Bruno Sammartino turned 64 years old on Wednesday. The former two-time WWF World Heavyweight Champion had plans to go out with his wife and visit his grandchildren. It was going to be a birthday he would never forget.
And it was, but for all the wrong reasons. Sammartino received a phone call on his birthday that Gorilla Monsoon had passed away. Sammartino was devastated over the passing of one of his contemporaries.
“Getting the call put a real big lump in my throat,” Sammartino told SLAM! Wrestling from his home in Pittsburgh, PA. “Knowing how sick he was, having received that call, I still couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t accept it. To me it was a real shocker.”
A younger and healthier Monsoon is the one that Sammartino chooses to remember. He was very disturbed over the image of an aging Monsoon the past few years.
“To have seen him deteriorate to what he had become, it was mind-boggling,” admitted Sammartino. Sammartino had a long and storied history with Monsoon. During his first reign as WWF champion between 1963 and 1971, the two wrestled against each other over a hundred times, selling out major arenas through out the Northeast U.S. and Canada.
“We wrestled in Madison Square Garden 12 or 13 times through the years,” recalled Sammartino. “All the times I wrestled him, we sold it out. We packed the arenas.”
As champion, Sammartino wrestled every major star that passed through the Northeast. Looking back at all his opponents, he ranks Monsoon as one of the best.
“When people would ask me through the years who some of the people that amazed were, guys like Don Leo Johnathan and Kowalski and Big Bill Miller, I always mentioned Monsoon. For a guy at 420 pounds it was rare a man that size could do what he did.”
Sammartino was in awe of Monsoon. He was amazed that a man of his size had such agility, speed and stamina.
“One time I wrestled him in Madison Square Garden for one hour and twenty minutes,” remembered Sammartino. “I always had great respect for that because people that big run out of gas but he didn’t. He stayed in there with me for the duration. That’s the kind of guy he was.”
Sammartino was also impressed with Monsoon’s mat wrestling skills.
“He had a very good amateur background,” stated Sammartino. He was a terrific wrestler. He knew good maneuvers from his experience in amateur wrestling. He was amazing.”
New York City fans came out in droves to see Sammartino square off against Monsoon in one of their epic battles. One of the major reasons why it was such a big draw was because people considered Monsoon a legitimate contender for the World title.
“All the times I wrestled him, we always sold out the Garden,” said Sammartino. “That in itself will tell you how people viewed him. They saw him as a great challenge to me. He was someone the fans saw as an awesome talent and people believed in wrestling back then.”
Despite the respect he has for Monsoon, Sammartino won’t be attending the funeral. After wrestling 25 years for the McMahon family, Sammartino had a falling out with Vince McMahon Jr. over the direction the company was taking wrestling. The two have legitimate hard feelings towards each other. As a result, he has lost touch with some of his old adversaries and friends.
“Monsoon and I were never close,” admitted Sammartino. “I haven’t seen or spoken to him in 12 or 13 years. Last time I saw him, I was doing colour commentary for the WWF. WWF people will be (at the funeral) and I don’t particularly want to see any of those people.