Earth, receive an honored guest: Legendary WWE champion and phenomenally strong man Bruno Sammartino has been laid to reset. Sammartino, an Italian immigrant who ruled the WWE throughout the 1960s and 1970s, died Wednesday at the age of 82. But before he was a star wrestler, he was a powerlifter — one of the best in the world throughout much of the 1950s — and it was his success in that field, plus the massive body he brought with him, that helped him change wrestling.
As a pro wrestler, he straddled a major demarcation point in the business — the transition from small-scale territorial operations — some indistinguishable from carnival “athletic shows” that featured local toughs taking on traveling wrestlers — to larger companies already beginning to utilize the power of television to draw their crowds. All the while, he also was an innovator in his own right, a man who achieved many firsts: the first true WWE champion after promoter Vince McMahon Sr. had left the National Wrestling Alliance and transitional titleholder “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers dropped the strap for health reasons; the first Italian-born wrestler to hold a nationally recognized wrestling title; and the first athlete whose primary athletic background was in powerlifting to reach true main event status in pro wrestling.
Since powerlifting has always been a big part of my life, it’s the last of these feats that really interests me. Sammartino, a product of Pittsburgh’s Schenley High School, was bench pressing more than 500 pounds and deadlifting 700-plus during the early- to mid-1950s, when the number of humans capable of doing so could be counted on your fingers and the oral steroid Dianabol had yet to truly disrupt the powerlifting and weightlifting scenes by sending world records into the stratosphere.
Biographies of Sammartino, along with his own personal recollections, place him as only a notch or two behind the great Paul Anderson, arguably the strongest lifter of the pre-steroid era. He’s routinely mentioned as having been edged out by Anderson for a slot on the 1956 Olympic weightlifting team (then still coached by York Barbell magnate Bob Hoffman), and most articles from that era note that he was a prominent rival of Anderson’s — a true “Pittsburgh Hercules,” as this vintage Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story calls him.
Sammartino’s training, which could be observed at various YMCAs and other community centers throughout Pittsburgh when the future champion wasn’t making the rounds as an apprentice carpenter, consisted of performing the three principal powerlifts (squat, deadlift and bench press); the strict shoulder press; and Olympic weight lifts such as the snatch and clean and jerk. Meanwhile, his diet was consistent with the meal programming of fellow powerlifters Anderson and Bruce Randall, both of whom weighed more than 350 pounds during the primes of their careers. Namely, he ate all of the time, consuming thousands of calories a day in the form of milk, eggs, organ meat (especially liver) and the like.
He had some amateur wrestling training, and allegedly had a partial wrestling scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh on the table, but it was as a powerlifter that Sammartino truly excelled. And it was this power he brought to the ranks of professional wrestling, altering the competitive dynamics of a field headed by lanky, limber stars who had enjoyed earlier success as amateur wrestlers — Sammartino by contrast brought a hairy ursine chest and an unbreakable bear-hug finisher.
To that end, before Sammartino, most of the top champions (Lou Thesz, Danny Hodge and Pat O’Connor) had to have legitimate competitive wrestling chops to defend their belts. The men who didn’t, such as lumbering 1920s footballer Wayne Munn and tan, ripped 1950s heel “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers, were always in danger of being quickly pinned by an unscrupulous foe who wouldn’t follow the script (in the case of Munn, this actually happened). Sammartino could certainly handle himself, but not in the way pro wrestling was accustomed to. That is, he was all about power, not wrestling pedigree. Case in point: “During one workout, after reaching our maximum weights, Sammartino put 350 pounds on the bar to see how many bench press reps we could do,” his chief protege Larry Zbyszko writes in his own autobiography. “And then after I did a few touch-and-go reps, he did twenty-four… and he was two decades older than me.”
“Sammartino’s story in many ways follows the archetypal ‘immigrant bodybuilder’ story, the most famous of which is Charles Atlas’,” says Broderick Chow, a professor at Brunel University London who serves as director of the multimedia project Dynamic Tensions: New Masculinities in the Performance of Fitness. Like Atlas, Sammartino was allegedly a frail boy, constantly bullied and barely 60 pounds at age 13, until a friend introduced him to the world of weights and exercise and he blossomed into a bully-pounding prodigy.
“Who knows if Sammartino really was weak or sickly as a kid, since that could just be part of the myth,” says Chow. “But what’s interesting to me is that because he arrives later to the U.S., in the 1950s, bodybuilding, weightlifting and powerlifting were already being separated, and Sammartino clearly went down the weightlifting and powerlifting route. He didn’t just look strong, he was legitimately strong, and his physique reflects this — slightly thicker core, he doesn’t care about body fat percentage or being ‘shredded’ or anything like that.”
For Rust Belt wrestling fans who grew up watching Studio Wrestling on Channel 11 in Pittsburgh, stocky ex-apprentice carpenter Sammartino embodied immigrant strength and fortitude. My mother, a first-generation Southwestern Pennsylvanian, recalls fondly how Sammartino reminded her of her swarthy Slovak grandfather. “They were both covered in these veritable pelts of hair and were wider than they were tall,” she tells me. “My grandpa could put me on a shovel when I was in elementary school and lift me right off the ground with one arm, the only arm he had. It was such a thrill, and you could feel the power this coal mining man had — that’s the power I saw in Bruno, too. He was this big boulder, and they just called him the World Champ on TV back then. Heck, I didn’t know that there were different wrestling groups all around the country. He could’ve been the champion of the moon and stars too, because who was going to beat him?”
Sammartino’s physique, then, was the most critical component of his performance, a body that told a story even more impressive than the moves and holds he deployed. “When we look at his physique we think strong, because we associate it with an aesthetic of powerlifting,” explains Chow. “But you put this body in the democratic space of the ring, where you play pretend for the promoter and audience, and anything can happen” — including a weightlifter becoming an unbeatable fan favorite.
Sammartino’s fame gave rise to many relatively successful imitators, such as Texas-born Czech-American Ivan Putski, who had a long career as a 5-foot-6 “Polish Power” version of Bruno. But Sammartino was also a liminal stage of champion, a squat beer barrel of a competitor straddling the line between carnival-strongman-cum-powerlifter and bodybuilder. Although naturally big and strong, he’d be surpassed by the next generation of steroid-enhanced superstars, losing his WWE title for good to “Superstar” Billy Graham and then temporarily losing his place in WWE history as a Hulk Hogan-led wave of bodybuilder bodies deluged the industry in the 1980s.
Sammartino, upset that his short, stocky and decidedly non-bodybuilder-looking son hadn’t received a push in the WWE during these changing times and himself largely finished as a main-event performer after finishing red-hot feuds with traitorous trainee Zbyszko and top heel Roddy Piper, soon found himself on the outside looking. And so, while in uneasy retirement, Sammartino railed against steroid use and other workplace safety issues in Vince McMahon Jr.’s federation, stating in one especially heated 1991 interview that the WWE was “infested with drug abuse” and running “sham” steroid tests.
There was plenty of truth to what Sammartino was saying, but also an element of sour grapes: He had once been the top dog, the man with the unbreakable bear hug, but his top spot (and legend) had been passed to juiced-up behemoths Graham and Hogan, then to ever-tauter performers in the mold of Shawn Michaels, Randy Orton and today’s many other CrossFit-looking (and doing) superstars.
When Sammartino returned to the WWE fold in 2013 in order to be inducted into the Hall of Fame by steroid-era poster boy Arnold Schwarzenegger, he did it more for personal satisfaction than the measly $5,000 payday. Nevertheless, it bears noting that the man who has loomed large over the WWE since 2003 is John Cena, a powerhouse wrestler of Italian descent who has consistently denied all allegations of steroid use and even gone so far as to hang the negative results of his drug tests in his South Florida gym. And Bulgarian powerlifter Miroslav Barnyashev, who wrestles as Rusev and whose vicious feud with Cena recalled the Ivan Koloff/Bruno Sammartino battles of yore and whose star has been rising again since the advent of his “Rusev Day” gimmick, is something of a dead ringer for Sammartino at 6-feet tall and 280 hirsute pounds.
But Rusev, however much he might resemble Sammartino physically, no longer has what we might think of as the prototypical wrestling body. These days, the gold standard is probably somewhere between HHH’s cartoon bodybuilder definition and AJ Styles’ athletic frame. So while Sammartino may have indirectly paved the way for the bodybuilders who followed him into the business, he ended up standing well apart from them — a sui generis figure whose brawny, but natural, build was the basis for all the muscle (real or otherwise) that followed.