This is a piece I really never thought about writing: the passing of my friend, and the greatest professional wrestler of all time, and a man whose life and legend will shine as a role-model for many ages. I never thought about it because Bruno Sammartino was larger than life, his parents lived well into their nineties, and he owed me a dinner.
I figured he’d outlive multiple generations of his peers, and at least a few notable celebrities, and that the promise simply had to be kept.
But I was wrong.
Above all, I feel for Bruno’s family, his sons, his grandchildren and especially his wife and childhood sweetheart, Carol. I feel a great loss as a fan and a passionate follower of professional wrestler. I feel for many, many ages of the fans who Bruno loved as much as they loved him
It’s been a long time since I’ve written about professional wrestling. Those who know my style may worry about me blathering, talking nostalgic and getting deep in the woods of an artform that has always been underappreciated.
I’ll strive to keep that for another day.
I’ll also strive to avoid the rehashing of an interesting, moving and legendary life. The details are amazing, having spoken and heard many of them first hand is a privilege, and when everyone will repeat the same things, sometimes its best to avoid the mainstream. I see a day where my life’s ambition to fully write Bruno’s biography – and it is a sad day to realize I cannot truly call it an autobiography any longer – may allow me to set many records straight.
But this isn’t about me, yet the reality that this lifelong Pittsburgher knew and impressed his childhood idol speaks volumes about Bruno’s connections to his fans. I am a Slovak that grew up in a Polish steel mill town, and no one I knew spoke a bad word about Bruno. Pittsburgh is a melting pot, and an Italian immigrant (who’s story about his survival, his mother’s efforts and his being bullied as a teenager were not known) had a connection to the American Dream that anyone could believe.
Professional wrestling is sport that sullied nearly all people it touched. Almost everything negative about this so-called sports entertainment could be attributed to Bruno’s long time arch-nemesis. But ironically, touchingly and as a testament to Bruno’s standing in life, even Vincent K. McMahon had kind words to say.
Bruno’s life was one of passion, integrity and understanding. In all of these, his life is an example to anyone who believes that hard work is the key to success. In all of these, we can find and identify traits that spell success in business and in life. In all of these, in every year Bruno’s stamp upon his chosen industry has faded, professional wrestling’s ability to engage its fanbase has diminished.
Passion is a must to succeed. For Bruno, he began his efforts to achieve success as a weakling and a teenager. While the story of Bruno’s transformation is somewhat known, he never lost his efforts to improve his physical strength and I believe he set the stage for his success by becoming a bodybuilder, a weightlifter and an amateur wrestler.
Those foundations were necessary for his mastery of the sport in which he would become world champion. Without a physical presence for the fans to rally around, without an impressive and obvious strength to build his reputation, without the fundamentals of amateur wrestling (which earned him a potential scholarship at Pitt) to show he knew how to wrestle, how could he prove himself?
Many will look at Bruno’s history and see the moments that defined him.
Don’t forget that those peaks (slamming Haystacks, defeating Buddy, losing to Koloff, beating Stasiak, losing to Graham, and the fascinating story of Larry Zbyszko) were not random acts but developments of a career that couldn’t have been forged without passion and athleticism.
To become great at something takes effort, endurance and execution. To be able to establish a legendary status doesn’t happen overnight. To know Bruno’s trials and tribulations as a child, a teenager and in breaking into the sport of professional wrestling is to know what overcoming hardships and achievement is all about.
Bruno’s main trait was integrity.
As a champion, he drew multitudes by saying what he would do, and delivering on it. As a man, he raised the level as a son, husband, father and most importantly to those of use outside his family, as a role model.
Bruno was in most ways the opposite of most professional wrestlers, and I will not sully his memory by naming so many of those names or making comparisons.
In the twilight of his career, he took care of his parents. In the twilight of his life, he cared deeply about his family. At the height of his first reign, he was concerned about his fellow wrestlers. At the height of his celebrity, he never looked down upon the fans or the workers nor overlooked an opportunity to do right by those who paid him to perform.
Bruno’s legacy is respect, and he was completely respectful of his peers and his fans. He lived as a role-model. He never seemed to have an off-night, and for him, when he wrestled through injuries he regretted not giving his all for the paying audience.
That’s the kind of man he was, and it pains me to use that verb, and I don’t want to stop writing.
Integrity makes someone legendary, above and beyond the details, and cannot be an accident.
But the one thing I will champion of Bruno’s legacy is the one thing that modern fans cannot perceive. That Bruno was the greatest professional wrestler of all time, and that he understood this business beyond the realms of what pundits and the dominant business and the fading memories. I say this from countless discussions and two dozen notebooks and studying this sport to the point of having Bruno introduce me to Larry and Ivan as a guy “who knows a lot about the business” and to the point of impressing more than a few other notables.
What most never knew about Bruno is that he knew professional wrestling. He didn’t become a champion by accident. He didn’t run Studio Wrestling out of Pittsburgh without knowing how to do it. He didn’t pick talent, make vastly marketable suggestions to friends and foes alike, nor watch and be disgusted by what professional wrestling became just out of jealousy.
Bruno dominated the sport in the 1960’s and 1970’s and could have been champion for 20 years.
And while I’ve seen the snickers of those who cannot make realistic comparisons, I’ve heard Bruno tell me why drawing fans fifty years ago – when they paid for tickets, parking, food & drink and kept coming back for more – cannot compare to watching it for free on TV.
I’ve had those conversations that were deep in the woods of the business, and I am privileged to have done so. It is my absolute necessity to convey as much of that knowledge as I can.
There are all-time greats in the industry of professional wrestling, but aside from a few turn-of-the-last-century figures, no one came close to packing major arenas on a regular basis. A guy like Lou Thesz was athletic, believable and a true champion, but he never had to bring fans back for the next month to the same arena.
Bruno didn’t just sell out Madison Square Garden close to 200 times; he drew fans to MSG, Boston Gardens, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington DC, and his adopted home of Pittsburgh on a monthly basis (and at times more often).
He likely drew a paying crowd of the same faces for years, which is incomprehensible to almost all, but never to Bruno, with the biggest secret being his fans and knowing his fans and knowing how to elicit responses in the heat of battle. Along the way, he changed up his style, his “formula” and his approach to keep things fresh, and to keep the fans paying.
It cannot be understated how important it is to absolutely understand your job, your chosen profession and how to succeed, before you can succeed. Bruno’s career and life as the Living Legend was a testament to his understanding.
I would be remiss to not reference some of the “Friends of Bruno”, including Chris Cruise-Jones and Sal Corrente and Ben Brown and Larry Richert and others, including the late, great Georgiann Makropoulos. I thank Chris and Georgiann for helping me connect to Bruno. The first time I heard him on the phone, the first time I heard his unmistakable voice, it was funny to hear him ask if I recognized who it was.
It’s been a long time since I’ve spoken to him and a longer time since I enjoyed weekly conversations, but I know this: I’ll miss his voice and I’ll miss him.