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Sammartino contends that professional wrestlers are made out to be buffoons and clowns when in fact they are the greatest of all athletes. On the one hand, critics of wrestling seem justified. Most professionals begin in high school or college, where the contest is legitimate and the action intense, but to make a career of professional wrestling they must adopt ridiculous names, wear bizarre costumes, pull punches and break rules. They become, to all appearances, freaks or show biz, rather than athletes, and since it has been their decision, they have no cause to complain.
But Bruno also has a point. "Football and baseball players are in terrible condition." he says. "In the ring, their tongues would go down to their belly buttons. I used to idolize these men until I found out the truth. They drink, they smoke, they only train for a couple of months. Half the year they loaf. Even when playing, they only need occasional bursts of energy. But in wrestling you never rest."
Says Promoter Freeman, a former pro wrestler himself, "People think wrestling is easy, that it's just a bunch of tricks. They come to my office every day, big men, truck drivers, mill workers. They say they're tough, they want to wrestle. But they'd get killed."
For Sammartino there have been 11 broken noses and five shattered ribs, plus messed-up collarbones, wrists, knuckles, ankles and more stitches than he cares to remember. His elbows are crooked, his nose takes off in various directions and his ears look like shriveled plastic bags—a reasonable condition, probably, for a man who has been wrestling five nights a week for eight years. In the interest of protecting what's left and, not incidentally, regaining the title, Sammartino works out two hours each day, exercising and lifting weights. He does not smoke, and he eats and drinks with care.
"My whole life has been tough," Sammartino says, "and everything I've accomplished has been from hard work. That's the way I want to be recognized. I pride myself on my reputation. I never drink in public. I have never been high in my life. I won't do beer commercials—it wouldn't be the Bruno that all my people know."
Some months ago, however, Sammartino was talking of retirement. "I am 34 years old and I haven't seen my 10-year-old son grow up," he said then. "I want to be more of a father to my 3-year-old twins, and when I lost the title I decided to spend some time with my family and friends."
The latter include Jimmy Durante, Nino Benvenuti and Tenor Franco Corelli ("my hero"). "They're all great guys," Bruno says, "but my best friend is Buddy DeLuca. We used to work out together. He was a milkman, but now he's the director of the physical-fitness department at my health spa."
Bruno has apparently shelved the idea of retirement, but for a moment there his public was panicky.
"It's a trick," declared a matronly fan in a red dress. "They won't let him fight for the title unless he says he's going to retire. Don't you see? With Bruno gone, wrestling is finished!"
It is fortunate that Bruno seems to have changed his mind, because the lady may be right. In the whole history of the game there have been few personalities as popular as Sammartino. Even through the middle '50s, when Don Eagle, Buddy Rogers, Argentina Rocca and Gorgeous George were the heroes of every TV-immersed American, there was never a stronger box-office attraction than Bruno is today.