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Sammartino's a hero in Pizzoferrato

Friday, December 01, 2000

By Cristina Rouvalis, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Bruno Sammartino didn't cry when he broke his neck in the ring. Or when he had his ears disfigured and collarbone smashed. Or when he was bloodied by a charging, kicking, scratching orangutan.

But the retired professional wrestling legend got all choked up when he found that Pizzoferrato, Italy, where he was born, is honoring his childhood home and naming a sports facility after him.

Bruno Sammartino with a painting of himself in his wrestling days. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)

Sammartino is willing himself not to cry when he returns to the tiny mountain town four hours north of Rome for a Dec. 8 ceremony, his first homecoming in 34 years.

"I am very flattered," he says. "You want to express your appreciation. But I don't want to get all teary-eyed. I hope I stand up to be a man. "

Then he lets out a laugh and says, "I am not going to crumble and fall apart -- no way."

The Bruno Sammartino Coliseum -- a sports facility complete with an Olympic-sized swimming pool, tennis and bocce courts and weight machines -- is flattering.

Far more touching for the beloved retired wrestling champion is the fact that his modest stone house -- built by his late parents Alfonso and Emilia around 1930 -- will be a historical landmark.

"I would give anything for my parents to still be here," Sammartino says from his house in Ross. "When my Dad sold it, he had tears in his eyes. He said, 'They will never know the sweat and blood that went into it.' A bust will be erected outside the house with a marble plaque that says, "This is the house that Bruno Sammartino was born in."

Sammartino, 65, will meet a few cousins and possibly some childhood friends in the town of 1,400.

"He is very famous," says his cousin Ottavino Sammartino in a telephone interview from Pizzoferrato. "They will make a celebration in the square. Then they will make a monument near his house. Then Bruno will have a conference about wrestling. Then we will have lunch."

Sammartino lived in the tiny town until he was 14 , when German SS troops invaded during World War II. His mother grabbed Bruno, his brother and sister and they survived in a nearby mountain hideout for 14 months. His father by then was stranded in America.

Sammartino says his mother kept the family alive by running down the mountain and sneaking into the basement of her house, snatching food while the German officers slept upstairs.

After the war, the family returned to Pizzoferrato before emigrating to the United States in 1950.

Sammartino held the World Wrestling Federation title for 12 years in the 1960s and 70s, and was showered with chants of "Bruno, Bruno" during his many sell-outs at Madison Square Garden. He was the ultimate good guy, performing feats such as picking up the 620-pound Haystacks Calhoun and dumping him so hard that the center of the ring caved in.

He survived a broken neck after Stan Hansen dropped him on his head in 1976. But he faced one of his toughest opponents before turning pro. As a 20-year-old construction worker, he was paid $25 to wrestle an orangutan at the carnival inside a cage. He lasted for 15 minutes, but the swinging beast kicked his eyes so badly he could scarcely open them afterward.

He says he was never bothered by physical pain, but emotionally, he says, "it's very hard to hide my feelings."

He retired in 1981 and has turned into a vocal critic of modern wrestling and the current incarnation of the WWF, dismissing it as "filthy garbage."

Though Bruno and his wife, Carol, visit Italy almost every year, taking frequent trips to Rome, Florence, Venice and Milan, he rarely gets back to Pizzoferrato because of bad road access.

"The last thing I want to do in Europe is drive," he says. "It's crazy over there."

He says he was taken aback that his hometown was honoring him some 20 years after he hung up his wrestling tights. He said the mayor apologized for waiting so long to honor him but that he wanted to develop the town as a mountain skiing resort first. Sammartino says it wanted a sports facility in order to attract tourists during the summer, too.

The timing is uncanny. Just days after he gets back from his quick trip home, he plans to fly to New York where a documentary of his life is being planned.

"This is crazy, " he says. "I have been out of this thing for all these years. I am 65 now. All these things are popping up now. It's great."

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