The world of professional wrestling lost an icon on Wednesday when it was announced that former WWF legend Bruno Sammartino passed away. He was 82 years old.
“WWE is saddened to learn that WWE Hall of Famer Bruno Sammartino has passed away at age 82,” the company’s Twitter account announced. It was Sammartino who helped put the World Wide Wrestling Federation on the map, long before Vince McMahon came up with the concept of sports entertainment.
Bruno Sammartino was popular at a time when the WWWF was a regional outfit, putting together shows in the northeastern part of the United States. Per the company website, after setting a world record in 1959 by bench-pressing 565 pounds, Sammartino caught the eye of Vincent J. McMahon, and became a sports-entertainer.
Bruno became an overnight sensation, connecting with not only fellow Italians, but also the Latino, Greek and Jewish communities, successfully bridging the gap in America’s melting pot of wrestling fans. His legend continued to grow on May 17, 1963, when Sammartino defeated Buddy Rogers in just 48 seconds to become the second-ever WWE Champion in front of nearly 20,000 fans at the old Madison Square Garden.
Known as the “Living Legend” he held the WWWF World Heavyweight Championship (WWWF Heavyweight Championship during his second reign) for more than 11 years (4,040 days) across two reigns, the first of which is the longest single reign in the promotion’s history at 2,803 days. On January 18, 1971, Ivan Koloff ended Sammartino’s run as champion, however he did not hold the belt long. Koloff was a bridge champion, holding the belt for three weeks before Pedro Morales beat him. Back in the day of Kayfabe, the idea of two babyfaces wrestling for the title was frowned upon. Koloff winning the title made the transition from Sammartino to Morales smoother for the fan base.
Bruno Sammartino regained the WWWF title once again in 1973, but lost it in a match with Superstar Billy Graham.
“Sammartino built his reputation by avoiding the glitz and showmanship that became a large part of professional wrestling in the 1980s and 1990s. He was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013,” a story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette stated.
Per WWE, Bruno Sammartino returned to WWE in the mid-80s as a broadcaster alongside Mr. McMahon and as a mentor for his son David, who was just beginning his grappling career.