On April 26, 1976, at Madison Square Garden, a still-green Stan Hansen changed the career of champion Bruno Sammartino forever when he unceremoniously dropped him on his head in the middle of the ring. Sammartino was mere millimeters away from being paralyzed, and doctors refused to release him. Here, the two men describe the near-tragic incident in their own words.
Stan Hansen: "Little did I know that my first match with Bruno Sammartino would end in disaster!"
"I was really excited the first night I walked into Madison Square Garden. My thoughts immediately went back to the time when my dad and I watched the Friday night boxing matches from the Garden on television. I’ve always had bad vision, and I remember thinking the building was so big that I couldn’t see the fans at the top of the grandstands. The show itself didn’t sell out, but it drew 17,493 fans, which was still a respectable number.
Little did I know that my first match with Bruno would end in disaster…"
"My worst and most dangerous injury was when I broke my neck in Madison Square Garden. One thing I will tell you is it was not that nonsense they wrote about the lariat. [Editor’s note: Match promoters and Hansen himself would claim that Bruno’s injury was from the power of his trademark ‘Lariat’ maneuver]. That had nothing to do with anything. What happened was we had been going for 15 minutes, somewhere around there, pretty good action stuff.
The thing that I did that wasn’t smart of me was not realizing that a lot of guys were intimidated by Madison Square Garden. I had wrestled in Madison Square Garden every single month and headlined there 211 times, and it sold out 187 times.
And this Stan Hansen was a young guy, you know, he was a big guy, 310 pounds and all. We were going at a pretty good pace. I think that the nerves — because Stan became good in the ring — I think he was nervous and what have you, he was tired, and I really think nerves can do that to you…"
"Eight minutes into the match, I hit him with my Lariat move and put him on the mat, after which I brought him up into position for a body slam.
When I was in the Dallas territory, I had several matches with ‘High Chief’ Peter Maivia. I did a move where I caught Peter coming off the ropes and scoop slammed him. In a variation of that move, I would sometimes reach past the middle of his legs to the outside when I picked him up for the slam. Since my shoulders were stiff and Peter was really stocky, I would do it that way so Peter could slide down my back. He could then avoid being slammed by rolling me up with a pinning move…"
"I think that when I was coming off the ropes, shooting tackles, he went to try to scoop slam me, and he couldn’t quite do it…"
"I scooped him, just like I did Peter [Maivia]. However, Bruno wasn’t expecting me to do that. Being uncertain of what I was going to do, he stiffened up. His reaction threw me off balance, and when I tried to go through with the slam, I ended up slamming him on the back of his head and the back of his neck, rather than flat on his back…"
"He dropped me on my neck and broke my neck."
"I went around behind him, pulled him up to a sitting position, and got a headlock on him. Concerned, I held it for a few seconds before whispering, ‘Are you all right?’"
"Everything is a blank after. It’s a good thing there wasn’t too much inside the head! (laughs) "
"He didn’t say anything right away. He just sat in place. He finally said, ‘Give me a few seconds…’"
"I came within a millimeter of being paralyzed from the neck down."
"My doctors told me that I came within a millimeter of being paralyzed from the neck down. That was by far the worst injury I ever had."
"When it happened, I knew I’d hurt him, but we all get hurt, and we all continue on lots of times. Bruno was in great shape, very muscular in his neck and shoulders. All those years of weight training probably saved his life. Thank god.
I was ready to up and [quit]. I felt bad because he was the one that gave me the thumbs up to come in. And he was the champion, a legitimate superstar before the media made people, and he gave young guys a chance, you know?
A lot of people accused me of [taking advantage of it after].
Of course, I got automatic heat with Vince Sr. ‘cos I hurt the champion – I mean, REALLY hurt him. I had heat with [Ivan] Koloff and [Billy] Graham and everybody else too because they missed out on opportunities to work matches with him."
"When I came back and wrestled Stan Hanson [only two months later] for the return match after the broken neck, the police had to escort him from the dressing room to the ring and wait for him to take him back to the dressing room and then to his car…"
"I was a green guy, y’ know? But it was one of the pivotal moments in my career…"
After the match, doctors initially refused to release Sammartino. They were afraid any movement to his neck would cause paralysis. Dr. Bernard Speigel from Pittsburgh, however, got him out of the hospital in the end.
When this injury occurred, Sammartino’s parents were around eighty years old, and he was afraid that news of his injury would lead them to have a heart attack. His brother and sister had to help break the news to them, which left both parents very concerned for their son, and they encouraged him to retire. Bruno’s wife, Carol, was more understanding.
Stan Hansen would be the cause of another notable wrestling injury fourteen years later. In a hard-hitting affair at 1990’s Tokyo Dome Super Fight for the IWGP Championship, Hansen would cause Vader’s eyeball to popped out of its socket mid-match. You can read all about that incident from both men involved and watch the match here!
As for Sammartino, a short two months after suffering a fractured sixth vertebra, Bruno was back in action where he would have a rematch against Stan Hansen. Sammartino would go on to win the quick match.
WATCH: Bruno Sammartino faces off against Stan Hansen in one of the best steel cage matches of all time
Sources used in this article: ‘The Last Outlaw’ by Stan Hansen and Scott Teal, Fan Q&A with Bruno Sammartino on SteelBeltWrestling.com, Bruno Sammartino interview on solie.org, Stan Hansen HighSpots shoot interview
Many of the quotes above were compiled by Matt Pender and shared here with thanks to our friends over at ‘Wrestling’s Glory Days’ Facebook page.