The name Bruno Sammartino did not mean much to me as a young wrestling fan, I admit with some embarrassment. I was vaguely aware of his lengthy championship reigns, mentioned in brief passing on World Wrestling Federation telecasts from time-to-time. It wasn’t until I worked as a basketball camp counselor with an older coach, nearing 70 then in 2005, who lived most of his life in the Northeast.
A lunchtime conversation about professional wrestling turned to him regaling us with stories of seeing Antonina Rocca perform, but his favorite memories were of taking his son to see Bruno Sammartino wrestle. He spoke of the longtime world champion, and the thrill of seeing him in action, in much the same way one would recount watching Michael Jordan in his prime for the Bulls, or being in the stands for a dominant Nolan Ryan pitching performance.
Bruno starred in an era of pro wrestling that still presented the medium as sport — albeit with the dramatic twist that became wrestling’s defining quality in later years. To wit, Captain Lou Albano told a story of the 1971 night “Soviet” bad guy Ivan Koloff ended Sammartino’s first World Championship reign.
Attendees at Madison Square Garden who weren’t stunned sobbed, much like a home crowd for a Game 7 loss. Others still, according to Albano, nearly rioted. Bruno Sammartino was that beloved in the Northeast.
What’s more, Sammartino was synonymous with Madison Square Garden. Over the course of his career, he drew more fans to the venerable arena than Patrick Ewing, Mark Messier or the Big East Tournament — and it didn’t hurt that he had legendary heels with which to work.
I draw the parallels to legendary names and figures from sports because, in many ways, Bruno Sammartino was the last of the prominent pro wrestlers as athletes in the vein of Lou Thesz and Bronko Nagurski. Outstanding amateur wrestler Bob Backlund succeeded Sammartino as the WWWF (and later WWF) athletic superman, but Backlund wasn’t the same mega-star capable of packing arenas with his match alone.
In that regard, it’s fitting that the last main-event feud of Bruno Sammartino’s illustrious career emphasized drama. And indeed, Larry Zbyzsko’s betrayal of Sammartino remains a template for storyline double-crosses almost four decades later.
The Zbyzsko feud predated Hulk Hogan’s World title win and the subsequent launch of Hulkamania by just three years. That marked the head-first dive of the World Wrestling Federation — and thus, all of wrestling — into more of a soap opera.
Because his presence ushered in the more modern style of wrestling, Hulk Hogan was long celebrated as the forefather of the genre — before his exile from WWE in 2015, anyway. Hogan’s spent the past three years persona non grata, his place in history not mentioned on WWE television, like Sammartino during my younger days.
However, Bruno’s exile was self-imposed rather than Hogan’s self-inflicted ostracization. Sammartino spoke out during the WWF’s early 1990s scandals, and turned down Hall of Fame inductions later when WWE focused on salacious storytelling. I enjoyed the Attitude Era as a teenager, and stomached questionable content into my early 20s. However, having a young son now, I appreciate that WWE has moved away from its late 1990s/2000s style.
Like my former basketball camp colleague, I can envision one day soon taking my boy to the arena to see a wrestling show without worry.
NXT in particular has struck a balance with engaging drama that doesn’t need scandalous appeal — the Johnny Gargano-Tomasso Ciampa feud is a modern-day Sammartino-Zbyzsko — and blending it with an emphasis on athleticism. Of no coincidence, NXT’s overseer, Triple H, is also responsible for soothing the bad blood between WWE and Bruno Sammartino.
Sammartino returning to a huge ovation at Wrestlemania XXIX — a short jaunt away from the building he packed countless times in his career — was a long overdue moment. New generations of wrestling fans will have the opportunity to learn and appreciate Bruno’s contributions in a way I did not.