Bruno Sammartino was the longest reigning WWE Champion in history, an unmatched box-office attraction and an inspiration to a generation of kids who grew up admiring The Italian Superman. And there’s a chance you might have no idea who he was.
Don’t feel bad if you’re not familiar with Bruno. John F. Kennedy was in office when Sammartino won his first WWE Title. Disco music was still on the radio when he wrestled his last match. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn a thing or two about one of the most integral pieces in the WWE puzzle.
Here, WWE.com offers up nine amazing facts about the life of a sports-entertainment institution. Read our CliffsNotes, then dive deeper into the unique life of the 2013 WWE Hall of Fame inductee.
Bruno Sammartino spent much of his childhood hiding from the Nazis
Much has been written about Bruno Sammartino’s staggering list of achievements as an adult. However, the story of his childhood is truly the most unbelievable part of his fascinating life.
During Sammartino’s youth in Pizzoferrato, Italy, his small village was seized by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi forces, causing Bruno’s mother to flee with her seven children to a mountain called Valla Rocca in order to stay alive. At the time, Sammartino’s father had already immigrated to America, so his mother was forced to protect her children by herself. During this difficult period, four of Bruno’s siblings died as the family spent weeks eating almost nothing but the snow on the ground. Once, Sammartino and his family were even lined up in front of a Nazi firing squad, seconds from death before they were rescued at the last moment.
Miraculously, Bruno survived Hitler’s reign of terror and a near-fatal case of Scarlet fever before arriving in the United States in 1950 — an unspeakably traumatic childhood which no doubt filled him with the drive to succeed in America.
Bruno Sammartino sold out Madison Square Garden 188 times
In the industries of sports and entertainment, there is an unwritten rule that states: “You haven’t made it until you’ve played the Garden.” While performing in New York City’s Madison Square Garden is an achievement in its own right, selling out “The World’s Most Famous Arena” is another matter entirely. And Bruno Sammartino is the only man to do it an untouchable 188 times during his career.
During Bruno’s tenure with WWE through much of the 1960s and ’70s, Bruno headlined a total of 211 events at the famed Manhattan arena. In those days, WWE ran shows at the Garden every month, meaning close to 20,000 fans lined up at the ticket booth every four weeks for their chance to see the mighty Italian. Dastardly opponents like the fearsome Toru Tanaka and the depraved Original Sheik fell before Bruno in front of capacity crowds, earning MSG yet another nickname: “The House That Bruno Built.”
Bruno's induction into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013 brought Sammartino's sell-outs at the Garden to a staggering total of 188 times.
Bruno Sammartino held the WWE Title for 2,803 consecutive days
The Italian hero’s unfathomable 2,803 days as WWE Champion began on May 17, 1963, when he dethroned “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers in an unheard-of 48 seconds. For the next seven years and eight months, Bruno defended sports-entertainment’s richest prize all over the world against serious challengers like Gorilla Monsoon, Killer Kowalski and “Big Cat” Ernie Ladd.
“The Russian Bear” Ivan Koloff shocked the wrestling world when he toppled Sammartino off his throne in Madison Square Garden on Jan. 18, 1971.
Bruno Sammartino was the first two-time WWE Champion
Three years after his stunning defeat, Bruno won the WWE Title for a second time. Defeating Stan Stasiak, Bruno became the first-ever two-time WWE Champion.
Bruno once again proved to be the premier competitor in sports-entertainment and carried the title for a second impressive reign of 1,237 days. Although he lost the title to "Superstar" Billy Graham in 1977, Sammartino's cumulative time as WWE Champion across only two reigns stands at a staggering 4,040 days.
Bruno Sammartino headlined three WWE shows at New York’s Shea Stadium
From 1964 until its closing in 2008, Shea Stadium provided Queens residents with a place to check out baseball’s best. Usually, they were passing through town to beat up on the lowly Mets, which left the people of Queens County looking for a hero.
They found one in Bruno Sammartino. The Living Legend headlined the only three professional wrestling events to take place on the Mets’ home field. The first “Showdown at Shea” went down in 1972, and featured a grueling 65-minute draw between Sammartino and Pedro Morales. Four years later, Bruno fought off the challenge of Stan “The Lariat” Hansen to hang on to his coveted title. At the final Shea Stadium card in 1980, Sammartino got retribution against his former protégé, Larry Zbyszko, inside the confines of a steel cage.
Bruno’s victory was the final wrestling match to take place at Shea Stadium. With the Mets’ performance in recent years, we can only imagine that fans are wishing for The Living Legend to make an appearance at their new home, Citi Field.
Bruno Sammartino was more than just a regional attraction
Back in the days when wrestling was territorial in scope, competitors tended to find their fame in a specific region of the country. As WWE Champion, Bruno Sammartino became a household name in Northeastern cities like New York, Boston and Philadelphia, but the Italian Superstar was one of the first Superstars to gain a following all around the world.
Besides competing in major domestic markets like St. Louis, Los Angeles and Chicago, Sammartino became an in-demand attraction in Canada, Australia and Japan, where he routinely tangled with the beloved Giant Baba. The Living Legend’s home was always New York City’s Madison Square Garden, but there’s no doubt that Bruno Sammartino was WWE’s first global entity.
Bruno Sammartino was a good guy for his entire career
During the two decades that Bruno Sammartino reigned atop the sports-entertainment world, the Italian Superstar never once strayed from the path of righteousness. Bruno continually received the love, respect and adoration of WWE fans young and old — a support system he relied on as he stepped into the ring against villains like Virgil the Kentucky Butcher.
When the straightforward Bruno talked about facing an opponent, people hung on his every word. They steadfastly believed in Sammartino for always being honest with his thoughts, and felt that he was one of them. It did not matter about race, creed or ethnicity whatsoever. His fan following was incredible, and it went a long way toward cementing his status as The Living Legend. No other wrestling hero has been as unwavering as Bruno. Not Hulk Hogan, not Bret Hart, not even John Cena. And that’s saying something.
Bruno Sammartino set a world record for bench press in 1959
When Bruno Sammartino arrived in Pittsburgh by way of Abruzzi, Italy, in 1950, he was a scrawny, malnourished 14-year-old who was lucky to be alive. Nine years later, he was considered to be one of the strongest men on the planet.
Finding purpose in the weight room, Bruno became maniacally dedicated to lifting as a teenager, often spending four to five hours training on a given day. By 1959, Sammartino was so strong that he set an unofficial world record for the bench press when he put up an unprecedented 565 pounds. There were no “bench shirts” or performance enhancements involved in Bruno’s historic lift — just one man and a whole lot of steel.
It has been said that Sammartino could have chosen to compete in the Olympics and officially become recognized as the world’s record holder if he wanted to. In an era with no seven-figure sponsorships for Olympic athletes, though, Bruno decided to put his strongman skills to work by pursuing a paying professional wrestling career. He made the right choice.
Bruno Sammartino was the namesake of singer Bruno Mars
Though Bruno Sammartino’s name is forever etched in WWE history, The Living Legend wasn’t exactly a pop culture sensation after his retirement from active competition in 1981. However, his name has been introduced to a new generation through an unlikely source: Pop star Bruno Mars.
Mars, whose real name is Peter Hernandez, explained in several interviews that his stage name came from his father, who was a big fan of Sammartino. The Grammy Award-winning singer was a little pudgy as a baby, and his dad saw some resemblance between his son and Bruno.
That said, Mars may have forgotten what Sammartino looks like. In those interviews, he described Bruno as big and fat. We can guarantee that anyone who was familiar with the best conditioned athlete of his era would use anything but those two words.