[Originally published March 22 at http://slam.canoe.ca/Slam/Wrestling/GuestColumn/2013/03/20/20672231.html]
Bruno’s bad call on WWE Hall of Fame shows Vince is right – everyone has a price
by Irvin Muchnick
Since the Bruno Sammartino marks will automatically swallow just about anything he says, while the truly close friends seem afraid to speak the truth to him, it falls to the basic tough-love admirers to speak plainly to Sammartino about the damage he has done to his legacy by accepting induction into the WWE Hall of Fame.
OK, I’ll take that one.
First, let me qualify the above claim. I had breakfast with Bruno once in New York back in the 1980s, and we spoke several times on the phone over the next decade. In 1992, the day after Sammartino debated Vincent K. McMahon about the then-WWF drug and ring-boy pedophile scandals on CNN’s Larry King Live, I called Bruno to tell him it was his finest hour. In critical statements to the media, he has cited elements of the reporting in my books Wrestling Babylon and Chris & Nancy.
Growing up in St. Louis, I did not see Sammartino wrestle, and in judging talent, I naturally was caught up in NWA vs. WWWF tribalism; for me, Lou Thesz was the gold standard. Later, after I’d left town, Bruno worked quite a bit for my uncle, Sam Muchnick, in the mid- and late 1970s. I know Sam had great respect for Bruno’s integrity and talent, even though the latter was largely limited by a punch-kick repertoire with the mostly big, slow heels with whom he was routinely booked by the current Vince McMahon’s father, Vincent J. McMahon.
More recently, I learned additional details of Bruno’s extraordinary life story, and his almost equally extraordinary wrestling superstardom on the heels of having been blackballed by the elder McMahon in one of Buddy Rogers’ power plays. Bruno was out of the industry, working on a construction gang in Pittsburgh, when he got the call from Frank Tunney in Toronto. Playing off the large Italian community in that city, and building his own, understated, once-in-a-lifetime brand of charisma, Sammartino got over like a million bucks. The rest is history.
At age 77, Sammartino was understandably worried that the McMahon family, who enjoy a virtual monopoly on the North American wrestling market in addition to a large majority of the global market, could bury his place in wrestling history if he didn’t come to terms with them for the WWE Hall of Fame. Bruno’s admirers might sigh or even grumble at such a choice, but they couldn’t begrudge him a business decision in his own ultimate best interest.
Unfortunately, though, that’s not all Sammartino did. He also aggressively asserted that his decision to return to the WWE fold was the acme of righteousness, because he’d vetted the WWE wellness policy and found it passed muster — due mostly to his great trust in Dr. Joseph Maroon, WWE’s medical director. Maroon, a top neurosurgeon, had operated successfully on Bruno’s back, which he rightly credits for his ability to remain not only mobile but even active in old age.
While I’m glad that Bruno has had a positive personal experience with Maroon, that is not a substitute for a thorough critique of how WWE treats its talent and whether the wellness policy is a cynical veneer of public relations.
Of course, not everyone shares my harshest views of the efficacy and intent of the wellness policy. But the point is: Bruno once did. His sudden 180 on this issue, which includes a YouTube video with Maroon and Paul Levesque (a.k.a. Triple H, McMahon’s son-in-law), viewable here, comes off as expedient and opportunistic. Because it is.
Levesque built his own squeaky-clean physique with the assistance of a personal trainer named Dave Palumbo. Levesque hired Palumbo after his release from prison for selling fake human growth hormone. A well-known steroid guru, Palumbo designs test-beating steroid cycles.
Bathing in the statue-building and celebrity worship of his senescence, Sammartino now even cites his long friendship and training camaraderie with Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is being solicited to do the introductory speech at Bruno’s Hall of Fame induction.
Readers interested in the bill of particulars against Maroon and the phony wellness policy should read the 2007 investigation of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which was prompted by the murder-suicide of Chris Benoit. You are also invited to browse the archives at my site, concussioninc.net, or get my 2012 ebook short, UPMC: Concussion Scandal Ground Zero. Here are a few bullets.
* Maroon’s University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, which is tight with the National Football League as well as with WWE, has been at the leading edge of deflecting, diluting and denying scientific evidence of the public health consequences of traumatic brain injury. UPMC doctors, who are the “sponsored” (that is, paid advertising) medical providers for the Pittsburgh Steelers, have cultivated an environment of abuse of steroids, and of the grossly overused painkiller and concussion-masking drug Toradol, that is regarded as among the worst in the NFL.
* In 2007, at the same time they were denying the validity of the groundbreaking research on chronic traumatic encephalopathy by Maroon’s arch-nemesis, Dr. Bennet Omalu, the McMahons told CNN that they were banning chair shots to the head. Yet a year later — months after Maroon’s installation as WWE medical director — Shawn Michaels blasted Lance McNaught (“Lance Cade”) squarely on top of the head with a chair on Raw; McNaught was dead two years later, at 29.
* After the 2009 drug overdose death, at 33, of another former WWE performer, Andrew “Test” Martin, Omalu’s analysis of Martin’s brain tissue established that he, like Benoit, had CTE. WWE issued a statement to ESPN claiming that “WWE has been asking to see the research and test results in the case of Mr. Benoit for years and has not been supplied with them.” In fact, Maroon himself had helped organize a gathering of researchers at the West Virginia Brain Injury Research Institute in October 2008 whose specific purpose included the opportunity for him and the others to view Omalu’s Benoit slides for themselves. Demonstrating that his loyalty to the corporation paying him exceeded his loyalty to the truth, Maroon allowed WWE’s lie to ESPN to stand without correction.
* In 2010, Maroon dismissed the concerns of wrestler Charlie Haas, whom WWE was about to cut after his doctor told him he had a herniated neck disk that required fusion surgery. “It’s just a ‘stinger,’” Maroon told Haas on the phone, without even examining him.
* During Linda McMahon’s first U.S. Senate campaign in Connecticut in 2010, Maroon told the Hartford Courant that WWE had “no talent now on steroids.” Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer Newslettercalled this statement “mind-boggling” in its mendacity. An Observer readers’ poll came to the overwhelming opinion that Maroon was lying.
We could go on and on. And while Sammartino is extolling the wellness policy in his transparently self-serving fashion, someone should ask him what he thinks of the rigorous screening of ripped-at-40 WWE champion and movie star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson — the headliner at WrestleMania the day after Bruno’s WWE Hall of Fame induction. What were the lab results when The Rock peed in a cup? Or is he a talent “exception” from the wellness policy, like Vince McMahon himself (who after all is just the owner)?
None of this even gets into Sammartino’s complaint, well articulated in this speech at the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame in Amsterdam, New York, just last year (watch here) that the WWE Hall disrespects the profession by lumping wrestlers together with celebrities like Pete Rose, Drew Carey, and Donald Trump.
Others can patronize or defer to Bruno Sammartino as much as they want. For my money, there is only one way what he has done can be morally justified. That would be for him to swerve the McMahons at the HOF ceremony in Madison Square Garden, and use his speech as a platform to explain that, on further reflection, he decided not to accept induction, and why.
All of us — marks, close friends or otherwise — know way too much about how pro wrestling works to hold out any serious hope for such an outcome.
Irvin Muchnick is the author of three books and a line of ebook shorts; complete information on all of them is at https://concussioninc.net. ECW Press recently published a digital edition of CHRIS & NANCY: The True Story of the Benoit Murder-Suicide and Pro Wrestling’s Cocktail of Death, with a new and updated introduction.