True wrestling legend Bruno Sammartino has died at 82. A member of the WWE Hall of Fame, Sammartino's celebrity predicted the explosion of wrestling's popularity in the 1990s. If one wrestler formed a bridge between the barnstorming, gritty days of the sport and modern, rock-star level characters playing to arenas full of fans, it was probably the Italian Superman.
Sammartino was born in Italy and experienced World War II as a child, hiding from the Nazis with his mother. By 1950 he'd moved to Pittsburgh.
Sammartino didn't begin his career as a wrestler. He was a powerlifter first. His WWE obituary says it was his power that first caught the eye of the elder Vincent J. McMahon, when in 1959 Sammartino set a world record with a 565-lb bench press.
Soon enough Sammartino was in the ring, and much like Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson he immediately became a star. He plowed through lesser wrestlers, snagging and keeping the WWE Championship belt, ultimately hanging onto it for almost a decade.
Along the way he squared off against other ring legends and his star rose to nationwide celebrity. From old-school names like Gorilla Monsoon and George "The Animal" Steele, Bruno Sammartino took on everyone with flash, power, and drive—and he never turned heel.
Madison Square Garden had been thoroughly renewed when Sammartino topped the first-ever wrestling event there in 1968. He went on to rule the Garden throughout the 1970s.
Bruno Sammartino retired from the ring (mostly) in 1981, but stayed on as an announcer beside the younger Vince McMahon, forming that bridge to the first superstar generation—big names like Hulk Hogan and Macho Man Randy Savage.
Arnold Schwarzenegger hosted the legend's induction into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013, and Sammartino appeared as sharp and fit as ever.
Bruno Sammartino leaves behind his family and the story of a hero's journey, stretching from war-torn Italy to the heights of wrestling fame.