. And, in his day, Bruno earned that respect – he sold out Madison Square Garden more times than any other wrestler, proving himself to quite possibly be the biggest draw of his era. Adjusted for inflation, Bruno would still be considered one of WWE’s biggest draws ever, even today.

Of course, today Bruno doesn’t quite retain that same level of respect. He seems a man out-of-place in time and uncomfortable in an era where your word is negotiable and caving to negative opinion is common place. Today, men like Bruno rarely exist, and, if they do, they’re demonized as stubborn and old-fashioned. Most young fans of today’s era characterize Bruno with similar epithets, not fully understanding that to someone of Bruno’s era, his legacy means more than another quick 15 minutes in the spotlight. Whereas most modern legends have lost the capacity to do anything but debase themselves by constantly trying to ride out those last few minutes of fame they still have left (or once had), a man like Bruno seems at odds with today’s mores because he’s content with what he’s left in the past. In a society geared towards the constant pursuit of celebrity, it’s hard to comprehend a man more interested in respect than popularity. We can’t understand a man unwilling to adapt to modern standards, stuck in the notion that his views still mean something even if no one else agrees. For this, we view Bruno as an unreasonable man, but really, shouldn’t we hope for more like him?

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