"Bruno dreams of wrestling"
PITTSBURGH (UPI) - You look a Bruno Sammartino, and the immediate reaction is pity. No man his size should be in such a tiny jail.
His prison is a steel orthopedic appliance called a Milwaukee Brace. It became a part of Sammartino since he broke his neck and was nearly killed wrestling three weeks ago.
In medical language, his sixth cervical vertebra was fractured.
Even in his present disabled condition, Bruno Sammartino is a mountain of a man: six feet tall, and weighing 260, he has a 21-inch neck, 20 1/2-inch upper arms and a 57 1/2-inch chest with a 36-inch waistline.
Despite his size, doctors found a brace to accommodate him, and now he's inside it all the way from his chin to his pelvis.
Bruno Sammartino, the world's best-known wrestler, is still its champion, despite his broken neck. When he sits in the living room of his home ni Pittsburgh and isn't under therapy, all he thinks about is the day he can wrestle again.
"He's an exceptionally kind person, a wonderful husband and a tremendous father to our three children," says his wife, Carole to whom Sammartino, 38, has been married 17 years. "But since this injury, I'm very worried about him. He has had many injuries over the years, but this is the worst and if I had my way, he would never wrestle again."
Sammartino was lucky. His injury did not leave him paralyzed, making his chances for recovery excellent. A highly sensitive individual as well as an articulate one, he's not your stereotype of a professional wrestler.
When he speaks, he does so gently, reflecting the soft, ear-pleasing intonation from his native Abruzzi region of central Italy. He came to this when he was 15.
"Of course I can appreciate how my wife and the rest of my family feels," Sammartino says. "I understand completely, and naturally I'm concerned about the people I love. My desire to come back is something I can't explain. When you're in sports, you have such a limited time and then it's all over with, finished.
"When this first happened, I lay in the hospital and thought I had no alternative. I've broken bones before but when you're talking about something so close to the spine, it's a different ball game. The doctors said it was only my good physical condition that saved me. They said if it were someone else, he'd be dead or paralyzed from the neck down. Now I'm starting to feel better.
"If I progress the way I'm going and the doctors give me the okay, I do not intend to retire, no."
Nobody in wrestling draws the way Bruno Sammartino does. They knock down the doors to see him. More than 21,000 were in New York's Madison Square Garden April 26 when Sammartino met Stan Hansen of Amarillo, Texas.
The two wrestled awhile and then Hansen caught Sammartino a body slam.
"Nine out of 10 times you land your back when that happens," says Sammartino. "I landed on my head. When I got up, he drove me where I had no control whatsoever, and as he sprung me off the ropes, he caught me with his elbow in the forehead, snapping my head straight back. He weighs over 300 pounds, so that completed the job."
Dr. Edwin Campbell of the New York State Athletic Commission was the one who eventually halted the bout, making Hansen the technical winner. Sammartino retained his title because his shoulders weren't pinned and he never gave up. As a matter of fact, he wanted to continue even though he was bleeding profusely from the head.
Campbell says it was the most severe injury he encountered in 20 years with the commission.
Hansen was never called or said he was sorry for what happened.
"On the contrary, he seems to be trying to make capital of it," says Sammartino. "I've heard some of his boastings on TV and it struck me as being ugly. He is going around saying 'I'm the man who broke Bruno Sammartino's neck'."
In some 2,000 previous matches, Sammartino lost only once, five years ago to a Bulgarian named Ivan Koloff. He has been world champion 11 years and estimates he has made nearly $2 million.