Born in Pizzoferrato, Abruzzo, Italy on October 6, 1935, Sammartino was the youngest of seven brothers and sisters. Four older siblings died during his time in Italy. During his childhood, Sammartino's family hid from German soldiers in a mountain called Valla Rocca, during the latter stages of World War II. During this time, Sammartino's mother, Emilia, would sneak into their German-occupied town for food and supplies. She once was captured and another time shot in the shoulder during such trips. Eventually, Sammartino caught rheumatic fever but was nursed back to health by his mother with hot blankets and leeches. In 1950, he moved to the United States and settled in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where his father had already lived for several years.
When Sammartino first came to America, he was sickly from his experiences of surviving during the war years. His slight frame, along with his tenuous grasp of English, made him an easy target for bullies in school. Sammartino wanted to build himself up physically and became devoted to weight training.
Bruno's devotion to weightlifting nearly resulted in a berth on the 1956 U.S. Olympic team. He was edged out by legendary strongman Paul Anderson – who outweighed Sammartino by 70 pounds. In the early years of Sammartino's career, he was measured at 6'1" and weighed around 280 pounds.
Bruno set a world record in the bench press with a lift of 565 pounds in 1959.
Sammartino also competed in bodybuilding and won "Mr. Allegheny" in the late 50s.
His high school, Schenley High School, didn't have a wrestling program, but he worked out with the University of Pittsburgh wrestling team under storied coach Rex Peary. Sammartino became known for performing strongman stunts in the Pittsburgh area, and sportscaster Bob Prince put him on his television show. It was there that he was spotted by local wrestling promoter Rudy Miller, who recruited Sammartino for professional wrestling. Miller knew that Sammartino could easily be marketed as an ethnic strongman, and that he would appeal to Italian immigrants who supported wrestling.
While working in construction in 1956, Sammartino wrestled an orangutan at a carnival. After taking much punishment, Sammartino punched the orangutan in the stomach and was disqualified by the animal's owner. Sammartino left the cage with swollen eyes and shredded clothes. Because of the disqualification, the owner refused to pay Sammartino the $50 he was promised for the match.
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