The Royal Rumble pay-per-view usually ushers in “The Road to Wrestlemania,” but last week’s Monday Night Raw featured a sneak preview with verbal salvos from two of WWE’s biggest stars.

The Rock and C.M. Punk, who will meet for the WWE heavyweight title at the Rumble on Jan. 27, were both at the top of their game as they engaged in an entertaining exchange of barbs and insults.

Scores of fans later offered varying opinions as to who won the war of words, but unlike The Rock’s verbal battles with John Cena leading up to last year’s Wrestlemania, this promo battle is designed for both stars to simply shine in traditional babyface-heel roles and build toward their match at the Rumble.

And, not surprisingly, two of the best promo men in sports entertainment delivered the goods.

What was surprising, however, was the strong reaction of the wrestling community over a comment Punk made about one of the biggest stars in the company’s history — but one who hasn’t stepped inside a WWE ring in more than 25 years.

To many longtime WWE (WWF and WWWF back then) fans, the name Bruno Sammartino carries a cache that few in the wrestling profession can match. He was the company’s top star and champion for a stretch that began in the early ‘60s and extended into the late ‘70s.

It was a different business then, for sure, but Sammartino was the man who not only successfully defended the company’s title for an amazing 7 1/2-year run, but was an Italian-born ethnic hero who was catapulted to the status of icon in a booming Northeastern market that was tailor-made for such a rags-to-riches story.

He was that market’s Babe Ruth, Popeye the Sailor Man and Mighty Mouse all wrapped into one.

Fact is that Bruno really was — and still is — that hero to the thousands of fans who still speak his name in reverent tones.

So when current WWE champ Punk took a dig at Bruno last week on live TV, mentioning that Sammartino “only wrestled once a month at Madison Square Garden,” the large legion of Bruno followers quite naturally came out in droves.

A number of readers were quick to chime in with varied opinions on the controversy.

Some important points, though, need to be made.

First off, this is pro wrestling, where one of the main objectives if you’re a “bad guy” is to draw heat. And what better way than to insult a living legend? Punk’s a great heel who delivers “pipe bomb” promos, Paul Heyman’s a great manager who knows how to attract attention, and that mission was accomplished.

It’s also a fact that for years Sammartino, now 77, has steadfastly refused WWE’s standing offer to be inducted into its Hall of Fame. He’s not shy about his disdain for the company and calls Vince McMahon’s multimillion-dollar industry a circus.

So it might be assumed that Punk’s words came not from himself, but indirectly from McMahon, who even still today would like nothing better than to woo Bruno into his hall.

Some have speculated that the unthinkable may yet occur — that Bruno, who holds the distinction of headlining Madison Square Garden more than 200 times, has finally relented and agreed to be inducted this year. The Hall of Fame ceremony, by the way, will be held at the hallowed MSG, no better venue to host a WWE legend’s induction.

More probable, however, is that Sammartino’s message has finally sunk into the company’s collective brain trust, and another message was sent via Punk.

Pro wrestling is about controversy and, judging by the volume of responses, this one struck a nerve.

Pro wrestling great Chavo Guerrero Sr. summed it up with an old show business maxim.

“Like my father Gory told me, ‘As long as they spell your name right, it is free publicity whether they talk good or bad about you.’”

Reader Todd Espinosa grew up in the heart of WWE territory in upstate New York. He thinks the line about Bruno was a stroke of genius.

“The fact that people are even talking about or debating how often people wrestled in bygone eras shows just how incredible that Sammartino line was ... The first card I ever saw was headlined by Superstar Billy Graham as champion. I live 10 minutes away from Illio DiPaolo’s family restaurant. Does that mean, as a fan, I should get all twisted up over what the current heel champion says about them? Or Italians? Or this region?”

“Come on, fellas,” he continues. “Sit back and enjoy the ride. It’s just beginning. And if Bruno or anyone else is the least bit aggravated by Punk’s comments, they are taking a worked production way too seriously.”

Anthony Conchel of Caledonia, Ohio, credits Heyman for the edginess of Punk’s mic handiwork.

“The worked shoot style Punk is using is pure Heymanesque. Typical of his work in ECW when he’d shoot on the network or allow wrestlers to air their grievances a la Steve Austin and Mick Foley. Vince marketed Attitude; Paul created it.”

Longtime fan Richard Egner, acknowledging the difference in generations, still took umbrage to Punk’s comments.

“Punk in his wildest dreams has never worked 25 percent as hard as Bruno did during his run as champ. Bruno worked six nights a week year in and year out ... different time, different business, and the pressure today is a whole different dimension. Chances are a guy with Bruno’s skills today wouldn’t be a fit as they were when he was a genuine ethnic hero. His exclusion is beyond a joke and way worse than the Pete Rose exclusion. Bruno never cheated his fans.”

Reader Terry Harris wonders why the past has to be disrespected in order to get an angle over.

“Casual fans have no idea who Bruno is, so why say it? The old school fans know the truth, so again, why say it? Things like this only alienate the old school wrestlers who paved the way for the current group of sports entertainers. Vince knew this would be a hot topic for Bruno, so why use him as a prop to get something over?”

Dayv Duncan of North Charleston doubts Punk would have been in Sammartino’s league during that era of wrestling.

“ I don’t think that C.M. understands the difference in between eras in wrestling. I know for a fact if C.M. was around during the late ‘80s he would have been a mid-carder at best. Guys like Savage, Flair, Hulk would carve him up. He’s been successful recently because there aren’t many stars and they need somebody to hold the strap just because Cena can’t hold it forever.”

“Simply put,” adds John Natoli of Charleston, “his remark, in character or not, is an insult to every wrestler that performed before him. If it wasn’t for Bruno’s era, Punk wouldn’t be where he is.”

“Here’s hoping Triple H pulled off a coup, and this is leading to a face-off between Bruno and Punk, as Bruno is finally inducted into the Hall of Fame,” Greg Price of Charlotte posted.

“Punk talking about Bruno reminded me of Flair talking about Jack Brisco and Wahoo McDaniel, etc. in the ‘90s,” comments Shelton Hull of Jacksonville, Fla. “I had no idea who those were, but I was intrigued. I would assume that Vince/Punk were trying to give Bruno the rub, and that his being mentioned could be a sign that negotiations for the HOF are going well. If the Rock shows up at Raw with Bruno next week, that would be a good sign too.”

If Triple H and McMahon were on course to convince Sammartino to accept an invitation to the Hall of Fame, then Punk’s promo did WWE no favors, opines Jerry Wiseman of Sylva, N.C.

“If this was scripted for him, the writers and seemingly Vince McMahon, who approves everything, either do not care or have no clue. If Punk went into business for himself, then he shows no respect for the older generation of professional wrestling. Either way this was a slap in the face to not only Bruno Sammartino, but also those of us who grew up watching that era of professional wrestling.”

Donna Huntley of Atlanta questions the need to even bring up stars of bygone generations.

“Personally, I think if you want to be taken seriously in any business, you do not make outlandish remarks about previous management, champions, etc. He claims he works harder — maybe, maybe not — but C.M. Punk is compensated so much more than wrestlers of previous generations. Sammartino had to do more with much less. C.M. Punk gets more money, therefore due to the competition, he must work harder for it. Don’t disrespect a man who paved the way for you ... your road is much easier because of his hard work.”

Jack Lord, an independent wrestler from Hokes Bluff, Ala., thought Punk’s promo was spot-on.

“Punk is a true heel and doing what you should to generate heat. By bringing Bruno into it, he opened the door for many old school fans to once again have a voice. He’s making people talk about the product again. Job well done.”

Jason Scott of Charleston agrees that Punk was simply doing what a great heel does, and that was drawing heat and stirring controversy. He also points out that comparing different generations can be an inexact science.

“Every generation had their hardships, and to say one had it harder than the other is subjective at best. Bruno never had to do TLC matches and take a hundred bumps a match every night. Punk never had to wrestle 60 minutes a night in a boxing ring. I’d be inclined to agree with Punk just for the fact that in addition to legit being on the road everyday as he is as champ, he’s also having to do all the gimmick matches which take a toll on your body.”

“Punk is acting as a bridge between an era when wrestling was highly popular among the mainstream and today, an era where he has generated plenty of mainstream media attention,” comments Alex Keown of Bloomingdale, Ill. “As stated before he is a heel, and attacking an icon such as Bruno generates heat. The Rock, if you’ll pardon the pun, knows his role and is defending those who came before from Punk’s verbal attacks. It’s a classic formula that played well in yesteryear and is playing well today.”

“If Punk wrote these comments himself, more power to him. He’s doing his job in generating heat and more interest in his match with Rock,” posted Bernie Volpicelli of Boston. “If they were Vince’s words, I think it’s an attempt to get back at Bruno for not doing business with today’s WWE.”

Chuck Green of Charleston pointed to other controversial promos Punk has delivered in the past.

“The Vegas pipe bomb. Making fun of Lawler’s heart attack. Slighting Bruno. These three incidents have had the wrestling world buzzing like little else has these last couple of years. Punk is doing his job ... just like Bruno would have.”

Green also wonders why fans haven’t been as upset over comments Punk recently made about 16-time world champion Ric Flair.

“Let’s face it. Ric has had a bigger impact on this sport than any other wrestler. Shouldn’t people who are so upset about Lawler and Bruno be upset about that too?”

Mike Lacett of Toledo, Ohio, believes the uproar is much ado about nothing.

“The guy (Punk) understands and respects the business more than most of the youngins ... this is being blown out of proportion.”

“Can’t wait to see Punk and Flair chew it up next week,” adds Espinosa, alluding to an anticipated confrontation between the two on Monday night’s 20th anniversary Raw special.

“Punk is a heel who is supposed to be make outlandish comments soaked in hyperbole and stretched by delusional exaggeration. I thought his comments were brilliant and exactly what a heel should be saying if referencing the champions of that era. That fact that there is any ‘controversy’ shows the sublime level of brilliance of that part of the promo.”

“Wrestling is a hustle and that’s why we like it,” offered Dylan Hales of Charleston. “If Punk got people riled up, he was doing his job. I know for a fact there are very few modern wrestlers more interested in the history of the business than Punk. Anyone who thinks he was taking serious shots at Bruno is getting worked.”

Apparently former WWWF champion Superstar Billy Graham was one of them.

Graham, one of Sammartino’s major rivals during the ‘70s, took to Facebook to offer his two cents on the matter. Unlike Sammartino, though, Graham did make a trip to accept his WWE Hall of Fame award several years ago.

“I have lost all respect for you for not saying no to the writers of the WWE for saying Bruno Sammartino only wrestled once a month in Madison Square Garden,” Graham said in reference to Punk’s comments. “You talk about one of the greatest icons ever in pro wrestling like he was a jobber? You should be ashamed of yourself for not having the self-dignity to say no the writers on that line. That line you delivered indicates that I am a big loser like Bruno as well and insults me, as I wrestled in the same era as Bruno. This only confirms more that I want my name out of the WWE Hall of Fame.”

Graham offered one final pipe bomb of his own.

“How many monthly sellouts have you yourself drawn at Madison Square Garden? Not a PPV or the Raw TV show. Quit talking trash about Bruno. It’s an insult to him and all the wrestlers of his era including myself.”

Graham, who considers Heyman a close friend and among the top five promo men in pro wrestling history, added that it saddened him to see Heyman “forced to remain mute” in a WWE ring.

“Paul Heyman is in the same category of a Jesse Ventura, Hulk Hogan and a Superstar Billy Graham, there will never be another like us,” wrote Graham. “He is making money and supporting his family and doing and saying what he is told to do. I wish him nothing but the best of luck with his job with the WWE.”

Graham also gave props to Triple H, but questioned why McMahon hasn’t made a personal call to Sammartino.

“I have the upmost respect for Triple H and actually consider him to be the best all-around performer ever in the WWE for promo ability, wrestling skills, charisma and in-ring presence. Instead of having Triple H asking Bruno week after week to go into the HOF, why doesn’t Vince be a real man and personally call Bruno and ask him himself?”

Another more current WWE star responded to Graham on Twitter.

“Dear Superstar Billy Graham ... Shut the hell up and stop being such a mark. Your Pal, Chris Jericho.”

A work is a work is a work, surmises reader Joe Dobrowski of Washington, D.C., who adds that he thought the McMahon family should have been more considerate of Sammartino.

“I just think it’s sad, but Punk is a professional. What he is doing is designed to do just that, just like Heyman mocking the Lawler heart attack. I think Bruno should have been more protected by the McMahons, but if I remember correctly, Bruno was blackballed by Vince Sr. before he agreed to his Garden run in ‘63.

“Bruno should be held up as a national treasure. I think it is amazing how people are worked up by a work. I think a lot of fans get caught up in the work, but Bruno has earned his respect.”

“I’ve followed Bruno’s career and have seen him wrestle many times at the Boston Garden,” adds Volpicelli. “Punk is good at ring psychology and holding the crowd, emotionally. What he doesn’t have, as far as I know, is the ethnic factor that Bruno had, attracting so many Italian Americans. It’s such a different era, and a different formula of wrestling, but I think Punk is good enough to have a decent shot at it.”

Wayne Rush of Columbia simply cut to the chase with his astute assessment.

“It’s professional wrestling!”

Reach Mike Mooneyham at 843-937-5517 or follow him on Twitter at @ByMikeMooneyham and on Facebook.