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Bruno Sammartino
Ring name(s) Bruno Sammartino
Billed height 5 ft 10 in (1.78 m)
Billed weight 285 lb (129 kg)
Born October 6, 1935 (1935-10-06) (age 74)
Pizzoferrato, Italy
Resides Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Billed from Abruzzi, Italy
Debut 1959
Retired 1987

Bruno Leopoldo Francesco Sammartino (born October 6, 1935) is an Italian-American former professional wrestler, best known for being the longest-running champion of the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF), holding the title across two reigns for over 11 years in total, as well as the longest single WWE Championship reign in professional wrestling history.

Sammartino's wrestling style was more mat-oriented which was typical of wrestlers from his era. His brawling, power moves, and personal charisma helped him become the most popular American wrestler in the 1960s and 1970s. During the period when Madison Square Garden was the WWWF's primary arena, Sammartino headlined more Garden cards than any other wrestler (211), including 187 sellouts.

Contents

Early life

Born in Pizzoferrato, Abruzzo, Italy on October 6, 1935, Sammartino was the youngest of seven brothers and sisters. Four older siblings died during his time in Italy. During his childhood, Sammartino's family hid from German soldiers in a mountain called Valla Rocca, during the latter stages of World War II. During this time, Sammartino's mother, Emilia, would sneak into their German-occupied town for food and supplies. She once was captured and another time shot in the shoulder during such trips. Eventually, Sammartino caught rheumatic fever but was nursed back to health by his mother with hot blankets and leeches. In 1950, 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. His high school didn't have a wrestling program, but he worked out with the University of Pittsburgh wrestling team under storied coach Rex Peary. Sammartino became known for performing strongman 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 professional wrestling. Miller knew that Sammartino could easily be marketed as an ethnic strongman, and that he would appeal to Italian immigrants who supported wrestling.

While working in construction in 1956, Sammartino wrestled an orangutan at a carnival. After taking much punishment, Sammartino punched the orangutan in the stomach and was disqualified by the animal's owner. Sammartino left the cage with swollen eyes and shredded clothes. Because of the disqualification, the owner refused to pay Sammartino the $50 he was promised for the match.

Career

Studio Wrestling–Pittsburgh Promotion (1959–1974)

Sammartino made his professional debut in Pittsburgh on December 17, 1959, pinning Dmitri Grabowski in 19 seconds.[1] On December 23, he defeated Miguel Torres, for the local Spectator Sports promotion, in Pittsburgh. He soon became extremely popular. The name of the local TV wrestling program was Studio Wrestling and it was broadcast on WIIC-TV Channel 11. The host was Pittsburgh personality Bill Cardille.

In 1966, Sammartino bought the Pittsburgh-based Spectator Sports promotion. The promotion was a stopping point for national stars such as Gorilla Monsoon, The Crusher, Bill Watts, George Steele, and Bobo Brazil, as well as featuring local talent like Johnny De Fazio, Frank "Carnegie Cop" Holtz, Hurricane Hunt, Tony "The Battman" Marino, and John L. Sullivan (who later gained fame as Johnny Valiant). Although there were no major problems, Sammartino sold the company in 1971. He was later asked by the new Buffalo-based owners to help with the booking of Pittsburgh area shows. The local TV show was canceled in 1974, and the promotion shut down. The Pittsburgh area then became part of the WWWF territory.

World Wide Wrestling Federation/World Wrestling Federation (1959–1988)

Early headlines (1959–1962)

Sammartino's first match in Madison Square Garden in New York City was January 2, 1960 against Bull Curry (who was substituting for Killer Kowalski). Within six months of his debut in wrestling, Sammartino was headlining at Madison Square Garden (starting in tag matches, teaming with Antonino Rocca).

On February 18, 1961, Sammartino faced Chick Garibaldi in an afternoon match at the Sunnyside Gardens in New York. During the match, Sammartino bodyslammed Garibaldi and immediately noticed his opponent's eyes roll up inside his head. By the time the ref checked on the fallen wrestler, he was dead in the ring. It was later determined that Garibaldi had died from a heart attack. In the movie Legends Never Die, Sammartino stated that it took him many years to get over that incident.

Sammartino made major headlines when he became the first (and only) man to lift the 640 lb (290 kg) Haystacks Calhoun in a match. He did not slam him as much as lift him shoulder-height...and drop him.

After tiring of low payoffs and broken promises, Sammartino left Vincent McMahon Sr.'s Capitol Wrestling Corporation to join a rival New York promoter and former McMahon Sr. partner Kola Kwariani. Kwariani's hold on New York soon weakened because of low attendance and athletic commission pressure to curb violence. In an effort to increase attendance, Kwariani had Sammartino wrestle his tag partner Antonino Rocca twice during this time. Sammartino was then told by Rudy Miller to jump back to McMahon.

Sammartino found himself with even fewer dates and payoffs than the first time he wrestled for McMahon. He gave notice to McMahon that he was going to San Francisco, and its large Italian population, to wrestle for promoter Roy Shire. Very soon after arriving, Sammartino was informed by the local athletic commission that he was suspended. Unable to find work across the country (because every state athletic commission honors suspensions given by other state athletic commissions), Bruno headed back to Pittsburgh to work as a laborer. Sammartino found out that his suspension was due to his skipping a match he was booked for in Baltimore. He was also booked to wrestle in Chicago that same night. In his autobiography, Sammartino states that he believed McMahon set him up, by double-booking him and not informing him of his match in Baltimore, as a way of punishment for working for Kwariani.

On the advice of wrestler Yukon Eric, Bruno contacted Toronto promoter Frank Tunney hoping to take advantage of Toronto's large Italian population. Despite McMahon trying to blackball him there as well, Tunney decided to take a chance. Bruno made his Toronto debut in March 1962 and very quickly, with the help of self-promotion in local newspapers and radio programs, became an attraction. With Canadian legend Whipper Billy Watson, Bruno won his first championship in September 1962, the local version of the International tag team title. Soon, he was in demand by other promoters in different Canadian territories.

During his tenure in Toronto, Bruno wrestled and beat the (then) NWA Champion Buddy Rogers for the title. Rogers was unable to continue after being accidently butted in the groin while attempting a leap frog. Sammartino refused to accept the title under the circumstances. He also wrestled Lou Thesz twice, losing once and holding him to a draw. For the record, Bruno says that Thesz never tried to "shoot" on him during the match, but that he was prepared in case he did.

Meanwhile, McMahon Sr. was having a tough time drawing fans with Buddy Rogers in New York. Eventually, promoters Toots Mondt and McMahon Sr. cleared up Sammartino's suspension by paying his $500 fine. After many weeks of phone calls with McMahon trying to lure Bruno back, Sammartino demanded and got a shot at Rogers' WWWF World Heavyweight Championship. To show his gratitude to Tunney, Sammartino still wrestled every other Sunday on the big shows regardless of how hectic his schedule became.

Longest reigning WWWF Champion (1963–1971)

He won the WWWF World Championship title on May 17, 1963, defeating "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers in just 48 seconds. Bruno has said in interviews that Rogers had to be tricked into the MSG main event. Supposedly, Rogers was to win on some sort of disqualification. It was Sammartino himself that broke the news to him in the ring. He simply said, "We can do this the easy way...or the hard way." 48 seconds later and Sammartino was the WWWF Champion.

Rogers claimed until his dying day that he had suffered a heart attack a week before the match and was dragged out of a hospital to have the match. Bruno has said(and other wrestlers on the card verify) that all wrestlers were examined and passed by the State Athletic Commission doctor that night as was customary in these days. Bruno has also pointed out that if Rogers was sick, he never took time off from his schedule after he dropped the belt.

Sammartino kept this title for seven years, eight months, and one day; it still stands as the longest continuous world title reign in men's wrestling history.

Sammartino was so popular that in 1965 he was picked by the National Wrestling Alliance board to defeat Lou Thesz, which would have made him the first wrestler to hold both the NWA and WWWF titles at the same time. Sammartino, already getting only every other weekend off, balked when told that he could expect months of continuous bookings with no time off. NWA officials then selected Gene Kiniski to defeat Thesz.[2]

On September 28, 1965, after a match with Tarzan Tyler in Madison Square Garden, Sammartino went to a restaurant in Times Square. When he returned, he found that a window in his car was shattered and his championship belt, which had been placed in a suitcase, was stolen. The belt, which was valued at $10,000, was uninsured, and was immediately replaced by the WWWF. Sammartino headlined cards that filled Madison Square Garden on a monthly basis. He battled the top bad guys of his time, including Killer Kowalski, Giant Baba, Gene Kiniski, Dr. Bill Miller, Dr. Jerry Graham, Bull Ramos, Hans Mortier, Waldo Von Erich, "Crusher" Reginald Lisowski, Johnny Valentine, The Sheik, Freddie Blassie, Curtis Iaukea, Tarzan Tyler, Bill Watts, Gorilla Monsoon, Professor Toru Tanaka, Handsome Johnny Barend, The Kentucky Butcher (John Quinn) and George "The Animal" Steele.

Sammartino defended the belt all over the world, including Australia, Spain, Mexico and Japan.

Bruno was honored with a private audience with the Pope in the Vatican during this period.

While in Japan, Bruno had a confrontation with an up and coming Antonio Inoki in an Osaka tag match. At the urging of noted "shooter" Karl Gotch, Inoki attempted to slap a real submission hold on the World Champion and make him quit. Bruno immediately powered out of the hold, pounded Inoki unmercilessly and pitched him out of the ring. Inoki ducked Bruno for the rest of the match.

Years later, when Inoki broke away and formed New Japan Wrestling, the WWWF signed a deal with them in Japan. Bruno refused to work for Inoki, preferring to stay loyal to his old friend Baba the Giant, the owner of All Japan. They had several marathon matches in the '60s, usually ending in hour-long draws.

On January 18, 1971, Sammartino lost the championship at Madison Square Garden to Ivan Koloff. The crowd was so stunned into silence that Sammartino thought his hearing had been damaged. After the pin, Koloff slowly walked across the ring while the ref raised his hand three times. The announcer came into the ring with the belt but, fearful of a riot, did not present it to Koloff. Koloff left the ring while Sammartino stayed inside to keep the crowd's attention off Koloff. As Sammartino left the ring, people started crying. Sammartino has said that the crowd's reaction disturbed him while he sat in the dressing room after the match.

Three weeks later, Pedro Morales beat Koloff to win the title. While Morales drew well in New York, the crowds declined in other cities. In 1973, Sammartino was asked back by McMahon Sr. After refusing McMahon's initial offer, Sammartino was offered a percentage of all the gates when he wrestled and a decreased work schedule. Soon after, Bruno and champion Morales wrestled in a series of tag matches. In one tag match, taped for television at the Philadelphia Arena, Professor Tanaka blinded both men. When their eyes cleared, they kept fighting each other, to the surprise of the crowd. On September 1, 1972, both men wrestled to a 75-minute draw at Shea Stadium in New York.[3] The gate narrowly missed becoming the largest take for an outdoor wrestling show at that time.

On January 14, 1972, Sammartino returned to Los Angeles, California for the first time in five years to participate in the highlight of promoter Mike LeBelle's year: a 22-man battle royal. The battle royal included competitors such as Rocky Johnson, Mil Máscaras, John Tolos, Haystacks Calhoun, and Ripper Collins. The final two men left in the ring were Collins and Sammartino. After brawling for about five minutes, they noticed that they were the only ones left. After Sammartino bodyslammed Collins several times, he then applied the bearhug. Collins submitted and Bruno was the champion, and the $11,000 winner, of the third annual Olympic Battle Royal. This battle royal marked the first time that The Wrestler, an "Apter Mag" had fans vote on Match of the Year. It went on to become the Match of the Year for 1972.

Second WWWF Championship reign (1973–1977)

Eventually, on December 10, 1973, Sammartino regained the WWWF Championship, defeating Stan Stasiak. He defeated contenders such as John Tolos, Bruiser Brody, Spiros Arion, Ken Patera, Bugsy McGraw, Freddie Blassie, Baron Von Raschke, Waldo Von Erich, 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, 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. Sammartino was rushed back into action by Vince McMahon Sr. when the advance gate for the show was a disaster. Sammartino was in no shape to wrestle but nonetheless scored a decisive count-out win, after Hansen ran from the ring. More importantly, Sammartino drew a large live audience, and big closed circuit TV receipts (the Ali/Inoki show, without the Sammartino/Hansen match, died a horrible death in the rest of the country.) The match was rated 1976 Match of the Year by a number of wrestling magazines.

Bruno has said that McMahon Sr. screwed him out of a promised percentage of the closed circuit gate.

His second title reign was only supposed to last a year but each year Bruno received bigger payoffs to stay on. In early 1977, after suffering a broken neck and many other ailments, Bruno informed McMahon Sr. that he was done with his second title reign. It ended on April 30, 1977, when he was defeated by "Superstar" Billy Graham in a controversial ending. Graham had both feet on the ropes (which is illegal under normal professional wrestling rules) while successfully pinning Sammartino.

After World Title (1978–1987)

After his second reign ended, 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, and "Crippler" Ray Stevens, and teamed with the legendary Dick the Bruiser to win the WWA Tag Titles from The Valiant Brothers.

One of the most emotional 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 feud culminated on August 9, 1980, in front of 36,295 fans at Shea Stadium. As the main event of 1980's Showdown at Shea, Bruno defeated Zbyszko inside a steel cage. This feud is considered by many wrestling historians and journalists to be the biggest feud in the history of wrestling in the northeast.

In his autobiography, Hulk Hogan claimed that his match with Andre the Giant was the real reason for the huge draw at Shea Stadium. The feud between Sammartino and Zbyszko sold out everywhere they wrestled leading up the show. Hogan and André headlined a card in White Plains, New York before they wrestled at Shea. They drew a paltry 1,200 in a building that held 3,500.

After retiring from wrestling full-time in 1981, Sammartino 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. Sammartino wrestled occasionally, teaming with his son against the likes of Paul Orndorff and Bobby Heenan, and Brutus Beefcake and Johnny Valiant. David soon realized he was being used 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 Sammartino to continue to wrestle, in hopes that he could get his son back in McMahon's good graces.

It was during this time that Sammartino found out through Angelo Savoldi, a recently fired employee of Capitol Wrestling Corp., that he was cheated by Vince McMahon Sr. on the gate percentages that he was promised for his entire second title run. Bruno filed suit in 1979 against McMahon Sr. and Capitol Wrestling.[4]

The suit was settled out of court by McMahon Jr. after his father had died. Part of the settlement included Bruno doing color commentary on the WWF TV show. Sammartino's last major run came during the mid-1980s, following the inaugral WrestleMania in 1985. At that event, Sammartino chaperoned his son, David, in his match against Brutus Beefcake. That match ended in a double-disqualification after the Sammartinos began brawling with Beefcake and Johnny Valiant.

Sammartino has stated many times that he was coaxed out of retirement by his son David in order for David to receive a push from McMahon Jr. Sammartino says that this time period was his least favorite of his career.

Sammartino's most notable feud during this run was with "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 late 1986 and early 1987 when an irate Sammartino attacked Savage during a TV interview, after Savage bragged about injuring Ricky 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).

In late 1985 and early 1986, Sammartino engaged in a feud with Rowdy Roddy Piper after Piper insulted him on Piper's Pit at Madison Square Garden; "Cowboy" Bob Orton had tried to stay in the ring in an attempt to intimidate Sammartino, but the ploy did not work. The "Living Legend" got the upper hand in the feud, ultimately defeating Piper in a steel cage match at the Boston Garden. Sammartino also competed in the battle royal at WrestleMania 2, but didn't win.

Sammartino's last major series of matches came in the summer of 1987 against The Honky Tonk Man for the Intercontinental Title. Although he dominated the matches against the champion Honky, Sammartino never won the title, winning most of his matches by countout or disqualification. Sammartino also fought in a series of matches against Hercules during this time. Bruno had his last singles match against Hercules Hernandez. He won via countout at the Paul Boesch Retirement Show in Houston, Texas on August 28, 1987.

Sammartino's final WWF match saw him team with Hulk Hogan to defeat King Kong Bundy and One Man Gang. He continued doing commentary on the WWF's syndicated Superstars of Wrestling until March 1988.

After leaving the WWF, Sammartino began doing commentary for the Universal Wrestling Federation as it attempted to go national and compete with the WWF, the NWA, and the WCCW.

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. He appeared at several WCW events in a minor analysis role in the early 1990s.

2000-Present

On July 26, 2004, Sammartino met in Pittsburgh with Vince and WWE officials about doing a DVD release and providing commentary for WWE 24/7 Classics, but Sammartino would not agree to be a part of the current product. He was invited to stay for the Raw show that night, but declined because he did not want to be seen endorsing the product. He was told the main event was Chris Benoit vs. Triple H. He reportedly told them he would've stayed if Benoit was wrestling Kurt Angle; one of the people he said this to was Triple H, who he didn't know. This was also the same night of an incident with Ric Flair (see below). Contract talks stalled. Aside from feuding with wrestling, Bruno also has a strained relationship with his son, David, after "a series of things happened."[5]

In 2006, he signed an independent deal with Jakks Pacific to produce an action figure, which is part of the WWE Classic Superstars line, Series 10.[6]

Sammartino has appeared for independent wrestling promotion Ring of Honor, and was featured on Total Nonstop Action's Kurt Angle biographical DVD. In it, he praises Angle and says that he generally doesn't watch wrestling unless he finds out that Angle's going to wrestle.

Criticism of pro wrestling today

In his retirement, Sammartino has publicly criticized the direction professional wrestling has taken, making reference to lurid storylines, over-the-top theatrics, and drug and steroid abuse. In particular he has been critical of Vince McMahon, saying that McMahon has been detrimental to his father's creation. Sammartino has refused to provide commentary on WWE-produced retrospectives of his career, instead participating in a series of independently-produced documentaries, including Bruno Sammartino's Legends Never Die, La Roccia, The Passing of the Belt, and The Boys are Back. Despite being the biggest drawing card in wrestling during the 1960s and 1970s, Bruno was not mentioned in the A&E wrestling documentary The Unreal History of Professional Wrestling. He attributes this to McMahon, who provided much of the footage to the production.

Backstage incidents

  • In the late 1960s, Sammartino was involved in a fight with former PA Athletic Commissioner Joe Cimino. Cimino was new to his post at this time and overheard Sammartino talking about a planned finish against Baron Sicluna in a match in McKeesport, located right outside of Pittsburgh. The commissioner walked over to Sammartino and told him he didn't approve of the finish. A short argument ensued which ended with Sammartino throwing a punch at the commissioner. Referee Izzy Moidel stepped in to stop the fight and took the punch meant for Commissioner Cimino. The entire incident was witnessed by current Western PA Commissioner and former referee Andy DePaul.
  • In his autobiography, The Cowboy and the Cross: The Bill Watts Story: Rebellion, Wrestling and Redemption, Bill Watts tells of witnessing a backstage incident between Sammartino and Gorilla Monsoon. Watts wrote that Monsoon "soon found himself in deep water" when messing with Sammartino. He did not go into further detail on the incident out of respect for Monsoon.
  • When Bruno was about 51 years old, he was involved in an infamous backstage fight with a former football player. Six men were backstage at a wrestling show in an area that was restricted. When Sammartino spotted the men, he told them that if security saw them in this area, they might get in trouble. Dave "Rooster" Fleming, a former CFL player with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, stuck his hand out to Sammartino. When Sammartino went to shake his hand, Fleming began to squeeze hard. Sammartino asked him what he was doing to which Fleming replied "You're nothing but a washed up old man." Sammartino responded "Not too washed up to take care of you." Upon hearing that, Fleming took a swing at Sammartino but it was blocked. Sammartino then punched him and knocked him down. Sammartino soon found himself fighting the other five men at once. At this time, the Iron Sheik was in the showers after his match and heard the commotion. He immediately jumped in next to Bruno and the two wrestlers proceeded to "clean house" according to Bruno.[7]
  • July 26, 2004 at Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh was the site of the infamous "who snubbed who?" non-confrontation with Ric Flair. Flair denigrated Sammartino's wrestling ability in his book.[8] Flair claims Sammartino refused to shake his hand at the event; Sammartino says Flair saw him coming down the hall, turned, and rushed away.

In wrestling

  • Nicknames
    • "The Living Legend"
    • "The Italian Superman"

Championships and accomplishments

  • World Wide Wrestling Alliance
  • Hall of Fame (Class of 2008)
  • Other titles

DVDs

  • Bruno Returns to Italy With Bruno Sammartino 2006
  • Bruno Sammartino Behind the Championship Belt 2006

Note: Both were only released in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Notes

External links








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