The longest-reigning WWF champion of all-time. A man that hundreds of wrestlers grew up admiring and wanting to be. A man that made Madison Square Garden his home. And on April 6, Bruno Sammartino will take his rightful – and long overdue – place in the WWE Hall of Fame.
Born in Pizzoferrato, a small town in Italy, Bruno Sammartino showed an interest in bodybuilding early on after arriving in America, initially as a way of protecting himself from the bullying he suffered at a young age due to his limited English and being an Italian living in America. He soon started making his name in the bodybuilding world, winning several awards, before wrestling promoter Rudy Miller saw the potential in Bruno and offered him a chance as a wrestler. He made his professional debut in December 1959, winning the match in 19 seconds. After serving several promotions, and slowly building a reputation, he caught the attention of Vince McMahon Sr and the Capitol Wrestling Corporation. Bruno started working for McMahon, but left after several disagreements between the two. Soon after, he agreed to work for Frank Tunney in Canada. It was during this run – which led to an ever-increasing schedule that also saw Bruno work for the NWA for a spell – that he was again contacted by McMahon Sr. Following several weeks of negotiations, Bruno agreed to sign, but only in return for a run with the company’s lead championship.
He got his wish in May 1963 when he defeated Buddy Rogers for the WWWF Championship at Madison Square Garden, winning in just 48 seconds. Rumour has it that Rogers wasn’t aware that he would lose the title, believing that he would be winning the match via disqualification and retaining the belt. Instead, he was told by Bruno of the result as they were in the ring that he would be losing. Following the victory, Sammartino would go on to hold the title for seven years, eight months and one day, facing such names during that time as Killer Kowalski, Freddie Blassie, Gorilla Monsoon and George “The Animal” Steele. All things must come to an end, however, and that includes Bruno’s title reign, with him eventually losing, ironically in MSG, to Ivan Koloff in January 1971.
Following his title loss, Sammartino left the WWWF and returned to Los Angeles, before being contacted later that year by McMahon Sr and invited to return to the WWWF. Bruno refused at first, but then he was offered a percentage of all the attendance takings when he wrestled, as well as a reduced schedule that only included appearing in the major arenas. Bruno accepted the offer and returned to the company. He soon found himself in a rivalry with Pedro Morales. In a creative start to the feud, the two were attacked by Professor Tanaka, who blinded both wrestlers with salt, and then maneuvered into wrestling one another. When they cleared their eyes and realised what was happening, they continued to fight each other. This led to a match being made for Morales’ WWWF Championship, with the bout set to take place in Shea Stadium. In September1972, the two went to a 75-minute draw which took place in cold and rainy conditions, and is fondly remembered by people who were in attendance. The match was never filmed.
It took two years for Bruno to regain the title, defeating Stan Stasiak. His next reign, while not as lengthy as his inaugural reign, still lasted an impressive three years, four months and twenty days, and saw him turn away challenges from the likes of Bruiser Brody, Ken Patera, “Superstar” Billy Graham and Nikolai Volkoff, as well as old foes Killer Kowalski and George “The Animal” Steele. It was during one of the title defenses against Stan Hansen when Bruno suffered a neck injury, which occured when Hansen executed a bodyslam incorrectly. Sammartino took two months off following the injury, during which time attendance gates suffered. Vince McMahon Sr, panicking over falling attendances, rushed Bruno back into action to face Hansen, which drew a large attendance, and massive closed circuit TV viewing records. The two went on to have several more matches, with Sammartino winning every time. However, despite continuing to pull in big crowds, which led to more financial gain for himself, the neck injury and other knocks were starting to take their toll. In early 1977, Sammartino informed McMahon Sr that he wanted to end his title reign, so on April 30 of that year, he was controversially defeated by “Superstar” Billy Graham.
The two continued to clash in a long and financially successful series of rematches, during which time Bruno repeatedly refused to win the title back. Their last match was inside a steel cage, and is actually the only Steel Cage match that Sammartino ever lost. Following the defeat, Bruno toured the US and Canada, facing such names as NWA champion Harley Race, Blackjack Mulligan and Dick Murdoch. He also lost to Killer Kowalski, doing a rare clean pinfall loss to him.
In January 1980, one of Bruno’s most famous feuds began, when Larry Zbyszko turned on him during a match broadcast on the (now) WWF’s Championship Wrestling show. They battled around the country for around eight months, with their rivalry finally coming to a head in front of over 36,000 fans at Shea Stadium. Headlining the Showdown at Shea event, the two battled in a Steel Cage match. Ending what many to this day consider the biggest feud in the history of wrestling in the northeast, Sammartino defeated Zbyszko. On the same card, Hulk Hogan famously faced Andre the Giant, though there can be no doubt that it was Sammartino’s match with Zbyszko that drew the crowd.
Bruno retired from full-time wrestling shortly after, but returned to the wrestling world in 1984, to do commentary on WWF television. Around this time, his son David was a member of the active roster, and Bruno agreed to come out of retirement to help launch David’s career. This did not go to plan, and David soon left the company after he realised that he was being used by Vince McMahon Jr (who had taken over the company following McMahon Sr’s death) in order to get Bruno to continue wrestling. After David departed, Bruno continued wrestling, hoping to be able to keep David in favour with the WWF and help his career. Over the course of the next four years, Sammartino would have rivalries with ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage, Rowdy Roddy Piper and Honky Tonk Man. He ended his WWF career doing commentary on WWF Superstars of Wrestling, until leaving the company in March 1988.
For the next thirteen years, Bruno Sammartino largely stayed away from professional wrestling, only occasionally appearing for Ring of Honor, NWA-TNA and Italian promotion Adriatic Pro Wrestling. He was a regular critic of WWE and Vince McMahon, expressing his dissatisfaction with the wrestling product and the creative direction the company took. It was during conversations with Paul ‘Triple H’ Levesque that Bruno was shown the changes WWE made with their company, and the creative direction the promotion now go in. It was only after this realisation that he, after years of refusing, accepted the invitation to be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.
And on April 6, one of the biggest names in the history of professional wrestling, one of the biggest and most famous wrestlers of all-time, and the longest-reigning WWWF champion of all-time, takes his long awaited and greatly deserved place amongst the elite, and legitimizes the WWE Hall of Fame.
“To look back on the history of WWE, one of the most important figures in the long story of where this all came from wasn’t recognized. And that was Bruno.”
– Triple H
“Having sold out more than 200 shows at Madison Square Garden and being the longest reigning WWE champion in history, Bruno Sammartino is truly ‘The Living Legend’. This is an extraordinary and historic moment to have Bruno take his rightful place in the WWE Hall of Fame.”
– Vince McMahon