The word "legend" is often thrown around lightly. Many who aren’t deserving of such a connotation will have this word steeped upon them to stroke their ego. However, Bruno Sammartino is not one of those people.
Sammartino defines the word. He’s "the living legend."
Born in Pizzoferrato, Abruzzo, Italy, Sammartino was the youngest of seven siblings, four of whom died during his youth.
His town of Pizzoferrato, was seized by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi soldiers, forcing him and his family to hide in a mountain called Valla Rocca during the latter portion of World War II. His mother would sneak into town, risking her freedom and life, to get food and other items needed to keep her family alive. Not even being shot on one occasion and captured on another would stop her from making these trips.
She also escaped death when her and her family, including Bruno, were lined up in front of a Nazi firing squad. However, seconds before death, they would be miraculously rescued.
When they didn’t have food, they would eat snow or dandelions (depending on the season) to keep themselves alive. And because of this, they did survive when many around them died of starvation or disease.
Bruno would come down with rheumatic fever during this time but would be nursed back to health by his mother with hot blankets and leeches.
That was only the first sign of the fighting spirit that he became loved for. For example, he wrestled an orangutan at a carnival for $50. He would be disqualified for punching the orangutan in the stomach, and not only walk away without the money that was promised to him, but also with swollen eyes and ripped clothes.
Sammartino would move to the Pittsburgh in the United States in 1950, where his father had lived for a couple years. After this move, he would soon bulk up and grow a passion for weightlifting to rid himself of the small frame that made him the victim of much bullying in and outside of school.
Eventually, not only was Bruno not a target, but he became such a good wrestler that he worked out with the University of Pittsburgh wrestling team, as his high school didn’t have one.
Meanwhile, in 1956 his other passion almost got him on the United States Olympic weightlifting team. At 6’1″, 280 pounds, the young Sammartino almost edged out Paul Anderson, a man who outweighed him by over 80 pounds. In 1959, he set an unofficial world record for the bench press by bench pressing 565 pounds.
Sammartino would continually work at both of his crafts, becoming one of the strongest men on the planet by 1959, when he was noticed and promptly signed by Vince McMahon, Sr.
“Everytime I go to the New York area, an older person will come up to me and go ‘Man, before your time I used to watch Bruno Sammartino. He was amazing! He was great!’ So it’s just fun to hear that, and that’s how you know you’re great” -The Miz on Sammartino
Bruno’s professional wrestling career quickly skyrocketed.
His diverse heritage made him unique, in that he could getthe support of Italians, Latinos, Greeks and Jews. He became the face of McMahon, Sr’s promotion, known as World Wide Wrestling Federation at the time, and captured his first WWWF Championship (now the WWE Championship) in 1963 by defeating Buddy Rodgers in 48 seconds at Madison Square Garden.
Nearly eight years after, grown men were caught weeping at the sight of him losing his championship to Ivan Koloff. This is still, by far, the longest WWE Championship reign in history and may well be the most untouchable record in professional wrestling history.
During this reign, and his additional three-and a half year reign later on, Sammartino sold out Madison Square Garden a total of 187 times, along with many arenas throughout the country and overseas.
In 1987, after introducing his son to the business, Sammartino retired from wrestling after sizzling rivalries with up-and-coming stars such as Roddy Piper, Randy Savage and The Honky Tonk Man.
In his final match, he teamed with Hulk Hogan against King Kong Bundy and One Man Gang in what is considered the passing of the torch from Bruno’s era atop the company to Hogan’s.
Now, an astounding 26 years after hanging up the wrestling boots for good, Bruno Sammartino’s relationship with the company he had a hand in building has now been patched up.
The night before WrestleMania 29, a night where eras clashed when John Cena gained his redemption against The Rock, the torch holder for the era who paved their way—the longest-reigning WWE Champion of all time—finally took his rightful place in the WWE Hall of Fame while he sold out Madison Square Garden once more.