Bruno Sammartino, shown in 2013, in his Western Pennsylvania home. (Andrew Russell/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review via AP.)

Bruno Sammartino, who held the championship belt of the organization that came to be known as WWE for more than 11 years in the 1960s and ’70s and then continued to perform as professional wrestling exploded in the decade that followed, has died at the age of 82, the company announced Wednesday.

According to KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh, Sammartino had been battling health issues the past few months and passed away peacefully with his wife, Carol, and two of his children by his side.

Born in Italy and a survivor of German occupation during World War II, Sammartino moved to Pittsburgh as a teenager in 1950 and began weight training as a way to ward off bullies, who attacked him because of his spindly frame and trouble with English. His feats of strength were noticed by local wrestling promoters and eventually he worked his way up to Vince McMahon Sr.’s World Wide Wrestling Federation, grappling at the old Madison Square Garden for the first time in 1960. Three years later, he won the WWWF belt in New York with a 48-second defeat of Buddy Rogers. Sammartino would hold the championship for nearly eight years, the longest reign in professional wrestling history, and then again for another three-plus years when he regained the belt in 1973.

Especially popular in the Northeast, Sammartino wrestled for the first time at the “new” Madison Square Garden — the stadium currently standing above Penn Station — just eight days after it opened in 1968; he sold out the arena 187 times out of 211 appearances, according to the Post-Gazette. His 1980 steel-cage match against former protege Larry Zbyszko headlined a prominent card at Shea Stadium in Queens, drawing more than 36,000 fans.

Sammartino continued to wrestle into his 50s as Vince McMahon Jr. built the then-WWF into a nationwide phenomenon in the 1980s, developing feuds with much younger stars as Randy “Macho Man” Savage and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper while also serving as a color commentator during television broadcasts. In 2013, after years of feuding with the younger McMahon over pro wrestling’s turn to more vulgar story lines and its coddling of drug use by prominent stars, he accepted an invitation into the WWE Hall of Fame, with the ceremony held at a perfect locale.

“Being inducted into the Hall of Fame at Madison Square Gardens is the biggest thing in my life,” Sammartino told ESPN in 2013. “Anytime that people feel that you accomplished enough to enter into a Hall of Fame, of course this is a tremendous, tremendous thrill for me. I had a lot of my success due to appearing at the Garden.”

Prominent wrestlers paid their respects on Twitter to the man once known as “The Italian Superman” and “The Living Legend.”

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