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  September 15, 1999

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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 wrestling dominance.

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 career.

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 grandchildren."

More on Bruno Sammartino

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 Baba
  • Nov. 19: The origins of today's WCW-WWF war
  • Oct. 5: Twenty-eight years was the reign

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