Bruno Sammartino, who passed away yesterday at age 82, wasn’t just a professional wrestler. He was an institution, an icon, a true American Dream success story, a hero to millions of kids now “of a certain age” (like me), and the biggest box-office star of his era, selling out New York’s fabled Madison Square Garden a record 187 times. He held the WWWF (now WWE) Heavyweight championship for close to twelve years during his two title reigns, facing the best in the business and vanquishing them all. Face it, Bruno was THE MAN!
The Man himself was born in Italy in 1935, and as a child hid from the Nazis in the Italian mountains. Coming to America in 1950 and settling in Pittsburgh, Bruno was a sickly, scrawny child who couldn’t speak English, and was bullied in school. This caused the young lad to begin working out with weights, and by 1959 he set a world record in the bench press hefting 565 pounds, a record that stood for eight years. Bruno began performing feats of strength in his hometown, and soon a wrestling promoter offered him a chance to make some money in the squared circle.
Sammartino wasn’t a great technical wrestler; he was a brawler and a bruiser whose matches were usually won with his devastating bearhug hold. Wrestlers at the time were marketed towards local working class ethnic groups, and Bruno became a hit in Italian strongholds like Pittsburgh, Boston, and New York/New Jersey. New York promoter Vincent J. McMahon (father of current WWE chairman Vincent K.) was about to form his own East Coast alliance called the World Wide Wrestling Federation, and he knew a good thing when he saw it. Naming “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers his first champ, he set up a match between the arrogant heel and the popular Sammartino, and Bruno won the belt on May 17, 1963 in 48 seconds! The rumor is Rogers had suffered a heart attack the week before and needed to retire, and some backstage shenanigans involving the athletic commission doctors allowed the “Nature Boy” to pass a quick physical that night so the belt could be put on Bruno.
Shenanigans or not, Bruno faced all the top heels in the game during his initial seven-plus year run. “Bad guys” like The Shiek, Ernie “The Cat” Ladd, Freddie Blassie, Gorilla Monsoon, Professor Toru Tanaka, and Killer Kowalski tried and failed to wrest the crown from Bruno. My Portuguese grandmother (‘vovo’) used to get real heated whenever Kowalski came on the television – I can’t describe how shocked I was as a kid to hear my sweet little Vovo yelling, “You dirty son of a bitch!” at Kowlaski’s dastardly deeds on the TV set!
Eventually, Bruno tired of the travel schedule, and dropped the strap to Ivan Koloff in 1971 (who in turn lost to Puerto Rican sensation Pedro Morales a month later). The now ex-champ made sporadic appearances here and there, but soon McMahon Sr. came a-calling. Though Morales was a better technical wrestler than Bruno, box office receipts and TV ratings were down, and Sammartino was persuaded to carry the crown again. Pedro lost to Stan “The Man” Stasiak (‘Master of the Heart Punch’), and a month later Bruno beat Stan, once again lighting up the ratings and box office for another three-plus years, battling villains like George “The Animal” Steel, Ken Patera, Nikolai Volkoff, Stan Hansen, and the hated Kowalski, finally relinquishing the title to “cool” heel Superstar Billy Graham (who, as we all could plainly see, had his feet on the ropes for leverage!).
But Bruno didn’t need a title; he was still the top star in wrestling. He headlined everywhere he went, and the fans went wild seeing him beat the crap out of his opponents. I remember a 1980 card at the old Boston Garden pitting Bruno against his protégé Larry Zbysko, now a hated heel for turning on our hero. The two brawled for an eternity, both men a bloody mess before Sammartino gained the victory, and the crowd went berserk! Yeah, we knew by then it was fake, but damn, it sure was a lot of fun! (For those of you interested, also on the card were The Wild Samoans, Gorilla Monsoon, Pat Patterson, Baron Mikel Scicluna, and “The Duke of Dorchester” Pete Doherty!)
Bruno was now called “The Living Legend”, an appropriate title if there ever was one. He became a color commentator alongside Vince McMahon Jr. after the son bought the company from his father, but still wrestled on occasion. He participated in the first two Wrestlemanias, and feuded with “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and “Macho Man” Randy Savage. But Bruno didn’t like the cartoonish direction the younger McMahon was taking the company, nor the rampant use of steroids, and departed acrimoniously in 1987. Things between Sammartino and the now-WWE remained bitter until 2013, when Paul “Triple H” Levesque pleaded with him to bury the hatchet, and Bruno Sammartino was finally awarded his proper place in the WWE Hall of Fame, inducted by his friend Arnold Schwarzenegger. But like every warrior, even the mighty Sammartino could not defeat Father Time. He leaves behind his wife of 59 years Carol, three sons, four grandchildren, and many beloved memories for his fans.
I recall an old issue of Sports Illustrated that had a piece on Bruno’s phenomenal popularity, the first wrestler ever to be profiled by the magazine. In the story, an elderly female fan was interviewed. On her wall, there were three pictures. On the left, John F. Kennedy, on the right, Pope Paul. And the man holding the prestigious spot in the middle… Bruno Sammartino. Holy Trinity, indeed. Godspeed, Bruno.