The term “living legend” is one of the most over-used clichés in professional sports. Harley Race and Bruno Sammartino are two rare individuals who actually live up to the billing. Kayfabe Commentaries has brought both men together for the DVD, The Great Debate 08: Race-Sammartino.
The DVD is structured in a debate format with both men fielding the same question. The premise is that Harley Race is representing the NWA and Sammartino the WWWF (predecessor to the WWF/WWE). The viewer immediately feels he is watching a history lesson in professional wrestling. Whenever Race or Sammartino are presented with a question, they can draw on a wide range of experiences and anecdotes. They both speak about pro wrestling in the 1960s and 1970s with great credibility.
The moderator mainly offers up middle-of-the-road type questions like, “What makes a great wrestler?” or, “What makes a great heel?” Sammartino generally tends to offer more than Race. It seems like Harley Race still feels the need to protect the business or keep kayfabe.
A highlight of the DVD is when Race describes what it is like to be a heel. He matter-of-factly describes having his car set on fire and being stabbed. He also describes an incident with Johnny Valentine where Valentine attempted a rib on Race. The only problem was that Race was carrying a gun that was almost used on Valentine! The viewer will also be amazed how Race describes these details like a trip to the grocery store.
Sammartino also offers up many interesting moments. He describes how he was discovered in Pittsburgh by a wrestling promoter who had seen Sammartino lifting weights on television. Sammartino seems to feel somewhat surprised how he ended up in the wrestling business.
The most fascinating moment on the DVD occurs when Sammartino shoots on Vince McMahon Jr. He squarely places the blame for the failings of pro wrestling today on McMahon Jr. Everything from abuse of steroids to the strong sexual content falls on McMahon’s lap. Sammartino states he no longer watches wrestling and feels it is a greatly weakened product.
Another strength of the DVD is the description of pro wrestling from a historical perspective. Race offers an interesting take on Sam Muchnick and the St. Louis wrestling scene. Race feels since the NWA title was based in St. Louis Muchnick had the benefit of many great wrestlers visiting the territory to take a title shot.
Sammartino gives his perspective on Vince McMahon Sr. Sammartino feels McMahon’s greatest asset was recognizing great talent. He states the territory benefited from being based in New York — the media centre for the world. Sammartino gives the example that if there were nine wrestling magazines, he was very often on the front cover of six because most magazines were based in New York.
Both men have a unique vantage point about booking. They have the experience of being wrestlers and also heading up their own promotions. Race states the most important thing for a booker is imagination. He also feels that it is important the booker does not try to put himself over as the main event guy all the time. Sammartino cites the importance of squash matches and feels a program with a heel should build up slowly over time.
If there is any minor weakness to the DVD it is in the title. The DVD is billed as The Great Debate 08 but perhaps should have been more appropriately titled The Great Discussion. There is very little disagreement between Sammartino and Race. Both men have enormous respect for the other. Also, it did not feel like Sammartino was strictly representing the WWWF or Race the NWA.
That said, The Great Debate 08 is a great DVD for any new wrestling fan who thinks Hulk Hogan is old school. It is also an important resource for older wrestling fans and wrestling historians who want a first-hand perspective about the St. Louis and New York wrestling scene in the ’60s and ’70s. Kayfabe Commentaries should be commended for bringing together two legendary figures of yesteryear who still have an important voice about pro wrestling today.