I come from a family of wrestling fans, Italian-American wrestling fans to be exact. In my family and many other families of immigrants who live in the Northeast, there was one man who was more than just a wrestler. This man was a hero, a role model, and the personification of everything these immigrants believed. This man's name is Bruno Sammartino. Sammartino was the longest reigning champion of the World Wide Wrestling Federation, holding the title from May, 1963 to January, 1971, and again from December, 1973 to April, 1977. He was fighter; a impoverished Italian who came to America as a young boy, skinny and hungry. Through hard work and sheer determination Sammartino transformed himself into a champion, and more importantly an example of the American Dream come true. "His immigrant roots, working with his hands, he represented an ethos that defines what sports are all about. And he continued to live a regular life...He's an everyman sports hero" said Anne Madarasz, director of Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum.
Up until the 1930 (according to U.S. Census statistics), Italians made up only a small portion of United States immigrants. By 1930, Italians became the number 1 immigrant group in the country, totaling roughly 1.8 million. Italian-Americans remained atop the foreign born Census charts until 1960. The vast majority of these immigrants entered through Ellis Island, and many of them settled either in New York City, or the Northeast area, due to access to jobs, and family ties. The Northeast region of the US was the domain of the WWWF. The WWWF had long featured heroic stars that played to the Northeast urban centers' numerous ethnic groups. By 1960 the wave of Italian immigrants dominated the region. In wrestling terms, this made the arrival of an Italian-American champion all but inevitable.
In 1951, skinny and sickly with Rheumatic Fever, 15-year-old Bruno Sammartino arrived in the United States and settled with his father in Pittsburgh, PA. As a boy he was fascinated with a Greco-Roman style wrestler named Batisti who had represented Italy in the Olympics. Wanting to be just like his idol, Bruno began to work out at a local gym after school. Also at this time, Bruno had a chance encounter with rookie wrestler Don Kalt (more well-known as Don Fargo), who encouraged the youngster to start weight training-especially dips and bench pressing-to build his physique.
By 1956, Bruno was working construction during the day, lifting weights, and working out with the University of Pittsburgh's wrestling team. During an appearance on a local TV show performing strong man stunts, Bruno was recruited to professional wrestling by promoter Rudy Miller in 1959. Receiving an immediate push, within a few months Bruno was competing in tag team matches at Madison Square Garden for Vince McMahon Sr.'s Capitol Wrestling Corporation. He also made a few appearances for Kola Kwariani's New York promotion. However, lousy payoffs and broken promises from promoters (including the senior Vince McMahon), forced (some assert that Sammartino was set up by McMahon with a double booking that caused his banishment by the New York State Athletic Commission, and resulted in a reciprocal ban in 35 other States) Bruno to leave New York City for Canada, specifically for promoter Frank Tunney in Toronto.
The city's large and growing Italian population loved Bruno, and his ability to speak Italian also helped him get over greatly with the immigrant population, making Bruno a very lucrative gate attraction. His former employer Vince McMahon Sr. took notice of this, and felt he could take advantage of New York and the Northeast's large Italian and immigrant population and make Bruno a star in his new WWWF promotion (Interestingly, the ban on Sammartino was lifted around this same time period). Many weeks of phone calls and negotiations with McMahon Sr. ensued. Ultimately, Sammartino demanded a title match with then WWWF champion Buddy Rogers. On May 17, 1963, Bruno received his title shot. It took just 48 seconds for Bruno to win the title.
Many rumors and debates still flourish today over the rapid victory of Sammartino over a certifiable legend and box office attraction in Buddy Rogers. This match has been rumored to be not only a shoot fight but also a little known "screwjob." Vince Sr. sent Bruno out to take the belt from Rogers, who had been told prior to the match that he would win. Bruno supposedly said to Rogers “we can do this the easy way or the hard way." Opposing rumors state that Rogers had a serious heart condition that had been well-hidden from State Athletic Commissions eyes-as well as the paying public. This heart condition forced the title match to be brief. The truth behind that night will probably never be fully known. What is known is that a new champion was crowned, but more importantly a representative of the people was born. For the next seven years, eight months, and one day (2,803 days), Bruno would reign as a man of not just Italian, but of all people. Bruno can be considered the first true "people's champion." All fans supported and cheered for Bruno Sammartino. He was seen as one of them, one of the people-and they loved and worshipped him. Bruno was worthy of the honor. He resonated with his fans by being humble and doing things with pride, respect, and class.
Bruno never forgot a good deed or a favor. To show his gratitude to Frank Tunney for employing him when no one else would, Sammartino would wrestle every other Sunday for Tunney's promotion, regardless of how hectic his schedule became. Sammartino was a family man in action as well as in word. When the promoters of the WWWF and the National Wrestling Alliance were seriously discussing a unification of their World Titles in the mid-1960's, Bruno was to have been chosen as the victor over an aging Lou Thesz.
Bruno responded by refusing to become the Unified Heavyweight Champion when he learned that by honoring WWWF and NWA commitments, he would have to work (in his words) "35 days a month" and have no time for his family at all.
Bruno was and is a deeply religious man, a Roman Catholic like the majority of immigrants in the Northeast. Bruno and his family were granted an exclusive audience with Pope Paul VI. The Vatican, fearing adverse publicity asked Bruno to remain silent about the visit-which he did. Sammartino was outraged and disappointed when later in the year, photos of him and his family being received by the Pope were published in wrestling magazines. Bruno felt that his word of honor had been corrupted and it took a long time for that particular wound to heal.
As champion, Bruno became more than an ethnic draw. He and his fellow immigrants assimilated and became Americans. According to Sammartino's friend Martin Lazzaro:
"When he was on TV, the whole family would gather in the living room. There was grandpap with his glass of wine. Here came all the women running out of the kitchen to watch. You just knew this guy was a nobody. But he came here, worked hard, got big and strong and made something of himself. These people weren't just rooting for Bruno. They were rooting for the idea that they could make something of themselves, too."
His honesty, loyalty and common touch with his fans was rewarded month-after month, as having Sammartino on the top of a Madison Square Garden card (be it the "old" or the "new" Garden) almost always guaranteed a sellout.. Bruno's run as champion took a heavy toll on his health. Nursing several injuries for years-especially a spinal cord injury that would plague him for years-Sammartino eventually announced to the McMahons that he was through being World Heavyweight Champion for the WWWF. Plans were put in place for Sammartino to lose his title and then transition quickly to a new ethnic hero for the masses-Pedro Morales. Even so, the McMahons set up an angle to protect Sammartino's reputation. Days before the title switch was to occur, Bruno wrestled in a tag team match in Pittsburg (a satellite territory of the WWWF of which he was the owner). During the match, George "The Animal" Steele "injured" Sammartino's shoulder and the match was stopped.
On January 18, 1971, Sammartino lost the championship at Madison Square Garden to Ivan Koloff. My family happened to be in attendance. My grandfather told me the crowd was so stunned that the Garden went silent, for a few seconds you could hear a pin drop. Then came the sounds of people openly weeping, fans followed Bruno as he walked to the dressing room, a sign of their heartfelt affection for him. The hardworking man from Abruzzi, Italy would segue into a comfortable semi-retirement, taking matches where and when he poleased for the right price. This wouldn't last very long.
While Koloff (who acted as a transitional champion to pave the way for the ascendancy of Pedro Morales), then Pedro Morales were admirable champions, the crowds declined and business was suffering. In late 1972, Sammartino was asked back by McMahon Sr. to regain the title. Bruno refused, happy to be working a light schedule on his own timetable. The McMahons were adamant, however. After several months of negotiations, Sammartino was offered a percentage of all the gates when he was on the card and a decreased work schedule whereby Sammartino would only have to work the biggest venues in the biggest cities in the territory.
On December 10, 1973, Sammartino regained the WWWF Championship by defeating Stan Stasiak (Stasiak had defeated Morales and in the same way as Ivan Koloff before him, was used as a transition to switch the title from Pedro back to Bruno). This title run was originally scheduled to last for one year but Bruno's second family-his fans-flocked back to the shows, and each year McMahon Sr. increased Bruno's pay to keep him as champion. Due to these circumstances, Bruno became one of the highest paid athletes in any professional sport. With a schedule that had him only appear on major cards and with an increase of the gate percentages, Bruno earned what was at the time the greatest financial deal in wrestling history. Still a man of the people, Bruno thanked his fans every chance he got.
By 1977 wear and tear had gotten to Bruno and he informed McMahon Sr. that he was done as champion. He ended his second reign in Baltimore on April 30, 1977, losing to Superstar Billy Graham. Sammartino continued to work on cards in the WWWF and other territories on a part-time basis, and stopped wrestling in 1981. Bruno would do commentary for WWF television broadcasts, and make appearances for Civic and charitable organizations.
In 1984, in support of his son David's burgeoning career in the WWF, Bruno returned to the ring before fully retiring in 1988. Bruno Sammartino remains an icon in the Italian-American community and in the Northeast to this day. While some younger fans might not know who he is, his rekindling of his relationship with the now WWE will hopefully lead to a new generation of fans discovering his work. Bruno is more than just a former champion. He is perhaps the most beloved champion of all time. He has a relationship with his people. He was one of them, he worked hard, just like they did to live the American Dream, and make a life for their families. Sammartino made people believe not just in him, but in themselves. He was a champion of the times, one pro wrestling will never see again.
By John Volino
As unique content strictly for the Professional Wrestling Historical Society