On the eve of WrestleMania 29, the WWE will induct one of its most star-studded collections of talent into its Hall of Fame on Saturday, April 6 from Madison Square Garden in New York City.
The list includes Bruno Sammartino, Mick Foley, Bob Backlund, Booker T., Trish Stratus and Donald Trump (celebrity wing).
Below is a look at each of their respective careers.
• Bruno Sammartino
Considering WWE’s current demographic, it doesn’t surprise me that many members of the WWE Universe have ever heard of the name Bruno Sammartino.
I’m glad this is changing, and kids these days (I can’t believe I’m saying kids these days) are getting a history lesson, which I think is another reason why I love the WWE Hall of Fame. Sammartino’s inductor will be none other than the Terminator himself Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Before Hulk Hogan and John Cena, there was an Italian-born phenomenon that captured the love and admiration of many generations. If you lived in the Northeast, Bruno really was Uno.
I myself was born during the tail end of Sammartino’s career and after my family moved from New York to South Florida, he had transitioned into broadcasting. Thanks to Coliseum Home Video (I miss them) and such releases as the “Best of the WWF” series, I was able to catch up and appreciate the contributions he made to pro wrestling. Crazy to think I had the honor of interviewing him days before an appearance at a wrestling convention years ago.
My late mother, who wasn’t a big wrestling fan, would often tell me how the “Living Legend” was her favorite wrestler growing up. She would go to Madison Square Garden with her father to cheer him. MSG, the venue Sammartino is credited for selling out more than 180 times, will serve as the place the greatest wrestling champion of all time takes his place in the WWE Hall of Fame.
It’s almost criminal for the WWE to have a Hall of Fame without the man, whose two title reigns exceed 11 years, including his first which spanned eight. Whatever WWE had to do to make this a reality was well worth it, as it further legitimizes the Hall of Fame (even though they really need to secure a physical facility to house it).
I think this would be a great time for WWE to release a Bruno Sammartino DVD featuring a biography and some of his most classic matches against legends from Killer Kowalski and Buddy Rogers to Ivan Koloff and Stan Hansen. Fans loved Sammartino so much that when he lost they more than wished bodily harm on his opponents. It was really real to them. If WWE does move forward with a DVD, it must include his historic teacher versus student feud with Larry Zbyszko. The two sold out Shea Stadium back in the day.
Next to Bret Hart, I can’t think of many other past wrestlers other than Sammartino who had ill feelings with not only the chairman, but the direction he was sending his company in past years. Despite Sammartino’s age, 77, I would pay money to see a Sammartino versus McMahon match at a WrestleMania.
• Mick Foley
Mick Foley may trade his signature flannel and sweatpants for a tuxedo, for one night anyway, as he enters the WWE Hall of Fame.
Given his accomplishments inside the ring and out, I can’t think of anyone more deserving of this honor than Mrs. Foley’s baby boy. Historic MSG is also the ideal venue for his induction. It’s the place where the New York Times best-selling author’s love of pro wrestling was born watching Superfly Jimmy Snuka leap off the top of the cage onto rival Don Muraco.
What makes Foley’s assent to greatness even more special is taking into account the insurmountable obstacles he had to endure. He made it past Dominic DeNucci’s wrestling school and slept in cars, driving hours to different small shows to work for next to nothing. He was breaking into a business that, at the time, was dominated by bodybuilders. He was the underdog.
Foley, 47, followed in the footsteps of the likes of his inductor Terry Funk and Kevin Sullivan. He took hardcore to another level as (aptly named) Cactus Jack Manson, which was later shortened to Cactus Jack. His wars against Sting, Vader, the Nasty Boys and even Van Hammer were easy highlights during his time in WCW.
Although Foley was known for the brutality in his matches, he presented different sides to his character in ECW. This doesn’t mean he was without his hardcore moments in the Philadelphia-based promotion. Who could ever forget Funk and Sandman taking a Singapore cane to Foley’s back 46 times?
Whether it was Cactus Jack, Mankind, Dude Love or Foley himself, the veteran was given the platform to really cement his legacy in WWE. Through his groundbreaking interviews with Jim Ross, there was more to Mick Foley than unmitigated violence. His success in WWE really began after his confrontations with The Undertaker and Triple H.
One of the most iconic images in WWE history is Foley’s descent off the top of the Hell in a Cell through a table during his 1998 King of the Ring match with The Undertaker. Foley’s dream came true that year when he defeated The Rock to become WWE champion on Raw. That moment is seen as an important part of WWE’s “Attitude Era” permanently turning the tide in the “Monday Night War” against WCW.
If they hadn’t known before, in the documentary film “Beyond the Mat”, viewers got a peak behind that camera to learn Foley wasn’t just a hardcore wrestler. The movie showed he was a husband and father. It revealed the real physical sacrifices he was making to entertain the audience.
Ironically, the bitterest of enemies became one of the most beloved and unlikely duos in WWE history. The Rock and Foley became the Rock ‘N' Sock Connection. Their “Rock: This is Your Life” became the highest-rated segment in Raw history. Speaking of milestones, Foley is often seen as the one who paved the way for the pro wrestling autobiography.
Whether it’s doing standup, writing a children’s book or guest-starring on an NBC comedy, Foley never ceases to surprise us. Despite his success, Foley also has also “given back” to emerging WWE superstars such as Christian, Edge, Randy Orton, Dolph Ziggler and CM Punk.
Foley’s generosity and philanthropic efforts are Hall of Fame caliber. He has sponsored children for ChildFund international, been an active support of the military and has raised thousands of dollars for organizations such as the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). He held raffles, auctioned off some of his most prized wrestling memorabilia and orchestrated fundraisers for a variety of worthwhile causes. A friend in need is a friend indeed to Foley, who even organized a benefit comedy show for “The Hurricane” Shane Helms.
For all these reasons and so many more, Foley deserves to take the podium to accept his induction in the WWE Hall of Fame. Knowing Mick, fans may find his Hall of Fame ring on eBay the next day for charity. That’s Mick Foley.
• Bob Backlund
Newer fans may know Bob Backlund as the psychotic man in the red suspenders with dreams of the Oval Office. However, the master of the cross-faced chicken wing is among the most respected technical wrestlers in the industry.
After beating Superstar Billy Graham in controversial fashion, Backlund’s first WWE championship run lasted five years, ending in 1983 when his manager Arnold Skaaland threw in the towel as the Iron Sheik had the injured champion in the Camel Clutch. This scene was revisited in his favor when Backlund defeated Bret Hart after the Hitman’s mother, Helen, threw in the towel at the 1994 Survivor Series.
Backlund was an All-American boy, a true babyface, during his initial title run. He helped bridge Hulk-A-Mania and then left the WWF. When he returned years later, Mr. Backlund turned heel, utilizing a verbose vocabulary to criticize the plebeians for their lack of education, morality and respect.
His last appearance for the company was at the Raw 1000 show with a group of other past performers terrorizing Heath Slater.
Backlund, 63, who ran for Congress in Connecticut, was a junior college All-American in football and wrestling. At NCAA Division II North Dakota State, he again earned All-American honors in wrestling. He graduated with a degree in Physical Education.
Backlund’s inductor will be television personality Maria Menounos, who once wore a shirt of the legend at a WWE event.
• Booker T.
Before the Harlem Shake there was the Harlem Heat with Booker T. and his brother Stevie Ray.
Many today know the charismatic legend as the sharply dressed general manager of SmackDown, but there is much more to the master of the Spinaroonie. Believe it or not the youngest of eight children spent time in prison for aggravated robbery, but he learned from his mistakes and turned his life around. His inspirational story is chronicled in his book “Booker T: From Prison to Promise: Life before the Squared Circle.”
His journey into pro wrestling began under the tutelage of wrestler/trainer Scott Casey. He worked the character G.I. Bro (which briefly resurfaced late into his WCW career) and began teaming with his brother Stevie Ray in promotions such as the Global Wrestling Federation. They won the GWF tag championships as the Ebony Experience.
Booker, 48, began his eight years in WCW in 1993 where he and his brother were given the names Kole and Kane (yes, Kane). This didn’t last long as the duo evolved into the Harlem Heat we know and love. During their time together they also had WWE Hall of Famer ‘Sister’ Sherri (Martel) and Jacqueline by their side. The tandem dominated the division with 10 title reigns battling the likes of the Steiner Brothers, Lex Luger and Sting, the Road Warriors, the Blue Bloods, Public Enemy, Kevin Nash and Scott Hall and others.
Booker transitioned to the singles ranks with tremendous success by winning every major singles championship in WCW. He wasn’t eligible for cruiserweight or he would have won that too. Booker is one of the greats like Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Scott Steiner, Terry Funk, Dory Funk Jr. and Jack Brisco who’ve won top tag team and singles gold.
Fans may remember his acclaimed best-of-seven series with Chris Benoit, as well as his clashes with the likes of Bret Hart, Rick Martel, Finlay and Scott Steiner. His summer series in 1998 with Benoit was so good WWE had the two fight multiple times in a similar scenario over the United States championship.
At Bash at the Beach 2000, Booker defeated Jeff Jarrett and made history as the first African American star to hold the WCW heavyweight championship since Ron Simmons in 1992.
When WCW closed, Booker was the WCW and United States champion. Upon his entrance into WWE, the superstar found himself battling heavy-hitters such as The Rock and Kurt Angle. Who will ever forget his supermarket brawl with “Stone Cold” Steve Austin? Got Milk?
Booker really started to click with the WWE Universe teaming with Goldust, which reminds me a lot of Daniel Bryan and Kane. I wish the entertaining duo had more time together, but Booker returned to the singles scene rather quickly. He was featured in one of the main events of WrestleMania XIX against Triple H but came up short in winning the heavyweight championship. Three years later, Booker captured the King of the Ring crown and won his first World heavyweight title in WWE. The next year, 2007, after seemingly doing it all in WWE, the top star had his last match against John Cena.
After a stint in TNA Impact Wrestling, Booker shocked the wrestling world as a surprise entrant in the 2011 Royal Rumble. The decorated grappler had a few matches, including a feud with Cody Rhodes, but eventually moved to commentary and currently serves as the general manager of SmackDown. The veteran is also molding the stars of tomorrow in Houston with his wrestling school and independent promotion: http://realityofwrestling.com/7.html.
With a career paved in gold over the course of 20 years, Booker T. is well deserving of his induction into the WWE Hall of Fame. His brother Stevie Ray would be the most logical candidate to induct him. After all, he raised Booker and his siblings and helped his younger brother break into the business. Despite a falling out between the two, MSG and Hall of Fame would be the perfect place for a Harlem Heat reunion. Now that’s a Harlem Shake of a different kind I would like to see. Can you dig that…suckaaa!
• Donald Trump
Whenever WWE announces a Hall of Fame celebrity induction, the “pro wrestling purists” come out of the woodwork with their disapproval.
However, I think those who complain about a non-superstar or diva going into the hallowed hall is missing the point.
Sure there were some misfires over the years in WWE’s choices for the celebrity wing, but many of the inductees helped expand the company’s audience. Continuing to grow a fan base is an important key to WWE’s success. This year I think the decision-makers (like Trump’s inductor Vince McMahon) made a great pick with Donald Trump to join the 2013 class.
His partnership with WWE reverts to the early days when Trump Plaza hosted WrestleMania 4 and 5. It’s the only time in history the spectacular was housed in the same venue back-to-back. Also, the business tycoon has made numerous appearances at events over the years, from the 20th anniversary of WrestleMania to Monday Night Raw.
Then you look to WrestleMania 23 where Trump was part of the “Battle of the Billionaires” against Vince McMahon with their hair on the line. Bobby Lashley, who represented Trump, defeated Umaga, representing McMahon, with Stone Cold Steve Austin making the three-count. The event was a huge smash, drawing more than 80,000 fans at Ford Field in Detroit and generating a record-breaking 1.2 million pay-per-view buys.
Who could ever forget in 2009 when McMahon “sold” the flagship show on USA Network to Trump? In an unprecedented move and to play up the storyline, almost a quarter of a million dollars in refunds for tickets were doled to those in the arena in Green Bay. The commercial-free Raw episode he hosted amounted to a huge ratings success. At more than 6.8 million viewers, WWE said it was its highest rated Raw in seven years.
Trump’s ‘frenemy’ Mr. McMahon will induct him. I wonder if Trump will join Zeb Colter and check proof of U.S. citizenship at the MSG door. Either way, and despite some grumblings from some fans, Trump, 66, is deserving of the honor and will make the Hall of Fame that much richer. With any luck, maybe he will donate some Trump property to house a physical Hall of Fame facility for fans to enjoy.
• Trish Stratus
In the more than six years, Trish Stratus helped jumpstart women’s wrestling in WWE and proved she was more than a pretty face.
Decked in a trademark coat and cowboy hat, Stratus immediately came on the scene as the manager for Test and Albert (T&A). It was in this role that began her feud with Lita, who was with Matt and Jeff Hardy. Fans clamored to see the two divas mix it up in mixed tag team competition.
Over the years the pair showcased one of the most high profile and long-running rivalries in women’s wrestling history. Lita and Stratus were not only a part of a mixed tag team main event on Raw, but the two headlined a show in a singles match for the women’s championship. When was the last time you saw two divas headlining a Raw?
Stratus earned the respect of fans and fellow grapplers alike when she took a powerbomb from Bubba Ray through a table. The bump showed her toughness. Another early adversary of Stratus was her inductor Stephanie McMahon. The two would collide in a surprisingly good and physical battle at No Way Out 2001. Her program with McMahon and her family elevated her to a featured part of the shows each week.
Her improvement in the ring in such a short time was remarkable. At the 2001 Survivor Series, the diva’s division and women’s championship was almost reborn when Stratus took home the gold in a six-pack challenge. It was her first match back from injury. Believe it or not, this was at a time when the divas were given time to tell stories and build-up matches. Stratus had a series of great encounters with the likes of Molly Holly, Jazz and Victoria.
One of my favorite diva’s matches features Stratus battling Victoria (TNA’s Tara) in a hardcore match at the 2002 Survivor Series.
The decorated diva showed she could be naughty and nice throughout her career. Lita and Stratus were not only opponents but partners. They teamed in the first and only “Battle of the Sexes” match at Armageddon against Christian and Chris Jericho. Stratus returned to the dark side by turning on Jericho and joining Christian in one of the most memorable heel turns in WrestleMania history.
Even though Lita is arguably her greatest opponent, her storyline with Mickie James was perhaps the most intricate. James played an obsessed fan that had gone crazy. The WWE “Diva of the Decade” winner lost the women’s championship to James in her last WrestleMania match on the active roster in 2006. Stratus couldn’t have asked for a better sendoff as a full-time performer when she won the women’s championship against Lita for a record seventh time in her hometown, Toronto, at Unforgiven.
In the years that followed, Stratus made numerous appearances in WWE. She served as a trainer for the last season of “Tough Enough” and even worked in a tag team match at WrestleMania 27. No matter how long in between appearances, Stratus, 37, is welcomed back with open arms by the WWE Universe because of the respect and admiration they have for her.
One of her greatest accolades will come in New York City when the diva becomes the youngest inductee in the WWE Hall of Fame.
• For more on the 2013 WWE Hall of Fame inductees and WrestleMania 29, visit www.wrestlemania.com.
The USA Network will air a special on the 2013 WWE Hall of Fame at 10 p.m. EST Tuesday, April 9.
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