Plenty of professional wrestlers were able to become kids’ heroes; it is, after all, a battle between good and evil. Being revered, however, is a different matter. Even when there were hundreds of full-time wrestlers across the United States, the overall reputation of the business as a sham and the outsized demeanor of even the good guys meant that they were usually kept at arm’s length. Few were ever really put out there as role models, and of them, one stands out above the rest: Bruno Sammartino, who died of an undisclosed illness on Wednesday at the age of 82.
If you didn’t grow up around wrestling fans from his era in the Northeast, it’s hard to get across just how beloved he was. In a sense, the numbers of his career are the best way to get started: Sammartino was made the champion of the newly formed WWWF (now WWE), the promotion covering the big population bases in the Northeast in 1963, just four years into his career. He would be kept on as champion for almost eight years before tapping out in 1971 when he burnt out on the schedule, only to cut a sweetheart deal to come back in 1973 on a limited schedule for a higher percentage of the gate. That went another four years, but he was kept high on the cards through a 1981 retirement and was a major difference-maker as an occasional wrestler during his last run from 1984 to 1987. While he was a sometimes TV announcer and 900-number hotline personality for other promotions in the next several years and would regularly appear at wrestling fan conventions, that was basically the end of him ever having to work.
But that detached version doesn’t come close to telling the whole story. Similar to the way that Daniel Bryan connected with wrestling fans because it comes across that he’s possibly the nicest and most genuine human being in the business, Bruno got across that he was arguably the most honorable and scrupulous. He’s one of the best talkers in wrestling history, but not in the bombastic way of The Rock, Dusty Rhodes, Ric Flair, or Hulk Hogan. Bruno Sammartino was direct and blunt, righting the wrongs done to him by the villains of the squared circle.
This shines in what was perhaps Bruno’s greatest rivalry, which against Larry Zbyszko in 1980. Larry was legitimately his protege after mustering up the courage to sneak into Bruno’s garden outside his Pittsburgh home as a kid, and the relationship had been played up on TV for Larry’s whole career, so everyone knew about it. One day in 1980, Larry, frustrated with his status in the business—his genuine feelings—challenged Bruno to a match, with the mentor refusing until he eventually agreed to a friendly, glorified public workout. In the match, Zbyszko couldn’t get one up on Sammartino, who would politely—some would say condescendingly—let him out of holds. So Larry got frustrated and beat the hell out of Bruno with a chair, bloodying him. The feud went on for months, with Bruno distraught over the actions of “the Judas” Zbyszko, culminating in a cage match where he proved himself to be the better man and his former friend shook his hand after being dispatched.
That was the on-screen, in-ring Bruno Sammartino. But in a business of self-preservation, he backed all of this up behind the scenes by speaking up for those lower on the totem pole and speaking out about anything he had a problem with.
One of the more memorable stories behind the scenes came at the height of Sammartino’s popularity in the ‘60s. J.J. Dillon, the former WWE and WCW executive who is best known as the Four Horsemen’s manager in the ‘80s, was working as a referee across the Northeast scene. As he outlined in his memoir, there was one night where, in the main event, Dillon was to get knocked down and come up bleeding, the first time he cut himself or had even been asked to do so in his time in wrestling. He wasn’t promised anything and he went along with it, but he was disappointed and perturbed when he got his envelope for the night and saw that he was paid his usual fee. Dillon went to Sammartino and explained the situation, feeling that it was beyond what was usually asked of a referee. Bruno agreed, spoke up for for J.J., and he got a significant bonus at the next show.
As the wrestling business started to change, Sammartino’s outspokenness manifested in public. First, he took issue with increasing gimmickry, to the point that his 1979 Greatest Sports Legends profile included a montage of cartoony wrestlers set to dramatic music. When he was out of the WWE fold as the years went on, this also included the increased proliferation of steroids in the wrestling business, which the Northeast had been ground zero for with the McMahons emphasizing bigger men and a Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission doctor dealing drugs. For many years, Bruno’s outspokenness about steroids and everything else he felt was wrong with modern wrestling made Bruno an “enemy of the state,” so to speak. Perhaps most infamously, when A&E produced a flawed but entertaining wrestling history documentary in 1998, Sammartino was conspicuously absent, which he always claimed was a concession to be able to license WWE footage, even if the producers insisted otherwise. Regardless, while WWE always ran hot and cold as far as embracing history went, it was glaring that the canonical greatest wrestler of all time was never really mentioned after his last run as an announcer ended in early 1988.
But while Sammartino is most widely recognized for his wrestling career and his stand-up public persona, his greatest personal achievement came early in his life, surviving an illness-ridden childhood in a secret refugee camp during the Nazi occupation of Italy. Amazingly, this incredible real-life backstory was never really part of his wrestling career, and was only mentioned in broad strokes in mainstream media articles for most of his full time career. At least going by the archive at Newspapers.com, he didn’t open up until late in his second title reign, when he spoke to The Philadelphia Inquirer. “I was a 90-pound weakling, but not because I was anemic,” he explained. “It was because of the war. We hid from the Nazis in the mountains. Sometimes there was nothing to eat but snow. Whole families were wiped out. We were among the lucky ones.” In the same breath, he expressed frustration about how the few parts of his story that he had told before had been embellished upon in wrestling magazines and explained why he had been reluctant to share his experience before.
“A lotta stuff has been written about me that I never said,” he declared. “Stories that were lies. One guy wrong that young as I was during World War II, I actually got a rifle and fought off the Germans. Which is ridiculous, insane. I was just six. Leave my war life out of it. It was too much of a sad and horrible experience to try and sell it.” Sammartino eventually told the story of his childhood in greater detail in his 1990 memoir and in internet-era media interviews, where he took great pains to credit his mother for his survival.
Both in real life and in pro wrestling, Sammartino was an honorable man in a less than honorable world. In wrestling, there is perhaps no better way to explain this than to go into why WWE has always done cage matches differently than anywhere else. Longtime wrestling fans know that WWE-style cage match rules, where escaping the cage wins the match, was not the norm—in every other promotion, the cage was there to stop interference and it was portrayed as impossible to escape. In the WWWF, though, as the ultimate feud-ender, the idea was that you won a cage match by beating your opponent so badly that he couldn’t stop you from leaving. This fit Sammartino perfectly because he could finally lose his cool, but as the honorable, virtuous hero, he would show mercy at the end and calmly walk out of the cage, all while showing disgust for the villain he had just dispatched. That sense of honor was what also what made him the perfect legend to come out of retirement and battle a heel. When Randy Savage crushed Ricky Steamboat’s throat with the timekeeper’s bell, for example, it was only natural that Bruno lost his cool and throttled a bragging Macho Man during the post-match interview.
Outside the ring, because of both his personality and his ability to write his own ticket, Sammartino was not afraid to take his own business to task in the mainstream media. “Professional wrestling, when you’re talking money, like they say, it’s the root of all evil,” he said to open that 1976 Inquirer interview. “Because for money, they’ll do anything. I’m judged with the worst, and I resent it.”
Later, after lamenting the falsehoods being told about his youth, he continued to express his frustration with the pulpy newsstand wrestling magazines, the same ones that had helped him become a bigger national star. “I very seldom look at wrestling magazines. Whenever I do, I get angry. Unfortunately, most of the time they have my picture on the cover next to two practically naked girls putting holds on each other,” referring to the “apartment wrestling” erotic stories that shared the cover of London Publishing’s Sports Review Wrestling. “I really resent that.”
According to Wrestling Observer Newsletter editor Dave Meltzer in his Sammartino obituary this week, Bruno’s anti-steroid stance dated back to 1961, when Chick Garibaldi—a steroid user—died prematurely of a heart attack after a match with Sammartino. It would drive his falling-out with WWE on several fronts, especially when he discovered that his son David, a wrestler, had used steroids, which got the ball rolling on their own estrangement. When Sammartino finally agreed to go into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013, it took WWE Medical Director Dr. Joseph Maroon—who had improved his quality of life through back surgery—assuring him that the company’s drug testing was legitimate that put him at ease. The renewed relationship was such that Sammartino is now very much an official WWE Legend, complete with a statue being commissioned and serving as the centerpiece of an exhibit at the annual Fan Axxess convention during WrestleMania week.
If you aren’t a fan, or only have exposure to modern pro wrestling, it can be hard to understand how beloved Sammartino was on a gut level, even if intellectually, some of his biggest moments, like a private meeting with the Pope, do the job. The key is to look at it this way: In wrestling, everyone is loud, a lot of them are obnoxious, and the general public thought they were phonies. If you could convince the world that you were none of the above and make a mark in pro wrestling, then you were doing something special. Bruno Sammartino never really understood why he was so revered, but that was OK, because everyone else did.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix