6 October 2016

Bruno Sammartino - wrestling champion

How a sickly kid from Abruzzo became king of the ring

Bruno Sammartino
Bruno Sammartino
Bruno Sammartino, who found fame as a professional wrestler in the United States, was born on this day in 1935 in Pizzoferrato, a village in the province of Chieti in the Abruzzo region.

Nowadays he lives in Ross Township in Pennsylvania, about six miles north of the city of Pittsburgh.

Sammartino held the title of world heavyweight champion under the banner of the World Wide Wrestling Federation - now known as World Wrestling Entertainment - for more than 11 years in two reigns. The first of those, spanning seven years, eight months and one day, is the longest any individual has held the title continuously since it was first contested in 1963.

At his peak in the ring, Sammartino weighed in at 265lbs (120kg), yet it was something of a miracle that he survived his childhood.

Sammartino grew up in a mountainous region of Abruzzo now known as the Majella (or Maiella) National Park, still populated by bears, wolves and wild cats.  Life was tough, especially during the harsh winter months. He was the youngest of seven brothers and sisters, four of whom did not make it into adulthood.

It became tougher still during the Second World War, when the area came under German occupation. His father, Alfonso, was already in Pittsburgh, having left to find work in the steel industry. Fearing capture, his mother took Bruno and his surviving brother and sister to hide on the top of a mountain above the town, often going days without food.

The Neapolitan singer Mario Trevi gets a lift from world champion Sammartino in New York
The Neapolitan singer Mario Trevi gets a lift
from world champion Sammartino in New York
Bruno returned to the area for the first time six years ago, at the request of a friend who was making a television documentary, and recalled that his mother, Emilia, would have to sneak back into the town to obtain food and supplies, the journey there and back taking all day.

There was always the danger she would be spotted by German soldiers and Bruno said that as the evening approached he would sit on top of a rock, watching the path down the mountainside, anxiously waiting for her to return.  She was captured once but escaped, suffering a bullet wound to her arm but continuing the climb regardless.

Bruno himself suffered serious health problems, including a bout of rheumatic fever.  Treating him with hot blankets and leeches, Emilia somehow nursed him through.

As a result, though, when the opportunity came to join his father in Pittsburgh in 1950, he was a somewhat sickly 14-year-old, weighing only 90lb (41kg).

Unable to speak much English, he found himself picked on and bullied at school and it was this, indirectly, that led him on his chosen career path.   Determined to build himself up physically, he took up weightlifting, at which he became so good he narrowly missed out on selection for the United States team at the 1956 Olympics.

Sammartino addressing fans in 2014 alongside a more recent wrestling favourite, Paul Levesque - better known as Triple H
Sammartino addressing fans in 2014 alongside a more recent
wrestling favourite, Paul Levesque - better known as Triple H
He made money competing in bodybuilding contests and performing strongman stunts. Then, in 1959, he was invited to try out at professional wrestling by a Pittsburgh promoter, who saw Sammartino as a competitor likely to attract interest in his shows among the local Italian community.

Sammartino made his professional debut in December 1959 and within a year was appearing at Madison Square Garden in New York.  He became world champion in 1963. His fame took him all around the world and he became so popular that when he eventually surrendered the title for the first time at Madison Square Garden in 1971, the arena fell into a stunned silence, so quiet that Sammartino momentarily thought he had lost his hearing.

He regained the world title in 1973 and retained it this time until 1977, after which he continued in the ring for another 10 years.  After retiring he remained in professional wrestling as a media commentator and was inducted into the sport's Hall of Fame in 2013, the ceremony performed by his friend, the movie actor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

He married his wife, Carol, in 1959. They have three sons and four grandchildren and have lived in Ross Township since 1965.

UPDATE: This article was written in October, 2016. Sadly, Bruno Sammartino passed away in 2018 at the age of 82.

Shrouded in low cloud here, Pizzoferrato sits on a hillside  at the foot of a massive rock formation.
Shrouded in low cloud here, Pizzoferrato sits on a hillside
at the foot of a massive rock formation.
Travel tip:

Pizzoferrato is built on a rocky hillside on the edge of the Majella National Park and was a town that many noble families fought over down the centuries because of its strategic advantages.  It flanks an enormous rocky outcrop, on the top of which is the abandoned church of St Nicola and Madonna del Girone, which is thought to have been used once as a fortress.  Nowadays the town is a mountain holiday resort and a centre for skiing.

Travel tip:

The nearest town to Pizzoferrato is Castel di Sangro, which enjoyed some fame a few years ago when its football team, formed at the end of the Second World War, completed a journey from the lowest level of amateur football in Italy to play in Serie B, the second tier of the professional game.  For a town of only 5,500 people, this was an extraordinary achievement and became the subject of a book, The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, by the American writer Joe McGinniss.

(Main photo of Bruno Sammartino by swiftwj CC BY-SA 2.0)
(Photo of Sammartino with Triple H by Miguel Discart CC BY-SA 2.0)
(Photo of Pizzoferrato by Licia Missori CC BY-SA 3.0)


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