The Very First Wrestler!
Hulk Hogan Wasn’t Even a Thought in his Momma’s Mind!
Believe it or not, wrestling was the very first sport ever to be played, supposedly, on earth. China was the home of wrestling – they simply had a far more interesting name for it…horn butting. No, not kidding – in China this ancient wrestling was made up of contestants who wore horned headgear with which they attempted to ‘butt’ their opponents.
Wrestling was not only the first sport, but a “blood-sport.” In fact, legend states that jiao di – Chinese wrestling – was used in 2697 BC by the Yellow Emperor’s Army to gore the soldiers of a rebel army. As time went on though, young people would make the game far more fun by copying the ‘contests’ of domestic cattle – without the headgear. That would’ve been much more entertaining, as the first sport slowly changed from a battle of brutality into what would one day become an event of beer, popcorn, and men in very colorful uniforms trouncing each other for the camera.
Now, who was the very first wrestler? Perhaps, it was a man covered in horns and really angry at his opponent. But in this day and age, the one who is remembered as being the very first wrestler to become number one inside that ring was Bruno Sammartino; the very first professional to ever win the WWWF, WWF, and WWE Championships. Now, there are people who wish to debate this fact, because a wrestler by the name of Nature Boy Buddy Rogers, was the first to hold the title, BUT it was given to him. So, seeing as that he didn’t actually win it, Bruno Leopoldo Francesco Sammartino gets the ‘big’ prize of being the one who brought wrestling to the forefront of sports.
This amazingly talented Italian-American was best known for being the longest-running champion of the World Wide Wrestling Federation. Yes, this man was far more interesting than the men we have ‘on tap’ today inside that ring. Bruno held the WWWF title for over eleven years. No one could touch the ‘King of the Ring.’ Not to mention, Bruno was also the longest single WWE Champion to reign in all of professional wrestling history.
Typical of wrestlers from his era, Bruno knew how to take his opponent to the mat in seconds – literally! People cheer to this day regarding his brawling, power moves, and his true and utter personal charisma that helped him become the most popular American wrestler in the 1960s and 1970s.
Madison Square Garden was once THE place to be when it came to the wrestling world. In fact, the Garden was once the WWWF’s primary arena, and Bruno headlined 211 cards – including 187 sellouts – which, again, was far more than any other wrestler.
Bruno was also an amazing man with a history that has been written in a biography. Bruno was used to being strong and powerful almost from the moment he was born. In Italy, in 1935, Bruno came along and was the baby of the family – a family that consisted of seven brothers and sisters. This is a family who stuck together through thick and thin, especially when they all had to hide from German soldiers in a mountain called Valla Rocca, during the latter stages of World War II. Bruno spoke a great deal of the hard work his mother had to do for the family. During their ‘hide-out’ time, the fear was beyond intense, yet his mother would sneak into their German-occupied town for food and supplies. During these intensely courageous escapades, she was once captured, and once shot in the shoulder. But, for any young man who would eventually stand in a ring and destroy his opponents, the bravery that his mother showed during these dark days must’ve taught Bruno a great deal.
Almost passing away from rheumatic fever, Bruno was taken care of by his never-ending heroine of a Mom and ended up traveling to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1950. This is a young man who was ill, and physically small because of the fever that’d almost taken his life – not to mention the horrific days his family had spent during the war with hardly any food. But Bruno was not about to give in. He was one who definitely had been handed his mother’s strength. Building himself up by devoting himself to the world of weight training, Bruno ended up having a spot on the 1956 U.S. Olympic team.
Setting world records for bench pressing (565 pounds!) in 1960, Bruno went on to compete in bodybuilding events and took home the title of, “Mr. Allegheny.” Bruno became well known in his Pittsburgh area by performing strongman stunts, and fate intervened when a local sportscaster put Bruno on his television show. That moment in time was one that Bruno would always remember, because it was on that interview when he was spotted by a local wrestling promoter, Rudy Miller, who recruited Bruno immediately for the world of professional wrestling.
Miller was no ‘dumbbell,’ he knew that Bruno was an easily marketable commodity in his world, and he advertised and promoted Bruno to the max as the ethnic strongman!
Oddly enough, one of the biggest draws in Bruno‘s career was in 1956, when he wrestled an orangutan at a carnival. After taking A LOT of punishment, Bruno punched the orangutan in the stomach and was disqualified by the animal’s owner. No, don’t worry, the orangutan survived the encounter just fine, but Bruno walked out of that cage with a beaten face, swollen eyes, and clothes that were shredded so badly, they looked like something from Jurassic Park had been unleashed on his head.
Bruno did eventually leave the ‘jungle moment’ behind when he made his professional debut on December 17, 1959. This wasn’t what you would call a long debut, seeing as that Bruno simply came out and pinned Dmitri Grabowski in only nineteen seconds; the audience hadn’t even warmed their seats before the whole thing was all over.
Bruno’s popularity skyrocketed. From local radio and television stations, to the Pittsburgh-based Spectator Sports promotion – which Bruno went on to buy for himself – everything was finally going absolutely perfectly for this outstandingly talented wrestler. One of the greatest things about Bruno was the fact that when he became a business owner, he proved to the other wrestlers that fairness ran in his blood. There were many, including George “The Animal” Steele, who stated that Bruno always showed concern for how much all of the wrestlers earned on a card – not just himself.
From the World Wide Wrestling Federation/World Wrestling Federation and his matches held at the Garden, Bruno was headlining everywhere. Everyone loved, chanted, and screamed for Bruno. But there was one fateful day when, on February 18, 1961, Bruno faced Chick Garibaldi in an afternoon match and body-slammed him into the mat. Immediately, Bruno noticed his opponent’s eyes roll up inside his head, and by the time the ref checked, Chick was dead. It took so many years for Bruno to put the accident behind him, even though the doctor’s found out later in the day that Chick had actually died from a heart attack, and not the body slam that Bruno had delivered.
Things went back and forth in Bruno’s career. From being set up by a jealous promoter so that he ended up on suspension from wrestling and had to become a laborer in order to make ends meet, to moving on to Toronto, where the large Italian population welcomed Bruno with open arms – this wrestler saw it all!
And the biggest fight that will be remembered where Bruno is concerned? The day he defeated the champion for the WWWF World Championship title in just 48 seconds.
The crowd at the Garden had come that day expecting a supremely tough contest, and were absolutely shocked when Bruno was able to completely dominate the champion. There weren’t many tough matches in this amazing wrestler’s background…
Unless, you count that extremely angry orangutan!
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