If you’ve watched professional wrestling for any modicum of time, you’ve surely heard of the name of Bruno Sammartino at least once. ‘The Living Legend’ held the world title for over 11 years – 4,040 days – and somehow that’s almost the least most interesting thing about the man.
Sammartino was born in the small isolated town of Pizzoferrato in the Abruzzo region of Italy in 1935 to Alfonso and Emilia. Located near the mountains of Chieti, the remote town even now is sparsely populated (a 2017 estimate puts the population at 1,062), and at the time Bruno lived there was no running water or indoor plumbing in the houses. It was founded sometime in the Middle Ages, acting equally as a town and a stronghold of sorts, its location helping to protect the town from bandits & raiders. Sammartino was the youngest of seven children, though some of his siblings died early in childhood.
In 1939 Sammartino’s father moved to Pittsburgh (PA) to work, hoping to earn enough money to buy land in his mountain town, build his young family a substantial home and a bright future. Unfortunately for Alfonso the beginning of the second world war would derail these plans – Italy officially entered the war in 1940, and all communication between him and his family was severed, with Italian newspapers being his only way to guess if his family was alive or dead. As the war went on, and the Italian facist government under Mussolini proved an incompetent ally for Hitler’s Germany, the Italian countryside began to be infested by members of the SS and Nazi soldiers. Resistance in Italy mainly centered in the mountains, utilising guerrilla tactics to get around the fascist powers ravaging the countryside. This mountain-based warfare made Pizzoferrato a prime target for subjugation by the Nazis, who would frequently kill 10 people in any town or village for every fascist killed by the resistance. Fearing for her and her children’s lives, Sammartino’s mother, Emilia, fled to Valla Rocca, a mountain lying high above their hometown.
As there was only one path to their Valla Rocca hideout, and it required climbing in parts to reach, the Sammartinos and their neighbours felt relatively safe from Nazi attacks – it was significantly out of the way that the thirty or so people hiding there felt there were more pressing things for the Nazis to worry about, namely the advance of the Allied forces and the regular attacks on the Nazi base installed in Pizzoferrato – so most of the village’s men joined the local resistance, aiding the allies with their knowledge of the area. While they would, at times, come back to visit their family members, they were unable to provide longtime direct support. Some of those who stayed, including Sammartino’s mother, would leave the hideout at night, returning to the town to grab food they had stowed in their basements…basements which were now literally directly under their Nazi aggressors. Sammartino later recounted that his mother would be gone for a day, a day and a half at a time, and him & his siblings would sit on a rock overlooking the sole path from the town waiting for her. When she would appear, they would be elated, mainly because this meant food was on the way (they were still too young, Bruno said, to properly understand the danger they were in). One day she did not return, having been discovered & captured by the Nazis, but she later escaped and safely returned to her children.
As mentioned above, Sammartino lost several siblings to illness early in his life. His village, too remote to even have a doctor, was unable to identify what illness they might have had, never mind treat them. Bruno would say that these tragic loses (one of his siblings died just two years old, for example) drove his mother at this time, that she refused to lose another child. Pizzoferrato, being high in the mountains, suffered drastic winter conditions every year. And while the snow provided a handy water supply, when they lacked access to proper shelter and heat sources it could be deadly.
One day late in the war two members of the SS happened upon the hideaway. They ordered the thirty-or-so to line-up outside their makeshift home, intending to kill them. Sammartino later recounted this moment, through tears, to a documentary crew, saying that even then, as the Nazis literally loaded guns to execute them, her main concern was her kids. She told Sammartino and his siblings that “soon [they] are going to heaven” and that there they would not be hungry, or cold, and would live in giant palaces, and Bruno said that in that moment he felt comfort. Luckily for him, two members of the resistance visiting family in Valla Rocca just happened to appear up the path at that moment, and quickly dealt with the Nazis.
As the war ended, and the villagers slowly returned to Pizzoferrato, Bruno suddenly fell ill as his brother and sister did before him. With no doctor or real medicine to speak of, the duty of care fell on his mother, determined to not lose another child. According to Sammartino he was later told leeches were applied to his body repeatedly, and snow was melted to provide steam for him to breathe. He was so ill that it became the talk of the town, as the natives worried about him and wondered what was up. Some theorised pneumonia, some guessed scarlet fever – whatever it was, Sammartino slowly recovered as the years went on. Decades later, when undergoing pre-surgery testing, it was discovered that he suffered rheumatic fever, a disease that now has a relatively small mortality rate, but in an isolated Italian mountain town in the 1950s, it’s surely a miracle that Sammartino was able to survive, a miracle he attributed to his mother’s determination.
After the war, his father eventually reconnected with his family, asking what was the best course of action: should he return to Italy, and rebuild the family’s life there, or should they join him in America. Their town relied on agriculture pre-war for sustenance, but that had been hampered after the end of hostilities, as unexploded mines in the fields had lead to additional casualties, and the people & the land itself seemed too scarred by the atrocities of the second world war to move on. Seeing no future for her family, Emilia Sammartino decided that they should move to America, where her husband had already secured a job in a steel mill and, in 1937, had bought a house for $6000 (over $100k in today’s money). Bruno, though he had recovered from his illness, was still weak, and failed multiple physical examinations he was given to be able to enter the US, holding his family back. Eventually, in February 1950, he passed, and they boarded a ship from Naples to New York, where they would rejoin their father and hop on a train to Pittsburgh.
The Sammartinos, like many immigrants in a new country, could only speak their native language. Despite there being a large Italian-American community in ‘the Steel City’, they lived in the mainly Anglophone part of the city, where Sammartino, still weak from his illness, was frequently bullied for his lack of English. Taking pity on him, a man brought Bruno to the YMHA (a Jewish equivalent of the more widely-known YMCA), where he was first introduced to the weight room. Bruno struggled with the heavy weights and dumbbells there, but immediately knew something good would come from working out. He cut grass for weeks in the wealthy neighborhoods near his home to pay the $12 membership fee (approx. $125 today). He quickly took to the sport of weightlifting, eventually setting multiple world records, including a bench-press lift of 565lbs. He trained & competed at events that made him a prime candidate for the 1956 US Olympic team, but his decision to work in professional wrestling – even then a ‘pre-determined’ sport, but one governed by legitimate sporting commissions – precluded him from entering an ‘amateur’ competition.
The rest, as they say, is history. Sammartino mainly wrestled for the WWWF (later WWF and WWE) in the north-east area of the US, serving as its world champion for 11 out of 14 years. He also set many attendance & gate records in New York’s Madison Square Garden, the “world’s most famous arena.” Despite acknowledging the dubious side of the sport in the later years of his on-screen career, Sammartino refused to state that pro wrestling was fake, citing the damage to his body as proof of its legitimacy (Sammartino legitimately broke his neck, returning to the ring only two months later against doctors wishes). Upon retirement from the sport, Sammartino rallied against the influence of drugs (namely steroids) and sex appeal in professional wrestling, appearing on talk-shows and documentaries to make his case.
Sammartino passed away aged 82 in April of this year (2018) in Pennsylvania of issues relating to heart disease. He had returned to his native Italian town in August of 2017, where a statue dedicated to him was unveiled. His family home was also converted to a museum dedicated to his life, and a wing of the local medical centre was named after his mother – the last of these honours seemingly meaning the most to Sammartino, who said “Everything that I am, everything that I’ve done, everything that I hope to be is because of my mom.” Sammartino had been honoured by multiple prestigious halls of fame before his death, including the Wrestling Observer Newsletter hall of fame, the International Sports hall of fame and eventually, in 2013, the WWE Hall of Fame. Sammartino is survived by his wife, Carol, three sons and four grandchildren. His legacy is carried on by singer Bruno Mars, who adopted the stage name ‘Bruno’ after Sammartino.
Why haven’t I heard of him before?
The only reason you might have heard of Sammartino is if you’re from Pittsburgh, you’re a wrestling fan or both. Most of Sammartino’s career was captured on footage owned by the WWE, a company who did not acknowledge Sammartino in their version of history until 2013 due to his loud antagonism to the modern wrestling product put out by WWE. His life story had also been written as multiple film scripts throughout the 80s and 90s, but Sammartino refused to give them the rights to proceed as he wanted the film to be true to life, and would not allow any ‘Hollywoodisation’ of his and his mother’s story. Documentaries of any renown were hard to produce due to the opposition of WWE to Sammartino (and vice-versa), though many middling productions were produced mainly with the Pittsburgh market in mind. WWE floated the idea of a Bruno documentary following his return to their good graces in 2013, but test marketing proved it to be too unpopular an idea.
How true is this story?
The wrestling business is a carny business, and you generally shouldn’t ever trust the historical accounts of anyone in the business, though if anyone in it can be trusted, it’s Sammartino. Additionally, he has told this story multiple times over the years, and details have remained largely the same, something you can’t always attribute to wrestling stories (namely those involving Hulk Hogan bodyslamming an 800-pound Andre the Giant in front of 500,000 people). The story also does stand up to historical analysis: Sammartino was born in Italy, he did immigrate to America when he said he did, his achievements in weightlifting and wrestling are easily provable.
How can I find out more?
While no major film productions based on this story have been made, a documentary made for television in Pittsburgh – Behind the Championship Belt – was uploaded to YouTube in its entirety following his death. Sammartino was interviewed by fellow wrestler Chris Jericho in 2017, an interview which is easily accessible on iTunes etc. under the ‘Talk is Jericho’ name. In-depth obituaries have been written by wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer in the April 24th & April 30th editions of his Wrestling Observer Newsletter (subscription required).