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ImageBruno Sammartino, Pro Wrestling’s Champ for a Decade, Dies at 82
Bruno Sammartino, an Italian immigrant who was heavyweight champion of the World Wide Wrestling Federation for a record 11 years in the 1960s and ′70s, long before the federation admitted that its matches were scripted and largely choreographed entertainment shows, died on Wednesday at 82.
His death was announced on the website of WWE, the organization also known as World Wrestling Entertainment, a successor of the World Wide Wrestling Federation. No other details were provided, but a family friend and former wrestling announcer, Christopher Cruise, told The Associated Press that Sammartino had been hospitalized for two months. Sammartino lived in Pittsburgh.
In an era when the sports world, except for some die-hard wrestling fans, knew that professional matches were staged dramatizations, with heroes and villains, story lines and beefcake actors shamming the violence, Sammartino was one of the most popular performers in the business. He wrestled in Australia, Spain, Mexico, Canada and Japan, and often drew gates of 20,000 at Madison Square Garden, where he had more than 200 matches.
Unlike many heavies on the pro wrestling circuits, he was a soft-spoken, gentlemanly connoisseur of grand opera, especially Verdi. And for one who had bench-pressed 565 pounds as an amateur, he was relatively small: under 6 feet tall and a trim 260 or 270 pounds, with bulging pectorals and biceps and a big head. He looked tiny beside giant rivals like Haystacks Calhoun, who topped 600 pounds.
Sammartino often feuded with promoters who arranged his matches. But he insisted that he never took a dive and held his titles legitimately in two reigns, from May 17, 1963, to Jan. 17, 1971, and from Dec. 10, 1973, to April 30, 1977. He lost a few matches: One foe threw salt in his eyes and pinned him while he groped about blindly; another leapt from the ring and ran off with his “diamond studded” championship belt. But these did not count.
e sometimes made $150,000 a year, headlining cards featuring the “bad guys” — Killer Kowalski, Hans Mortier, Waldo von Erich, Ivan Koloff, Gorilla Monsoon, Professor Toro Tanaka and George (the Animal) Steele. Feuds and insults fueled the publicity hype, and outrages in the ring sent crowds wild. Every wrestler had a gimmick: ethnicity or nationality, the personas of cowboys, lumberjacks or farmers, and sports reporters went along with the fun.
Chief Big Heart, no cigar-store Indian, used his ‘tomahawk chop’ to advantage,” The New York Times related in 1965. “The referee warned the Chief, ‘Don’t use your foot.’
“What do you mean?” replied the Chief. “I’m only stepping on his head.”
Sammartino and many of his opponents were under contract to the wrestling federation, which arranged matches, orchestrated publicity and made millions from ticket sales and television broadcasts.
The money was good, but Sammartino said he was motivated by pride, not howling fans who admired his headlock on the Sheik of Araby or goaded him to kick and stomp Crybaby Cannon.
Sammartino was a “good guy,” but like all the others, he pounced, grimaced, grunted and rolled with the blows — a heroic Italian vs. a villainous Manchurian or a giant from Berlin: a different scenario for every match.
In February 1961, Sammartino body-slammed Chick Garibaldi to the canvas at Sunnyside Gardens in Queens. Garibaldi did not get up. The referee stopped the match and determined that Garibaldi was dead. A medical examiner later said he had suffered a heart attack. Sammartino was stricken with remorse for months.
Sammartino himself almost died, of a broken neck, when Stan Hansen, in a match in New York in 1976, dropped him on his head. Sammartino spent weeks in a hospital.
ImageBruno Sammartino, Pro Wrestling’s Champ for a Decade, Dies at 82
Sammartino at his home in Pittsburgh in 2000.Credi

Sammartino did not dispute that professional wrestling matches were fixed. But he bristled at suggestions that he had ever taken a fall and said his injuries were proofs of his honesty.
“I would be a fool to tell you that there was no fixing,” he told The Washington Post in 1980 as his career wound down. “You ask if wrestling is for real? Well, I think my own body answers that question. I have broken more bones than any of the others — my neck, my collarbone, both arms, wrists, knuckles, all of my ribs, my back. A hairline fracture of the kneecap. My jaw has been wired and rewired. It’s incredible to think people would fake that.”
In 1989, Vincent K. McMahon, the owner of WWE, acknowledged for the first time that its matches were not contests, only entertainment shows featuring story lines, scripts and sometimes dangerous choreography. The admission was made to avoid taxes and licensing fees imposed by state athletic commissions.

Bruno Leopoldo Francesco Sammartino was born on Oct. 6, 1935, in central Italy, in the town of Pizzoferrato. He was the youngest of seven children of Alfonso and Emilia Sammartino. Four siblings did not survive childhood.

After the father left for America in 1939, the remaining family fled invading German forces during World War II and hid in the mountains of Abruzzo for 14 months, subsisting on little food. After the war, they immigrated to the United States and were reunited with the father in Pittsburgh.
Bruno, a sickly 90-pounder who spoke little English, was a target of bullies at Schenley High School and resolved to build his physique with weight lifting and wrestling. He weighed 225 at graduation in 1953.
He went on to work out with the University of Pittsburgh wrestling coach, Rex Peery, competed in locally televised amateur matches, and narrowly lost a spot on the 1956 Olympic weight-lifting team to Paul Anderson, who won the heavyweight gold medal in Melbourne, Australia.
Sammartino married Carol Teyssier in 1959 and had three children with her: David and the twins Daniel and Darryl. All survive him. David Sammartino, a former professional wrestler, had briefly lured his father out of retirement to form a tag team.

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