- - Sunday, April 22, 2018

It was March 29, 1965, four days after my 11th birthday, and I was the star of my Washington Avenue neighborhood in Brooklyn.

I was going to see Bruno Sammartino — the greatest wrestling champion of all time, who passed away last week at the age of 82 — at Madison Square Garden, perhaps the sweetest gift a young Italian Brooklyn boy could receive from his father.

This was the old Madison Square Garden, the mecca that existed between 49th and 50th streets on 8th Avenue — “The House that Tex built,” referring to boxing promoter Tex Rickard.

This was something that I used to dream of as a young boy, but never truly imagined. Other people went to the Garden to see the heavyweight wrestling champion of the world — not us, not our family.

Sammartino was one of our heroes, someone who stood for good in a world filled with heels and evildoers. And he seemed so real. Adults would tell us that wrestling was fake, but how could that be? Not Bruno.

He had won the senior Vince McMahon’s World Wide Wrestling Federation heavyweight title in 48 seconds in a match against Buddy Rogers two years earlier, and had quickly become a star up and down the Northeast corridor, an icon to the Italian-American community. And he had a blood feud going with Cowboy Bill Watts, with a long-awaited showdown on March 29 at the Garden. And I would be there.

I remember waiting in line with my father as we made our way toward the front entrance. The street was packed. This was a big event that would set a new attendance record at the old Garden — an estimated 19,614. The story goes that the fire marshal didn’t show up that night, so they kept stuffing people in a building with a capacity of 18,496.

When we reached the doors and handed the tickets to the ticket taker, he looked at me and asked, “How old is he?” My father told him 11 — the truth. What he had not known was that, at the time under New York state law, you had to be a least 14 to see a live wrestling show.

Imagine how crushed I was to hear that. Worse, imagine how my father was crushed. It could have been a nightmare forever seared into my memory.

Instead, it turned out to be one of the greatest memories.

My father was not going to be deterred by state law. So we went around the building, stopping at each door and knocking until he found an usher that he could bribe to let us in the building. This being New York, he found someone who was willing to have their palm greased, and we snuck into the most celebrated sports arena in America to see Bruno Sammartino for my birthday.

And he steered us to better seats than we had bought.

I felt like the son of a mob boss.

We watched the acrobatic Argentina Apollo pin Smasher Sloan. We saw the Manchurian Giant who couldn’t speak English — Gorilla Monsoon (who was really Bob Marella from Rochester, New York, an NCAA college wrestling star) — pin Don McCarty.

We watched American Football League linebacker Wahoo McDaniel pin Dr. Jerry Graham — who eight years earlier caused one of the biggest riots in Garden history. We saw tag team champs Gene Kiniski and Waldo Von Erich fight to a draw against Bobo Brazil and 600-pound Haystacks Calhoun from Morgan’s Corner, Arkansas. And we saw Sammartino defeat Cowboy Bill Watts by disqualification after 15 minutes.

I still have the ticket stub.

Sammartino went on to become a wrestling superstar, before Hulk Hogan and The Rock and the transformation of wrestling into what it is today, holding the title for more than 11 years over two runs.

Sammartino would regularly sell out Madison Square Garden. What was remarkable was this: Bruno sold was credibility and respectability in an entertainment business that had little of each. He was a legitimate strongman, with no bleached blonde hair or loud-mouthed manager. He was part of the great American story of Italian immigrants who fled the Nazis in Italy as a child.

He would go on to become part of the American culture in the 20th century — even leading law-abiding citizens to break the law for the sake of their children.

Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide