Born: October 6, 1936 Abruzzi/ Pizzoferetto, Italy
Hometown: Oakmont, Pennsylvania/ Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Family: Father of David Sammartino
Military: United States Air Force (1950s)
Pro-Debut: Late 1950s
Nickname: The Living Legend
Finisher: Bearhug, Backbreaker
PPV Debut: WWF WrestleMania II, April 7, 1986, Rosemont, Illinois
Halls of Fame: National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame – Inducted in 1989
Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame – Inducted on May 5, 2002
If a wrestler could single handedly raise a federation from nothing and carry an organization
to glory, it was Bruno Sammartino. He wasn’t nicknamed the “Living Legend” for nothing.
The WWWF was not yet born when Bruno turned professional. It was no where to be found.
But when he retired, the World Wrestling Federation was the top national wrestling group.
He wrestled in 211 Madison Square Garden main events throughout his career and 187 of
them were complete sellouts. Sammartino basically built MSG for wrestling and fans in the
New York area expected to see the best when they attended shows he wrestled on.
Everyone knows that Madison Square Garden is and has always been the Mecca of
Originally from Abruzzi, Italy, Sammartino came to the U.S. and 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 promoter in Pittsburgh. It wasn’t long before he began making a real
impact on the sport. He competed throughout the New York-Pennsylvania area 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 soured. He received
a match against NWA World Champion, Buddy Rogers in 1962 at Toronto. He won the
match after Rogers had suffered a serious groin injury and could have walked away as the
champion but refused to win the title in such fashion.
Sammartino’s popularity grew to immense proportions and it seemed that he was the odds
on favor to become the next World Champion. A Rogers-Sammartino rematch was
beckoned but Lou Thesz captured his sixth NWA Championship in January ’63 at Toronto.
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.
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 and won the WWWF World Title. 19,639 fans witnessed the event live.
Bruno began an unbelievable run as champ. He beat Dr. Jerry Graham on December 16th
in New York’s Madison Square Garden in front of 11,670 fans His opponent was
unconscious and unable to continue after diving from the top rope and missing his
opponent. 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. Fred regained enough to
land a low blow. The move put Sammartino out for the count and of course, by then a
referee was counting. Blassie won. Fans protested and tried to get at the heel, but police
was brought in to help him away from the ring.
Sammartino received many tough challenges, but one of his biggest came from the talented
behemoth Gorilla Monsoon. He defeated former AWA World Champion, Gene Kiniski by
disqualification on November 16, 1964 in New York. Kiniski would go on to capture the NWA
World Title in 1966. He teamed with Spiros Arion to win the U.S. Tag Title in 1967. At
Madison Square Garden on October 27, 1969, Sammartino defeated Waldo Von Erich. On
March 14, 1970, he beat Ivan Koloff at Madison Square Garden. According to one source,
Sammartino lost a non-title match to Bepo Mongol on September 14, 1970 in New York.
Captain Lou Albano conspired with Ivan Koloff on January 18, 1971 at Madison Square
Garden in New York to upset Sammartino for the WWWF World Heavyweight Title. Fans
were outraged at the switch. Sammartino remained the most popular man in the nation.
Over the following year, he made appearances throughout the nation, including capturing a
win at the 1972 annual Los Angeles NWA Battle Royal over Ripper Collins. He returned to
the east to pin George Steele in New York on September 2, 1972. Sammartino received a
chance opportunity before 22,500 fans at Shea Stadium to regain the WWWF Heavyweight
Title against the popular champion, Pedro Morales. Promoters set the bout for September
30, 1972. The Sammartino-Morales affair went 76:00 to the midnight hour and officials
called the match before a disappointed crowd. But they were only disappointed that there
had been no pinfall finish. The match was a classic. Bruno earned a rematch.
Between October 1972 and December 1973, Sammartino departed the WWWF and worked
for promoters across North America. He turned up in Dick the Bruiser’s territory and the two
captured the WWA World Tag Team Title. Sammartino also went north of the border and
took the Grand Prix Tag Team Title with Edouard Carpentier. Vince McMahon Sr. signed
Sammartino to return to the organization he helped mold and on December 10, 1973,
Sammartino took the Heavyweight Title from Stan Stasiak, a number of days after the latter
upset Morales in Philadelphia. The second championship win made history in front of a live
Garden audience in New York. In April 1976, Sammartino was put out of action by a lariat
clothesline thrown by Stan Hansen. He suffered a cracked vertebrae. Weeks later, Ivan
Putski suffered the same.
Sammartino returned on June 25, 1976 to face Hansen for the belt at Shea Stadium before
an estimated 32,000 fans. He won the grudge match. He remained on top of the growing
WWWF Throne until April 30, 1977 when he was defeated by Billy Graham in Baltimore.
Spent a total of 13 years as the heavyweight champion of the world with an astonishing
4,040 days at the top. In 1979, Sammartino became the first wrestler to appear on the
television show, “Greatest Sports Legends,” hosted by pitcher, Tom Seaver. He was
attacked by Freddie Blassie and Nikolai Volkoff, two longtime rivals, on television in 1979.
Sammartino entered a war with his former student, Larry Zbyszko. The two battled before
more then 40,000 fans on August 9, 1980 at Shea Stadium in New York. And it wasn’t just
the normal cage match. Sammartino said that if he lost the match, he would retire from the
sport. He walked out of the cage and won the bout. The fans roared in approval.
Sammartino remained their hero. The legendary grappler retired from the sport in 1981 only
to return to the WWF in ’84. Although he did take the occasional match, Bruno acted as a
television commentator alongside Vince McMahon. In 1985, he teamed with his son David
several times throughout the country and were successful in their endeavors. He also
formed a tag team with WWF Champion Hulk Hogan. Wrestling fans were happy to see their
“Living Legend” once again pounding evil-doers to the mat with his tremendous strength.
In October of ’85, Sammartino appeared on an installment of Piper’s Pit, hosted by Roddy
Piper. When Piper insulted his heritage, Sammartino pushed him and received a chair shot
to his head. Piper then ripped his shirt off while he was on the mat. With Pedro Morales, he
participated in a WrestleMania II Battle Royal in Chicago on April 7, 1986. Fourteen years
earlier, Sammartino had mastered the bout. Andre the Giant, who was considered by most
as the all-time champion of the battle royal match, won. Sammartino also feuded with Randy
Savage in late 1986 into early 1987.
He wrestled on Paul Boesch’s Retirement Show in Houston on August 28, 1987 and beat
Hercules by countout. Later that year, Bruno left the WWF on a bad note with the company
and was never honored by induction in the organization’s Hall of Fame. He continued to
make appearances for wrestling fans. Sammartino gave interviews expressing his disgust
with how wrestling had evolved. He traveled to Atlanta for World Championship Wrestling’s
Clash of the Champions XX in September 1992. Also in attendance was the legendary
Andre the Giant, who was making his final U.S. appearance. Sammartino went to East Asia
on May 2, 1999 to pay tribute to the late Shohei Baba in Tokyo.
Whether if some wrestling promoters decide to honor Bruno Sammartino today or not, he will
remain one of the top legends of professional wrestling forever. Fans of wrestling know that
he furthered the sport from the circus acts of the 1950s to the big time more then anyone
else. He repeatedly sold-out the largest venues in America and took down all his
challengers. No one got the best of Bruno Sammartino and that is how it stands today.
-NWA United States Heavyweight Title (1962) defeated Johnny Valentine
-A two-time WWWF World Heavyweight Champion
-Defeated Buddy Rogers (1963)
-Defeated Stan Stasiak (1973)
-Co-holder of the WWWF United States Tag Team Title (1967) w/ Spiros Arion
-Co-holder of the Grand Prix Tag Team Title (1973) w/ Edouard Carpentier
-Co-holder of the WWA World Tag Team Title (1973-’74) (IN) w/ Dick the Bruiser
-WWC North American Heavyweight Title (1978) defeated Gorilla Monsoon
The combination of really popular ethnic fan favorites and devastating, ugly heels meant
gold for McMahon and Capitol Wrestling. Under card talent was imported from a mixture of
sources, specifically Jack Pfefer, Jim Crockett, Pedro Martinez, and Frank Tunney.
McMahon began to sign talent for himself, Rocca and Ricki Starr included, and in 1959 was
introduced to a young man from Pizzoferrato, Abruzzi, Italy named Bruno Laopardo Franceso
Sammartino had been courted by a Capitol agent named Rudy Miller, a man whose eye for
talent was perfected in the late 1920s. Born on October 6, 1936, Bruno migrated to the
United States from Italy with his parents Alfonso (1891-1985) and Emilia (1898-1995)
sometime between 1950 and 1953. In a Washington Post feature on Sammartino written by
Christian Williams and printed in the August 14, 1980 edition of the paper, Bruno spoke
about his family’s struggle during the war: “We had bad luck. They were SS troops.
Extremely mean. The entire village fled to the mountains, and we lived there for eight
months. It was winter, and there was no food. We ate the snow. Many of the old people
passed from starvation. In the spring, we ate dandelions. When the war ended in 1945, we
came back to the town. Our house was rubble, we moved into the cellar. I was very sick with
pneumonia, but there was no medicine. My mother put leeches on my body to draw away
the bad blood. It was a miracle that I survived.
“Even when I was 15, I still weighed only 80 pounds. All this time, since 1939, my father had
been stuck in America, and we were trying to join him there. He finally heard that we were all
right. But he also heard that his brother, and his brother’s wife, and their 13 children, had all
died.” Sammartino explained in the article that he had began to learn wrestling from Georgio
Battista, who was incorrectly referred to as being a 1936 Olympic gold medal winning
wrestler. “In a mat in his basement, Battista taught me to wrestle. I loved it, and I built myself
up. Finally I was not only healthy, but very strong. We emigrated to Pittsburgh in 1953. We
had tried several times before that to come to America, but each time I failed the physical.”
Two separate accounts of Bruno’s early life in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette in December
2000 by Cristina Rouvalis stated that his family settled in the U.S. in 1950.
Sammartino, who spoke broken English, had trouble adjusting to his new surroundings.
Often getting into fights, he found refuge in weightlifting, building his body at the Young Men’
s Hebrew Association, and while attending Schenley High School. Through extensive
training, he achieved a frame carrying 220 pounds of pure muscle. Still having an interest in
wrestling, Sammartino made friends with famous University of Pittsburgh wrestling coach Rex
A. Perry, who proceeded to give lessons to the brawny youngster. It was Miller who took
Sammartino to Mondt and McMahon, presenting his new find to the men that made wrestlers
stars, and Bruno made his professional debut under the watchful eye of Capitol Wrestling
officials late in 1959.
Sammartino could have been a huge star for Doyle and Barnett as they developed their
national promotion. They were doing business with partners throughout the Midwest, with
San Francisco added to their circuit in March, and a move into Los Angeles in the plans,
there was a concern by many promoters that the Doyle-Barnett group was getting too
strong. McMahon had given Sammartino what he had, developing him not from a place low
on his wrestling shows, but at the top. When it was obvious Sammartino could have worked
his way through the U.S. on a new circuit, McMahon pulled the strings to have him cut off. A
missed booking in Baltimore got Bruno suspended by the National Wrestling Association on
March 6, 1961 (on referral of the Maryland State Athletic Commission) and banned in
member states until the situation was resolved. McMahon eventually stepped in and helped
the young athlete clear his name.
At several points in the 1960s, there was discussion of Sammartino buying into the Capitol
In 1982, Sammartino sued the Capitol Wrestling Corporation for allegedly cheating him out
of "probably more than $100,000," according to an article written by Mary Stolberg.
According to the report, Sammartino said the CWC used his "attention-getting name for big
profits." Under his contract, Sammartino earned 6 per cent of income made from
performances, except at Madison Square Garden, where he netted 5 percent. The "suit also
accused Capitol of trading unfairly on Sammartino's reputation by selling pictures of him" at
wrestling showss without his permission.
At the time, Sammartino was working as a television commentator for the International
Wrestling Promotions of Allentown, Pennsylvania.
Research by Tim Hornbaker
|Bruno Sammartino Wrestling History