An article in a Pittsburgh paper opines that Bruno Sammartino should be honored when the city builds its new multipurpose arena, that a bust should be erected or a street renamed. I’m 48. I’ve lived in Pittsburgh my whole life. I’ve gone to wrestling at Mellon Arena (nee the Civic Arena) my whole life. I don’t remember Bruno drawing all that well when he wrestled and I attended. I admittedly missed his first championship reign (1963-71), but I recall the Bob Backlund-Greg Valentine feud outdrawing the Bruno-Larry Zbyszko feud locally. Backlund-Valentine turned fans away. Bruno-Zbyszko (with both guys from Pittsburgh) didn’t sell out.
As I recall, that is. This column is more about asking questions than giving opinions. Exactly how big a draw was Bruno, especially in Pittsburgh?
Let me offer a disclaimer: I don’t like Bruno, and I KNOW Bruno hates me. He’s gone out of his way to make that clear a few times. My crime – besides being a much better color commentator – was not kneeling at the Bruno altar like he expects. If you’re not a flunky, you’re an enemy. I’ve always felt Bruno was a mediocre worker (punch, kick, punch, kick, repeat as necessary) and an overrated draw. Thus, I’m an enemy.
Speaking of flunkies, this is a cue for Bruno’s bobos to swarm from the woodwork – hello, Chris Cruise! – and declare, with authority, how many times he sold out this place or that place. But are these figures myth, or fact? Wikipedia says Bruno headlined Madison Square Garden 130 times, selling it out 45. Didn’t Backlund do better? Wikipedia also says Superstar Billy Graham headlined MSG 20 times, selling it out 19. Isn’t that more impressive?
If you say Bruno was a great draw, OK. Give me facts and figures. I know they’re hard to get. But if you can’t get them, how authoritative is the claim? Somebody has the numbers.
This is generally a cue for somebody like Cruise (or even Bruno himself) to denigrate me personally and say "Oh, he ruined WCW, he got fired from this job and that job, he’s grossly overweight, Bruno scared him backstage once, blah, blah, blah" but that doesn’t change my query. How good a draw was Bruno, and where’s the evidence? All I want is numbers, particularly for Pittsburgh, what with a Sammartino St. potentially in the works.
About Cruise: He once sent the written equivalent of a filibuster to Dave Meltzer absurdly suggesting that Ric Flair’s criticism of Bruno in Ric’s autobiography must have been inserted by me without Ric’s knowledge, because everybody knows my hatred for Bruno. Cruise further scuttled his own credibility by saying Bruno was a better worker. Discuss drawing power all you want. At least that’s a debate. When it comes to work, Bruno couldn’t lace Flair’s boots.
About that time backstage: In 1999, veteran indie wrestler Cody Michaels (with help from Shane Douglas and Mick Foley) organized a tribute show for WCW referee Mark Curtis (real name Brian Hildebrand) in Rostraver, a Pittsburgh suburb. Hildebrand grew up a few miles from me in Reserve Township (also near Pittsburgh). I hosted my radio show at the building that day and did what I could to publicize the show. Brian was dying of cancer. He knew it. We knew it. No one was ever more respected in the business than Brian. Wrestlers from WWE, WCW and ECW all worked. It was wonderful. He loved it.
The one sour note was when Bruno confronted me backstage. I left, not because I was afraid, but because I didn’t want to prolong an unpleasant scene at an event designed to honor my dying friend. Not Bruno’s dying friend. Mine. I was there to help. Bruno was there to revel in the glory of being Bruno. If I was the bad guy, I’d like to know how. Jim Cornette loathes me as much as Bruno, but he was classy enough to bury the hatchet for a day. Not Bruno.
"Let’s see if you have the guts to talk that crap to me in person, you fat, disgusting" – OK, whatever. Nice one, Bruno. See you later. Bruno makes every situation about him.
But I digress. Somebody prove to me that Bruno was really a top draw in Pittsburgh. Don’t just ram the legend down my throat. Give me chapter and verse, facts and figures.
My take is that Bruno was a tremendous regional world champ with fantastic ethnic charisma based on the Northeast’s strong Italian population. But Pittsburgh does not have as many Italians as New York or Boston; therefore, my remembering that he wasn’t a great draw at Mellon Arena seems like it should be accurate. Give me numbers that prove me wrong.
Otherwise, Sammartino St. just might be Madden Ave. instead. Hey, I campaigned HARD for that new arena.