Photo Credits from this piece: WWE, PWI, Bruno Mars’ Instagram/VAO, The Sportster, WTAE.com and a photo from my personal collection
Long before there was an Almighty Era or a Tribal Chief demanding to be recognized or even before there was a man that could not be seen while he won 16 World titles or before a rattlesnake and a most electrifying man or even before a Mania was running wild or even an eighth wonder of the world giant, there was only one man attraction in the biggest promotion in the world and that was the Living Legend Bruno Sammartino.
Before he became the biggest thing in the 1960s, we need to go back to his childhood. he grew up in a small village in Pizzoferrato, Italy. As Bruno has said in interviews, his family did not have a lot of money growing up. His father when he was only a few months old went to America to work and would send money back to his family in Italy because there were no jobs available at home. While he was away, World War II would break out and Nazis would overrun the town. His mother would take him and his siblings to the mountains to hid from the Nazis. She would sneak down from the mountain to get food for her children and was stabbed and shot at but that didn’t stop her. As a young boy he was greatly influenced by his mother’s strength and courage. While in the mountains, Bruno became gravely ill with rheumatic fever, the doctor said he will not survive and Bruno said I remember his mother saying I’ve lost children before and I will not lose another one. She in fact lost four children to illnesses. Bruno would survive but he was terribly weak and the family would soon join his father in Pittsburgh after the war was over. Bruno’s mother when asked whether to start over again in Italy or go to America, she said there is nothing left for us here in Italy. Now because of Bruno’s illness they wouldn’t allow them to come to America because he couldn’t pass the physical for a long while this prevented their immigration but eventually he did pass.
Bruno would be picked on as a child because he didn’t speak English and was still weak from his childhood illness. A family friend soon introduced him to weightlifting and Bruno said that it greatly helped his confidence. He would go on to win body building competitions. This would soon open the door for him to the world of professional wrestling.
He would work for Vince McMahon Sr, he was being used but he didn’t feel like he was being used to his full potential. The man being pushed as the main attraction was Nature Boy Buddy Rogers who Bruno did not get along with. Bruno has said in the Kayfabe Commentaries – Timeline: The History of WWE – 1963-1969, the reason he didn’t like Rogers was because he would purposely injure fellow wrestlers he didn’t like or to protect his own spot on the card. Bruno soon got in touch with Roy Shire out in California about going there to wrestle and he gave his notice to McMahon. McMahon trying to punish Bruno or prevent him from leaving booked Bruno at two different shows without telling him. The one show that he missed was reported to the athletic commission and they suspended Bruno and that suspension was honored throughout the U.S. which prevented him from going to California. With him now blackballed McMahon thought Bruno would come groveling back to him begging for a job and that wasn’t Bruno.
He literally left the business and went back to construction work, which was what he was doing for a living before becoming a wrestler. A friend, Yukon Eric, soon encouraged him to contact Frank Tunney in Toronto to get back into the business. Eric would contact Tunney for Bruno and soon a deal was worked out. Toronto like New York had a strong Italian community and Bruno instantly became a main event draw for Tunney. McMahon on the other hand was struggling to sell tickets especially in MSG their home. McMahon contacting Tunney badmouthing Bruno with hopes that Tunney would drop him and McMahon could strongarm Bruno back to the promotion. Tunney told McMahon that he liked Bruno and would not be dropping him. McMahon with no choice contacted Bruno directly offering him more money to return and Bruno told him no. McMahon tried again offering even more money and Bruno told him no. Finally, McMahon said what do you want and Bruno said I want Rogers spot as champion. Rogers had recently defected from the NWA and was declared the first ever WWWF World Champion. At first McMahon balked at the request but finally agreed.
So in 1963, Bruno would return to face Rogers as champion, however, they didn’t tell Rogers that he was going to lose. The reason for this is they thought he would weasel out of the match if he knew according to Bruno. In Kayfabe Commentaries – Timeline: The History of WWE – 1963-1969, Bruno stated he was the one that told Rogers in the ring he was going over and he said we can either do this the easy way and have a great match or the hard way. When asked which did Rogers choose, Bruno laughed and said the match lasted 48 seconds, which one do you think he chose? Sadly, the footage of this championship win is lost. WWE has supposedly tried to track it down for years but so far has come up empty. As seen in the picture below, Bruno is wearing the original WWWF championship belt, which would eventually go missing and the WWE wouldn’t find it again until a few years ago.
Bruno became a massive draw everywhere he went and constantly sold out Madison Square Garden. All the major wrestling magazines covered MSG, so fans from all over the world knew of Bruno even though they never saw him wrestle because wrestling wasn’t as easily accessible as it is today with TV and internet streaming. Also, long before Hulk Hogan slammed a 520 pound Andre the Giant at Wrestlemania 3, at a show Bruno slammed Haystacks Calhoun, who was 640 pounds and that made headlines and was in all the wrestling magazines. This exposure in the magazines, led to Japan wanting Bruno to wrestle there which he would go there to perform and really all over the world. Bruno would go on to be the WWWF World Champion for 2,803 days or almost 8 years. This is a record that will never be matched or exceeded by anyone in wrestling ever.
In the Kayfabe Commentaries shoot, Bruno was asked since he was such a big draw was he ever considered for the NWA World Championship and he said they did offer it to me but it would have required even more travel and I was barely home as it was so he turned it down. Bruno was tired of all the traveling and the injuries were mounting up so Bruno wanted out and lost the title and walked away from the WWWF, to spend more time with his family. He would months later wrestle for different promoters at one off shows but nothing significant because he wanted to be with his family. Of course McMahon would contact Bruno for a return to the WWWF because again the houses were struggling and Bruno again said he wasn’t interested in anything long term and a lot of travel, so McMahon said just give me one year and you only have to do the big shows so Bruno agreed. He would return and begin his second WWWF Championship reign. Of course one year became more than that and would go on to hold the title for 1,237 days or a little more than 3 years. So grand total Bruno would hold onto the WWWF Championship for 4,040 days or 11 years over just 2 reigns as champion. To put that into perspective, John Cena and Ric Flair, who are considered to be the two guys with the most world title reigns at 16 each, Cena was champion for a total of 1,359 days over 16 reigns and Flair was champion for a total of 3,739 days over 16 reigns.
One of the things revealed in Bruno’s self produced biography documentary was that the infamous Muhammad Ali vs Antonio Inoki match was originally offered to Bruno but due to Ali’s demands, American promoters could not afford his money requests but Inoki came up with the money to do the match with him. Bruno said the moment he heard that they were going to do the match, he thought it won’t succeed because no one outside of Japan knows who Inoki is and it won’t sell. Sure enough he was right it didn’t sell well at all. Bruno was severely injured with a neck injury when a clothesline from Stan Hansen injured Bruno. He received a call to come back because in the words of McMahon the company was close to going under due to the money they lost on the Ali fight. Against doctor’s orders, Bruno came back for a massive gate at Shea Stadium for a revenge match against Hansen. Even doing that, Bruno said they still didn’t give me all the money that they promised for the show. The match was rated match of the year by PWI.
Bruno would reluctantly return to the ring for a few matches and a non-wrestling role as he was pressured into because Vince McMahon Jr. would hold his son’s David Sammartino’s career hostage. David suffered the curse of many generational talents that cannot live up to their father’s legacy and he turned to steroids and blamed his father for not agreeing to come back full time to be his tag team partner. Their relationship would be strained and David wouldn’t even participate in his father’s documentary in 2006. To be honest, I’m not sure if they ever made peace prior to Bruno’s death.
Bruno would be an outspoken critic of professional wrestling under Junior because of the rampant drugs and steroids use that started in the 80s under Vince Jr. and then in the late 90s when the product became more vulgar and adult themed that was the final straw for him. Over the years attempts were made to get Bruno to return to accept a HOF induction but he refused citing the way the product and the steroid use in the WWE. McMahon had pretty much given up mending the fence with Bruno but his son-in-law Triple H wanted to reach out and McMahon said if you want to waste your time go ahead. Triple H would be able to convince Bruno that behind the scenes they were drug testing and the product was getting away from the adult theme content. Bruno was eventually convinced and he made his return home for the HOF in MSG in 2013.
This would be the 188 career sell out of MSG for Bruno and to put that into perspective as of January 2020, Billy Joel has sold out the Garden 118 times and Billy Joel has been performing longer and has a residency there.
McMahon and Bruno would finally make peace and WWE would feature Bruno in documentaries, a video game and a action figure. WWE would honor Bruno with a statue as would his hometown in Italy with a 10-foot statue.
Bruno would also be honored by his adopted hometown, Pittsburgh posthumously by renaming a park in his honor in April 2021:
In pop culture, one of the biggest recording artists in the world Bruno Mars, said he was named after Bruno and the Baddest Man on the Planet, Iron Mike Tyson is a HUGE Bruno Sammartino fan:
Upon Bruno’s tragic passing in 2018, WWE released a documentary on the WWE network and MSG paid tribute as well:
Personally, I would like to see them do more in keeping his legacy alive as he was only featured once in a video game and only one action figure. For the man that isn’t just the corner stone of the company’s history, he is the foundation on which everything else has been built on for the past 60 plus years. I would love to see a film based on his life because it is truly amazing both in and outside the ring and more people should know about it. I had the honor and privilege of meeting the legend himself and as an Italian myself it was an even bigger honor. I met him in October 2014 at a convention and got my picture taken with him and I have an autograph from the legend himself:
I would like to thank AWrestlingHistorian, who posted Bruno’s very hard to find self produced documentary, Bruno Sammartino: Behind The Championship Belt, which was a great resource for me and highly recommend you to watch it if you want to learn more about Bruno, it can be found here.
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