SI Vault
Lee Alan Gutkind
September 27, 1971
That's the name of the game, and the man who dishes out both is Bruno Sammartino, who keeps them shrieking the world around
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September 27, 1971

A Little Agony, A Little Ecstasy

That's the name of the game, and the man who dishes out both is Bruno Sammartino, who keeps them shrieking the world around

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At Pittsburgh's Civic Arena the wrestling crowd is listless. Periodically someone will scream for action, and the place will thunder with laughter when one of the combatants floors the referee, but mostly the preliminary matches are priming the spectators for Bruno Sammartino. The little old ladies are wearing BRUNO buttons. A fan dressed like a banker and sitting in a corner near the ropes can confide, "There are three pictures above the mantel at home—The Last Supper on the left, Jack Kennedy on the right and in the middle, Bruno Sammartino, the greatest man who ever lived!"

No wonder, then, that as Sammartino approaches the ring the lights dim and a spot spreads bright yellow across the canvas. There is silence, then an explosion of noise. People are suddenly standing and stamping their feet. Kids are shrieking, old ladies are pushing, shoving and holding cameras up high, bulbs flashing. The whole place rocks with a rhythmic pounding chant—"Bruno, Bruno, Bruno!"

Often the scheduled event is just a tag-team match; tonight it is Bruno and his partner Dom DeNucci against Baron Scicluna and George (The Animal) Steele, a vicious-looking man with his head shaved and bushes of strawberry hair sprouting over his stomach and chest. Except for a lot of teen-agers, the crowd hates him, and, like any villain opposing Sammartino, he must be destroyed. "I can't understand," Bruno says later, "how some of those kids could like that dirty pirate Steele. He cheats and sneaks and always tries to trick you. I don't understand kids today—they don't have to cheer me, but it's sick to like Steele."

When the bell clangs, Sammartino rushes out, lifts 285 pounds of The Animal over his shoulders and dashes him to the canvas. Bruno is lightning fast, persistently charging his opponent, fighting like Joe Frazier but stooping and jumping like a gigantic toad in green shorts. The Animal crawls to his knees, begging, but Bruno lifts again and this time rockets him over the ropes and into the lap of Pennsylvania Athletic Commissioner Marion Klingensmith.

The whole arena is trembling, everyone is yelling, climbing onto chairs, grabbing the person next to him. BRUNO POWER buttons and Bruno magazines are sailing all over the place. On the cover are two full-color portraits of Bruno. "A collector's item," the publication tells you.

A heavyset woman comes running from the third tier. She fights her way through the crowd and collapses on her belly at the edge of the ring, screaming for Bruno. A guard grabs her leg, throws her into a chair. Fights break out. And then a security guard and a Pittsburgh policeman get into a fight over who is going to break up another fight. The guard whacks the policeman with a billy club. At ringside, a lady in a red dress is standing up in her chair singing, "Goody-goody, goody-goody, goody-goody." A white-haired matron is punching her homemade George Steele doll and clutching rosary beads to her breast.

When it is over, everyone sinks back onto the metal folding chairs and listens, eyes closed, while Ring Announcer Barry Levine informs them that the winners are Steele and Scicluna. But when Steele and Scicluna leave the ring, they are attacked by two men. For protection, they kidnap a woman and drag her into the locker room. And, like one great mountain of rage and indignation, the crowd surges after them. It will be a long time before the great Bruno goes home tonight.

The next day there is one paragraph about the match in the Pittsburgh papers. Bruno is angry. "Sportswriters disgust me. They hardly ever write anything about wrestling, and when they do it is only to make fun or criticize."

He points to his loss of the World Wide Wrestling Federation championship to Ivan Koloff. "Sportswriters joke about me losing my belt after eight years, but do they mention my shoulder separation? I could have called the match off, but I didn't want to disappoint my fans. I had already beaten Koloff four or five times, and if I wasn't in such pain I would have done it again.

"There was one bout with Koloff where there was a quart of blood in the ring and a writer had the nerve to say it was tomato juice. Then later I am accused of using blood capsules."

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