I am a third generation wrestling fan. In 1966, before I was born, my father and grandfather went to the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh, and the main event was Bruno Sammartino defending the WWWF championship against Big Bill Miller. My grandfather was a born skeptic he never believed we had gone to the moon, but he believed pro-wrestling was real. After the match, my dad and grandfather went to a popular restaurant Bubbles and Sherman and in a dark corner was Bruno and his arch-nemesis eating with two girls. My grandfather was shaken to the core until my father explained they were just pretending to get along to impress the ladies. Bruno was a regular fixture in Pittsburgh and was a part of my life before I was born. Here is a look back on a remarkable career for a remarkable man.
Bruno Leopoldo Francesco Sammartino was born on October 6, 1935, in Pizzoferrato, Abruzzo, Italy. When he came to the US, he was sickly from the war years in Italy, to combat bullies he began to lift weights and work out. He just missed the cut for the 1956 Olympics as he had become devoted to the sport. He started doing strongman exhibitions around Pittsburgh when he was recruited by Rudy Miller for pro wrestling.
Sammartino made his debut in Pittsburgh defeating his opponent in 19 seconds. He would become famous for his fearsome bearhug and his powerful backbreaker. Sammartino felt like he was getting nowhere in the US, so he went to Toronto where he quickly won the IWF tag team belts with “Whipper” Billy Watson. During this time he managed to have two competitive matches with NWA champion Lou Thesz. These matches caught the eye of Toots Mondt and Vince McMahon Sr.
Mondt and McMahon felt like the NWA, and its head of booking Sam Muchnick was not defending the title in their area enough. In 1963, Mondt and Mcmahon formed their own organization the WWWF and recognized “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers as their first champion. Sammartino agreed to join their organization if he had a shot at Rogers and ended up winning the belt in 48 seconds. Why this happened is greatly disputed some argue that Rogers refused to drop the belt and was quickly screwed out of the title. Some say that a heart attack a week earlier left him too weak to compete in a long match. Sammartino would hold the title for 7 years before dropping it to Ivan Koloff in Madison Square Garden. Legend has it that the ending was so shocking that the entire Garden was silent for an entire two minutes. In 1972, Sammartino traveled to Los Angeles to compete in their annual battle royal. He ended up winning when he forced Ripper Collins to submit.
Later in 1972, Sammartino agreed to return to the then WWF, for a reduced schedule and a share of the door on matches where he wrestled. Face vs. face matches we very unusual in the WWF but Sammartino had a huge match with champ Pedro Morales that ended in a 60-minute draw.
Morales would lose the belt to Stan Stasiak who would hold the title for nine days before losing it to Sammartino. Sammartino held the belt for three years before fracturing his neck in a match against Stan Hansen. He tried to wrestle through the pain but his injuries were too severe, and he dropped the belt in 1977 to “Superstar” Billy Graham.
From 1978-1981 Sammartino toured around the US and the world. He wrestled NWA champ Harley Race to a one hour draw in St. Louis and started as a color commentator for WWF programming. Sammartino had his last great feud in 1980 with his protegee Larry Zbyszko. Their feud sold out arenas wherever they wrestled, and Sammartino went in semi-retirement in 1981.
Sammartino wrestled infrequently after that. He was in his son’s corner versus Brutus Beefcake at Wrestlemania I and was in a 20 man battle royal at Wrestlemania II.Through the mid-80’s he had feuds with Randy Savage, Roddy Piper, and Bob Orton Jr. Sammartino’s last match was in 1987 when he teamed with Hulk Hogan to defeat King Kong Bundy and One Man Gang. He continued doing color commentary for the WWF until 1988.
Although Sammartino was out of the ring he was never entirely out of the spotlight, he was a vocal opponent of the WWF’s circus-like atmosphere in the ‘90’s and refereed a match at Halloween Havok for WCW in 1989 as well as a series of matches between Ric Flair and Randy Savage in 1996. Sammartino passed away on April 18 at the age of 82. He is gone but will never be forgotten.