Bruno Leopoldo Francesco Sammartino (October 6, 1935 - April 18, 2018), was an Italian professional wrestler, best known for being the longest-running champion of the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF), holding the WWWF Championship across two reigns for over 12 years in total.
"The Italian Strongman" has often been called "The Living Legend" of professional wrestling and is considered one of the greatest performers professional wrestling has ever known. Sammartino's actual wrestling ability was somewhat limited compared to "real" pro wrestlers like Lou Thesz, but his brawling style, power moves, and personal charisma, plus the fact that he came across as a genuinely nice guy, won him many fans, especially on the East Coast. During his career, Bruno was also known as "The Original Italian Stallion."
Born in Pizzoferrato, Abruzzo on October 6, 1935, Sammartino's family hid, during his childhood, in the mountains from German soldiers during the latter stages of World War II. In 1951 he moved to the United States and settled in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where his father had already lived for several years.
When Sammartino first came to America, he was sickly from his experiences of surviving during the war years. His slight frame, along with his tenuous grasp of English, made him an easy target for bullies in school. Sammartino wanted to build himself up physically and became devoted to weight training. Later, his powerlifting prowess nearly earned him a spot on the 1956 U.S. Olympic Team, but he was edged out by legendary strongman Paul Anderson, who outweighed Sammartino by almost 70 pounds. His high school, Schenley, didn't have a wrestling program, but he worked out with the University of Pittsburgh wrestling team under legendary coach Rex Peary. Sammartino became known for performing strong man 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 pro wrestling. Miller knew that Sammartino could easily be marketed as an ethnic strongman, and that he would appeal to Italian immigrants who supported wrestling.
Studio Wrestling/Pittsburgh Promotion (1959-1974)
Bruno began wrestling for the local Pittsburgh promotion in 1959 and became an instant sensation. The name of the local TV wrestling program was called Studio Wrestling which was broadcast on WIIC-TV Channel 11. The host was legendary Pittsburgh personality Bill Cardille. The Pittsburgh territory was owned independently of Vince McMahon Sr.'s New York based WWWF. Eventually Bruno bought into the Pittsburgh promotion which featured national stars such as Gorilla Monsoon, Reginald Lisowski, Bill Watts, George Steele(debuting with a mask as "The Student"), and Bobo Brazil as well as local sensations like Johnny DeFazio, Frank "Carnegie Cop" Holtz, Hurricane Hunt, Tony "The Battman" Marino and Johnny Valiant. The show was so popular that even referees like Izzie Moidel and Andy DePaul became local celebrities. Bruno sold the promotion in the late 60's and then bought it back in the early 70's. In 1974, Bruno sold it to Vince McMahon Sr. and it became a WWWF territory. All Pittsburgh based title belts were discontinued and the TV show was replaced by the WWWF's syndicated show.
World Wide Wrestling Federation/World Wrestling Federation (1959-1986)
Sammartino started wrestling in 1959. He made major headlines when he became the first (and only) man to lift 600-pound Haystacks Calhoun in a match and slam him. He won the WWWF Championship on May 17, 1963, defeating "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers in just 48 seconds. Bruno kept this title for an incredible seven years, eight months, and one day; it still stands as the longest continuous reign in WWE history.
Bruno was so incredibly popular, that in 1965 he was picked to defeat Lou Thesz, becoming the first wrestler to hold both the NWA and WWWF titles at the same time. Bruno, already getting only every other weekend off, balked when told that he may have months with zero time off. NWA officials then selected Gene Kiniski to replace Bruno.
Sammartino was clearly the most popular wrestler in the Northeastern United States during the 1960s and 1970s. He headlined cards that filled Madison Square Garden on a monthly basis, and over 200 times overall, the most of any individual. He battled the top heels of his time, including Killer Kowalski, Giant Baba, Gene Kiniski, Dr. Bill Miller, Bull Ramos, Hans Mortier, Waldo Von Erich, Crusher Lisowski, Johnny Valentine, The Sheik, Fred Blassie, King Curtis, Tarzan Tyler, Bill Watts, Gorilla Monsoon, and George "The Animal" Steele. Finally, on January 18, 1971, Sammartino lost the title at Madison Square Garden to Ivan Koloff. The crowd was so stunned into silence that Sammartino thought his hearing had been damaged. During the timeline feature on the History Of The WWE Championship DVD, it states that Koloff's title victory was not announced to the crowd out of fear that it would start a riot.
In between his two title runs, on September 30, 1972, Sammartino battled then-titleholder Pedro Morales to an over one-hour draw in a scientific title match at Shea Stadium in New York. He wrestled sporadically all over the world during this time.
Eventually, on December 10, 1973, Sammartino regained the WWWF Championship, defeating Stan Stasiak. He defeated the likes of John Tolos, Bruiser Brody, Ken Patera, Bugsy McGraw, Baron Von Raschke, Ivan Koloff, Superstar Billy Graham, Don Leo Jonathan, Angelo Mosca, Ernie Ladd and Nikolai Volkoff. His second title run lasted three years, four months, and twenty days.
During this time, on April 26, 1976, Sammartino suffered a neck fracture in a match against Stan Hansen at Madison Square Garden, when Hansen improperly executed a body slam. After two months of recovery, Sammartino returned, and faced Hansen in a rematch on June 25, 1976 at Shea Stadium, which was on the closed circuit TV undercard of the famous Ali vs. Antonio Inoki match for WWWF cities. Bruno was rushed back into action by Vince McMahon Sr. when the advance gate for the show was a disaster. Sammartino scored a decisive count-out win, after Hansen ran from the ring and, more importantly, again saved the WWWF from financial ruin by drawing a huge live gate and big closed circuit TV receipts in WWWF territories (the Ali/Inoki show, without the Bruno/Hansen match, tanked in much of the rest of America). The match was rated 1976 Match of the Year by a number of wrestling magazines.
His second WWWF Championship reign ended on April 30, 1977 when he was defeated by Superstar Billy Graham in a controversial ending when Graham had both feet on the ropes while successfully pinning Sammartino.
Free once again to set his own schedule, Bruno toured the U.S. and the world. He wrestled then-NWA Champion Harley Race to a one-hour draw. He also beat, among many others, Blackjack Mulligan, Lord Alfred Hayes, "Crippler" Ray Stevens and teamed with the legendary Dick the Bruiser to win the WWA Tag Belts from the Valiant Brothers.
One of the most emotionally-charged feuds of Bruno's career started on January 22, 1980, when his former student Larry Zbyszko violently turned against him during a scientific exhibition, broadcast on the World Wrestling Federation's Championship Wrestling show. Bruno, shocked and hurt by Zbyszko's betrayal, vowed to make Zbyszko (whom Bruno described as a "Judas") pay dearly. Their record-setting series culminated on August 9, 1980, in front of 36,295 fans at Shea Stadium. As the main event of the Federation's Showdown At Shea card, Bruno defeated Zbyszko inside a steel cage.
Hulk Hogan claims in his autobiography that he and Andre the Giant were the reason for the Shea gate. However, Sammartino/Zbyszko sold out everywhere they wrestled leading up the show. Hogan and Andre was tried once as a main event before Shea with much less impressive results.
After retiring from wrestling full-time in 1981, Bruno agreed to return to the then-WWF in an attempt to launch the wrestling career of his son David, who became a wrestler against his father's wishes. Bruno wrestled occasionally, teaming with his son against the likes of Paul Orndorff & Bobby Heenan and Brutus Beefcake & Johnny Valiant. David soon realized he was being used as a pawn by Vince McMahon to get his famous father to wrestle (and draw huge crowds in the Northeast). Disenchanted, David quit the WWF several times which forced Bruno to continue to wrestle, in hopes that he could get his son back in McMahon's good graces.
His most notable feud during this run was vs. "Macho Man" Randy Savage. He often teamed with Tito Santana and even old enemy George "The Animal" Steele to wrestle Savage and "Adorable" Adrian Adonis. The feud intensified in 1986 when an irate Sammartino attacked Savage during a TV interview, after Savage bragged about injuring Rick Steamboat (by driving the timekeeper's bell into Steamboat's throat during a televised match). Sammartino also defeated Savage in a lumberjack match for the WWF Intercontinental Championship (via disqualification, allowing Savage to keep the belt). Bruno also scored wins over the likes of Sgt. Slaughter, Honky Tonk Man, Greg Valentine, Nikolai Volkoff and, in a memorable cage match, beat Rowdy Roddy Piper. His final match saw him team with Hulk Hogan against King Kong Bundy & One Man Gang.
On October 28, 1989, Bruno made a special appearance at the NWA PPV Halloween Havoc, where he was the special guest referee in a "Thunderdome" cage match which featured Ric Flair and Sting taking on Terry Funk and The Great Muta. He ended up exchanging blows with Muta at the end of the match and ran him off.
Ring of Honor
Sammartino made a special appearance for the independent wrestling promotion Ring of Honor, on September 16, 2006 in Manhattan, NY, putting over the company in the ring for bringing what he considers real wrestling back to the fans. He posed for photographs backstage with then GHC Heavyweight Champion Naomichi Marufuji and then ROH Champion Bryan Danielson. He also sat for the recording of a shoot interview, conducted by Jim Cornette. Bruno took part of Ring of Honor's first "WrestleMania Weekend" show in Detroit, MI on March 30, entitled "All Star Extravaganza III", as well, doing an in ring promo where once again he put over Ring of Honor and its wrestlers until he was interrupted by Larry Sweeney.
Sammartino was married to his wife Carol from 1959 until his death in 2018 and they have three sons together, David, and fraternal twins, Danny and Darryl. They are also grandparents of four grandchildren.
Sammartino died on April 18, 2018, at the age of 82 after a period of declining health. WWE honored his life with a ten-bell salute before a house show in Cape Town later that day. Mayor Bill Peduto remembered him as "one of the greatest ambassadors the city of Pittsburgh ever had".
Championships and accomplishments
- GPW Tag Team Championship (1 time) - with Edouard Carpentier
- National Wrestling Alliance
- NWA International Tag Team Championship (Toronto version) (1 time) - with Whipper Billy Watson
- NWA United States Heavyweight Championship (Toronto version) (1 time)
- Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame
- Class of 2002 (TV Era)
- Pro Wrestling Illustrated
- PWI ranked him # 200 of the 500 best singles wrestlers during the "PWI Years" in 2003.
- PWI Match of the Year award, competing in a Battle Royal in 1972.
- PWI Wrestler of the Year award in 1974.
- PWI Most Inspirational Wrestler of the Year award in 1976.
- PWI Editor's Award in 1981.
- PWI Stanley Weston Award in 1981
- World Wrestling Association
- WWA Tag Team Championship (1 time) - with Dick the Bruiser
- World Wide Wrestling Federation/World Wrestling Entertainment
- Wrestling Observer Newsletter
- Other accomplishments
- Madison Square Garden walk of fame
- Received Key to the City in Franklin, PA as part of IWC's Night of Legends 3 on March 24, 2007.