The defining legacy of Bruno Sammartino

In this undated photo, Bruno Sammartino holds up the then-WWWF title that he held for more than 4,000 days over the course of two reigns as the company's top champion. Focus on Sport/Getty Images

It's said that the best pro wrestling heroes are the ones who are most believable.

That's why Bruno Sammartino, who died Wednesday at age 82, was more than just an in-ring champion to his legions of fans over the course of his 30-plus-year wrestling career.

His entire life was the stuff of legend.

Sammartino was born in Abruzzo, Italy, in 1935, and grew up in Nazi-occupied territory during World War II. Sammartino, his mother and many villagers were nearly killed by Nazi soldiers at one point while attempting to hide in the mountains but were ultimately saved by members of the Allied Forces. Many wrestlers during his era aimed to connect with fans via World War II-based storylines -- heroes and villains alike -- but Sammartino could tell his tale without unnecessary embellishment, and the fans ate it up.

Life under those conditions led to Sammartino being physically frail in his early years, so when he and his mother came to the United States in 1950 to join his father, Sammartino became determined to build himself up via weightlifting. He eventually became one of the world's best weightlifters, so when, during his wrestling career, he told kids how a commitment to getting into better shape could change their lives, Sammartino had every bit the impact that Hulk Hogan did in a later day when he told them to say their prayers and take their vitamins.

Sammartino did so while also strongly advocating against any use of performance enhancing drugs, and therefore did not lose an ounce of credibility during any of the numerous PED scandals over the years within the wrestling business.

Everything that made Sammartino the man he was made it very easy for the creative forces behind WWE to present him as an in-ring giant slayer and a hero to be proud of. The promotion would bring in huge men such as Killer Kowalski, Bill Miller, George Steele and Gorilla Monsoon and build them up as unbeatable monsters capable of ending Sammartino's title reign, but none of them could do it.

The typical formula of these programs was to have a three-match series. The brute would get an early tainted victory over Sammartino, and their second battle would have an inconclusive finish, where Sammartino might get some form of revenge but wouldn't quite be able to finish the job because of outside interference or a disqualification. Bruno would usually get an overpowering victory in the deciding match of the series, typically via a bear-hug finishing move that would prove he was more powerful than the vanquished beast.

Sammartino's integrity extended to helping his fellow wrestlers, as he often stood up for them in battles against management in an effort to ensure that other wrestlers on his cards were paid what they were promised.

Bruno also showed leadership skills and an unwavering dedication to the business in a famous incident with Stan Hansen in 1976. Hansen was new to the wrestling world and made a mistake in executing a slam in a match against Sammartino, which led to Sammartino being dropped on his head and legitimately breaking his neck.

Hansen was mortified at what had happened and almost didn't call Sammartino, but when he did call him, Bruno told him he knew it was a mistake and accepted his apology. Once Sammartino recovered, his character called for a cage match with Hansen, a battle that saw Hansen bump around the ring like crazy and get bloodied so that the crowd of more than 30,000 people at Shea Stadium would go home happy.

Sammartino was unabashedly proud of his Italian heritage and knew that many of his fellow Italians had to deal with instances of ignorance and racism, so it came as no surprise when this was incorporated into a 1985 feud with the always-controversial Roddy Piper. The incident that started it all was an in-ring Piper's Pit segment in which Sammartino refused to enter the ring until Piper addressed him in a respectful manner. Piper's invectives continued once Sammartino entered the ring, but Sammartino didn't decide to come out of retirement until Piper got so angry that he used a derogatory epithet to insult Bruno.

To any Italian fans in the audience, Sammartino was fighting a battle they wanted to fight every time someone used those words against them. This angle certainly had to be approved by Sammartino in advance, but it does show his never-ending commitment to ensuring that Italian people were treated with the respect he felt they deserve.

Sammartino did not like the direction the WWE took during the so-called Attitude Era, starting in the late '90s, with its tawdry sexual overtones and foul language; it was one of the major reasons for the long estrangement between him and the company. Despite his love of wrestling, and all of the history that comes with his 10-plus years as world champion Sammartino might never have taken his rightful, high-visibility place in WWE history had it not been for the efforts of Paul "Triple H" Levesque, who helped bridge the wide gulf that had formed.

Conversations between the two men showed Sammartino that the WWE was back to pitching family-friendly fare and that Sammartino could feel good about being associated with the company again. The man who was a hero to so many during the '60s, '70s and '80s agreed to a reconciliation, which culminated in Bruno's (long-overdue) 2013 induction into the WWE Hall of Fame, inside of Madison Square Garden -- a building he headlined countless times when he was on top in the WWE.

The WWE often says it wants fans to believe in the heroes it promotes. That's often easier said than done in real life, but in Sammartino's case, his out-of-ring persona was just as, and maybe more, heroic as his in-ring character. It's why, even though "The Living Legend" is now gone, his memory will live for many decades to come even as most of his contemporaries are forgotten.