On This Day In 2018: WWE Icon Bruno Sammartino Passes Away

The longest-reigning WWE Champion of all-time is possibly the most influential wrestler of them all
18:05, 18 Apr 2022

There have been 30 WWE Championship reigns in the last 2,803 days. In the 2,803 days between 17th May 1963 to 18th January 1971, there was just one. Bruno Sammartino, who passed away on this day in 2018. 

It would be obvious to say they don’t make them like Bruno Sammartino before. Certainly, no man has held a major wrestling title for almost eight years since. But in truth, they do still make them like ‘The Italian Strongman’. Sammartino’s extended run on top of the then-World Wide Wrestling Federation started a structure that has endured for decades. WWE is known as a “babyface territory”, where the top star in the company is a fan favourite rather than the heels who had conventionally ruled in the National Wrestling Alliance and other companies. 

You can trace Sammartino’s lineage through Bob Backlund, Hulk Hogan, Stone Cold Steve Austin and John Cena. Current champion Roman Reigns is a heel, but even that only came about after several aborted attempts to make him a beloved babyface. The WWE has run for seven decades according to what was established with Sammartino. The modern-day sports entertainment will forever be The House That Bruno Built.

Born in Pizzoferrato, Italy in 1935, Bruno’s childhood was rife with difficulties. One of seven children, four of Sammartino’s siblings died when he was still a youngster. Growing up during the Second World War, Bruno’s mother used to sneak into the nearby German-occupied town to buy food and supplies for her family. In 1950, the Sammartino clan moved to America. Sammartino, still sickly from rationing and the grim fiscal realities of war, was bullied in his new homeland. Sick of the abuse, the teenager hit the gym and began wrestling training. 

Such was his affinity for the weight room, he broke the world record for the bench press in 1956, lifting 565lb. But after missing out on a spot in the Olympic weightlifting team that same year, he turned his attention to the ring. 

After making his name in Toronto, Canada as a hero of the budding local Italian population, Sammartino got the attention of the recently-formed WWWF. He was anointed as the man to take the WWWF Championship from ‘Nature Boy’ Buddy Rogers, after the legendary champion began suffering from heart problems. In order to protect Rogers’ ailing health, Sammartino was booked to unseat the champion in 48 seconds. The outgoing champion’s loss was Bruno’s gain, as the Italian defeating one of the all-time greats in such dominant fashion made him a star overnight. The Bruno Sammartino era had begun.

Rogers faced Sammartino as part of a tag team match, and the first two WWWF Champions in history were meant to meet again in a title rematch that Autumn. The bout never came to pass, as Rogers retired from in-ring competition. Bruno instead lost to Gorilla Monsoon via disqualification on that October night, but retained his belt as championships can only change hands via pinfall or submission.

In amongst his record-setting reign, Sammartino also won the WWWF International Tag Team Championship alongside Tony Marino. Due to an antiquated and since-revoked rule, Sammartino was stripped of the title because a wrestler could not hold more than one belt at the time. 

In 1971, Sammartino would be without either of his belts. In one of the most shocking match finishes in wrestling history, Ivan Koloff defeated the beloved champion at Madison Square Garden, stopping the near-eight year title reign in its tracks. The usually-raucous MSG fell into a stunned silence. The eerie lack of sound was so prominent that Bruno later remarked he thought he had damaged his ears during the match. ‘The Russian Bear’ was never expected to defeat Sammartino. Perhaps no one was, perhaps the WWWF fanbase had just come to accept the great man would be champion forever. But while that was not the case, he would reign once more.

After a year touring Japan and other territories, Sammartino returned to the WWWF in late 1972. After feuding with Pedro Morales, who had replaced Bruno as the company’s top babyface attraction, Sammartino won his old title from Stan Stasiak. His second reign is most famous for a feud with the great Stan ‘The Lariat’ Hansen. Sammaritno suffered a genuine broken neck in a match with the big Texan, and this was used as the spark to ignite a programme between the pair. Sammartino returned two months later to face his tormentor at Shea Stadium, in a match that was broadcast on the Closed Circuit presentation of Muhammad Ali vs Antonio Inoki.

Due to a catalog of injuries racked up while undertaking the punishing schedule of a touring world champion, Sammartino asked to be relieved of championship duties. The flamboyant ‘Superstar’ Billy Graham ended Sammartino’s second and final reign. Despite being far shorter than his first historic reign, Sammartino’s three-year second tenure remains the fourth-longest in WWE history.

While he would never again lift the prestigious gold, Sammartino continued to wrestle for another decade. His blood feud with protege-turned-rival Larry Zbysko was box office gold for what had by then become the World Wrestling Federation (WWF). Their feud-ending cage match drew a sell-out crowd of 36,295 to Shea Stadium. Sammartino’s ring career wound down in the years that followed, with his permanent retirement coming in 1987. 

After falling out with the WWE over the adult storylines and drug use that plagued the 1990s, he returned to the fold for a Hall of Fame induction in 2013. The great champion passed away on 18th April 2018, due to multiple organ failure after years of heart problems. 

Bruno Sammartino is the WWE’s north star. Their first top babyface around which the company was built, their world champion for most of their first decade of existence. Without Bruno’s success, Hulk Hogan doesn’t happen, Stone Cold doesn’t happen, and John Cena doesn’t happen. The very landscape of this business would be unrecognisable. Rest in peace, Italian Strongman.

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