Who is the greatest WWE champion of all time?
This is a loaded question, and certainly subjective by its very nature. Not only is the question up to a matter of the individual tastes of wrestling fans and critics, but you also have to ask in what way was the champion great?
For example, Hulk Hogan was one of the most popular champions of all time, both in the WWE specifically, and pro wrestling in general. But the Hulkster is regarded as having, at best, adequate ring skills.
Then you look at a man like Brock Lesnar, who has enjoyed lengthy title reigns with sporadic appearances. While the average wrestling fan may rankle at his limited schedule, they cannot deny his mainstream appeal.
But, despite the numerous fantastic champions over the decades of WWE's existence, there is one which stands head and shoulders above the rest. That champion was Bruno Sammartino, the Italian born grappler who defeated Nature Boy Buddy Rogers in under a minute to capture his first WWE championship.
Bruno held the title for a staggering two thousand, eight hundred and three days. His reign stretched from the 1960s into the 1970s, during which time he was always the babyface hero defending his title against the villain of the month.
In this edition of WWE history, we look back on the life, legacy, and the amazing championship reign of Bruno Sammartino, the Hall of Fame member who helped make wrestling what it is today.
Bruno Leopoldo Francesco Sammartino was born in Pizzoferrato, Abruzzo, Italy, to Alfonso and Emilia Sammartino on October 6, 1935. The youngest of seven children, he was sickly in his extreme youth due to the deplorable conditions of Italy under the reign of the brutal Mussolini dictatorship.
At the age of four, he emigrated to the United States with his family. As an immigrant child who spoke little English, and being relatively puny due to the deprivations of war, he was a frequent target for bullying by his peers.
In order to stave off the bullies, Sammartino turned to amateur wrestling and powerlifting. His sickly frame soon gave way to a bulked up, magnificent physique which remains impressive even by modern standards. At first, it seemed like Sammartino was destined for a powerlifting career. He nearly made the US Olympic team in 1956, though he lost his spot to eventual gold medalist Paul Anderson.
World record bench press
Training at the University of Pittsburgh in amateur wrestling, he turned to strong man acts to help pay tuition and other costs. In 1959, he set the world record for the bench press at 565 pounds.
Unlike modern weight lifting, in Bruno's era, the athlete was required to hold the bar on their chest for two full seconds before attempting the press, rather than 'bouncing' it as modern weight lifters do. Not only that, the tough as nails Sammartino didn't even wear protective wrist or elbow straps!
His strong man feats caught the attention of a local sports caster in Pittsburgh named Bob Prince. While appearing on Prince's show, he caught the attention of wrestling promoter Rudy Miller.
Miller recruited Sammartino into the world of professional wrestling. While Sammartino was expected to do great things, even Miller would be shocked at just how well Bruno took to the sports entertainment of the era.
An amazing debut year
There's more to being a great pro wrestler than just athletic ability alone. If that were all it took, the sport would be dominated by cruiserweights.
In order to be a great wrestler, one needs charisma and panache, presence and power. Bruno Sammartino had all of these qualities. It was quickly apparent he was going to excel in the world of sports entertainment.
Most of the time, in the wrestling industry, one loses their debut match. It's considered a rite of passage. However, Bruno not only won his first match against Dmitri Grabowski, but he also did it in under a minute.
Sammartino would soon be invited to perform at the already venerable Madison Square Garden, a rare honor for a rookie wrestler. He defeated veteran Bill Curry in under five minutes on this grand stage.
Sammartino's career was taking off like a rocket, but he would soon hit a major snag.
Bruno Sammartino was a star in the making, but his ego nearly ended his career before it had truly begun.
In 1961, Sammartino began to feel frustrated with his role in the Capitol Wrestling Corporation, the promotion which would eventually become the WWE we know today. Vince McMahon Sr. would grant Bruno his release to go work in California for regional promoter Roy Shire.
However, what happened next is up for debate. Bruno missed two bookings in the interim of his journey to California. Because of this, he was suspended in those territories. Bruno believes that Vince McMahon Sr. double booked him on purpose for revenge, but there's no evidence of this.
Whatever the case, Shire chose to honor the suspension of the other territories, and Sammartino was out of work. He would be forced to return to Pittsburgh and perform manual labor for his living.
But that, of course, is not the end of Bruno's story. Not by a long shot.
Canadian wrestling champion and return to the US territories
Sammartino was drafted into Toronto promoter Frank Tunney's regional territory. Frank Tunney knew that the Toronto-Ontario area had a huge amount of population of Italian descent. He believed that Sammartino could fill seats in arenas. It turns out he was right.
Bruno quickly became a draw, teaming up with local hero Whipper Billy Watson to capture the International Tag Team Championship.
This first taste of championship gold would not be Bruno's last.
His popularity began to soar, and the American promotions took notice. Vince McMahon Sr. and his business partner, Toots Mondt, paid off Bruno Sammartino's fine, allowing him to work in the USA once again. He was recruited into the burgeoning WWWF, the precursor to the WWF and then WWE, with the express purpose of giving the new promotion prestige.
Sammartino would soon be elevated to greatness.
Capturing the World Title and beginning the historic reign
During the 1950s, one man was considered to be the greatest wrestler of his age; Nature Boy Buddy Rogers.
Rogers was a huge star, but as the fifties turned into the sixties his health began failing him. After suffering from heart problems, the decision was made to take the belt off of him.
The man chosen to beat Rogers was Sammartino. In order to protect Rogers's failing health, the match was limited to under a minute. Sammartino would defeat the legendary Nature Boy in just forty-eight seconds.
Thus began his historic reign, and the world of pro wrestling would never be the same.
Reigning supreme for over seven years
Despite legends to the contrary, Bruno Sammartino and Buddy Rogers never had a proper rematch for the championship.
The closest they came was a two out of three falls tag team bout that saw Sammartino team with Bobo Brazil and Rogers teaming with Handsome Johnny Barend. Rogers would pin Sammartino for the final fall, gaining some measure of revenge before he was forced to retire.
During his lengthy reign, Sammartino would defeat every villain set up before him, always managing to hang on to his title belt. Some of his defenses ended in time limit draws, and some in DQ, but he always put on a dominating performance. Bill Watts, the original Sheik, and George "The Animal" Steele were some of the men he faced during his epic reign.
But all good things must come to an end, and the time would come when Sammartino would face his Waterloo.
Shock and silence greets a lost title
Seven years of globe-trotting and defending his title had taken a toll on Sammartino. With nagging injuries piling up, as well as general fatigue, Sammartino actually pitched the idea of him losing the title belt to a worthy contender.
That contender would take the form of faux-Russian Canadian athlete Ivan Koloff. With the Cold War in full swing, a plethora of Russian heels invaded the world of pro wrestling. Koloff was a long time wrestling fan before he joined the profession. At just under six feet, he tipped the scales at two hundred seventy pounds, all of it muscle.
Due to his heelish popularity at the time, Koloff was chosen to succeed Sammartino as champion. Their match was held at Madison Square Garden, and when Koloff did the unthinkable and actually defeated Sammartino, the New York crowd reacted with stunned silence. It was hard to believe that the nigh-invincible Sammartino had fallen, and to a man that the fans despised.
But soon enough Sammartino would become champion again.
Second title reign
In 1973, facing flagging ratings and low attendance rates, Vince McMahon Sr. implored Sammartino to return to his promotion for another world title run.
Sammartino's deal was innovative and unique at the time, because he actually commanded a percentage of the gate, meaning he was paid based upon attendance. The only problem was that the current WWWF champion was Pedro Morales, another baby face.
In order to set up the match, a brilliant storyline was concocted. Pedro and Sammartino teamed up a number of times, much like Hogan and Savage would decades later. When heel Professor Toru Tanaka blinded both men with salt, they wound up brawling with each other. Even after they were no longer blinded, they kept up the hostilities. Their rage would boil over into a world title match, which Bruno won.
His second reign would last four years, racking up a total of eleven years for both of his reigns, a feat which is unlikely to be repeated.
Hall of Fame
For many years after the inception of the WWE Hall of Fame, one question kept popping up.
Sammartino had rejected a Hall of Fame induction several years earlier, citing the sex and violence of the Attitude Era as the reason for his refusal. But after WWE returned to a PG rating, he was more than happy to accept.
Sammartino still seemed vital and powerful as he took the stage to thank his fans and supporters for a magnificent career which spanned decades. Now with Bruno safely a member of the Hall of Fame, the WWE could rest easy knowing that a worthy man was finally given his due.
There you have it: the story of the longest WWE title reign in history and the man who made it possible. If you have questions or comments, please leave them after the article, and as always thanks for reading!