Bruno Sammartino was a fighter — nothing fake about it.
During World War II, with his family, the future pro wrestler hid from German soldiers. As a child, he battled bouts of sickness. As a teen, Sammartino emigrated from Italy to Pittsburgh with no knowledge of English, let alone any Pittsburghese.
It probably wasn’t a surprise, then, that two crushed vertebrae wouldn’t keep him out of the ring for long.
Sammartino, who began weight training after moving to the U.S., became arguably the greatest champion in the history of the pro wrestling. At one point, he held the World Wide Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment) heavyweight title for nearly eight years straight (1963-71).
The highly popular grappler was in his second multi-year reign in April 1976 when he broke his neck in a title match against Stan Hansen at Madison Square Garden.
The contest was stopped. Sammartino headed for the hospital but was never admitted, choosing to make what The Pittsburgh Press called a “painful trip” back to Divine Providence Hospital in Pittsburgh.
“This can be a permanent disability, but not necessarily, and I doubt it in this case,” Dr. Louis Civitrese, chief of surgery at Divine, told the Post-Gazette at the time.
Still, any sort of neck injury elicits some worry, and Sammartino was no different. His concern though wasn’t for his health or career.
It was for his parents; he didn’t want them hearing any bad news from strangers.
“My parents — my dad’s 85, my mom, 79 — worry so much about me all the time. If they had heard about it, they couldn’t have taken it,” Sammartino, neck brace in tow, said sitting by his twin sons, Danny and Darryl, and his wife, Carol, during an interview in the May 8 edition of The Pittsburgh Press.
After more tests and X-rays, doctors’ opinions varied on whether he could — or should — compete in the squared circle again.
“I hope to be wrestling in June,” Sammartino said.
Of course he did. He was a fighter.
True to his word, Sammartino rehabbed and beat Hansen in a rematch at New York’s Shea Stadium on June 25, a contest Pro Wrestling Illustrated magazine named its “Match of the Year.” Hansen also garnered another honor that same year: Most Hated Wrestler, a possible nod to Sammartino’s immense popularity at the time.
Sammartino would hold his heavyweight title until April 1977 — his total combined reign tallying 4,040 days. He retired from full-time competition in 1981 and, unhappy with pro wrestling’s and WWE’s overall direction, mostly stayed away from the business.
“I completely shut myself off from it,” Sammartino told the Post-Gazette shortly before his WWE Hall of Fame induction in 2013. “I never watched it on TV. It wasn’t just the drugs, the steroids. It was clear to me that Vince McMahon Jr. wasn’t interested in wrestling. He was interested in what he called entertainment. So you’d have these beautiful girls and then you’d have some nudity. Then the vulgarity. The profanity.”
All the while, though, the “Living Legend” remained a hero in his adopted hometown of Pittsburgh, receiving the Dapper Dan Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010. Sammartino also was among the first inductees into the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2002. Today at 80, he’s still an icon to wrestling fans and Pittsburghers alike.
As for Hansen? He found his greatest success in Japan, winning multiple championships before retiring in 2000.