So Bruno Sammartino is headed into the Hall of Fame. Yet the cows haven’t come home. The sun hasn’t gone supernova. The world is much the same. So what miracle occurred for the Living Legend to finally come to terms with WWE?
Before we begin, let’s first acknowledge that there is no doubt that WWE’s version of a pro wrestling Hall of Fame has always lacked credibility until recently. Not just because of the inclusion of the McMahon limousine driver and jobber to the stars, James Dudley (not to be confused with Big Daddy Dudley). And not just because it was inevitably WWWF/WWF/WWE focused (even Abdullah the Butcher, who never had a run with the McMahons, has been inducted). The real reason is a legitimate one: Bruno Sammartino is one of the greatest professional wrestlers of all time, one who heavily contributed to the building of the McMahon empire. Without his inclusion – in the initial class of 1993 on the 30th anniversary of the WWWF, which featured Andre the Giant, and especially in the 1994 class that included Bobo Brazil, Gorilla Monsoon, and, shockingly, the aforementioned jobber James Dudley – the Hall of Fame was always going to lack legitimacy.
It was, of course, these years that saw Vince McMahon battling the federal government over accusations of conspiracy to distribute steroids amongst his wrestlers via Dr George Zahorian – and Bruno Sammartino, who had long since soured on McMahon following his post-wrestling run as WWF commentator and mentor to his son David Sammartino, was more than willing to make media appearances to contribute to the avalanche of bad publicity.
In the years following, of course, Bruno continued to criticise the WWF/WWE – for artificial physiques, sexual themes, excessive violence, you name it. In recent years, it’s also become increasingly apparent that Sammartino felt short-changed by Vince McMahon Jr, the man who also caused so much upheaval in the American wrestling world and revolutionised the industry, raising the ire of traditional promoters and commentators in the process.
So what’s changed?
It’s no secret that the influence of Paul “Triple H” Levesque on WWE has grown in the last couple of years. With Shane McMahon cashing in his WWE stock and pursuing sports-centered business opportunities in Asia, and Stephanie McMahon Levesque seemingly content to take a step back from the WWE product, it has become more obvious than ever that the true heir to the Vince McMahon throne is the self-proclaimed “King of Kings” himself, Triple H.
Now, there are many areas where WWE has improved under the increasing influence of Paul Levesque: the excellent expansion and direction of developmental division NXT; the push for a resurgence of tag team wrestling; the level-headed creative input on the gorilla position headset as “one of the boys”; even the rumours of his comfort with terms like “wrestling” and “belts.” And yes, it has been Levesque who has engaged in diplomatic dialogue with Sammartino to help broker this deal to have him in WWE’s Hall of Fame. Indeed, Levesque’s been a positive influence in many aspects. Whereas ten years ago, pundits expressed concern over the post-Vince era with Stephanie’s idiosyncrasies and Shane’s lack of power, now the future looks just fine with the Triple H era.
But whether he likes it or not, many people will always feel like Triple H played politics to get to where he is: his time carrying bags for the Kliq of Shawn Michaels, Scott Hall, Kevin Nash, and Sean Waltman; his positioning in D-Generation X after the fallout from the Curtain Call incident died down; his affair with Stephanie behind the broad back of Joanie “Chyna” Laurer; and his role in the Montreal Screwjob:
Yes, that’s Paul “Hunter Hearst Helmsley” Levesque telling Bret Hart’s then-wife Julie, “I swear to God I knew nothing about it…I swear to God.” She wasn’t buying it, suggesting God would strike him down. She was wise to his true character and the part he played in the Kliq/McMahon conspiracy, but was wrong about the involvement of God: despite Shawn Michaels’s conversion to Christianity, given the success of Triple H ever since we can assume the Devil takes care of his own. These were not good people. “I swear to God,” said Triple H, “I knew nothing about it.” But, of course, he did.
“Triple H was a very sincere guy,” says Bruno Sammartino.
And this, according to the Living Legend himself, is what convinced him to allow WWE to induct him into their Hall of Fame.
Now, people do change. Though Triple H was clearly the opposite of a “very sincere guy” in 1997, fifteen years later could have changed him immensely (despite the credible, negative reports from the likes of Matthew Randazzo V, published in Power Slam magazine, in that time). Giving him the benefit of the doubt, he could have become a “very sincere guy.” But given Bruno’s benefit of the doubt, with that in mind, could he not have thought the same of Vince McMahon Jr? Here was a man who reportedly disrespected Bruno and his son David, allegedly flooded the industry with steroids, flaunted his affairs in Playboy magazine, and had men kiss his ass and women crawl across the ring barking like dogs while wearing lingerie. And yet today, from all accounts, Vince introduced a stringent drug-testing policy, made the product PG, and stood by his wife when she ran for Senate. Why would Triple H be a reformed character and Vince McMahon not?
No, the real reasoning behind Bruno Sammartino’s reconciliation with WWE and imminent induction to the Hall of Fame is not about the transformation of a corporation that had already (unlike other promotions) introduced resource-draining drug testing in the mid-1990’s. It’s not about a PG product that features the muscle-bound John Cena and Ryback and the tables, ladders, and chairs using Shield, as well as the foul-mouthed CM Punk and Rock (despite Bruno’s claim that “there is no more vulgarity.”) And it’s clearly got nothing to do with certain key characters being reformed; yes, Triple H was the WWE representative that Bruno Sammartino could stomach speaking to without having to engage with Vince McMahon, thus saving face in the process.
It’s about money, straight and simple.
It’s no secret the Living Legend felt WWE owed him money, and he wouldn’t be caught dead talking to Vince McMahon about it. But if someone – anyone, no matter how unscrupulous otherwise – could do the negotiating and talk numbers, then it became apparent that suddenly Bruno Sammartino could accept a role in a Hall of Fame shared with not just James Dudley, but also Pete Rose, William “The Refrigerator” Perry, Bob Uecker, Drew Carey, Mike Tyson and – on the same day – the odious Donald Trump who supports the McMahons so that they can fight regulations, workers’ rights, and perpetuate the exploitation of professional wrestlers Sammartino supposedly hated so much that he stood his ground.
No, money talks. And Triple H was the one who knew how to put it into words. We may never know the exact figures of the financial rewards reaped by the Sammartino family for this deal. But we can only hope it was worth it. If the Devil takes care of his own, the Sammartinos should be just fine for years to come.