"The Living Legend" Bruno Sammartino, one of the greatest icons in the history of professional wrestling, has died at age 82, WWE confirmed on Wednesday.
At his time, Sammartino was the most transcendent figure the business had ever seen, and he quickly became one of professional wrestling's most accomplished performers.
A two-time WWWF champion with reigns surpassing 11 combined years, Sammartino stands to this day as the longest-reigning world heavyweight champion in the history of what is now known as WWE. His first reign of 2,803 days (May 1963-January 1971) is the longest single reign for the company's signature title, while his second reign of 1,237 days (December 1973-April 1977) is the fifth-longest the world heavyweight championship has been held.
Sammartino was a staple at Madison Square Garden during his time atop the then-WWWF with his legendary clashes against some of the most dastardly heels in professional wrestling history. Some say Sammartino is responsible for a historic 187 sellouts of MSG with him in the main event match, though that figure has been disputed.
A true brawler who utilized his power to subdue opponents -- many of whom made their names as mat wrestlers -- the native of Italy dominated the professional wrestling scene in the 1960s and 1970s, standing as an unbeatable strongman and the cornerstone of Vince McMahon Sr.'s World Wide Wrestling Federation.
After leaving Italy with his family following World War II, Sammartino settled in Pittsburgh. He was famously bullied in school for being frail and foreign with no command of the English language. This led Sammartino to begin lifting weights and developing his body. He set a world record in the bench press at 565 pounds in 1959 after missing out on joining the U.S. Olympic weightlifting team three years earlier.
The relationship between Sammartino and McMahon Sr. began around 1960 when Sammartino joined the Capitol Wrestling Corporation, a precursor to the WWWF. Though the two had a rocky relationship for years, they eventually linked up again in 1963 after McMahon pleaded for Sammartino to return to the WWWF and immediately granted him a title shot against the company's first world heavyweight champion, "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers.
Sammartino beat Rogers in 48 seconds to claim the title and never looked back, fighting and/or defending the world heavyweight championship against some of the biggest names in professional wrestling history, including Killer Kowalski, Giant Baba, The Sheik, Freddie Blassie and George "The Animal" Steele, among many others.
He did not drop the title until 1971 when Ivan Koloff beat him at Madison Square Garden, and at first, it looked like his tenure with WWWF had come to an end. However, while trying to convince Sammartino to return to WWWF for a second lengthy title reign, McMahon Sr. made what was believed to be a rare offer from a wrestling promoter, promising to not only book Sammartino at only the nation's top venues but also pay him a percentage of every gate for events in which he participated.
Sammartino defeated Stan Stasiak to regain the WWWF world heavyweight championship in December 1973 and took on another slew of now-famous challengers, including Waldo Von Erich, Bruiser Brody, "Superstar" Billy Graham, Nikolai Volkoff and Ernie "The Cat" Ladd. The final two years of his title reign, Sammartino fought through a fractured neck suffered in a match with a young Stan Hansen. Sammartino dropped the title to Graham in April 1977 and once again reduced his active schedule.
His feud with former student Larry Zbyszko culminated with one of the most famous steel cage matches of the modern era, a grudge match at Shea Stadium in the summer of 1980. Sammartino formally retired as a full-time competitor in 1981 and did not return to the WWF again until 1984, beginning a stint as a color commentator and part-time wrestler in support of his son, David, who had begun his own wrestling career in the WWF. Bruno accompanied David during his match at the inaugural WrestleMania in 1985.
With McMahon Sr. having died, Sammartino's third and final run with the company came under Vince McMahon, and it was one that saw the former champion return to greatness. Despite being in his 50s, Sammartino remained in excellent physical shape and grappled with some of the company's new stars, including "Macho Man" Randy Savage and "Rowdy" Roddy Piper. He fought in a battle royal at WrestleMania 2 (getting eliminated by Big John Studd), was the sole survivor of an elimination match against The Hart Foundation and The Honky Tonk Man, and teamed up with Hulk Hogan to defeat King Kong Bundy and One Man Gang in his final WWF match in 1988.
Not long after his departure from the WWF, Sammartino and McMahon became foes, with Sammartino heavily criticizing McMahon and eventually working rare dates for the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) and World Championship Wrestling (WCW). It was not until nearly 25 years after his departure from the company that Sammartino and WWE rekindled their relationship when "The Living Legend" was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013.
In all, Sammartino held five championships in WWE and earned "Match of the Year" honors five times from Pro Wrestling Illustrated (1972, 1975-77, 1980). He lived up to his nickname many times over and will stand forever as one of the greatest professional wrestlers in the history of the business.