Welcome to the 2nd edition of Rex Goes Retro, and we’re taking a little detour from our journey through Saturday Night’s Main Event to take a look at the career of the longest reigning WWE champion of all-time, Bruno Sammartino. Bruno was one of the most popular professional wrestlers of all-time, and it’s very obvious once you watch some of his matches and hear some of the loudest crowd reactions you’ll ever hear. He held the WWE championship for over 11 years across two reigns, which is impressive to say the least. With Bruno celebrating his 81st birthday earlier this month and sitting down with JBL for a 40+ minute interview on WWE Network, I thought this would be an ideal time to take a look at a handful of his matches from what would go on to become his home despite being from Pittsburgh, Madison Square Garden. This is only a few of the matches that I managed to find easily available online, so perhaps down the line we will see a Bruno at the Garden II. Now, I’ve often heard that Bruno’s matches don’t exactly age well, but I decided to go in and find out for myself. Let’s get into it!
WWWF Championship: Bruno Sammartino (c) vs. Killer Kowalski
Date: April 29, 1974
Right off the bat this match had a clear direction and each wrestler had a clear game plan and that’s something I value a lot in a wrestling match. Killer Kowalski immediately attacked Bruno’s left knee, using his signature claw grip on it and stomping it into the mat. Bruno’s game plan early on would become clear too, he was targeting the left arm of Kowalski. What I love about this match is that even if you had no idea who these guys were, it was clear as day who was the babyface and who was the heel. Kowalski used the ropes for leverage, to choke Bruno, bit his forehead several times, etc. And the crowd was SO hot for Bruno and his comebacks, it was infectious. I found myself throwing punches aimlessly in the air along with Bruno, and the fans in the front row for that matter. About halfway through the match, Bruno begins doing work on Kowalski’s knee which is a nice touch for two reasons. It’s almost as if Bruno is giving him a taste of his own medicine for the damage he dealt earlier in the match, and the knee work followed a flurry of kick-based offense from Kowalski (including an awesome shotgun dropkick) so it makes sense psychology-wise. When I say the crowd is hot for Bruno here, that is an understatement. For instance, at the tail end of the match, Kowalski corners Bruno and just starts laying into his forehead with punches which busts him wide open. Bruno essentially Hulks up before Hulking up was cool, brother. When he finally lands that initial right hand on Kowalski, the crowd ERUPTS in one of the biggest pops I’ve ever heard. Both guys start slugging the hell out of each other to the point where the referee calls for the bell. I ended up liking this match even more than I anticipated, which is always a good thing. The selling was absurd at times but always in a good way. The crowd’s love for Bruno was infectious, and it was nice to finally see a Killer Kowalski match and be able to associate something with him other than the guy who trained Triple H. (Thanks Ruthless Aggression era RAW).
WWWF Championship: Bruno Sammartino (c) vs. Spiros Arion
Date: August 1975
I mentioned in the previous match that I had liked it more than I anticipated. That’s because I usually hear that most 70s WWWF matches don’t really hold up well and are usually a bore. Well, that’s what I got here. This isn’t a really bad match or anything, most of it is technically sound, except for Bruno’s awful arm drags. But there is just very little to get invested in. There were holds and there were bodyslams, but I just couldn’t bring myself to really care about them. There are a few noteworthy highlights, including an awesome spot where both men have each other in a front facelock and they go back and forth wrenching it in until one loses grip. Also at one point Arion tells the referee, “Ask him while I choke him!” while blatantly choking Bruno, which got a pop out of me. Other than that, the only time it picked up was at the very end for Bruno’s big comeback, which I don’t seem to get tired of watching. The crowd always goes absolutely wild for him and his body language as he plays off of them is always great. I wish Bruno always wrestled with the same intensity he did during those comebacks, but I get why he didn’t. In similar fashion to the Killer Kowalski match from ’74 (and I’m sure many others in between) the referee throws the match out after Bruno gets a little too fired up and won’t stop laying into his opponent. This one fell a little flat with me, but it wasn’t ALL boring. Apparently these two had the PWI 1975 Match of the Year just a few months prior on March 17, so perhaps that one is more worth seeking out. I haven’t been able to find any footage online yet though.
WWWF Championship: Bruno Sammartino (c) vs. Superstar Billy Graham
Date: October 13, 1975
Going into this set of matches, Superstar was one of the opponents I was looking forward to most. Not necessarily because of the work inside the ring, but just so I could marvel at his chiseled body and watch him flex. I’m not even kidding. Superstar had so much charisma that it’s undeniably fun to watch him for me. Before the start of this match the Grand Wizard takes off his jacket and jewelry while Superstar just stands there and flexes for the cameras, it’s amazing. He’s over too, because you can hear the crowd chanting his name before and even during the match. Even Vince Sr. had to put up with his heels getting cheered from time to time. Now onto the in-ring work, the match is pretty much built around the brute strength of these two. The feeling out process is a couple of collar and elbow tie ups with Superstar powering Bruno into the turnbuckle a few times until Bruno can get one and then actually hits a decent arm drag off of it. That’s refreshing. Lots of tests of strengths, and not just tests of strength that start a feeling out process. I’m talking about tests of strength that go on for minutes, functioning as holds almost. Superstar fails to play by the rules, constantly grabbing at Bruno’s hair and eventually using his wrist tape to choke Bruno. He does an awesome job disguising it as a headlock whenever the ref gets suspicious though. This is the turning point in the match for Bruno’s attitude. Now he’s pissed and all sorts of fired up. Whenever Bruno finally gets a hold of the tape, he just blatantly chokes him out, not a single care that the referee can see because he’s blinded by his own rage. Superstar was an awesome heel here. He begs and pleads Bruno to stop even though he totally deserves what he’s getting, making you want to see him get it even more. The match settles into a battle of bear hug vs. bear hug with both men applying the submission effectively. After they both wear each other down, they have a nasty collision following some rope running that knocks Bruno out to the floor. Superstar makes it up before the 10 count, but Bruno doesn’t make it back into the ring. The referee called for the bell and awarded the match to Superstar via countout. This doesn’t go over well for Bruno and his gang because Bruno should have been subject to a 20 count since he was on the floor, not a 10 count like Superstar who was in the ring. This is definitely an interesting situation to deal with for a referee, but he doesn’t handle it well. Obviously this is just setting up for rematches in the future. I enjoyed this match, but I didn’t LOVE it. There’s nothing must-see about it really, but I’ve found that I will always enjoy watching people absurdly sell for Bruno and watching Superstar be Superstar.
WWWF Championship: Bruno Sammartino (c) vs. Superstar Billy Graham
Date: February 2, 1976
This one is joined in progress, which might actually be a blessing because by the time we join the match Bruno is already at his fired up stage. Of course, because it’s MSG and Bruno is in the match, the crowd was HOT for this one. They go wild for Bruno laying into Superstar. Bruno has control until Superstar gets on his knees and begs and pleads and Bruno makes the mistake of sympathizing with him for just a split second, enough time for Superstar to capitalize with a full nelson. Bruno manages to reverse the hold and apply a full nelson of his own, which is impressive considering the size of Superstar’s arms. There’s really not a whole ton going on in this match. Superstar goes to the top twice and misses both times, which costs him. Eventually Bruno lays into Superstar so much that he’s busted open, and Superstar takes a nasty shot into the post that makes the blood poor down his face. Eventually this causes the referee to throw the match out. This seems strange to me, because it seems like something the heel champ would do to a babyface challenger. You know? He busts him open but the babyface is too resilient and courageous to give up, only to be denied his opportunity by the referee who is just concerned for his well-being, something that the challenger values less than his championship. So this definitely feels backwards to me, but oh well. Perhaps this match may have struck me different as a saw the whole thing, but there’s really not too much to see here other than Superstar bleeding like a pig and essentially drunk punching because he’s blinded by his own blood.
WWWF Championship: Bruno Sammartino (c) vs. Big Cat Ernie Ladd
Date: March 1, 1976
Man, Ernie Ladd must have been a sight to see in 1976. I know giants like Andre the Giant were popular figures back then but Ladd looks like a skyscraper next to Bruno here. This match may rival the Spiros Arion match from ’75 as my least favorite Bruno match on this venture so far, although this one is shorter so it doesn’t drag as much. Ladd uses his size to his advantage well. He can pretty much reach the ropes with his legs from any point in the ring, making it difficult for Bruno to keep any sort of hold in for a lengthy period of time. Another thing Ladd uses to his advantage is his infamous taped right thumb that he claimed is due to an injury from his professional football career, which I think is awesome heel work for what it’s worth. If this match is built around anything, it’s that. The referee is constantly suspicious of the thumb but he jabs Bruno’s throat with it more than a few times. Bruno didn’t do all that much here, as Ladd was in control for the majority of the match. It was pretty impressive to see Bruno backdrop Big Cat and execute some of the nicest arm drag takedowns I’ve seen from him yet. I was disappointed with Ladd’s shoulder tackles. This sounds like a weird nitpick but these had potential to be awesome. He would throw Bruno against the ropes and get down in a 3 point stance and charge at him, only the actual collision was always very weak, at least in this match. Big Cat did hit some great looking leg drops, and he even came off the rope with a body splash. This would be what cost him the match though, because Bruno moved out of the way and covered him for the 1-2-3. It was interesting to see a match where Bruno’s opponent was in control for the majority of it, and Bruno didn’t get a fiery comeback from it. He just capitalized on the challenger’s mistake to barely escape with his championship. Not an awful match, but not the most exciting Bruno bout I’ve seen.
Thanks for reading! Make sure to check Wrestling With Words every Saturday night for a new review of Saturday Night’s Main Event, and keep your eyes peeled for various other editions of Rex Goes Retro throughout the week. If you have any suggestions or requests for topics for the series, give me a shout on Twitter.