Before Hulk Hogan, John Cena and more, Bruno Sammartino was the first real hero
By Rich Mancuso
The following column appears courtesy of NY Sports Day, a leading independent metropolitan area site that is credentialed to cover all major sporting events in the New York area.
My “Living Legend” passed away this week. And Bruno Sammartino, the pro wrestling legend was appropriately labeled with that title because he was professional wrestling and a hero to yours truly and many others. The longest reigning, and then known as WWWF Champion, he would later help me get my start in the wrestling media business with the late “Captain” Lou Albano and another Italian who was the “Heel”, Dominic Denucci.
So when word came that my hero passed away at his home in Pittsburgh Wednesday morning, at the age of 82, a part of history also passed. Sammartino was an icon in his day, the superstar that could never lose and the person you wanted to meet.
And many years later, Sammartino and yours truly would meet and to be honest, I would be the the first to admit that I was still “starstruck.” Because growing up as a young kid, and from an Italian neighborhood in the Bronx “Little Italy” – Arthur Avenue, Bruno was the hero to all of us.
Dad would come home from a long day of work. There were tears on this face and he asked what’s wrong? The simple answer was, “I want to go to go see Bruno tonight. Please, Please, Please, I want to go see him. He can’t win if I am not there.”
And moments later, it was me and my late father, on the subway or in the car, and off to Madison Square Garden to see my hero defend that long-reigning WWWF championship. But Dad was not interested in spending his hard-earned wages on what he said was all make-believe. But for me, to see Bruno Sammartino, Dad wanted to make sure there were smiles and stopped the lectures about pro wrestling being a scripted business.
Bruno on the night he lost the WWWF title to Koloff.,
— Bill Apter (@apter1wrestling) April 18, 2018
Years later, I would reflect and discovered it was a script. However, Bruno Sammartino, my hero, always made it look real.
It became a monthly trip to the Garden with Dad, later on with another Dad and friends. You could only see Bruno defend that title at the Garden, which was the home for the WWWF back then. And Dad, or an adult, had to purchase the ticket and be there with you because for years children under 18 would not be permitted to see a pro wrestling event in New York State by themselves.
But there he was, Sammartino, “The Living Legend” in the ring and taking on the other icons. He body slammed Hall of Famers. Haystacks Calhoun, Stan “The Man” Stasiak, Don Leo Jonathan, Waldo Von Erich, Killer Kowalski, Spiros Arion. The grudge matches were with Chief “Wahoo” McDaniel, Gorilla Monsoon, icons who would always be a part of that script, once his friends who turned on my hero.
And there was former football player, Ernie “The Big Cat” Ladd. That became a series of Monday night wars at the Garden. Ladd would mimic the Italian accent of Sammartino on Saturday morning television, the only time pro wrestling was available to view. In those times with limited channels you had to surf to find out where and what channel to see the script develop. That would entice an Italian kid from the Bronx to go see two rivals finish their war at the “Mecca”, Madison Square Garden.
And when Bruno was at the Garden, he sold out the place 187 times in his illustrious career. That was a record and an accomplishment because it was that time when pro wrestling had regional territories and Sammartino was only defending the championship in New York, in Boston, or at a small venue in Pennsylvania. And there was the movement as the Latino market got involved, so Bruno and Pedro Morales had an epic match at Shea Stadium. Morales would get the torch, becoming the new champion as demographics said to give the title to the audience.
But there was that memorable Monday night of January 18, 1971 at the Garden. It was never going to happen, but Bruno, my hero, lost that coveted championship to the late Ivan Koloff, his Russian adversary. Sammartino was suffering from a bad neck and the script called for the title to change after a long reign that started in 1963 after beating “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers in 48 seconds.
Koloff had the better bear hug, and Sammartino could always manage a way to break the hold. But not on that night and yours truly, who went to the Garden this time without Dad knowing, was stunned. Bruno left the ring without the championship and we refused to leave our seats until security chased us out of the arena an hour after the conclusion.
Those who were not there to hear the silence afterwards, as I did many times, got results from the Garden in the morning newspaper. Small print in back of the sports pages, because editors would not treat this as a major headline. Like Dad. news media saw wrestling as fake and not the big extravaganza it is today, and known as sports entertainment.
Had Bruno Sammartino been around the scene years later, it may have been different and maybe not as huge as the Hulk Hogan explosion. He did not want to be an entertainer, just the wrestler, and was vocal about the direction of pro wrestling and very much with an opinion of the steroid era that put a black eye on the industry
Years later, I would tell these stories to my hero. Lou Albano was the subject of an interview and this cub reporter asked about the “Living Legend.” Albano, a longtime friend of Sammartino, arranged the meeting and two Hall of Famers started a small promotion and television program.
The rest is history, as Bruno Sammartino wanted to grant this Italian kid, and one of his biggest fans, an opportunity. We worked together for a few years and my real introduction to the pro wrestling business evolved.
I was no longer a fan or the kid from Arthur Avenue rooting for my Italian superhero in the ring. I now worked with a real “Living Legend” and learned about the business. Bruno would fade away and we tried to stay in touch, but it was difficult as he lived a private life at home in Pittsburgh before being inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.
So Wednesday morning, a major part of those younger years, and of this career passed away. But always Bruno Sammartino will be that “Living Legend” to me. And to many, he will always be that legend and icon of pro wrestling fame.
It was a different era, yes. And he probably made more of an impact than what Hulk Hogan accomplished, because Bruno Sammartino at the time, was that example of the true and only pro wrestling hero.
Rest In Peace!
Rich Mancuso is the Managing Editor of NY Sports Day, and he is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster with nearly 40 years of experience on many major sports beats. He was widely known as a pro wrestling radio voice who co-hosted “Keep It In the Ring” with Jody McDonald on WFAN Radio.
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