Wrestler Bruno Sammartino dies aged 82: Remembering the greatest wrestler to have ever graced the sport
Bruno Sammartino's story is one of survival. He overcame great adversity in his childhood to become the greatest professional wrestler in history.
The word 'legend' is used quite loosely these days but there was none more deserving of the title than Bruno Sammartino. 'The Living Legend,' and one of the greatest professional wrestlers of all time passed away at the age of 82 on Wednesday, bringing the curtains down on the life of a man who embodied the virtues of wrestling like no other. While the news of his death was met with shock and grief from prominent figures in the wrestling business, a family friend and former wrestling announcer Christopher Cruise told The Associated Press that Sammartino had been in the hospital for the past two months.
A majority of wrestling fans, bar the children, know that what they see on television with WWE, TNA, and numerous other programs is scripted. And though in Sammartino's time that fact was more disputed, it was still fairly obvious that these so-called professional matches were staged dramatizations choreographed to perfection that involved heroes and villains and a predetermined end result. And though many felt that this deprecated the value of the end product, that it took away the sheen and the gloss, the soft-spoken Sammartino and his aura of invincibility managed to draw in crowds in the excess of 20,000 on a regular basis.
An Italian immigrant, he measured in at about 5ft 10in and 265lb, which was nothing spectacular for a wrestler. Even in his heyday in the 60s and 70s, the giants and the genetic freaks were the ones the crowd wanted to see in action in the ring. But Sammartino, with his bulging pectorals, impeccable biceps, and bullish in-ring persona, managed to stand up to and go toe-to-toe with behemoths such as the 600-pound Haystacks Calhoun and became a crowd favorite in the process.
Sammartino's is a story of survival. His invincibility in the ring - he held the World Wide Wrestling Federation Championship for more than 11 years (4,040 days) across two reigns - is a culmination of the story of his initial vulnerability, resistance, defiance, an undying determination to succeed, and a steadfast devotion to the values he believed were paramount even in a field that has grown to be as suspect and ethically void as wrestling. His is a career that was influenced and shaped by events right from his very birth.
Sammartino was born in 1935 in Pizzoferrato, Abruzzo, Italy, and had a difficult childhood. His family hid for 14 months from German soldiers during World War II in a mountain called Valla Rocca, surviving on the rations his mother managed to steal from a nearby town. During one of these missions for stealing food, Bruno's mother was captured by the Nazis but somehow made it out alive.
On another occasion, the whole family was captured and lined up in front of a German firing squad. Seconds away from death, the fates smiled down upon them and they were rescued at the last moment. During the war, he also watched four of his siblings die and suffered a serious bout of scarlet fever.
When the war was over, doctors who examined him gave him only a few days to live. But he beat the odds to survive once again. The family eventually moved to Pittsburgh in 1950, where his father had already been living since 1939, and he immediately found it difficult to acclimatize to his new surroundings because of his traumatizing experiences during the war.
Because he weighed in at a sickly 90-pounds, he immediately became the target of overzealous bullies at the Schenley High School. Unbeknownst to them, their incessant trolling would nudge him on to arguably the most distinguished career in professional wrestling history. Sammartino decided he had to put on a few pounds and turned to weightlifting and wrestling to build himself up physically. And like most of the tasks he had undertaken in his life, failure was not an option: by graduation in 1953, he weighed 225 pounds.
Buoyed by his transformation, his new-found obsession stuck, nearly resulting in a berth on the 1956 U.S Olympic team. However, he was ultimately beaten out by Paul Anderson, who went on to win the gold medal. But he didn't let this one minor setback stymie the promising leaps he had taken in the past few years, going on to set a world record in the bench press by lifting 565 pounds.
His marriage with professional wrestling was one, as is with most dramatic fairy tales, set up by chance alone. He had become popular in his local Pittsburgh area for performing stunts and sportscaster Bob Prince put him on his TV show. He was then spotted by local wrestling promoter Rudy Miller, who would give him his platform and set him on the path to becoming one of the most-recognized superstars of the industry.
Sammartino's wrestling career was not without its ups and downs, of course. In his professional debut, he pinned opponent Dmitri Grabowski in 19 seconds. Then, in his debut at New York's legendary Madison Square Garden - a venue which arguably only has that historic feel and reverence because Sammartino managed to sell the venue out a record 187 times - in 1960, he defeated Bull Curry in five minutes.
But then, he was complicit in an accident that, to Sammartino's own admission, would have a profound impact on his life and would take him years to get over. On February 18, 1961, he faced off with Chick Garibaldi in the ring at the Sunnyside Gardens in New York. During the match, Sammartino body-slammed Garibaldi and noticed that his eyes immediately rolled up inside his head upon impact. The match was stopped and when the referee checked on the fallen wrestler, he was found to be dead. A medical examination later revealed that Garibaldi had suffered a heart attack.
Sammartino had signed a $250-a-week contract with the Vince McMahon Sr. and Joseph Mondt-owned Capital Pro Wrestling in 1959 to wrestle in the New York and Pennsylvania area but left because he felt he was being held back in favor of 'Nature Boy' Buddy Rogers. While the two parties would unite again, this separation left a sour taste in his mouth because he felt he was subsequently set up to fail by McMahon.
The wrestling magnate had apparently double booked him, which meant that while he was on his way to California, he missed two matches in Baltimore and Chicago. As a result, he was suspended in those territories, and because California honored the suspensions as well, he was completely out of work. He decided to make the best out of a dire situation, moving to Toronto and immediately connecting with the large Italian immigrant population because of their similar roots. It would be here that he would win his first professional wrestling championship and become a major player in the scene, eventually leading to reacquainting with McMahon.
McMahon paid the $500 fine to clear up Sammartino's suspension and managed to get the icon to return to his promotion on the condition that he agreed to set up a title match against Rogers, the current WWWF World Heavyweight Champion. Their match was one that will go down in the history books, not because it involved any spectacular story-telling or immaculate wrestling, but because of how utterly dominant Sammartino was made out to be.
When the pair faced off in Madison Square Garden on May 17, 1963, the storyline dictated that Rogers win. But McMahon possibly had a change of heart at the last moment, and when Sammartino delivered the news to Rogers as the two faced off in the ring, the latter did not take it well. Nevertheless, the match never really got going. It didn't need to. Sammartino pinned his adversary in 48 seconds and the WWWF had a new champion. One that would practically continue his reign for the next 11 years and usher in a golden era for wrestling.
Sammartino's first reign lasted a whopping seven years, eight months, and a day, during which he regularly headlined cards that filled Madison Square Garden and faced off against the most famous 'baddies' of the time: Killer Kowalski, Gene Kiniski, Bull Ramos, Waldo Von Erich, Giant Baba, and many, many more. He finally lost his championship in 1971 to Ivan Koloff but gained it back in 1973 by defeating Stan Stasiak. His second reign would last an impressive four-odd years as well, ending after he admitted he could no longer perform due to mounting injuries. He then leisurely toured the U.S, before calling quits to a decorated career in 1981.
To the burly Italian, wrestling was always a matter of pride. Everything else was secondary. He did not contend accusations that professional wrestling was scripted but embraced them. But to those naysayers who sanctimoniously sat on their perch and cried out wrestling required no skill, he pointed out the plethora of life-threatening injuries he had sustained during the course of his career: the broken bones in his neck, collarbone, both arms, wrists, knuckles, and ribs were all a testament to everything he had given in the squared circle.
It was this undying dedication and belief in the ethics of the sport that would eventually fray his relationship with the WWWF turned WWF turned WWE once again. Sammartino was fiercely critical of McMahon and the path on which he led professional wrestling. He was exasperated at the often ludicrous and obscene wrestling angles promoted in the brand for the sake of laughs and ratings, feeling that it disintegrated the value of the wrestler. He was also unhappy about how the company encouraged the use of steroids and other illicit drugs so that the wrestlers could boast that perfect, chiseled physique that inevitably drew the 'oohs and the aaahs' from the audience.
He was also frankly disgusted with the 'money first' approach, explaining in his 1990 documentary 'Bruno Sammartino: An Autobiography of Wrestling's Living Legend': "If the general public knew how much of this was going on today in wrestling by some of these so-called heroes that the children are rooting for, they would be shocked and devastated by it all."
This fracturing in their relationship meant that Sammartino declined several invitations for an induction into the much-vaunted WWE Hall of Hame. It was Triple H who would ultimately succeed in getting the 'The Living Legend' back into the WWE's good graces, with Sammartino accepting the induction in 2013 because he felt satisfied with the way the company had addressed his concerns about the drug abuse and the direction of the business.
The stories of Sammartino and the WWE are intrinsically intertwined, whether they like it or not. Each one would not have been same without the other - Sammartino garnering worldwide adulation and fame and the WWE using his stardom to launch itself into the wider public conscious - and their reconciliation felt like the end that their storied chapter deserved.
Sammartino's passing leaves an unfillable void, not just for his family, where he leaves behind a wife and three children, but also to millions of fans worldwide who have grown up watching his performances and to whom there was none more synonymous with wrestling. If he were alive, he would have undoubtedly wished for his legacy to live on through the next generation of wrestlers, each of whom is supremely talented and could possibly have given Sammartino himself a run for his money on their day.
The king is dead, long live the king!