The place: New York's famed Madison Square Garden. The time: May 17, 1963. He wore the world's heavyweight championship belt for the first time in his life, four years after turning into a professional wrestler. Since then he had held that title for fourteen years, undefeated except on one occasion in 1971. He was a consummate athlete, and he commanded respect from friend and foe alike. He held a wrestling attendance record in Australia for selling out twenty-one consecutive nights and he once drew in an estimated crowd of 40,000 fans in a bull ring in Caracas, Venezuela.It's no surprise that Bruno Sammartino is truly known as wrestling's living legend!
Bruno was born in Abruzzi, Italy and immigrated here to the United States at age 15. His lifelong dream since age 8 was to become a wrestler. He idolized a greco-roman wrestler named Batisti who represented Italy in the Olympics in the 30's. He loved amateur wrestling, but he said it's not really a spectator sport because it didn't have any thrills or surprises. In pro wrestling, you have to add a lot of stuff to make it exciting. While going to high school during the day, Bruno worked out constantly at a local gym in Pittsburgh where he lived.
His first job while living here in America was as a construction worker and during the evening he wrestled at various arenas. He finally turned pro in 1959. Then on May 17, 1963, Bruno defeated Nature Boy Buddy Rogers to capture the WWWF Heavyweight Wrestling Championship and from that night on he successfully defended his title with such enthusiasm and tenacity that no other wrestler could ever hope to defeat him.
That is, until he met "The Russian Bear" Ivan Koloff. Koloff became the new heavyweight champion by defeating Sammartino on January 18, 1971 in Madison Square Garden. It was a night of humiliation for Bruno and a night of victory for Koloff who boasted and bragged about how he became the only man to ever defeat Sammartino, and that Bruno was no living legend. And from that night emerged a devastating feud that would become historic in the annals of professional wrestling.
Koloff subsequently lost the title to Pedro Morales at Madison Square Garden a month later on February 8, and Morales held the belt for two years, then lost it to Stan "The Man" Stasiak. Stasiak held the title for a mere nine days before losing to Sammartino on December 10,1973. The living legend then became the first two-time WWWF champion.
Throughout his entire career, Bruno has met and fought challenger after challenger and emerged victorious in the WWWF. Most of his matches have been grueling and sometimes have ended in controversy. But no matter the outcome, Bruno has defended his title with such tenacity that he truly lives up to being called the "living legend."
Bruno had also introduced the fans to two proteges that he had trained: Larry Zbyzsko and Spiros Arion. Zbyszko was also from Pittsburgh and became an almost identical wrestler to Sammartino. He was very successful and talented during his WWWF tenure, and even won the tag team championship along with Tony Garea by defeating the Yukon Lumberjacks. But he always thought he was in the shadow of Sammartino, and decided he didn't need to follow Bruno any longer, resulting in a bitter rivalry. This teacher vs. student feud ultimately ended before an excited crowd at New York's Shea Stadium when Bruno defeated Zbyszko in a steel cage match.
Spiros Arion was another friend who became one of Bruno's bitter enemies. Spiros was born in Athens, Greece and had been wrestling since he was a teenager. He was a fan favorite and had also become a very good technical, scientific wrestler during his time in the WWWF. Spiros became friends and eventually a tag team partner with Bruno. During their brief partnership they were very successful as a tag team, but it wasn't about to last.
Arion had his mind tainted by Freddie Blassie, who somehow convinced Spiros that Bruno was jealous of him and that he was not to be trusted. The confused athlete would eventually dump Sammartino as his tag team partner. After an incident which involved Bruno, Spiros and Chief Jay Strongbow, Spiros sided with Blassie and viciously turned on Bruno. However, the two unsuccessfully tried to wrestle the title from the living legend.
Opponent after opponent, feud after feud, no one could take the title from the waist of Sammartino. Wrestlers from Ivan Koloff , The Executioners, Cowboy Bob Duncum, to Nikolai Volkoff, The Valiant Brothers, Waldo Von Erich & Buggsy McGraw fought fierce battles but in the end Sammartino emerged victorious.
Then it happened, in Philadelphia on May 1,1977. Bruno Sammartino has been defeated and lost the heavyweight championship to Superstar Billy Graham. The reign of wrestling's living legend was over. Bruno would never again regain the championship he so proudly defended for 14 years.
Throughout his career in the WWWF, in every championship bout that Bruno fought in at Madison Square Garden it was to record crowds. Bruno's claim to fame was that during his career he had never lost a steel cage match. Bruno also became the only wrestler in WWWF history to ever wrestle in Shea Stadium....twice. Once in a rematch between the master of The Lariat, Stan Hansen and in a steel cage match against his former pupil Larry Zbyszko. (Editor's Note: In fact, Sammartino appeared at Shea Stadium a third time - against Pedro Morales on September 30, 1972)
Bruno had survived against every hold & maneuver his opponents used on him: "The Lariat", "The Heart-Punch", "The Claw", "The Axe", and "The Swinging Neckbreaker", every kind of match from a "Texas Death" & "Russian Chain" to even a "Sicilian Stretcher" match and he still held onto the title. Managers like The Grand Wizard, Fred Blassie and Captain Louis Albano continuously dogged the trail of Sammartino plotting his defeat in their quest for the gold.
Stan Stasiak, George "The Animal" Steele, Bruiser Brody (seen on the right in this shot), Tor Kamata, Ernie Ladd, Killer Kowalski, and Ken Patera (shown here on the left) all faced the mettle and wrath of Bruno and realized the he would never go down in defeat and that he had more heart and determination than any wrestler they would ever face. There will never be another wrestler like Sammartino, he honored and cherished being world champion than any wrestler wrestling today. He truly will forever be known as wrestling true living legend.
9/30/72: Bruno Vs. Pedro Morales (Shea Stadium) Bruno fought his former tag team partner Morales for one hour and 15 minutes to a time limit draw in front of 35,000 fans.
11/17/73: Bruno Vs. Ivan Koloff (MSG) Bruno defeats Koloff before 22,090 with Gorilla Monsoon as special guest referee at 21:14
12/15/75: Bruno Vs. Ivan Koloff (MSG) Bruno retained his title by defeating Koloff in a 15 ft. high steel cage match in 11:46 before an sellout crowd of 26,350 plus 4,253 in the Felt Forum.
2/2/76: Bruno Vs. Superstar Billy Graham (MSG) A sellout crowd of 25,600 plus 3,100 watching on closed circuit in the Felt Forum saw Bruno defeat Superstar Billy Graham when referee Danny Bartfield stop the match at 17:55 because of several cuts inflicted on Graham by Sammartino.
3/29/76: Bruno/Parisi Vs. Graham/Koloff (MSG) Bruno teamed up with Tony Parisi and defeated Ivan Koloff and Superstar Graham before 21,004 fans at Madison Square Garden.
4/26/76: Bruno Vs. Stan Hansen (MSG) Stan Hansen defeated Bruno when the referee stopped the match after Sammartino suffered a cut above his eye and suffered a fractured vertebrae after receiving "The Lariat" before a stunned audience of 17,493.
6/25/76: Bruno Vs. Stan Hansen (Shea Stadium) After 10:19, the grudge match between Bruno & Hansen was settled when after being tossed out of the ring four times bloodied & bruised, the bad man from Borgia, Texas fled the ring with blood streaming from his face and with his manager The Grand Wizard right behind him. The crowd booed Hansen after he left and Sammartino stood alone in the center of the ring with his title belt held high over his head.
12/20/76: Bruno Vs. Stan Stasiak (MSG) Bruno defeated the man he regained the WWWF title from, Stan "The Man" Stasiak before a sellout crowd of 22,090 at Madison Square Garden in a "Sicilian Stretcher Match". This was Bruno's 23rd successful title defense at the Garden since he regained the championship in 1973.
3/7/77: Bruno Vs. Ken Patera (MSG) In this, their third outing against each other Bruno emerged victorious in his match against the Olympian strongman Ken Patera. With Gorilla Monsoon as Special guest referee and before 26,492 fans with an additional 4,400 in the Felt Forum.
6/27/77: Bruno Vs. Superstar Billy Graham (MSG) In one of their last few rematches, 22,090 plus 4,000 fans in the Felt Forum paid to see Bruno try to regain his title from the newly crowned champion Superstar Billy Graham. Both wrestlers fought to a time limit draw.
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