My Grammy Was a Fan of Bruno Sammartino

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Bruno Sammartino died a few weeks back. His is not exactly a household name anymore, though his death did merit a story in The New York Times. Sammartino died at 82 in Pittsburgh on April 18.

His name was well-known in our household in the 1960s, when Bruno was heavyweight champion of the World Wide Wrestling Federation for 11 years in the 1960s and 1970s — a record since unmatched. My maternal grandparents were avid wrestling fans, and we spent many Sunday afternoons watching matches on their color television, which was a novelty among the middle class 50 years ago. I didn’t own a color television until attending graduate school in the early 1980s.

The quickest way to raise my French-Canadian grandmother’s ire, as we sat in the living room in Hopkinton, N.H., was to intimate that wrestling was “fake.” Hoo boy. She would stretch her 4’10” to maximum height and wag a finger in your face. “Wrestling is not fake,” she would aver in a French accent that never left, despite many years living in New England. And we would sit down to watch Bruno Sammartino face off against wrestling’s villains, with names like Gorilla Monsoon and Chief Big Heart, my diminutive grammy hollering at the television. She did that a lot, whether it was wrestling, a Red Sox game or the Boston Celtics. Meanwhile, my taciturn grandfather, sat in his chair puffing on his pipe.

Gorgeous George was another famous wrestling character, so named for his golden locks. He was about 15 years older than Bruno and considerably outmatched when they finally met. The mantle was passed, as Bruno defeated Gorgeous George in one of the latter’s final matches.

Bruno insisted he never took a dive, a claim that stretches one’s credibility, given the circus sideshow that pro wrestling became in the 1970s, a sweaty choreographic exhibition, replete with fake blood and imaginary feuds. Sammartino, according to the Times piece, was soft-spoken and loved the opera, especially Verdi. He was under 6-feet-tall and rippled with muscle with, as the Times put it, “bulging pectorals and biceps and a big head.” He made as much as $150,000 a year and, while he did not dispute pro matches were fixed, claimed his many injuries were proof of his own forthrightness. In 1961, he body-slammed Chick Garibaldi to the canvas. Garibaldi never got up, dead of what was later ruled a heart attack, which left Bruno deeply remorseful.

Sammartino was born in central Italy in 1935. His family fled the invading Nazis, hiding in the mountains for months and eventually emigrated to Pittsburgh after the war with his mother and surviving siblings. His father had fled in 1939 to seek work in America. Bruno was a stereotypical class weakling and worked hard to gain strength and agility.

Grammy Bourque never lost her love for wrestling or the Red Sox. Our family moved to Texas in 1968, and I left wrestling behind. Years ago, I attended a traveling wrestling show in Nacogdoches out of curiosity. It was laughably fake, with clumsy body slams and fake punches. The sweat was real, as were the howls of the crowd, who had clear favorites. I had no idea who any of these yahoos were, with their bulging pecs and Billy Joe Cyrus haircuts. I didn’t stay long.

The fellow presently occupying the Oval Office is a member of the World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Fame. In 2007, Trump “wrestled” WWE chief Vince McMahon, pinning him down and shaving his head. Then “Stone Cold” Steve Austin downed the future president with a Stunner punch.

That pretty well sums up my view of the current presidency. As one columnist put it, “The Trump Presidency is right out of a WWE script.” Lucky for Trump that Bruno Sammartino wasn’t available. I bet he could have pinned the president in under 10 seconds.

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