Bruno Leopoldo Francesco Sammartino was born in Pizzoferrato, Abruzzo, Italy, to Alfonso and Emilia Sammartino on October 6, 1935. He was the youngest of seven children, four of whom died during his early childhood. When he was four, his father emigrated to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. During World War II, his mother hid Bruno and his siblings from German soldiers in a mountain called Valla Rocca. During this time, his mother would sneak into their German-occupied town for food and supplies.
When the Sammartinos later arrived in the United States, he spoke no English and was sickly from the privations of the war years. This made him an easy target for bullies at Schenley High School. He turned to weightlifting and wrestling to build himself up. His devotion to weightlifting nearly resulted in a berth on the 1956 U.S. Olympic team, which went to Paul Anderson, who ended up winning the gold medal. In 1959, Sammartino set a world record in the bench press with a lift of 565 pounds, done without elbow or wrist wraps. When he brought the bar down, he did not bounce it off his chest, but set it there for two seconds before attempting the press. He trained in wrestling with Rex Peery, the University of Pittsburgh team coach. He also became known for performing strongman stunts in the Pittsburgh area, and sportscaster Bob Prince put him on his television show. It was there that he was spotted by local professional wrestling promoter Rudy Miller, who recruited the young man into the ring.
Professional wrestling career Early career (1959–1963) Sammartino made his professional debut in Pittsburgh on December 17, 1959, pinning Dmitri Grabowski in 19 seconds. Sammartino's first match in Madison Square Garden in New York City was on January 2, 1960, defeating Bull Curry in five minutes.
Bruno Sammartino and Mario Trevi Feeling like he was being held back in the New York territory in favor of Buddy Rogers, Sammartino gave his notice to Vince McMahon Sr. and planned to go to San Francisco to work for Roy Shire. While on his way to California, he missed two bookings in Baltimore and Chicago, and as a result was suspended in those territories. California honored the other state's suspension, leaving Sammartino out of work. In his autobiography, Sammartino states that he believed McMahon set him up, by double-booking him and not informing him of his match in Baltimore, as a way of punishment. Sammartino was forced to return to Pittsburgh and found work as a laborer.
On the advice of wrestler Yukon Eric, Sammartino contacted Toronto promoter Frank Tunney hoping to take advantage of Toronto's large Italian population. Sammartino made his Toronto debut in March 1962 and very quickly, with the help of self-promotion in local newspapers and radio programs, became an attraction. His ability to speak Italian also ingratiated him with that immigrant population. With Whipper Billy Watson, Sammartino won his first professional wrestling championship in September 1962, the local version of the International Tag Team Championship. Soon, he was in demand by other promoters in different Canadian territories.
Sammartino also challenged NWA World Heavyweight Champion Lou Thesz twice for the championship in Canada. One match ended in a draw and the other with Thesz scoring a fluke pin after a collision, despite Sammartino controlling the 20 minute match from the beginning. This match was booked by NWA kingpin Sam Muchnick as a preliminary to the forming of the WWWF, to ensure the dominance of the senior organization and its championship.
World Wide Wrestling Federation/World Wrestling Federation (1963–1981) First World Heavyweight Championship reign (1963–1971)
Sammartino as WWWF World Heavyweight Champion Eventually, promoters Toots Mondt and McMahon Sr. cleared up Sammartino's suspension by paying his $500 fine, allowing him to return to wrestling in the United States. After many weeks of phone calls from McMahon trying to lure him back, Sammartino agreed if he received a title match against "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers, the-then WWWF World Heavyweight Champion. Sammartino won the title on May 17, 1963, defeating Rogers in 48 seconds. Sammartino and Rogers faced each other two months later at Madison Square Garden in a tag team match, with Rogers and Handsome Johnny Barend defeating Sammartino and Bobo Brazil by 2 falls to 1. Rogers pinned Sammartino for the third and deciding fall. Rogers retired prior to their scheduled title rematch on October 4, 1963, in Jersey City, New Jersey's Roosevelt Stadium. Sammartino instead that night had his first match against new No. 1 contender, Gorilla Monsoon (Monsoon won by disqualification). Sammartino kept this title for seven years, eight months, and one day. On January 18, 1971, Sammartino lost the championship at Madison Square Garden to Ivan Koloff. Sammartino recalled the shocked silence that greeted the result, remarking he thought he had damaged his ears.
Meanwhile, on January 14, 1972, Sammartino returned to Los Angeles for the first time in five years to participate in a 22-man battle royal. The final two men left in the ring were Ripper Collins and Sammartino. After Sammartino bodyslammed Collins several times, he then applied the bearhug. Collins submitted and Sammartino was the $11,000 winner of the third annual Olympic battle royal.
Second World Heavyweight Championship reign (1973–1977)
Sammartino signing an autograph in August 1974 for bodybuilder Kathy Segal, who later won the Ms. International Later in 1972, Sammartino was asked back by McMahon Sr. to regain the title. After refusing McMahon's initial offer, Sammartino was offered a percentage of all the gates when he wrestled and a decreased work schedule that only included major arenas. Soon after, Sammartino and then champion Pedro Morales teamed up for a series of tag team matches. In a televised match, Professor Tanaka blinded both men with salt and they were maneuvered into fighting each other. When their eyes cleared, they kept fighting each other. Two weeks later, all syndicated wrestling shows in the WWWF showed a clip of Sammartino and Morales signing a contract for a title match at Shea Stadium. When McMahon gestured for them to shake hands, both wordlessly turned and walked away. On September 30, 1972, Sammartino and Morales wrestled to a 65-minute draw at Shea Stadium in New York.
Eventually, on December 10, 1973, Sammartino regained the WWWF Heavyweight Championship by defeating Stan Stasiak. During this time, on April 26, 1976, Sammartino suffered a legitimate neck fracture in a match against Stan Hansen at Madison Square Garden, when Hansen improperly executed a move and dropped Sammartino on his head. After two months, Sammartino returned and faced Hansen in a rematch on June 25, 1976 at Shea Stadium, which was on the closed circuit TV undercard of the Ali vs. Antonio Inoki match for WWWF cities. The match was rated 1976 "Match of the Year" by a number of wrestling magazines. Subsequently, after a chance to recover and train, Sammartino scored decisive steel cage match wins over Hansen around the WWWF circuit.
In early 1977, Sammartino informed McMahon Sr. that he felt he could no longer continue as champion due to his injuries. On April 30, 1977, he was defeated by Superstar Billy Graham for the title. His second title run lasted three years, four months, and twenty days. Despite a very long series of rematches against Graham, Sammartino was unable to regain the title. His final attempt was in Philadelphia, just a few days before Graham was scheduled to lose the title to Bob Backlund.
Later career and initial retirement (1978–1981) After his second reign ended, Sammartino leisurely toured the U.S. and the world. He wrestled then NWA World Heavyweight Champion Harley Race to a one-hour draw in St. Louis. He also wrestled and defeated Blackjack Mulligan, Lord Alfred Hayes, Dick Murdoch, Kenji Shibuya, and "Crippler" Ray Stevens. Also during this time, Sammartino began serving as color commentator for the WWF's syndicated programs, WWF Championship Wrestling and WWF All-Star Wrestling.
On January 22, 1980, his former student Larry Zbyszko turned on him at the World Wrestling Federation's Championship Wrestling show. Sammartino, shocked and hurt by Zbyszko's betrayal, vowed to make Zbyszko pay dearly. Their feud culminated on August 9, 1980, in front of 36,295 fans at Shea Stadium. As the main event of 1980's Showdown at Shea, Sammartino defeated Zbyszko inside a steel cage. In his autobiography, Hulk Hogan claimed that his match with André the Giant was the real reason for the huge draw at Shea Stadium; however, the feud between Sammartino and Zbyszko sold out everywhere in the build-up to the show. In contrast, Hogan and André headlined exactly one card in White Plains, New York before they wrestled at Shea, and they drew a paltry 1,200 in a building that held 3,500.
Sammartino retired from North American wrestling full-time in 1981, in a match that opened the Meadowlands Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Sammartino pinned George "The Animal" Steele in his match. Sammartino then finished up his full-time career by touring Japan.
Return to WWF (1984–1988) It was during this time Sammartino found out through Angelo Savoldi, a recently fired office employee of Capitol Wrestling Corporation, that he had been cheated by Vince McMahon Sr. on the promised gate percentages for his entire second title run. Sammartino filed suit against McMahon and his Capitol Wrestling Corporation. The suit was eventually settled out of court by McMahon's son, Vince McMahon after his father had died. Part of the settlement included Sammartino returning to do color commentary on WWF television in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars for what amounted to nineteen days of work.
At the inaugural WrestleMania at a sold out Madison Square Garden in 1985, Sammartino was in his son David's corner for his match against Brutus Beefcake. The match ended in a double-disqualification after the Sammartinos began brawling with Beefcake and his manager Johnny Valiant. He returned to in-ring action soon after with his son, as they wrestled against Beefcake and Valiant at Madison Square Garden. The Sammartinos also teamed against "Mr. Wonderful" Paul Orndorff and Bobby "The Brain" Heenan in various arenas.
Sammartino's highest-profile feud during this run was with "Macho Man" Randy Savage. An irate Sammartino attacked Savage during a TV interview, after Savage bragged about injuring Ricky Steamboat, by driving the timekeeper's bell into Steamboat's throat during a televised match. Sammartino defeated Savage in a lumberjack match for the WWF Intercontinental Heavyweight Championship via disqualification at the Boston Garden. This allowed Savage to keep the championship, as titles cannot change hands via countout or disqualification. He was often teamed with Tito Santana and his old enemy George "The Animal" Steele (who was a fan favorite at this point in his career) to wrestle Savage and "Adorable" Adrian Adonis. The climax of their feud came was a victory for Sammartino and Santana in a steel cage match in Madison Square Garden. Sammartino also engaged in a feud with "Rowdy" Roddy Piper after Piper insulted his heritage on a segment of Piper's Pit at Madison Square Garden. Sammartino faced Piper in both singles and tag team matches. Sammartino teamed with Paul Orndorff in his matches against Piper, while Piper would tag with his "bodyguard", Ace "Cowboy" Bob Orton. Sammartino would eventually get the upper hand in the feud, by defeating Piper in a steel cage match at the Boston Garden. In 1986, Sammartino competed in a 20-man battle royal at WrestleMania 2 at the Rosemont Horizon in Chicago.
Sammartino's final match was at a WWF house show in Baltimore on August 29, 1987, where he teamed up with Hulk Hogan to defeat King Kong Bundy and One Man Gang in the main event. Sammartino continued doing commentary on Superstars of Wrestling until March 1988.
Non-wrestling roles and WWE Hall of Fame (1988–2018) After leaving the WWF, Sammartino was an outspoken critic of the path McMahon has taken professional wrestling, particularly in the use of steroids, other illicit drugs and borderline obscene wrestling angles. In the last stage of his career, he refused to travel with the younger wrestlers for fear of being stopped in a vehicle containing drugs. McMahon provided wrestler-turned-road-agent Chief Jay Strongbow as a travel partner. He appeared in the media in opposition to the WWE on such shows as The Phil Donahue Show, Geraldo and CNN.
Sammartino began doing commentary for Herb Abrams' upstart Universal Wrestling Federation (UWF) as it attempted to go national and compete with the WWF, the NWA, and World Class Championship Wrestling (WCCW).
On October 28, 1989, Sammartino made a special appearance at the NWA pay-per-view event Halloween Havoc, where he was the special guest referee in a "Thunderdome" cage match which featured Ric Flair and Sting taking on Terry Funk and The Great Muta. Sammartino worked several WCW events in a minor analysis role in the early 1990s, as well as a brief run doing color commentary with Jim Ross on Saturday Night in 1992. He also acted as special guest referee in World Championship Wrestling (WCW) for a series of matches between Flair and Randy Savage in June 1996.
In 2006, he signed an independent deal with Jakks Pacific to produce an action figure, which is part of the WWE Classic Superstars line, Series 10.
On March 25, 2010, Sammartino was honored at the 74th annual Dapper Dan Dinner, a popular awards and charity fundraising event in Pittsburgh, with a lifetime achievement award, for which fellow former Studio Wrestling personalities Bill Cardille, "Jumping" Johnny De Fazio, Dominic DeNucci, Frank Durso, and referee Andy "Kid" DePaul were all present.
Sammartino with Triple H at WrestleMania Axxess in April 2014, unveiling a statue created in Sammartino's image and honor In 2013, Sammartino accepted an invitation for induction into the WWE Hall of Fame, after having declined several times in prior years. He finally accepted the offer to join because he was satisfied with the way the company had addressed his concerns about the direction of the business. The ceremony took place at Madison Square Garden on April 6, 2013, and Sammartino was inducted by Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Sammartino appeared on the October 7, 2013, episode of Raw and received a birthday greeting in his hometown of Pittsburgh. On March 28, 2015, Sammartino inducted Larry Zbyszko into the WWE Hall of Fame.
Nine things you need to know about Bruno Sammartino
Bruno Sammartino was the longest reigning WWE Champion in history, an unmatched box-office attraction and an inspiration to a generation of kids who grew up admiring The Italian Superman. And there’s a chance you might have no idea who he was.
Don’t feel bad if you’re not familiar with Bruno. John F. Kennedy was in office when Sammartino won his first WWE Title. Disco music was still on the radio when he wrestled his last match. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn a thing or two about one of the most integral pieces in the WWE puzzle.
Here, WWE.com offers up nine amazing facts about the life of a sports-entertainment institution. Read our CliffsNotes, then dive deeper into the unique life of the 2013 WWE Hall of Fame inductee.
Bruno Sammartino spent much of his childhood hiding from the Nazis
Much has been written about Bruno Sammartino’s staggering list of achievements as an adult. However, the story of his childhood is truly the most unbelievable part of his fascinating life.
During Sammartino’s youth in Pizzoferrato, Italy, his small village was seized by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi forces, causing Bruno’s mother to flee with her seven children to a mountain called Valla Rocca in order to stay alive. At the time, Sammartino’s father had already immigrated to America, so his mother was forced to protect her children by herself. During this difficult period, four of Bruno’s siblings died as the family spent weeks eating almost nothing but the snow on the ground. Once, Sammartino and his family were even lined up in front of a Nazi firing squad, seconds from death before they were rescued at the last moment.
Miraculously, Bruno survived Hitler’s reign of terror and a near-fatal case of Scarlet fever before arriving in the United States in 1950 — an unspeakably traumatic childhood which no doubt filled him with the drive to succeed in America.
Bruno Sammartino sold out Madison Square Garden 188 times
In the industries of sports and entertainment, there is an unwritten rule that states: “You haven’t made it until you’ve played the Garden.” While performing in New York City’s Madison Square Garden is an achievement in its own right, selling out “The World’s Most Famous Arena” is another matter entirely. And Bruno Sammartino is the only man to do it an untouchable 188 times during his career.
During Bruno’s tenure with WWE through much of the 1960s and ’70s, Bruno headlined a total of 211 events at the famed Manhattan arena. In those days, WWE ran shows at the Garden every month, meaning close to 20,000 fans lined up at the ticket booth every four weeks for their chance to see the mighty Italian. Dastardly opponents like the fearsome Toru Tanaka and the depraved Original Sheik fell before Bruno in front of capacity crowds, earning MSG yet another nickname: “The House That Bruno Built.”
Bruno's induction into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013 brought Sammartino's sell-outs at the Garden to a staggering total of 188 times.
Bruno Sammartino held the WWE Title for 2,803 consecutive days
The Italian hero’s unfathomable 2,803 days as WWE Champion began on May 17, 1963, when he dethroned “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers in an unheard-of 48 seconds. For the next seven years and eight months, Bruno defended sports-entertainment’s richest prize all over the world against serious challengers like Gorilla Monsoon, Killer Kowalski and “Big Cat” Ernie Ladd.
“The Russian Bear” Ivan Koloff shocked the wrestling world when he toppled Sammartino off his throne in Madison Square Garden on Jan. 18, 1971.
Bruno Sammartino was the first two-time WWE Champion
Three years after his stunning defeat, Bruno won the WWE Title for a second time. Defeating Stan Stasiak, Bruno became the first-ever two-time WWE Champion.
Bruno once again proved to be the premier competitor in sports-entertainment and carried the title for a second impressive reign of 1,237 days. Although he lost the title to "Superstar" Billy Graham in 1977, Sammartino's cumulative time as WWE Champion across only two reigns stands at a staggering 4,040 days.
Bruno Sammartino headlined three WWE shows at New York’s Shea Stadium
From 1964 until its closing in 2008, Shea Stadium provided Queens residents with a place to check out baseball’s best. Usually, they were passing through town to beat up on the lowly Mets, which left the people of Queens County looking for a hero.
They found one in Bruno Sammartino. The Living Legend headlined the only three professional wrestling events to take place on the Mets’ home field. The first “Showdown at Shea” went down in 1972, and featured a grueling 65-minute draw between Sammartino and Pedro Morales. Four years later, Bruno fought off the challenge of Stan “The Lariat” Hansen to hang on to his coveted title. At the final Shea Stadium card in 1980, Sammartino got retribution against his former protégé, Larry Zbyszko, inside the confines of a steel cage.
Bruno’s victory was the final wrestling match to take place at Shea Stadium. With the Mets’ performance in recent years, we can only imagine that fans are wishing for The Living Legend to make an appearance at their new home, Citi Field.
Back in the days when wrestling was territorial in scope, competitors tended to find their fame in a specific region of the country. As WWE Champion, Bruno Sammartino became a household name in Northeastern cities like New York, Boston and Philadelphia, but the Italian Superstar was one of the first Superstars to gain a following all around the world.
Besides competing in major domestic markets like St. Louis, Los Angeles and Chicago, Sammartino became an in-demand attraction in Canada, Australia and Japan, where he routinely tangled with the beloved Giant Baba. The Living Legend’s home was always New York City’s Madison Square Garden, but there’s no doubt that Bruno Sammartino was WWE’s first global entity.
Bruno Sammartino was a good guy for his entire career
During the two decades that Bruno Sammartino reigned atop the sports-entertainment world, the Italian Superstar never once strayed from the path of righteousness. Bruno continually received the love, respect and adoration of WWE fans young and old — a support system he relied on as he stepped into the ring against villains like Virgil the Kentucky Butcher.
When the straightforward Bruno talked about facing an opponent, people hung on his every word. They steadfastly believed in Sammartino for always being honest with his thoughts, and felt that he was one of them. It did not matter about race, creed or ethnicity whatsoever. His fan following was incredible, and it went a long way toward cementing his status as The Living Legend. No other wrestling hero has been as unwavering as Bruno. Not Hulk Hogan, not Bret Hart, not even John Cena. And that’s saying something.
Bruno Sammartino set a world record for bench press in 1959
When Bruno Sammartino arrived in Pittsburgh by way of Abruzzi, Italy, in 1950, he was a scrawny, malnourished 14-year-old who was lucky to be alive. Nine years later, he was considered to be one of the strongest men on the planet.
Finding purpose in the weight room, Bruno became maniacally dedicated to lifting as a teenager, often spending four to five hours training on a given day. By 1959, Sammartino was so strong that he set an unofficial world record for the bench press when he put up an unprecedented 565 pounds. There were no “bench shirts” or performance enhancements involved in Bruno’s historic lift — just one man and a whole lot of steel.
It has been said that Sammartino could have chosen to compete in the Olympics and officially become recognized as the world’s record holder if he wanted to. In an era with no seven-figure sponsorships for Olympic athletes, though, Bruno decided to put his strongman skills to work by pursuing a paying professional wrestling career. He made the right choice.
Bruno Sammartino was the namesake of singer Bruno Mars
Though Bruno Sammartino’s name is forever etched in WWE history, The Living Legend wasn’t exactly a pop culture sensation after his retirement from active competition in 1981. However, his name has been introduced to a new generation through an unlikely source: Pop star Bruno Mars.
Mars, whose real name is Peter Hernandez, explained in several interviews that his stage name came from his father, who was a big fan of Sammartino. The Grammy Award-winning singer was a little pudgy as a baby, and his dad saw some resemblance between his son and Bruno.
That said, Mars may have forgotten what Sammartino looks like. In those interviews, he described Bruno as big and fat. We can guarantee that anyone who was familiar with the best conditioned athlete of his era would use anything but those two words.4