World Wrestling Entertainment announced the news on Wednesday afternoon after learning of the legendary wrestler’s passing, given that the Italian was the face of the WWE throughout the 1960s and 1970s, ending his career as the longest reigning world champion and the company’s first ever two-time world champion.
His reign of nearly eight years is by far the longest ever seen in the WWE, having beaten Buddy Rogers on 17 May 1963 in just 48 second to become the company’s second WWE champion. The victory triggered an unprecedented run of success that eventually ended in 1971 when he suffered defeat against Ivan Koloff, only to regain the title two years later and holding onto it for another three-and-a-half years.
Dubbed ‘The Living Legend’, Sammartino holds the record for selling out Madison Square Garden, a feat he achieved 187 times throughout his illustrious career, and after retiring from in-ring action he joined Vincent J McMahon, the father of current owner Vincent Kennedy McMahon, on commentary as well as mentoring his son David.
But despite all of his accolades in professional wrestling, it was his life before the WWE that was perhaps the most remarkable. Born in 1935 in Pizzoferrato in the Abruzzo region of Italy, four of Sammartino’s older siblings died at an early age and his home town was seized by the Nazi’s during the Second World War, forcing him and his mother to hide on the Valla Rocca mountain.
He eventually left Italy and moved to Pittsburgh where his father was living, and after starting to lifts weights to protect himself from bullies who targeted him due to ill-health left over from the war, he set the world record bench press with a lift of 565 pounds, a feat that caught the eye of McMahon Snr and paved the way for his arrival in the WWE.
A number of past and present WWE superstars posted tributes to the late wrestling legend, with Dustin Rhodes, otherwise known as Golddust, writing on Twitter: “Sad to hear that we lost a great one #BrunoSammartino today. Thoughts and prayer go out to his family.”
Fellow Hall of Famer Ted Dibiase said: “Devastating news for the wrestling world. An Icon amongst Icon’s, Bruno Sammartino has passed away. RIP Bruno. My thoughts and prayers are with his family today.”
Current women’s wrestler Natalya wrote: “Growing up, my grandfather Stu Hart would ALWAYS talk about Bruno Sammartino and what an incredible wrestler he was. I’m so grateful I had the chance to meet Bruno and tell him how much he meant to my grandfather and the entire Hart family. We will all miss you, Bruno.”
Former WWE and current Ring of Honor star Cody Rhodes said: “Nothing today can happen without what he did back then. Rest in power and thank you Bruno Sammartino.”
Sad to hear that we lost a great one #BrunoSammartino today. Thoughts and prayer go out to his family.
— Dustin Rhodes (@Goldust) April 18, 2018
#BREAKING: Pittsburgh legend and @WWE Hall of Famer Bruno Sammartino has passed away at the age of 82. He was surrounded by his family. https://t.co/v6hr03A69b #RIPBruno #BurghProud pic.twitter.com/Kcfdxd0Ssw
— KDKA (@KDKA) April 18, 2018
Growing up, my grandfather Stu Hart would ALWAYS talk about Bruno Sammartino and what an incredible wrestler he was. I’m so grateful I had the chance to meet Bruno and tell him how much he meant to my grandfather and the entire Hart family. We will all miss you, Bruno. 🙏♥️ pic.twitter.com/Dclu5hMGa6
— Nattie (@NatbyNature) April 18, 2018
Nothing today can happen without what he did back then. Rest in power and thank you Bruno Sammartino. pic.twitter.com/JEuHPUh3fJ
— Cody Rhodes (@CodyRhodes) April 18, 2018
As well as David, Sammartino has two other twin sons, Danny and Darryl, and lived with wife Carol in Pennsylvania. They couple also have four grandchildren, and in 2013 Sammartino was inducted into the WWE’s Hall of Fame, having repeatedly turned down invitations to do so after being a vocal critic of the direction that Vince McMahon has taken the company in. Sammartino decided that the recent work by the WWE to address its risqué story lines and drug-use issues had left it in a better place, and he was inducted by Arnold Schwarzenegger.