WWE Hall of Famer Bruno Sammartino, who was best known for holding what was then known as the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF) Championship for over 11 years across two reigns, died Wednesday morning in Pittsburgh. He was 82.
The news of Sammartino’s passing was first reported by PWInsider’s Mike Johnson, who wrote that the wrestling icon died after what was described as a “hospitalization.” Sammartino’s exact cause of death was not immediately available at the time of the report.
In a news release posted by WWE following Bruno Sammartino’s death, the WWE Hall of Famer’s rise to fame atop the world of professional wrestling was described as the “story of the American Dream.” Born in 1935 and raised in the town of Abruzzi, Italy, Sammartino moved to Pittsburgh in 1950, where his parents were already living at the time, as noted by Cleveland.com. He initially got into powerlifting as a teenager, but when his feats of strength drew the attention of promoters, he became a pro wrestler, joining Vince McMahon Sr.’s WWWF after stints in a few smaller wrestling companies.
With the WWWF reigning as the top wrestling promotion in the New York area, Bruno Sammartino became the company’s second world champion, defeating Buddy Rogers on May 17, 1963. He would hang on to the title for a record-setting eight years, standing out as a hero to immigrant audiences, especially his fellow Italian Americans. While he lost his championship to fellow WWE Hall of Famer Ivan Koloff in 1971, he would regain it in 1973, becoming the then-WWWF’s first two-time champion and holding the title until he lost it to “Superstar” Billy Graham early in 1977.
Though already in his early 40s at the time he dropped his WWWF Championship to Graham, Bruno Sammartino wrestled a few more years and notably faced villainous ex-protege Larry Zbyszko at New York City’s Shea Stadium in 1980, defeating the younger man in a steel cage match. He retired from wrestling in 1981 but returned to the now-renamed WWF a few years later, working as a commentator but also wrestling on occasion, usually alongside his son David, who was a mid-card wrestler for the company at that time.
As recalled by the Sporting News, Bruno Sammartino left the then-WWF on a sour note, as he was upset with the new focus on “sports entertainment,” the drug use that was then rampant in the company, and the increasing prevalence of edgy, controversial storylines. Thanks in part to the intervention of WWE wrestler and executive Paul “Triple H” Levesque, Sammartino made peace with the company he fell out with some 25 years prior when he finally headlined the WWE Hall of Fame class of 2013.
According to Cageside Seats, Bruno Sammartino is survived by his wife, Carol, and their three sons and four grandchildren.