Bruno Sammartino took the wrestling business seriously–so seriously, in fact, that he refused to break kayfabe longer than almost anyone else from his era. For decades after his career ended, Sammartino insisted that his matches had all been legitimate. And, as legendary manager Jim Cornette noted on a recent podcast, Sammartino still kayfabed certain aspects of his career. Sammartino, who died on April 18, 2018, at 82 years old, took the wrestling business seriously. He worked out daily, even up until the recent illness that claimed his life. As a wrestler who treated professional grappling as a legitimate sport, he prepared for every match and every opponent.
He did road work–running up to 8 miles every day–until his body would no longer let him. His reputation as a strongman was well-earned, and Sammartino continued lifting weights on a daily basis well into his later years, as well.
His straightforward, no-nonsense attitude allowed generations of fans in the northeast United States to believe in him, and Sammartino didn’t want to let those fans down.
One night, Bruno Sammartino and his commitment to kayfabe nearly killed another WWE Hall of Famer, “Classy” Freddie Blassie.
That same attitude also saved Blassie’s life.
Blassie had just finished up as WWA “world” champion in Los Angeles. Sammartino was in the middle of an epic 7.5-year run as the WWWF champion. Wrestling fans on the East Coast didn’t know that Blassie had lost the title, so Sammartino vs. Blassie could be billed as champion vs. champion. The two met at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City, New Jersey, on June 26, 1964. Sammartino was a huge favorite with the pro-Italian crowd.
“I had to exit the dressing room through the dugout–the ring was located on the pitcher’s mound–and when I walked up the steps and turned to taunt the audience, their profanity even took me by surprise. Not only were the fans cursing me in English, but they were also spitting out some Italian phrases I’d never heard before,” Blassie wrote in his book, Listen, You Pencil-Neck Geeks.
The fight in the ring was rough, and the crowd bought into it. More than 14,000 fans were in attendance that night, and they were all there to see Sammartino take the definitive victory. But this night, their hero was the one who took the loss.
“Bruno and I had a real brawl. I grabbed his cauliflower ears and twisted them, then paused and looked at the crowd to piss them off. On the canvas, I snatched his arm and tied the bottom rope around it, like a tourniquet,” Blassie wrote. “About forty-five minutes into the match, the referee got knocked out of the ring. When Bruno bent over to help him back in, I booted him in the balls from behind, kicking him to ringside. That’s where he stayed, as the referee counted him out and I raised my arms in triumph.”
Things might not have gotten so bad, but an inexperienced security guard made Blassie stay in the ring rather than leave for the locker room. The guard (mistakenly) wanted Blassie to wait in the ring until the crowd calmed down.
“The guy was a half-wit,” Blassie stated. “I knew that the longer you waited, the angrier the people would get.” And they did get angry. The fans didn’t riot, but the fans were pushing their way toward the ring. It was getting dangerous. Eventually, Blassie had to be rescued by the heel locker room, including Killer Kowalski and the Graham Brothers–Dr. Jerry and Crazy Luke–but the worst was yet to come. Blassie raced from the ring. Unfortunately, he was going the wrong way. He ended up in Sammartino’s dressing room, along with Herbie Freeman, who ran the dressing rooms for Vince Sr.
Was the fight between Bruno Sammartino and Freddie Blassie real?
“As I was talking to Herbie, Bruno came in on a stretcher, still selling my blow to his nuts. He had a whole entourage around him, which was pretty typical,” Blassie wrote. “In every town, the most powerful Italians latched themselves on to Sammartino and decided that they were his protectors–whether Bruno wanted them there or not. Some of these guys were businessmen, others were political types, and a few–I’m sure–were mobsters. I’m not implying for a second that Bruno would ever have any dealings with the Mafia on his own. But he’d gotten so famous that he couldn’t always pick the boneheads who chose to band around him.”
Among the hangers-on, that evening was Jilly Rizzo, a close friend of Frank Sinatra–yes, THE Frank Sinatra–and owner of Jilly’s, a bar on West 52nd Street in Manhattan.
“… Jilly Rizzo was a big Bruno Sammartino supporter, and a true-believer wrestling fanatic,” Blassie stated. “From across the dressing room, he eyed me suspiciously. Bruno and I were still in character, so I yelled, ‘Look at that! Typical Italian stunt! You hit him in the neck and he grabs his balls!’
“Rizzo reached for his gun. ‘Motherfucker,’ he said. ‘I’ll kill the son of a bitch.’
“Bruno looked over at me and made eye contact. ‘No, let him go,’ he told Jilly. ‘I want him for myself the next time we step into the ring.’
It was the right thing for Sammartino to say. His seriousness–his earnestness–eased the tension in the dressing room. The moment passed. Rizzo put his gun away. Herbie Freeman sent someone to get Blassie’s street clothes and pull his car around to the dressing room. Freeman then arranged for police to escort the heel away from the building, and Blassie knew he’d pushed playing the villain almost too far.
“My guess is that Rizzo was bluffing, acting like a tough guy when he had Bruno Sammartino around to back him up,” Blassie wrote. “But, if he wasn’t, Bruno had just saved my life.”