Bruno Sammartino – one of the world's most popular professional wrestlers who was fondly nicknamed "The Italian Superman" – has died at the age of 82.
A native of small Italian mountain town of Pizzoferrato in the Abruzzi region of Italy, Sammartino emigrated to the United States and his body-building skills – he could bench press 565 pounds – were noticed by wrestling promoter Vince McMahon Sr., who began booking him fights.
Sammartino's gentle nature and soft-spoken nature, combined with his fierce prowess in the ring against a host of villainous opponents, made him an instant sensation.
In 1963, he defeated Buddy "Natural Guy" Rogers in just 48 seconds to become the second-ever World Wrestling Entertainment champion in front of nearly 20,000 fans at the old Madison Square Garden in New York City.
He held the title for eight years, defeating such menacing opponents as Killer Kowalski, Gorilla Monsoon, and George "The Animal" Steele.
In 1968, he wrestled in three title matches against Ed Farhat, better known as "The Sheik," at Madison Square Garden, with the Sheik winning the first and being disqualified in the second, and Sammartino taking the third in a bloody battle billed as a "Texas Grudge Match."
In 1973, Sammartino became the first two-time WWE Champion and held the title for an additional three-and-a-half years.
He retired in 1981, a year after he defeated his former protégé Larry Zbyszko inside a steel cage at Shea Stadium in Queens, New York, in front of more than 35,000 people. Sammartino then returned to wrestling as a broadcaster.
"Bruno became an overnight sensation, connecting with not only fellow Italians, but also the Latino, Greek, and Jewish communities, successfully bridging the gap in America's melting pot of wrestling fans," the WWE said in a statement.
"The star power and influence of Sammartino was exemplified by the fact that he was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013 by none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger."
The WWE called Sammartino's rise to fame and fortune "the story of the American dream," following a tough childhood.
"Bruno's brother and sister both passed away at young ages, and Adolf Hitler's Nazi forces seized their town, but Bruno persevered. He and his mother hid in a mountain called Valla Rocca during the German occupation and eventually joined his immigrant father in Pittsburgh in 1950," the WWE said.
In 2013, Sammartino told ESPN: "I had a lot of my success due to appearing at the Garden. I wrestled there over 200 times, it's where I won the title, and it's where I picked up 630-plus pounds of Haystacks Calhoun."
Sammartino was also extremely popular with youngsters and would always take time to sign autographs for them at ringside before his bouts.
Long after he retired, Sammartino was asked who he would choose to fight in a WrestleMania bout.
"Killer Kowalski would be at the top of the list," Sammartino said. "He was always in such great shape, and Killer could also brawl. If we went 10 minutes or even over 20 minutes, you can bet there would always be action in the ring.”
WWE executive Paul "Triple H" Levesque, a WWE executive and former wrestler, tweeted Wednesday:
Sammartino is survived by his wife of 59 years, Carol, three sons, David, Danny and Darryl, and four grandchildren.
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