PITTSBURGH (CBSNewYork/AP) — Bruno Sammartino, professional wrestling’s “Living Legend” and one of its longest-reigning champions, has died at age 82.
Family friend and former wrestling announcer Christopher Cruise said Sammartino died Wednesday morning after being hospitalized for two months.
Sammartino was wrestling’s biggest box office draw in the 1960s and 1970s and held the World Wide Wrestling Federation championship for more than 11 years (4,040 days) over two title runs.
He was born in Italy and his family immigrated when he was a child to Pittsburgh, where he learned how to become a pro wrestler.
The promotion now known as WWE said Sammartino sold out Madison Square Garden , known as the mecca of professional wrestling, 187 times over his career.
Sammartino and WWE had a bitter falling out in the late 1980s that lasted until the company’s greatest star accepted his induction into the Hall of Fame in 2013. He was inducted by Arnold Schwarzenegger .
Sammartino defeated Buddy Rogers in just 48 seconds to become the second-ever WWE Champion in front of nearly 20,000 fans on May 17, 1963 at the old Madison Square Garden. He held the title until 1971. His second reign began in 1973 and it lasted until he was pinned by “Superstar” Billy Graham in 1977. Sammartino became a broadcaster for the company in the 1980s and later became outspoken about the company’s evolving philosophy that put the emphasis on entertainment.
Sammartino’s family fled a Nazi invasion of his village in Italy and he hid with his mother in a mountain called Valla Rocca during the German occupation. They eventually joined his immigrant father in Pittsburgh in 1950.
He became a noted weightlifter and the WWE said he once bench-pressed 569 pounds in 1959 which was noticed by promoter Vincent J. McMahon. Sammartino’s Italian heritage, brute strength and good-guy charisma helped make him an instant star in the northeast. He had rivalries with Killer Kowalski, Gorilla Monsoon and George “The Animal” Steele during his title runs and later wrestled famous grudge matches at Shea Stadium against Pedo Morales and Larry Zbyszko. Sammartino and Hulk Hogan are the biggest long-term box office draws in WWE history and two tagged together in the “Legend’s” final match.
He was a broadcaster for several years in the 1980s and competed in a battle royal at the second WrestleMania in 1986. He was in his son David’s corner for a bout at the first WrestleMania in 1985.
But Sammartino soon grew tired of promoter Vince McMahon’s outlandish storylines that became more focused on sports entertainment than good wrestling and was outraged over the drug culture he said had permeated the industry.
He walked away in 1988 and finally returned in 2013 to accept his induction into the Hall of Fame when he became convinced WWE had cleaned up its act.
Paul Levesque, a top WWE executive better known in the ring as Triple H, helped the company make peace with Sammartino.
“Devastated to hear the passing of a true icon, legend, great, honest and wonderful man… A true friend…and one of the toughest people I’ve ever met . My thoughts are with his entire family,” Levesque tweeted.
Olympic gold medalist and WWE star Kurt Angle, a Pittsburgh native, called Sammartino “a hometown hero .”
“I grew up watching Bruno. He was an amazing performer, who made his Pittsburgh natives proud. He was a champion’s champion. I got to know Bruno in his latter years, after he retired from the then WWWF. He carried himself with dignity, and was always courteous to his fans. A true role model and hero,” he wrote.
Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto said Sammartino was one of the city’s greatest ambassadors .
“Bruno Sammartino was one of the greatest ambassadors the city of Pittsburgh ever had,” he said. “Like so many of us, his immigrant family moved here to build a new life, and through his uncommon strength and surprising grace he embodied the spirit of Pittsburgh on the world stage. Some of the fondest memories of my childhood are of sitting in the basement with my grandfather on Saturday mornings and watching Bruno wrestle.”
(© Copyright 2018 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)