He sold out Madison Square Garden, the Spectrum, and other arenas in his career, but when Bruno Sammartino accepts a wrestling Hall of Fame induction tomorrow for what he says might be the first time, the ceremony won't take place in one of those hallowed halls of headlocks.
Rather, it will be held at Marjeane Caterers in Lansdale, where the only high school in the borough doesn't even have a wrestling program.
It's all because pro wrestling's evolution into a showcase for scantily dressed women and ribald entertainment - and its history of drug-related deaths - turned one of its greatest champions into, for years, a Hall of Fame don't-wannabe.
"I've rejected just about every wrestling Hall of Fame that has tried to induct me," Sammartino said.
But an invitation from Dino Sanna, owner of the Montgomery County-based World Wide Wrestling Alliance, changed his mind, and tomorrow night at 7 he will become the first wrestler immortalized by the minor-league WWWA.
Sanna, who lives in Hatfield, has been Sammartino's friend for more than 25 years. Sammartino has advised him on running the organization and has appeared at shows.
Sammartino, 73, who has lived in the Pittsburgh suburb of North Hills since he emigrated from Italy in 1950, was champion of the World Wide Wrestling Federation - forerunner of the World Wrestling Federation and today's World Wrestling Entertainment - from 1963-71 and from 1973-77. These days, the scripted championships rarely last even a year.
The differences between the eras, though, go far beyond that.
In Sammartino's G-rated heyday, the male wrestlers were brawny and the female wrestlers looked like, well, wrestlers. These days, in the Vince McMahon-led WWE, the men tend to resemble bodybuilders and the women exotic dancers, and some engage in story lines that push even R-rated limits.
Also, substance abuse has increased. At least 65 pro wrestlers younger than 50 have died in the last decade, and the cause of death was consistent with steroid use in more than half the cases, the Orlando Sentinel reported this year.
"As a guy who wrestled for many, many years, it's very bothersome to me what I've seen," Sammartino said. "That's why I won't have anything to do with wrestling anymore, as far as the major leagues, because of what they've brought it down to - to the gutter, as far as I'm concerned."
The Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame in Amsterdam, N.Y., targeted Sammartino as part of its initial, 13-member class in 2002. He refused to take part, he said, because a couple of the organizers had "lied" to him. (In a display of brass-knuckles bravado, the hall inducted him anyway.)
Sammartino declined to elaborate on the lie, but the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that the dispute was over McMahon's involvement with the New York organization.
Two years later, the WWE revived its hall, which had not inducted anyone since the mid-1990s. "I wasn't considered the first year," Sammartino said, "but I think they got a pretty good backlash from it from the fans. . . . I don't think they expected that kind of reaction." He said McMahon's attorney had contacted his, and then him directly, "and, of course, I wouldn't have anything to do with it each time."
This time is different. Sanna sought Sammartino's advice before starting the WWWA in the early 1980s. Sammartino preached old-school, and Sanna listened. The WWWA touts its "family friendly" wrestling.
"I've taken his advice from the very first day, and we're still around," Sanna said.
Media Man Australia Profiles