When I came to this country,” says professional wrestling champ Bruno Sammartino, “I was your real 80-pound weakling. We were one of the first Italian families on the block and my brother and I got the heck beat out of us because we couldn’t speak English. So I joined the Y and worked on the weights like a fanatic. I made plans.”
Today, as those old body-building ads put it, nobody kicks sand in Bruno’s face—least of all his banker. Sammartino’s physical strength is legendary in pro wrestling, and it has made him a rich man. For more than a decade, he has dominated a wildly popular spectator sport that has as many de-bunkers as devotees. To cynics, wrestling is little more than sweaty soap opera with a high turnover of towering Teutons, masked marvels, potbellied sheiks and hairless Orientals. To its loyal following it is high moral drama at its bruising best, pitting incorruptible heroes against detestable villains. But to Bruno, the invulnerable if bashful behemoth, wrestling is serious business.
Now 37, Bruno has been World Wide Wrestling Federation champion nearly nine of the past 11 years, with an annual income that is approaching $200,000. He has parlayed his box-office popularity into a network of investments that include partnerships in condominiums and apartment houses, real estate ventures in the United States and the Bahamas, and an oil company. Through bonds and mutual funds, he has established a secure financial base for his wife Carol and sons David, 13, and 6-year-old twins Darryl and Danny. “I said,” he recalls, “that some day I would give my family everything I never had.”
His father, a blacksmith, came to the United States from a tiny village in Italy just before Bruno’s birth in 1937, and worked in coal fields and steel mills around Pittsburgh, hoping to earn enough money to send for his family. But the war broke out and the remaining Sammartinos were forced to flee Nazi occupation forces. Malnutrition and disease claimed an older brother and sister and twins. After the war the complex immigration quota system did not allow the surviving members of his family to emigrate to Pittsburgh until 1953. “When I first met my father,” Bruno says, “I was 15.”
In high school he learned English and worked out obsessively with weights, developing into a strapping football lineman and a clever team wrestler. After graduating, he became a construction worker and carpenter’s apprentice. In 1959 he married his school sweetheart, and that same year decided to sign his first pro-wrestling contract, for $12,500. It seemed like a lot of money then.
“I was naive,” he recalls, “I found out I had to pay for all my own plane fares and hotel rooms.” When his contract expired in 1962, Bruno tried to shun the powerful World Wide Wrestling Federation and make it on his own. The federation, he feels, blackballed him in retaliation, and Bruno took off for Canada. Within a year, he was the national champ there, pulling in $2,000 a week. Thus established, he rejoined the WWWF circuit in the U.S. and won its title in 1963, which he held, as the charismatic king of the mats, for an unprecedented eight years. But the battering pace of four matches a week and a back injury led to his loss of the championship in 1971. He lapsed into semiretirement while his body mended. Letters from adoring fans urged him to come back. In mid-1972 he worked himself down from 285 to a solid 250 pounds (he is 5’11”) for his comeback. Last December Bruno regained the jeweled belt that signifies the championship title, and at 37 began a second reign.
Wrestling up to three times a week, he commands the biggest and best houses. Between trips, he returns to his family in their suburban Pittsburgh home. Keeping himself in stupendous physical condition is both a necessity and a joy; his other hobby is opera. His rich collection of recordings dates all the way back to the 1890s, and his favorite tenor is Enrico Caruso, about whom Sammartino is amazingly knowledgeable.
Bruno’s daily three-hour workout begins in a narrow basement room at home. The weights look like boxcar wheels, but he effortlessly does a dozen bench presses on his back at 150 pounds, then gradually works up to close to 500 pounds. Each workout ends with a three-to-five-mile jog, usually in his backyard, since fans interrupt his running in public parks to ask for autographs.
Like so many intense businessmen, Sammartino has little time for vacations. Matches are scheduled the year around, and because Bruno knows he is at his peak of earning power right now, he is eager not to miss any of them. “I have to wait for a busted collarbone or a cracked knee,” he says. “That’s when I get a vacation.”