Monday, May 21, 2018

Bruno Sammartino

Bruno Sammartino, an Italian immigrant who was heavyweight champion of the World Wide Wrestling Federation for a record 11 years in the 1960s and ′70s, long before the federation admitted that its matches were scripted and largely choreographed entertainment shows, died on Wednesday at 82.

His death was announced on the website of WWE, the organization also known as World Wrestling Entertainment, a successor of the World Wide Wrestling Federation. No other details were provided, but a family friend and former wrestling announcer, Christopher Cruise, told The Associated Press that Sammartino had been hospitalized for two months. Sammartino lived in Pittsburgh.

In an era when the sports world, except for some die-hard wrestling fans, knew that professional matches were staged dramatizations, with heroes and villains, story lines and beefcake actors shamming the violence, Sammartino was one of the most popular performers in the business. He wrestled in Australia, Spain, Mexico, Canada and Japan, and often drew gates of 20,000 at Madison Square Garden, where he had more than 200 matches.

Unlike many heavies on the pro wrestling circuits, he was a soft-spoken, gentlemanly connoisseur of grand opera, especially Verdi. And for one who had bench-pressed 565 pounds as an amateur, he was relatively small: under 6 feet tall and a trim 260 or 270 pounds, with bulging pectorals and biceps and a big head. He looked tiny beside giant rivals like Haystacks Calhoun, who topped 600 pounds.

He sometimes made $150,000 a year, headlining cards featuring the “bad guys” — Killer Kowalski, Hans Mortier, Waldo von Erich, Ivan Koloff, Gorilla Monsoon, Professor Toro Tanaka and George (the Animal) Steele. Feuds and insults fueled the publicity hype, and outrages in the ring sent crowds wild. Every wrestler had a gimmick: ethnicity or nationality, the personas of cowboys, lumberjacks or farmers, and sports reporters went along with the fun.

In 1959, Sammartino signed a $250-a-week contract with Capitol Pro Wrestling, owned by Mr. McMahon and Joseph Mondt, and wrestled in Pennsylvania, New York and other states. Mr. McMahon and Mr. Mondt later formed the World Wide Wrestling Federation and awarded its heavyweight title to “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers in April 1963.

A month later, Sammartino faced Rogers at Madison Square Garden for the title. Rogers was supposed to win. But in a story often told in wrestling circles, Sammartino broke the bad news to him in the ring.

“We can do this the easy way, or the hard way,” Sammartino said. He pinned Rogers in 48 seconds, launching his championship career.

After his second reign ended in 1977, he wrestled on tours. He retired in 1981 from full-time professional wrestling, although he later appeared in exhibition matches. In 2013, he was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame. He had declined induction several times, dissatisfied with what he called lurid story lines, over-the-top theatrics and drug and steroid abuse by professional wrestlers.

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