Bruno Sammartino, an Italian immigrant who would become one of the world’s strongest men and one of wrestling’s most popular figures, has died at the age of 82. Sammartino died in his adoptive hometown of Pittsburgh following an illness, surrounded by family.
Born in Pizzoferrato, Italy, in 1935, Sammartino spent much of his early childhood hiding from Nazi invasion until his mother could get him and his family out of Europe and into the United States. Sammartino set a world record in 1959 by bench-pressing 565 pounds. As WWE noted in its obituary, that put him on the world’s radar, and Vincent J. McMahon Sr. invited him to join what was then known as the World Wide Wrestling Federation.
Four years later, Sammartino defeated Buddy Rogers in less than a minute in the old Madison Square Garden to become the WWE’s second champion. He would go on to hold that position for eight years, by far the longest-running champion in WWE history, facing off against such notables as Killer Kowalski, Gorilla Monsoon and George “The Animal” Steele. Sammartino’s charisma, physique and propensity for brutality helped sustain and grow the WWE through its earliest days, and the authenticity he brought to the ring was nearly impossible to match, let alone duplicate.
Very Sad Day for Wrestling Fans..Rest In Peace Bruno Sammartino pic.twitter.com/3hnkhcuUSu
— History of Pro Wrestling (@HistoryofWrest) April 18, 2018
Sammartino would go on to develop rivalries with another generation of wrestling stars, including Roddy Piper, Randy Savage and The Honky Tonk Man. He served as a ringside announcer for many years, and in 2013 was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame by none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Wrestling notables began paying tribute to Sammartino as soon as they heard the news:
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. #RIPBrunoSammartino #AmericanDream
— Triple H (@TripleH) April 18, 2018
Bruno is indirectly responsible for where I am today. Growing up in Pittsburgh, he was my father’s hero, and sparked my dad’s passion for the business that he passed on to me.
I was lucky enough to spend some time with Bruno, and the man exemplified class. #RIPBruno
— Corey Graves (@WWEGraves) April 18, 2018
RIP Bruno,thank you for loving and living our business,only love HH
— Hulk Hogan (@HulkHogan) April 18, 2018
More from Yahoo Sports:
• Ohtani gets quick reality check after blazing start
• Report: Brady hasn’t decided on playing in 2018
• McKayla Maroney speaks out on Nassar abuse scandal
• Jeff Passan: How a Twitter war may spark a much-needed MLB change