Bruno Sammartino, an Italian immigrant who would become one of the world’s strongest men and one of wrestling’s most popular figures, has died at the age of 82. Sammartino died in his adoptive hometown of Pittsburgh following an illness, surrounded by family.
Born in Pizzoferrato, Italy, in 1935, Sammartino spent much of his early childhood hiding from Nazi invasion until his mother could get him and his family out of Europe and into the United States. Sammartino set a world record in 1959 by bench-pressing 565 pounds. As WWE noted in its obituary, that put him on the world’s radar, and Vincent J. McMahon Sr. invited him to join what was then known as the World Wide Wrestling Federation.
Four years later, Sammartino defeated Buddy Rogers in less than a minute in the old Madison Square Garden to become the WWE’s second champion. He would go on to hold that position for eight years, by far the longest-running champion in WWE history, facing off against such notables as Killer Kowalski, Gorilla Monsoon and George “The Animal” Steele. Sammartino’s charisma, physique and propensity for brutality helped sustain and grow the WWE through its earliest days, and the authenticity he brought to the ring was nearly impossible to match, let alone duplicate.
Sammartino would go on to develop rivalries with another generation of wrestling stars, including Roddy Piper, Randy Savage and The Honky Tonk Man. He served as a ringside announcer for many years, and in 2013 was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame by none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger.