The squared circle tolled ten bells for “The Living Legend” Bruno Sammartino , probably the most popular wrestler of his generation, who died at age 82. Bruno held the WWWF/WWF (now WWE) world title longer than anyone, 11 years in two title reigns (1963-71, 1973-77), took on and defeated all comers, and sold out New York’s fabled Madison Square Garden a record 188 times. Sammartino was a legit tough guy who once held the record in the bench press (565 pounds), and had a no-nonsense rep backstage. You just didn’t mess with Bruno! He appeared at the first WRESTLEMANIA, in the movie BODY SLAM, and was indicted into numerous Halls of Fame celebrating his almost thirty year career. A hero to millions of grappling fans (including Yours Truly), there will never be another Bruno Sammartino.
Many of Bruno’s in-ring foes also took the three-count in 2018. Pittsburgh native ‘Luscious’ Johnny Valiant (74) wrestled for Bruno’s local promotion and WWWF as a “good guy” named John L. Sullivan before teaming with his kayfabe brother ‘Handsome’ Jimmy Valiant to win the tag team titles on two occasions (and five tag titles in other promotions). Upon retiring from the ring mayhem, he started a second career as the hated manager of The Dream Team (Brutus Beefacke & Greg Valentine). Later, Johnny became a stand-up comic and actor of note (THE SOPRANOS, LAW & ORDER).
Nikolai Volkoff (70) was once known as Bepo Mongol, and challenged Bruno under both monikers; he also held the tag championship with The Iron Sheik. Don Leo Jonathan (87) was a 6’6″, 300+ pound Canadian who grappled around the world, winning many titles; his 1972 battles with Andre the Giant are legendary. Larry “The Ax” Hennig (82) was a hated heel wherever he went, and the father of Curt Hennig, aka ‘Mr. Perfect’ (and grandfather of current WWE competitor ‘Curtis Axel’). Masa Saito (76) hailed from Tokyo, and competed for his country in the 1964 Olympics before turning pro; he was a two-time WWF tag champ with Mr. Fuji, held the AWA World title, and once had a “death match” on a deserted island with Japan’s Antonio Inoki that lasted two hours!
Big Van Vader (63) was a former football player named Leon White who was amazingly athletic for his size, and won World titles in WCW and New Japan. Tom Billington (60) was known as The Dynamite Kid for his eye-popping aerial maneuvers, and made a formidable teammate for The British Bulldog. Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart (63) was the brawn of The Hart Foundation alongside his partner Brett “The Hit Man” Hart (Jim’s daughter Natalia currently wrestles in WWE). Big Bully Busick (63) is remembered for his thick handlebar moustache, bowler derby, and ever-present stinky cigar. Matt Cappotelli (36) won WWE’s TOUGH ENOUGH III, and was slated for mat glory until being diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor and being forced into retirement (as an aside, his cousin Lisa Campbell once won TV’s BIG BROTHER competition).
Jose Lothario (83) was extremely popular in Texas and Florida, and was the trainer for ‘The Heartbreak Kid’ Shawn Michaels. Brickhouse Brown (57) wrestled mainly in the South as well, and was also a fan favorite. “The Rebel” Dick Salter (67) could work as a face or heel, depending on where he was; either way, he was another legit tough guy. “Grandmaster Sexay” Brian Christopher (46), son of veteran Jerry Lawler, won many titles (including the WWE tag straps), but unfortunately his demons got the best of him. Chris Champion (57) was one half of The New Breed with Sean Royal. Frank Andersson (62) won a bronze medal at the 1984 Olympics before embarking on a brief pro career.
Rayo de Jalisco (85) was a legend in his native Mexico, tag partner of El Santo, and appeared in many lucha libre films. Raul Matta (71) was popular in both Mexico and California. Universo 2000 (55) competed for over thirty years. 4’7″ Piratita Morgan (48) was one of Mexico’s top mini-luchadore stars. And last but not least, Larry Matycik (72) started his career at age 16, becoming one of the sport’s top TV announcers (St. Louis’s “Wrestling at the Chase”), matchmakers, promoters, and author of many books on the subject. All entertained their audiences for decades, and will be missed.