When the WWE inducts wrestling legend Bruno Sammartino into the WWE Hall of Fame, it will bring to a fitting close one of the most successful careers of all time.
Many of the WWE's younger fans may not know all that much about Sammartino. The quick run-down is this: Sammartino was the second WWE champion ever crowned.
With the company known at the time as the WWWF, Sammartino defeated Buddy Rogers on May 17, 1963, less than a month after Rogers "won" it in a tournament. Sammartino would go on to hold the title until Jan. 18, 1971—nearly eight years later. A second title run lasted an impressive three years, four months and 20 days.
In between, he conquered the wrestling world. His charisma and drive made him a household name, much like Hulk Hogan in the '80s and The Rock in the '90s.
He fought the legends of the ring, including Gorilla Monsoon and Killer Kowalski. He sold out Madison Square Garden 187 times. According to WWE.com, grown men cried when he lost the belt for the first time in '71.
Bruno began his wrestling career in 1959, winning his first bout in 19 seconds. (Davies, Ross (2001). Bruno Sammartino. Rosen Publishing Group. pp. 23–24.)
But because of how early he started wrestling, there isn't much video of his early matches. Most of what is available are pictures or eyewitness accounts.
This article ranks five of Sammartino's best matches available on video. Because of this, some bouts have been left off, such as his epic clash with Pedro Morales.
Matches are ranked based on intensity and how the bout affected Sammartino in a historical sense.
On Dec. 10, 1973, Sammartino had the opportunity to do what no one else had done in the history of the WWE: become a two-time WWWF champion.
Stan "The Man" Stasiak had won the belt a mere nine days earlier when he ended the nearly three-year reign of fan favorite Pedro Morales.
Both men played their parts well: Sammartino, the beloved powerhouse babyface, and Stasiak, the cheating, scheming heel. They traded power moves back and forth, keeping the pace of the bout moderate.
But the story sold so well that the Madison Square Garden crowd was on fire.
In the end, Sammartino scored the pin and the belt. It was not his best-wrestled match, thus the low placement on the list, but Sammartino's magnetic connection with the crowd shone through during this event.
The match that cost Sammartino the title. But even in defeat, Sammartino put in a stellar performance.
Both of these men were large. Sammartino weighed in at 5'10" and 265 pounds, while Ivan Koloff was equally massive at 6'1" and 298 pounds. (Solomon, Brian (2006). WWE Legends. Pocket Books. pp. 155–158.)
But the opening minute of this bout was non-stop action. Both men moved and reversed holds like two smaller technical wrestlers.
The pace eventually slowed down, and both men pummeled each other with massive punches and kicks. They traded power moves, as each one tried to control the bout.
Then the unthinkable happened: After Koloff landed a double stomp from the top rope, he covered Sammartino for the pin.
The nearly eight-year reign of The Living Legend had come to an end. The crowd was strangely quiet, perhaps in shock that Sammartino had lost. Koloff's hand was raised three times, his name never called as champion.
Sammartino may have lost, but he did so in style and grace.
Yet in losing, the face and overall dynamic of the WWE changed. Gone as the top dog was Sammartino, replaced by Ivan Koloff. Koloff's reign would be short, as Pedro Morales would soon step up and try to lead the WWE as Sammartino had.
One of the biggest feuds in Sammartino's career was with his former student, Larry Zbyszko.
Zbyszko had debuted in 1973 after he was taught how to wrestle by Sammartino. But by 1980, he had been unable to shake the stigma of being nothing more than Sammartino’s protégé.
He challenged Sammartino to a technical bout, which Sammartino first refused. But after Zbyszko threatened to retire, Sammartino agreed to the match.
The two met in Allentown, Pa., on Jan. 22, 1980. The bout began as expected, with a technical array of moves from both men. But despite how well he fared, Zbyszko just wasn't on the same level as Sammartino.
After being forced from the ring, Sammartino opened the ropes for Zbyszko to get back in. Once inside, Zbyszko turned on Sammartino and battered him with cheap shots and bounced his head off the turnbuckles.
Then Zbyszko grabbed a chair and hit Sammartino over the head three times. He left his teacher a bloody mess in the ring.
Zbyszko became a huge heel after this bout, and their feud culminated in a cage match at Shea Stadium.
But it was Sammartino who shined. He showed he was much more than a brawler and out-wrestled his student.
In 1974, Sammartino was in the second year of his second WWWF championship reign, a record, since he was the first man to win the belt twice. He defended the belt in New York against Killer Kowalski.
Kowalski was a well-known heel, who had spent time in the NWA, the WWE and many other promotions. According to If They Only Knew by Joanie Laurer, in a 1954 match against Yukon Eric, Kowalski ripped Eric's ear off after he performed a knee drop.
Sammartino took the early lead in the bout, forced Kowalski to the mat and kept him there. Before long though, Kowalski regained control. He battered the WWWF champion on the ground with several very sick stomps to the head.
Things continued to get ugly when, after a Sammartino rally, Kowalski took him down and applied his Iron Claw to the stomach. When Sammartino began to break the hold, Kowalski began to bite Sammartino all about the head.
After more brawling and biting ensued, Sammartino rallied. The crowd began to work into a frenzy as he battered Kowalski hard.
Things got so heated the locker room emptied. Wrestlers, managers and officials stormed the ring to break the two apart.
This bout showed the true toughness of Sammartino—his ability to fight dirty and still be seen as the hero and babyface. It was a truly remarkable and brutal bout, all contested for the WWWF title.
In April 1977, Superstar Billy Graham defeated Sammartino, ending his historic second WWWF title reign.
In August of the same year, Sammartino was granted a second rematch. In this bout, WWE Hall of Famer Gorilla Monsoon was the special guest referee.
The bout was an extremely physical one, as both men pummeled each other with kicks and punches. Monsoon had to reprimand both men, as even Sammartino got heated.
At one point, Graham pulled a rope out from under the ring and tried to use it. Monsoon got physically involved and wrestled Graham to the ground. Sammartino used the moment to grab the rope and choke the WWWF champion with it.
When Graham tried to run away, Monsoon carried him back to the ring, where Sammartino continued to pound him. Both men were busted open during the bout, turning the ref's white shirt crimson.
Eventually the match was halted, and the title did not change hands.
But it didn't matter.
This one bout encapsulated everything that wrestling was and still is about: good guys versus bad guys.
It was an extremely physical bout, and Sammartino proved he could still work the crowd into a frenzy—even after nearly 20 years in the sport.