Former WWF champion and pro wrestling legend Bruno Sammartino has died, World Wrestling Entertainment announced Wednesday. He was 82.
Sammartino is considered by many to be the last pro wrestling champion before the product moved to a more over-the-top style that was less realistic. He is also considered by many to be the greatest good guy, or babyface, in wrestling history.
Sammartino was born on Oct. 6, 1935 in Pizzoferrato, Italy, and grew up in the Abruzzo region. He lived with his parents under Nazi occupation in World War II and they eventually immigrated to Pittsburgh in 1950. Sammartino was undersized for his age and the frequent target of bullies, so he dedicated his life to weightlifting and bodybuilding. He set a world record in the bench press with a lift of 565 pounds in 1959 and then caught the eye of Vincent J. McMahon, who was the owner of the WWF.
Sammartino won the then-WWF championship in 1963 and held it for eight years, losing it to Ivan Koloff in what was considered an unbelievable result in 1971. He retired from full-time competition in 1981 and eventually became bitter over the overly muscled, cartoonish style that pro wrestling evolved into, often vowing never to be associated with WWE again.
Eventually, after a long phone call from WWE star Triple H, Sammartino put away his grievances and was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013.
“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,” Triple H said in a tweet after WWE announced Sammartino’s passing.
Sammartino is survived by three sons and four grandchildren.