Was recently surfing the interwebs and saw people arguing about CM Punk’s claim in a 2013 promo that he wrestled more often and harder than the legendary Bruno Sammartino, so he was a greater champion than Sammartino. Obviously, this was a promo, and as such Punk clearly wasn’t making a serious argument about his superiority. (Punk actually greeted Sammartino when the latter was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame; Sammartino was reportedly impressed by Punk’s straight-edge refusal to drink or do drugs.)
Now, due to fans being entitled (as fans are) and the controversial nature of Punk’s departure from WWE (and the allegations he has made about WWE’s treatment of him), a lot of wrestling fans have over the last couple of years decided that they think Punk is a spoiled baby. Such is the nature of fandom, I suppose. (See also: comics fanboys who get upset when creators or creators’ estates sue Marvel or DC for what they believe to be their fair share of profits from characters they created – because god forbid anything interrupt those characters’ regular publishing schedule.) As a result, Punk’s claim has been called into question.
Here is the thing: it is not hard, at all, to figure out that Punk’s claim re: Sammartino is true. We can verify it quite easily via Cagematch, the online wrestling database.
During his initial eight-year reign as WWWF Champion from 1963 to 1971 – the time Sammartino was wrestling most frequently – he wrestled in 519 matches. That’s 519 matches over approximately seven years and eight months. Comparatively, working backwards from CM Punk’s final match at the Royal Rumble, his final 519 matches of his career began on August 28, 2010 – 519 matches over approximately three years and five months. In their most active periods, Punk wrestled more than twice as often as Sammartino.
But wait! That’s not all we know! We also know that Punk wrestled 1612 times over approximately 14 years, an average of 114 matches per year, versus Sammartino wrestling 913 times over 25 years, an average of 36.5 matches per year. Bruno’s heaviest year was actually 1963; in that year he wrestled 135 matches, which was a major outlier for him (his second heaviest year was 1968, when he wrestled 70 matches). During his peak years Bruno typically wrestled 55-65 matches per year. While Punk was employed by WWE, from 2006 to 2013 – not counting 2014 as a full year since he quit wrestling in January – there were only three years where Punk wrestled fewer than 135 matches – and these years happened to coincide with Punk’s major injuries and his first, not quite-a-full-year with the company.
On top of that, it is quite clear that modern wrestlers wrestle a harder, higher-impact style than wrestlers of the past did. There are plenty of Sammartino matches on Youtube – here, for example, is a 1975 match against Superstar Billy Graham as a sample – and Sammartino used a lot of chinlocks, armbars and other moves that nowadays are “rest holds” in order to catch one’s breath in between high-impact moves. This is not a criticism of Sammartino; styles evolve. But modern wrestling is much harder on the body than classic pro wrestling was, and that is before one considers the impact of additional weaponry being used in matches (chairs, tables, ladders, the inevitable kendo sticks that are always inexplicably beneath a WWE ring for some reason).
The stats don’t lie, and Punk was, objectively speaking, entirely correct to say that he wrestled harder than Sammartino. Of course, whether that makes him a better WWE Champion is like arguing whether Superman can beat Thor in a fight, because “CM Punk” and “Bruno Sammartino” as wrestlers are also semifictional characters and if you’re trying to judge whether a wrestling promo is “right” then you’re watching wrestling wrong. But Punk wasn’t whining. He was stating an obvious fact.
(ASIDE #1: Since I was curious and since he’s another good comparison figure: during his initial four-year reign as WWF champion from 1984 to 1988, Hulk Hogan wrestled 586 times – so more than peak Sammartino but less than prime Punk. As a general rule, current active WWE wrestlers, barring injury, will generally wrestle on average between 145 and 160 times per year, so Hogan during his peak years barely equalled what an average wrestler in the WWE does now.)
(ASIDE #2: John Cena, since 2003 – his first full year as a regular wrestler for WWE – averages 147 matches per year, counting 2008 when he was out of action for more than half the year.)
(ASIDE #3: Of course all of these numbers only apply to WWE wrestlers. “Star” level independent wrestlers generally work around 60-70 dates per year at most, as do most wrestlers contracted to TNA or Ring of Honor, most Japanese wrestlers working in smaller promotions and most luchadors wrestling for AAA or CMLL. Japanese wrestlers working for New Japan tend to wrestle slightly more, in the 80-100 matches per year area.)