Wrestling legend Bruno Sammartino dies at 82
Professional wrestling legend Bruno Sammartino has died at 82, WWE announced Wednesday.
A sickly, malnourished immigrant boy when he first came to America, Sammartino transformed himself into one of the strongest men in the world, winning the respect and love of legions of immigrants who found hope in his message that hard work brings reward.
“You just knew this guy was a nobody,” the late Marty Lazzaro told the Tribune-Review in a 2013 interview.
“But he came here, worked hard, got big and strong and made something of himself. These people weren't just rooting for Bruno. They were rooting for the idea that they could make something of themselves, too,” said Lazzaro, a fan as a kid who became Sammartino's friend and spokesman in adulthood.
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald called Sammartino “a Pittsburgh legend and iconic figure” in a statement issued shortly after news of Sammartino's death broke Wednesday morning.
“He has always made us proud. He embodied Pittsburgh and served as one of the greatest ambassadors for this region,” Fitzgerald said. “This is a great loss for those of us who are of a certain age who remember his accomplishments and achievements in the ring. Growing up, Bruno always made us proud that he was from Pittsburgh and made us prouder to be from Pittsburgh too.”
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto also described Sammartino as an ambassador for the region and recalled memories of watching him wrestle.
“Some of the fondest memories of my childhood are of sitting in the basement with my grandfather on Saturday mornings and watching Bruno wrestle,” Peduto said. “They both came from the same part of Italy, and when my grandfather, who was 5-foot-8, would watch Bruno wrestle he became 6-feet-10.”
Bruno Leopoldo Francesco Sammartino of Ross was born on Oct. 6, 1935, in Pizzoferrato, Italy.
From humble beginnings, Sammartino worked tirelessly to become the longest-reigning champion of the World Wide Wrestling Federation, holding the title from 1963 to 1971 and again from 1973 to 1977.
Fans adored him, during and after his reign.
They revered Sammartino as a fierce but honest fighter. They delighted in his astonishing feats of strength, including the time he lifted 640-pound Haystacks Calhoun over his head during an early match. They admired his principled resolve during a 25-year feud with professional wrestling owner Vince McMahon over what Sammartino called rampant drug use and sexual exploitation. And they sold out Madison Square Garden in 2013 when he finally agreed to be inducted into the sport's Hall of Fame.
“Everything I did was made possible by my fans,” Sammartino said moments before his induction ceremony. “I've never kidded myself to think I was a big deal. If I was, it was because of the fans. Any successes I've had, I owe it all to the fans.”
Beneath the strongman exterior, Sammartino was at heart a mama's boy.
As a child, Nazi troops occupied his native Italian village during World War II, forcing his family to flee to a mountaintop. They hid there for more than a year, surviving mainly on snow and wild flowers.
Bruno's weight plummeted. To keep him alive, his mother, Emilia, trekked down the mountain, sneaked into their house while Nazi soldiers slept in her bed and stole food from stashed winter rations in the basement. The trip took her 24 hours. Sammartino would sit on a stone and stare down the trail, waiting for his mother to return. When her son contracted rheumatic fever, Emilia Sammartino wrapped him in hot blankets and covered his body with leeches to suck out the bad blood.
Emilia Sammartino died in 1995 at age 97. Bruno Sammartino visited her grave in a Greenfield cemetery weekly, speaking to her tombstone only in Italian, he said, “because otherwise she might not understand.”
“My mother was everything to me,” Sammartino said in an interview with the Tribune-Review in 2010. “The most gratifying thing is my mom lived long enough to see the results of her sacrifices. She saw everything. I tell you, that is the greatest reward I've ever received.”
A WRESTLING CAREER IS BORN
When his family moved to Oakland in 1950, Sammartino, at age 14, weighed 83 pounds. His bony limbs and heavy accent made him a target of bullies.
But after a friend took him to the Young Men and Women's Hebrew Association in Oakland, Sammartino discovered weightlifting.
“It was the first time in my life I saw weights, and it didn't seem like there were any small enough that I could lift,” Sammartino said. “But on my way home, I had a feeling in my gut that this would be something great for me. I couldn't wait to go back.”
By 1957, Sammartino had become so massive that sportscaster Bob Prince asked him to show lifting techniques on air. A wrestling promoter saw him, and Sammartino's wrestling career was born.
In his prime, Sammartino weighed 270 pounds and bench pressed 565 pounds. At a gym in New York, he wowed onlookers by benching 338 pounds an astonishing 38 times in a row. He worked out at gyms in Santa Monica, Calif., with the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Franco Columbu.
Despite his growing fame, Sammartino maintained a humble demeanor that resonated with fans, particularly in Pittsburgh.
“He represented an ethos that defines what Pittsburgh sports are all about,” said Anne Madarasz, director of Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum. “And he continued to live a regular life. He's like Art Rooney, the chief. Like Maz. He's an everyman sports hero.”
The late Bucky Palermo, a former wrestling referee, told the Tribune-Review in a past interview, “Bruno couldn't do nothing wrong. He could've brought a gun in the ring and shot the other guy, and they'd have cheered him. I'm not kidding. I've never seen a guy in sports loved so much by the fans. … Small kids, big kids, old people — everybody loved him. Especially the Italians.”
‘SIMPLE BUT HAPPY'
Sammartino walked away from professional wrestling in 1988, disgusted by what it had become.
“The girls, the sexual things, the profanity. … I found that so damn offensive and obscene that it drove me nuts,” Sammartino said in a 2013 interview. “I didn't need it. I live a very simple life. Simple but happy.”
In retirement, he awoke at 5:30 a.m. six days a week to lift weights or jog. Until his mother died, he visited her daily, sitting at her kitchen table, talking, drinking coffee and eating biscotti.
After 25 years in professional wrestling exile, he returned to the sport in 2013, thanks to the efforts of McMahon's son-in-law, Paul Levesque, who wrestles under the ring name Triple H.
Levesque called Sammartino, told him the league had cleaned up its act — implementing strict antidrug policies and abandoning suggestive, risqué content — and asked him to consider entering the Hall of Fame.
“Bruno is one of those guys you just cannot help but like,” Levesque told the Tribune-Review in 2013. “He's a class act, a true pro. If Bruno tells you something, you know it's going to happen. One thing I admire about him immensely is he felt something, and he was willing at all costs to stand by what he believed in. He said, ‘I'm standing by this,' and I admire that.
“He's just a sincere, great guy. I find him to be very humble as well. Clearly he knows who he is. He's Bruno Sammartino. He's a legend. But he's still just a humble guy.”
Sammartino finally relented. In April 2013, he was the headline inductee during a ceremony at Madison Square Garden, the Manhattan arena Sammartino sold out an estimated 187 times, a record for the building. Schwarzenegger introduced him to the sellout crowd. Fans of all generations rose repeatedly during his speech to give him standing ovations.
The old wrestler — just shy of his 78th birthday but still in great shape — confessed that he was surprised by the response.
“Honest to God, I never thought the fans would remember me when I retired,” he told the Trib in New York City. “I thought I'd just be some old guy who maybe some people would remember as a wrestler, back in the old days. It's an honor to know that they still remember me.”