A great man has passed.
Bruno Sammartino died last Wednesday, April 18, 2018. He was 82. After two days of fans and well-wishers streaming steadily by to pay their last respects, he will be laid to rest today, Monday, April 23rd.
Or will he? Bruno worked out six days a week until he was 80 years-old. I’d not be surprised if he got up and bench-pressed his coffin when nobody was looking.
Bruno, his siblings, and his mother, hid in the ancient hills of Abruzzi, Italy, during WWII to escape the Nazis. The Germans put the hammer down hard on the Italians after they’d killed Mussolini and attempted to go back to their wine and opera. The Sammartinos foraged for whatever the forest would provide. His mother, Emilia, would sneak into the village at night to steal food for their survival. Four of the children didn’t. Eventually, the family made their escape to America to join their father who’d gone ahead years before to prepare the way. When he arrived in America, Bruno weighed 83 lbs.
Then, as now, immigrants were made fun of. They were abused, given the worst jobs that nobody else wanted, if they were given work at all. America proved to be as hard as Italy. Many made their way to Pittsburgh, where coal mines and steel mills offered dirty, dangerous work for those that were able and willing to do it. But the new arrivals melted into the pot, learning the language and the ways of this new land whose streets were paved with gold hidden beneath the grime. They kept their heads down, worked like animals, and survived. In time, some would even prosper.
In the beginning, Bruno was bullied and beaten. Then he discovered the gym and a propensity for weight-lifting. Eating a dozen eggs and a loaf of bread for breakfast, and working out like a fiend, he piled on pounds of muscle. Soon, the bullying stopped.
As a young man, Bruno held the title of strongest man in the world. This was not hyperbole. He held the world bench-pressing record of 565 pounds, remarkable in a pre-steroid world. He narrowly missed a spot on the US Olympic team, but had caught the eye of Vince McMahon, Sr., the P.T. Barnum that had launched a new form of entertainment. Professional wrestling. Or as it was know to the faithful, “rassling.” Bruno became a rassler.
As in everything the young man did, he did it with passion and intensity; with the kind of determination you might expect from someone who’d narrowly survived a war by hiding like a wild animal, eating bitter greens, watching his siblings starve to death. For Bruno, everything would always be a matter of life-and-death, a world defined by good and evil, of good guys and bad guys. The world of wrestling was a microcosm of this eternal shadow play. Bruno would be the good guy, the one for whom it was more than a game. In Bruno’s world, you stood up to evil. In Bruno’s world, good would always prevail.
The elder McMahon, Vince, Sr., (his son, Vince, Jr., would one day take the reins of the family business from his father and grow it into a juggernaut worth billions,) saw how fans reacted to Bruno’s goodness and groomed him to a championship match with Buddy Rogers. Bruno dispatched the newly belted champ in forty-three seconds in Madison Square Garden, the modern-day Coliseum, the most famous sports arena in the world. This would be the first of 188 sell-outs at “the Garden.” More than Frank Sinatra, more sell-outs than everybody else who’d ever sold out the venue combined. How important was Bruno Sammartino to Madison Square Garden? Important enough that they dimmed their lights and allowed only his image to appear on the marquee for the week of his passing. No small thing – the marquee of the Garden is some very precious advertising real-estate.
And if Bruno was good for the Garden, the Garden was good for Bruno. Because of his box-office strength, Bruno became the biggest international draw headlining wrestling cards around the world. Wrestlers tended to be known in one or two regions, the ebb and flow of their popularity fueled by feuds that flared and faded. Bruno maintained these rivalries on a scale that made him king in Mexico, Japan, Australia, his native Italy, everywhere.
But nowhere, nowhere, did Bruno mean as much as the city he called home – Pittsburgh. My father and I joined legions of fans that lived and died by the fates of their heroes. In a city where streetlights came on at noon darkened by the particulate matter in the air we breathed, where the night skies and polluted rivers glowed orange at night, lit to the horizon by the fires of Mordor as molten steel poured and ironmen worked it, we needed champions. My childhood had two, Roberto Clemente, and Bruno Sammartino. Alike, and dissimilar, both essential men, men that would not be kept down, men of courage, men of integrity.
Saturday nights in Pittsburgh were given over to Studio Wrestling, live from Channel Eleven on the North Side, the bad side, the side where I grew up. These weekly matches served to fan the animosities between adversaries, until once a month those hatreds, real or feigned, brought their blood-feuds to the Civic Arena to settle the matter mano-a-mano, once and for all. Baseball legend, Pie Traynor, announced. Bill Cardille, (who with George Romero, gave us NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD,) hosted. Ringside Rosie, never missed a match, her seat reserved for her. Big bad men gave Rosie wide berth, wary of her purse and her mouth. Matches were most-often refereed by Izzie Moidel, a man who hated Bruno, somehow always looking away when some villain was hitting Bruno over the head with a chair, groin-kicking him, throwing salt in his eyes, even, as in the case of the Sheik, shooting flame into his face from a hidden device! Bruno always fought two men – his opponent and Izzie.
Yep, make no mistake, in the Pittsburgh of my youth nobody needed a hero more than I, a skinny, bullied kid, trying to believe that good was right, that courage and integrity would prevail. For me, these weren’t fights, they were life lessons, things I needed to believe in.
And that’s where Bruno’s real value shined. In Bruno’s day, men bled. Backs and necks were broken. The ring aka the “squared circle” was built upon reinforced concrete, the turnbuckles coarse. When one big man picked up another big man and body-slammed him to the canvas, both men felt it. In Bruno’s day it was not public knowledge that matches were carefully choreographed to prevent mishaps. And yet mishaps happened. Men died in the ring for real. Bruno broke his back, his arms, his collarbone, his hands. Every rib in his body on multiple occasions. His ears were cauliflowers, his nose broken more times than he could count. Men knew the risks and accepted the unfortunate accidents as the cost of doing business. When Stan Hansen missed a move and broke Bruno’s neck, Bruno was back in the game, two months later, in a steel-cage match held at Shea Stadium! – a venue made necessary to accommodate the fifty thousand screamers looking for Bruno to exact his revenge. Poor Stan never had a chance.
In time, Vince Sr. and Jr. would see the men, (and women, and perversely, the midget wrestlers) grow more and more outrageous in their behavior, their masked and/or costumed personas, their comportment in and out of the ring becoming more of a freak sideshow than a serious athletic undertaking. Giving the finger, swearing at fans and other wrestlers, overt preening and sexuality, these became the new norm. But in Bruno’s day, such lurid behavior was not permitted. Bruno, the cock-of-the-walk, the leader of the lot of them would not stand for it. Bruno, a brawler’s brawler, would not stoop to such behavior.
As testimonials poured in from around the world at his passing several things came to light. By common consent, all who knew him, who fought him, were inspired by him, who came out of his legacy, acknowledged that the harshest word they’d ever heard him utter was “crap.” Bruno had two costumes; in interviews, a suit (usually ripped off him in a staged outrage by the bad guy du jour) or wrestling trunks. And his belt, the belt he wore for eleven years, more than three times longer than any other champion, in modern times or in the Golden Days of the 60’s.
You see, Bruno never got the memo. In Bruno’s mind the Nazis were real. He’d fought them. And he would fight them again and again and again. He fought them to exorcize his personal memories. He fought them for his brothers and sisters and his mother. He fought them for us. He told us to eat well, to get plenty of sleep, to exercise properly, and that through hard work a kid, any skinny kid, could grow strong without drugs.
When word came that the Champ had passed, every nemesis Bruno ever had – Killer Kowalski, Gorilla Monsoon, Crusher Lizowski, Waldo von Eric, the Sheik, the Undertaker, George “the Animal” Steele – all of them said that Bruno Sammartino, by far, was the toughest man they’d ever faced. And all of them, “good” and “bad” alike, told of how Bruno would collect their money from deadbeat promoters who neglected or refused to pay them, would refuse to work for any presenter that tried to stiff a wrestler until the recalcitrant promoter would come in line or be forced out of the business. Bruno stood for the wrestlers, almost single-handedly building the brand into what it would become, for better and for worse.
Eventually, as all champions must, Bruno left the game. But for twenty-five years he refused induction into the Wrestling Hall of Fame, spurning the honor he deserved more than any wrestler ever. Bruno did not approve of the use of steroids arguing that his own massive, yet proportioned body had been built the right way – in the weight room through hard work. Eventually, McMahon Sr. and Jr. came in line, if not for altruistic reasons, than business reasons, to demand clean wrestlers, to regulate the brand for the safety of its practitioners, and those that dreamed of joining the ranks. In 2013, Bruno, satisfied that he’d won his last, most important fight, buried the hatchet with the McMahons and accepted membership in the Wrestling Hall of Fame. The greatest star the sport would ever know descended to earth to accept the honor he’d denied himself for two and a half decades. Fittingly, the ceremony took place in Madison Square Garden, the hall he helped build, whose sell-out record will likely stand forever. Arnold Schwarzenegger presented him, telling of how the only time he was ever nervous competing was when Bruno sat as a judge at a Mr. Universe competition.
In his remembrance of Bruno, Ivan Koloff showed a photo of Bruno at age eighty, his body still the ripped envy of a twenty year-old. “Listen,” Ivan said, in a heavy Russian accent. “Today, all of us are broken, by the abuse of years and by the bad choices we made. But not Bruno. Look at this picture. Is this the body of an eighty year-old man? No. This is the body of a man who did things right.”
You see, Bruno never got the memo that it was fake. Choreographed entertainment, yes, maybe. But fake? As Bruno would say, “crap.” For Bruno Sammartino nothing in his world was, or ever would be, fake. The world is often harsh, times hard. But every once in a while, a humble man comes along, a good and righteous man, who breaks the mold and rights wrongs, and leads by his actions. A man that lets you know that goodness and hard work will always prevail and that all is right in the world. I am grateful for Bruno Sammartino, and I miss him.
April 23, 2018