Wrestling fans will forever remember Abruzzo, Italy.
The legendary Bruno Sammartino, a proud son of Abruzzo, passed away on Wednesday at the age of 82.
Sammartino is one of the most influential figures in the history of professional wrestling, and he wore the WWWF championship—which is currently the WWE title worn with pride by AJ Styles—for over seven years from May of 1963 to January of 1971.
“Bruno was the one the people wanted,” said fellow wrestling luminary Terry Funk, who grew up admiring Sammartino and later worked with him in Japan. “Bruno was the only guy that was worldwide. Back then, there were no champions that were worldwide, there were no TV stars that were worldwide. Even Andre The Giant, was he wanted at that time? No, there was only one person they wanted. That was Bruno, and he was legendary all the way around the world.”
Sammartino treated pro wrestling like a sport and was revolutionary in the way he trained as an athlete. The “Italian Strongman” also took pride in representing the blue collar people, and he refused to succumb to the narrative that wrestlers operated in a seedy world. Sammartino stayed in Pittsburgh after his family moved to the United States from Italy, and he and his wife, who were a year away from their 60th wedding anniversary, raised three children in Pennsylvania.
The 73-year-old Funk has sacrificed so much of his life to the business. Despite a business that quickly jades its employees, Funk stated that his admiration for Sammartino is unyielding.
“Oh my god did I ever respect him,” said Funk. “He was the guy, he was the real deal. Bruno was bigger than wrestling itself, and I really mean that.
“I would call Bruno the Joe DiMaggio of professional wrestling. He was phenomenal. He fought and fought, not for the promoter, but for his fellow athletes in the professional wrestling world.”
Sammartino is the last of a dying breed that ruled the wrestling world before Vince McMahon. Although his achievements in pro wrestling will live on, Sammartino’s greatest achievement was staying alive during World War II.
His mother, Emilia Sammartino, courageously snuck into German-occupied towns and bravely returned with food to her family, who were living in the Italian mountains of Valla Rocca.
Speaking from his home in Amarillo, Texas, Funk marveled at the notion that Sammartino started his life as a war refugee and ended as one of wrestling’s most memorable stars.
“Bruno had such a previous life that the odds were so high against him,” said Funk. “And he didn’t do it with Vince McMahon. He didn’t do it with Verne Gagne. He didn’t do it with LA wrestling. He did it by himself, from as little importance as he was a child, coming from the most minimal place.
“How did he become so legendary throughout the world? I’ll be damned if I know, but he was, all the way Umbarger, Texas to New York City to Tokyo, Japan to Rome, Italy.”
Funk noted that there will never be another star in wrestling quite like Bruno Sammartino.
“No one will ever surpass Bruno,” said Funk. “He was good to his people, to the wrestling fans, and to the wrestlers themselves. He loved them all. If somebody was in trouble, he damn sure had a hand to pull them out of a pocket of mud.
“I have wonderful recollections of being with him. There never was another one that was as good as a gentleman as Bruno. I promise you, no two ways about it, Bruno was as good as there ever was.”