How Bruno Sammartino Escaped Nazis and Bullies to Become the Most Popular Wrestler in America
Sammartino died at in 2018 at the age of 82, but his legacy lives on.
During his pro-wrestling heyday, Bruno Sammartino sold out Madison Square Garden 188 times, was named the world’s strongest man and held the WWE Championship Belt for 2,803 consecutive days. Arnold Schwarzenegger called Bruno's life "one of the greatest immigration stories that anyone can think of."
But that life of triumph almost didn't happen. Bruno grew up in poverty in Pizzoferrato, Italy, during World War II. As a boy, he was chronically ill. When his family fled the Nazis for America, he faced prejudice and bullying for being an immigrant.
Yet through it all, Bruno carried with him his determination and will to triumph over the odds. Here is the story of his remarkable life.
Bruno was born in October 1935 in the Abruzzo region of Italy outside of Rome. He was the youngest of seven children, and four of his siblings died when he was just a child, so Sammartino knew what suffering was at a young age.
When Bruno was 4, his father left his wife and children behind and immigrated to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as a way to earn a living for his family.
“My dad's early life, when he was a kid, it wasn't the best," Darryl Sammartino told InsideEdition.com. “They were very poor. Then he got sick. He was sickly for most of his younger years.”
Bruno Sammartino was also struck with rheumatic fever, which left him gravely ill for most of his childhood. Darryl said his father's family were forced to flee their town as the Nazis moved in, living for 14 months on the top of a mountain.
“They lived outside and he was a very sickly, sickly kid. They were basically starving to death," Darryl said.
Bruno and his family narrowly escaped death, said Larry Richert, the executive producer of "Bruno Sammartino," a documentary about the wrestler.
“Nazis came to their village, took over, and had at one point captured them, lined them up to be executed,” Richert told Inside Edition. “His mother took his brother, Paul, sister, Mary, and him under her arms, and said, ‘Don't worry. We'll never be hungry again. We'll never be cold again. We'll be in paradise with Jesus.’ Just then, they were saved at the last minute by their own villagers who had followed the Germans and killed them right there on the spot.”
Darryl said Bruno always admired his mother's toughness. She would leave her kids on the mountain as she risked her own safety to return to their village to find food.
“My dad didn't think he was tough, but he thought his mom was tough," Daryl said. "My dad would sit on a rock and wonder if she was even coming back. It would take 24 hours to get there, 24 hours back. My grandmother was captured, she was shot and jumped off the truck and still came up with food."
After the war ended, the Sammartinos were able to return to their home in Pizzoferrato. But they longed to go to America to join Bruno's father and make a better life for themselves.
Bruno’s fragile health kept the family back.
“My dad couldn't pass a physical with the Salvation Army,” Darryl recalled. “He held my whole family back for three years. Then he finally passed it. As a matter of fact, the doctor saw my dad and told my grandmother, ‘I don't expect to see Bruno here tomorrow, because I think he's going to die.’”
But Bruno pulled through, and no one could have imagined that a boy who had suffered through such a sickly childhood would go on to become the world's strongest man.
Life in America
By 1950, the rest of the Sammartinos had joined their patriarch in Pittsburgh.
The family immigrated through Ellis Island, but had no idea that the city that was home to the Statue of Liberty would one day become Bruno's home.
Pittsburgh was where the family laid their foundation and worked toward their American dream. But they didn't find the city welcoming, and Bruno suffered in particular because of his small stature and rough English.
“My dad came from Italy and he was very, very happy to come to the United States. As he said, ‘The streets were paved in gold.’ [But] he got bullied when he was a kid,” Darryl said. “He was getting black eyes and bloody noses.”
Bruno grew tired of getting picked on. As luck would have it, he met a local landscaper who introduced him to weightlifting. Bruno was hooked, and the bullying stopped.
Finding his strength
“When he lifted weights, Bruno said the first time he did it, something clicked. He knew this was a magic moment for him," Richart said. "He did it clean, never used any steroids or drugs, and he became this incredibly focused and powerful man. He built himself up to be the strongest man in the world."
Bruno also started playing football, catching the attention of the pro Pittsburgh Steelers. Thanks to his brute strength and force, he was also catching the eye of wrestling promoters, who saw him at weightlifting competitions and watched him wrestle at the University of Pittsburgh.
“My dad was winning all these weightlifting competitions," Daryl said, and after a promoter saw him win a title in Oklahoma City, 'He said, ‘Oh, we got to bring this Bruno guy in, this Bruno Sammartino, we got to see what he can do.'"
Bruno had a choice between playing for the Steelers and pursuing a pro-wrestling career. It was a good choice to have. Bruno ultimately chose wrestling because of its $35,000 per year starting salary, versus the $9,000 he would have made as a lineman, Daryl said.
Creating a name
Bruno Sammartino made his professional wrestling debut in December 1959. Earlier that year, he had married his sweetheart, Carol. The couple went on to have three children.
Weeks after his debut in the early part of 1960, Bruno competed in a match at New York Ctiy's Madison Square Garden, long considered the most famous wrestling arena. He won his match in five minutes.
“When he came into the ring, people were standing and screaming, and screaming and screaming,” Schwarzenegger recalled in the “Bruno Sammartino" documentary. “And then the fight began. I mean, he started throwing this guy around. He lifted people up that were 400 pounds, overhead. This is how powerful he was.”
The globe took notice of his size and skill, and once his professional wrestling career got going, Bruno became America’s biggest ticket.
“He was a megastar in Japan, wrestled in Australia, Canada, Europe, Mexico, South America," Richert said, adding that he sold out Madison Square Garden, "arguably the biggest house in the world, 188 times is the headliner."
"People like Frank Sinatra wanted to hang with him,” Richert added.
While Bruno’s fame also brought him fortune, everything he did was for his family, especially his mother. His family said that he bought his mom a Rolls Royce so she could travel to church in style. It was a small "thank you" for everything she did for Bruno and his siblings during the war.
But to his family, especially his kids, Bruno was simply dad.
During the height of his career, Bruno was on the road 300 days a year. Daryl said he would travel to competitions with him, attending events in arenas such as the Philly Spectrum and Boston Gardens.
“I would hear 20,000 people chanting his name," Daryl remembered. "I'm like, ‘Huh. Do other dads get their name chanted?' My dad was just my dad. My dad was no better than anybody else. He was my dad and it was just the job that he had.”
He also taught his children lessons he had learned during World War II.
“There were many times when we didn't finish our food on a plate and he would not like that," Daryl said. "He was like, ‘You're going to eat everything that's on your plate, because you don't know what it's like to starve."
The same went for when Daryl or his brothers complained about working at a job they didn't like.
"My dad would say, ‘You don't know what tough is. That's not tough. You have no idea what tough is,'" Daryl said. "Then as I got older and matured, I understood."
When Bruno retired in 1987, he made up for lost time with his children, Daryl said. But the 30-year career that had made him a household name and a hero in the Italian-American community had also taken a toll on Bruno's body.
His son said Bruno estimated he had been body slammed over 8,000 times. He had also broken his nose 13 times and broken his neck once in 1976, an injury that came within a millimeter of leaving him paralyzed.
Leaving a legacy
Even after Bruno left the ring, he continued to inspire many. But even some of his biggest fans didn't know all of the obstacles he had faced throughout his life.
“In Bruno's case, people always looked up to him because he was such a star and celebrity, but people had no idea what he overcame to get there. I think that resonates with people,” Richert said.
His is also an immigrant's story, which makes it even more powerful, Schwarzenegger said in Richert's documentary.
“I think that we have such love for this country, that we are not just like another American, but we have to kind of really pay back the debt of what has been offered to us,” Schwarzenegger said. "[Bruno] says as an immigrant, he always felt like working harder. And he was so appreciative for the kind of a career he had as an immigrant coming over here to America.”
In 2013, Schwarzenegger inducted his friend and hero into the WWE Hall of Fame with a rousing speech at Sammartino’s second home – Madison Square Garden.
“He became such a great inspiration because not only did he wrestle for all of these millions of people but he brought so much inspiration to millions of children and got them turned on to working out," Schwarzenegger said at the time.
As he took the stage to accept his award, the crowd chanted “Bruno! Bruno!” It was as if they were back in Bruno's heyday.
Richert recalled that backstage during the induction, people lined up to meet him, including wrestler Triple H, Donald Trump and and the president of Deutsche Bank. It was something Bruno was used to; almost everywhere he went, people would recognize him, ask for autographs or a photo and share a story about how much he meant to them.
“He would treat that person the same as he would treat the president of a company,” Richert said. “He would stay, sign autographs, and never blow them off. Because, he said, 'These are the people that made me who I am.’”
Daryl attributes his dad's longevity to a health diet and plenty of exercise. Even after he retired, Bruno would work out every day, run 12 miles and skip the sweets that are often popular in Italian homes.
Bruno eventually was hospitalized for heart problems. But Daryl said that even as his father was lying in a hospital bed for 68 days, he would check to make sure Daryl had done his daily workout and was eating right.
In April 2018, Bruno Sammartino died from multiple organ failure brought on by heart problems. He was 82.
And while Bruno is no longer alive, the lessons he offered live on. He always celebrated America's diversity, Richert said, and drew attention to the many Italian immigrants and immigrants from all over the world "who have overcome struggles to be here."
His legacy also lives on in his children.
“My dad is 100 percent the American dream,” Daryl said.
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