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Pittsburgh icon, people’s champion

Bruno Sammartino carries to the grave the true mantle of “people’s champion,” a guy who never forgot the hardships of his early life and who never was anything less than grateful for all the millions of fans he accumulated in his professional wrestling career.

Even when he was just wrestling in Pittsburgh on the old “Studio Wrestling” program on WIIC-TV (now WPXI-TV) on Saturday nights, there was something special about Bruno that came through those old black-and-white TVs.

Born in October 1935 in Pizzoferrato, Abruzzi, Italy, he survived World War II in Italy avoiding the Nazis by hiding with his mother in a cave. They joined his father in Pittsburgh in 1950. He lost a brother and sister who died at a young age.

Sammartino rose to become what would be an unapproachable superstar nowadays, gaining fame by being the plain-spoken, clean, good-guy champion. That he was always available at any public appearance to speak to his fans to the end of his life proves he never outgrew who he was.

There was nothing ambiguous about wrestling characters back in his day. A wrestler was either a good guy or a creep. It was a simpler reflection of a simpler time.

And into the arena stepped a man proud of his Italian heritage, who never forget his humble roots, and who never stopped being a blue-collar Pittsburgh guy no matter the fame he achieved. He started lifting weights in Pittsburgh as a way to be strong enough to ward off bullies who picked on him for his Italian accent and then-spindly frame.

He held the championship belt for more than 11 years over two spans, in the time before professional wrestling truly exploded into the national entertainment sphere. He had broken bones from his neck to his nose to his fingers, ankles, wrists and elbows. He said the injuries were real, his scars were real and wrestling was real. And he endured into old age.

And he was a good guy to his roots, not just as some character played in the ring. Those who worked with him were tweeting the words “class” and “sportsman” after news of his death at age 82 spread Wednesday. The younger fans and wrestlers rightly used the word “legend.”

The WWE, which is the modern outgrowth of those old wrestling programs, inducted Bruno into its hall of fame in 2013, after years of Sammartino battling with WWE promoter Vince McMahon about the vulgar storylines and acceptance of steroid use by its stars.

The result of that induction was the 188th time that Sammartino sold out Madison Square Garden since the “new” garden opened in 1968. None other than Arnold Schwarzenegger presented Sammartino for induction.

Legend? Proud Italian-American? Athlete?

Yes, yes and yes.

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