You know, these days all the kids are talking about Cody Rhodes and how he couldn’t live up to the legacy of his famous father at Wrestlemania and FINISH THE STORY. We’re truly living in the golden age of nepotism, when the offspring of Dusty Rhodes faces the offspring of Sika the Wild Samoan in the main event of the biggest show of the year and it’s actually not terrible.
Let me tell ya, kids these days have it really good compared to the 80s.
I’ve even got a segue! Roman Reigns, who we’ve been acknowledging for close to 1000 days now as champion, still has a ways to go to meet the awesomely dominant and record-setting title reign of Bruno Sammartino. Bruno is an interesting case for me, because when I started watching wrestling in the early 80s, he was more of a color commentator (well, “commentator” is doing a lot of heavy lifting, since most of Bruno’s commentary was calling things “tree-mendous” and beefing with Randy Savage) and had kind of fallen out with Vince in terms of his own historical importance. He was “former great” Bruno Sammartino, in the kind of “brand ambassador” role that Vince had supposedly pitched for Bret Hart if his 20 year contract hadn’t financially crippled the company in 1997 and forced Vince at gunpoint to breach it.
Sorry, getting off track there.
Anyway, back to me and my experiences with Bruno. Although I knew Bruno from his infrequent appearances in the ring on Coliseum video exclusives, like his battles with the Macho Man and Rowdy Roddy Piper, I wasn’t really of the proper age to grasp his true importance to the sport. Turns out, and I hope you’re sitting down for this, that the dude held the WWF title for SEVEN YEARS in the 60s and then got a “throwaway” second reign in the 70s that was another three years. That’s 10 years as champion! I’m sure someone better at math than myself could do the complex calculation and figure out how many days that would be, but it’s a lot.
Turns out that in between headlining sold out Madison Square Garden shows for 10 years as champion, he also had a son.
David Sammartino, who started out in 1980 as “Bruno Sammartino Jr.” in Georgia Championship Wrestling, at least was totally upfront about what he was about. Bruno apparently didn’t want his son in the business at all, which was unsurprising given how badly he was treated by the end of his run, but David embraced the nepotism full on and became a wrestler anyway. Not only that, but his first major feud and exposure to audiences was in a “rematch” with Larry Zbyszko in Georgia, even though his father had already beat Larry convincingly in the famous Shea Stadium show and so there wasn’t much to avenge there. Also, the Georgia and Mid-Atlantic regions featured the amazingly terrible Angelo Mosca Jr. later on, so at least David’s legacy of nepotism gone amok would only last a couple of years before getting decisively beaten like Cody at Wrestlemania.
Inevitably, Vince McMahon discovered the existence of another Sammartino and decided that he had never met a potential gimmick he couldn’t exploit for profit to the fullest.
So the problem was, to put it delicately, David wasn’t exactly the equal of his father in physical presence, charisma or wrestling talent. He was short and stocky and didn’t really understand the finer points of ring psychology the way that his father did.
Back to my own experiences with Bruno again, as the older I got as a fan, the more I appreciated Bruno’s ability to do nothing more than punches and kicks and slams as champion, while using his innate charisma to tell the story and hook the crowd. He was great!
David was not. David did the punches and kicks, sure. Those were great. No one is saying that David couldn’t punch and kick with the best of them in 1984. The problem came when he had to do, I dunno, LITERALLY ANYTHING ELSE. Then it got boring in a hurry. Even Vince opening up the Scrooge McDuck vault full of gold and paying Bruno to stand at ringside and cheerlead for his son couldn’t get crowds to connect with young David, who at 24 was hitting levels of suck usually reserved for guys twice his age.
Clearly, the answer was to push him even harder and pair him up with these guys:
So we got quite the showdown at the first Wrestlemania, with Bruno coming out of retirement, desperately trying to use his own legacy to get his plodding ape of a son over, watching at ringside as his plodding kid worked a style that was like a tribute band version of Bruno himself but with musicians playing the wrong instruments and the drummer passed out in the bus, going to a double disqualification with Brutus Beefcake while MSG gave the match polite attention at best.
And SHOCKINGLY, once Vince had gotten what he needed out of Bruno’s return to the WWF, the David push completely stalled and he was stuck doing opening match shots on house shows for the remainder of 1985. Probably about where he should have been, if we’re being honest. But David apparently felt differently and wanted out, leading to one of the all time great “nonsense you only get in wrestling” stories, where David was working a nothing squash match against Ron Shaw on a televised Philadelphia Spectrum show and decided to end his own WWF career by submitting to Shaw’s bearhug. The guy couldn’t even be a badass shooter properly, unfortunately.
Thankfully, David slimmed down in later years and even had a brief run in WCW as a cruiserweight, but the damage had been done and he was just as disenfranchised with the business that his father had warned him about.
The lesson: We can only hope it doesn’t happen to poor Cody as well. Also David didn’t have a beef with a rubber chicken so at least he had that going for him.