'I felt like we were all at a funeral': Remembering the night Bruno Sammartino lost the WWE Title

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January 18, 2014

Since winning the WWE Title on May 17, 1963, from “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers, the “Italian Superman” Bruno Sammartino seemed invulnerable. Top challengers such as Gorilla Monsoon, Professor Toru Tanaka, Hans Mortier, The Sheik, Ernie Ladd and dozens of others took the champion to the height of physical limits, yet he was able to endure and proudly keep the championship that proclaimed his supremacy.

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The “Russian Bear” Ivan Koloff was another top contender who grappled Sammartino numerous times and came close to victory, but Bruno was always able to best him — until the night of Jan. 18, 1971.

Koloff — scheduled as Sammartino’s opponent in the main event at Madison Square Garden — had an extra advantage that night. The buzz around the business was that Bruno was going into the match with an injury. It was said that George “The Animal” Steele had broken several of Bruno’s ribs in a match a few weeks before the Koloff confrontation.

In the dressing room area, with my audio tape recorder running, I approached Bruno to ask him about his condition. As I walked towards him, I was stopped by his manager, Arnold Skaaland, who requested that I talk to Bruno after the match.

Learn more about WWE Hall of Famer Bruno Sammartino

“He’s got a lot on his mind,” Skaaland told me. “You can talk to him all you want after the match.”


This sealed my feeling that something indeed was wrong as Bruno and Skaaland had always been gracious to grant me an interview, pre- and post-match. In sharp contrast to this, Koloff’s manager, Lou Albano, saw me, came over and demanded I tape his piercing words: “Tonight, Apter, Ivan Koloff will humiliate Sammartino and his legions of fans by pinning him and becoming the greatest WWE Champion in history!”

In the arena, nearly 22,000 fans sat through the early matches, waiting anxiously for the Sammartino-Koloff match. I was on the ring apron, photographing all the action.

Finally it was time. Referee Dick Kroll entered the ring. Next, led by Albano, Koloff came to the ring. They both yelled and screamed at the legions of Sammartino fans as the deafening chants of “Bruno! Bruno! Bruno!” echoed throughout The Garden. Finally, Bruno jogged down the aisle. The fans were ready to see their hero defeat the evil challenger, just as they had become accustomed to since 1963.

As the bell sounded, it was obvious this would not be an easy night for the champion. As I clicked away with my Minolta camera, holds were traded and tests of strength were brutally exchanged. Kicks and punches took their toll on both champion and challenger.

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