Bruno Sammartino and Buddy Rogers – The 1963 WWWF Title Screwjob

Legend claims that promoters dragged Buddy Rogers out of his hospital bed just days before his May 17th, 1963 title bout against Bruno Sammartino, forcing him into the match after suffering a heart attack six weeks before.

Others say Rogers was reluctant to give up the title after being told prior that he was going to win the match.

It wasn’t until he got in the ring that Sammartino told him in no uncertain terms that it was HE who was going over that day.

“We can do this the easy way or the hard way!”

Just 48 seconds later, Bruno Sammartino was the new champ, and a hero was born.

Bruno Sammartino and Buddy Rogers open up about this critical moment in professional wrestling history that all but marked the end of one legendary career and launched another, and the hatred that forever remained between the two.

Bruno Sammartino wins the WWWF Championship for the very first time after defeating Buddy Rogers in just 48 seconds at Madison Square Garden on May 17, 1963.
Bruno Sammartino wins the WWWF Championship for the very first time after defeating Buddy Rogers in just 48 seconds at Madison Square Garden on May 17th, 1963. [Photo: Pro Wrestling Illustrated]

The Bruno Sammartino and Buddy Rogers Title Screwjob

“Screwjob” is a term that gets thrown around loosely in the wrestling world. You’ve got the most infamous one that took place in Montreal in 1997, a screwy finish involving a spider and Wendi Richter in ’85, and, of course, the time Gorgeous George screwed over Chief Don Eagle with a ‘Chicago Short Count’, which is often considered the very first screwjob in wrestling.

In today’s story, we hear from both Bruno Sammartino and Buddy Rogers in regards to the screwjob finish in 1963 that propelled “The Italian Strongman” into becoming “The Living Legend.”

BRUNO SAMMARTINO:

“Buddy Rogers and I never liked each other. But I respected him…”

BUDDY ROGERS:

“I had already signed for my match with Sammartino… then six weeks before, I went into Georgetown University hospital with a heart attack. I was in that hospital for up to 5 days before I wrestled. But I made sure I kept my word, and I went through with the match. Any fifteen-year-old kid coulda beat me that night. Believe me; I had pains in my chest just walking to the ring…”

BRUNO SAMMARTINO:

“[It’s been] said that when I wrestled Rogers for the title, the reason was Rogers had had a heart attack and had to be helped to the ring, and that’s how he lost the belt.

There is not one ounce of truth in that.

Buddy Rogers made these claims in a couple of appearances that he made after losing the belt.

Let me tell you a little story that happened here in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I used to come home from Toronto, Canada, twice a month every Sunday, because we would be at the Maple Leaf Garden, shows every other Sunday. They had a show at the Civic Arena, but those were the days of the Buddy Rogers era, and Vince McMahon Sr. was trying to get me to come back because he saw my success in Canada.

I told him that the only way I would come back is if he put me in the ring with Buddy Rogers for the title.

I was in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in that territory, and Vince McMahon, Sr. was near bankruptcy because that was how poorly this place was doing. Pittsburgh has a new arena, which was the Civic Arena that held 19,000 people, and Buddy Rogers came in with a big cigar strutting around, and by the time it was 8:00 pm, he went to look at the audience, and the place was empty.

Buddy Rogers was a funny guy, and he thought he wasn’t going to wrestle under these conditions, and back then, we didn’t have contracts like today, but more or less, we strictly got paid on the gate.

When Buddy Rogers saw the attendance, he wanted to get out of there, and he told the doctor he felt a funny pain on his chest. When the doctor heard that, he called Paul Sullivan, who was the head of the state athletic commission. The doctor who was at every show said to Paul Sullivan, ‘I am checking Buddy Rogers’ blood pressure, and I am listening to his chest, and everything sounds okay, but he claims that he has a pain in his chest. I don’t know if I should allow him to go in the ring…’

When Pat Sullivan heard that, he immediately stopped Buddy Rogers from going to the ring, but he also informed all the state athletic commissions that he was revoking his license until they found out if, in fact, there was a problem. When Vince McMahon, Sr. and Totts Mondt heard about this, of course, they got him to come to Washington, DC, and they put him in a famous hospital over there.

Buddy Rogers was examined and re-examined, and they couldn’t find a thing wrong with him, and then after that, his license was reinstated. Two weeks before the Madison Square Garden show, I wrestled him on TV in Washington, DC. That was live TV that went to New York.

Buddy Rogers was wrestling every day – and he was NOT in a hospital.

In New York, you go through an extensive physical to get your license, and every night before you wrestled, you had a physical in the dressing room. I had seen wrestlers stopped from going to the ring because something wasn’t right…”

BUDDY ROGERS:

“Prior to that, over a period of two years, I defeated Sammartino eleven straight times. So, as far as I was concerned, Bruno never stood a chance with me.

After my heart attack, I told myself to forget [wrestling]. I knew it was all done; I just knew I couldn’t produce like I once did.

The toughest job in my life was climbing in that ring [after] coming out of intensive care, and knowing that I could never wrestle again after that.

But I kept my word. I went in that ring…”

BRUNO SAMMARTINO:

“Did I really say to him, ‘We can do this the easy way or the hard way’?

Just about. (Laughs) Yeah, that’s how it happened…”

Watch: Bruno Sammartino defeats Buddy Rogers for the WWWF Championship in 48 seconds at Madison Square Garden on May 17th, 1963

BUDDY ROGERS:

“Retiring… you can’t explain it, it really takes you down. You spend your whole life in this particular field, then all of a sudden it’s no more. You don’t get another penny out of that field; you don’t have anything to do with that field. Imagine doing something all those years and loving it – all of a sudden, you never do it again.

It was the hardest thing in my life to go out of wrestling. I didn’t get as great as I did in wrestling by not loving it. It was my whole life. I can’t explain it…”

BRUNO SAMMARTINO:

“Afterwards, there were obviously bad feelings. Very bad feelings. We never spoke again.

Rogers was one of the great wrestlers of his era. That match meant so much to me because that put me at the top. You couldn’t achieve a higher goal than winning the title. That made me the number one guy – I was going to be the headliner after that, you know? So, that was the big break if you will.

Many, many years later, there was a convention one time in New York where they invited some wrestlers from yesteryear where we signed autographs and so forth.

I didn’t know it at the time, I don’t even think Buddy knew it at the time either, but we were both booked there.

Georgiann Makropoulos – she used to write a lot of wrestling stuff and had been the president of Roger’s fan club and then sometime later became the president of my fan club – went to him and she then went to me, and she said, ‘Please, it’s been all these years. Can we bury the hatchet more or less, and we’ll take a picture, and I’ll stand between the two of you…’

So, I told her, ‘Well, I don’t want to keep holding grudges. If he’s willing, then fine.’

It was funny because Georgiann went and got him, got me, and she stood in the middle. We took a picture, but we never spoke a word to each other…” (Laughs)

Georgiann Makropoulos was the only person ever to get Bruno Sammartino and Buddy Rogers to pose together, as they hated each other. She was the head of both their fan clubs.
Georgiann Makropoulos was the only person ever to get Bruno Sammartino and Buddy Rogers to pose together, as they hated each other. She was the head of both their fan clubs. [Photo: @allan_cheapshot on Twitter]

Aftermath

Buddy Rogers indeed continued to wrestle after this match, though he worked mainly in short tag matches until his ‘first’ retirement one year later. He would later return for two brief comebacks, and much later as a manager. He died in 1992 at the age of 71.

In the many years that have since passed, the phrase, “We can do this the easy way or the hard way!” often gets attributed to other wrestling stories. While Bruno Sammartino, in various interviews, has explained that this is exactly how he said it to Buddy Rogers in the ring, this quote was actually made by somebody else a few months before. When Lou Thesz came out of semi-retirement on January 24th, 1963, in Toronto to fight Buddy Rogers for the World Heavyweight Championship, Rogers was supposedly having second thoughts about dropping the title to Thesz. Thesz made him this offer: “We could do this the easy way or the hard way.” Rogers dropped the title.

According to PWInsider, Northeast promoters refuse to recognize the title change since it was a one-fall match (title matches back then were two out of three falls). As an interesting aside, Thesz beat Rogers in a three falls rematch on February 7th, 1963, in Toronto, a result often forgotten. The Northeast would soon later break away from the NWA to form the World Wide Wrestling Federation (later known as the WWF and WWE today).

The reason for the split was because Northeast promoters Toots Mondt and Vince McMahon, Sr. controlled Buddy Rogers’ bookings, and wanted to keep Rogers (and the title) in the Northeast. The other NWA members were not pleased with the situation, and this led to the split. Rogers dropped the NWA Title to Thesz (and got back his deposit on the belt), and the Northeast promoters used the one-fall match as the reason for the split from the NWA.

To clear up a common misconception, Rogers was not immediately named WWWF World Heavyweight Champion. He would not be declared champion until April 29th, 1963, having won a fictional tournament in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Rogers would then drop the title a month later to Bruno Sammartino in less than a minute.

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SOURCES: Chris Yandek – New Era Of Wrestling & The Sports Interview with Bruno Sammartino, Buddy Rogers interview on Jim Barniak’s Sports ScrapbookSolie.org October ’97 interview with Bruno Sammartino, The International Gazette – “Wrestling’s Living Legend Bruno Sammartino Gets Inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame”

The quotes made from Bruno Sammartino and Buddy Rogers were originally compiled by Matt Pender and shared here with thanks to our friends over at ‘Wrestling’s Glory Days’ Facebook page.


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