It’s June 24, 1974. I’m a skinny, 14-year-old and it’s my first wrestling match EVER. My heart is beating out of my chest because these superheroes and supervillains have suddenly come to life. And finally, there he is. “The Italian strongman,” Bruno Sammartino. The building literally shakes as he enters without a hint of pyro or entrance music. This powerhouse who hid from the Nazis as a child in WW II and built himself up into a superman. His partner, Chief Jay Strongbow and he stood across the ring from the Russian monster Nikolai Volkoff who could shatter fruit in his bare hands, and the unbelievably charismatic Classy Fred Blassie. As they battle two out of three grueling falls, the fans erupt into chants of “Bruno…Bruno…Bruno…” in a beautiful, deafening crescendo. Finally, Bruno and the Chief emerge victoriously and I practically float through the air on the way out of there. I was hooked for life and Bruno would remain a hero to me nearly fifty years later.
Bruno vs. John “The Maniac” Tolos. “The Golden Greek.” One of the greatest talkers in the history of the business. The man who wrestled Fred Blassie in L.A. in the first ever closed-circuit spectacular. The man who dared to call Bruno a (gasp!) “Spaghetti bender!” How dare he! Tolos who had blinded Blassie. Tolos who had brutalized beloved Victor Rivera on L.A. TV week after week which we savored Wednesday nights right here in NYC. And finally, he was taking on Bruno and our champ just wasn’t having any of it. Putting Tolos in the backbreaker until he submitted, he dropped him like garbage in the middle of the ring. It was a thing of beauty to witness. And I was a star-struck kid in the middle of this glory.
Bruno vs. Spiros Arion- yet another Greek great. The man who attacked Jay Strongbow, disgracefully forcing the feathers into his mouth, leaving him in a heap. Bruno seeking revenge. Three great MSG main-events. And Bruno finally winning in a memorable “Greek Death Match.” Bruno, ever victorious.
But could he beat Ivan Koloff when he returned? “The Russian Bear.” The man who had somehow beaten the seemingly invincible Bruno years earlier. Would it, could it, possibly happen again? Tests of strength. Raw power between these two larger than life rivals. But Bruno did finally best him in MSG’s first ever steel cage match.
Then there was the world’s strongest man, Ken Patera. An Olympic Champion and an all-time great heel. Bruno had beaten the best but here was an actual Olympian, a legit world class athlete. Who would emerge victorious? As a kid, a “mark” if you will, these questions weighed on me. And they, too, went three straight months at MSG before Bruno bested this bleached blonde baddie.
And what about “King” Ernie Ladd? The 6’9 300 plus pound football giant? A champion inside and outside the wrestling ring. A man who towered over Bruno and had that taped thumb which he wasn’t shy about jabbing in an opponent’s throat? Bruno somehow took him, too.
From Paradise Valley, Arizona came SuperStar Billy Graham. Nobody had seen anything like him. One part Gorgeous George, two parts Muhammed Ali, the jive talking, promo cutting “Man of the hour…the man with the power…too sweet to be sour” sold out the Garden with Bruno time and time again and did, in fact, beat Bruno April 30th, 1977 in Baltimore, just as folks said he would months in advance and then I “knew” wrestling wasn’t what it appeared to be, but nonetheless I still loved both it and Bruno (and I can admit it decades later- Graham as well) with all my heart.
Bruno vs. Stan Hansen live was memorable as well with Hansen accidentally breaking Bruno’s neck at MSG leading to their meeting at Shea Stadium in an ultimate grudge match. Imagine being so “over” you could play a baseball stadium! That was our Saint Bruno. His pain was our pain. His victories were our victories. And when he bloodied the Badman from Borga, Texas we delighted in it.
Hansen’s buddy at the time Bruiser Brody was no slouch either, and seeing Bruno take on the monstrous Brody at the Nassau Coliseum in a steel cage was something I’d never forget. Although not yet the international superstar and all-time legend he’d become, you knew Brody was something special. But Bruno triumphed in that one as well.
Speaking of Shea Stadium there was also the classic Larry Zybysko match after his protégé had turned on him and shocked the world. This was as big as it gets, and Bruno emerged victorious here as well in a bout they still talk about to this day.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up Bruno’s neighbor and another protégé in Johnny Valiant who had knocked on Bruno’s door as a kid asking him to train him. Bruno accommodated him and years later there they were- Bruno and Strongbow once again teamed facing the colorful Valiant Brothers- Handsome Jimmy and Luscious Johnny with the notorious “Captain” Lou Albano. They met four times within a year headlining Madison Square Garden and the heat was always off the chart.
There were so many other great rivals and matches. Fierce Waldo Von Erich. Baron Von Rashchke. Former champ Stan Stasiak- master of the heart punch. Buggsie McGraw. George “The Animal” Steele. And very later in his career I even saw Bruno and Tito Santana take on Randy Savage and Adrian Adonis in a steel cage at MSG. In 1987 in his 50’s, Bruno could still sell out a building.
You know, it’s not easy to lose a childhood hero, but that’s exactly what happened when Bruno passed recently. But he’ll always be beloved by myself and countless East Coast fans with the chant of “Bruno…Bruno…Bruno…” eternally etched in our memories.
–Evan Ginzburg is the Associate Producer of The Wrestler and the upcoming 350 Days starring Bret Hart and SuperStar Graham coming soon to a theater near you. Watch The Evan Ginzburg Show Sundays at 11 AM at www.villageconnectionradio.com