The passing of Bruno Sammartino last week saw one of wrestling's greatest legends leave us. However, it's not his in-ring accomplishments that deserve all the attention.
Kayfabe Commentaries' Sean Oliver wrote about Sammartino at length in his 2017 book, testifying to the character of the WWE Hall of Famer. After Sammartino's death, Oliver was nice enough to pass along a chapter of the highly recommended book.
The following is an excerpt from the book Kayfabe: Stories You’re Not Supposed to Hear from a Pro Wrestling Production Company Owner by Sean Oliver.
For all the wackiness I’m discussing, I’d be remiss if I didn’t spotlight the single most honorable act we’d encountered, by the single most honorable man I ever met in wrestling.
We had occasion to work with Bruno Sammartino one time after The Great Debate ‘08 for our Timeline: The History of WWE series. That series would have a gaping and inexcusable hole if the greatest WWE champion ever were not a part of it. We had Bruno cover 1963-1969 for the series, since he held the WWE heavyweight title for that entire span. Collectively, he would hold that belt for almost 12 years. Bruno was a must. And it wasn’t an easy road.
In 2012 we booked Bruno to appear on the show. He would come into New Jersey, make an appearance at the Legends of the Ring convention, and when he was done with his signing he would have about two and a half hours to knock out our show before he had to be whisked back to Pittsburgh.
This would be a monumental appearance for our show so we wanted to add some special touches. We commissioned Shanghai-born sports artist Enyou to do a series of original paintings and lithographs of Bruno. For special names that we work with, we do offer limited, autographed DVD runs called Signature Editions. For Bruno I wanted something much more significant than our regular Signature Edition. For this show, fans would be able to order the original paintings, each signed by Bruno, with a unique phrase written on it, for $999 with the DVD. One step below that package we offered autographed lithograph prints with the DVD for $99. We would make this special.
All the plans were put in place. Enyou’s work was coming along beautifully, with each of his original works having unique elements to distinguish from one another. One panting was accented with current WWE colors of red and black, another one with the red, white, and green for Italy’s flag. Another one was painted with the original belt. Each had Bruno in the same pose, with some varied details. They’re beautiful. We still have a few originals. Buy one!
Anthony had to write a show that would cover 1963-1969 and feel complete, yet not rushed. We had to nail it in about two hours, as we’d need the other half hour for Bruno to meet Enyou in person, take some pictures as he presented Bruno with a framed original. Then Bruno would have to sign the 12 original pieces and 88 prints. We’d need every bit of those two and a half hours. Above all, though, we needed a show, and a great one. We were crafting a very special edition of what was becoming our benchmark series. This was an event.
That event began to distort into a nightmare.
We were all set up and ready to go. The set was dressed, including a beautiful, framed Enyou original sitting on an easel between Bruno’s and my seat. The artist was there and just unpacked all of the works into a conference room awaiting the Living Legend. Bruno was just down the hall signing for fans at the convention. His line for autographs was very long. These appearances are timed, though the stars sometimes elect to stay until every fan gets an autograph. Sometimes promoters have the stars sign longer than their appointed time. Whatever the case, on this day Bruno signed well over his time. Our window of time was closing and it was apparent we now didn’t have the time we were promised.
When Bruno was finished signing for the convention fans, a handful of us convened in a large conference room. Bruno sat down next to his agent for the day, Scott Epstein. Scott is the man with whom I made this deal. He brokered Bruno for us. Also present were James and Terence, promoters of the convention. Then there was a very pissed off me and an equally pissed off Anthony. Everyone in the room had a grievance and the tension was palpable. Anyone non-essential to the particulars of this deal were asked to leave, embarrassingly enough for me that included Enyou, who ventured here exclusively for this. I walked him to the door and had my crew take him down the hall to the set, where I told him there was no problem, I’d be right back.
So here’s what we had … the Legends of the Ring convention, who got their signing and then some. Then there was Bruno and Scott, who got paid for the convention, but knew the other part of the deal, our video, was running out of time. Finally you had Kayfabe Commentaries who wrote a show, advertised the hell out of it, commissioned an artist, and were getting dick as far as a product that day. I don’t know who spoke first, but I remember exactly what everyone said. There was Bruno, who was very direct.
“I agreed to be out here for X number of hours,” he began. “For whatever reason, I signed more at the convention than I was told. I know you need more time for this video, but I am not changing my flight to a later time, it’s already almost four, and if I am expected to stay out here another day it has to be worth my while.” He looked at me.
There was a moment, however brief, that I wondered how many times Vincent J. McMahon had been in my shoes and heard that, looking straight into those same eyes that I was. It was, admittedly, a cool thought. I reached into my pocket to see if I had some loose change to jingle around, possibly conjuring up the spirit of the long-deceased promoter. That psychological edge may throw Bruno for a loop.
Here we were with our deal being blown and the unconscionable idea that we would pay more was being floated. That only bolstered my strength. No matter who you’re talking to about the deal, the show is still your child. You have to defend it.
“We are the only party in this room that is leaving here today with absolutely nothing,” I said. “We will not pay a dime more than anything we agreed to because this delay was not our fault and, quite honestly, we are the victims here.”
James offered Bruno more money for the extra time he signed at the convention. He declined. We were getting nowhere.
The agent on this deal, Scott Epstein, who I liked very much before that day, sat with his hands folded and said nothing. Not a goddamn word. There was no attempt to juggle the schedule. There was no acknowledgement that the deal I struck with him was getting fucked before our very eyes. After Bruno spoke, Scott shrugged, hands folded, and just stared at us and James and Terence. I was disappointed. There was no negotiator present. The clock was moving, he had a flight, and I wasn’t paying any more. We would have to wrap this up. I’d use the hour or so we had left to have Bruno sign the paintings and meet Enyou.
Bruno offered to have us out to Pittsburgh to shoot at the house or even a TV studio that a friend of his owned. I shook his hand and just told him to commit to finding some time in the coming weeks for us. He agreed.
James from Legends of the Ring had become a friend and a business partner on more than once occasion. He was a straight shooter and all of our deals were verbal and we both know each other’s words are solid. He is very unlike many in this business. I know for a fact that after we left the room James threw everyone else out and forced additional pay on Bruno for his time. James is honorable that way. Didn’t help us, though.
Weeks passed and I was comfortable knowing I had Bruno’s word on the show. It would now cost us the expense of moving a shoot out to Pittsburgh, but we needed this show. Sometimes you bite the bullet.
One day the bullet got very, very big. The WWE made an announcement that I actually knew was coming from back before I initially booked Bruno. The WWE would finally, after an embarrassingly inordinate amount of time, be inducting Bruno Sammartino into the Hall of Fame. Great news for us, right?
Not exactly. I knew that after this announcement was public, the WWE would begin restricting Bruno’s appearances and clearing them all through their office. I imagined they’d let him appear at some conventions, but likely not appear on any taped programming. As I said, I knew this induction announcement was coming but I also knew they wouldn’t be announcing it for some time. Triple H had gone to see Bruno and floated the idea. They had no formal agreement when I booked him, though Scott had indicated he was likely going to do it. Triple H’s offer was sweet–the money was huge. I told Epstein I needed to jump the line and get this show. So we booked it.
To my mind, I had a couple of months to announce Bruno’s appearance on Timeline: The History of WWE, get the paintings done, signed, and shoot our show. After that, they would make the Hall of Fame announcement and subsequently the value on our show and artwork, both completed, would rise.
This is why losing the shoot at that convention was so significant. The clock on the wall that day wasn’t the only clock chasing me. There was a larger one that involved the Hall of Fame. I had Bruno’s word he’d reschedule with us, but now there would be another party involved in Connecticut.
Some time later, just before the Hall of Fame, I saw Bruno would be out this way in Queens, NY. The agent bringing him out was Sal Corrente. I emailed Sal and explained that Bruno and I had plans for a video that extended back to a botched deal with Epstein, and I wanted to close the deal. He was reluctant, saying that the video was a deal with another agent, not him. Well, I was talking to him now, I explained. Epstein was probably still in the conference room with his hands folded.
I just couldn’t get Sal on the same page as me. I was getting a lot of bullshit. He was just in the way. There are times you deal with people in business who are just in the way of anything getting done. You have to examine if there is really a blockage to deal with, or if this is a matter for that other promoter and their shrink. Maybe Sal was trying to protect the WWE deal, which he referenced in a few of the emails. Everyone could benefit from doing some business together here.
Suddenly, Sal emailed said he wanted a conference call with Bruno, him, and me. Bruno wanted to talk. I called in from the road, hoping to work something out. When I got Bruno on the line he told me about his trip to Connecticut last week. WWE had him go up to Titan Tower, the WWE’s headquarters in Stamford. They were doing some paperwork for the deal and going over particulars. When they got to Bruno’s restrictions, he spoke up.
“Sean,” he told me, “I told them about the deal we had and that I absolutely owed these guys from New Jersey their video. They said they really preferred I didn’t do it, but I told them I gave you my word.”
I almost drove off the road.
Bruno exhibited an honor I’d never seen. How many desperate people in this business would sell their mother down the river for a big WWE payday and a shot at more precious WWE TV time? Let alone risk it by telling the office they were honoring my handshake deal? I just recently had one guy not even call me back after agreeing on a project because they were putting him in the Hall of Fame. Bruno told the WWE office he was honoring an independent video company’s handshake deal. Period.
Not to be outdone by a man’s honor, that worm in Titan Tower asked Bruno how much we were paying, ostensibly to buy out the commitment. They didn’t understand it wasn’t about his payday. It was about the day he looked into my eyes and shook my hand. But Bruno is so shrewd. He saw through it all and realized the office dweeb likely had no idea about the handshake agreement days in the business in which they were working. He knew money was their all-consuming tool.
“So Sean, I told them you were paying me about double what you are, so that they dropped it,” he said. “I just want you to know the number that I got them to leave me alone, if they approach you and ask.”
Bruno Sammartino walked into the Courtyard by Marriott at LaGuardia Airport and shot an episode of Timeline: The History of WWE that warms my heart to this day, for so many reasons. I was at his retirement match in 1981. He is the crown jewel of the company we have been documenting for 23 feature length editions, as of this writing. And he showed me that honor trumps all, at any cost.
© Copyright Sean Oliver 2017