Well, well, well. It’s that time of the month again. WWE are about to air their pay-per-view, Night of Champions which means here on The Wrestling Mania we are about to take a look at the career of one of the many stars of professional wrestling and call him the Superstar of the Month. The last few months we’ve looked at some of the biggest names in the business there have ever been. This month we’re going to go outside that realm of comfort and run through the career of Larry Zbyszko.
I know, I know there’s some younger fans out there going, “Seriously? Why are you looking at the overly annoying WCW announcer?” Followed by, “Have you lost your mind?” The answer to them questions are, “Yes,” and, “No.” Yes, I am talking about that announcer, and no, I have not lost my mind. At one time Zbyszko was on the verge on being the next big thing in wrestling, so, what went wrong?
As always the only way to find out is to start right at the beginning. Born in the early 1950’s Zbyszko grew up in Chicago, Illinois and was fascinated with being a hero as a child. It wasn’t until his family moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania that he realised exactly what kind of hero he wanted to be. It wasn’t a superhero like Superman or a TV good guy like Zorro. No. That wouldn’t cut it for Lawrence Whistler, the name he was born under.
Lawrence wanted to be another kind of hero. Just before he moved to Pittsburgh that other type of hero had begun to come to attention in the North East of America. By the time he got there in 1964 that man was arguably more invincible than Superman and more popular in that area of the world than any other man.
The man who represented the people with foreign heritage all across the land instantly connected with the Polish Whistler. That man if you haven’t worked out by now was Bruno Sammartino.
Before embarking on a career inside the squared circle though Whistler had to get through school where he was a good amateur wrestler, not to mention taking martial arts classes too. By the time he could drive Whistler worked out the perfect way to get close to Bruno and subsequently get into the business, stalk him.
On one occasion Whistler was caught by the World Wide Wrestling Federation World Heavyweight Champion spying on him through the hedges in his back garden. Yet that encounter was enough for Bruno to take the young kid under his proverbial wing and train him up to become a professional wrestler.
Of course being trained by Bruno Sammartino was just an absolute blessing. Being brought into the business by someone the stature of Bruno just opened doors that simply would not have been opened for him otherwise. So it was no surprise when on September 1, 1973 Lawrence debuted in an impressive manner by defeating Frank Durso in just 70’s using Bruno’s finishing move, the back-breaker submission (Commonly called the Torture Rack today).
It was no secret that the new kid in the ring was the protege of Bruno and that meant something to the people and to the boys in the back who he had exposure to whilst hanging around with Bruno. His ring name, Larry Zbyszko, which was used from the very beginning was to pay homage to legendary Polish wrestler, Stanislaw Cyganiewicz, who adopted the name Stanislaus Zbyszko in the early 1900’s.
For much of his time in the WWWF Zbyszko just competed in mid-card bouts taking on a variety of opponents. Even with that he still won the Rookie of the Year award issued by the Pro-Wrestling Illustrated in 1974. Every now and again Zbyszko would team with an attraction wrestler such as Chief Jay Strongbow, Gorilla Monsoon, or Haystacks Calhoun.
Clearly he had to be kept strong as the association with Bruno made him an instantaneous fan favourite, yet, he was still green as green could be and needed experience before going up a notch on the card. Rather than stay in the North East and get stale with the public, it was decided to send Zbyszko to sunnier lands, namely Los Angeles.
Roughly a year was spent there honing his craft and really establishing himself as a solid talent, with Mike LeBell, the promoter, taking a liking to the young man. In late 1976 he traveled back to the WWWF. Upon his return Zbyszko was right back where he left off. In the midcard, as a babyface, defeating to fairly well to little known names or losing to established heels.
1977 saw a slight move forward in his carer when he forged an alliance with Tony Garea and they worked their way through the ranks of the tag-team division. Eventually capturing the WWWF Tag-Team Championship from the Yukon Lumberjacks in November of that year.
The Yukon Lumberjacks Vs. Tony Garea & Larry Zbyszko – November 21, 1977
They held on to the titles until March of the next year when they lost them to the Valiant Brothers. There was one major problem for Zbyszko at this point though. Bruno Sammartino was no longer the WWWF World Heavyweight Champion or in active competition, leaving Zbyszko with little clout in the politic sides of the business. Not to mention the infamous disliking between the McMahon’s and Sammartino.
With his career seriously floundering with no direction after dropping the belts, really just acting as a glorified jobber to heels coming into the territory. Zbyszko had an idea. He called up Bruno and suggested an angle that could propel Zbyszko to the very top of the North East territory and solidify him as a main event, big money draw, for the rest of his life in that area.
Sammartino liked the idea. He planned out the entire angle and after several weeks got Vince McMahon Sr. to agree to do it. In reality it wasn’t that hard of a decision for Vince Sr. to make as his company was down in business with Bob Backlund as champion and anything involving Bruno would incite immediate lucrative gates.
Everything started with Zbyszko refusing to do an interview with Bruno who was a commentator by this point in his career. After a couple of weeks of ignoring Bruno, Larry opened up and cut an emotional promo proclaiming his frustration with being left in Bruno’s shadow. Being nothing more than ‘Bruno’s protege.’ With the heartfelt speech, Bruno at first refused.
The following week the two men came together again, and this time Bruno accepted on January 26, 1980 (Taped January 22):
Bruno Sammartino Vs. Larry Zbyszko – Exhibition Match February 2, 1980
No-one had been this hated since Stan Hansen broke Sammartino’s neck in the WWWF. There are stories of Zbyszko having his car’s stoned and taxi’s being tipped over if he were in them. Fans attacked him at arena’s with reported incident’s of him being stabbed in the buttock and also being hit with a steel pipe. Whenever Zbyszko was present it was chaos.
Naturally Sammartino came out of retirement and the angle progressed with the two doing battle all over the territory. Zbyszko won every match on the first tour, but, always by disqualification when an enraged Bruno would choke him out whilst he tried to run away. This led to a second go around the circuit, this time with Zbyszko fleeing from the ring at the end of each match to avoid getting a beating.
The only thing that was left to be done was to pit the two men in a steel cage match. With Madison Square Garden and most venues in the territory selling out wherever these two met, it was decided that the only venue big enough for Sammartino Vs. Zbyszko was Shea Stadium for the third ever Showdown at Shea, the first happening in 1972 and the second 1976.
In the lead up to the big show, Bruno declared if Larry Zbyszko won he would never show his face again. Zbyszko announced it was set in stone Bruno would lose and he would be crowned the ‘New Living Legend.’
Larry and Bruno with a pretty solid under card to be fair managed to draw 36,295 fans to the stadium. This was more than 10,000 more than the first event held there headlined by Bruno Sammartino Vs. Pedro Morales and a few thousand more than the second co-headlined by Bruno Sammartino Vs. Stan Hansen and the Antonio Inoki Vs. Muhammed Ali fight on closed-circuit television. The WWE reported a rather healthy gate of $541,730.
Bruno Sammartino Vs. Larry Zbyszko – August 9, 1980 Showdown at Shea:
Yet that was pretty much the end of Zbyszko’s career in the company, that was by this time now known as the World Wrestling Federation. Two major things happened that changed the landscape for Larry. The main thing was the souring of the relationship between him and the McMahon’s. On advice from Bruno Sammartino he held up the company for money. Together the two played a game with the agents and the bookers and Zbyszko ended up receiving 10% of some shows he appeared at.
Not only that but he also demanded 5% of Shea Stadium, which wasn’t that unreasonable, it was more that he stated he wanted to beat Bob Backlund for the championship or receive a pay raise. There’s no need for a genius to work out that by listening to Bruno Zbyszko had managed to get a few lucrative pay-offs but also left himself in a very bad political position.
With Bruno back in retirement and Zbyszko now with a black mark against his name in the company it was soon clear he would no longer be getting a push, and many may say rightfully so. I now come to the next thing that really hindered him. If Zbyszko had defeated Bruno, which in my opinion would have been the right thing to do as Bruno was at the end of his career and Zbyszko was his young powerful student, he could have been so over as either a heel or a face the WWF had to keep him around.
All it would have took was a hearty embrace by the two after the match and Sammartino’s good blessing, along with Zbyszko saying Bruno doesn’t have to leave so Bruno can go back to commentary. BOOM! You have an instant super over babyface there. Alternatively, Zbyszko wins as a heel. Now you can either have him win the gold and take on all comers so the people can get behind people avenging Bruno’s loss, or, you can have Backlund avenge the loss and retain his gold after a healthy feud.
Either way, thanks to Bruno not wanting to put Zbyszko over, whilst he never pinned him, he still went over him. That just lessened the impact of Zbyszko, and thanks to the advice to hold the McMahon’s up, Zbyszko now found himself being asked to put people over and saw the writing on the wall, packed his bags and left. Leaving behind what should have been a golden ticket if only it had been all done in a different manner.
After a year or so away from the American wrestling scene with a tirp of Japan or two in there, the National Wrestling Alliance was next for Larry Zbyszko, he tried to live off the claim that he retired Bruno Sammartino and even had success winning the Georgia Championship Wrestling Heavyweight Championship on two occasions. Nothing much was really happening for him there though.
So off to the American Wrestling Association based out of Minnesota it was for Zbyszko. There he perfected his heel gimmick, trying to encourage the fans to interact with him. In his book he actually recalls being one of the first to start the fans chanting “Larry sucks.” Zbyszko was over as a heel with the fans in the AWA.
Early in his career there he was awarded their America’s Heavyweight Championship defending it for the next six months. Whilst he had the gold he was known for stalling in the matches, not allowing his opponents to get a grip on, really playing the cowardly heel to a tee. In June of that year he would drop the belt to the super over Sgt. Slaughter.
Larry Zbyszko Vs. Sgt. Slaughter – June 9, 1989:
Moving up the card to feud with Nick Bockwinkel which turned into a bloody affair. The pair battled up until April 1986. Before they met though at WrestleRock in 1986 Zbyszko would take on boxer Scott LeDoux in a Wrestler Vs. Boxer match, and be on the losing end. His match against LeDoux is actually remembered as one of the best mixed styles matches in recent memory in professional wrestling.
Larry Zbyszko Vs. Nickbockwinkel – November 14, 1985:
Six days later Bockwinkel won in a Texas Death Match, temporarily ending the feud. For the entirety of the angle with Bockwinkel, Zbyszko had a ninja sidekick, there were several who played the part during the time, but there was always a ninja in his corner to perform his evil deeds at anytime. That gimmick quickly went away when the feud with Bockwinkel ended though.
Zbyszko was tied over with an ongoing feud with LeDoux and other challenges here and there going forward until May of 1987 when he was thrust back into the spotlight helping a young Curt Hennig defeat Bockwinkel for the championship. A month later though he was gone for the territory after being ‘banned for life,’ following a vicious assault on Bockwinkel during the rematch with Hennig.
Obviously the WWF door wasn’t going to be open to Larry, they were literally on fire at this point. Bruno was pretty much complete gone and they had no reason to hire someone who had once held them up for money back into the company. So it was back to the National Wrestling Alliance, what was left of it, and Jim Crockett Promotions for Larry.
There he kicked things off with a bang going up against the young, real over babyface, Tommy Rich. The two had a good solid feud and with Zbyszko insulting all the southern fans he was fairly hated. Baby Doll started off at the side of Larry and she remained with him as he won the NWA Western States Heritage Heavyweight from Barry Windham. A title that he never lost or seemingly defended much if ever and became defunct when he later left the promotion a year later.
A huge feud with Dusty Rhode’s was being setup and it was expected to do big business. Unfortunately for Zbyszko his valet refused to kiss Dusty Rhodes as part of the angle and got herself fired. Zbyszko then fell into the abyss of the mid-card. He got a new manager in the form of Gary Hart and either teamed with Al Perez or wrestled in pointless singles matches.
It was time to move on again, back to the AWA. This time around Zbyszko had even more success. By February 1989 he won the vacant AWA World Heavyweight Championship in a battle royal. During what would turn out to be a year and 3 day long title reign Zbyszko had memorable matches with Sgt. Slaughter, Wahoo McDaniel, Harley Race and Nikita Koloff (Sadly none are available so I can post them in the article).
Probably the highlight of the run though was strangely the match he last the championship in. At the beginning of 1990 he started to feud with Masa Saito and it led to a huge crowd at the Tokyo Dome in Japan. Masa Saito went over in front of the Japanese audience. Fifty-seven days later and several stiff, believable matches
later, Zbyszko regained the championship at the SuplerClash IV event.
The AWA was not flourishing though. In fact it was on it’s last legs and was seriously struggling to survive in the world of wrestling as the WWF slowly took over and the AWA didn’t have a rich benefactor like Ted Turner to buy them out and keep the product alive. Most of their major stars had long left for the greener pastures and in early 1991 the AWA closed it’s doors. Larry Zbyszko was the last champion.
Wasting no time he had already secured a position with, the now named, World Championship Wrestling (Formerly JCP) before the bankruptcy was declared. As we all know by the time he got to the WCW his best years were behind him and he had moderate success teaming with Arn Anderson to win the WCW World Tag-Team Championship and later won the WCW Television Championship.
By that time his famous feud with Bruno was long behind him and the new era of WCW fans weren’t going to be reminded of the success he had elsewhere on their television. So he was just another guy with no background to him for some of the fans at that time. By 1994 it was clear there were not going to be any plans for him and to the great detriment of most wrestling fans he joined the commentary team.
Now all he is known for is his days on the commentator, even though he still wrestles from time-to-time independently. To me it’s mind blowing to think that if he hadn’t held Vince Sr. up and/or Bruno had put him over, Zbyszko could be a house hold name everywhere. Instead Bruno won. Vince Sr. who is said to have thought Zbyszko wasn’t big enough to beat Bruno anyway was able to manipulate Zbyszko out of the company.
It was hardly surprising that he never really got to the top of the business until the AWA was struggling for talent. Just think about it from another promoters point of view. Zbyszko had proved himself and a draw, but, he had been gifted a place in the business by Bruno and then proceeded to demand more money after having everything pretty much handed to him. If I was them, I would surely have been wary of putting my most important championship on him or using as a seriously prominent role.
Then on top of that he is has the ‘honour’ of being the man who was the primary draw, the World Heavyweight Champion, when the AWA went out of business. Should he be remembered as more than he is? He had a great career and has put on some matches that will be remembered by those who saw them forever. His promo work was also very good and he good get heat from crowds that some people could only dream of. So, yes he should, but, he should always have those questions over his head of, “What if Larry Zbyszko didn’t hold up the McMahon’s?” And the second one, “What if Larry Zbyszko beat Bruno Sammartino at Shea Stadium?”
– By Jimmy Wheeler