Facts About Bruno Sammartino Only Hardcore Fans Know

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Before there was John Cena, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, or Hulk Hogan, there was Bruno Sammartino. He is one of wrestling's greatest icons, and many consider him to be the godfather of WWE. This is with very good reason — his accomplishments alone have earned him that right, and his incredible WWE Championship reigns are the stuff of legend. Bruno's inaugural reign as WWE Champion spanned an incredible seven years. Winning the championship on May 17, 1963, Bruno would hold the title for 2,803 days, the longest WWE Championship reign in history, a record that will truly never be broken. Just as impressively, Bruno Sammartino's second reign as WWE Champion is also quite the feat, picking up the WWE Championship once again on December 10, 1973, Bruno would hold the title for another 1,237 days (the fourth longest in history), bringing his combined reigns to over 11 years.

That is the fact about Bruno Sammartino that most people know — however, there is more to the legend of Bruno Sammartino than those incredible accomplishments.

Bruno Sammartino grew up in war-torn Italy during World War II

Bruno Sammartino was born in Pizzoferrato, Abruzzo, Italy on October 6, 1935. Bruno was the youngest of seven children, though four of his seven siblings unfortunately died at a very young age. During World War II, while Bruno was just a child, the town he and his family grew up in was taken over by Nazis.

Larry Richert, the executive producer of the "Bruno Sammartino" documentary, told the story to Inside Edition: "Nazis came to their village, took over, and had at one point captured them, lined them up to be executed. His mother took his brother, Paul, sister, Mary, and him under her arms, and said, 'Don't worry. We'll never be hungry again. We'll never be cold again. We'll be in paradise with Jesus.' Just then, they were saved at the last minute by their own villagers who had followed the Germans and killed them right there on the spot."

Bruno's mother, Emilia Sammartino, fled the town with her three children and took refuge in a mountain called Valla Rocca. Bruno's family were forced to live on that mountain for over 14 months while World War II was raging on. 

Bruno Sammartino suffered from Rheumatic Fever as a child and almost died

Sporting an incredible physique, Bruno truly was a mountain of a man. That wasn't always the case however, as a child growing up in harsh surroundings, Bruno suffered from a number of ailments. Bruno's son Darryl told Inside Edition, "My dad's early life, when he was a kid, it wasn't the best. They were very poor. Then he got sick. He was sickly for most of his younger years ... They lived outside and he was a very sickly, sickly kid. They were basically starving to death."

In Bruno's autobiography, he revealed that he suffered from Rheumatic Fever as a child, which caused damage to the valves in his heart. With no doctors of medicine around, Bruno's mother Emilia took care of her son. As she had lost four children already, she was determined not to lose another and she would nurse him back to health. Bruno told to the story in a 2005 interview with journalist David Block that his mother would apply leeches to his body, "She thought that they would take away the poisonous blood in my system. She boiled some melting snow and had me inhale the steam. I don't know if what she did worked or not, I know that I was near death, and I survived."

It truly was a herculean effort from Emilia to keep her son alive and Bruno has always spoken about how his mother was his hero.

Bruno Sammartino set an unofficial bench press world record (565 pounds) in 1959

When Sammartino was finally able to move to America, he was bullied as a child because of his small stature and his inability to speak English. That began to change when he met a landscaper who introduced him to weightlifting. Larry Richert, the executive producer of the "Bruno Sammartino" documentary, told Inside Edition that, "When he lifted weights, Bruno said the first time he did it, something clicked. He knew this was a magic moment for him ... He built himself up to be the strongest man in the world."

Sammartino became obsessed with lifting weights, often spending up to five hours a day in the gym. His favorite exercise was bench pressing. He achieved success in weightlifting and was able to win a lot of competitions. His biggest victory came in 1959 when he set an unofficial bench press world record of a 565 pounds. Not only that, but he even did it without using protective wrist or elbow straps!

Bruno Sammartino sold out Madison Square Garden 188 times

Sammartino's weightlifting accomplishments got him noticed by wrestling promotors and the rest, as they say, is history. Sammartino achieved quick success in wrestling as his presence was unlike anything anybody had ever seen before. Arnold Schwarzenegger in the "Bruno Sammartino" documentary said, "When he came into the ring, people were standing and screaming, and screaming and screaming ... And then the fight began. I mean, he started throwing this guy around. He lifted people up that were 400 pounds, overhead. This is how powerful he was."

Sammartino became one of the most popular and successful wrestlers of his era. During this time, he would sell out Madison Square Garden, WWE's spiritual home, an incredible record setting 187 times. In 2013, Sammartino would sell out the arena one more time when he was inducted into the WWE Hall Of Fame.

Upon his death in 2018, Madison Square Garden paid tribute to Sammartino.

Bruno Sammartino never turned heel

Bruno Sammartino's incredible in-ring career started in Pittsburgh on December 17, 1959, where he would pin Dmitri Grabowski in just 19 seconds. His career would last 28 years before he retired in 1987, with his last match being at a WWE house show on August 29, 1987, where Sammartino would team with Hulk Hogan to defeat King Kong Bundy and the One Man Gang in the main event.

With an in-ring career spanning 28 years, one may be surprised to know that throughout his whole run, Bruno Sammartino was always a babyface. Sammartino came across to fans as the most honorable and humble man in wrestling, and not once did he ever even tease a heel turn. Even more interestingly, despite his humble beginnings and superhuman effort to reach the top, Sammartino never used his personal struggles as a way garner sympathy. He would mention his history in broad strokes but it was never part of his character, and he attained the support and adoration from the crowd by being wrestling's ultimate babyface.

Bruno Sammartino was blackballed by some promoters after refusing to lose matches

Bruno Sammartino was loved by fans everywhere. Behind the scenes, however, some wrestling promoters were not as enamored with Sammartino as the fans. Sammartino admitted that he didn't always agree with what some promoters wanted him to do, and would refuse to lose if he didn't feel his opponent could have beaten him legitimately. In a 2005 interview with David Block, Bruno would say, "I wouldn't cooperate with promoters. I told them 'if anybody can really beat me, fine. But that's the only way I'll go down.' I was a real young guy, and I wanted to establish myself. I didn't want to be a preliminary boy, so the promoters took a negative stand against me by black balling me all over the country."

Bruno says the business was different back then — the top guys used to protect themselves, and if they didn't like a promotor's decision, they could just move on to a different territory. Bruno continued, "When you lose, you're not in demand, you're not a main event like when you were a winner. When I wrestled, the guys did a lot to maintain their reputation. If a promoter told a wrestler that he wanted him to lose to somebody because they wanted to build up the other wrestler, the one (told to lose) could tell that promoter what he could do and move on because he had an established name."

Bruno Sammartino and Ric Flair hated each other

In Ric Flair's autobiography, "To Be the Man," Flair had some disrespectful things to say about Bruno Sammartino. Flair was an up and coming guy during Bruno's heyday. In his book, Flair said he was unimpressed by Sammartino's wrestling skills, saying he didn't do much in the ring and didn't believe Sammartino could draw money outside of New York.

Bruno responded to these criticism during an RF Video shoot interview with criticisms of Ric Flair's own ring style. Sammartino doubted Flair's own drawing power and laughs at anybody who calls him the greatest of all time. Sammartino said, "He is a hard worker — I would never take that away from Flair. He was a hard worker and he took a lot of bumps in that ring. But you saw Ric Flair wrestle once, you seen him a hundred times. Because Ric Flair was the same match every time he went into the ring. Same match."

Bruno's son David Sammartino's wrestling career flopped

Many second generation wrestlers can struggle to reach the hights their parents did, and this was never more the case than with Bruno Sammartino's son, David Sammartino. In 1980, David Sammartino made his wrestling debut and within a year was feuding with one of Bruno's biggest rivals in Larry Zbyszko. David was eventually signed by WWE at a time when Bruno had semi-retired, working as a WWE commentator.

David received a huge push upon his debut but failed to achieve any kind of momentum. David was often be used as a way to have Bruno come out of retirement and have tag team matches with his son. In fact, it is possible that Vince McMahon only ever used David so he could have Bruno wrestling on WWE TV, as Bruno was still a huge draw.

David grew frustrated with his lack of progress in WWE and left in 1985. David wrestled elsewhere but could never escape the shadow of his father. David was a very good technical wrestler but could never connect with the fans like his father did.

David and Bruno had a strained relationship and Bruno admitted that it was his own retirement which broke their relationship. In a 1998 interview with Post Gazette (via Ring the Dam Bell), Bruno said, "When I refused to put on the tights again, my son never forgave me. He hasn't spoken to me since. I resented that he didn't understand."

Bruno Sammartino spoke out against steroids his whole career

Steroids were a huge sticking point for Bruno Sammartino. In Dave Meltzer's obituary to Bruno Sammartino, he mentions that Sammartino spoke out against steroids as far back as 1961, when Chick Garibaldi, a known steroid user, died of a heart attack after a match with Bruno. Sammartino rallied against steroid use in wrestling for his whole career and it was a huge reason why he left WWE in the late 80s. In a 1991 interview with Lee Benaka, Sammartino said that the business had become "infested with drug abuse" and even called Vince McMahon's original drug testing procedures "a sham."

The subject of steroids was one of the reasons why Bruno Sammartino refused to be accepted into the WWE Hall Of Fame for so long. Bruno hadn't watched WWE in years and was unfamiliar with how far their drug testing had come. However, PWInsider reports that WWE's Medical Director Dr. Joseph Maroon spoke to Sammartino and assured him that WWE's modern drug testing is legitimate, which began to soften Sammartino's harsh criticisms of WWE.

Bruno Sammartino hated the Attitude Era

Steroid abuse was one reason why Bruno Sammartino refused the WWE Hall Of Fame for so long, but another issue was with how lewd wrestling had become. Even back in his prime, Sammartino talked about seeing raunchy wrestling magazines on newsstands and resenting what the business had become. Speaking of wrestling magazines in his heyday, Bruno would say (via Deadspin), "I very seldom look at wrestling magazines. Whenever I do, I get angry. Unfortunately, most of the time they have my picture on the cover next to two practically naked girls putting holds on each other ... I really resent that." 

These feelings were exemplified during WWE's Attitude Era, which was as lewd as wrestling ever was. Sammartino told "Inside the Ropes" that he didn't enjoy watching "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, "I didn't care for him because of his mouth. He was a very, very vulgar individual and anybody that's like that I could never be a fan of. So, anything else he had positive, it was shadowed by the negatives."

Sammartino saw wrestling as family entertainment and hated the vulgarity and nudity that the Attitude Era brought. In contrast, Sammartino told Bill Apter (via Bleacher Report) that he enjoyed the (now defunct) World Wide Wrestling Alliance as it was a show "you can take your kids, and you can take your mother and don't have to be embarrassed as to what they might see."

Bruno Sammartino refused the Hall Of Fame for decades until Triple H convinced him to join

With the steroid issues and Bruno Sammartino's problems with the Attitude Era, WWE was estranged from one of its biggest stars for decades. Despite being the longest reigning WWE Champion of all time, Bruno Sammartino's name was rarely even mentioned on WWE TV. Bruno hadn't spoken to Vince McMahon in years and it seemed like there was no reunion on the cards. However in 2013, Triple H got in touch with Sammartino about entering the WWE Hall Of Fame. Bruno talked about the meeting with Triple H to 2xzone: "After all these years, Triple H called me. I must say he came across very, very honestly, and straightforward. Triple H said that they have a very strict drug testing policy, lead by Dr. Maroon. Triple H said I want you to watch wrestling on 'Monday Night Raw' and watch the changes about the nudity, vulgarity, and profanity. I went back in because I liked what I heard about the drug testing, I liked how they cleaned it up as far as the nudity, vulgarity, and the profanity ... everything that I've seen so far is really how he told me it would be."

Sammartino said he did watch the product and enjoyed watching guys like John Cena, Brock Lesnar, Dolph Ziggler, Randy Orton, and Damien Sandow because of their work rate. With Sammartino's problems with WWE appeased, Bruno Sammartino was finally inducted into the WWE Hall Of Fame in 2013.

Bruno Mars is named after Bruno Sammartino

Popular singer/songwriter Bruno Mars was born Peter Gene Hernandez — however, Mars' father had always called his son Bruno, after his favorite wrestler. Mars told the story on RapUP (via Denver Post) that, "Bruno is after Bruno Sammartino, who was this big fat wrestler. I guess I was this chunky little baby, so my dad used to call me that as a nickname."

When Bruno Mars eventually met Bruno Sammartino, Sammartino jokingly gave Mars a photograph of himself in his prime, proving that he was not a "big fat wrestler" like his father had said, and he was in fact very muscular.

While Sammartino admitted to not knowing much about Mars before meeting him, Sammartino was very impressed by Mars. Sammartino said to CBS Sports (via Denver Post), "I hope he's like that in everyday life. He was the most humble, nicest guy. He couldn't have been more respectful." Bruno continued, "He told me, 'You know, I called my dad and told him I was going to meet with you today and he was so excited."