As an eleven-year-old on one particular Saturday afternoon in 1979, I was flipping through the channels on the family’s 13-inch black and white television set searching for something even remotely interesting to view. Okay, the T.V. didn’t have a remote control so, “flipping” was actually turning the knob. But at this point and time, I didn’t need a pair of pliers to change the channel, so, the pace of my search was quicker than usual. Anyway, it was during this search that I made an accidental yet amazing discovery.
Baseball’s Tom Seaver, the host of the television show entitled Greatest Sports Legends, was interviewing a pro wrestler I had never seen before. And as I soon discovered, it wasn’t just any wrestler. Growing up as a wrestling fan in Southern California, I had seen some of the greatest pro wrestlers to ever pull on a pair of trunks perform at the famed Olympic Auditorium and on the televised wrestling programs that taped in that iconic building. Andre the Giant, Terry Funk, Chavo Guerrero, Mil Mascaras, Black Gordman and the Great Goliath, Freddie Blassie, John Tolos and Victor Rivera, just to name a few. But the wrestler being interviewed was a new face to me.
But the name wasn’t completely unfamiliar. I had seen the name “Bruno Sammartino” plastered on the covers of a few wrestling magazine titles that were advertised in the boxing magazines my stepdad had. But this was the first time I saw and heard the man. But my impression of him would become forever etched in my mind.
What I saw and heard during the program amazed me. He and Seaver talked about the fact that he had been World Heavyweight Wrestling Champion for 12 years!!! 12 years??? That was mind-boggling, even more so because in Southern California, wrestling fans were accustomed to seeing the area’s top singles title, the Americas’ Heavyweight Wrestling Title, change hands fairly frequently. Plus, in those days, while there might’ve been a few “World Champions” in pro wrestling, anybody and everybody who ran a wrestling promotion didn’t advertise their promotion’s champion as a “World Champion.”
In my mind, to be the World’s Champion meant that you were undoubtedly the cream of the crop, the best of the best. And given the wrestlers I had seen firsthand – none of whom were the World’s Champion – the World’s Heavyweight Wrestling Champion was a god amongst men. And that’s exactly how he should’ve been perceived. But to be the best of the best for 12 years??? My mind could hardly grasp the possibility. And yet, everything I saw and heard during that thirty-minute program (minus the ten minutes allotted for commercials and the opening and closing credits), made me a believer.
I saw footage of Bruno defeating the 6 ‘9”, 320-pound Ernie Ladd, saw him not only body slam the 400-pound Gorilla Monsoon, but heave him several feet while doing so; I saw still-photos of Bruno lifting the 620-pound Haystack Calhoun off his feet and heard Bruno state that was a feat that not even Paul Anderson was able to accomplish. I read the Guinness Book of World Records and I knew exactly who weightlifter Paul Anderson was and of his many accomplishments in his field. More than that, I saw still photos and heard the account of how Bruno first won the World Heavyweight Wrestling Title by crushing defending champion Buddy Rogers in only 55 seconds! What kind of man can accomplish such feats but a veritable Superman?
He was the kind of man who could confidently state during the interview that if he got in the ring in a wrestler vs. boxer match-up with Muhammad Al – “The Greatest” and my hero – that he would whip him, and Ali knows he would do it too. My initial thought was to say, “he’s crazy!” and to turn off the television. But there was something about Bruno that made me feel that he just might be able to do what he claimed he could. It was more than just the footage of him in the ring that I saw; it was the humble-yet-confident way in which he spoke. It was with the supreme confidence and self-assuredness that emanates from the true tough guy.
Bruno’s toughness, his resolve, his courage and his strength of character was also apparent after his successful comeback from a broken neck that occurred in a match against Stan Hansen. While attributed to Stan Hansen’s “Lariat,” it was actually the result of a botched body slam. Sammartino displayed great compassion in forgiving the remorseful Hansen and respect for the business by allowing the storyline to state that it was the result of Hansen’s Lariat, in order to protect the business, put over the deadliness of Hansen’s finishing maneuver and to set up a revenge match once Sammartino physically recovered.
Pro wrestling is and was a form of entertainment and art form where the maximum enjoyment is derived when the viewer can suspend disbelief. The way the art form was executed when I was growing up made it easier to suspend that disbelief, but the era and the existence of kayfabe also facilitated that all-important suspension. And Bruno Sammartino was as kayfabe as it got. The wrestling fans believed in Bruno. He not only projected a high-level of magnetism and physical power but also sincerity and dignity. The vast majority of his fans were working-class people who weren’t wealthy materially, but were wealthy in terms of ethnic pride, having a strong work ethic and in valuing integrity, traits which Bruno seemed to have in spades.
And during a time when there were a greater percentage of people in the U.S. who had been born outside of the U.S., the Italian immigrant Bruno Sammartino was a success story that some could relate to and others aspired to emulate. He was both a champion and a people’s champion. He didn’t even need a wrestling title belt around his waist to identify him as a champion. The way he spoke and carried himself attested to that status.
When Bruno Sammartino passed away on Wednesday, April 18, 2018 at the age of 82, it was not just the ending of a man’s time on this earth. It was the passing of one of the greatest symbols of what pro wrestling once was and what our world once was here in the United States. But while the man may have passed, Legends never die. - RR