Rock ‘n’ Wrestling: Bruno Sammartino

Published in PORK #29, Summer 2018

Bruno Sammartino came from a village in northern Italy occupied by the Nazis during World War II. His family fled to the mountains to evade capture, in which his mother risked her life making 24-hour treks back to their house to steal food and supplies while German soldiers slept in their beds. Bruno’s father had already immigrated to the United States, settling in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Everyone else rejoined him in 1950. Young Bruno was feeling the effects of wartime starvation and rheumatic fever, rendering him smaller than average and an easy target for bullies at Schenley High School. That would change after he began lifting weights and wrestling at a local gym, where Bruno eventually built up a brawny 260-pound physique that would make Charles Atlas proud. George Reeves would have been broken in half by this Italian Superman! Sammartino set a world bench press record in 1959 by pressing 565 pounds without elbow or wrist wraps. He even held the bar for two seconds before attempting the press! Local wrestling promoter Rudy Miller saw Bruno’s strongman feats performed on television and recruited him into the True Sport of Kings. Miller worked with Capitol Wrestling, the promotion owned by Vince McMahon Sr. and Toots Mondt. Bruno liked what they had to offer, so he quit his job as a carpenter (he was on a crew building the first Hilton Hotel in downtown Pittsburgh) to enter the True Sport of Kings. That was the beginning of Bruno Sammartino’s long relationship with the McMahon family and it was not without some bumps in the road.

Bruno quickly moved up the card, wrestling in bigger cities like Philadelphia and Boston and appearing at Capitol Wrestling’s stronghold arena, Madison Square Garden. MSG was where Sammartino picked up the 601-pound Haystacks Calhoun, a feat previously thought impossible. Although it was a mid-card match, it would immediately propel Bruno towards main-event status in the eyes of the fans that went crazy upon seeing the enormous Calhoun slammed to the mat with a loud thud. However, Sammartino began moving down the card instead. “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers held the top spot as the promotion’s focus and supposedly used that status to keep himself and his friends in the spotlight. Bruno was out of the picture, so he gave his notice and went to San Francisco to work a scheduled date for promoter Roy Shire. Capitol Wrestling retaliated by double-booking him in Baltimore and Chicago without his knowledge and then had Bruno’s wrestling license suspended by the state athletic commission. Bruno was unable to wrestle and make a decent living anywhere, so he returned to Pittsburgh. He had lost his apprenticeship as a carpenter, working as a laborer instead until fellow wrestler Yukon Eric suggested that he try his luck with promoter Frank Tunney in Toronto. Tunney’s territory was in a lull, but it was exempt from American state athletic commission rules and had a large Italian population. Bruno took a big chance that paid off, as he helped revive the struggling territory and became a big Canadian draw that fans dubbed “the Italian Samson.”

https://youtu.be/hC05GB7XVF4

Meanwhile, Capitol Wrestling had withdrawn their membership from the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) and rechristened themselves the World Wide Wrestling Federation in early 1963. They would exist as a separate promotion outside of the NWA’s governing body with Buddy Rogers as their world champion. WWWF representatives contacted Bruno Sammartino and asked him to return after paying off his athletic commission fine and lifting his suspension. Sammartino agreed, but had another condition: he wanted to be the top star and the only way to do that was getting through the Nature Boy. Bruno and Rogers faced off on May 17, 1963 and the Italian Samson destroyed the Nature Boy for the world championship in just 48 seconds! Bruno Sammartino would become the WWWF standard-bearer, holding the world title for nearly eight years before losing to Ivan Koloff at Madison Square Garden in 1971. He regained the championship by defeating Stan Stasiak in 1973, finally dropping it to Superstar Billy Graham in 1977. No other world champion in professional wrestling can claim these numbers! Bruno Sammartino headlined and sold out Madison Square Garden more than anyone else did—folks used to call it the House that Bruno Built!

Bruno Sammartino on Pittsburgh’s Studio Wrestling with host Bill Cardille.

Bruno Sammartino also returned to Pittsburgh, where he became a local hero to the population’s blue-collar European immigrants, as well as the post-World War II generation coming of age in the ‘60s. He personified what Pittsburgh’s working class wanted in their self-image. Everyone could see that he came up the hard way and made good; the Italian Strongman was an American success story in their eyes. Despite being the world wrestling champion and a celebrity, he never let that success go to his head. Bruno was always humble, down to earth, and accessible to the locals who tuned in to see him on Studio Wrestling on WIIC Channel 11 every Saturday. My mother has told me stories about her parents buying everyone hamburgers from a nearby diner and settling down in the living room for a night of Bruno and host Bill “Chilly Billy” Cardille on Studio Wrestling. Many more families came together over similar circumstances throughout the Tri-State area to see Bruno battle the likes of the Crusher, Gorilla Monsoon, Dr. Bill Miller, and Cowboy Bill Watts. When “da Brune” was down for the count, they felt his pain and rallied behind him as he slowly began to rise back to his feet. Everyone in the Civic Arena’s nosebleeds would see his body begin to tense as his fury increased. Killer Kowalski would continue raining blow after blow upon Bruno’s battered body to lesser effect. Finally, Sammartino could take no more and would explode into a flurry of fists and feet, battering that conniving Kowalski from pillar to post! Everyone in the arena exploded in exhilaration with him and when Bruno won, the fans did too.

Bruno Sammartino married Carol Teyssier in 1959 and bought their house in the North Hills area of Pittsburgh three years later. They stayed together on Goldsmith Road throughout all the twists & turns of his wrestling career and for the rest of his life. He was 82 years old.

 

Written by Jake Kelly

Proud author of the Rock 'n' Wrestling column as seen in PORK, a free quarterly magazine from Portland. Wrestling fan since 1985. TSM lurker since 2003. Semi-functional human being since 1978.