Bruno Sammartino overcame insurmountable odds time and time again with great improbability when few believed he could survive in life.
As a child growing up in Italy, the bravely fearless Sammartino and his beloved family spent 14 months hiding from Nazis in the mountain’s of Abruzzi, Italy during World War II.
During Sammartino’s unceremoniously harsh 14 month stay hiding from the Nazi’s in the mountain’s of Abruzzi, rheumatic fever was on the verge of taking a young Sammartino’s life, due to the very tyrannical conditions in the cold and uneven Abruzzi mountains.
However, Sammartino flatly refused to give up and the Sammartino family subsequently immigrated to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to begin a brand new chapter in life, after experiencing unfair World War II food rationing and deep adversity in Italy during the Facist reign of Benito Mussolini (Sammartino’s mother would enter a German-occupied town in Italy to take food supplies); Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is a blue-collar town synonymous with the steel industry.
A then 14-year-old Sammartino arrived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania expecting a much simpler life than what he and his family had experienced in Mussolini-era Italy. However, the Italian newcomer was made to feel very unwelcome in the rough around the edges Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and his expectations of the American Dream was momentarily dampened to become an American nightmare; Documented Italian immigrants to the United States were often denigrated and called WOPS (Without Papers) whilst often viewed as not pure white.
During this uncertain period, Sammartino was frequently bullied and teased with great severity by teenagers in the very unforgiving and highly cynical Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania due to his slight and sickly 80 pound body, which was courtesy of starvation and poverty via residing in the Abruzzi mountains in Italy. Furthermore, Sammartino was perennially mocked and ridiculed in part due to his strong Italian accent and subpar command of the English language. The bullying which Sammartino received on a regular basis in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was physical, verbal and psychological although the proud Italian stood strong during the torment and disdain.
The young Italian was inspired to combat the cowardly bullies and frequented a local YMCA in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where the motivational Sammartino began an intense and extensive weightlifting program to fully transform his diminutively frail 80 pound frame, which later witnessed Sammartino naturally bulking up to an astounding 257 pounds; Sammartino achieved this larger-than-life bodybuilding feat in a space of two years thereafter an induction at the YMCA in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Thereafter, Sammartino’s intense passion for weightlifting grew as much as his body and by the end of 1959 Sammartino officially held weightlifting world records for bench press (569 pounds), squat (715 pounds) and deadlift (700 pounds). Sammartino almost secured an official spot on the 1956 United States Olympic Weightlifting team to compete at the Melbourne 1956 Olympics.
One day, Sammartino was officially invited to be a special guest judge at a prestigious bodybuilding contest in the United States and one of the bodybuilding competitors performing was a young and very charming Austrian immigrant with a billion dollar body who also had his eyes set on claiming the American Dream – Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Schwarzenegger and Sammartino shared various interests and a common bond from their European heritage, vast passion for bodybuilding as well as an interest which would later define Sammartino’s life – Professional Wrestling.
During the bodybuilding competition which Sammartino judged, passionate onlookers and fans were mesmerized and enamored with Sammartino’s impressive hulking physique whilst sitting on the judges table – Sammartino’s physique was significantly larger than Schwarzenegger’s otherwise impressive physique during this timeframe – and the two hungry European’s befriended each other and become lifelong friends; Arnold Schwarzenegger was officially inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame Class of 2015.
Sammartino’s successfully smooth transition into the world of Professional Wrestling was an overwhelming success and the inspirational Pizzaferrato-born athlete was beloved in the popular Italian-American communities in both New York and Toronto; Sammartino set a world record of selling out the world famous Madison Square Garden as a headline performer (Sammartino sold out Madison Square Garden 187 times in his iconic career and was honored at Madison Square Garden’s Walk of Fame).
With New York’s immense Italian community, Bruno Sammartino brought Italian’s into the building by droves similar to how Pedro Morales brought Puerto Ricans, how Ivan Putski brought Poles and how the legendary Bobo Brazil brought the African-American community into the building to view a spectacle of machismo-driven entertainment.
Bruno Sammartino was once voted as The Most Inspirational Wrestler of Year and has officially received the Key to the City in Franklin, Pennsylvania as well as the Key to the City in Jersey City, New Jersey. In addition, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania was officially declared “Bruno Sammartino Day” on May 17, 2013. Sammartino was also inducted into the Italian-American Sports Hall of Fame which also includes fellow legends: Dan Marino, Vinny Pazienza, Rocky Marciano, Dick Vitale, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Duva and Joe Montana to name a few.
After dominating and setting global world records in the larger-than-life, charismatic world of Professional Wrestling similar to the bodybuilding world prior, Sammartino relatively distanced and divorced himself from the Professional Wrestling business post-retirement due to the then creative decisions that the business was heading in during the 90s and 00s.
Bruno Sammartino was extremely proud of his era and his many banner accomplishments, particularly inspiring millions beyond the squared circle; Sammartino’s unique form of entertainment momentarily made millions forget about their daily struggles and hardships to experience a unique show quite like no other. Sammartino did not possess the over-the-top and larger-than-life charisma of Chris Jericho or The Rock nor did the Italian strongman possess the technical in-ring ability of Bret Hart or Daniel Bryan. However, Bruno Sammartino had the innate ability to sell-out tickets in an abbreviated timeframe as a headline performer as well as serving as a template in which superstars followed the mould.
Sammartino’s longevity and consistency on top as an in-ring performer is also unprecedented; Sammartino debuted in 1959 and retired in 1987. In addition, Sammartino is the current longest-reigning WWE Champion in history with a legendary reign lasting 11 years (4,040 days).
However, post-retirement Sammartino publicly distanced and relatively divorced himself from the business courtesy of the-then edgier and attitudinal direction it was then heading into. Bruno Sammartino was very proud of his era and could not fathom how much the business had changed since his heyday. In turn, Sammartino refused to be invited to live WWE events and frequently rejected WWE Hall of Fame inductions whenever presented with the opportunity to be immortalized. Sammartino’s pride and principles were worth more and he stood up for what he believed in.
However, after many years of public dispute and well-documented separation from the business that he once dearly loved and bled for, WWE Executive Paul Levesque one day picked up the telephone and cordially extended an olive branch to the disgruntled Sammartino in 2013 and during the great discussion the two gentleman sat down and professionally spoke about the past, present and future with great success and mutual respect; Levesque’s father-in-law (Vincent K. McMahon) had often snidely snubbed Sammartino’s well-documented accolades on television for many years due to Sammartino’s resistence to accept change of the industry, however the tension would positively turn into eternal gratitude and celebration as Sammartino was immortalized into the WWE Hall of Fame Class of 2013 and effectively squashed a grudge that had boiled before it was too late.
From an 80 pound poverty-stricken child who hid from the Nazis in the mountains of Abruzzi to combatting disdain and bullyism in Pittsburgh to setting world records in bodybuilding all the way to blazing a trail in the world of Professional Wrestling, Sammartino left no stone unturned in creating a better life for himself, his family and for those who desperately needed to escape their hellish reality when they needed it most to be inspired by his form of entertainment and character; Professional Boxing icon “Iron” Mike Tyson cites Sammartino as his all-time favourite Professional Wrestler and Tyson watched the Italian strongman growing up in New York and GRAMMY Award-winning Pop/R&B superstar Bruno Mars’ first name of his stage name was inspired by Sammartino.
Bruno Sammartino’s very inspirational story of survival and triumph encapsulates the core essense of the American Dream and is a heartwarming tale which will be retold for many generations to come. Sammartino’s highly motivational life against the ropes is defined by an intense fearlessness and work-ethic to prevail against all odds.
However, should Sammartino’s impressive legacy and story become retold by the man himself in inimitable fashion similar to ESPN’s 30 for 30 “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair television special or even HBO’s forthcoming high-profile featured documentary presentation “André The Giant”?