Remembering the night Bruno Sammartino lost the WWE Title
Veteran wrestling journalist Bill Apter makes his WWE.com debut with this inside look at what was once the most shocking moment in WWE history — the night Bruno Sammartino lost his WWE Title to Ivan Koloff in Madison Square Garden.
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.
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.
“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.
Finally, when it appeared that Bruno was set for another win, Koloff caught Sammartino with a knee, knocking the wind out of the champion. Bruno quickly fell to the mat, totally dazed. Koloff, sensing the kill, quickly worked his way through the ropes and onto the ring apron. Next, he began climbing the corner ropes and perched himself on the top strands, one leg on each side of the ring post. I was in the perfect spot to get this action shot — and I did. Koloff came off the top with a devastating knee drop to do what no other challenger had been able to do all those years before. In a matter of seconds, referee Kroll made the three count and raised Koloff’s arm, declaring him the new WWE Champion.
Kroll made sure he posed Koloff with his arm up in victory for me. I looked around the arena. You could hear a pin drop. It was dead silence as the new champion left the ring with Albano behind him. Bruno was now sitting up in the middle of the ring with Skaaland just above him, asking if he was okay.
I remember seeing Bruno’s fan club president, Georgian Orsi, sitting in the front row, crying. Many other fans wept as well. I felt like we were all at a funeral as Bruno left the ring. No one knew what to say.
I hustled back to the dressing room and, after waiting a few minutes, knocked on Bruno’s dressing room door. He invited me in and agreed to an interview.
“What can I tell you, Bill?” he said. “You wrestle a man like Koloff many times and sometimes that man has a better night than you do. I don’t know what else to say.”
When I questioned him about going into the match with broken ribs, he said, “I don’t want to take anything away from Koloff. He beat me tonight and so let it be.”
I ended the interview there as I felt Bruno wanted to get dressed, leave the arena and head home to his family in Pittsburgh.
As I left Sammartino’s dressing room, the braggart Albano grabbed my microphone and for 10 minutes shouted about how he trained Koloff for this match and then demanded I take the first posed photos of Ivan with the title.
On Jan. 19, 1971, the New York Daily News reported the result of this match and published photos of fans crying as they mourned this incredible loss.
It was one of the most historic times in sports-entertainment. And I was there.