WWE Hall of Famer Bruno Sammartino, known for holding a championship belt longer than anyone, died Wednesday morning. He was 82.
Sammartino held World Wide Wrestling Federation titles for than 11 years (4,040 days) over two separate runs. He became synonymous with wrestling at Madison Square Garden, headlining 187 shows there, and fortifying it as the venue associated with the McMahons and the WWWF (precursor to WWE).
An Italian immigrant who lived through World War II while hiding from Nazi soldiers, he became a hero particularly in the Italian communities across the US. Instead of going for an ethnic heel, his portrayal of an immigrant hero resonated with the Italian communities across the country, but particularly in the Northeast hotbeds of Pittsburgh, where he lived, and New York.
His first WWWF title reign started on May 17, 1963, when he beat the “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers in just 48 seconds at Madison Square Garden. He would defend that title for nearly eight years against Killer Kowalski, The Sheik, Freddie Blassie, Ernie Ladd, George Steele, Gorilla Monsoon and a slew of others, before finally dropping it to Ivan Koloff on January 18, 1971. Then, in 1973, he would win the title back after beating Stan Stasiak, holding on to the belt for another two-and-a-half years, only losing the belt when injuries, including a neck fracture, started piling up.
In the late 1980s, he became an outspoken critic of the then-WWWF and Vince K. McMahon (Bruno worked mainly with his father, Vincent J. McMahon), not liking the direction the company, and the business as a whole, had gone. This separation lasted 25 years, until Triple H was able to reconcile things between the legend and the company, and Sanmartino headlined the WWE Hall of Fame class of 2013, fittingly in Madison Square Garden.
It's hard to understate his importance to wrestling, and specifically to the WWE. Without his presence constantly selling out buildings like Madison Square Garden, it's possible that the WWE never grows out of the regional territory it was.
It's possible they never have the capital to go national, and what we now know as the state of wrestling never comes to be. And if it does come to be, it's not WWE that's on top. WWE wrestlers took to social media on Wednesday, telling stories of meeting Sammartino, and how much he was revered by the wrestling community.
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