It’s December, it’s time for WWE’s TLC pay-per-view which means here at The Wrestling Mania it’s time for our Superstar of the Month. Last month I took a look at the career of The Undertaker after all who else was better to look at in Survivor Series season than the Dead Man himself. The tenth of December marked the fortieth anniversary of the start of Bruno Sammartino’s second WWWF Heavyweight Championship (Formerly the WWWF World Heavyweight Championship, currently the WWE Championship) run. So who better to take a look at than the Italian Superman himself?
He was born in Pizzoferrato, Abruzzi, Italy on October 6, 1935. By 1950 he had moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, America where he took up weightlifting and also served in the U.S. Air Force once of the right age. After serving his time back in Pittsburgh he would get noticed for the feats of strength that he could perform. It was this act of his that got him spotted by promoter Rudy Miller who brought him into the Pittsburgh based promotion in 1959.
By January 2, 1960 Bruno had debuted in Madison Square Garden a match against Wild Bull Curry. From there he was sent out to cut his teeth on the road he’d visit places from Chicago to Montreal and even as far as California in the first two years of his career. He would continue to tour New York, Pennsylvania and the surrounding areas also. Most of the time Bruno would pick up victories in his matches.
1962 saw him stay in territory for a prolonged length of time when he traveled up to Toronto. There he picked his first title when teaming with Whipper Billy Watson they defeated Bulldog Brower and Sweet Daddy Siki on September 27 of that year for the territories International Tag-Team Championship. November saw him win his first singles gold when he beat Johnny Valentine for the Toronto version of the United States Heavyweight Championship.
Some of the only recorded losses for Sammartino during this initial stretch of his career are losing the US title to Johnny Valentine on December 14, 1962, when he and Watson lost the titles to Johnny Valentine and Bulldog Brower on February 28, 1963 and there were a couple of losses to the NWA World Heavyweight Champion, Buddy Rogers. That’s all because Bruno was being protected and set up for bigger things that were just around the corner and he hadn’t even been in the business five years.
When Capitol Wrestling split from the National Wrestling Alliance in 1963 they renamed themselves the World Wide Wrestling Federation (Now WWE) and Buddy Rogers was their first World Heavyweight Champion, it was only a temporary deal though. Bruno Sammartino was set to be the second champion and with that the very back bone of the company run by Toots Mondt and Vince McMahon Sr. at it’s inception.
On May 17, 1963 Bruno beat Buddy Rogers to capture that title, it actually wasn’t the first time he’d beaten Rogers for a title though. On August 2, 1962 in Toronto Bruno won the NWA World Heavyweight Championship, however, during the match Rogers had received an injury and Bruno refused to win that championship that way. This just gave all the more meaning to his win on that May evening when he finally got to wear World Heavyweight laurels. 19,639 were in attendance to see Bruno get the victory in only 48 seconds.
For the next seven plus years Bruno was THE man in the Northeast of America. People could just relate to him, admire him, and they continued to pay to see him fend off all of the monsters that attempted to over throw the WWE’s original ‘People’s Champion.’ And there is no doubt that there were no shortage of wrestlers capable of striking fear right into a normal man’s soul on standby to come and challenge Bruno.
Gorilla Monsoon, Dr. Jerry Graham, Bill Watts, Bull Ramos, Gene Kiniski, The Crusher, Waldo Von Erich, The Sheik, Freddie Blassie, King Curtis Iaukea all stepped into the ring with Bruno and they were all conquered along with many others. When the WWWF stopped in Madison Square Garden quite often there was a sell-out crowd. There was no doubt Bruno was the right man at the right time. In an area populated by ethnic groups, an Italian born superhero like figure was exactly what was needed and each fan lived through him in their own way.
The Northeast was not the only place Bruno proudly wore the gold though he traveled across the world as far as Japan and Australia. In 1966 he was even appointed a meeting with Pope Paul IV. As if having the World title wasn’t enough for him in July 1967 with partner Spiros Arion they defeated Lou Albano and Tony Altimore for the WWWF United States Heavyweight Tag-Team Championship, and retired the titles shortly after.
Just over two years later Bruno won the WWWF International Tag-Team Championship when he and his partner beat Professor Toru Tanaka and Mitsu Arakawa. Immediately Bruno relinquished his half of the titles though. Leaving his partner, Battman, to find a new partner to carry on the reign. Yes, you read that right, Bruno Sammartino won the WWWF International Tag-Team Championship with Battman.
The toll had been taken on Bruno though and he wanted a lighter schedule, it was no longer a joy to him holding the championship and it he would lose to Ivan Koloff on January 18, 1971. For the rest he got the relaxed schedule he wanted and even teamed with his good friend Dominic DeNucci to win the WWWF International Tag-Team Championship for a second time, this time holding on to them for two weeks before the Mongols regained the straps.
For the next two years his time in the ring was dictated by when and where he wanted to compete. He took a trip out to California and won gold in the WWA teaming with Dick the Bruiser, as well as with Edouard Carpentier for Grand Prix Wrestling. He did also make appearances for the WWWF too, including a feud with George Steele and an epic seventy-six minute contest with Pedro Morales, just to note sometimes the time is listed as longer or even shorter. No matter how long it actually was, it was a long match and it ended in draw forced by curfew. This had been WWWF’s first major event from Shea Stadium.
As I said a the beginning in 1973 Bruno won the WWWF Heavyweight Championship. No longer did the title have the world status to it, things had got so bad during Bruno’s absence from the title picture the WWWF had to rejoin the NWA to bring in new talent to help with the house numbers. Bruno defeated Stan Stasiak for the strap who had only had it a few days after defeating Pedro Morales.
Once again Bruno set up on his quest to topple all of the monstrous threats coming into the Northeast trying to take the title. During this four year plus reign he took on the likes of Bruiser Brody, the man who beat him previously; Ivan Koloff, Bob Duncum, Don Leo Jonathan, Baron Von Rashke, Bugsy McGraw, Ernie Ladd and Angelo Mosca. Even though it was not officially a world title, Bruno did still defend it internationally in this reign as well as all over America.
The most notable feud of his title run was probably against Stan Hansen. In a very real moment Hansen botched a move and dropped Sammartino on his head, breaking the Italian’s neck. In story it was said to be from the feared lariat. As soon as he recovered a huge match put into motion and the second ever WWWF event from Shea Stadium occurred seeing Bruno Sammartino whoop Hansen all over the ring regaining vengeance for the broken neck and it was only two months following the injury. Approximately 32,000 people were in attendance to watch this encounter.
It’s said that Bruno was the highest paid athlete in all of sports while this second reign was taking place. Mainly because he wanted a light schedule and not to have to defend the title all the time, so Vince Sr. would offer him more money to extend the reign. I would not like to say that is true or false, but it certainly conceivable given how valuable Bruno was to the companies existence. Finally in 1977 it was time for him to give it up for good.
Superstar Billy Graham was the man to take the gold and run with it. April 30, 1977 was the day the title changed hands. The two met several times over the course of Graham’s reign, Bruno never could get a decisive victory over the tie-dye wearing competitor though. Then his career would start to wind down. As he had done following the end of his first reign, he worked where and when he wanted allowing him the much needed and desired free time. He did manage to get a title run in Puerto Rico in 1978 though holding the North American Heavyweight Championship for two months.
There was one big feud left in his career and that was one against his protege, Larry Zbyszko, who was under Bruno’s wing both in front of audiences and behind the scenes. Zbyszko turned his back on his mentor in story and became one of the most hated people in the Northeast for doing so, the build led to a huge match on August 9, 1980 at the third and last even held by the McMahon family at Shea Stadium. Reportedly over 36,000 fans were there to witness the youngster get his rear end handed to him.
Even though he fully retired from active competition in 1981 he’d still have a few matches here and there in the company now known as the WWF and once again working independently to the NWA. Notably he had mini feuds with Randy Savage, Roddy Piper, a re-ignited feud with George Steele, Hercules Hernandez and even competed in a battle royal at Wrestlemania II.
His main reason for being in the WWF at that time was to support his son, David, and attempt to give him the rub. It didn’t quite work that way and David never really amounted to anything. When David was fired by the WWF, Bruno also left and it would take him over twenty years to step back in a WWF arena. He did continue to be involved in wrestling though working with the UWF and even briefly for the NWA/WCW.
For many years following his discontinuance with wrestling he was very outspoken in his dislike for the direction wrestling had taken and that was his main reason for being so distanced from the business. WWF/E naturally suffered the sharpest edge of his tongue as he criticized everything from their product to drug problems to Vince McMahon Jr. personally. If anything had ever seemed like a certainty in wrestling it was that Bruno Sammartino and Vince McMahon would never make amends.
That was until 2013 when Triple H reached out to Bruno and managed to convince him that the WWE was going in a direction Sammartino would approve and all the problems that were there before had been cleaned up. Eventually Bruno agreed to be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame during the Wrestlemania XXIX weekend. For fans and wrestlers alike it was a monumental moment and Bruno was extremely well received by the crowd while giving his induction speech.
Even with as long as this article is I really haven’t scratched the surface of his career and all the things he accomplished in the early days of the WWE, for the WWE. Bruno is a man who was so popular he had his own radio segment in the Pittsburgh area, he was a continual major draw in the Northeast of America and is fondly remembered by anyone who grew up watching him. Without Bruno it’s doubtful the WWE would have got off the ground like they did and if he didn’t go back forty years ago there may never have been a Hall of Fame for him to enter earlier this year.
Now for the part you’ve all been waiting for…me to shut up and post some videos of the Living Legend in action!
Vs. Giant Baba 1967
Vs. Ivan Koloff 1971
Vs. Mr. Fuji 1974
Vs. Spiros Arion 1975
Vs. Ernie Ladd 1976
Vs. George Steele 1977
Vs. Superstar Billy Graham 1977
On Pipers Pit 1985
On Pipers Pit 1985
Vs. Roddy Piper 1985
Vs. Randy Savage 1987
Coliseum Home Video’s Living Legend VHS
– By Jimmy Wheeler