In Retrospect: Bruno Sammartino

Nick Haynes@@nickhaynesCorrespondent IJune 2, 2009

This is the first in what I intend to be a weekly column over the summer, looking back over the careers of the legends of wrestling upon which the current landscape of "sports-entertainment" is currently built. 

This week's subject: Bruno Sammartino.

1237 days.  Three years, four months, and 20 days. 

No matter which way you cut it, that's an impressive amount of time to be holding any championship.  When that title is recognized as being one of the two or three "world heavyweight championships" for that matter, the feat is even more impressive.

Yet, for Bruno Sammartino, that second and last title reign is his shortest. 

His first title reign will probably never be broken: 2803 days, or just about four months shy of eight years. 

In fact, only one man has ever topped Sammartino's second title reign in terms of length: Hulk Hogan, between 1985 and 1989.  Sammartino, with the exception of a two year, 10 month span held the belt from May of 1963 until April of 1977.

But there is more to this immigrant and son of immigrants than years of holding the WWWF World Heavyweight Championship. 

There is a lifetime given to the business and years spent in retirement standing for principles and beliefs rather than "selling out" for the sake of money and popularity. 

So, come with me and read about this extraordinary man.

Sammartino was born on October 6, 1935 in Italy, during the heights of the dictatorial reign of Benito Mussolini, and was often forced into hiding from German and Italian troops. 

In 1951, Sammartino and his mother and siblings would immigrate to the United States, settling in Pittsburgh and meeting up with his father, who had immigrated years earlier.

A strapping young man, Sammartino got his start in wrestling the old-fashioned way: performing strongman stunts at carnivals. 

After being noticed by local promoter Rudy Miller, he was recruited as a draw for immigrants hailing from the "old country," a popular tactic for several promoters of the day (including Vince McMahon, Sr.) as a way of drawing in ethnic crowds.

After his training, Sammartino debuted in White Plains, NY in 1959.  Sammartino quickly became known not simply as a strongman, but also as a skilled mat worker, and began working matches for the WWWF in a day where a top wrestler would work for several different promotions. 

He quickly became a headliner on the cards, including at Madison Square Garden, where he would go on to headline 130 cards in total, more than any other wrestler in history.

These pre-championship years were not without fault, though. 

During a match with Chick Garibaldi, Sammartino gave a body slam to his opponent.  At roughly the same time, his opponent had a heart attack and died in the ring—an incident which left Sammartino scarred for many years. 

Sammartino also did not like working for the McMahon promotion as he felt the work schedule was too strenuous in comparison to his payout and to allowing him to work in other promotions. 

Once again, this was during a time where a wrestler working for only one organization was unheard of.

Sammartino was an incredibly popular champion. 

It is said that when he finally lost his first championship in 1971, most of the audience was shocked into silence and tears.  When he lost his second title to Superstar Billy Graham, after suffering a broken neck and dealing with a broken-down body, Graham's feet were leveraged on the ropes as it was not believable for Sammartino to be beaten.

In retirement, Sammartino has been somewhat of an enigmatic figure. 

He has received several overtures from Vince McMahon for his involvement in the product, including requests to allow WWE to do a retrospective DVD on his life and career, induction into the WWE Hall of Fame, and even simple backstage appearances. 

He has refused because of his distaste for McMahon and the current WWE product.  In a card featuring Chris Benoit and Triple H in the main event, he said he would stay for the show if the main event had been Benoit and Kurt Angle. 

He has not completely ostracized himself from the business, though. 

He has allowed himself to appear on Kurt Angle's TNA DVD as he has tremendous respect for Angle as a fellow Pittsburghian(?) and a true mat wrestler, and he has allowed his likeness to be used for toys and other products disassociated from WWE.

Sports-entertainment, as it stands today, owes a great debt to those who paved the way, and Sammartino is no exception. 

There is no way that my retrospective can do the man justice.  However, I hope that by writing this, many of today's fans will start to learn about the great career of the "Living Legend" (yes, Larry Zbyszko stole it from Sammartino), so that his legacy will live on for decades into the future.