Back before the days when the belt seemingly changed hands between The Rock, Triple H, Jon Cena, and Randy Orton on alternate Thursdays, there was only one champion in the mostly make-believe world of professional wrestling. Bruno Sammartino held the championship longer than anyone as the epitome of a man realizing the American Dream.
Wrestling legend Bruno Sammartino dominated the sport
Pro wrestling matches have long been more fixed than grandma’s Labradoodle. WWE owner Vince McMahon admitted as much in 1989 when he testified that live and televised cards may feature some dangerous stunts, but the matches are scripted and choreographed.
The feuds may be fake, but sometimes the heroes are genuine. Bruno Sammartino fit that bill during a career in the ring that spanned nearly three decades. Sammartino played the “baby face” role in the course of taking on an assortment of villains like Gorilla Monsoon and Ivan Koloff.
He “won” the championship of the World Wide Wrestling Federation, the forerunner of the WWF and WWE, in 1963 after titleholder Nature Boy Buddy Rogers was hospitalized with chest pains. Fearing for Rogers’ well-being, the promotion’s owners – including the father of current WWF boss Vince McMahon Jr. — picked Sammartino, 28, to beat Rogers in a match that lasted 48 seconds.
When Rogers made the decision to retire later in the year, the owners decided that they would stick by Sammartino as the champion. That reign ended up being the longest WWE title run: seven years and eight months.
Sammartino finally relinquished the title on Jan. 18, 1971, in a match against Koloff at Madison Square Garden.
A second reign as the pro wrestling champion
Ivan Koloff was defeated less than a month after beating Bruno Sammartino, and Pedro Morales held the World Wide Wrestling Federation championship for most of the next three years. Bad guy Stan Stasiak beat Morales on Dec. 1, 1993, setting the table for Sammartino to win back the championship the following week.
Sammartino’s second reign as the champion was almost three and a half years. He suffered a broken neck during a mishap against Stan Hansen in April 1976 and made the decision to surrender his title the following year. Superstar Billy Graham beat Sammartino in April 1977.
Sammartino wrestled on and off over the next decade, also doing some work as a commentator on the wrestling telecasts that were vehicles to promote live shows. His final appearance in the ring came at the age of 51 on Aug. 29, 1987, when he teamed with Hulk Hogan to defeat King Kong Bundy and One Man Gang in a tag-team match.
Bruno Sammartino was a 90-pound weakling in high school
Bruno Sammartino, who died in 2018 at the age of 82, was one of the most bankable attractions in the history of pro wrestling. His rise to the top of the profession sounds like a tale the WWE might spin to build up the image of one of its stars. But Sammartino’s story was true.
Sammartino was born in Italy in 1935, the youngest of seven children but one of just three in the family to live beyond early childhood. His father immigrated to Pittsburgh in 1939, and it was left to Sammartino’s mother to protect the family through World War II.
When the family was reunited in the United States in 1950, Sammartino spoke little English and was undersized in part because of the hardships of the war and its aftermath. Determined to not give in to bullies at school, he took up weightlifting and worked obsessively. The boy who arrived as a 90-pound teen graduated in 1953 as a 225-pound man, The New York Times reported in his obituary.
Sammartino continued his weightlifting career and competed unsuccessfully for a spot on the 1956 Olympic team. He became known in Western Pennsylvania for various strongman challenges and was seen on TV by a local wrestling promoter who gave Sammartino his break in the sport.
By 1959 he was working or $250 a week in the organization that would give birth to the World Wide Wrestling Federation and later the WWE.