Bruno Sammartino has passed away at 82. The World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) announced the hall of fame wrestler’s passing in a Facebook post on Wednesday.
Sammartino 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.
The story of Bruno Sammartino is the story of the American dream.
During his childhood in the small Italian mountain town of Abruzzi, Italy, Bruno Sammartino heard stories about how the streets in the United States were paved with gold. Though he believed it literally at the time, Sammartino would experience fortune and fame first-hand as the longest-reigning WWE Champion and the most beloved competitor in the history of the squared circle.
Life wasn’t always so glorious for The Italian Superman. Bruno’s brother and sister both passed away at young ages, and Adolf Hitler’s Nazi forces seized their town, but Bruno persevered. He and his mother hid in a mountain called Valla Rocca during the German occupation and eventually joined his immigrant father in Pittsburgh in 1950.
Sammartino began lifting weights as a young man and grew to become one of the strongest men on the planet. After setting a world record in 1959 by bench-pressing 565 pounds, Sammartino caught the eye of Vincent J. McMahon, and became a sports-entertainer.
Bruno became an overnight sensation, connecting with not only fellow Italians but also Latinos, Greeks, and Jews, successfully bridging the gap in America’s melting pot of wrestling fans. His legend continued to grow on May 17, 1963, when Sammartino defeated Buddy Rogers in just 48 seconds to become the second-ever WWE Champion in front of nearly 20,000 fans at the old Madison Square Garden.
Bruno held the WWE Championship for nearly eight years — by far the longest reign of all time, and a record for all professional wrestling champions, no matter the organization. A household name all over the country, the beloved hero defended his title in legendary rivalries against WWE Hall of Famers Killer Kowalski, Gorilla Monsoon and George “The Animal” Steele.