Professional wrestler Bruno Sammartino, the Italian Superman, has passed away at the age of 82. He was a graceful beast who caught the world’s attention in 1959, when he set a new world record for weightlifting, bench-pressing a mind-boggling 565 pounds.
Not bad for a kid born in a small Italian village in 1935.
Saying Sammartino had a rough childhood is an understatement. Nazi forces occupied his hometown during World War II, and his family was forced to take refuge in the mountains. His mother would steal into town for food, supplies, and medicine. After the war, he immigrated to the United States, settling with relatives in Pittsburgh.
War is hell, and for a while, his parents did not believe Sammartino was going to live. Living in the hills under constant fear of discovery had left him small, runtish, with weak legs. In high school, Sammartino began lifting weights in order to defend himself from local bullies. He stuck with it and began winning weightlifting competitions. He earned the title of “Mr. Allegheny” and nearly made it onto the US Olympic wrestling team. He was a natural for the business, and in the professional wrestling ring, Sammartino quickly established dominance. He pinned his first opponent in 19 seconds.
With the support of the fans and his massive arms, his star was on the rise.
In 1963, he defeated Buddy “Nature Boy” Rogers for the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF) Heavyweight Championship in 48 seconds. He held that title for almost eight years, feuding with some of the all-time greats, such as The Shiek, Ernie “The Cat” Ladd, and “Classy” Freddie Blassie. He dropped the title to Ivan Koloff in 1971, only to regain it two years later for another reign lasting just over 40 months. All told, Bruno Sammartino held the championship belt for over 2,000 days.
After breaking his neck in a match against “Cowboy” Stan Hansen in 1977, Sammartino relinquished the title for the second and last time, dropping it to “Superstar” Billy Graham. That didn’t stop him, though, and after some time to recuperate, he was back in the ring by 1980, feuding with his former protegé, “Living Legend” Larry Zybyzko.
Bruno Sammartino’s in-ring career lasted over 30 years. That man fought everybody. He was the gatekeeper. If you wanted to be a success in the business, you had to go through Bruno Sammartino. The guy weighed 265 pounds! If he got you in a bear hug or a hammerlock, you were done. One, two, three, ring that bell. But even with all his strength and fame, he never relied on an outrageous character to gain popularity. He was always Bruno Sammartino, the kid from Pizzoferrato, and the fans loved him for it.
Every generation has their heroes, their legends that loom large in their memories and imaginations. This is especially true of professional wrestling fans, because the business is notoriously difficult to succeed in for an extended amount of time. For every well-known figure like Roddy Piper or Ric Flair, there are 20 or 30 Shawn Stasiaks or Van Hammers, swept under the rug, stuck working in forgettable matches, relegated to obscurity in the WWE Network vault.
Then there was Bruno, with his wide nose and cauliflower ears, a warm smile and a gregarious heart, and the unmistakable shining aura of a champion. He paved the way for what we are now constantly reminded to refer to as “sports entertainment,” but that man was a wrestler, and unquestionably one of the best.