Hall of Fame Profile, Part IV: Bruno Sammartino
Jay Shannon returns with the fourth installment of his Hall of Fame series. This time, Jay looks at the legendary Bruno Sammartino.
This is the one column that I have literally begged to write for years. Bruno has deserved to go into the Hall of Fame since day one. Paul Levesque aka Triple H approached Bruno and asked him to please accept this honor. Bruno agreed and a million old-school wrestling fans, like me, owe The Game a huge Thank You. So let’s take a lot at the “Every Man’s Hero”…Bruno Sammartino!
Before the Ring Wars
Bruno Leopoldo Francesco Sammartino was born, on October 6, 1935, in Pizzoferrato, Abruzzo, Italy. Life was very tough for the Sammartino family, early on, as they had to deal with an occupation force of Germans. Four of Sammartino’s siblings died during this time and his mother, Emilia, was shot in the shoulder. As a child, Bruno suffered with Rheumatic Fever. Sammartino’s father migrated to the United States and eventually brought over his family. Bruno found a home in Pittsburg, PA, in 1950.
Bruno was a sick teen with very little knowledge of English. He was targeted by local bullies, which eventually motivated him to build his body. By 1956, Bruno had bulked up to 280 pounds and almost became a member of the 1956 Olympic Weightlifting Team. In 1959, Bruno set a World Record by Bench Pressing 565 Pounds. Bruno also competed in Bodybuilding competitions. He would win the title of “Mr. Allegheny”.
Because his high school did not have a wrestling program, Bruno had to wait until he attended the University of Pittsburg. Rex Perry trained Bruno in amateur wrestling. A local wrestling promoter, Rudy Miller, noticed Bruno at a Strongman Event. Rudy saw massive potential in Bruno and approached him about becoming a pro wrestler.
In 1956, Bruno had one of his earliest “matches”. A carnival was offering $50 to anyone that could beat the prized orangutan. Bruno clothes were shredded and his eye was badly swollen from punishment from the primate. Bruno eventually got fed up and blasted the orangutan in the stomach, pulling a disqualification loss. He didn’t get the $50 that he would have won.
The Early Pro Years
Bruno received further training, in pro wrestling, by Ace Freeman. Bruno’s first official pro match was on December 17, 1959. He easily defeated Dmitri Grabowski in only 19 seconds. Many of Bruno’s early matches were called by the legendary “Chilly” Billy Cardille. (the reporter in the horror classic “Night of the Living Dead”). By 1966, Bruno had stock piled enough money from his in-ring work to purchase the local wrestling company in his adopted hometown of Pittsburg. He would own it for five years. He became known as the fairest of promoters. Numerous superstars, including George “The Animal” Steele, Gorilla Monsoon, Johnny Valentine and other, all praised Bruno for actually caring about his performers getting a fair pay-out. When Bruno sold the company, he was asked by the new owners to stay on-board as the booker. He would continue to book the Pittsburg promotion and television show until the show was cancelled in 1974. Bruno helped broker a deal where the promotion was incorporated into the expanding WWWF.
30 years in the WWWF/WWF/WWE
On January 2, 1960, Bruno performed, for the first time, at Madison Square Garden. He was originally set to battle Killer Kowalski but Bull Curry subbed for Kowalski. After that match, Bruno shifted into tag teaming with another future Hall of Famer, Antonino Rocca. On February 18, 1961, Bruno was facing Chick Garbaldi at Sunnyside Gardens. During the match, Bruno Bodyslammed his opponent. Bruno immediately knew something was wrong. Chick died in the ring from a massive heart attack. The death shocked Bruno to his core and made him question continuing in the sport. Bruno would later state that it took him many years to come to terms with the death.
Sammartino gained national attention when he lifted and then dropped the 640 pound Haystacks Calhoun. Bruno would actually quit Capitol Sports, over low pay-outs and jump to a rival promotion. The other organization was in financial trouble due to issues with the local athletic commission, combined with low attendance. Rudy Miller would eventually contact his old friend and convince him to return to Capitol Sports.
The money issues with McMahon continued (and worsened) when Bruno returned to McMahon’s organization. Bruno eventually accepted an offer from Roy Shires, in San Francisco, to come work for him. McMahon Double Booked Bruno in one of his last scheduled rounds of matches. Because Bruno could not be in both Baltimore and Chicago on the same day, Bruno missed the Baltimore show. That missed show got Bruno suspended by the Maryland Athletic Commission. Unfortunately, a suspension was almost always unilateral, back then. Bruno was unable to wrestle anywhere in the country. He “retired” and became a laborer back home in Pittsburg.
Yukon Eric would eventually step in and broker a deal between Bruno and Toronto promoter, Jack Tunney. McMahon tried to stop the deal but Tunney ignored McMahon’s suggestion that Bruno should not be hired. Bruno began working for Tunney in March, 1962. In Spetember, 1962, “Whipper” Billy Watson and Bruno would unite to win the International Tag Team Titles. Bruno quickly became in high demand throughout Canada.
While in Canada, Bruno had his first match against NWA World Champion, Buddy Rogers. The end of the match came when Rogers attempted a Leap Frog and was accidentally Headbutted in the groin. Bruno was given the win, since Rogers could not continue. However, Bruno knew the value of the NWA World title and refused to accept the win or title in such a way. Bruno also had a couple of tremendous matches against Lou Thesz, who took the NWA title from Buddy Rogers.
Vince McMahon was trying to build his World Wide Wrestling Federation. The group had been struggling for attendance numbers. Toots Mondt, McMahon’s business partner, finally convinced McMahon to fix the suspension issue. McMahon’s organization paid the $500 fine. From there, Mondt went into negotiations with Bruno to bring him back for a third run with the WWWF.
The Longest Reigning Male Champion in History
Bruno was scheduled to face “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers for the title on May 17, 1963. Rogers was under the impression that the battle would end with a disqualification, allowing Rogers to keep the title. It what is sometimes called “The Original Screwjob”, Bruno had to tell Rogers, in the ring, the true finish. Bruno annihilated Rogers in a merely 48 seconds to become the second WWWF champion. Rogers would try to claim that he was recovering from a heart attack and was forced from his hospital bed to take the match. That has since been proven false, as Rogers had several appearance between the time he supposedly suffered the heart attack and the loss. He also never missed any post-title appearances. Rogers was scheduled to get a rematch on October 4, 1963, but chose to retire prior to the match. That put Bruno into a program against Gorilla Monsoon.
Sammartino would hold the World title for Seven Years, Eight Months and One Day! He faced all WWWF challengers, as well as numerous NWA champions. During his reign as champion, Bruno defended the title on four continents: North America, Europe, Australia and Asia. Bruno even receive a private audience with The Pope during his travels.
The End of an Era
On January 18, 1971, the amazing reign of Bruno came to a shocking end. A Top Rope Knee Driver by Ivan Koloff ended Bruno’s title reign. While the ref did raise Koloff’s hand, Ivan was not presented the title belt in the ring. It was felt that a riot might erupt if the hated Russian was handed “Bruno’s Belt”. Bruno, the true professional, distracted the crowd to allow Koloff to exit the arena. Grown adults were crying, in the crowd, as the reality sunk in that their hero was no longer champ.
Bruno kept busy after his loss. In 1972, Bruno returned to California to work for Mike LeBell. Bruno won the annual Olympic Battle Royal in a match that would become the first “Match of the Year” for The Wrestler/Pro Wrestling Illustrated magazines. Eventually, Sammartino negotiated a new contract with McMahon. The new contract guaranteed Bruno a percentage of the gates and a decreased work schedule. As part of the contract, Bruno was put into a program against then-champion, Pedro Morales. It was a very rare Face vs Face feud. On September 1, 1972, the two wrestled to an amazing 75 Minute draw.
On December 1, 1973, Morales lost the WWWF title to Stan Stasiak. 9 days later, Bruno began his second WWWF title reign, after defeating Stasiak. The second reign was much shorter at 3 years, four months and 20 days. Bruno would have a high-profile confrontation against Antonio Inoki in Japan. Karl Gotch convinced Inoki to put Bruno in a brutal submission move. Inoki underestimated Bruno’s strength. An irate Bruno powered out of the hold and beat Inoki senseless. Inoki bailed out and worked cautiously for the remainder of the match.
Bruno suffered a broken neck, in a match, on April 26.1976. Stan Hansen caused the injury with an improper Bodyslam. Bruno knew something was wrong and instructed Hansen to hit him with The Lariat (Clothesline). The Lariat was stated as what broke Bruno’s neck. Bruno flew home, against doctor’s orders, so his parents would not be worried about him. He took two months off to recover and then returned to defeat Hansen in another brutal match. The broken neck, along with other nagging injuries, convinced Bruno it was time to end his second title reign. He approached Vince McMahon Sr. and asked for the title reign to end. While McMahon was hesitant to do so, he agreed. “Superstar” Billy Graham faced Bruno on April 30, 1977. The match would end in major controversy. Graham pinned Bruno with Graham’s feet on the ropes. While illegal, it was never noticed by the ref and the decision was allowed to stand. The crowd came close to rioting, yet again.
Over the next four years, Bruno took a reduced schedule of appearances. He still battled numerous tough challengers, all over the world. In 1980, Bruno got involved in one of the most vicious feuds of his career against his former “protégé”, Larry Zbyszko. Zbyszko had turned on Bruno and their feud ran for about six months. It reached its zenith on August 9, 1980. They faced off in a Steel Cage Match at Shea Stadium. Bruno dominated that match.
By 1981, Bruno had gone into semi-retirement. One of his last North American matches was a nasty battle against George “The Animal” Steele to help open the new Meadowlands Arena. Bruno then did a tour of Japan before hanging up his boots.
In the early 80s, Angelo Savoldi alerted Bruno to years of pay-outs that Vince McMahon Sr. had not paid Bruno. Bruno eventually filed a lawsuit against the now-WWF for the missing monies, as well as damages. The situation was settled, out of court. As part of the deal, Bruno agreed to return as a color commentator for WWF programming. Bruno wanted to be back in the WWF to help push his son, David’s, career. Bruno was in his son’s corner at the very first Wrestlemania, as David faced Brutus Beefcake. Bruno joined forces with his son for a series of matches against Beefcake and his manager, Johnny Valiant and against Bobby Heenan and Paul Orndorff. Bruno has stated that this was not a particularly enjoyable time in his career.
Sammartino also feuded with Randy Savage, after the injury to Ricky Steamboat. Bruno surprised most critics by defeating Savage, several times. He would continue to work in the WWF until his “retirement” in 1987. After leaving the WWF, Bruno would make appearances in most of the major promotions until the mid-90s. Bruno still makes occasional appearances at conventions and special events. 50 years after winning the World title, Bruno still has the heart and fire that made his the Greatest World Champion of All Time.
It was awesome to hear over 10,000 fans chant Bruno’s name, 25 years after his last WWF match. The fans still love the Italian Sensation. I can’t think of a single person who personifies as Hall of Famer more than the great Bruno Sammartino.
I’ll be back with you, later today, with a look at the life and career of Booker T.