Bruno Laopardo Franceso Sammartino (October 6, 1935 – April 18, 2018) was an Italian professional wrestler, best known for his work with the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF, later World Wrestling Federation, WWF), now known as WWE. There, he held the WWWF World Heavyweight Championship (WWWF Heavyweight Championship during his second reign) for over 11 years (4,040 days) across two reigns, the first of which is the longest single reign in the promotion’s history at 2,803 days. Dubbed “The Living Legend”, Sammartino is widely regarded as one of the greatest professional wrestlers of all time.
Sammartino’s wrestling style was less mat-oriented than was typical of wrestlers from his era. His brawling, power moves and personal charisma helped him become the most popular American wrestler in the 1960s and 1970s.
Born in Pizzoferrato, Abruzzo, Italy on October 6, 1935, Sammartino was the youngest of seven brothers and sisters. Four older siblings died during his time in Italy. During his childhood, Sammartino’s family hid from German soldiers in a mountain called Valla Rocca, during the latter stages of World War II. During this time, Sammartino’s mother, Emilia, would sneak into their German-occupied town for food and supplies. In 1950, he moved to the United States and settled in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where his father had already lived for several years.
When Sammartino first came to the United States, he spoke no English and was sickly from his experiences of surviving during the war years. This made him an easy target for bullies in school. Sammartino wanted to build himself up physically and became devoted to weight training. Sammartino’s devotion to weightlifting nearly resulted in a berth on the 1956 U.S. Olympic team. He was edged out by Paul Anderson – who outweighed Sammartino by 70 pounds. In the early years of Sammartino’s career, he was measured at 5’10” and weighed around 280 pounds.
Sammartino set a world record in the bench press with a lift of 565 pounds in 1959. Sammartino completed this lift while not wearing any elbow or wrist wraps. When he brought the bar down, he did not bounce it off his chest, but set it there for two seconds before attempting the press. Sammartino also competed in bodybuilding and won “Mr. Allegheny” in the late 1950s.
His high school, Schenley High School, did not have a wrestling program, but he worked out with the University of Pittsburgh wrestling team under storied coach Rex Peery. Sammartino became known for performing strongman stunts in the Pittsburgh area, and sportscaster Bob Prince put him on his television show. It was there that he was spotted by local wrestling promoter Rudy Miller, who recruited Sammartino for professional wrestling. Miller knew that Sammartino could easily be marketed as an ethnic strongman, and that he would appeal to Italian immigrants who supported wrestling.
Professional wrestling career
Studio Wrestling (1959–1974)
Sammartino made his professional debut in Pittsburgh on December 17, 1959, pinning Dmitri Grabowski in 19 seconds. On December 23, he defeated Miguel Torres for the local Spectator Sports promotion in Pittsburgh. He soon became extremely popular, appearing frequently on the local TV wrestling program, Studio Wrestling.
In 1966, Sammartino bought the Pittsburgh-based Spectator Sports promotion which promoted in the Tri-State area of Western Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. The promotion was a stopping point for national stars such as Gorilla Monsoon, The Crusher, Bill Watts, George Steele, and Bobo Brazil, as well as featuring local talent like Johnny De Fazio, Tony “The Battman” Marino, and an early Sammartino protege John L. Sullivan (who later gained fame as Johnny Valiant). The Pittsburgh promotion was truly independent, ran its own storylines and had its own tag team champions – despite the use of Northeast’s based promotion World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF, currently WWE) talent. Before the Civic Arena was built, Spectator Sports held their big Pittsburgh shows at Forbes Field – the home of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Capitol Wrestling Corporation (1960–1961)
Sammartino’s first match in Madison Square Garden in New York City was on January 2, 1960 against Bull Curry (who was substituting for Killer Kowalski). In order to give him a push, Toots Mondt paired him with the iconic Antonino Rocca in tag team matches. Working with Rocca helped somewhat, but Sammartino remained no more than an upper mid-carder at best for the next few years.
On February 18, 1961, Sammartino faced Chick Garibaldi in an afternoon match at the Sunnyside Gardens in New York. During the match, Sammartino bodyslammed Garibaldi and immediately noticed his opponent’s eyes roll up inside his head. By the time the ref checked on the fallen wrestler, he was dead in the ring. It was later determined that Garibaldi had died from a heart attack. In the movie Legends Never Die, Sammartino stated that it took him many years to get over that incident.
Various promotions (1961–1963)
After tiring of low payoffs and broken promises, Sammartino left Vince McMahon Sr.‘s Capitol Wrestling Corporation to join a rival New York promoter and former McMahon Sr. partner Kola Kwariani. Kwariani’s hold on New York soon weakened because of low attendance and athletic commission pressure to curb violence. In an effort to increase attendance, Kwariani had Sammartino wrestle his tag team partner Antonino Rocca twice during this time. Sammartino was then told by Rudy Miller to jump back to McMahon.
Sammartino found himself with even fewer dates and payoffs than the first time he wrestled for McMahon. He gave notice to McMahon that he was going to San Francisco, and its large Italian population, to wrestle for promoter Roy Shire. Very soon after arriving, Sammartino was informed by the local athletic commission that he was suspended. Unable to find work across the country (because every state athletic commission honors suspensions given by other state athletic commissions), Sammartino headed back to Pittsburgh to work as a laborer. Sammartino found out that his suspension was due to his skipping a match he was booked for in Baltimore. He was also booked to wrestle in Chicago that same night. In his autobiography, Sammartino states that he believed McMahon set him up, by double-booking him and not informing him of his match in Baltimore, as a way of punishment for working for Kwariani.
On the advice of wrestler Yukon Eric, Sammartino contacted Toronto promoter Frank Tunney hoping to take advantage of Toronto’s large Italian population. Despite McMahon trying to blackball him there as well, Tunney decided to take a chance. Sammartino made his Toronto debut in March 1962 and very quickly, with the help of self-promotion in local newspapers and radio programs, became an attraction. His ability to speak Italian also ingratiated himself with that immigrant population. With Canadian legend Whipper Billy Watson, Sammartino won his first professional wrestling championship in September 1962, the local version of the International Tag Team Championship. Soon, he was in demand by other promoters in different Canadian territories.
During his tenure in Toronto, Sammartino wrestled and beat then National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) World Heavyweight Champion Buddy Rogers for the title. However, Rogers was unable to continue after being accidentally butted in the groin while attempting a leap frog, and Sammartino refused to accept the title under the circumstances.
Sammartino also wrestled NWA World Heavyweight Champion Lou Thesz twice in Canada. One match ended in a draw and the other with Thesz scoring a fluke pin after a collision, despite Sammartino controlling the 20 minute match from the beginning. Like Thesz’s win over Buddy Rogers, this match was booked by NWA kingpin Sam Muchnick as a preliminary to the forming of the WWWF, to ensure the dominance of the senior organization and its championship. Thesz recounted the matches as nothing special.
Meanwhile, McMahon Sr. was having a tough time drawing fans with newly created World Wide Wrestling Federation World Heavyweight Champion Buddy Rogers in New York. Promoter Willie Gilzenberg appeared on Washington D.C. TV; referred to a non-title match in Canada; and “returned” the championship belt to Buddy Rogers (which thus created the WWWF World Heavyweight Championship belt). It was also mentioned that Rogers lost to Thesz in a one fall bout; NWA rules specified that the title could only change hands in a two-out-of-three-falls match. Thus, Rogers had not legitimately lost the title.
Eventually, promoters Toots Mondt and McMahon Sr. cleared up Sammartino’s suspension by paying his $500 fine. After many weeks of phone calls with McMahon trying to lure Sammartino back, Sammartino demanded a title match with Rogers.
World Wide Wrestling Federation/World Wrestling Federation
First World Heavyweight Championship reign (1963–1971)
Sammartino won the WWWF World Heavyweight Championship on May 17, 1963, defeating “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers in 48 seconds. After the bell rang, Bruno rushed Rogers, shoved him into the turnbuckles and put Rogers up in a backbreaker. Bruno claims he never heard Rogers give up but heard the ref telling him to put Rogers down. The ref then raised Bruno’s hand to a thunderous uproar of approval from the crowd. Rogers claimed until his dying day that he had suffered a heart attack a week before the match and was dragged out of a hospital to have the match. Sammartino has said (and other wrestlers on the card verify) that all wrestlers were examined and passed by the State Athletic Commission doctor that night as was customary in those days. Sammartino has also pointed out that if Rogers was sick, he never took time off from his schedule after he lost the belt. Others have pointed out that Rogers worked mainly in short tag team matches until his first retirement one year later (he would later return for two brief comebacks, and much later as a manager).
Sammartino and Rogers did face each other two months later at Madison Square Garden in a tag team match, with Rogers and Handsome Johnny Barend defeating Sammartino and Bobo Brazil by 2 falls to 1. Sammartino did not trust Rogers and the two did not work together very much during the match. Rogers pinned Sammartino for the third and deciding fall.
Rogers retired prior to their scheduled title rematch on October 4, 1963, in Jersey City, New Jersey’s Roosevelt Stadium. Sammartino instead that night had his first match against new No. 1 contender, Gorilla Monsoon (Monsoon won by disqualification). Sammartino kept this title for seven years, eight months, and one day.
Sammartino headlined cards that filled both the third and current Madison Square Gardens on a monthly basis. He battled the top bad guys of his time, including Killer Kowalski, Giant Baba, Gene Kiniski, Dr. Bill Miller, Dr. Jerry Graham, Bull Ramos, Hans Mortier, Waldo Von Erich, The Crusher, Johnny Valentine, The Sheik, Freddie Blassie, Curtis Iaukea, Tarzan Tyler, Bill Watts, Gorilla Monsoon, Professor Toru Tanaka, “Handsome” Johnny Barend, Spiros Arion, Oscar “Crusher” Verdu, Ernie “The Big Cat” Ladd, John Tolos, The Kentucky Butcher, and George “The Animal” Steele.
On January 18, 1971, Sammartino lost the championship at Madison Square Garden to Ivan Koloff. After the pin, Koloff slowly walked across the ring while the ref raised his hand three times, and the announcer came into the ring with the championship belt; however, fearful of a riot, he did not present it to Koloff. Koloff left the ring while Sammartino stayed inside to keep the crowd’s attention off Koloff. As Sammartino left the ring, people started crying. Three weeks later, Pedro Morales beat Koloff to win the title, and Sammartino congratulated the new champion as he was announced.
Meanwhile, on January 14, 1972, Sammartino returned to Los Angeles for the first time in five years to participate in a 22-man battle royal, which included competitors such as Rocky Johnson, Mil Máscaras, John Tolos, Haystacks Calhoun, and Ripper Collins. The final two men left in the ring were Collins and Sammartino. After brawling for about five minutes, they noticed that they were the only ones left. After Sammartino bodyslammed Collins several times, he then applied the bearhug. Collins submitted and Sammartino was the $11,000 winner of the third annual Olympic battle royal. This battle royal marked the first time that The Wrestler, an “Apter Mag”, had fans vote on “Match of the Year“, which it won.
Later in 1972, Sammartino was asked back by McMahon Sr. to regain the title. After refusing McMahon’s initial offer, Sammartino was offered a percentage of all the gates when he wrestled and a decreased work schedule that only included major arenas. Soon after, Sammartino and then champion Pedro Morales teamed up for a series of tag team matches. In a televised match, Professor Tanaka blinded both men with salt and they were maneuvered into fighting each other. When their eyes cleared, they kept fighting each other. Two weeks later, all syndicated wrestling shows in the WWWF showed a clip of Sammartino and Morales signing a contract for a title match at Shea Stadium. When McMahon gestured for them to shake hands, both wordlessly turned and walked away. On September 1, 1972, Sammartino and Morales wrestled to a 65-minute draw at Shea Stadium in New York.
Second World Heavyweight Championship reign (1973–1977)
Eventually, on December 10, 1973, Sammartino regained the WWWF Heavyweight Championship by defeating Stan Stasiak, who had won the title from Pedro Morales nine days earlier in Philadelphia. In his second reign, Bruno defeated contenders such as John Tolos, Bruiser Brody, Spiros Arion, Ken Patera, Bugsy McGraw, Freddie Blassie, Baron von Raschke, Waldo Von Erich, Ivan Koloff, Superstar Billy Graham, Don Leo Jonathan, Angelo Mosca, Ernie “The Cat” Ladd, George Steele. Big Bob Duncum, and Nikolai Volkoff. He also encountered old foes Killer Kowalski and George “The Animal” Steele. His second title run lasted three years, four months, and twenty days. On November 5, 1975, Sammartino was also a guest on Tomorrow with Tom Snyder.
During this time, on April 26, 1976, Sammartino suffered a legitimate neck fracture in a match against Stan Hansen at Madison Square Garden, when Hansen improperly executed a body slam and dropped Sammartino on his head. He managed to wrestle for an additional 15 minutes and did the planned finish of a stoppage due to blood. After two months, Sammartino returned and faced Hansen in a rematch on June 25, 1976 at Shea Stadium, which was on the closed circuit TV undercard of the Ali vs. Antonio Inoki match for WWWF cities. The match was rated 1976 “Match of the Year” by a number of wrestling magazines. Subsequently, after a chance to recover and train, Sammartino scored decisive steel cage match wins over Hansen around the WWWF circuit.
In early 1977, after suffering the broken neck and many other ailments, Sammartino informed McMahon Sr. that he was done with his second title reign, which ended in Baltimore on April 30, 1977, when he was defeated by Superstar Billy Graham. In a controversial ending, Graham had both feet braced on the ropes (which is illegal in professional wrestling) while successfully pinning Sammartino.
Later career and initial retirement (1978–1981)
Despite a very long series of rematches against Graham, Sammartino was unable to regain the title. His final attempt was in Philadelphia, just a few days before Graham was scheduled to lose the title to Bob Backlund. The Philly match was the only documented instance of Sammartino losing a steel cage match, as he lost by accidentally knocking a bloody and battered Graham through the cage door.
After his second reign ended, Sammartino leisurely toured the U.S. and the world. He wrestled then NWA World Heavyweight Champion Harley Race to a one-hour draw in St. Louis. He also wrestled and defeated Blackjack Mulligan, Lord Alfred Hayes, Dick Murdoch, Kenji Shibuya, and “Crippler” Ray Stevens. Also during this time, Sammartino began serving as color commentator for the WWF’s syndicated programs, WWF Championship Wrestling and WWF All-Star Wrestling.
On January 22, 1980, his former student Larry Zbyszko turned on him at the World Wrestling Federation‘s Championship Wrestling show. Sammartino, shocked and hurt by Zbyszko’s betrayal, vowed to make Zbyszko pay dearly. Their feud culminated on August 9, 1980, in front of 36,295 fans at Shea Stadium. As the main event of 1980’s Showdown at Shea, Sammartino defeated Zbyszko inside a steel cage. In his autobiography, Hulk Hogan claimed that his match with André the Giant was the real reason for the huge draw at Shea Stadium; however, the feud between Sammartino and Zbyszko sold out everywhere in the build-up to the show. In contrast, Hogan and André headlined exactly one card in White Plains, New York before they wrestled at Shea, and they drew a paltry 1,200 in a building that held 3,500.
Sammartino retired from North American wrestling full-time in 1981, in a match that opened the Meadowlands Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Sammartino pinned George “The Animal” Steele in his match. Sammartino then finished up his full-time career by touring Japan.
Return to WWF (1984–1988)
It was during this time Sammartino found out through Angelo Savoldi, a recently fired office employee of Capitol Wrestling Corporation, that he had been cheated by Vince McMahon Sr. on the promised gate percentages for his entire second title run. Sammartino filed suit against McMahon and his Capitol Wrestling Corporation. The suit was eventually settled out of court by McMahon’s son, Vince McMahon after his father had died. Part of the settlement included Sammartino returning to do color commentary on WWF television in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars for what amounted to nineteen days of work.
At the inaugural WrestleMania at a sold out Madison Square Garden in 1985, Sammartino was in his son David‘s corner for his match against Brutus Beefcake. The match ended in a double-disqualification after the Sammartinos began brawling with Beefcake and his manager Johnny Valiant. He returned to in ring action soon after with his son, as they wrestled against Beefcake and Valiant at Madison Square Garden. The Sammartinos also teamed against “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff and Bobby “The Brain” Heenan in various arenas. Despite being in his early-50’s, Sammartino frequently proved to be in much better physical shape than his opponents, often leaving them “blown up” by the middle of the match.
Sammartino’s highest-profile feud during this run was with “Macho Man” Randy Savage. An irate Sammartino attacked Savage during a TV interview, after Savage bragged about injuring Ricky Steamboat, by driving the timekeeper’s bell into Steamboat’s throat during a televised match. Sammartino defeated Savage in a lumberjack match for the WWF Intercontinental Heavyweight Championship via disqualification at the Boston Garden. This allowed Savage to keep the championship belt, as titles cannot change hands via countout or disqualification. He was often teamed with Tito Santana and his old enemy George “The Animal” Steele (who was a fan favorite at this point in his career) to wrestle Savage and “Adorable” Adrian Adonis. The climax of their feud came was a victory for Sammartino and Santana in a steel cage match in Madison Square Garden.
Sammartino also engaged in a feud with “Rowdy” Roddy Piper after Piper insulted his heritage on a segment of Piper’s Pit at Madison Square Garden. Sammartino faced Piper in both singles and tag team matches. Sammartino teamed with Paul Orndorff in his matches against Piper, while Piper would tag with his “bodyguard”, Ace “Cowboy” Bob Orton. Sammartino would eventually get the upper hand in the feud, by defeating Piper in a steel cage match at the Boston Garden.
In 1986, Sammartino competed in a 20-man battle royal at WrestleMania 2 at the Rosemont Horizon in Chicago. The battle royal featured not only professional wrestlers, but also professional football players, and Sammartino was eliminated by Killer Kowalski protege Big John Studd. Later on in 1987, Sammartino teamed up with Jake “The Snake” Roberts and Santana in a six-man elimination tag team match against The Hart Foundation and then Intercontinental Heavyweight Champion The Honky Tonk Man. Sammartino was the sole survivor of the match pinning the Honky Tonk Man for the win.
Sammartino’s final WWF match saw him teaming up with Hulk Hogan to defeat King Kong Bundy and One Man Gang. Sammartino continued doing commentary on Superstars of Wrestling until March 1988.
Post-WWF career (1988–2013)
After leaving the WWF, Sammartino was an outspoken critic of the path McMahon has taken professional wrestling, particularly in the use of steroids, other illicit drugs and borderline obscene wrestling angles. In the last stage of his career, he refused to travel with the younger wrestlers for fear of being stopped in a vehicle containing drugs. McMahon provided wrestler-turned-road-agent Chief Jay Strongbow as a travel partner. He appeared in the media in opposition to the WWE on such shows as The Phil Donahue Show, Geraldo and CNN.
Sammartino began doing commentary for Herb Abrams’ upstart Universal Wrestling Federation (UWF) as it attempted to go national and compete with the WWF, the NWA, and World Class Championship Wrestling (WCCW).
On October 28, 1989, Sammartino made a special appearance at the NWA pay-per-view event Halloween Havoc, where he was the special guest referee in a “Thunderdome” cage match which featured Ric Flair and Sting taking on Terry Funk and The Great Muta. Sammartino ended up exchanging blows with Muta at the end of the match and ran him off. Sammartino also worked several World Championship Wrestling (WCW) events in a minor analysis role in the early 1990s, as well as a brief run doing color commentary with Jim Ross on Saturday Night in 1992.
In 2006, he signed an independent deal with Jakks Pacific to produce an action figure, which is part of the WWE Classic Superstars line, Series 10.
On March 25, 2010, Sammartino was honored at the 74th annual Dapper Dan Dinner, a popular awards and charity fundraising event in Pittsburgh, with a lifetime achievement award, for which fellow former Studio Wrestling personalities Bill Cardille, “Jumping” Johnny De Fazio, Dominic DeNucci, Frank Durso, and referee Andy “Kid” DePaul were all present.
On October 8, 2011 Sammartino briefly returned to the professional wrestling scene as a special guest when he joined a wrestling show held in his honor by Adriatic Wrestling League, an Italian pro-wrestling promotion.
WWE Hall of Famer (2013–2018)
Sammartino with Triple H at WrestleMania Axxess in April 2014, unveiling a statue created in Sammartino’s image and honor
In 2013, Sammartino accepted an invitation for induction into the WWE Hall of Fame, after having declined several times in prior years. He finally accepted the offer to join because he was satisfied with the way the company had addressed his concerns about the direction of the business. The ceremony took place at Madison Square Garden on April 6, 2013, and Sammartino was inducted by Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Sammartino appeared on the October 7, 2013, episode of Raw and received a birthday greeting in his hometown of Pittsburgh. On March 28, 2015, Sammartino inducted Larry Zbyszko into the WWE Hall of Fame.
In the late 1960s, Sammartino was involved in a fight with former Pennsylvania Athletic Commissioner Joe Cimino. Cimino was new to his post and intervened in a match finish involving Sammartino, who took a shot at Cimino in the ring and the argument continued backstage. Sammartino ended up in a screaming match with Cimino on Pittsburgh’s local Studio Wrestling program, and Cimino suspended him for a month. Sam Muchnick mentioned the incident in his book, Wrestling Babylon.
In his autobiography, The Cowboy and the Cross: The Bill Watts Story: Rebellion, Wrestling and Redemption, Bill Watts told of witnessing a backstage incident between Sammartino and Gorilla Monsoon. Watts wrote that Monsoon “soon found himself in deep water” when messing with Sammartino, and he did not go into further detail on the incident out of respect for Monsoon.
On July 26, 2004, Sammartino and Ric Flair were involved in the “Who snubbed who?” non-confrontation at the Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh. Flair had denigrated Sammartino’s wrestling ability in his book To Be the Man. Flair said Sammartino refused to shake his hand at the event, while Sammartino said Flair saw him coming down the hall, turned, and rushed away.
Sammartino is included in two DVDs summarizing his career and life: Bruno Returns to Italy With Bruno Sammartino (2006) and Bruno Sammartino: Behind the Championship Belt (2006). Both were only released in Pittsburgh. Sammartino is honored on the Madison Square Garden walk of fame.
On March 24, 2007, Sammartino received the Key to the City in Franklin, Pennsylvania as part of IWC’s Night of Legends 3. On April 6, 2013, he received the Key to the City in Jersey City, New Jersey. May 17, 2013 was declared “Bruno Sammartino Day” in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. In 2013, Sammartino appeared as one of the Board of Governors in the nationally televised 69th Annual Columbus Day Parade. Later on in the event, Sammartino arm wrestled Grand Marshal Joseph Perella in a losing effort.
Sammartino appeared in the WWE 2K14 video game as a downloadable character.
Sammartino has been married to his wife Carol since 1959 and they have three sons, David, and fraternal twins, Danny and Darryl. They are also grandparents of four grandchildren. He and his wife have lived in Ross Township, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh since 1965. In 1998, he said he had been estranged from David since retiring from wrestling against David’s wishes for a tag team.
Sammartino died on April 18, 2018 at the age of 82.
- Finishing moves
- Signature moves
- “The Italian Strongman”
- “The Italian Superman”
- “The Living Legend”
- “The Strongest Man in the World”
Championships and accomplishments