The death of professional wrestling legend Bruno Sammartino on April 18, 2018, at the age of 82 marks the end of an era. No longer the domain of working-class heroes and dangerous villains, pro wrestling is now called sports entertainment, and the men and women who perform in the squared circle are known as WWE Superstars.
Bruno was cut from an entirely different cloth. He survived the Nazis as a young boy in Italy by hiding in the mountains and came to America as a skinny young kid. Bruno put his determination to survive to good use, slowly evolving from a bullied 90-pound teenager to a hulking 270-pound strongman after a friend took him to the weight room at a Pittsburgh YMHA.
While today’s superstars perform in stadiums and arenas with crowds as large as 101,763, wrestlers in Sammartino’s era often worked over 300 shows a year. Most of the events took place in armories, local high schools, and VFW halls, with crowds of dozens or hundreds instead of thousands. They drove from town to town, sleeping in cheap motels, and eating tuna out of cans when they could afford to buy food.
As the top star in the world’s largest wrestling promotion, Bruno was the headliner. He held the WWWF World Heavyweight Championship for an all-time record run of 2,803 days, from 1963 to 1971.
Bruno was a champion everyone could love. When he spoke about how his mother saved the lives of her children during World War II, he glowed with admiration and respect according to CBS.
“She was absolutely my hero. She would do without if she could help somebody else. The sacrifices she made were incredible. My mom showed the courage of the lion to keep her kids alive and the sacrifices she made were incredible. I don’t know if I would have been man enough to do what she did.”
When Russian strongman Ivan Koloff shocked the wrestling world and ended Bruno’s first title reign on January 18, 1971, Sammartino lay on the mat and wondered if the impact of Koloff’s final bodyslam had damaged his hearing due to the overwhelming silence. The stunned reaction of Bruno’s legion of fans is still referred to as “The Night The Garden Went Silent.” To them, wrestling was real, and their idol had fallen to an evil Russian villain during the Cold War.
Still a hero to his millions of supporters, Bruno came back from defeat for one more title run that lasted 1,237 days before his mounting injuries convinced him he could no longer represent the title as a fighting champion. He continued at a slower pace as a main event star until his last match on August 29, 1987.
During his career, Bruno Sammartino sold out historic Madison Square Garden in New York City a record 187 times, held the WWWF World Heavyweight Championship for more than 11 years in total, and helped pro wrestling become a staple on America’s television and cable networks.
Fast forward to 2018, and professional wrestling is now known as Sports Entertainment. Kayfabe (the portrayal of staged events within the wrestling industry as “real” or “true”) has been broken. Wrestlers are called Superstars, and many of them earn seven-figure incomes.
The pinnacle of achievement in sports entertainment is to work for Vince McMahon Jr. in the WWE and headline WrestleMania, where the proceedings are spectacular, the hype is never-ending, and rock stars perform the wrestler’s entrance music for adoring crowds who are well aware the moves are choreographed and the results are decided in advance.
In an era of immediate gratification and endless spectacle, the curtain had been parted and the wizard pulling the strings had been revealed. As wrestlers were seen breaking character on popular late-night talk shows and babyfaces hung out in public with their heel enemies, fans were now aware that the feuds were fake, the outcomes planned in advance, and pro wrestling was a rather profitable, highly scripted industry.
Bruno Sammartino stayed away from professional wrestling after his retirement in 1988. He criticized the use of steroids and the often obscene storylines of the WWE’s “Attitude Era,” when wrestlers mimed sex under a blanket in the ring and staged mock crucifixions. Bruno finally made peace with Vince Jr. and the WWE in 2013 as wrestling changed its focus to athleticism and family-oriented storylines, and he accepted his rightful place in the WWE Hall of Fame.
Professional wrestling has changed forever. Kayfabe has been exposed, and wrestling’s legendary hero, Bruno Sammartino, has left us. Sports entertainment is now a major industry with revenues in the billions and a weekly television audience of millions. WrestleMania, now in its 34th edition, fills football stadiums and draws a top dollar television and pay-per-view audience, with an annual spectacle worthy of Hollywood. But nothing will ever top the night the hero fell, and Ivan Koloff pinned Bruno’s shoulders to the mat in Madison Square Garden. Bruno and Ivan are gone, but sports entertainment is here to stay. All hail the conquering heroes.