Remembering Bruno Sammartino

Bruno Sammartino, the man who helped bring professional wrestling to prominence in the northeast during the 1960s and 1970s and one of wrestling’s greatest champions, died today at the age of 82.

I didn’t have a huge personal connection to Bruno Sammartino. I was born in 1979 and didn’t start watching wrestling regularly until about 1985-86, when he was all but retired and serving as a color commentator on the WWF’s weekend syndicated shows. But I heard all about him from my grandfather when I would sit and watch wrestling with him. He was a big fan of Sammartino’s, and would tell me stories about going to the old Madison Square Garden to watch the champ defend his title against whatever menace was trying to take him down at the time.

Born in Abruzzo, Italy in 1935, Sammartino moved to the United States in 1950, making a home for himself in Pittburgh, Pennsylvania. Because he was somewhat sickly from surviving the war years, he was a frequent target of bullying, which led to his commitment to weightlifting. He nearly made the US Olympic team in 1958. A year later, he made his professional wrestling debut.

Sammartino won his first world title from Buddy Rogers in Madison Square Garden on May 17, 1963 and held the title for close to eight years, regularly selling out both the third and current incarnations of the Garden. When he finally lost the title to Ivan Koloff in January 1971, the promoters were so fearful of a riot that they wouldn’t even present the belt to Koloff in the ring. In December 1973, Sammartino would regain the title, from Stan Stasiak, and went on to hold the title for three and a half more years.

His last real run in the spotlight came in the early 1980s, when he worked a program with fellow Pittsburgh resident Larry Zbyszko. Sammartino was Zbyszko’s idol and the young talent would become a protege to the former champion. Zbyszko would finally turn against his mentor, setting up a huge steel cage match at Shea Stadium in Queens in August 1980. The event – which also featured an undercard match between Andre the Giant and Hulk Hogan (seven years before their WRESTLEMANIA III main event) – sold out the baseball stadium, with thousands cheering on Sammartino’s victory.

Sammartino took the business seriously, and he took offense to the industry’s turn towards entertainment during the mid-1980s under Vince McMahon, and it led to him being more critical of the WWF and McMahon, and he became estranged from the company for more than two decades. He finally made a return to the company to be inducted to the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013.

A standard-bearer for professional wrestling for most of his adult life, Sammartino was also a beloved and revered figure among the Italian-American community, regardless of his public visibility. He was a frequent guest attraction at the San Gennaro festival in New York’s Little Italy, where he was always a popular site.