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Bruno Sammartino (1935-2018)


The word "legend" is thrown around often in professional wrestling, yet few deserve and embody it more than Bruno Sammartino.

In many ways, Sammartino is the embodiment of the American Dream. Born in Italy to a struggling family made destitute by war, Bruno arrived in the United States a sickly child who spoke little English. His childhood experiences with bullying motivated him to explore weightlifting and strongman competitions, earning many records and accolades for his physique and strength over the years. It was in 1959, though, that Sammartino's great legacy began to take shape, with his first professional wrestling match.

America in Sammartino's time was fraught with movements and ethnic divisions. During those days, territories usually appealed to certain groups to build fanbases and, in turn, sell tickets. Italian immigrants were a formidable group of passionate fans in the 1960s. They were riding high on the successes of Italian-Americans in other endeavors over the past decades: from Joe DiMaggio in the baseball diamond to Rocky Marciano in the boxing ring. Sammartino was to be "The Italian Superman:" the proud ambassador of that community in the wrestling ring.

After some initial struggles and various positions on many different promotions, Bruno Sammartino made history in 1963. In a match that's still laden with controversy to this day, Sammartino pinned "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers in 48 seconds, to win his first World Heavyweight Championship with the World Wide Wrestling Federation. There began what was to be one of the most epic reigns in the lineage of the World Heavyweight Championship. For eight years, the charismatic good guy Sammartino defeated a whole host of villains thrown at him. The top heels of the time all fell to Sammartino's brawling style that endeared him to all sorts of fans: from Giant Baba to "Classy" Freddie Blassie, from Gorilla Monsoon to "The Big Cat" Ernie Ladd.


In 1971, Sammartino's reign at the top was ground to a screeching halt, into what is now known as an important part in wrestling lore. At Madison Square Garden—a venue that Sammartino sold out 187 times in his career—"The Russian Bear" Ivan Koloff defeated the world's most popular wrestler. It was said that you could have heard a pin drop, as Sammartino was defeated by the much-despised heel. Sammartino was able to regain the title and began to be pro wrestling's most renowned ambassadors over the years, as he elevated careers and continued to bask in the spotlight. In 1980, another chapter in wrestling lore was written, as Sammartino engaged in one of the most bitter feuds of wrestling history, when he faced "The Living Legend" Larry Zbyszko.

Sammartino's career wound down, and even in retirement he continued writing chapters in wrestling history. He was vocal with his displeasure with how professional wrestling turned out, criticizing the use of drugs and objecting to lewd storylines. Thus began a cold relationship with the World Wrestling Federation, that for a while kept its distance from Sammartino as he did. Bruno did continue to appear with other wrestling promotions. Fences were mended eventually, however, and Bruno Sammartino—who was one of wrestling's first true superstars—was inducted to the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013: 50 years after he won the World Heavyweight Championship for the first time.


Sammartino died today at the age of 82, leaving behind one of the most decorated and storied careers of any era in professional wrestling. Inducted into multiple Halls of Fame, multiple Match of the Year awards, nine reigns with various titles, and perhaps the single most legendary World Heavyweight Championship reign in history.

The simplest definition of the word "legend" is summed up in two words by the dictionary: "extreme fame." Those two words don't really account for the other nuances of the word "legend:" origins, stories, histories, and victories. There will never be a time that we'll have a person carry the world title for eight years, or sell out the world's most popular arenas as many times as Bruno ever did. There will be very few wrestlers who will be so universally loved in their careers, and be heroes and faces at all points. There will never be a career in wrestling quite like that of the Italian Superman.

Because for fans of professional wrestling, the word "legend" can be defined in two words as well: "Bruno Sammartino."

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