|A true wrestling icon|
Photo Credit: Pro Wrestling Illustrated via WWE.com
Sammartino was born in Abruzzi, Italy in October of 1935. He spent his childhood living in an active theater of World War II, spending part of it hiding in the mountains from Nazi forces. His family would move to the United States, Pittsburgh specifically, in 1950, where Sammartino recovered from his early life of living sparsely during wartime by taking up bodybuilding. He became known for feats of strength until promoter Rudy Miller had the grand idea to turn him into a professional wrestler. Sammartino made his debut for local promotions in Pittsburgh in 1959.
Sammartino first worked for Vincent J. McMahon and his partner Toots Mondt in 1960, but he wouldn't make a permanent return to their territory until 1963, when he defeated "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers in a match for the WWWF World Championship. No footage of the match exists, making it the most historically significant match in history to have happened "in the dark." Sammartino would hold the title for a whopping eight years, dropping it to Ivan Koloff in early 1971 at Madison Square Garden. Grown men were seen crying in the crowd at the result. Sammartino would continue working for McMahon off and on, at one point regaining the title and holding it for another three-and-a-half years. The most notable match he had after losing the belt the second time was a blood-feud match with Larry Zbyszko that culminated in a heated main event at Shea Stadium in 1980, a card also notable for having an early Andre the Giant vs. Hulk Hogan match. Sammartino would continue working for the WWWF (and then WWF) off and on until 1988.
After he left the company in 1988, Sammartino became an outspoken critic of Vince McMahon's practices, namely promoting in his mind "obscene" angles and silently encouraging the use of performance enhancing drugs and narcotics behind the scenes. This would hold through for a little over 25 years. The cold front dissipated when Paul "Triple H" Levesque extended an olive branch on behalf of his father-in-law, one that included an induction into the WWE Hall of Fame. Sammartino saw that the programming had become "clean" enough for his liking and accepted the offer. He remained on a Legends contract until his passing today.
Sammartino was the archetypical draw for the elder McMahon's vision of pro wrestling. He was a larger-than-life hero who appealed to New York City's large immigrant population, a mold that was filled prior to him by Antonino Rocca and after him by Pedro Morales. His outsized persona translated to big gates for the then-WWWF; Sammartino-headlined shows sold the Garden out 187 times. Of course, some of that money got pilfered from his own pocket, as the elder McMahon illegally falsified gate numbers to cheat him out his promised keep once. I guess the younger McMahon's unscrupulous practices were genetically inherited.
Still, for as impressive as his wrestling career was, his smoking out of the McMahon family is even more legendary. In a business where labor voluntarily puts itself at the mercy of capital for reasons unknown to common sense, Sammartino time and time again stuck to his guns and did what was right for him, and thus providing an example that other wrestlers rarely followed. Say what you want about Sammartino in the ring (I can't because my viewing of his footage is woefully behind), but even just for his willingness to fight the power, he deserves to be honored among the greats all-time.
So it is with a heavy heart that I say for Mr. Sammartino to rest in peace. Few people have made the impact he did in his career, and everyone owes him at least a nod.