Bruno Sammartino Dead at 82: A Look at the Living Legend

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Photo: PWI

The professional wrestling world is in shock as one of it’s biggest stars in the history of the sport, 2x WWE World Heavyweight Champion Bruno Sammartino, had passed away peacefully following health issues, surrounded by his wife and children. Bruno Sammartino was 82 years old.

The man who would become the longest reigning World Champion in pro wrestling history and became the living embodiment of the American dream, started off with a life that seemed destined for anything but. Born in Pizzoferrato, Italy in 1935, Bruno was the youngest child of a family that included seven children. His father had moved to Pittsburgh in the United States for work, leaving his mother to raise the seven children during the Second World War. Throughout the war, Bruno’s mother would hide the children in the mountain village of Valla Rocca, sneaking into German occupied villages for supplies. Following the end of the war, they would finally reunite with Bruno’s father in the Pittsburgh, but at a terrible loss. Four of Bruno’s siblings died in Italy.

Bruno was a sickly child who turned to weightlifting to strengthen his stamina and it paid off in dividends. He narrowly missed out on a spot on the 1956 US Olympic team, but in 1959 set a world record for bench press at 565 pounds. He also worked with the University of Pittsburgh wrestling team, performing strong man spectacles around the city, before he was approached for a life in the biggest spectacle of them, professional wrestling, in 1959 as well. By 1960, he was wrestling in Madison Square Garden and working for Vince McMahon Jr.‘s Capitol Wrestling. But by 1961, Sammartino departed the organization over poor pay, heading back into other NWA territories, including Maple Leaf Wrestling in Toronto. In 1963, McMahon lured Sammartino back to Capitol Wrestling, now rebranded as the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF) and he was immediately thrown into the main event to challenge the inaugural champion, “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers. After a few unsuccessful attempts at the title, Bruno finally defeated Rogers in 48 seconds at Madison Square Gardens on May 17, 1963. With a strong influx of immigrants to the New York area following the Second World War, Bruno Sammartino became an icon to the United States new citizens. The formerly underappreciated and voiceless members of the new American society rallied behind the Italian champion and Bruno Sammartino dominated the New York area, selling out Madison Square Gardens an astounding 187 times.

His first reign as WWWF World Heavyweight Champion lasted an unprecedented 2,803 days, breaking the previous record of 2,300 days held by NWA World Heavyweight Champion Lou Thesz from 1949 to 1956. Bruno held the WWWF title from 1963 through 1971, before losing it to his hand picked successor, Ivan Koloff. The high demand at the top had taken a toll on Sammartino, mentally and physically, and he needed to take some time off to recuperate. He worked a limited schedule for the next few years, including some stops in All Japan, returning full time in late 1973, where he regained the WWWF World title from Stan Stasiak, which he held for another 1,237 days before passing the torch to “Superstar” Billy Graham in 1977. Following his loss in the rematch, Bruno went into semi-retirement, working more showcase matches with the WWWF. He had a brief resurgence in an epic feud with his protégé, Larry Zybyszko, in 1980, before retiring from in-ring competition in 1981. He would return to the WWF (since renamed due to Vince McMahon Jr. taking over the company) to work on commentary, but departed in 1988. He became a strong advocate against the increasing gimmick laden and violent style of the WWF and then WWE, before reconciling with the WWE family for his Hall of Fame induction in 2013.

An integral part of not only WWE history but professional wrestling history, Bruno Sammartino was an inspiration for an entire generation who came from the battered fields of Europe post-War and the living embodiment of the American dream for everyone. A true Living Legend indeed during his time on this Earth, and an absolute icon forever more.

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