Bruno Sammartino, nicknamed "Living Legend" by his fans, fled his Nazi-occupied village in Italy and headed to the US, where he became one of wrestling's biggest box office draw in the 1960s and 1970s.
Bruno Sammartino, one of professional wrestling's longest-reigning champions, died on Wednesday at the age of 82.
Family friend and former wrestling announcer Christopher Cruise said Sammartino had been hospitalized for two months.
Sammartino fled his Nazi-occupied village in Italy and immigrated to Pittsburgh in the US where he became one of professional wrestling's biggest box office draw in the 1960s and 1970s.
He held the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) championship, then known as the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF) championship, for nearly eight years — the longest reign of all time.
The WWE said Sammartino, who started his career as a weightlifter, once bench-pressed 569 pounds (258 kilograms), catching the attention of WWE promoter Vincent J. McMahon.
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The WWE said Sammartino featured in the first wrestling event at New York's iconic Madison Square Garden, just eight days after it opened in 1968.
He later went on to sell out the stadium, known as the mecca of professional wrestling, 187 times over his career, the WWE said on its website.
Sammartino, professional wrestling's "Living Legend," was inducted into the WWE's Hall of Fame in 2013 by Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Tributes pour in
Celebrity wrestlers have been paying tribute to "The Italian Superman" on social media.
Olympic gold medalist and WWE star Kurt Angle, a Pittsburgh native, called Sammartino "a hometown hero."
"I grew up watching Bruno. He was an amazing performer, who made his Pittsburgh natives proud. He was a champion's champion. I got to know Bruno in his latter years, after he retired from the then WWWF. He carried himself with dignity, and was always courteous to his fans. A true role model and hero," he wrote.
Schwarzenegger tweeted that Sammartino was the "American Dream personified."
Paul Levesque, a top WWE executive better known in the ring as Triple H, called Sammartino "one of the toughest people I've ever met."