The news broke earlier this morning that WWE Hall of Famer Bruno Sammartino, widely regarded as one of the greatest wrestlers of all time, passed away at the age of 82, following what was described as a hospitalization in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

While I might only be hitting 30 years old this year, I did get to witness what Bruno has done for this business that I love through my Grandfather from a young age, as when I started to become a wrestling fan and get to loving names such as Hulk Hogan, The Undertaker, Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels in the early 90’s, one other name that was always mentioned to me about how great of a star he was in the day was the legendary Bruno Sammartino.

Born in Pizzoferrato, Abruzzo, Italy on October 6th, 1935, there is no doubting that Bruno had a tough start to life growing up, being the youngest of 7 brothers and sisters, with 4 older siblings dying during his time in Italy and his mother sneaking from their home to their German-occupied town for food and supplies during the latter stages of World War II. Bruno moved to the United States in 1950 and settled in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which in later days he considered his second home-town and an area where his father had already lived for several years, but came showing the sickly affects from the experience of surviving the war years in Italy and spoke no English, which made him an easy target for bullies during his school years, but had a dream of making his life a success in whatever form.

Sammartino, in an effort to battle the bullying, wanted to build himself up physically and become devoted to weight training, which at the age of 20, almost resulted in him being part of the 1956 United States Olympic team, only to miss out on that spot to Paul Anderson. While Sammartino’s school did not have a wrestling program, he worked out with the University of Pittsburgh’s wrestling team under Rex Peery and became known in the area for performing strongman stunts, which led to him being put on sportscaster Bob Prince’s show, which gained interest in the area. In 1959, just months before his debut in the wrestling business, Sammartino set a world record in the bench press with a lift of 565lbs, completing the lift without any elbow wraps or wrist wraps. The appearance on Prince’s television show led to local wrestling promoter Rudy Miller recruiting Sammartino to join his promotion, with the idea that Sammartino could be marketed as a strongman that would appeal to Italian immigrants that were wrestling fans.

While Sammartino enjoyed success in various promotions, his greatest success came as part of the World Wide Wrestling Federation (now WWE) when he captured the WWWF World Heavyweight Championship on May 17th, 1963 when he defeated “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers in 48 seconds and held on to the title for SEVEN YEARS, EIGHT MONTHS and ONE DAY, the longest single reign in the company’s history, putting the title on the line against legendary names including Killer Kowalski, Giant Baba, Waldo Von Erich, The Sheik, Freddie Blassie, Gorilla Monsoon, Ernie Ladd, George “The Animal” Steele and various others, before losing the title to Ivan Koloff on January 18th, 1971 at Madison Square Garden.

Bruno held the title a second time on December 10th, 1973 when he defeated Stan Stasiak, with that reign lasting until April 30th, 1977 when he was defeated by Superstar Billy Graham, informing Vince McMahon Sr at the time that due to the neck injury he suffered and other ailments, he was calling time on his title run. During his second reign as Champion, Sammartino put the title on the line against legendary names such as the aforementioned Graham, Bruiser Brody, Ken Patera, Freddie Blassie, Baron von Raschke, Ivan Koloff, Ernie Ladd, Nikolai Volkoff and more, however the most legendary matches during that reign came on April 26th, 1976 when Sammartino suffered a legitimate neck fracture in his match against Stan Hansen at Madison Square Garden, when Hansen executed a body slam and dropped Bruno on his head. The two had a rematch at Shea Stadium on June 25th, 1976, which was on the closed-circuit television undercard of the Muhammad Ali vs. Antonio Inoki match for WWWF cities and was rated the 1976 Match of the year.

Bruno stayed on with the company and initially retired from North-American wrestling on a full-time basis in 1981, where he pinned George “The Animal” Steele in a match at the Meadowlands Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey before heading to Japan to finish a tour in the country. During his time away from the company, Sammartino was informed by Angelo Savoldi, who at that time was recently fired from Capitol Wrestling Corporation, that he had been cheated by Vince McMahon Sr on the promised gate percentages for his entire second title run and filed suit against Vince McMahon Sr and his Capitol Wrestling Corporation, which was eventually settled out of court by Vince McMahon Jr after his father died, with part of the settlement including Sammartino returning to color commentary on WWF television for what amounted to 19 days of work. Sammartino returned to the ring during that period, working matches against “Macho Man” Randy Savage and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, with his final WWF match seeing him team with Hulk Hogan to defeat One Man Gang and King Kong Bundy before departing in March 1988

After leaving the WWF, Sammartino became a critic of the path that Vince McMahon Jr had taken professional wrestling, particularly the use of steroids and other illicit drugs, as well as obscene wrestling angles ad made appearances across various media in opposition to the company, but changed his views in later years, noting prior to his WWE Hall of Fame induction that after declining it several times in the past, that he had accepted to join because he was satisfied with the way the company had addressed his previous concerns in regards to the direction of the business and was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame on April 6th, 2013 by actor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Bruno came to America and accomplished what he set out to do and that was to live “The American Dream” and make a success of his new life. While wrestling may not have originally been the path that he thought he would choose in life, it’s where he made himself that success. As mentioned above, he held the WWWF World Heavyweight Title on two occassions, the WWWF United States Tag Team Titles on one occasion and the WWWF International Tag Team Titles on two occasions. He is part of the International Sports Hall of Fame, having been inducted in 2013, part of the WWE Hall of Fame, having been inducted that very same year, part of the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum, having been inducted in the Class of 2002. He has also won various awards from Pro Wrestling Illustrated, including Wrestler of the Year in 1974 and Match of the Year on 5 different occasions (1972, 1975, 1976, 1977 and 1980). WWE created a bronze statue to commemorate Bruno Sammartino, unveiling it during WrestleMania 30 weekend in 2014, while another statue of Bruno was unveiled in his hometown of Pizzoferrato, Italy, just showcasing the legacy that Sammartino had, not just on the business, but back home in Italy, proving to everyone to not give up on your dreams.

The news hit me hard this morning and I honestly can’t find the words left to conclude this, but to just thank Bruno for being an influence to everyone who is a fan of this business. My thoughts are with his family and friends at this time, as well as his manager and close friend, Sal Corrente. Rest in Peace Bruno Laopardo Franceso Sammartino, I’ll see you on the other side, thank you for the memories.