Mancuso: Sammartino, The Childhood Hero

My “Living Legend” passed away this morning. And Bruno Sammartino, the pro wrestling legend was appropriately labeled with that title because he was professional wrestling and a hero to  yours truly and many others. The longest reigning, and then known as WWWF Champion, would later get my start in the business with the late “Captain” Lou Albano and another Italian who was the “Heel” Dominic Denucci.

So when word came that my hero passed away at his home in Pittsburgh this morning, at the age of 82, a part of history also passed. Sammartino was an icon in his day, the superstar that could never lose and the person you wanted to meet.

And many years later, Sammartino and yours truly would meet and to be honest, the first to admit that I was “starstruck.”  Because growing up as a young kid, and from an Italian neighborhood in the Bronx “Little Italy” Arthur Avenue, Bruno was the hero to all of us.

Dad would come home from a long day of work. There were tears on this face and he asked what’s wrong? The simple answer was, “I want to go to go see Bruno tonight. Please, Please, Please, I want to go see him. He can’t win if I am not there.”

And moments later, it was me and my late father, on the subway or in the car, and off to Madison Square Garden to see my hero defend that long reigning WWWF championship. But Dad was not interested in spending his hard earned wages on what he said was all make believe. But for me, to see Bruno Sammartino, Dad wanted to make sure there were smiles and stopped the lectures about pro wrestling being a scripted business.

Years later, I would reflect and discovered it was a script. However, Bruno Sammartino, my hero, always made it look real.  

It became a monthly trip to the Garden with Dad, later on with another Dad and friends. You could only see  Bruno defend that title at the Garden which was the home for the WWWF back then. And Dad, or an adult had to purchase the ticket and be there with you because for years children under 18 would not be permitted to a pro wrestling event in New York State.

But there he was, Sammartino, “The Living Legend” in the ring and taking on the other icons. He body slammed Hall of Famers. Haystacks Calhoun, Stan “The Man” Stasiak, Don Leo Jonathan, Waldo Von Erich, Killer Kowalski, Spiros Arion. The grudge matches with Chief “Wahoo” McDaniel, Gorilla Monsoon, icons who would always be a part of that script, once friends who turned on my hero.

And the former football player, Ernie “The Big Cat” Ladd. That became a series of Monday night wars at the Garden. Ladd would mimic the Italian accent of Sammartino on Saturday morning television, the only time pro wrestling was available to view and at times with limited channels you had to surf to find out where and what channel to see the script develop. That would entice an Italian kid from the Bronx to go see  two rivals finish their war at the “Mecca” Madison Square Garden.

And when Bruno was at the Garden, he sold out the place 187 times in his illustrious career. That was a record and accomplishment because it was that time when pro wrestling was a regional territory and Bruno Sammartino was only defending the championship in New York, up in Boston, or at a small venue in Pennsylvania. And there was that movement as the Latino market got involved, so Bruno and Pedro Morales had an epic match at Shea Stadium.  Morales would get the torch, becoming the new champion as demographics said give the title to the audience.

But it was that memorable Monday night of January 18, 1971 at the Garden. It was never going to happen, but Bruno my hero lost that coveted championship to the late Ivan Koloff, his Russian adversary.  Sammartino was suffering from a bad neck and the script called for passing of the torch with a long title reign that started in 1963 after beating “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers in 48 seconds.

Koloff had the better bear hug, and Sammartino could always manage a way to break the hold. But not this night and yours truly, who went to the Garden this time without Dad knowing, was stunned. Bruno left the ring without the championship and we refused to leave our seats until security chased us out of the arena an hour after the conclusion.

Those who were not there to hear the silence afterwards,  as I did many times, got results from the Garden in the morning newspaper. Small print in back of the sports pages because editors would not treat this as a major headline, like Dad, news media saw wrestling as fake and not the big extravaganza it is today and known as sports entertainment.

Had Bruno Sammartino been around the scene years later, it may have been different and maybe not as huge as the Hulk Hogan explosion. He did not want to be an entertainer, just the wrestler, and was vocal about the direction of pro wrestling and very much with an opinion of the steroid era that put a dark eye on the industry

Years later, I would tell these stories to my hero. Lou Albano was the subject of an interview and this cub reporter asked about the “Living Legend.” Albano, a longtime friend of Sammartino arranged the meeting and two Hall of Famers started a small promotion and television program.

The rest is history as Bruno Sammartino wanted to grant this Italian kid, and one of his biggest fans, an opportunity. We worked together for a few years and the real introduction to the pro wrestling business evolved.

No longer a fan or the kid from Arthur Avenue rooting for my Italian superhero in the ring. Yours truly worked with a real “Living Legend” and learned about the business. Bruno would fade away and we tried to stay in touch, but it was difficult as he lived a private life at home in Pittsburgh before being inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.

So Wednesday morning a major part of those younger years, and of this career passed away. But always Bruno Sammartino will be that “Living Legend” to yours truly.  And to many, he will always be that legend and icon of pro wrestling fame.

A different era, yes. And probably more of an impact than what Hulk Hogan accomplished because Bruno Sammartino at the time was an example of the true and only pro wrestling hero.

Rest In Peace!

Comment Rich Mancuso: [email protected]  Twitter@Ring786 Mancuso


About the Author

Rich Mancuso

Rich Mancuso is a regular contributor at NY Sports Day, covering countless New York Mets, Yankees, and MLB teams along with some of the greatest boxing matches over the years. He is an award winning sports journalist and previously worked for The Associated Press, New York Daily News, Gannett, and, in a career that spans almost 40 years.

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