Thursday, October 1, 2015

Bruno Turns 80

Eighty years. A milestone in any lifetime. For a professional wrestler, reaching that age has, sadly, turned into an almost impossible feat. It's become common knowledge in the past decade or so that wrestlers generally do not live long lives. The rigors and vices of life on the road as well as in-ring damage and adapting to life after the squared circle have proven to be a lethal combination. If one man was going to make it, being an inspiration throughout his entire life, it's Bruno Sammartino.

Growing up, Bruno Sammartino was a wrestling name that I knew as well as Hulk Hogan or Junkyard Dog even though he had all but retired by the time that I began watching. My parents grew up in Sammartino's home base of Pittsburgh, PA, and made sure that I knew all about him. I can still remember them happily pointing out the LJN Bruno figure shown on the Wrestling Superstars cardback. They weren't the only ones in the area who remembered the Italian hero of the '60s and '70s. I know that fond memories remain of Sammartino's impact in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York, but he will always be a top sports legend here in the 'Burgh. Baby boomers still talk about Sammartino with awe in their voices. He was real to their grandparents. He was real to their parents. He is real to them. The feeling was mutual. While Bruno may have ruled the entire northeast wrestling scene, the Steel City was where his heart was.

Bruno wasn't flashy. He'd briskly jog to the ring, more often than not wearing the WWWF Championship, and use his massive hands, muscles, and shoulders to dispose of his opponent. Killer Kowalski, George Steele, Ivan Koloff, or Nikolai Volkoff, the name did not matter. His fans knew that he would deal with the latest challenge and emerge "the champ" once again. Tales of those fans are partly what keep his legacy alive. The infamous "silent" reaction to Bruno's first Championship loss to Koloff in Madison Square Garden is repeated to this day, as are tales from fans in the Pittsburgh area of their grandparents throwing things at the television set when Bruno was in trouble.

Would Sammartino work in the wrestling world of today? That remains to be seen. Sammartino's ethnic hero mystique is lost in today's world, but I see a lot of Bruno in Cesaro. In fact, I would go as far as to say that Cesaro is a modern-day Sammartino. Sadly, "The Swiss Superman" is grossly misused, thus preventing any further comparisons. Still, the combination of strength and ring skill can easily make one think back to the heyday of "The Living Legend." With one flick of the pencil, Cesaro could probably be a decent replication of a Sammartino-type wrestling star. A match between the two in their primes would be an absolute classic.

After his career ended and he began publicly denouncing WWE, Bruno was the one that everyone thought would live the rest of his life opposed to returning. In 2013 we were all proven wrong, and as much as some don't like the product, WWE is the mainstream face of the modern wrestling business. Bruno's new association with them only helps cement that his name and legacy are celebrated far down through the years. Since his rejoining with the company, Bruno has been part of the Hall of Fame ceremonies, returned to the WrestleMania stage, and debuted on Monday Night Raw not to mention many new merchandising avenues.

It has been documented that 2015 has seen some health setbacks for Sammartino and subsequently a slowing of his appearance schedule. All word of late has been that "The Living Legend" is on the mend and will be in prime shape to celebrate his milestone birthday on October 6th. While no one is promised a tomorrow, it'd be foolish to bet against Bruno Sammartino celebrating many more birthdays and quite possibly setting another record--longest living pro wrestler in history.

Happy Birthday, Champ!

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