Remembering Bruno Sammartino, WWE's First Squared Circle Superhero

Ryan Dilbert@@ryandilbertWWE Lead WriterApril 19, 2018

Credit: WWE.com

The roaring crowd could always believe in Bruno Sammartino.

In a world of uncertainties, WWE fans knew that the barrel-chested warrior would come out on top. Sammartino stomped and clubbed his way to victory, pushing the villains back into the darkness from which they came.

It was a story that unfolded in the ring countless times and one that resonated deeply with the audience. Sammartino was a superhero come to life, a mighty man fighting for everyone in the stands.

That hero is no longer with us. WWE announced on Wednesday that the Hall of Famer died at age 82. Before WWE's live event in South Africa, the company honored Sammartino with a 10-bell salute.

As a boy, Sammartino had to flee Pizzoferrato, Italy, when the Nazis invaded his hometown. His family sought shelter in a mountain called Valla Rocca. They were sick, malnourished and desperate. 

"In the winter, we actually survived by eating snow. In the summer, we ate dandelions and water," Sammartino recalled in Ross Davies' 2001 biography.

Eventually, Sammartino emigrated to Pittsburgh to join his father.

The thin Italian was drawn to the gym and soon bulked up. He found success in the world of weightlifting, which led to his start in wrestling.

"After setting a world record in 1959 by bench-pressing 565 pounds, Sammartino caught the eye of Mr. McMahon's father, Vincent J. McMahon," his WWE.com profile explains.

WWE (then known as World Wide Wrestling Federation) had found itself a star.

Buddy Rogers was the company's first world champion, but Sammartino was its first centerpiece. The powerhouse barrelled through Rogers, bending his body across his shoulder until he submitted in 1963. The new champ was 27 years old.

Sammartino headlined and sold out show after show at Madison Square Garden in New York City. 

It was more than his bodyslams and wrist locks that pulled in the crowds. The man billed as The Italian Superman became a hero to the people, a compelling representative of the city's immigrants.

The ring's monsters of the time fell one by one to Sammartino.

For years, WWE built its main events around the burly good guy taking on the latest challenge from some towering villain. Sammartino clashed with Ernie Ladd, Gorilla Monsoon, Mike Scicluna and others, with the same script playing out each time.

There was something powerful about the simplicity of this violent theater. 

As mentioned in Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: Heroes and Icons by Steven Johnson and Greg Oliver, former wrestling announcer Chris Cruise said: "In the '60s and '70s, it seemed like the bad guys were ascendant, the Russians and the remnants of World World II. And especially in the '60s, where the world went from black and white to gray, Bruno represented the triumph of good over evil."

Sammartino was made to be invulnerable for the most part. He provided the happy ending, the assurance that the dark side would not prevail. 

Each time he won the world championship, he held that prize tight in his paws for historic stretches. Sammartino's first reign lasted from 1963 to 1971, per WWE.com. The second time around, the crown remained his for over 1,000 days from 1973 to 1977.

In the process, Sammartino set records that will never be broken. Today, a champion is lucky to make it past the four-month mark. 

Sammartino seemed so untouchable that when Ivan Koloff beat him in 1971, it was an absolute stunner, as shocking a moment as Doomsday beating Superman to the point that he couldn't get up.

Esteemed wrestling journalist Bill Apter wrote for WWE.com: "I remember seeing Bruno's fan club president, Georgian Orsi, sitting in the front row, crying. Many other fans wept as well. I felt like we were all at a funeral as Bruno left the ring."

That speaks to the connection Sammartino had with the crowd and how they viewed him. 

Sammartino only added to his legend when he shook off a severe injury in 1976. An errant scoop slam in a match with Stan Hansen that April left him with a broken neck. Unbelievably, The Italian Superman was back in the ring by June, battling Hansen at Shea Stadium, per CageMatch.net.

It was as if he couldn't be bothered with mortal concerns like broken bones.

Sammartino wrestled into his early '50s. And even when his hair thinned and grayed, he remained an impressive presence in the ring. He couldn't go the way he used to, but he still looked like a bear between the ropes, a man capable of hurling a foe into the stands if need be.

WWE found new headliners and heroes after Sammartino. The machine must reload, after all.

But everyone from Hulk Hogan to Brock Lesnar owes Sammartino a debt. The company grew into a global enterprise after first ruling the North East with The Living Legend at the forefront. 

Former intercontinental champion Cody Rhodes spoke of Sammartino's great influence:

The moves Superstars perform today look far different than those comprising the grinding style Sammartino employed. The ring gear is flashier, the entrances more ripe with spectacle. One thing remains the same, however.

Like with Sammartino, what wrestlers do is about more than wrestling.

He wasn't just a strongman trying to outlast another man. He was a symbol, a larger-than-life figure, a superhero in wrestling boots. 

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