It's a happy 81st birthday for "The Living Legend", Bruno Leopoldo Francesco Sammartino. We'll just call him Bruno Sammartino because everyone else does.
Born in Pizzoferrato, Italy, Sammartino was the youngest of seven children, four of whom died before he came to America. Sammartino survived German forces and rheumatic fever and eventually moved to the States in 1950 to live with his father. When he first arrived, he spoke no English and was physically frail, making him an easy target for bullies.
Eventually, Sammartino would take an interest in weight training and bodybuilding, so much so, he nearly landed on the US Olympic team in 1956, beaten out by legendary stromgman Paul Anderson. In 1959, Sammartino, without wearing elbow or wrist wraps, would break the bench press world record with a 565 pound lift. His strongman stunts would make him a star in the Pittsburgh area, and it caught the eye of local wrestling promoter Rudy Miller. Miller's idea was to market him as an ethnic strongman, one that could easily gain the support of Italian immigrants.
Bruno made his professional debut in December 1959 with a 19-second win over Dmitri Grabowski. He followed up with a quick victory for Miguel Torres for Spectator Sports, the local wrestling promotion for the Pittsburgh area. He made his Madison Square Garden debut for Captiol Wrestling in January 1960 defeating Bull Curry. By the summer, he would headline MSG shows teaming with Antonio Rocca. Bruno made headlines both in a good way and in a bad way in 1961: in February, Sammartino was involved in a match with Chick Garibaldi. Following a bodyslam, Chick's eyes rolled up inside his head. By the time the referee checked on him, he was already dead. Though it turned out Chuck had a heart attack, Sammartino said it took him many years to get over the incident. Later in the year, Sammartino became the only man to lift the 640-pound Haystacks Calhoun.
Tired of getting the shaft by Vince McMahon, Sr., Bruno left the Captial Wrestling promotion to work for Kola Kwariani, but low attendance, pressure from the New York Athletic Commission, and advice from Rudy Miller made Sammartino go back. He was treated even worse than the first time around. Sammartino left for San Francisco and worked for Roy Shire, or so he thought. He was suspended almost upon arrival after skipping a match he was booked for in Baltimore due to him working a bout in Chicago that evening.
Bruno worked as a laborer during his time away from the ring, but got back in the sport on the advice of Yukon Eric. He contacted promoter Frank Tunney and soon became an attraction in the Toronto area thanks to their large Italian population. While in Toronto, he won his first championship, an International tag title with Whipper Billy Watson, defeated NWA Champion Buddy Rogers, and fought Lou Thesz twice (with one bout going to a draw). Suddenly, McMahon, Sr. became very interested in Sammartino; he and promoter Toots Mondt cleared up the suspension and docked his $500 fine from future purses and eventually convinced Sammartino to return to the WWWF.
On May 17, 1963, Bruno Sammartino needed just 48 seconds to defeat Buddy Rogers to become the WWWF Champion. Though Rogers claimed he had a heart attack in the days leading up to the match, Bruno said that both he and Rogers passed prematch New York State Athletic Commission exams. The two would face each other in a tag match two months later, with Rogers defeating Sammartino in the deciding fall. They were to meet again in October in Jersey City, New Jersey, but instead faced Gorilla Monsoon. Sammartino was so popular as champion that there was a possibility of merging the NWA and WWWF Championships with Sammartino defeating Lou Thesz to unify the titles, but Bruno ultimately killed the idea due to lack of downtime. In September 1965, after a bout with Tarzan Tyler, Sammartino went to eat at a Times Square Restaurant. When he returned to his vehicle, his car window was shattered and his championship belt, valued at $10,000 (over $76,400 in today's dollars), was stolen. To this day, the belt has never been recovered.
Over the next seven plus years as champion, Sammartino headlined shows with nearly every top heel of the era, including Monsoon, Killer Kowalski, Giant Baba, Gene Kinski, Dr. Bill Miller, The Sheik, Freddie Blassie, Bill Watts, Waldo Von Erich, The Kentucky Butcher, and George "The Animal" Steele. He defended the title all over the world, including Australia, Spain, Mexico, and Japan. He even was granted a private audience with the Pope in the Vatican.
On January 18, 1971, after seven years, eight months, and a day (2,803 total days), Ivan Koloff defeated Sammartino for the title. The crowd at Madison Square Garden was in such stunned silence Sammartino thought for a moment he lost his hearing. Koloff's reign wouldn't last long: he would lose the title to Pedro Morales just three weeks later, and Bruno was there to congratulate the new champion.
In January 1972, Sammartino won an $11,000 (over $63,000 today) 22-man battle royal in Los Angeles that featured Rocky Johnson, Mil Mascaras, John Tolos, Haystacks Calhoun, and Ripper Collins. Later in the year, McMahon Sr. asked for Sammartino back to regain the title from Pedro Morales. Sammartino accepted but only after being offered a percentage of all the gates and a decreased work schedule. Bruno would team with the champion Morales. In one bout, Professor Tanaka blinded both men and maneuvered the duo into fighting one another. When their vision cleared up, they kept fighting, much to the surprise of the crowd. The duo would meet at the first Showdown at Shea on September 30, 1972. Despite the cold and rainy weather, it was one of the biggest draws for an outdoor wrestling show ever. Sammartino and Morales went to a 75-minute draw.
In December 1973, Sammartino would win the WWWF Championship again, this time from Stan Stasiak, who defeated Morales just nine days earlier. Bruno would feud with, among others, Superstar Billy Graham, Ivan Koloff, Baron Von Raschke, Freddie Blassie, Ken Patera, Bruser Brody, and Stan Hansen, who broke Sammartino's neck in an April 1976 bout. Sammartino finished the bout and flew home to Pittsburgh that night against doctor's orders. He returned two months later to face Hansen on the undercard of an event that featured Muhammad Ali vs. Antonio Inoki. After taking some time off to heal, Sammartino finished his feud with Hansen in a series of cage matches for the WWWF. At the height of his popularity, Bruno Sammartino's payouts rivaled that of the highest paid athletes in other sports.
With his injuries mounting up, Bruno informed Vince McMahon Sr. to take the title off him, and on April 30, 1977, in controversial fashion, Superstar Billy Graham defeated Sammartino with his feet on the ropes to win the WWWF Championship in Baltimore. Graham and Sammartino would have an extended feud over the championship, with Graham escaping with the title every time. Their feud ended in a steel cage match in Philadelphia where Sammartino accidentally knocked a bloodied Graham through the door. This is believed to be the only time Bruno lost a cage match.
Sammartino would tour the world following the end of his title reign, facing many stars of the era including Killer Kowalski (whom he jobbed to clean, a rarity for Sammartino), Harley Race (whom he took to a one hour draw), Blackjack Mulligan, Lord Alfred Hayes, Dick Murdoch, and "The Crippler" Ray Stevens. In 1980, Larry Zbyszko, a former student of Sammartino, turned on him during an exhibition, setting off an emotional feud that main evented Showdown at Shea in August with Sammartino defeating Zbyszko in a steel cage match. Sammartino retired from full-time wrestling in 1981 after pinning George "The Animal" Steele in his final match in the States and a tour in Japan.
In 1984, during a weightlifting exhibition, when asked if he still watched wrestling, he said he was sickened by the direction of the product. Around that time, he found out through a fired employee that he'd been cheated out of the gate percentages he was promised by Vince McMahon Sr. Sammartino filed a lawsuit with Captiol Wrestling Corporation and eventually settled with Vince McMahon, Jr. As part of the settlement, Sammartino returned to the company to do color commentary in exchange for the money he was owed. Primarily, he returned to help promote the career of his son David Sammartino, and even came out of retirement to do so, wrestling somewhat regularly from 1985 to 1987. Bruno would continue to do commentary for the WWF until March 1998, around the time his son David was fired, allegedly for hitting a fan that spat on him.
Post retirement, Bruno openly criticized McMahon's product, particularly the use of performance enhancing drugs and obscene wrestling angles. Sammartino would work for the Universal Wrestling Federation (Abrams version) and WCW during the late 1980s and early 1990s and also appeared for Ring of Honor and TNA Wrestling in the 2000s. After declining on multiple occasions, Sammartino accepted an induction into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013.
Sammartino has been married to his wife Carol for more than 50 years and they have three children, David, Danny, and Darryl (the latter fraternal twins). The couple today still lives in the Pittsburgh area, where they have been since 1965. Sammartino is also a member of the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame Class of 2002, a five-time PWI winner for Match of the Year, and a member of the inaugural Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame class in 1996.