He was the most popular professional wrestler of the 1960’s and early 1970’s.
Stats: 5′ 10″ 265 lbs.
Born: October 6, 1936
Hometown: Abruzzi, Italy
By Steve Slagle
Bruno Sammartino is considered by many to be the greatest WW(W)F champion of all-time. “The Italian Superman” (Sammartino was born in Abruzzi, Italy and immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 15) began his career in 1959, and won his first World Wide Wrestling Federation Heavyweight championship on May 17, 1963 by defeating (in record time) “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers in front of a captivated Madison Square Garden crowd. Bruno, already incredibly popular and respected after only 4 years in the sport, went on to establish the brand new W.W.W.F. and gave credibility to Vince McMahon Sr.’s new heavyweight championship by building a WWWF fan base unlike anyone else until Hulk Hogan. The hugely popular Sammartino (who still holds the WWF record for most MSG sellouts) went on to hold the WWWF title for 7 straight years. In the end, Sammartino held the WWWF gold for 11 years all total, during two reigns, resulting in more WWF records that will likely never be broken…
In 1963, after the young Sammartino had defeated the respected and talented Rogers, he seemed to go on a personal crusade of establishing the brand-new WWWF title as a legitimate championship. He met and defeated the absolute best of his era…Rogers, Killer Kowalski, Crusher Verdu, Waldo Von Erich, George “The Animal” Steele, “Classy” Freddie Blassie, Haystacks Calhoun, Gorilla Monsoon, and countless others during his 7-year run as WWWF champ. His popularity grew to new, unseen heights along the East Coast during this time, as Bruno was as popular (and well-known) in the Big Apple as any New York Yankee. Furthermore, the chant of “Bruuun-o! Bruuun-o!” could be heard in Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and every other major Northeastern city that comprised the WWWF territory. To Northeastern fans throughout the decade of the 1960’s, Bruno Sammartino was the epitome of professional wrestling.
Lou Thesz (pictured, left) and his huge NWA fanbase may have been able to dispute that point, but the fact cannot be argued…Bruno Sammartino, despite his lack of traditional wrestling technique and prowess, was perhaps the most popular wrestler in the game up to that point, certainly within the large section of the country covered by the WWWF. However, it couldn’t — and didn’t — last forever.
His record-setting 7-year WWWF reign was ended on January 17, 1971 by “The Russian Bear” Ivan Koloff, who used his infamous top-rope Russian Knee Drop to get the pin over the man that nobody could beat. The 22,000 in attendance at Madison Square Garden were so shocked to see Bruno pinned cleanly that after the final 3-count was made and Koloff became the new champ, there was a stunned, surreal echo of silence and disbelief throughout the normally raucous crowd. Riot police were called in by MSG security, just in case chaos broke out. It was truly a one of a kind occurrence.
Sammartino eventually took a short sabbatical from the WWWF after losing the title to Koloff, and during one of his few non-WWWF ventures, he travelled to the Midwest and won the World Wrestling Association (W.W.A.) World Tag Team title with Dick The Bruiser on July7, 1973. The duo, nicknamed “Annihilation Inc.,” defeated Ernie “The Big Cat” Ladd and Baron Von Raschke for the tag title and held onto the belts for nearly 6 months before being defeated by The Valiant Brothers.
Bruno then returned to the WWF, and eventually met then-champion Pedro Morales in the first-ever WWWF “face vs. face” World Title match. The matchup, featuring the WWWF’s two most popular wrestlers, went to a grueling hour+ draw. Morales subsequently lost the WWWF title to Stan Stasiak on December 1, 1973, but Stasiak only held the title for 9 days before Bruno defeated him on December 10, 1973. This was the beginning of Bruno’s 4-year long, record-setting 2nd WWWF title reign. Bruno is quoted as saying that the competition during his second reign was even tougher than the first, and one look at the men he defeated during it will tell you why…Ken Patera, “Superstar” Billy Graham, Ivan Koloff, Bruiser Brody, Ernie Ladd, Tor Kamata, Spiros Arion, Nicolai Volkoff, Pampero Firpo, Baron Von Raschke, “Big, Bad” Bobby Duncum, Mr. Fuji, The Valiant Brothers (Jimmy, Johnny, and Jerry), Prof. Toru Tanaka, Ox Baker, and many more all went down in defeat when matched against Bruno.
Always the epitome of the “fighting champion”, Bruno wrestled 5, often 6 nights a week, always giving the fans his best effort and working hard to bring some respect and credibility to pro wrestling among the “mainstream” sports community. The consummate “kayefabe”champion, Bruno (or perhaps more appropriately, Vince McMahon, Sr.) gave every deserving WWWF challenger a shot at the title, and the Italian strongman pushed the “fact” that pro wrestling was a “real sport” at every opportunity.
One wrestler who ended up giving Bruno quite a bit of trouble, one of his few defeats, and a legitimate broken neck to boot, was the wildman from West Texas State, Stan “The Lariat” Hansen. On April 26, 1976 Hansen not only defeated Bruno, but actually delivered a clothesline with such force that it fractured Bruno’s vertebrae, breaking his neck. In reality, it was a botched body slam that broke Sammartino’s neck, but the match was “officially” stopped due to Sammartino’s severely deep lacerations. The time away from the ring was long for Bruno and his fans, but once he recovered, he extracted his revenge during a rematch held at Shea Stadium. Bruno bloodied and battered “The Bad Man from Borger, TX.” so badly that a crimson-masked Hansen eventually fled the ring in fear, disgrace and defeat.
Bruno’s next great challenge came in the 6’4 inch, 275 pound, massively muscled frame of “Superstar” Billy Graham. After several prior attempts, the colorful and flamboyant “Superstar” Graham finally ended Bruno’s second reign, as Graham defeated Sammartino during the Spring of `77, in Baltimore, MD. The match ended in controversy, with Graham using the ropes illegally to gain the victory and the WWWF title. However, despite being cheated out of the title, Bruno was never able to pin Graham’s massive shoulders to the mat and win back his championship during any of their many rematches. Bruno’s career as the WWWF World Champion was finally over…this time forever.
Bruno’s career as one of wrestling’s top performers, however, was far from being over. In 1980, Larry Zbysko turned violently on his former mentor during a televised “friendly” wrestling exhibition. The result was an epic feud that lasted for month after brutal month (and made the WWF a small fortune as the new decade began) that finally concluded when Bruno defeated Zbysko inside of a steel cage in front of over 22,000 fans at Shea Stadium. A few years later, even with his age rapidly advancing and Vince McMahon, Jr’s “new” WWF ascending to unimagined heights, Bruno engaged in violent feuds with Roddy Piper, Randy Savage, and Adrian Adonis — coming out the victor in them all. Those mid-1980’s feuds turned out to be Bruno’s swansong . After working a few matches with his son David, Bruno Sammartino retired from the ring for good. He was still a presence within the World Wrestling Federation, and did commentary on WWF programming for quite some time. But, after a bitter series of professional and philosophical differences with WWF owner Vince McMahon over the cartoonish direction the WWF was taking at that point in history, Bruno — with over 20 years of WWF tenure under his belt, dating back to the beginning of the company — left the Federation forever.
After a few post-retirement dabblings in pro wrestling, namely working for Herb Abrams’ U.W.F. and also W.C.W., Bruno left the sport altogether. Sadly, a bitter “Living Legend” has not had any contact with wrestling in years…shunning the sport he once fought so hard to bring dignity and respect.
To this day, the WWF has stubbornly and defiantly refused to induct Bruno — unquestionably one of the three most influential and important WWF champions ever — into the WWF Hall of Fame. We here at The Ring Chronicle will not repeat such a foolish mistake.
Bruno Sammartino is, and will always be, the only 11-year, first ever 2-time WWWF champion. He set the standard — as well as setting many attendance records that are also extremely unlikely ever to be broken. He made pro wrestling, himself, and the WWWF household names throughout the East Coast during his prime, and his popularity during that time and region rivaled, if not exceeded, Hulk Hogan’s fame and popularity during the 1980’s. The Ring Chronicle salutes wrestling’s Living Legend, the great Bruno Sammartino, and proudly inducts him into T.R.C.’s Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame…