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Professional wrestling in the 1960s and 1970s was tamer and more family oriented than today's product. Much like today, matches were scripted, often following plot lines resembling dime store novels and soap operas. Good and bad were clearly defined, and wrestlers rarely changed sides. As wrestling's entertainment value has risen over the past 50 years, bigger profits invariably lead to bigger lies. In the earlier era, to achieve the body beautiful, wrestlers worked out religiously in order to bulk up, unlike today's steroid-laced professionals. Bruno Sammartino was a titan of that era, and even today he is considered by many as one of the most honorable and great athletes in wrestling history. He remains the longest-running champion of the Worldwide Wrestling Federation, holding the title across two different reigns spanning more than 12 years. Professional wrestling championships are won and lost primarily due to a wrestler's popularity; Bruno's long tenure is a testament to his large and ever growing fan base.
In 1951, the still sickly 15 year old Bruno arrived in the United States and settled with his father in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Idolizing a Greco-Roman style wrestler named Batisti who had represented Italy in the Olympics (1930s); Bruno began to work out zealously at a local gym after school. By 1956, Bruno was working construction during the day and either lifting weights or working out with the University of Pittsburgh's wrestling team. While appearing on a local TV show performing strong man stunts, Bruno was recruited to professional wrestling by promoter Rudy Miller in 1959.
He teamed with fellow Italian, Antonino Rocca, and within a few months, they were appearing at Madison Square Garden in tag team matches. Low payoffs and unscrupulous promoters, including the senior Vince McMahon, forced Bruno to Toronto. That city's growing and vibrant Italian population helped to make Bruno a very lucrative gate attraction. Eventually, he returned to the United States and in 1963 he won the World Wrestling Federation's heavyweight title belt by pinning his opponent in 48 seconds.
Throughout the 60s and 70s, as wrestling's popularity grew, Bruno headlined cards around the country, and even other parts of the world. One event featuring Bruno in Caracas, Venezuela attracted an estimated crowd of 40,000; in Australia, he managed to sell out twenty-one consecutive nights, then a wrestling attendance record. But his primary venue remained Madison Square Garden, the Mecca of pro wrestling in the United States. It was at the Garden, in 1971, that Bruno lost his long-held title. The sounds of openly weeping fans followed Bruno as he walked to the dressing room, a sign of their heartfelt affection for him.
Bruno regained his championship belt in 1973 and would hold it for three more years. His enduring popularity among wrestling fans continued to draw huge crowds and even helped wrestling to make money in the new medium of closed circuit pay TV. By the end of the decade, Bruno retired from active wrestling and returned only as a tag team partner for his son, David Sammartino. By the early 80s, pro wrestling was earning increasingly large TV revenue, and devolved into a more brutal and steroid-driven form of entertainment, led by the Vince McMahon, Jr. Although Bruno wrestled on and off for the next 15 years, he remains a critic of the newer product.
Bruno Sammartino remains an icon in the Italian-American community, though a forgotten one with the younger generations. In 2002, Bruno attended the National Italian American Foundation's 27th Anniversary Gala Awards Dinner to present a foundation scholarship in his name. As Thom Loverro of the Washington Times noted in an article, "Robert DeNiro, Sophia Loren and Chuck Mangione were among the heavyweights who were honored or attended the affair. There was only one true heavyweight on hand, though, Mr. Living Legend himself: the great Bruno Sammartino."
* On a personal note, I will always remember Bruno for his kindness towards me. When I was six years old, my father took me to see professional wrestling at the DC Coliseum. It was 1966 and I can still picture the cavernous, smoke-filled Coliseum vividly. While I was a fan of Bruno, I looked forward to seeing the lady legend, the Fabulous Moolah, and the always comedic midget tag teams. The highlight of the evening, however, came when my father introduced me to Bruno after his match. He shook my little hand, said something in Italian and signed an autograph for us. Even today, as I write this, I can picture Bruno in his dark wrestling trunks, patiently talking to us in Italian. He was a giant to me then, and for that simple kindness one night so long ago, he remains a giant.
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