We can say what many from Bruno Sammartino’s era, whether it be fans or performers, can not – we were there when Bruno Sammartino was finally inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, and one of the most charred bridges in WWE history began its recovery. The night before WrestleMania, we will witness history.
It is a war that waged on for literally decades. Bruno Sammartino and Vince McMahon have traded insults in several formats, through radio interviews, television appearances, books, journalistic editorials, you name it Bruno and McMahon played it. Bruno was commonly on the attack, with McMahon reserving criticism and attempting to keep the peace.
Throughout the late nineties Sammartino, the longest reigning WWE Champion of all-time, heavily criticized the organization, its officials and the product for “selling out,” and abandoning what had made it so great during his era. He has repeatedly called the WWE product vulgar, tasteless and brutal, but now with the help of Triple H, Sammartino has had a change of heart.
“The Game” was reported to have met Bruno several times in his native Pittsburgh for discussions, in-order to get Bruno, many feel the greatest performer absent from the Hall of Fame, to take his rightful place alongside the many greats. During these talks Triple H made it clear to Bruno that the product had changed, and under is guidance in the future it will remain a family friendly broadcast.
But what many don’t realize, is how great Bruno Sammartino really was. Many fans of today are, for lack of a better term clueless to the history of professional wrestling, when in-truth wrestling’s past is the most important aspect of the industry; the past is what shaped today, and is what will continue to shape the future.
This feature is an informative look at “The Living Legend’s” fine career, which saw him reign as Champion for an astounding eight years, take a leading role in the company, and sell-out Madison Square Garden more times than any other performer before him, or after. This is a look at the great career, of the latest inductee into the WWE Hall of Fame, Bruno Sammartino.
Originally from Abruzzi, Italy, Sammartino came to the United States, more specifically Oakmont, Pennsylvania at the age of 15. After serving in the U.S. Air Force, Bruno turned pro in 1959 with the help from Rudy Miller, a highly respected promoter in the Pittsburgh area. It wasn’t long before he began making a real impact on the sport.
He competed throughout the New York-Pennsylvania region and then moved up to work for Frank Tunney in Toronto. Sammartino partnered with the legendary “Whipper” Billy Watson and Ilio DiPaulo on occasion and his popularity gradually soured. He received a match against NWA World Champion, Buddy Rogers in 1962 in Toronto.
Bruno won the match after Rogers had suffered a serious groin injury, and he could have walked away as the champion, but being the professional he is refused to win the title in such fashion.
Sammartino’s popularity grew to immense proportions and it seemed that he was the odds on favorite to become the next World Champion. A Rogers/Sammartino rematch was beckoning, but Lou Thesz captured his sixth NWA Championship in January of 1963 in Toronto, shattering the plans. Sammartino issued an immediate challenge, but Thesz was tied down in other areas of the country.
Several Northeastern promoters left the National Wrestling Alliance and formed World Wide Wrestling Federation with Rogers recognized as the initial champion, after a “tournament” in Rio de Janeiro. Sammartino was named the top contender. On May 17th, the two were matched in New York City’s Madison Square Garden. Sammartino forced Rogers to submit in 48-seconds to his powerful Bear Hug finishing maneuver, and won the WWWF World Championship.
19,639 fans witnessed the event live. Bruno began an unbelievable run as champ. Sammartino wrestled the WWA World Champion, Fred Blassie on June 26, 1964 in Jersey City, New Jersey in front of 12,000 fans. He ended up losing a controversial match, but did not give up his title. Sammartino had Blassie in a Backbreaker and the west coast star audibly gave up, but there was no official to mark the victory. Freddie regained enough to land a low blow. The move put Sammartino out for the count and of course, by then a referee was counting.
Fans protested, this being a time when the no heel was ever cheered by fans, viewed in their eyes as the scum of the earth, attempting to claw their way to get at the heel, but police were brought in to help him, and Blassie escaped unharmed.
During his eight years as WWWF Champion, Sammartino battled some of the greats of the era, including the behemoth and one of the most vilified heels of the time, Gorilla Monsoon. Gene Kiniski, who was built for some time as “Canada’s Greatest Athlete,”a moniker which eventually caught on as Canadian media would occasionally recognize him as such. And Waldo Von Erich, who despite having no relation to the Von Erich family, is most fondly remembered for being built as such.
Many tried, but nobody could achieve the feat that stood before them. Bruno Sammartino’s reign was inspiring and drew huge crowds to Madison Square Garden. At this point in time, wrestling was in a down period and the ability to draw large crowds was lacking, but Sammartino was one who could attract thousands, with his name simply on the marquee.
On January 18th, 1971, the reign some believed would never end did, due to some dubious tactics by challenger Ivan Koloff and manager, the legendary “Captain” Lou Albino. The defeat made sport headlines at the time, Sammartino was viewed as a huge sporting star in America at the time, this loss literally brought fans to tears as their hero was controversially beaten.
It would be two years until Sammartino next held the WWWF Championship. During this time he feuded with Pedro Morales, at the time a popular performer in the company, the two battled for 76-minutes, the match being called a draw to the disappointment of fans who at the time saw it was one of the greatest wrestling matches of all-time. He’d also take a hiatus, before returning to defeat “Lariat” Stan Hansen to recapture the World Championship.
Bruno would once again enjoy a lengthy reign as champion, on this occasion holding the belt for an impressive four years, but eventually everything at the top must fall, and to the hands of “Superstar” Billy Graham that is precisely what happened. Graham defeated Sammartino for the belt in 1977, the final time Sammartino would hold the title belt. His two reigns combined spanned an amazing 4,004 days.
In the twilight of his career “The Living Legend” enjoyed a bloody feud with former student Larry Zybysko, the two battled throughout the United States, for the now World Wrestling Federation in a variety of bouts, despite not being champion Bruno was still viewed as the promotions biggest draw and his feud with Zybysko sold-out every arena they battled in.
Bruno would retire, but then return three years later for the occasional match, teaming with his son David in the mid-eighties, as well as Hulk Hogan, the then WWF Champion. Sammartino also had short feuds with “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and “Macho Man” Randy Savage, before leaving the WWF on bad terms in late 1987, claiming the McMahon owed him money, the product had been going in the wrong direction and that the drug use was too much.
Despite this Sammartino still kept up appearances in the wrestling community, appearing for World Championship Wrestling and the National Wrestling Alliance, and in recent years Ring of Honor, who has a close relationship with Ring of Honor, having hosted two events and accepting a lifetime achievement award only a few months ago at a show in Pittsburgh.
Bruno Sammartino is one of the few who truly deserves the label “legend.” With immense strength, a devoted fan following, a very good set of ethics and the brain to know what the fans wanted to see, Sammartino carried an era through hard times and the night before WrestleMania, will finally be honored for his achievements and contributions to the sport of professional wrestling.
At 77-years-old Sammartino offers WWE and its youth an indescribable opportunity to capitalize from his knowledge. Its been a long time coming but finally now that these two have seen eye-to-eye, now is the chance for the WWE to offer fans a true, visual insight into how great Bruno was; it is people like Bruno that fans should realize made professional wrestling, just that, professional wrestling.
Despite him being way before my time, through mediums such as YouTube and select DVD’s, I’ve had the chance to witness why Bruno Sammartino was so highly thought of. He was a true wrestler, he didn’t take any crap from anybody, and if it meant doing what’s right for business, it is well documented with his mass strength, Sammartino would force his opponents shoulders down to the mat for three.
Alongside the likes of Lou Thesz, Pat O’Conner, Freddie Blassie, Ric Flair, Shawn Michaels, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Bret Hart, Hulk Hogan and others, Bruno Sammartino is one of the greatest of all-time.
Long live “The Living Legend.”
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This article was first posted on February 9, 2013