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#5 Bruno Sammartino
The longest-reigning world champion in modern wrestling history; that title alone is enough to make Sammartino one of the five best wrestlers of the last 50 years. A case for his greatness does not need to extend beyond the simple fact that a promoter believed that Sammartino could be the biggest possible draw for their company for a longer period of time than any other wrestler for any other promotion during any other time period.
But there is so much more to Sammartino's story than just the title of longest reigning WWWF Champion. To summarize Sammartino's career in one word, that word would be pride. Pride motivated him to begin working out with free weights which eventually led to his career in pro wrestling. Pride led to his endearment to Italian-American's all over the Northeast and his continued success of a draw in those areas. Pride ultimately led to his absence from the same promotion he put on the map; although pride would also bring him back into the fold decades later.
The story of Sammartino has a hell of a first chapter; he was born in 1935 in Abruzzo, Italy, the youngest of a large family. The early stages of his childhood were marred by the horrors of World War II. His family hid from the occupying German forces in a mountain called Valla Rocca after the Germans had taken over the peninsular war against the invading Allies. While hiding in the mountain, Sammartino's mother would sneak into the nearby German-occupied town and get food and supplies for her family. Despite this, four of his siblings passed away during the war. Following the war Sammartino and his remaining family members stayed in Italy while their father lived in Pittsburgh, eventually bringing the family over to the United States in 1950.
While arriving in American, Sammartino faced prejudice from his classmates because he did not speak English well and his scrawny stature made him a target for bullies. While a teenager he began training with free weights in order to stand up to his bullies and he quickly began to pack on mass, to the point that by the time he graduated high school he was 5'10" and about 280 lbs. He became a prodigious power lifter and nearly qualified for the 1956 US Olympic weightlifting team. In 1959 he set a world record for the bench press when he lifted 565 lbs. He began a career as a street performer, performing various different feats of strength and appeared on Pittsburgh's local sports show, where he was spotted by local wrestling promoter Rudy Miller, who believed that his strength and ethnic background could make him a viable draw in professional wrestling.
Sammartino began training with veteran Ace Freeman and his made debut in December of 1959, squashing Dmitri Grabowski. While still very much a novice, Miller was 100 percent correct in predicting Sammartino's marketability. His natural strength, Italian heritage and charisma immediately made him a star in Pittsburgh and he began to explode onto the professional wrestling scene. Only a few matches into his career he became a staple for Studio Wrestling, the weekly TV program for wrestling in Pittsburgh. In January of 1960 he wrestled his first match at Madison Square Garden against Bully Curry. Toots Mondt, a veteran promoter dating back to the days of Ed "Strangler" Lewis, decided to book Sammartino with star wrestler Antonio Rocca, who was a popular wrestler with New York's Italian and Latin-American communities. Rocca was one of the biggest draws in wrestling at the time and working with him would allow Sammartino to get the same kind of ethnic promotion that Rocca was getting.
In February of 1961, Sammartino was wrestling Chick Garibaldi when Garibaldi went into cardiac arrest in the middle of the match, dying in the ring. This incident would haunt Sammartino for the rest of his career. He then left the Capitol Wrestling Corporation, run by Vince McMahon Sr. and Mondt, and began working for rival promoter Kola Kwariani, but that relationship quickly dissolved as Kwariani's business crumbled and Sammartino moved back to McMahon's group. Frustrated by small payoffs from McMahon, Sammartino notified McMahon that was leaving again, this time to go work for Roy Shire in San Francisco. After arriving in San Francisco, Sammartino was informed that he had been suspended by the state athletic commission, apparently for skipping a booking during a show in Baltimore. In his autobiography Sammartino attests that he had a booking the same night in Chicago and that he believes McMahon purposively double-booked him as a punishment for working with Kwariani. Essentially blackballed by every promoter in the country, Sammartino returned to Pittsburgh and began working as a laborer, his career in the ring all but over before it even really started.
On the advice of Canadian babyface Yukon Eric, Sammartino contacted Toronto promoter Frank Tunney for potential work. Since the promotion was outside the United States, McMahon's attempts to blackball Sammartino fell on deaf ears and Sammartino quickly became one of the most popular wrestlers in the territory, drawing on the large Italian-Canadian population in Toronto. He won his first title when he teamed with Canadian superstar Whipper Billy Watson to beat Bulldog Brower and Sweet Daddy Siki for the NWA International Tag Team Championships, holding them for several months before dropping them to Brower and Johnny Valentine in February of 1963. Also in Toronto Sammartino began to main event matches against the NWA World Heavyweight Champion, including matches against Buddy Rogers and Lou Thesz.
In 1963 McMahon and Mondt broke away from the National Wrestling Alliance and formed the World Wide Wrestling Federation, essentially a continuation of the Capitol Wrestling Corporation. They also created their own world title, the WWWF Heavyweight Championship. While the WWWF did not match the NWA in overall geographic scope, it did contain the most lucrative series of cities in wrestling, owning not only New York City, but also Baltimore, Washington DC, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Boston. In addition, the WWWF Champion would wrestle dates in other NWA cities when McMahon could negotiate deals with the local promoters, meaning the champion would also work in places like Toronto, Los Angeles and Japan.
A problem soon emerged in McMahon's plan however, his pegged champion Buddy Rogers was beginning to fade as a draw in New York. In desperate need of a star who could anchor the promotion, McMahon searched for a young, up-and-coming superstar to replace the aging Rogers. The obvious answer was Sammartino, who was young, athletic and tearing apart the Toronto territory. After a lot of negotiating McMahon was able to lure Sammartino back to New York. After chasing Rogers for the championship in a short program, he captured the WWWF Championship on May 17, 1963 by squashing Rogers in a 48 second match. Rogers always claimed that he had recently suffered a heart attack before the match and was essentially wheeled out of the hospital to have the match; but Sammartino and other wrestlers have testified that none of that was true and Sammartino won the championship because Rogers was failing as a draw.
An ethnic hero being a draw in major metropolitan areas is far from a novel concept. While Sammartino was a hero to Italians in the Northeast, many wrestlers before him had played that same card to great success. Jim Londos, "The Golden Greek" is recognized as the greatest attendance draw in the history of the business and like Sammartino, Londos was actually born in Greece before immigrating to the United States, giving him a special cache with first generation immigrants. In the 1930s, Danno O'Mahoney, a limited wrestler in an era of legit shooters and hookers, became the top draw in wrestling simply because he was Irish, could connect with the fans in Boston, and showed great charisma and fire in his comebacks. McMahon and Sammartino would model his run as champion off of O'Mahoney's run in Boston; albeit Sammartino was a much better wrestler than O'Mahoney ever was.
Sammartino originally began to defend the WWWF championship against names that were familiar to New York fans, like The Shadow and Gene Dubuque, names that are forgotten today but were instrumental in getting Sammartino over as the new champion. In October of 1963 he would settle into his first memorable, feud taking on the new number one contender, Gorilla Monsoon. Most fans remember Monsson as the lovable straight man on commentary who worked seamlessly with heel commentators like Jesse Ventura and Bobby Heenan and for his precise descriptions of the human anatomy, but when he first debuted in the WWWF, he was far different. Working a gimmick that had him as a crazed wild man from Manchuria, the story told to the audience was that manager Bobby Davis found him bathing nude in a mountain stream, and the nefarious Davis shaped Monsoon into a crazed, monster who ran wild over the WWWF roster. His first match against Sammartino came at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City, New Jersey which Monsoon won by referee stoppage when he destroyed Sammartino in the ring, although without pinning him he could not win the championship. So popular with the fans was Sammartino was that one fan reportedly rushed into the ring and broke a wooden chair over the back of Monsoon in an attempt to stop the beating.
The feud with Monsoon became the building block for Sammartino's legacy. The return match took place at Madison Square Garden and saw the two battle to a draw. Up until this point the booking pattern for Sammartino had been for him to simply dominant his opponent in his title defenses, building up the idea that he was a tremendous force and that only a real monster or top contender stood a chance at dethroning him. Monsoon was the first person to really step up and manhandle Sammartino; which got a tremendous reaction from the audience and solidified Sammartino's stance as the pillar of the fledgling company. They fought to another draw in Washington in January of 1964 and Sammartino finally earned a decisive victory over Monsoon in late January at a show in Baltimore.
The Sammartino/Monsoon program would end up being the model for most of the feuds throughout Sammartino's career. A heel would enter the company and usually earn a victory over Sammartino in their first match, often through nefarious means, to establish both heat and credibility as a challenger. They would then have several matches which ultimately would end with Sammartino getting a clean, accomplishing victory over the challenger. Often times the feud would end right there and Sammartino would move onto the next challenger, but sometimes if the feud was hot enough, it would continue and end up with a stipulation match, like a steel cage match, being the end of the feud.
Part of the reason Sammartino succeeded so much as a babyface is that the WWWF always managed to bring in top heels for him to work with. As a top heel in another territory, the WWWF meant big crowds at Madison Square Garden which meant more money, and since many of the matches were broadcasted on television that meant more visibility for the talent. In addition, since Sammartino was a such a great babyface, cheating to defeat him in the opening match was easy heat and the matches were simple but very effective.
The WWWF had so much going for it that Sammartino was able to wrestle an incredible collection of top heels. Nobody wrestled a greater spree of top names than Sammartino, and he had a top level feud with pretty much every relevant heel of the 60s and 70s during his championship reigns. The list reads like a headlining group of Hall of Famers; Killer Kowalski, Giant Baba, Freddie Blassie, The Sheik, Stan Hansen, Gene Kiniski, Dr. Bill Miller, Johnny Valentine, The Crusher, Waldo Von Erich, Bill Watts, John Tolos, Ernie Ladd and George "The Animal" Steele. Even Hulk Hogan, who would enjoy a similar run of top names in the 1980s, didn't get to work with that deep of a reservoir of talent.
His next feud would be with Kowalski, a 6'7" brawler from Vancouver. The veteran Kowalski would prove to be one of the most persistent challengers, and would be an opponent for Sammartino for over a decade. Kowalski, especially in his prime was a terrific athlete and he would help guide Sammartino to the best matches of his young career. During that same time period he would also be challenged by a towering youngster from Japan, Shohei Baba and also fended off Monsoon, including a famous 70 minute draw at Madison Square Garden in May of 1964.
In December of 1964 Sammartino would defend his championship for the first time in Florida, defeating Duke Keomuka at a Championship Wrestling from Florida event in Miami. Throughout 1964 he defended the championship in Toronto as well, most frequently against The Beast, a hairy brawler from Hamilton, Ontario. Sammartino spent most of 1965 feuding against Big Bill Miller, a real-life veterinarian who was an All-American wrestler at Ohio State and combined with his real-life brother Dan Miller to make Sammartino's life hell for most of 1965. However, like almost everyone else, Miller was never able to take the championship from Sammartino, who earned his first clean victory in a title match in Baltimore at the end of 1965.
1966 saw Sammartino face challenges from Prince Iaukea and Miller, but was also highlighted by Sammartino's first excursion abroad. He wrestled a long tour of Australia for World Championship Wrestling (the Australian version) which was enjoying a boom period, and Sammartino would work in the main event against Dick Beyer on most nights. In 1967 Sammartino began working in Japan for the Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance and began working an alternative storyline against old foe Giant Baba. Instead of Baba being the challenger for Sammartino's world championship, it was Sammartino being the foreign challenger, coming into Baba's promotion and twice challenging for the NWA International Heavyweight Championship, working to a draw on both occasions.
Sammartino often gets pigeonholed into the role of being merely a territorial icon as opposed to the true "national" stars that would come around in later eras. While Sammartino was mainly a draw in the Northeast, he certainly was known all over the wrestling world. In an era of territorial kingpins like Lou Thesz, Verne Gagne and Blassie, Sammartino was recognized as being the most well-known champion, thanks to the his role as the king of wrestling in the capitol of American media and to the fact that he worked with such an array of villains. Sammartino also traveled to other countries, defending and challenging for other titles, making him a true global superstar.
George "The Animal" Steele would prove to be the heel of choice in 1968, eventually losing a Texas Death match to Sammartino in July. 1969 saw the returns of Kowalski and Monsoon to the title picture as well as appearances from a sadistic madman from Detroit known as The Sheik, although all of them failed in taking the title away from Sammartino.
Critics may scoff at the idea that Sammartino could be champion for so long, that at one point it must have gotten repetitive to see him constantly remain the undisputed champion of the company. Certainly wrestling is different today, and a champion holding the world title for more than a year is almost unheard of, let alone someone holding it for seven and a half years; in fact Sammartino's record reign is probably the most untouchable record in wrestling history. But in the 60s and 70s booking Sammartino in the same, consistent method was a guarantee of box office success. From 1963 (the year Sammartino won the title) to 1977 (the year Sammartino lost championship for the final time) Sammartino was the top draw in all of wrestling a whopping eight times, a run of top level consistency that has really only been matched since by Hulk Hogan during the 1980s and 90s. By any measurement, Sammartino is one of the greatest drawing cards in the history of the industry, and his title reigns meant everything to the WWWF establishing itself as a premiere brand in wrestling.
Sammartino's legendary title reign would come to an end in January of 1971 at Madison Square Garden. There was nothing unusual about Sammartino's match against Ivan Koloff, it was the typical Sammartino title defense, this time taking on the 300lb "Russian Bear" (he was actually French-Canadian). The only difference was that this time, the bad guy finally won, pinning Sammartino after only 15 minutes of action, ending his reign at 7 years, 8 months and 1 day as WWWF World Heayvweight Champion.
When the eternal champion was pinned, Koloff and the rest of the WWWF crew were so afraid of a riot breaking out that Koloff was not announced as the champion over the PA system, instead the referee just raised Koloff's hand and he quickly shuffled out of the arena while Sammartino remained in the ring to try and keep the attention on himself and not on the fleeing Koloff. Numerous adults began to break out in tears as Sammartino had finally been defeated. There was no rematch, and Sammartino took some much deserved time off for the rest of 1971, occasionally wrestling a tag team match with his partner, Dominic DeNucci.
During the end of 1971 and into 1972, Sammartino began to spread his wings a bit, wrestling in different NWA territories on a reduced schedule and also working frequently for the World Wrestling Association in Los Angeles, feuding with Ripper Collins. He continued to work in Japan as an opponent of Baba, first in the JWA and later in Baba's own promotion, All-Japan Pro Wrestling. Back in the WWWF, Koloff had dropped the title in February of 1971 to Pedro Morales, a Puerto Rican wrestler who drew from a similar ethnic fanbase as Sammartino did. While popular, Morales proved to be no Sammartino at the gate and late in 1972, McMahon was able to convince Sammartino to come back and be the champion again.
In September of 1972, Sammartino and Morales met for the world title at Shea Stadium and in front of 22,000 wrestled to a 65 minute draw. Despite McMahon's concerns of Morales, he seemingly changed his mind on giving Sammartino back the championship, and for the next year or so Sammartino only worked a handful of dates for the WWWF. Eventually, McMahon had Morales drop the title to Stan Stasiak, who in turn dropped in to Sammartino in December of 1973.
Sammartino's second reign as champion would not last quite as long as his first reign, but at 1,237 days only Bob Backlund and Hogan have had longer individual reigns. His title reign saw him face opponents both old (Killer Kowalski, Freddie Blassie) and new (Don Leo Jonathan, Bruiser Brody) but just as in the previous reign, none of them could successfully defeat Sammartino for the championship. Bobby Duncum, a big brawler from Texas would prove to be one of his most persistent challengers, but it was another big Texan who would have the most successful drawing feud with Sammartino as champion.
In March of 1976, Stan Hansen was brought into the WWWF to work against Sammartino. Although Hansen had only been wrestling for a couple years, he had already established himself as one of the toughest customers in wrestling thanks to his wild brawls in the Southern territories. Hansen and Sammartino were on their way to having a great match when Hansen botched a powerslam and dropped Sammartino right on top of his head, fracturing his neck. Despite the injury, Sammartino managed to complete the rest of the match, ending when the referee awarded the bout to Hansen because Sammartino was bleeding excessively.
After the match it was revealed how badly Sammartino was hurt and Hansen knew he was in big trouble. However, Sammartino showed great class by instead choosing to promote the injury as part of an angle and agreeing to work lucrative follow-up dates with Hansen. A star of Sammartino's quality could have easily crushed Hansen's career in the WWWF and elsewhere if he wanted to, but instead he gave Hansen a chance to use it as a springboard for what would go on to become a legendary career. After several weeks of recovering, Sammartino agreed to put the championship on the line against Hansen at a show in Shea Stadium in June. The promotion of the event was built around the idea that Hansen had actually injured Sammartino with his feared Lariat, and that Sammartino was out for revenge. The ensuing result was 32,000 fans coming to Shea Stadium to watch Sammartino defeat Hansen to retain his championship. Sammartino would also succeed in defending the championship against Hansen in subsequent matches that sold-out arenas all over the territory.
By the end of the year however, a banged up Sammartino notified McMahon that he was pretty much done as WWWF Champion. McMahon took the title off of him in April of 1977, when "Superstar" Billy Graham used the ropes to assist him in pinning Sammartino for the championship. Sammartino would continue to challenge Graham for the championship throughout his title reign, his last shot coming in a steel cage match in Philadelphia, which Graham won. It was reportedly the
first time in Sammartino's career that he had lost a cage match.
When he was finished wrestling against Graham he began touring the country and wrestling big matches at his own pace. He wrestled Harley Race for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship, going to a one hour draw in St. Louis. He also traveled to different territories and worked against top stars like Blackjack Mulligan and Ray Stevens.
Although he was in semi-retirement, Sammartino still had one more legendary feud left in him. It began with a relationship between Sammartino and a young wrestler from Pittsburgh, Larry Zbyszko, with Sammartino taking the youngster under his wing. It was based on the real-life relationship between the two, since Sammartino had trained Zbyszko when he was a teenager. Zbyszko had been wrestling in the WWWF for a couple years, but became frustrated because he was always labeled as Sammartino's protégé and thus would never be able to get out of the legend's shadow. He challenged Sammartino to a one-on-one match and a reluctant Sammartino agreed when Zbyszko announced he would retire if he didn't get the match. They finally wrestled each other in January of 1980 with Zbyszko snapping in the middle of the match and assaulting Sammartino with a wooden chair, leaving the legend laying in a pool of blood.
This notorious action led to Zbyszko becoming for a brief period the top heel in all of wrestling, and after 20 years of wrestling for the WWWF, the fan's love of Bruno Sammaritno still ran deep. They repeatedly trashed Zbyszko's car in the parking lot of arenas and he was reportedly stabbed by an irate fan in Albany, NY during a match against Morales. The feud continued throughout the year, selling out arenas all over the territory until the final match between the two was announced for a show at Shea Stadium. The steel cage match in August of 1980 at Shea Stadium saw Sammartino defeat his former pupil in front of 36,000 fans and the largest gate in North American wrestling history up until that point in time.
Now in his late 40s, Sammartino significantly cut back his dates after the feud with Zbyszko ended, mostly working in tag matches with his son, David. His last significant feud inside the ring came with Randy Savage, who was attacked by Sammartino in late 1986 when the Intercontinental Champion bragged about injuring Ricky Steamboat. Sammartino tried to take the championship off of Savage, but Savage was able to cling onto it thanks to numerous losses by disqualification and count-outs. His last official match took place in Baltimore in August of 1987 when he teamed with Hulk Hogan to defeat King Kong Bundy and The One Man Gang.
Following his retirement, Sammartino began to openly criticize Vince McMahon Jr., who had taken over the company from his father, who passed away in 1984, for his promotional tactics and for encouraging the use of steroids and other illegal substances in the wrestlers. As an avid weightlifter who had built his physique by sheer force of will, it sickened Sammartino to see so many wrestlers with outrageous, unnatural physiques. This caused a long riff between Sammartino and Vince McMahon, with Sammartino turning down inductions into the WWE Hall of Fame. Eventually however, he relented and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2013.
So how do we assess Sammartino's career? His biggest strength was his drawing ability and the fact that into the 1980s he remained a top draw in wrestling, meaning he was a draw for two decades, a rare accomplishment that puts him near the top of the list. I guess the negative against him would be that it's hard to see him having the same success today as he did during the 60s and 70s. He was an okay wrestler and he did develop into a solid promo guy later in his career; but if you watch him today he doesn't really stand out the way that Buddy Rogers, or Billy Graham do; he wasn't necessarily ahead of his time as a performer. However, he did have the right kind of charisma and checked all of the boxes you wanted in a top babyface during that time period. Maybe he wasn't the flashiest guy but you can't argue with his business success.
Lastly, doesn't Sammartino deserve credit for being the building block for what would become the largest professional wrestling company in history? Everyone is quick credit to Vince McMahon Jr. and Hogan as the guys who made the WWF the biggest promotion on earth, but Sammartino (and others) also deserve credit. McMahon had the most money out of all of the promoters to acquire top talent (like Hogan, Savage, Roddy Piper, Paul Orndorff, etc.) and the reason he had the most money was because he controlled the most lucrative territory; the Northeast. Of course, the reason he owned that monopoly was because Sammartino had been such a reliable draw for the company for the last couple decades. Bruno's presence inherently gave McMahon a leg up on the competition to go national. Bruno wasn't the main reason WWF succeeded in the 1980s, but he played a vital role and combined with his overwhelming drawing power; he might still be the greatest wrestler the company has ever had.
Next week #4 will be revealed, a man who famously was in the main event in front of the largest recorded crowd in wrestling history.
The Top 50 so far (click link for description of the qualifications of the list):
49. Superstar Billy Graham
47. El hijo del Santo
45. Bruiser Brody
43. Kurt Angle
42. Hiroshi Tanahashi
41. The Sheik
39. Perro Aguayo
38. Ricky Steamboat
37. Toshiaki Kawada
36. Jushin Thunder Liger
35. El Canek
33. Jack Brisco
32. Shinya Hashimoto
31. Roddy Piper
30. Genichiro Tenryu
28. Abdullah the Butcher
27. Keiji Mutoh
26. Bob Backlund
25. Mil Mascaras
24. Nick Bockwinkel
22. Shawn Michaels
20. Riki Choshu
19. Dusty Rhodes
18. Dory Funk Jr.
16. Harley Race
15. Andre the Giant
14. Kenta Kobashi
13. The Rock
12. Jumbo Tsuruta
11. Stan Hansen
10. The Undertaker
9. Verne Gagne
8. Terry Funk
7. Mitsuharu Misawa
6. Giant Baba
5. Bruno Sammartino