Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Pittsburgh, Allegheny County
"The Italian Strongman," Bruno Sammartino was the professional wrestling champion for over 11 years.
Bruno Sammartino, a resident of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is known as professional wrestling's Living Legend. Acknowledged as one of the greatest professional wrestlers of all time, Sammartino's legacy began in 1959 and lasted until his final match in October of 1981. Over this time, he held the World Heavyweight Title twice, the first time for over seven years. This feat has yet to be matched by any other person in the history of professional wrestling.
Born on October 6, 1935, in Pizzoferrato, Italy, Bruno Leopold Francesco Sammartino was the youngest surviving child of Alfonso and Emilia Sammartino. Within months after his birth, Alfonso left, leaving Emilia to take care of their children. Originally, there were seven children, but four had died (Annita, Sandrino, and two unnamed twin children) due to the lack of medical facilities in the small mountain village. The remaining family including Bruno, were forced to grow their own crops and survive in a very naturalistic setting.
In 1944 during World War II, the Germans invaded the small village of Pizzoferrato, and forced its villagers to retreat to the mountain above, Valla Rocca, where they lived for nearly fourteen months. During their time in the mountains, many near-tragedies occurred, including three German troops almost killing off the village with a machine gun and Bruno getting a serious case of pneumonia, which almost killed him. Fortunately, his family survived and moved back to Pizzoferrato after the occupation was over.
After a long wait, the entire family was finally able to relocate to Oakland, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1950. Here, he was united with his father for the first time since his birth. Bruno, his brother Paul, and Mary attended Schenley High School, where Bruno became obsessed with weight lifting and wrestling. In the short four-year period, he went from a frail 90 pounds to 225 pounds utilizing the Charles Atlas Strength Building Course (by mail) and the Young Men Hebrew Association (YMHA).
After receiving a full scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh for wrestling, Bruno began working with head coach Rex Perry. He continued working towards his goal, which was still unknown to him at that point. He was also working on various construction sites and at carpentry jobs on the side. At one point in his life, he joined the Air National Guard, which allowed him to continue his training schedule while avoiding the draft. In the fall of 1959 he married his longtime girlfriend Carol.
One famous incident over his time in Pittsburgh involved wrestling an orangutan and the provocation of his friend. After being pummeled by the monkey, Bruno was disqualified from the contest for punching it in the gut to save himself from the ape.
Sammartino began his wrestling career in 1959, working in Capitol Pro Wrestling, traveling to New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Maryland. The owners, Vince McMahon Sr. and Joseph Mondt, signed Bruno to a contract to compete at a rate of $250 a week, excluding any travel costs. The small payday each week caused Sammartino to break his contract and begin looking for employment in federations that feuded with Capitol at the time, including Kola Kwariani's unnamed company. The company folded shortly after it opened, sending the wrestler back to McMahon in search of employment once again. The promoter held a grudge against Bruno for leaving the company, refusing to let him sign another full time contract, and only allowing him pittance pay offs from the shows he was on. Once again, he attempted to escape McMahon's grasp by working for a federation out in California. Unfortunately, he was suspended from working, after an incident caused by McMahon booking him at two shows in one night to get revenge from Bruno breaking his contract. This war between McMahon and Sammartino continued on for years, with Bruno working short stints in Capitol Wrestling, quitting, and then being pressured back in by financial reasons. Finally, in late 1962, Sammartino made a deal with McMahon to come back and work a match against long time rival "The Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers at Madison Square Garden for the Heavyweight Title for World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF). On May 17, 1963, the stage was set and the two men met in a legendary match that only lasted a brief 48 seconds. Rogers submitted to Sammartino immediately, crowning him the new World Heavyweight Champion.
From that point, Bruno Sammartino held the title for seven years, eight months, and one day. This title reign set the standard yet to be matched in the history of professional wrestling. During this time, he defended against wrestlers such as Killer Kowalski, Big Bill Miller, The Sheik, and Gorilla Monsoon among many others. His magnificent title reign came to an end on January 18, 1971 against the "Russian Bear" Ivan Koloff. After a brutal bout, Koloff walked away from the ring a champion, while the audience sat in stunned silence. One of the longest title reigns in history was over.
Bruno began living his life at home for two years before recapturing the title in one of his first matches back in the WWWF, against Stan Stasiak on December 10, 1973. He continued to defend the belt for years to come, despite a life threatening injury on April 25, 1976. While wrestling a match against Stan Hansen, his opponent dropped him on his head and broke his neck. Even though he could barely move or speak, within two months and against doctor's orders, Bruno found himself standing face to face with the man who had broken his neck in a wrestling ring. The second title reign of the Living Legend ended on April 30, 1977 after another three years to Superstar Billy Graham. After a long set of matches, the feud culminated with Graham putting his feet on the ropes for leverage to win the title. One of his final long-term feuds concerned his protégé, Larry Zbyszko. Zbyszko was eager to prove his merit against his mentor and took to unprofessional methods to go about doing it, including hitting Sammartino with a chair. The fights ended with a literal cage match in which the Legend came out on top. His final match of his career came on Sunday October 4, 1981, winning against his rival of many years, George Steele.
With his wrestling career over, Sammartino remained in the business by doing color-commentary on television. His son David became a wrestler for a short time, following in the footsteps of his father. Unfortunately, he cut his career short after a run in with a familiar name, Vince McMahon Jr., in the World Wrestling Federation (WWF).
Sammartino is currently well known for his disapproval of the modern trends in professional wrestling toward outright violence and sex. One such protest of this is demonstrated by his refusal to join the World Wrestling Entertainment (previously the WWF and the WWWF) Hall of Fame. "If anyone should be in the hall of fame, even before Hulk Hogan, it is Bruno." said Superstar Billy Graham. He believes that the entertainment of professional wrestling should be viewable by children and the modern product is not. He is quoted in his book as saying, "If the general public knew how much of this [illegal drug abuse] was going on today in wrestling by some of these so-called heroes that the children are rooting for that they would be shocked and devastated by it all."
Sammartino continues to live out a quiet, happy life in his home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, occasionally making appearances at shows to help promote causes he sees fit.
Bruno Sammartino: An Autobiography of Wrestling's Living Legend. (with Bob Michelucci and Paul McCollough) Pittsburgh: Imagine, Inc., 1990