Bruno and The Garden: A Story of Professional Wrestling’s Greatest Champion and His Rise From Humble Immigrant To Sports Icon
By G. R. |
When walking down the streets of Manhattan, you may get lost in all of the tall buildings and crowds, but there is no missing Madison Square Garden: that special round building with an entire subway system beneath it. Those bright lights surrounding the enormous monitors outside that show the upcoming events and where to purchase tickets. The large wallpaper in the arena’s entrance showcasing the Knicks stars: Carmelo, Porzingis, Rose. The crowd of tourists taking pictures from across the street hoping to get a shot of their significant others with their hands raised and capturing the entire arena before the yellow taxis zoom past, blocking their view. The cheesy “I Love New York” and “NYPD” shirts sold across the street.
The Garden and MSG are some of the nicknames given to The World’s Most Famous Arena, Madison Square Garden, located on 34th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. Home to some of the most iconic, memorable and historic moments in sports and entertainment history, Madison Square Garden has seen it all. From two of the three Ali vs. Frazier classics, to the Knicks and Rangers celebrating memorable moments in their history, to Pope Francis holding his mass, Madison Square Garden has been home to everyone. But when it comes to Garden sports history, no accomplishment is quite like that of professional wrestling’s greatest champion, Bruno Sammartino. His two reigns as World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) heavyweight Champion lasted more than eight years and three years, respectively, and Sammartino sold out Madison Square Garden an incredible one hundred and eighty-seven times during his career in wrestling.
Sammartino’s life story and his journey to America are perhaps the main reasons he became such a popular figure in the sports and entertainment world. An Italian immigrant who was born in 1935, four years before the start of World War II, Sammartino saw his father emigrate to America in search of better employment and opportunities that Italy couldn’t offer at the time. Sammartino used this story of immigration and upward mobility through hard work to become one of the wrestling business’s biggest draws. His popularity was shown in 1980 when he and Larry Zybscko headlined a show that drew “the largest [ever] crowd to watch a sporting event at Madison Square Garden”; later that year, the same duo packed 46,000 fans into Shea Stadium in Queens (Davies). In his 1990 autobiography, Bruno Sammartino: An Autobiography of Wrestling’s Living Legend, he states, “When I was a very young kid, growing up in Italy, I used to hear the stories about people who had been to America. They said that the streets were paved with gold and as a child, I took that literally. I really thought you could reach down and scoop up handfuls of the stuff” (1). His hopes when coming to America is something that endeared him to wresting fans, becoming a catalyst in his popularity. Sammartino embodied the American dream because through his hard work and determination he became a successful man, all while being an ideal family man, married to the same woman since 1959, and eventually having three sons with her. His sons played little league sports and went on to college. In addition, Sammartino was proud of his family’s blue collar roots, an attitude typical of many Italian immigrants. In The Review of Italian American Studies, Salvatore Primeggia and Joseph A. Varacalli explain that “Italian Americans, relative to other American groupings, are not ashamed of either their blue collar or urban village designations as long as their occupations and neighborhoods provide a secure and comfortable family existence” (261). This shows that many Americans who had immigrated years before had no issues with working hard for what they achieved, and didn’t mind being considered working class as long as their families was taken care of. Fans saw their champ, Sammartino, as someone they could relate to and aspire to be. That kind of support for and identification with their hero is what led to Bruno becoming synonymous with Madison Square Garden.
As a New Yorker myself, I fell in love with Madison Square Garden when I started working on 34th Street. I was sixteen, and I was amazed at how easy it was to arrive at a place with so much history. Taking just one train from the Bronx, I could exit the station and see one of New York’s most iconic sites. I visited the arena as a child several times, watching the New York Knicks and Liberty play, and, of course, I’ve attended plenty of wrestling events there. In fact, I remember my first time at a wrestling event at the Garden; I was in awe at how bright the lights were and how impressive it was that almost twenty thousand people of all shapes, sizes, and colors could come together and enjoy an activity. I also remember realizing how outspoken New Yorkers are, cheering the bad guys and jeering the good guys. That didn’t apply for Sammartino, though. Such a clean-cut family man—no person could jeer at that, especially during his heyday in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
New York is the “City of Dreams,” and Sammartino embodied the American Dream, becoming a living legend in the City and the Garden. He did so through one of the most important aspects of professional wrestling, which is the connection made between performers and fans. With professional wrestling’s greatest figures and most popular stars, we notice they are all characters or personalities whom fans can relate to, or aspire to be. Before fans identified with or were inspired by John Cena, Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, or even Hulk Hogan, Bruno Sammartino was the Heavyweight Champ of WWE and of the people. Through his hard work, immigrant story, and his love for family, he created a connection and was able to capture the imagination of millions of people while influencing millions of others. His wrestling accomplishments are astonishing and his title reigns collectively surpass any other wrestler, but his impact on Madison Square Garden, the people of New York, and beyond is what defined his legendary career.
Taking the Subway to MSG:
Davies, Ross. Bruno Sammartino. New York, NY. The Rosen Publishing Group. 2001.
Sammartino, Bruno, Bob Michelucci and Paul McCollough. Bruno Sammartino: An Autobiography of Wrestling’s Living Legend. Pittsburgh. Imagine, 1990.
Sorrentino, Frank and Jerome Krase. The Review of Italian American Studies. Lanham, MD. 2000.