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Sammartino pins down spot in Hall of Fame

From left, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dr. Franco Columbu and Pittsburgh icon Bruno Sammartino talk while judging a bodybuilding competition in the 1970s.

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Saturday, March 2, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Bruno Sammartino's athletic résumé speaks for itself: legendary strongman, weightlifting record holder and longest-reigning champion of the World Wide Wrestling Federation.

But to gain entry into the International Sports Hall of Fame, he had to be “great in his sport and great in his life,” said Robert Goldman, founder and chairman of the Columbus, Ohio-based organization.

“And Bruno fits the profile perfectly,” Goldman said. “This is someone who has served as an inspiration and a drive for athletes of all cultures and still remained a real person, a common man's man. Even while being a great champion, he never got carried away with the fame, and that's a rare trait, especially today. He's had a very stellar career and very stellar life.

“That's what we look for in inductees.”

Sammartino, 77, will be inducted into the ISHOF Saturday.

A Pittsburgh icon, Sammartino moved to the city from his native Italy as a skinny, sickly boy but through determination turned himself into a wrestling legend who inspired legions of fans.

“To get that recognition, it's extremely flattering,” Sammartino said. “When I retired, I was happy to just go on with the rest of my life. These things really surprise me because I figured that, you know, a few years later, and who's Bruno Sammartino? People forget. It's nice to know some people haven't forgotten.”

Sammartino joins the second class entering the ISHOF, which Goldman founded last year.

The inaugural class included: three-time Ultimate Fighting Championship champ Randy Duane Couture; bodybuilder Cory Everson; legendary weightlifter Mark Jerrold Henry; fitness guru Jack LaLanne; weightlifting competition promoter Jim Lorimer; and Arnold Schwarzenegger, bodybuilder, action film hero and former California governor.

Joining Sammartino this year will be: two-time Mr. Olympia Dr. Franco Columbu; two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin; NBA Hall of Famer Earl “The Pearl” Monroe; and gymnast Blaine Carew Wilson, who won five consecutive U.S. all-around gymnastics titles.

Sammartino said he used to lift weights with Schwarzenegger in Santa Monica, Calif., “before Arnold became a big movie star and governor.”

Sammartino, Schwarzenegger and Columbu are old friends who used to judge bodybuilding competitions, but they haven't seen each other since the 1970s, Sammartino said.

All three are expected to attend Saturday's ceremony.

“It'll be good to see them again,” said Sammartino, who lives with his wife in the same North Hills home they bought 50 years ago.

The induction ceremony is part of the 2013 Arnold Sports Festival, an annual four-day sports competition that is expected to draw 175,000 spectators this year, organizers said.

Goldman, who grew up in New York, recalled watching on television Sammartino's sold-out matches at Madison Square Garden.

Sammartino's grace and modesty as a champ, combined with his post-retirement involvement in anti-bullying campaigns and his outspoken criticism of performance enhancing drugs in the wrestling world, made him a perfect choice for the Hall, Goldman said.

“Bruno is a really big guy with a really big heart who's been very strong in the area of giving back to society,” Goldman said. “He filled the Garden more than anybody, and he's got the highest caliber of character.

“The guy's a legend, plain and simple.”

Chris Togneri is a staff writer.

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