The blue collar region of western Pennsylvania is as synonymous with sports as it is with the steel it historically produced over 50 years ago. Along with the Steelers and the Penguins, Pittsburgh is also known for its wrestling. From the time that "Pittsburgh Studio Wrestling" aired in the 1960s, the steel city had, and still has a strong fan base.
Among the names of Dominic DeNucci, Shane Douglas, and Kurt Angle, there is one name that has the most storied history in the iron city, Bruno Sammartino. After surviving a Nazi invasion of his village and illness while hiding in the mountains during World War II, Bruno immigrated to Pittsburgh with his family in 1950. Less than a decade later, he debuted in the sport of professional wrestling and the Italian strongman went on to become one of the most popular stars in the history of the industry, reigning as champion a combined 11 years. Almost 70 years after Bruno arrived in Pittsburgh, he remains one of the city's most respected and recognized figures.
Quite simply, Bruno is an icon in his hometown, very similar to how he still maintains mythical status among many fans today. The tales of Sammartino's grappling battles are told from generation to generation, and even those that aren't old enough to have watched him compete live are aware of his status. Obviously, these achievements were rightfully highlighted when the native of Abruzzo, Italy was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame a few years ago.
However, this edition of the VHS memoirs will go back to a time when Sammartino was still at odds with some of the more vulgar aspects of the business and his praises weren't often mentioned on WWF TV.
My dad, Papa LaMotta grew up in the blue collar town of Braddock, PA where his parents worked very hard to provide a humble upbringing for him. The legendary late Grand pap LaMotta was a WW II veteran and worked at Edgar Thomas Steel Miller for over thirty years as a crane operator. She passed before I was born, but by all accounts, Grandma LaMotta was a saint that treated everyone from every background with acceptance. She was full blooded Italian and her recipes are still staples of my dad's impressive cooking ability today. These details are very common to many from Western PA and it's one of the reasons that Bruno connected with the audiences of the north east, they could relate to his story. Respect, honor, and toughness defined so much of that generation.
My dad is old enough to have seen Sammartino wrestle live, and I was told a rather comical story about a particular occasion at an event at the Civic Arena. In the mid-70s, Bruno worked the circuit with "Superstar" Billy Graham, a revolutionary performer that was one of the first villains to garner crowd support for his Ali-type interview style. A teenager at the time, my dad was a longtime Bruno fan, but also enjoyed the cool persona of the Superstar. He had second row seats for this clash of WWWF titans and anticipated the entrance of the popular heel. Superstar Graham strutted to the ring and then posed on the turnbuckle, flexing his massive biceps before he torn his tye dye t-shirt. Papa LaMotta enthusiastically cheered until he noticed cups and ice landing near him. A few rows away from him, two elderly Italian ladies took exception to the cheers for the beloved Bruno's foe. So, they attempted to throw their empty cups at my dad while swearing at him in their native language for cheering the "bad guy." After dodging the refreshments, he watched the two legends battle to a count out.
Fast forward to 1997, I was 8 years old and had heard the stories that Bruno was the greatest champion of all time, and at that age, who was I to argue? Champion for over 10 years was enough of a reason for me to believe it. Just as the wrestling boom of the 90s was starting, the "Fox Fest," an event run by the local Fox 53 station, featured more wrestling content than usual that particular year. The event took place at Monroeville Mall, which is actual the location where "Dawn of the Dead" was filmed. Among those in attendance, representing WCW, was Brain Knobbs. It's another story for another time, but I asked the Nasty Boy why he wasn't wrestling in the WWF anymore. Also there, was "the living legend" himself, Bruno, making a familiar appearance around the area. It truly speaks volumes to how many generations admire Sammartino when you consider that no matter how many events he appeared at since stepping away from the national spotlight, there was always a substantial amount of fans eager to meet him.
After hearing the accolades of this wrestling hero for the majority of my life, little Jim walked up to the living legend and shook his hand. In truth, I remember being extremely shy at the time because THIS WAS BRUNO, and at 8 years old, seeing the athlete from the classic Coliseum Home Video VHS tape really was larger than life. I told him that my dad had told me that he was always the champion and Sammartino laughed at how enthusiastic I was to explain this. He happily took a picture with me and signed the Polaroid, a photo I recently shared on Twitter. Since that meeting in 1997, I met Bruno on two other occasions, in 2005 at an independent event and then in 2011 at a Pittsburgh Studio Wrestling signing. Thankfully, when I was older, I was much more composed than the original meeting, but I still find it comical how shy I was in 1997. But, I can say that each time I met Bruno he was always polite and happy to greet fans.
As mentioned, stories like this are common in Pittsburgh, and today, Bruno is recognized as the global icon that he is through the WWE Hall of Fame. Even at 81, Sammartino maintains a workout routine and he's in truly unbelievable shape for his age. Meeting the living legend, if it was when I was in elementary school or in college, was always an honor. There's no doubt that Bruno Sammartino is as much of a champion as a person as he was as wrestler during his career.
Until next week
You can follow me on Twitter @jimlamotta