Born in Italy in 1935, Bruno was the youngest of seven siblings. When Bruno was just one year old, his father began travelling to America to work in construction, as there were far more career opportunities in that industry there. He would regularly return to Italy or send back money in order to feed his family. However, in 1939 when the second world war broke out, all borders were closed, and thus travelling back to Italy, or at least sending money to his family, became impossible. Bruno’s father was left stranded in the US, whilst his mother had to care for their seven children alone with no income.
After the Nazis invaded and occupied their village four years into the war, the Sammartino family were forced to live in secrecy on the Valla Rocca mountain from 43-45. Once a week, Bruno’s mother would make the 24 hour long journey down the mountain back to the village. As the soldiers that now lived in their former home slept, Bruno’s mother would break into the family’s basement, and take as many supplies as possible that they had built-up over the years. She would then make the return 24 hour journey all the way back up, hoping that her children had survived the full two days without her. On one of these life-saving missions, Bruno’s mother was captured by the Nazis, and barely made it out alive – the entire family was even once lined-up in front of a German firing squad, before being rescued only seconds from death.
During the war, Bruno had to watch four of his siblings die, whilst simultaneously battling a serious bout of scarlet fever himself. Bruno was not the strapping, giant of a child you would envision him to be – he was the smallest in his family, weak, malnourished, and seriously underweight. When the war was over and they were allowed to return to his home, Bruno was examined by doctors, and given just days to live. Somehow, Bruno made a miraculous recovery, and managed to survive for another 73 years.
All of these events happened before Bruno’s tenth birthday.
It would be another five years before the Sammartino’s would be able to move to America to reunite with their father, as in the 1940s, anybody who wanted to emigrate would have to pass a physical exam, and young Bruno was too sick and thin to pass. In 1950, Bruno finally touched American soil, and reunited with his dad for the first time in over a decade.
Being as small as he was, Bruno was subjected to bullying in his new American schools, so after a suggestion from one of his class mates at Hebrew school, the future champion began cutting grass in order to pay for a gym membership. What happened next was truly incredible – at 14, he weighed a mere 84 pounds, by the time he left high school, he was 220 pounds.
Out of school, Bruno took after his father and began a career in construction, yet continued to work out. Whilst attending a carnival with some of his construction colleagues, Bruno was challenged to wrestle with a giant orangutan, with a $50 prize fund for anybody that could last five minutes with the behemoth. Whilst most never made it to the full five, Bruno managed fifteen minutes.
In the late 50s, Bruno was so dedicated to the weight room, he was setting world records in deadlifting, judging Mister Universe Competitions, becoming friends with Arnold Schwarzenegger, receiving an offer to play football for the Pittsburgh Stealers, and most importantly of all, meeting with Vince McMahon Sr., who at the time owned Capitol Wrestling Corporation, to discuss being a professional wrestler. Although Bruno had never considered the sport before, Vince was so keen on signing this weightlifting star that his deal was more lucrative than what was being offered by an NFL team, and thus, Sammartino started training.
And so began his legendary career, which spanned several decades, and included the longest reign of any world champion in WWE history. As a favourite in New York, Bruno sold out Madison Square Garden 187 times, a record that nobody has come close to breaking. He picked up his first title in 1963, beating the difficult to work with Buddy Rogers to do so. In fact, Vince and Bruno were so worried Buddy wouldn’t lay down for Bruno, they lied to Rogers about the finish, and when the match began, Bruno used his superior strength to intimidate his opponent, and shoot his way to victory in 45 seconds.
Bruno was the most popular wrestler in the country throughout the 1960s, and in 1971, was still as popular as ever, yet his body was burnt out from the gruelling championship schedule. After 2803 days at the top, Sammartino was granted a break from the ring, so on January 18th 1971, the most shocking moment in wrestling history occurred. Ivan Koloff became the first man to beat Sammartino for the belt, defeat the people’s hero in a matter of minutes.
Nearly 22,000 fans that night went completely silent. Koloff’s hand was raised, and he immediately left the ring without collecting his newly won championship – this was done so a riot would not ensue, and could allow a longer period of time for the audience to realise what had just happened. Bruno never lost. Bruno was the champion, that’s just how things were, that’s what people expected, so to see this happen was genuinely shocking. Fans just sat in their seat aghast. Those that were present compared the atmosphere to that of a funeral. Imagine Brock breaking The Undertaker’s streak, but even more shocking.
At the end of 73, Bruno returned and obviously won his championship back once again. He would continue to sell out venues across the region, putting on 60-85 minute broadways regularly, and earning some serious money in the process.
Sadly, on April 18th, we lost one of the biggest legends in wrestling history. Bruno Sammartino’s story, from poverty and the brink of death, to one of the biggest stars in America, is not only one of the most interesting tales in wrestling, but in modern history. He may no longer be with us, but hopefully, with a story befitting of an epic Hollywood blockbuster, Bruno’s life will be transformed into the major film or incredible documentary it deserves to be.