HE remains the Living Legend.
The distinctive voice of Bruno Sammartino, a native of Abruzzo, Italy, sounded just fine when I caught up with him this week at his home outside Pittsburgh, recovering from back surgery.
"I had two [operations] before this one, and I came back strong. I will be back in training within a matter of a few weeks, and I'll be good as new, I hope," he said. He sounded like he has plenty of fight left in him, particularly when the subject is the current state of his old profession.
"I finally got disgusted and walked away because it seems like nobody cares. People keep dying, keep dying, keep dying. But nobody cares."
Like many across the country, and in this area in particular, I grew up watching the man tangling on Saturday mornings with the baddest the World Wide Wrestling Federation had to offer. He had no equal.
Sammartino's career spanned four decades. He was the longest-reigning champion in WWF history. He headlined at Madison Square Garden on 211 cards, and 187 were sellouts!
I wondered what Sammartino was thinking as he watched the Chris Benoit tragedy play out. Investigators in Atlanta believe Benoit strangled his wife, Nancy, and their 7-year-old son, Daniel (who suffered from fragile X syndrome, an inherited mental disability).
Their bodies were discovered with Bibles beside them, which authorities believe Benoit put there before hanging himself with a weight machine pulley. The Canadian Crippler was just 40.
Sammartino told me that steroids have ravaged the sport he loves. Citing data from Irvin Muchnick's book, "Wrestling Babylon: Piledriving Tales of Drugs, Sex, Death and Scandal," Sammartino said there have been about 90 premature deaths in professional wrestling over the last generation.
"And it blows my mind that there are all these investigations in baseball, football and what have you where there have been no reported deaths, and yet when it comes to wrestling, it just goes on like it doesn't matter, it's not important, it doesn't exist."
I asked the man I still admire about the steroid culture in his era. He said that he first heard of steroids while training at a gym in the early- to mid-1960s when he was impressed by a bodybuilder. When he asked about the guy's regimen, Bruno was told he was using steroids. Sammartino had no idea what that meant.
"I was 275 pounds at the time, and I got there by training my guts out," Bruno said. By the 1980s, things had changed. Sammartino said the mindset of today's wrestlers has been tragically refocused: "The mentality of any wrestler today is that to make it, you have to be juiced up. Now, who's discouraging of that?"
He was quick to point at the ringleader overseeing wrestling's devolution. He says Vince McMahon deserves "great blame" for failing to discourage the steroid culture rampant in his business.
Sammartino believes McMahon doesn't explicitly encourage steroid use, but protects its destructive culture by keeping the sport's drug testing in-house. And he remembers when McMahon admitted to using steroids himself during a 1994 trial.
"If the head of the organization is known to be a steroid user like that, can anyone believe the inside drug testing that the organization does?" he asked. "I find it extremely difficult for anybody to take that seriously."
There used to be more to pro wrestling than the size of the competitors. It was all about Chief Jay Strongbow's determination, Victor Rivera's athleticism and George "the Animal" Steele's . . . animalism. I loved it, but when the latest incarnation comes on the TV and I'm with my sons (who are at the age when I first got hooked), I change the channel.
Sammartino understands it. "I'm glad to hear that," he said. "Because today there's so much vulgarity, profanity, nudity. That puzzles me more than anything else." He also worries about kids emulating the steroid use they see rewarded.
"Today, young kids are very knowledgeable, and they hear about so-and-so and how strong they got and how they can improve by using these chemicals. And they're not thinking of the serious dangers that go along with that," he said.
"Anybody who knew Bruno Sammartino, they would know better than to ever suggest that I should ever take anything, or anything like that."
A living legend, indeed. Pro wrestling has long been a ghost of its former self. I hope the sport will soon take the ultimate good guy's concerns to heart. *
Listen to Michael Smerconish weekdays 5:30-9 a.m. on the Big Talker, 1210/AM. Read him Sundays in the Inquirer. Contact him via the Web at www.mastalk.com.