Bruno Sammartino: The Legend Still Lives
by IPWHF President Seth Turner
Bruno Sammartino was revered by millions of people for his great strength, athletic prowess, and other personal attributes; but his ability to persevere against great odds made him, arguably, the greatest world champion in the history of professional wrestling. From May 1963 through January 1971, and again from December 1973 through April 1977, Sammartino reigned as World Heavyweight Champion of the World Wide Wrestling Federation. The combined total of 4,040 days with the title stands as a record which will likely never be surpassed.
In 2006, Bruno Sammartino produced an autobiographical documentary, Bruno Sammartino Behind the Championship Belt. The film provides a comprehensive and stirring view of Bruno and his family as they survived in Nazi-controlled Italy during World War II. Emilia Sammartino, Bruno’s mother, emulated great resolve as she fought to keep her children alive through the war. Whether by nature or nurture, these traits
were passed on to Bruno.
Emilia would hike down Valla Rocca (the mountain near Pizzoferrato where the Sammartinos hid from the Nazis) and sneak past Nazi SS troops to get food to bring back to her children on the mountain. On one mission she was captured by the soldiers but jumped from a moving truck to break free. Another time she was shot in the shoulder, but she refused to falter and continued to run away. Nevertheless, she remained focused on caring for her children. Failure was not an option.
At one point as the family hid on Valla Rocca, two Nazi soldiers ascended the mountain and captured the Sammartinos and approximately thirty other villagers. As the Nazi’s lined them up to be executed, Bruno was comforted by his mother’s calm assurance that all would be well and soon they would be in heaven. Luckily, two men from the village attacked and overcame the Nazi soldiers just as they were about to fire a
machine gun at the crowd. Though the family was saved at the last possible moment, Bruno never forgot the brave actions and calm demeanor of his mother during this time.
While on Valla Rocca, Bruno was stricken with Rhematic Fever. Emilia used all available means to care for him and was determined that she would not lose her child to the horrific illness. Bruno became so weak that he could not walk. In fact, when the village of Pizzoferrato was finally liberated by Allied forces, Bruno had to be carried from the mountain by his mother.
Just before the war had come to Italy, Bruno’s father, Alfonso Sammartino, went to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to work in the steel mills. Once the war started, the borders were closed and Alfonso was not able to return to Italy, nor communicate with the family. After the war, Emilia and Alfonso decided it would be best if their family relocated to the United States. However, Bruno was too ill to travel, and it took years
before he was healthy enough to safely make the passage to America.
In 1950, Bruno, a mild and malnourished teenager from war-torn Italy, was confronted with many of the hardships faced by immigrants. He spoke a foreign language and had traditions and customs that were different from others in the neighborhood. Bruno was bullied and harassed in his new environment, but he was determined to not only survive - but to thrive. Then, something clicked. A local landscaper
introduced Bruno to weightlifting. The 90-pound fourteen-year-old began to build muscle and grow. Bruno also began to train in wrestling, and because there was not a team in his high school, Bruno trained with University of Pittsburgh coach, Rex Peery. By the time Bruno Sammartino graduated Schenley High School in 1953, he weighed 225 pounds and was becoming renowned for his feats of strength.
Bruno Sammartino married Carol Teyssier in 1959. That same year, Bruno set the world record with a 565-pound bench press. He won several weightlifting competitions and was featured on some local television programs. Rudy Miller, who promoted professional wrestling in the Pittsburgh area, took notice of Bruno’s accomplishments and invited him for a try out. Miller was impressed with Sammartino and recommended him to Vince McMahon and Joseph ‘Toots’ Mondt who, together with Willie Gilzenberg and Phil Zacko, operated the Capitol Wrestling Corporation. On December 17, 1959, Bruno Sammartino won his first professional wrestling match against Dmitiri Grabowski in 17 seconds. Bruno used a bearhug and accidently broke three of Dmitiri’s ribs.
Bruno Sammartino first wrestled at Madison Square Garden in New York City on January 2, 1960, when he defeated Bull Curry in five minutes with a backbreaker. Later that year, he became the first person to lift and slam the 601-pound Haystacks Calhoun at the Garden.
Unfortunately, Bruno’s early years as a professional wrestler were not financially lucrative, but he remained determined to become successful. In an effort to increase his income, he left the northeast to work for Roy Shire in the San Francisco territory. However, while in the locker room preparing for a match in San Francisco, a representative from the California Athletic Commission informed Bruno that his license was
suspended, and he was not authorized to wrestle.
Bruno subsequently learned the suspension was being upheld in many states, yet he was not aware what the impetus for the penalty was. Allegedly, Bruno had missed a scheduled booking in the Capitol Wrestling territory, and the Maryland Athletic Commission had filed for the suspension of his wrestling license in their state. Though the matter would eventually be cleared up, it left Bruno in a very difficult personal and
financial situation while miles away from his family.
Bruno returned to his wife and family in Pittsburgh and was working in construction when he decided to try professional wrestling again. Bruno was speaking to his friend Yukon Eric, who was in Pittsburgh for some matches, and Eric recommended that Bruno go work for Frank Tunney in Toronto. Tunney had a good reputation among many wrestlers, and because he was based in Canada the issues with suspension
would not affect Bruno there. Once in Toronto, Bruno was embraced by the large Italian population, and his popularity soared.
In early 1963, Capitol Wrestling Corporation broke away from the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA), and created the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF). The WWWF chose to recognize their own World Champion, rather than the NWA World Champion. Buddy Rogers was selected as the first WWWF World Champion. However, Vince McMahon wanted to capitalize on the soaring popularity of Bruno
Sammartino, as exemplified by the large crowds that continued to come to the Maple Leaf Garden in Toronto. McMahon wanted Bruno - but Bruno wanted the World Championship. Bruno was still stinging from the issues around his suspension, and he was in a much stronger position to negotiate with the promoters WWWF. A deal was reached, but it was agreed that it had to be kept confidential.
“We can do this the easy way. Or we can do it the hard way.” Bruno Sammartino looked directly into the eyes of his opponent on May 17, 1963, in the middle of the ring in Madison Square Garden and let Buddy Rogers know that regardless of whatever may have been said before the match - on this night Bruno was going to leave as the champion. “Do your best Buddy, because I’m going to do mine.” It was over in 47
seconds. Bruno Sammartino lifted Rogers into a backbreaker, causing him to quickly submit. The referee called for the bell to ring, and the crowd at the Garden erupted as Bruno Sammartino was named the WWWF World Champion.
A new era in wrestling had been established. Killer Kowalski, Gorilla Monsoon, Hans Mortier, George ‘The Animal’ Steel, Tarzan Tyler, Professor Toru Tanaka, and many others all tried unsuccessfully for the next several years to defeat Bruno Sammartino. In his first reign, Bruno Sammartino was the champion for 2,803 days. This still ranks as the longest single run of any world heavyweight champion in the history of
professional wrestling. Sammartino defended the championship in Japan, Australia, Europe, Mexico, Canada, and all over the United States of America. Fans packed the arenas and chanted “Bruno! Bruno! Bruno!” whenever he walked to the ring.
“There was no entrance music for wrestlers at that time,” lamented famed professional wrestling journalist, Bill Apter. “Bruno’s entrance music was 20,000 fans all chanting his name in unison. But I was also there the night he made Madison Square Garden go completely silent.” Apter was referring to January 18, 1971,the night that Bruno lost the World Championship. The crowd reaction of stunned silence was so surreal that even Bruno himself thought he had lost his hearing. Apter explained, “Everyone was shocked and could not believe what they saw. Ivan Koloff beat Bruno Sammartino. They couldn’t even give Koloff the belt in the ring, because they thought people would riot. Grown men were in tears.”
In December 1973, Bruno became the first two-time World Champion in WWWF history, when he defeated Stan Stasiak. During this second reign, Bruno suffered a broken neck in a match against Stan Hansen, yet he returned to action a mere two months later. Sammartino successfully defended the WWWF World Championship for over three years during his second reign. ‘Superstar’ Billy Graham finally won the title when he defeated Bruno on April 30, 1977.
In April 2018, Bruno Leopoldo Franceso Sammartino passed away at 82 years of age, as a result of the complications from the Rheumatic
Fever he had suffered as a child. Bruno was inducted to the WWE Hall of Fame, The Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame, and the International Sports Hall of Fame. A 13-foot-tall statue in Bruno’s likeness stands in Pizzoferatto, Italy, and a different statue was unveiled by Paul ‘Triple H’ Levesque as part of the WWE Hall of Fame activities in 2014. In April 2021, a park near his home in the Ross Township of Pittsburgh was named in his honor. To say that Bruno is beloved would be an understatement.
The stories in professional wrestling about Bruno Sammartino are legendary: he sold out Madison Square Garden more than any other performer in history; by agreeing to return to action after his broken neck, Sammartino helped McMahon salvage the business when it was in dire straits; the matches at the end of his career with his protégé Larry Zbysko are revered by many, and still get discussed for the incredible heat that was generated from the ‘heel turn’ of Zbysko. Among the other professional wrestlers, he is recognized for advocating for all performers on the card. Though he was modest and uncomfortable with the nickname, Bruno Sammartino earned the moniker ‘The Living Legend’ during his career.
On August 28, 2021, the International Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame will proudly induct Bruno Sammartino as part of its inaugural class. Few, if any, professional wrestlers deserve the recognition more. “My dad would be very proud to be part of the International Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame,” said Bruno’s son, Darryl Sammartino. “It is an honor, and please know that my mother, Carol, and I thank you on behalf of the entire Sammartino family.”