Last Wednesday the wrestling world lost a true giant when “The Living Legend” Bruno Sammartino passed away at the age of 82. This week Throwback Thursday turns “Throwback Tribute” as we dive into the archives of the WWE Network to pay homage to one of the sport’s true giants and pioneers.
Few men in the annuls of professional wrestling were as widely respected and celebrated as Bruno Sammartino. Bruno’s word was as good as a contract, and Bruno moved heaven and earth to see it through. Be it keeping promised dates with “Giant” Baba while working with Vince McMahon, Sr. or fulfilling a Kayfabe Commentaries commitment with Sean Oliver in 2013 against WWE’s wishes, Bruno Sammartino’s word was as strong and true as the man himself.
Thanks to Bruno’s mother, Emilia, the Sammartino family survived the horrors of Nazi occupation in Italy during World War II before emigrating to the United States in 1949 to join Bruno’s father, Alfonso, in Pittsburgh. Over the next several years Bruno transformed from “an 84-pound weakling to a 275-pound powerhouse”, becoming known for his various feats of strength. In 1959 Pittsburgh promoter Rudy Miller, associate of Toots Mondt and Vince McMahon, Sr., discovered and helped train Sammartino, who debuted on December 17, 1959 in Pittsburgh, crushing Dmitri Grabowski in less than 25-seconds. 16 days later, on January 2, 1960, Bruno debuted at the third Madison Square Garden in New York City.
After being blackballed by Vince McMahon, Sr. Bruno made his way to Toronto in the spring of 1962, where Bruno found his first real success. In need of a draw for the new World Wide Wrestling Federation Vince McMahon, Sr. and Toots Mondt (a Bruno supporter), negotiated Bruno’s return to the territory on the condition Bruno face Buddy Rogers, who Bruno and Mondt detested. On May 17, 1963 the 27-year-old Sammartino dethroned inaugural WWWF World Heavyweight Champion Buddy Rogers at MSG in front of 19,639 fans in a shocking 48-seconds. (“Footage” of the match can be found here.) The reign, May 17, 1963 to January 18, 1971, lasted an astounding 2,803 days, the longest single men’s World title reign in the sport’s history, ahead of Verne Gagne’s ninth AWA World title reign (2,625 days) and Lou Thesz’s first NWA World title reign (2,300 days).
For more on the life, career, and legacy of “The Living Legend” Bruno Sammartino, check out: 2016’s TBT Birthday Tribute to Bruno; Top 50 Superstars of All Time (#24 – 1:06:14); Table for Three: World Champion Legacy; Legends with JBL: Bruno Sammartino; 2013 WWE Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony (2:48:38); the exceptional documentary Bruno; and the Sammartino: The Legend Lives collection for more interviews and great wrestling action! If you want to hear Bruno talk at length about his time in the WWWF in the 1960s and the rest of his remarkable career check out Kayfabe Commentaries’ excellent Timeline: The History of WWE: 1963 – 1969.
— WWWF World Heavyweight Championship – “Steel Cage Match” (WATCH)
George Steele vs. Bruno Sammartino(c) w/Arnold Skaaland
WWWF in Philadelphia • July 25, 1970
One of Bruno’s earliest matches on the Network (the other Steele match, incorrectly listed as 1975, looks to be slightly older) is also the earliest complete “cage” match on the Network. This is one of the most talked about matches in Bruno’s career and was thought to be lost (like the Last Battle of Atlanta) for decades. One of Sammartino’s greatest foes, the late Hall of Famer George Steele drew so much heat that members of Philadelphia’s riot squad had to escort Steele to the ring for this tremendous, wild brawl, one of the only “cage” matches of 1970. Though listed as happening on July 29, 1970 at MSG there was no MSG show on that date and wouldn’t be until August 1, 1970, where Bruno and Victor Rivera defeated The Mongols by DQ. The first “cage” match at MSG, meanwhile, wouldn’t be until 1975. For Bruno the continued injuries and rigors of being Champion were catching up with him. Little more than six months after this, on January 18, 1971, Bruno dropped the title to Ivan Koloff (which can be seen here) in one of wrestling’s greatest upsets, and a match that left MSG in silence. Around this same time Bruno turned down an ownership stake in the WWWF that eventually went to Gorilla Monsoon (20%), Phil Zacko (20%), and Arnold Skaaland (10%) while Vince McMahon, Sr. retained the other half.
— WWWF Heavyweight Championship (WATCH) (JIP)
Killer Kowalski w/The Grand Wizard of Wrestling vs. Bruno Sammartino(c) w/Arnold Skaaland
WWWF on HBO • April 29, 1974
After dropping the title to Koloff Sammartino worked a drastically reduced schedule for the next two years. But, at the behest of Vince McMahon, Sr., Bruno reluctantly agreed to a second reign as WWWF Heavyweight Champion. On December 10, 1973 Bruno dethroned newly-minted WWE Hall of Famer Stan “The Man” Stasiak to become the first two-time Heavyweight Champion in promotion history. Working a slightly less than full-time schedule helped keep the 38-year-old Sammartino fresh as Bruno continued to build his legacy. Though Bruno endured criticism that he was a one-dimensional brawler he was in fact a brilliant psychologist who, like a chameleon, worked to the strengths of each opponent to produce as realistic a match as possible. Though the match features as blatant a blade job as you’ll ever see in wrestling (well, maybe not today), this brawl with Hall of Famer Kowalski is nonetheless a prime example of Bruno working to his opponents strength to draw heat and sell the match. Bruno’s epic comeback, and the crowd’s reaction to it, is wrestling as its best.
— WWWF Heavyweight Championship – “Steel Cage Match” (WATCH)
“The Russian Bear” Ivan Koloff vs. Bruno Sammartino(c)
WWWF on HBO • December 15, 1975
By this point Bruno Sammartino’s name was synonymous with Madison Square Garden. Bruno was in the main event of the final card at the third MSG on January 29, 1968 and in the main event of the first card at the new MSG three weeks later on February 19, 1968. So it was only fitting that the very first “cage” match in MSG history be the blow-off between Sammartino and the hated Ivan Koloff, who silenced MSG nearly five years prior when he took the World title from Sammartino. The “cage” match debuted in the WWWF in 1969 as part of the Sammartino/Sheik feud and was a rare event since, having been done less than 35 times in the six years prior to this match. This match is a war. Koloff takes a number of stiff shots from Bruno and more than a few incredibly stiff, sickening bumps into the bars of the cage and ring posts alike.
— WWWF Heavyweight Championship (WATCH)
“The King” Ernie Ladd vs. Bruno Sammartino(c) w/Arnold Skaaland
WWWF on HBO • March 1, 1976
Bruno was in the land of the giants on this night when he battled the six-foot, nine-inch 300-pound Hall of Famer Ernie Ladd, who Bruno had been facing on-and-off since December ’75. This match is a showcase of what made both Sammartino and Ladd such phenomenal talents. From Bruno’s crisp, clean punches (some of the best in wrestling history) to Ladd’s keen psychology and ring presence this bout is a masterclass in pro wrestling.
— WWWF Heavyweight Championship – “Steel Cage Match” (WATCH)
Stan Hansen vs. Bruno Sammartino(c)
WWWF on MSG Network • August 7, 1976
Nearly two months after his bout with Ernie Ladd, Bruno Sammartino suffered a legitimate broken neck at the hands (and bodyslam) of Hall of Famer Stan Hansen. The accident set up a natural feud between the two wrestles (though no animosity existed between the men) that resulted in a grudge match that drew over 30,000 fans to the second Shea Stadium event (on the same night of the infamous Inoki/Ali fight) to see Bruno get a small measure of revenge. This classic war marked the first MSG meeting between these two since the night Hansen dropped Bruno on his head. No such accidents occurred in this match as Bruno survived Hansen’s worst and beat the bejabbers out of “The Lariat” with his own loaded elbow pad.
— WWWF Heavyweight Championship – “Grudge Match” (WATCH)
Special Guest Referee: Gorilla Monsoon
Bruno Sammartino w/Arnold Skaaland vs. “Superstar” Billy Graham(c) w/The Grand Wizard of Wrestling
WWWF on HBO • August 1, 1977
Bruno Sammartino’s incredible run at the top of the WWWF came to an abrupt end on April 30, 1977 when Bruno lost the WWWF Heavyweight title to Hall of Famer “Superstar” Billy Graham in Baltimore, Maryland. Bruno’s combined World title reigns lasted an astounding 4,040 days and is second only to Verne Gagne’s ten reigns as AWA World Champion (4,677 days). These two met off and on until finally meeting at MSG on June 27, 1977 in a bout that ended in a double DQ. To solve that issue Hall of Famer Gorilla Monsoon was brought in to officiate what would go down as one of the greatest, bloodiest WWWF Heavyweight title matches of all-time. This is an absolute classic war, from psychology to pacing, that has been overlooked for years.
— “Texas Death Match” (WATCH)
“World’s Strongest Man” Ken Patera w/Capt. Louis Albano vs. “The Living Legend” Bruno Sammartino w/Arnold Skaaland
WWWF on HBO & MSG Network • August 29, 1977
This feud with Patera went back to January of ’77 when the two did a three-month run in the Garden for Bruno’s WWWF Heavyweight title. Patera, a talented heel days short of ten months in the territory at the time of this match, wasn’t just looking for revenge, Patera was looking to use Bruno as a stepping stone for bigger and better things in the Federation. Though Bruno’s championship days were behind him Patera found out the hard way that “The Living Legend” was far from finished. This hard fought battle established Patera as an up and coming threat and proved that Sammartino wasn’t ready to be put out to pasture just yet.
— “Steel Cage Grudge Match” (WATCH)
“The New Living Legend” Larry Zbyszko vs. “The Living Legend” Bruno Sammartino w/Arnold Skaaland
WWF Showdown at Shea III • August 9, 1980
After dropping the Heavyweight title to Billy Graham Bruno slowed down considerably, wrestling less than fifteen times in all of 1978 and less than forty times in ’79 as Sammartino transitioned into a commentator and interviewer. The story of Larry Zbyszko’s deification of Bruno Sammartino has been well documented and made for a natural angle on TV. In fact Zbyszko is the only wrestler, besides son David, that Bruno is credited with training. This angle, one of the greatest in the history of the business, was a thing of beauty. The February 2, 1980 “challenge” match (taped on January 22, 1980) on Championship Wrestling (a series currently unavailable on the Network), which Bruno reluctantly accepted, is a beautiful exhibition from the start until Zbyszko’s ego gets the better of him. Zbyszko’s sudden heel turn is one of the best executed turns in Federation history, and the heat from that one angle was all it took to draw an incredible 36,295 fans to the final WWF Shea Stadium event to see Bruno get his long-awaited revenge. In arguably the most famous “cage” match in wrestling history Zbyszko and Sammartino tell a brutal story as captivating now as the night it happened.
— “Steel Cage Match” (WATCH – 1:33:53)
“Rowdy” Roddy Piper vs. “The Living Legend” Bruno Sammartino
WWF on NESN • February 8, 1986
Bruno continued to wrestle off and on into 1981 until announcing his retirement on WWF TV and wrestling his farewell match against George Steele on October 4, 1981 at the WWF’s Meadowlands debut. A pay dispute, dating back to Bruno’s second run as Heavyweight Champion, and a desire to aide his son David’s career brought Bruno back to the WWF in 1984. Bruno spent the first half of 1985 teaming with his son David until being paired with Roddy Piper for one more singles run. Beginning in earnest on October 21, 1985 at MSG in a classic “Piper’s Pit” segment (incorrectly dated September 13, 1980 on the Network, which was a Pittsburgh show in which a similar angle occurred) the two battled for months before settling the score in this classic, bloody “steel cage” war that proved that Bruno, at the age of 50, was just as good as ever.
— “Tag Team Steel Cage Match” (WATCH)
“Adorable” Adrian Adonis & WWF Intercontinental Heavyweight Champion “Macho Man” Randy Savage w/Jimmy Hart & Miss Elizabeth vs. Tito Santana & “The Living Legend” Bruno Sammartino
WWF on MSG Network • July 12, 1986 (AIRED: July 28, 1986 – Prime Time Wrestling #74)
Bruno’s final feud in the WWF would be against Intercontinental Heavyweight Champion Randy Savage, a feud that culminated in this gritty, bloody, classic “cage” match showdown that is as good as any in Bruno’s career. This turned out to be Bruno’s final match ever in Madison Square Garden, a building that Bruno sold out more than any other wrestler, fighter, or performer of any kind. Be it 187 out of 211 or 127 out of 170 the record is nonetheless astounding. It’s only fitting that Bruno, the man who put the “cage” match on the map in the WWF and MSG, went out with one final classic in the building he loved so dearly, in front of the fans he so cherished. Sammartino wrestled his final match in the WWF on August 29, 1987 in Baltimore, Maryland when he teamed with WWF World Champion Hulk Hogan to defeat King Kong Bundy and One Man Gang. Bruno would continue to work as a commentator and interviewer for the WWF until the March 12, 1988 edition of Superstars of Wrestling (a series currently unavailable on the Network) which marked the end of Bruno Sammartino in the WWF for the next 25 years.
Following his departure from the WWF Bruno became an outspoken critic of steroids in wrestling and the theatrical direction the business was taking. In one of the most infamous moments in WWF history Bruno openly challenged Vince McMahon to answer for the sex and drug scandals that were hovering over the Federation during a heated interview on Larry King Live on March 13, 1992. The animosity was such that few ever believed Bruno would return to the WWF or ever be inducted to the Hall of Fame. By January 2013, however, thanks to the dedicated work of Triple H, Bruno softened his hard line on the WWE and not only watched the product for the first time in years but accepted induction into the 2013 class of WWE Hall of Fame.
The most widely respected and admired wrestler the modern era has known, Bruno was the last “legit” wrestler we’ve seen. Featured on ESPN Classic and written about in the same breath as other sports legends, Bruno Sammartino transcended wrestling, becoming a thread in the fabric of America along the way and the definition of the “American Dream”.
While this article celebrates the in-ring legacy of Bruno Sammartino, it was Bruno’s humanity, respect, and unshakable character that defined Bruno in life, and will continue to forever onward. From reaching out to sick or injured wrestlers to helping those less fortunate in the city of Pittsburgh, Bruno’s heart, beyond any feud or match, is the true measure of “The Living Legend”.
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Thanks for reading – until next week, see ya at ringside!
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