When I read the news that the legendary Bruno Sammartino passed away, I was shocked. Considering his age, this sad event might be described as expected or typical, but Bruno was anything but typical. Even at 82, it just seemed like the former WWWF champion was too strong to go. He was too mythical to be mortal. The stories of surviving illness as a child to his remarkable feats of strength to his record-setting title runs, made it seem as though he would always be around as the definition of a champion.
A native of a small town in Abruzzo, Italy, Sammartino survived many hardships during his youth before he found success in America. His father traveled to Pittsburgh for work with plans to bring the rest of his family to the United States after he made enough money to settle them there. At the same time, a Nazi invasion of Bruno’s village during World War II forced his family to hide in the snowy mountains. Sammartino later recounted that his mother would sneak back into their house in the middle of the night to bring food back for him and his siblings.
Eventually, the remaining Sammartino family immigrated to Pittsburgh to join his father in 1950. The young Bruno was sickly from the harsh winters spent in the mountains and spoke no English upon his arrival. In an effort to improve his health, he began weight training at a local YMCA. As he grew up, his training earned him many accolades, winning many regional competitions. His impressive strength set weight lifting records and he was often featured on local TV shows to showcase his ability. It was on those local spots that he was discovered by local wrestling promoter, Rudy Miller, who encouraged him to pursue the sport.
After his debut in 1959, Sammartino worked the under card of Capital Sports events, which were promoted by Vince McMahon Sr. in the north-east territory. A scheduling disagreement with McMahon Sr. led Bruno to seek work in Toronto, where there was a major Italian population. He became extremely popular among Canadian fans after he started there in 1962 and within the span of a just a year, worked with several top stars throughout the territory.
In the United States, McMahon Sr. found it difficult to draw major crowds with his new World Wide Wrestling Federation champion, Buddy Rogers, a grappler that was known for being notoriously difficult to work with during that era. McMahon Sr., a longtime respected member of the National Wrestling Alliance, created his own title to promote his organization as its own entity. He was so respected among his peers that he remained on the NWA board for several more years, despite running his own promotion. Buddy Rogers was a major star through the television exposure of the previous decade and had “won” the title through a fictitious tournament supposedly held in Rio De Janeiro, but failed to bring fans to the box office as champion.
Joe “Toots” Mondt worked as a trusted advisor for Capital Sports and negotiated a deal for Sammartino to return to the WWWF. On May 17, 1963, Bruno stepped into the ring to challenge Rogers for the belt. Rogers didn’t want to drop the title and there was some question about if the bout would go as planned. It took Sammartino just 48 seconds to claim victory with the Canadian back breaker. There were few rematches planned because Rogers claimed he was injured.
Bruno held the belt for an unprecedented record-setting reign of nearly eight years, drawing major crowds everywhere he defended the championship, and through the press of wrestling magazines, generated a following around the globe. As far away as Japan, Sammartino worked matches against his longtime friend, Giant Baba in the late 60s. As the titleholder of the WWWF, he often defended his title against foreigner villains from that era, and crowds flocked to the box office to support the Italian strong man. The audience identified with the blue-collar champion because he represented them. It’s well documented that Bruno took his role as champion very seriously and saw it as his responsibility to be an honorable representative. He knew his place at the top of the card made him a role model to the fans that supported him and the humble grappler was always a respectful figure. The crowd that cheered him on in the ring connected with his story, they were hard-working, blue-collar people who tried to accomplish the same goals as Bruno, to find as much success as possible in their chosen profession.
After almost eight years of continuous travel, Sammartino requested time off so that he could spend time with his family. It was decided that Ivan Koloff would take the belt to transition the championship to Puerto Rican star, Pedro Morales. On January 18, 1971, “The Russian Bear” dropped a knee from the top rope, and the referee counted three to determine the new champion. The sold out Madison Square Garden crowd sat in stunned silence. Those in attendance couldn’t believe that the dominate Sammartino was defeated. As he made his way back to the dressing room, several fans in the audience were crying and said, “Bruno, we still love you.” He later said in an interview that as he unlaced his boot in the dressing room that he felt extremely bad that he decided to take time off because he thought he left the fans down.
In late-1973, Bruno won the title again, defeating Stan Stasiak at the Philadelphia Spectrum. This time, he had a three-year run as champion and continued to draw sell out crowds. However, his second time at the top of the card wasn’t without hurdles, specifically in 1976 when he broken his neck during a match against Stan Hansen. With just two months to recover, he returned to the squared circle for a rematch in Shea Stadium as a featured match on the under card of the closed circuit broadcast of Ali vs. Inoki bout. While the primitive mixed martial arts contest generated tremendous buzz in Japan, many American fans were unaware of who Inoki was at that time so advanced sales at closed circuit venues were low. The Bruno/Hansen rematch was added to boost sales in the United States and it did, which prompted a series of bouts in the territory after Sammartino recovered from the injuries.
But, the neck injury along with several other injuries during a nearly twenty year career led to the conclusion of his full-time career. In 1977, he dropped the belt to “Super Star” Billy Graham and took a reduced schedule after that. He remained a part of the organization, often times as a commentator for TV tapings, and did brief feuds, including a memorable storyline against Larry Zbyszko that culminated in a cage match at Shea Stadium in 1980. As the business changed during the national expansion in the mid-80s with Vince McMahon Jr. as the owner of the WWF, Sammartino disapproved of the direction of the industry. He made a part-time comeback to the ring in the late-80s to attempt to help his son, David get a push in the organization, but David simply didn’t have the ability to make it to the level of the previous generation. Bruno had soured on the WWF product and left the organization in 1988, which led to many years of resentment.
Bruno remained an outspoken critic of the more vulgar aspects of the Attitude era and turned down Hall of Fame offers throughout the early 2000s. Finally, with the industry as a more much PG presentation and the WWE wellness policy in place, Triple H negotiated a deal with Bruno to be inducted the Hall of Fame at Madison Square Garden, a venue he sold out an astounding 187 times during his career, in 2013. Since that time, he occasionally appeared at different WWE events and for shows on the WWE network. It was nice to see the WWE showcase Sammartino as the legendary icon that he that earned during his stellar career.
As I wrote in an article last year, I had the chance to meet Bruno on a few different occasions and each time it was truly an honor to get to speak to such a legendary figure. Regardless of if it was when I was only eight years old and only knew of Bruno as THE champion from stories that my dad told me or when I took a picture with him several years later, knowing his greatness, he always had a polite response. Bruno’s remarkable story of survival and success it truly an example of the American dream. Bruno Sammartino was an icon and much of the foundation of the industry was built upon his tremendous popularity. Many fans from different generations were impacted by his greatness and legendary career.
What do you think? Comment below with your thoughts, opinions, feedback and anything else that was raised.
Until next week
E mail firstname.lastname@example.org | You can follow me on Twitter @jimlamotta
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