A friend and I got into a conversation recently about the pathos he experiences upon news of a professional wrestler dying. For all their sweat, we wondered, what did these strange people in their tights and boots, with their stony stares or their broad expressions, ever really accomplish?

Anytime a major figure from pro wrestling’s past dies, my instinct is to check
The New York Times for an obituary. My hope is that the death registers with the world outside of the message boards and websites dedicated to wrestling. When the Times does run a piece, as it did for Dusty Rhodes, The Fabulous Moolah, and some others, I feel relief. But it’s always followed by a letdown. The obituaries invariably have niggling little errors, none of which can possibly matter to anyone outside of the tiny circle of readers with perhaps too much appreciation for the finer details of wrestling’s history.

The bigger disappointment, though, is that they always seem to miss a fundamental point about wrestling, a point that I can never put my finger on.

The feeling came up again earlier this week with the death of Bruno Sammartino. Sammartino was eighty-two, and, in his life, he wrestled 160 times in New York’s Madison Square Garden. Crowds to see him almost unfailingly ran between ten thousand and twenty thousand and were more often than not closer to twenty than ten. In 1976 and again in 1980, he wrestled matches at Shea Stadium that drew over thirty thousand people. He was a star up and down the Northeast. And while the obituary that ran in the Times correctly referred to him as a world champion, it also twice called out in the first five sentences that wrestling matches, Sammartino’s grand stage, were scripted, were choreographed, and were a sham.

This is what I think my friend was talking about. What can it possibly mean to be the world champion of a sham sport? How can you really triumph in a competition where the winners and losers are decided ahead of time? What good is any of that?

Sammartino’s death is particularly poignant. Like Lou Thesz and Verne Gagne, he was a champion during an era of wrestling when being successful meant convincing a crowd, night after night, that even if every other match on the evening’s card had come off seeming less than authentic, what they were about to see was as real as things could get. That who was going to win in the main event truly mattered.

And Sammartino was a master of making audiences care. To wrestling fans, he was just Bruno. Their first-name relationship with him connoted an almost closer relationship than the ones baseball fans might have had with The Babe or The Mick. He was their hero, with an origin story like few others. His mother sheltered him and his two siblings from Nazi occupiers in Italy in a mountaintop refugee camp, sneaking down the mountain and into town at night to steal back food she had hidden in the family home. When he finally arrived in America, he really was a ninety-pound weakling, bullied and abused by his classmates.

Before long he would develop into the muscleman who would thrill audiences. He became a world champion in 1963 by defeating “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers, a star as famous as wrestling had known, square in the middle of the ring in under a minute. And by submission, no less. Andy Kaufman, a Rogers fan who would later bring the Nature Boy onto Saturday Night Live with him as his manager, claimed to be in attendance that night and would later remember watching Rogers lose as the saddest night of his life.

Sammartino claimed to have given Rogers a choice between doing things “the easy way or the hard way.” It seems ridiculous, of course. Rogers later claimed to have been suffering from heart problems leading up to the loss, and the match was thoroughly cooked from the start. Professional wrestling had not had a hint of real competition since the 1930s. Who won and who lost on any given night was never left up to the wrestlers.

Vincent J. McMahon, a New York sports promoter, had pegged Sammartino in advance as the performer who could carry his fledgling World Wide Wrestling Federation. McMahon hoped the new business would be able to control the lucrative wrestling markets in New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and the surrounding areas. The fans loved Bruno, and his speedy dispatching of the well-known Rogers dressed his championship reign in a coat of invincibility.

Writer Dave Meltzer, in his obituary for Sammartino, called him “the ethnic John Wayne for two generations in the Northeast.” Writer Joe Bua, who grew up as a fan of wrestling in New York and later covered wrestling for a string of magazines in the 1980s, remembered him as being “the law. It was like the sheriff coming in to take down the bad guy.”

“When Bruno came out it was like a heavyweight prizefight from the forties or the fifties,” remembers historian Steve Johnson, who saw Sammartino perform several times around Pennsylvania. “He came out unadorned, just in his trunks, walking briskly to the ring. And when he first came out to the concourse, the fans right around could see, and there would be this low rumble as he came out. And as he came out further toward the ring, more and more people could see him, and the rumble expanded into a roar. And then as he got to ringside, the fans in the upper deck and the bleachers and the cheap seats could see him, and the roar became this large crescendo that peaked when he got into the ring. Ring music would have wrecked that. It would have wrecked that incredible rolling effect of him going to the ring.”

He traveled ceaselessly around the Northeast, lighting up crowds on the WWWF’s circuit. He became the star of the weekly television broadcasts that McMahon used to advertise his live cards. He became so famous that he was granted a private audience with Pope Paul VI. He was such an iconic figure that Bruce Springsteen recounts his memories of seeing Sammartino on television in his autobiography. The model storyline that McMahon used was to create cartoonish bad guys, “monster heels” to wrestling insiders, who presented nonstop threats to Sammartino’s wellbeing. There was Gorilla Monsoon, King Kong Brody, Killer Kowalski, “Cowboy” Bill Watts. They’d come into the Northeast and take on Sammartino in a series of two or three or four high-profile matches. Bruno might lose one match by disqualification, or another by being counted out of the ring. The title would never change hands, though, and the cliffhanger endings brought fans back to see how things would finally end. They always finished up, of course, with Sammartino sending the bad guy out of town and back to wherever he’d come from.

When Sammartino did finally lose his championship for the first time, it was in front of over twenty thousand people in Madison Square Garden. He’d been the champion for almost eight years. Worn down by his schedule, he demanded a break. On January 18, 1971, Ivan Koloff beat him with a dive off the ropes after fifteen minutes of wrestling. When Koloff stood up to collect the title and have his arm raised, the referee told him to get the belt later. The fans were sitting in silence, a silence so piercing that Sammartino said he was worried that the impact of Koloff falling on him had damaged his eardrums. Koloff’s first priority, the referee told him, was to get out of the ring and back into the dressing room. When fans were making noise, good wrestlers knew what they were thinking. It was when audiences were silent that they could become unpredictable. Koloff wasn’t taking any chances and decided to claim his championship out of sight of the fans.

Years later, Bruno would remember that, as he left the ring, he could see fans crying. “It’s OK, Bruno,” he remembered them telling him. “We still love you.”

Sammartino won the title again two years later and would wrestle into the 1980s. For a man who dominated in a fake sport, his career would be brushed with death and near misses. In 1976, he suffered a broken neck from a body slam gone wrong. In 1961, one of his opponents, Chuck Garibaldi, died in the ring from a heart attack after being slammed by Sammartino. Later in his life, he would express regret for wrestling as late into the eighties as he did, and he publicly railed against drug and steroid abuse in the sport he loved.

Long after Vince McMahon Jr., who succeeded his father as the head of the WWWF, later World Wrestling Federation, and now World Wrestling Entertainment, had dropped any pretense of wrestling being anything other than a scripted good time, Sammartino was famous among fans for refusing to drop the act. His Times obituary repeated his claim to have never taken a dive. Some fans joked that his claim to have really won all those matches, to have really been the champ, was a sign that he’d lost perspective.

I’ve come to see it as his way of honoring the people who cared enough about how he fared in all those main events, regardless of what they thought of all the other matches they saw, that the unexpected sight of his shoulders being pinned to the mat could stun them into silence. I want to think that he hoped that even if they could no longer believe in anything else, they could still choose to believe in Bruno.

And I want to think that the sadness my friend was talking about when he read about a wrestler dying wasn’t twinged with pity, but with a real regret that performers who knew what it was like to hear the roaring approval of sixteen, seventeen, eighteen thousand people, night after night, have to go out in silence instead of to ringing applause.

Good luck, Bruno.

Goodbye, champ.