Before PG, Attitude and Hulk-A-Mania, there was the Living Legend.
Bruno Sammartino, one of the all-time greats and the wrestler who gave Vince McMahon Jr. an opportunity to grow a brand into the mega power it is today, died on Wednesday, April 18.
He was 82.
Sammartino, a powerlifter who influenced the likes of bodybuilder, movie star and former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, was the most popular wrestler in WWWF/WWF and one of the most popular wrestlers of his era nationally.
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Truly on the Mount Rushmore of fan favorites in his heyday.
Furthermore, if Sammartino did not carry the ball like he did, there may have never been WWE, sports entertainment and WrestleMania. His success for the company allowed WWWF/WWF to thrive, and that afforded Vince McMahon Jr. the opportunity to take over the business from his father. (Vince McMahon Sr.). If Sammartino failed, what would have happened to the WWWF/WWF?
When Vince McMahon Sr. needed a champion, he turned to Sammartino, and the move paid off big. During the days of territorial wrestling, the World Wide Wrestling Federation under McMahon Sr.. ruled the Northeast.
With Sammartino, an Italian strongman as its champion, the WWWF (which became the WWF and then what we know today WWE), succeeded greatly in the 1960s and 70s.
Sammartino proudly held the WWWF Heavyweight Championship twice (4,040 days), spanning more than 11 years with his first being the longest single reign in the promotion's history at 2,803 days.
A fitting champion, his charisma, dedication and strength made him legendary. Fans loved Bruno as he dismantled the top heels such as Killer Kowalski, Dr. Jerry Graham, Bull Ramos, Waldo Von Erich, The Crusher, Johnny Valentine, The Sheik, Freddie Blassie, Curtis Iaukea (King Curtis), Tarzan Tyler, Bill Watts, Gorilla Monsoon, Professor Toru Tanaka, Spiros Arion, Ernie "The Big Cat" Ladd, John Tolos, and George "The Animal" Steele..
Like the American Dream Dusty Rhodes did later, Sammartino connected with fans of all races, creeds and colors. Everyone loved Bruno.
Even in defeat, which was painful to fans, Sammartino helped elevate the careers of The Russian Bear Ivan Koloff and Superstar Billy Graham.
Koloff ended Sammartino's first title reign, and Superstar Billy Graham his second.
Sammartino brought notoriety (especially via the Apter Mags) to heel Stan The Man Hansen, who broke Sammartino's neck with his lariat, which became Hansen's legendary move.
Then there was Bruno protege Larry Zbyszko.
Zbyszko turned on his mentor, Sammartino, to become the self-proclaimed Living Legend, and the two battled in a much-hyped grudge match in a steel cage on Aug. 9, 1980, in front of 36,295 fans at Shea Stadium, former home of the New York Mets. The show set box office records.
In semi-retirement in the 1980s, Sammartino (a then WWF broadcaster) feuded with Macho Man Randy Savage, Rowdy Roddy Piper and The Honky Tonk Man.
WWE NXT Superstar Adam Cole, the first NXT North American Champ and one-fourth of the NXT Tag Team Champs The Undisputed Era, is from the Pittsburgh area. In an interview I conducted with him Wednesday, he discussed the passing of his fellow Pennsylvanian.
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Born in Pizzoferrato, Abruzzo, Italy on Oct. 6, 1935, Sammartino moved to the United States in 1950, settling in Pittsburgh.
Miami Dolphins quarterback and NFL Hall of Famer Dan Marino, who too grew up in Pittsburgh, was a huge fan of Sammartino. Family ties. Marino's father actually grew up with Sammartino. They were friends.
As a kid, Dan Marino watched pro wrestling with his grandfather. "Studio Wrestling" the live pro wrestling show broadcast from WIIC-TV Ch. 11 in Pittsburgh every Saturday. The promoter was Toots Mondt, who is known for starting the WWWF with Vince McMahon Sr. Sammartino became a star on the program.
I recall as a youth in South Florida, when cable TV began its run, watching Channel 9 out of New York for WWF action at Midnight on Saturdays with Vince McMahon Jr. and Sammartino on commentary. Sammartino got involved in the action on occasion.
Sammartino appeared in WrestleMania I in 1985 at Madison Square Garden, seconding his son, David, against Brutus the Barber Beefcake with Johnny Valiant, one of Bruno's rivals. The event sold out.
Selling out Madison Square Garden is synonymous with Sammartino. He did that 187 times. Actually, 188. Sammartino was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013 by his friend Schwarzenegger at MSG.
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Debuting in 1959, Sammartino also competed in a battle royal at WrestleMania II in 1986 in the Chicago portion of the three-city event.
I remember one of the Apter Mags in the late 1970s featuring four photos on one page with top fan favorites Andre the Giant, Mil Mascaras, Dusty Rhodes and of course Sammartino.
Just like his wrestling career, his story growing up is legendary.
"Sammartino spoke no English and was sickly from his experiences of surviving during World War II. This made him an easy target for bullies in school. Sammartino wanted to build himself up physically and became devoted to weight training. Sammartino's devotion to weightlifting nearly resulted in a berth on the 1956 U.S. Olympic team. He was edged out by Paul Anderson – who outweighed Sammartino by 70 pounds. In the early years of Sammartino's career, he was measured at 5-10 and weighed around 280 pounds.
"Sammartino set a world record in the bench press with a lift of 565 pounds in 1959. Sammartino completed this lift while not wearing any elbow or wrist wraps. When he brought the bar down, he did not bounce it off his chest, but set it there for two seconds before attempting the press. Sammartino also competed in bodybuilding and won "Mr. Allegheny" in the late 1950s.
"His high school, Schenley High School, did not have a wrestling program, but he worked out with the University of Pittsburgh wrestling team under storied coach Rex Peery. Sammartino became known for performing strongman stunts in the Pittsburgh area, and sportscaster Bob Prince put him on his television show. It was there that he was spotted by local wrestling promoter Rudy Miller, who recruited Sammartino for professional wrestling. Miller knew that Sammartino could easily be marketed as an ethnic strongman, and that he would appeal to Italian immigrants who supported wrestling."
Click link for photos, story and video via WWE:
From the story:
"Bruno became an overnight sensation, connecting with not only fellow Italians, but also the Latino, Greek and Jewish communities, successfully bridging the gap in America’s melting pot of wrestling fans. His legend continued to grow on May 17, 1963, when Sammartino defeated Buddy Rogers in just 48 seconds to become the second-ever WWE (WWWF) Champion in front of nearly 20,000 fans at the old Madison Square Garden."
Sammartino did not like the actions and direction of pro wrestling/sports entertainment under Vince McMahon Jr., and he became an outspoken critic of McMahon Jr. For years, Sammartino vowed to never have anything to do with McMahon Jr. and his company, and he held true to his word.
But never say never, one of WWE's mantras.
Fans hoped somehow, some day Sammartino would return to his wrestling roots. It took many years, but their wish came true.
Through WWE Executive Vice President of Talent, Live Events and Creative Paul Triple H Levesque, the fence mended, and Sammartino took his rightful place in the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013, which led to other WWE appearances and honors.
Bruno Is Uno. RIP.
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