Bruno Leopoldo Francesco Sammartino (October 6, 1935 – April 18, 2018) was an Italian-born American professional wrestler. After overcoming near death as a child while fleeing from the Nazis, Bruno emigrated to the United States in 1950, and he began making an impact in the business of professional wrestling.
Climbing his way up to Vincent J. McMahon's World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF, now WWE), Bruno won the WWWF World Heavyweight Title, and held it across two reigns for a combined total of 4,040 days – the first being the longest single reign in professional wrestling history at 2,803 days – cementing two records that have yet to be broken. Bruno’s popularity saw him win dozens of matches in the northeast section of the country. Bruno had taken the territory by storm and fans filled arenas hoping to see Bruno take home another victory.
After retiring, he grew increasingly disheartened with the direction that professional wrestling was being taken throughout the next few decades under McMahon's son Vince Jr. – most glaringly, the growing amounts of vulgarity and sexuality, and more wrestlers abusing steroids and other drugs. As a result, he famously refused to involve himself with mainstream wrestling promotions unless they cleaned up their act, though he made some promotional appearances for smaller efforts such as Ring of Honor.
Ultimately, WWE had shifted back to producing family-friendly content starting in 2008, and with McMahon's son-in-law Triple H convincing him to do so in light of it, Bruno finally accepted induction into the WWE Hall of Fame in early 2013.
He passed away on April 18th, 2018 of natural causes.
"Living Legend Tropes":
- All-American Face: Subverted - while he was one of the greatest faces of all time, and certainly loved America, a country that had allowed him to flourish despite his rough childhood, he never used this kind of jingoistic gimmick, and didnt particularly care if his opponents were a Foreign Wrestling Heel or not. He was billed as hailing from Abruzzi, Italy throughout his career, even though he had lived in Pittsburgh since he was a child.
- A Pupil of Mine Until He Turned to Evil: A textbook example between Bruno and his protege Larry Zbyzsko, who grew bitter about not being able to shed the image of being Bruno's protege, and assaulted him during an exhibition match that he had demanded. It basically made Zbyszko one of the most hated men on the East Coast, to the point that he had to be protected from the fans.
- Arch-Enemy: George "The Animal" Steele, Ivan Koloff, Killer Kowalski, Larry Zbyszko, Gorilla Monsoon, Roddy Piper, Randy Savage
- Asskicking Leads to Leadership: Bruno built his career off kicking ass.
- Carpet of Virility: As seen in the page image, Bruno sported a magnificent Type 1.
- Cassandra Truth: Following the passing of Eddie Gilbert on February 18, 1995 at the age of 33, Bruno gave an interview where he said that wrestling was "full of human junk" and needed to be cleaned up or abolished.
- Charles Atlas Superpower: One of the reasons he was such a star attraction. In 1959, Bruno set a (unofficial) bench press record of 565 lbs, without wearing elbow or wrist wraps. Wrestling audiences would see this inordinate strength in action as he managed to pick up the 640-pound Haystacks Calhoun and slam him to the mat. And through this, his bearhugs could be devastating, as "The Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers found out the hard way. Even as he approached the end of his life, he was still in excellent health, and could still outlift a lot of much younger men.
- Was a scrawny underweight child in his youth who almost died of Rheumatic fever. Then he dedicated his young adulthood to weight training.
- To put his feats of strength in their proper place, Sammartino was anti-drug and never, ever used steroids, even when most of the weightlifting community were eating them like Sweet Tarts. In addition, he prided himself on lifting true to form, never arching his back on bench presses, resting a weight on his chest, or making similar "cheating" moves during a lift.
- Cincinnatus: In his first year in the wrestling business, Sammartino married his high school girlfriend Carol, and bought a modest home in the Pittsburgh area. To the end of his life, he and Carol still lived in that house. When he returned to the WWE fold in 2013, the only money he asked for was money he felt he had been shortchanged on during his active wrestling career.
- Combat Commentator:
- When Ring Warriors first attempted to establish itself in the United States, it had Bruno Sammartino do color alongside the play-by-play of Gordon Solie.
- Sammartino was so infuriated at Randy Savage for his vicious attack on Ricky Steamboat that he attacked him as he was interviewing him and they started brawling backstage.
- Cool Old Guy: Fans see him in this light nowadays. Notably, he was one of a rare handful of wrestlers who hadn't tarnished their own legacy by turning out to be total pricks in private (i.e Hulk Hogan or Ultimate Warrior). Not having cooked his brain with steroids or cocaine probably helped. While some people have complained that Bruno had a massive ego and often had no time for fans, the majority agree that he'd genuinely earned that right.
- Curb-Stomp Battle: Sometimes in more than 1 match a night. Bruno made a name for himself through decisive victories.
- Dark and Troubled Past: Growing up in Italy during World War II; War Is Hell, indeed. As a child during the Nazi occupation of Pizzoferrato, venturing outside his family's hideout at Valla Rocca meant risking their lives, and so food was scarce. Four of his six older siblings died, and his mother was once captured and shot in the shoulder as she retrieved food and supplies before escaping. From his malnutrition, Bruno contracted a near-fatal case of rheumatic fever. The Nazis then eventually discovered him and his family, and they were lined up for execution by firing squad. Fortunately, a resistance movement saved them at the last minute.
- Defeating the Undefeatable: Bruno losing was a rare sight during his main title run even if the title was not on the line. When Ivan Koloff beat him for his title, the fans basically suffered a Heroic BSoD.
- Earn Your Happy Ending: His global fame and success as a professional wrestler, especially coming from such a bad childhood.
- Face: One of a very short list of wrestlers who spent almost their entire careers as good guys. Really, the only comparable ones would probably be Ricky Steamboat and Tito Santana.
- Finishing Move: Canadian Backbreaker Rack.
- Game-Breaking Injury: Stan Hansen gave one to Bruno when the former botched a body slam. Despite returning to action just 2 months later, fans caught on that it had changed Bruno, who was less willing to take moves which required landing on his back or neck.
- Good Old Ways: In his era, Kayfabe was the law of the land, attending a wrestling show was fun for the whole family, with any objectionable content kept at a bare minimum (bleeding was the extent of it, and sexual content was not used at all), and the wrestlers weren't all abusing drugs and steroids like they would as the years went by. Also, Bruno takes pride in his Herculean physique being forged naturally (that is, through years of hard work and smart nutrition), and had been outspoken about his contempt for the steroid and drug abuse that so plagued the wrestling industry in the 1980s and beyond. This was one of the biggest reasons why he estranged himself from Vincent K. McMahon's WWF/E, the other being the increasing amounts of family-unfriendly content being shown in the arenas and on TV. As wrestling had seen a disturbing number of wrestlers die barely into their 40's in recent decades, it's hard to argue with the man.
- Groin Attack: He won his first title match with Buddy Rogers after accidentally head butting here, so he refused to accept the title.
- Happily Married: Bruno had been married to his wife Carol since 1959.
- Honor Before Reason: See Groin Attack. He refused to accept the title because he (accidentally) hadn't won it clean.
- How Much More Can He Take?: Had a WWWF title defense against Waldo Von Erich that went for eighty one minutes. It had to be called off because the WWWF was encroaching upon a curfew.
- Humble Hero: Even after becoming the highest paid wrestler in the 60s, he didn't spend his money for a more lavish lifestyle; for instance, he had lived in the same house since 1959. At the WWE Hall of Fame, during a 20 minute speech (which he said was too long), he took credit for nothing, claiming that all of his successes were due to sheer luck or the support of his fans.
- Ideal Hero: His kindness, altruism, rigid sense of morality (never making a Face–Heel Turn) and utter respect for the WWWF's rules is what established Bruno as one in the eyes of the fans.
- Invincible Hero: His fame comes from this trope. Bruno constantly sold out Madison Square Garden by defeating virtually every wrestler of note.
- Subverted after he lost the World title to Ivan Koloff. The fans saw their hero beaten in the ring, realized he was human like they were, and so when he returned, they cheered him even harder.
- Killer Bear Hug: Well-known for using the bearhug during his matches, with his Herculean strength and build helping the move's reputation as a devastating submission hold.
- Lighter and Softer: In old time wrestling, the practice of hooking involved inviting contestants into the ring to beat or last a certain amount of time with a wrestler with a cash prize if they were successful. Rather than beating up and stretching out fools, Bruno just dared anyone to try and lower his flexed arm. No one collected on the money and nobody got hurt.
- Living Legend: A great example of one but this was also his moniker. So legendary was Bruno that he was once granted a private audience with the current pope at the time, Pope Paul VI.
- Misery Builds Character: His ironclad work ethic and sense of morality come from his rough childhood under the Nazi occupation of his town. See Dark and Troubled Past listed above.
- No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Bruno wanted his fight with Larry Zbyszko to be one. The match later became a cage match.
- Not What It Looks Like: One of the opponents he body slammed died on the spot, it was later reported the cause of death was a heart attack and that there was a good chance Bruno wasn't the cause of it (fellow wrestler Ox Baker had the same thing happen to him twice).
- O.O.C. Is Serious Business: For most of his career, Bruno was very plain-spoken and stoic, not letting things get to him and never complaining about any wrong done to him, like both times when he lost his title. Larry Zbyszko’s turning on him though made Bruno angry. In interviews, he called Zbyszko a “Judas” and a “son of a bitch”, and he was so focused on payback that he got disqualified in a match against Zbyszko at Madison Square Garden because he deliberately struck a referee that was trying to pull him off of Zbyszko while he was pounding him. That sold just how personal it was to fans, that Zbyszko had done what no one else had done: make Bruno break his normal demeanor.
- Popularity Power: How did Bruno hold the title for more than 10 years? By filling arenas with people who could not get enough of Bruno defeating any adversary placed before him.
- Red Baron: "The Italian Superman (Sampson in Canada)," "The Living Legend"
- Ring Oldies: Definitely one of them.
- Signature Move: Double Axe Handle and the Kangaroo Kick either rope-assisted or while lying in the canvas.
- Squash Match: When he finally did win the championship from Buddy Rogers, this was the manner in which it happened. He beat him in 48 seconds.
- Stunned Silence: When he dropped the belt to Koloff at the end of his first title reign, the crowd fell so silent that he thought he had lost his hearing.
- Tag Team: Annihilation Inc., with Dick the Bruiser in Bruiser's World Wrestling Association in Indianapolis.
- Throwing Down the Gauntlet: After being betrayed by Larry Zbyszko, Bruno told him a match would take place.
- Took a Level in Badass: Several times in his early life. When he and his family emigrated to America in 1950, he was significantly underweight for his age due to his family's struggles during World War II, and did not know much English, which made him a target for bullies. As a result, he took up weightlifting and wrestling, and the bullying soon stopped. He went on to become a professional wrestler, and within a few years defeated "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers for the WWWF Championship in just 48 seconds. The rest is history.
- Ur-Example: Credited as the first "Superman wrestler", the larger-than-life superheroic face who conquers the villains and unites the fans behind him. Hulk Hogan and John Cena followed in his footsteps, although not even they attained the kind of universal adulation and respectful awe than Sammartino commanded.
- Wrestling Family: His son David, from whom he had sadly been estranged for several years. After failing to get over in WWE in the mid-1980s, he would go on to compete around the world and win a few indy titles, but all long after he had fallen off of any kind of radar.
- World's Strongest Man: While he never used that name per se, he had very impressive weight lifting credentials, and was usually promoted as this by the bookers he was working for.