My open letter to Bruno Sammartino after hearing of his death at 82

Pro wrestling great “The Livng Legend” Bruno Sammartino died on April 18, 2018. He influenced generations of wrestlers and fans during his career and in retirement, and he carried himself with grace even during difficult situations. Here is my open letter to Bruno after hearing of his death.

Dear Bruno:

I start watching wrestling in 1981, so I never saw you in your heyday fighting the likes of Superstar Billy Graham, Larry Zbyszko, and Spiros Arion. My first recollection of you was a house show promo you did for a match against Stan Hansen at the old Boston Garden in either Feburary or March of ’81. It was clear to me even as a kid that you had an aura about you, as if you represented something greater than just a wrestling match.

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As a I learned more about your history in the WWWF and WWF by reading the Apter mags, I was excited that I got to see more of you as the early 1980s progressed. You took another tour of duty as a color commentator for the syndicated Saturday morning shows on Channel 56 here in Boston, and then you accompanied your son, David Sammartino, when he debuted.

Little did I know until many years later how unhappy you were to be involved with wrestling and it’s growing steroid problem, and that you swallowed it all to help David out. That type of sacrifice and class kept with your whole life it seems.

It certainly was appropriate that you, of all people, appeared at the first WrestleMania in 1985 at Madison Square Garden, and arena that was every bit your second home.

However, my fondest memories of you were not at MSG, but rather at the Boston Garden. Your first match in that arena (at least according to The History of WWE site) was in June 1965 when you defeated Gorilla Monsoon. You may have wrestled more than 125 matches in Boston.

When I first saw you get in the ring at the Garden, you were in the midst of a hot angle with Rowdy Roddy Piper after he called you a “wop.” You later revealed that Vince McMahon asked to come out of retirement to help boost the sagging crowds in Boston.

I will never forget you stepping into the ring on the afternoon of Dec. 7, 1985 — it was the single loudest cheer I’ve ever heard a wrestler get in Boston (and I saw Steve Austin win the WWE Title for the first time at WrestleMania XIV in Boston).

The crowd in 1985 went crazy, partially based on the angle, but mainly because they hadn’t seen you wrestle in Boston in four-and-a-half years. It was a short match with Piper, but you looked great, and I remember the fans loving your punches to the Piper’s gut.

The culmination of the Piper angle ocurred on Feb. 8, 1986, in what I consider to this day to be the biggest WWE card ever at the old Garden. The night included Randy “Macho Man” Savage defeating Tito Santana to win the Intercontinental Championship at a time when title changes were rare and didn’t often happen at house shows. Then you and Piper tore it up in a steel cage match that people still mention to me 32 years later.

It wasn’t many years after that you disappeared from wrestling, becoming an outspoken critic of the steroids, profanity and T&A that wrestling turned into. Meanwhile, the WWE established its Hall of Fame in 1993, and it was a joke that you were not in the inaugural class of inductions.

In fact, it took two decades to get you in the hall, and that was because Triple H — who was a kid wrestling fan like me in the 1980s — pushed his father-in-law, Vince McMahon, to make it happen. I’m still bothered by how stubborn Vince was — and maybe you were stubborn, too — in getting you honored. It’s hard not to imagine Vince McMahon Sr. being unhappy at the disrepsect the WWE gave you for many years.

In your later years, we learned a lot more about your younger days, ironically. People marveled at the bravery of your mom as she hid you in the mountains around an Italian village to escape the Nazis. You always spoke well of your parents, treated the current generation of wrestlers with respect, and spoke openly and honestly in your intereviews with wrestling reporters and mainstream media. In a profession where many wrestlers continue to live a weird life, you escaped the bubble and earned even more admiration.

One of your last matches in Boston was on Feb. 7, 1987, when you challenged Savage for the Intercontinental Title he still held from a year earlier. You won by DQ before the largest crowd to see wrestling in Boston in the 1980s — 16,441 fans were in attendance. Even years after your official retirement, you were still a huge draw.

Bruno, the people of Boston have always loved — and will forever cherish — the excitement you brought to them in an old, rickety, uncomfortable Garden. From all of us: Farewell, Living Legend…

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3 comments

  1. Pingback: The late Nikolai Volkoff headlined King of the Ring in Foxboro | Boston Garden Balcony
  2. Mike

    Wow, so eloquently written. I, too, started watching wrestling around the same time (81 or 82) here in Philly, so I missed his glory days as a performer.

    What makes me respect Bruno the most was his difficult childhood, both here in America and in his native Italy, fleeing the Nazi war machine with his family. He was a sickly child and overcame live threatening circumstances. He built himself up physically without drug enhancements and went on to become a role model for countless people over the course of a generous.

    Bruno lived a remarkable and productive life. Aside from raising his family, he performed for countless people over the world, suffered terrible, painful injuries in the process, yet led himself with pride and dignity while representing the business of professional wrestling.

    The word respect is sometimes thrown around loosely, but Bruno earned my respect a long time ago for seizing life by the horns and making himself into an immortal icon through grit, hard work, and perseverance. Bruno’s story is one of the American Dream; you come here with nothing and achieve! Thank you and RIP, Mr. Sammartino! You have earned nothing less.

    • J.Cee

      My memories of Bruno go back to the mid-70s when he was then-WWWF champion. And, indeed The Wrestler chronicled his every feud that seemed to pick up momentum as he went from Kowalski, Duncum, Arion, Graham, Koloff until he got injured by Stan Hansen. Bruno dropped the belt the following spring in Baltimore when Billy Graham used the top rope as leverage when he pinned Bruno–this match was saved for posterity since it’s the one you’ve probably seen on DVD compilations.
      Bruno was a “good guy” who could battle as nasty as any “bad guy” that he went up against. If they could get past Ivan Putski, Chief Jay Stongbow or Gorilla Monsoon, then they had a real battle on their hands going up against Bruno. And through it all, he was a gentleman in his TV promos for any upcoming house shows.
      In closing let me say that I can only hope that somebody would put together a DVD compilation of his memorable matches from MSG and any other footage that could be culled from the archives. It’s from a bygone era as far as the sport is concerned, but it gives the modern generation a glimpse of how tough a champion could be without the usual circus atmosphere that you see in this 21st century adaptation of the squared circle.

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