Bruno Sammartino: A Hero Long Before WWE Wrestling

Documentary and film in the works on the life of Bruno Sammartino.

Photo by Martin Kníže

Facing George “the animal” Steele, Gorilla Monsoon, Bobo Brazil or being the last one standing in the 22 Man Battle Royale in Los Angeles are pre WWE wrestling instances that all amount to just  another day in the life of Bruno Sammartino. On the other hand, fleeing to the Italian mountains from the Nazi’s during WWII made everything that followed seem like child’s play. But it still may be fair to ask, as the bombs were falling and his village being leveled, how much sense could a boy of nine actually make of this.

Including four of his siblings, “people were dying,” he says, “you’re damn right it made sense.”

Afterwards, the family emigrated to America and Bruno certainly looked the part of the tragedy. “You heard of the 97 pound weakling,” he says. “I was 80 pounds.”  

Otherwise, learning how he rose to win his first fall knocks everything else off the map. “We were occupied by the SS and literally had to run for our lives. That’s where we spent the next 14 months, and it was hell because there was no food, no nothing,” he says.

It was then left to his mother to go down the mountain in the middle of the night to steal food – even from their own home. “We had made provisions in our basement, and while the Nazis were asleep upstairs, she would go through the back and return with anything she could find,” the Italian American icon remembers.

Even so, the war’s culmination did not end his struggle, and emigration hinged on his mother’s refusal to capitulate. “We had to wait a few years because I was deathly ill and only the care and love of my mother pulled me through,” says Sammartino.

Coming to America

The slight frame and the bullying endured of his broken English sent him to the weight room and got him into high school wrestling. “I loved both sports,” he says, and began training with the University of Pittsburg Wrestling Team in 1959.

Typical for wrestlers of that era to have an amateur background, the professional pioneers of the sport understood they needed to create a market for their passion. “You cannot have professional wrestling with the same rules as amateur, because it would never be a spectator sport,” he says.

He went onto sell the garden out 187 consecutive times, held the heavyweight title for nine years, while navigating the pitfalls of his association with Vince McMahon Sr. and the eventual formation of WWE Wrestling.

In retirement, after years of self-imposed exile from professional wrestling’s main body, Sammartino recently accepted induction into the Hall of Fame because the shift he sees in regard to steroid use. Hiring Joseph Maroon, a world renowned neurosurgeon, Sammartino feels the WWE Wrestling has finally gotten serious.  “I give them credit because they’ve decided they have to do something about this problem,” he says.

Having fought all the battles, a feature film is in the works, and a documentary is already in the can. “We’re just looking for the right distributor. I wrestled all over the world, and we want it to be distributed in all the places I was,” he says.

Sport Vastly Different than WWE Wrestling

No matter, the landscape stood in stark contrast to WWE wrestlers who are truly light on their feet. “The guys today are great athletes – especially the lighter guys, doing all those flying, acrobatic moves,” says Sammartino.

He also has no illusions as to what his abilities would have allowed if he was coming up now.

“I was 275 pounds. I was known for my strength and stamina. If I was around today, what the lighter guys do, I couldn’t do that,” he admits.

But what of taking a fall and going according to script. “Were there matches that were prearranged – yeah,” he admits. “Promoters always did what they did.”

Even so, ad libbing was just as prevalent. “The thing about it was in those days, you had so many different territories and promoters. The top guys were protective of themselves when promoters tried in many cases to talk them off their pedestal.  They would simply protect their positions. I know myself, I did the same thing. I wouldn’t cooperate, and I got blackballed, literally. So I wound up going to Canada for a year and a half,” Sammartino remembers, and deviations were mostly about wrestlers trying to protect their livelihood, he added.

The 187 consecutive sellouts at the garden situated him well whether the tabulation is accurate or not. “Some people dispute that, but if you ask me, I couldn’t tell you because I wrestled all over 3-4 times a week, he redirects. “Who keeps track?” 

Less of a Big Show

There wasn't as much diatribe left behind either in the old business model. “When I did an interview, I was just being me. I’m wrestling Kenny Patera, and I think it’s going to be a great match because he’s a tremendous wrestler… That’s it. Then, of course, after I got through talking, I would ask if I could speak to my fellow Italians. I’d basically say the same thing. I wanted Italians to know I was proud of my heritage because I thought that was important,” he remembers.

The banter between fans and wrestlers also didn’t quite rise to today’s marque. “You’d wrestle and go home,” says Sammartino.

The WWE Wrestling Extravaganzas we are more used to now started to get its due when he took part in the 22 Man Battle Royale. “You win the match by being the last man standing. So everybody is trying to throw each other out of the ring,” he says.

The Wrestler believes the dramatics were elevated above the cage matches featured currently. “You can’t do that with a cage. Where you going to throw them,” Sammartino reasons.

The Hall of Famer was certainly grounded by the peril. “Let me tell you, in my day, we used boxing rings. Those things were concrete, and there were no mats or anything. So when you’re flying over the top, you landed on cement,” he revealed.

Danger Factor put Aside

The broken neck that nearly paralyzed him says as much but it didn’t stop him out of necessity. “I kept going because in my day we didn’t make a lot, a lot of money. I came from the old country and barely got through high school. I wanted to go as long as I possibly could so my kids got the chance to go to college, and I had enough money to support me and my wife after retiring,” Sammartino says.

As such, his mother faced down Nazis but could only look away when it came to wrestling. “She never watched it become she was scared to death to see me get hurt. I didn’t like to put her through it because I loved my mom but that was my living. That’s what I did,” he says.

Either way, Sammartino had no problem standing tall. “I was never afraid. I had too much confidence in myself. I mean I wasn’t cocky, but in my heart I knew I could go against anybody. Plus, if you go in there with fear – forget about it,” he says.

Italian American Faces his World War II Past

He did hesitate, though, when it came to doing his part for the documentary. “The memories were too harsh, but the filmmakers made it clear that is was necessary to go back and relive it,” says Sammartino.

He pulls no punches either on admitting the difficulty. “It was a nightmare,” he says flatly. “We buried a lot of people up there.”

In the end, facing the past proved cathartic. “I’m glad I did because it definitely did something for me, and I have no regrets,” he concludes.

Now Reading
Bruno Sammartino: A Hero Long Before WWE Wrestling