Sammartino the Living Legend
By CHRIS SCHRAMM -- For SLAM! Wrestling
Bruno Sammartino. For more on 'the Living Legend', visit the excellent Puroresu Dojo
Larry Zbyszko is known as the 'Living Legend,' but few remember where
that nickname came from.
When Zbyszko was trying to make a name for himself in wrestling during
the late 1970s, he went under the guidance of Bruno Sammartino.
Sammartino was known as the 'Living Legend' based on his dominance of
wrestling during the 1960s and 1970s.
It was a betrayal by Zbyszko that led to a showdown in New York City's
Shea Stadium on August 8, 1980. Sammartino would teach his younger
student never to mess with a 'legend,' but Zbyszko took the nickname
from his teacher anyway.
Steve Austin, Shawn Michaels, Hulk Hogan, Bret Hart have all been
acclaimed by the WWF in the 1990s as their greatest champion ever.
Austin has not been to able to hold onto the title for longer than six
months, Hart and Michaels always had troubles keeping it for a long
period of time, and Hogan's four year reign seemed forever.
Bruno Sammartino held the WWF (then named the WWWF) World title on two
occasions. His title reigns totaled 11 years over two decades. Something
that is unimaginable in today's business.
Buddy Rogers was the first WWF World champion, but it was just a few
months into his reign that he was set to face a young Italian born
wrestler named Bruno Sammartino. The match was over in under a minute,
and Sammartino would go undefeated throughout the rest of the 1960s.
Born in Abruzzi, Italy, Sammartino's family immigrated to the United
States when Bruno was 13. A tiny 70-pound Sammartino soon started to
lift weights. By the age of 18 he weighed 267 pounds, was bench-pressing
550 pounds on a regular basis and was named Mr. Pennsylvania.
Vince McMahon Sr., father of current WWF head Vince McMahon Jr., saw
something in Sammartino that no one else saw. McMahon Sr. would help
build Sammartino into a wrestler.
McMahon Sr. was correct about Sammartino, and later called Sammartino
'the greatest athlete as well as the greatest wrestler of all time.'
This acclaim was seen in the ring. Gene Kiniski, Freddie Blassie, Killer
Kowalski and Ray Stevens were among the many that fell to Sammartino's
In the aftermath of the 'Red Scare,' a Russian wrestler nicknamed the
'Russian Bear' took on Sammartino on January 18, 1971. Ivan Koloff was
able to pull a major upset by defeating Sammartino for the WWF World
title. The defeat was the first major defeat to Sammartino in his
It was not the loss that shocked Sammartino that much. It was the crowd
reaction. "The only bad thing that night was it shocked me to see the
kind of reaction from the fans," he said. "The Garden was sold out. You
could have heard a pin drop. I thought something happened to my ears."
Sammartino did not give up his fight to win the title back. The WWF
World title would change hands a few times before Sammartino was able to
defeat Stan Stasiak for title on December 10, 1973.
Sammartino's age had caught up with him on April 30, 1977. A younger,
stronger Billy Graham was able to defeat Sammartino for the title. It
would be the last title reign of Sammartino.
His memory will always be remember at New York's Madison Square Garden
where he sold out the famed arena 187, according to Sammartino.
It was just a few years ago that tragedy almost hit Sammartino and his
family. A truck hit Sammartino's car at a fast speed, but Sammartino
suffered only minor injuries.
"I was told by medics that because I was in good shape that I sustained
only the injuries I did," Sammartino said in 1998 online chat. "I
dislocated my shoulder and injured my neck."
The WWF refuses to recognize Sammartino into their WWF Hall of Fame, and
Sammartino does not seem to care. He is very much angered with the drug
use and current state of wrestling that he refuses to even watch it. He
admits to watching his son David wrestle on Nitro in 1997, but he enjoys
relaxing at home instead.
"I get up in the morning and do a 5 to 6 mile job, I have a gym at home
and do some stretching. I read the paper, and then relax a little bit. I
take care of chores around the home and then spend time with my
Chris Schramm is from Shelby Township, MI. He's written other excellent historical columns for us, including:
June 11: Celebrating Dick the Bruiser
May 7: A history of crowds
Apr. 1: Happy Humphrey was the giant
Mar. 12: Back to Hogan's darker days
Feb. 3: The legacy of Giant BabaNov. 19: The origins of today's WCW-WWF war
Oct. 5: Twenty-eight years was the reign