- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 2, 2002

It was Italian heaven in Washington last weekend when the National Italian American Foundation had its annual awards dinner. Robert DeNiro, Sophia Loren and Chuck Mangione were among the heavyweights who were honored or attended the affair.
There was only one true heavyweight on hand, though, Mr. Living Legend himself: the great Bruno Sammartino.
During a more innocent time, professional wrestling wasn't quite as sordid as it is now. The script for the business was more pulp fiction than the porno-comic book style it follows today. This was before Hulk Hogan and the steroid freaks took over. In that era, there was no one bigger than heavyweight champ Sammartino.
He was in town to present a foundation scholarship in his name.
"It's an honor for me to be part of the work that the foundation does," Sammartino said.
Wrestling fans in the 1960s and early 1970s knew there was no one more honorable in professional wrestling than Sammartino, who first won the heavyweight title by pinning Buddy Rogers in 68 seconds at Madison Square Garden in 1963 and held the title twice for a total of 11 years.
That concept may be foreign to those who couldn't conceive of the word "honorable" associated with professional wrestling, in any era. But Sammartino gave the business as much honor and credibility as it could possibly have because of the way he carried himself. He was the only professional wrestler to have a segment in the old "Greatest Sports Legends" television series.
He was one of the world's strongest men, bench-pressing nearly 600 pounds. And he did it without steroids or any other foreign substances (however, he was hit with many foreign objects while wrestling). He spoke intelligently in interviews, not belligerently, and never came across like the buffoons and clowns that followed him in the Vince McMahon Jr. era that has dragged the business down to the level where, admittedly, it has made more money than Sammartino or anyone from his day could have dreamed.
Sammartino is glad he is not part of the profits. "A lot of people have asked me if I wish I were wrestling today and making much more money," he said. "But I could never have participated in what they do today. I couldn't be part of that vulgarity. It disturbs me that parents take their children to arenas and expose them to it."
It's funny that Sammartino brings up children at wrestling shows. I grew up in Brooklyn watching Sammartino wrestle on the TV shows put on in the District by McMahon's father, Vince Sr., (with golden-throated Ray Morgan making the calls), and used to dream of someday actually going to a live wrestling match. For my 10th birthday in 1964 my father took me to the old Madison Square Garden to see Sammartino wrestle Cowboy Bill Watts.
When we got to the box office, there was a sign that declared no one under 14 could see a live wrestling match, according to New York state law. (That shows you how our standards in society have fallen. Half the audience at wrestling shows today are under 14.)
My father, being a resourceful New Yorker, found a doorman on one of the side doors of the old Garden to bribe and sneak us in. So I got to see Sammartino, in a packed house (he sold out the Garden more than any other wrestler in history), defeat the evil Bill Watts.
"I tell people about those days and that kids couldn't come to wrestling matches back then, and they can't believe it," Sammartino said.
He wrestled all the legendary grapplers of his era:
Dick the Bruiser: "He was a good athlete. We wrestled against each other and also were tag team partners in the Midwest. He really appealed to the crowd because he was a wild man, and he was like that out of the ring, too. I don't know if he slept at night."
Killer Kowalski: "He was known as the machine among his peers because he was always in such great shape and wrestled so much. I always had great respect for him because he was so dedicated to training, and it would always be a good match."
Gorilla Monsoon: "He was a very good amateur wrestler and, weighing as much as he did as a pro (400 pounds), he moved very well and worked hard. Once we wrestled non-stop for more than 90 minutes. He really was quite amazing."
Sammartino just turned 67 and is in good shape, considering how he made his living and how so many of his comrades in headlocks have suffered in their old age.
"My weight is down from the 275 I wrestled at to 218 today," he said. "I train every day, running six miles one day and lifting weights the next day in my gym at home. I had some back problems, but surgery made that much better. I had broken my neck in 1976 in a match with Stan Hansen and came very close to being paralyzed."
Sammartino retired from wrestling in 1980. He came back in 1984 as a commentator when Vince, Jr., took over after his father died.
"He told me he wanted to carry on his father's tradition, but it was all a con," Sammartino said. "The use of drugs and some of the stuff I saw was very disturbing, and I didn't want to be part of it. I finished out my contract in 1987 and then left."
Sammartino came to the United States as a young man after growing up in Abruzzi, Italy. His family had to flee their homes to escape the Nazis during World War II.
"We had to hide in the mountains for more than a year," he said. "Then there were mines everywhere that the Germans left behind, and we saw lots of people killed and maimed. I feel lucky to have survived that."
The people back home know Sammartino's exploits. They have erected a statue and named a sports center after him.
He is still in demand these days for personal appearances but does not do traditional autograph signings. He will allow dealers to sell photos of him, but he signs them for free.
"I feel that fans were very good to me," Sammartino said. "I used to sell out Madison Square Garden, and that comes from people attending and wanting to see me wrestle, and I'm grateful for that. It allowed me to have a pretty good life."

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