Before the first Wrestlemania, there was August 9th, 1980, at Shea Stadium in New York City.
The WWWF held a star-laden card with a main event feud so heated that Hulk Hogan was relegated to doing the honors on the undercard for Andre the Giant, in a precursor to their matchup in WM 3 in 1987 at the Pontiac Silverdome.
But Hogan was not the top heel that night, not the man everyone wanted to see lose.
That honour went to a man whose career as a free-thinker and master psychologist made him one of the most controversial figures in the industry, and a personal favorite of many wrestlers for his in-ring and interview style and substance.
Thirty-five years later, that match at Shea Stadium with an announced attendance of 36,295 still stands as his most famous, and established his status as the Living Legend and now, as an inductee into the WWE Hall of Fame at Wrestlemania 31.
Larry Zbyszko arrived in the WWWF in late 1973 and for 8 years became a fixture of the promotion, winning the WWWF tag Team title with Tony Garea before an eventual student-teacher feud with perennial champ Bruno Sammartino.
On a radio show a few years ago, Bruno told the story of how Larry Zbyszko grew up in the same neighborhood, and would tell Bruno that he wanted to be a pro wrestler. Sometimes they would workout and Bruno told him if you go to college and graduate he would help him get into wrestling. After Larry graduated from college, Bruno got a call before Larry’s parents did.
Larry broke in under his real name and was sent to Vancouver, Canada, to join the All Star Wrestling promotion of Sandor Kovacs in 1973. Larry Whistler, babyface, had a summer long run surrounded by many legendary greats of the BCTV show. From mainstays like Eric Froelich and Dean Higuchi, journeymen like John Foley and Buck Ramstead, and major headliners like ex-CFL’ers Gene Kiniski and Mike Webster, the young star learned his craft before returning to the east.
I originally called Larry to ask about those early years, and had the added surprise of a list of his bouts. “Marty, no one has ever asked me about that…(laughing) Dynamite Jack Bence…”.
Larry evolved into a legendary heel and character babyface who had title runs atop the JCP/WCW, the dying days of midwest fixture AWA, was a member of the very underrated Dangerous Alliance faction in the 90’s, and segued into a TV commentator role with WCW becoming a key player in the Monday night wars on Nitro.
And of course it all started with his connection to the great Sammartino in WWWF, where Larry made his first and greatest fame.
Originally published on April 8, 2003, this interview touches on some career highlights from the period Larry Zbyszko came onto the radar of fans across North America, the era that preceded the WWF/Hulk Hogan national expansion. The seeds for expansion were sown a few years before, and Larry was a big part of it.
Marty Gold: You were on the undercard of the Madison Square Garden Feb 20/78 card where Bob Backlund won the title from Superstar Billy Graham.
Larry Z: Oh yes, the night they gave Backlund the belt and killed the WWWF. Madison Square Garden fans did not want to see him as champion. It was a promoters idea because they wanted a champion they could control.
Bruno was such a manly looking guy, and all the challengers were such big burly strong looking guys and next to Bruno, Bobby Backlund looked like a glass of milk. But when Bruno was there he ran the whole top of the card and the McMahons had no control over him. Bruno wouldn’t do anything he didn’t want to.
Well Backlund getting the title killed the territory. The office needed Bruno back again and he charged Vince Sr. $10,000 just for a meeting to talk. That run to Shea Stadium, we saved them and look at the thanks Bruno and I got. I just don’t kiss ass I guess.
MG: And that led to Bruno’s return and the big money feud with yourself.
… at the Pittsburgh Civic Arena Gino (Monsoon) had like $16,481 or something in exact cash for me.
LZ: That was part of Bruno’s conditions to return. All the magazines and publicity really came out of New York in those days. It was where you maybe went in a wrestler but came out a star. Vince Jr. was behind the scenes then, and Vince Sr. didn’t believe that this angle would go over. He wasn’t a big wrestling genius and was so set in his ways that they felt because I didn’t look like Superstar Graham or Ivan Koloff or was a “Jap”, we wouldn’t draw. They had so little respect for wrestling talent and psychology.
MG: The angle itself had so many nuances that the fans got totally into it.
Here is a synopsis of how the angle played out on WWF TV.
- – For a few weeks, a sullen Zbyszko refused to be interviewed by Bruno in his commentator role.
- – Larry Zbyszko does an interview, politely challenging his mentor to a scientific match in order to be seen as himself, rather than Bruno’s protege.
- – Sammartino rejects Zybysko’s challenge, saying that he could not go into a ring and hurt his close friend.
- – Larry Zbyszko beats John Buford. After the match, Zybysko announces his retirement over Bruno refusing his challenge. Bruno than accepts the challnge, but says he’ll only wrestle defensively, and that he won’t hurt Larry.
- – In an Allentown TV taping, the infamous match where Zybysko snaps and cracks a chair over Bruno’s head, leaving Bruno in a pool of blood, shocks the fans.
- – Bruno does an agonizing interview over Zybysko’s heel turn. Bruno is remorseful in the beginning, but seething by the end. ]
LZ: Well in the match Bruno kept reversing me but letting go of the hold. I found that embarassing. Then I lost my temper. The lost art of telling a story… the fans hated me. I was stabbed in the ass, had 2 cars smashes with rocks, it’s what makes the business exciting isn’t it?
MG: When I was breaking in back then, we were told that you held up Vince Sr. for $5000 before getting into the cage.
LZ: Really?…I never heard that. It’s true, in a way, but there wasn’t a hold-up. It was an argument about Pay Offs (P.O.). I held them up BEFORE Shea.
MG: BEFORE? I never heard that before.
LZ: Oh they got nasty! Backlund had the belt but Bruno and I were drawing these huge houses, and all I heard was (sarcastic)”wow, big crowd, isn’t that Backlund GREAT??”. The McMahons didn’t believe that the program would work and when it drew they tried to, well Bob wasn’t drawing, WE were and it doesn’t last forever.
It was hard to get them to sit down to meet so I held them up on the house shows.
I wanted top money. I demanded 10% of the GROSS at MSG, Boston Garden, Philadelphia Spectrum, at the Pittsburgh Civic Arena Gino (Monsoon) had like $16,481 or something in exact cash for me. Then, they made an agreement with me for the rest of the run and Shea that they stuck to.
They would stick to a deal. It just isn’t easy getting agreements out of them. It was not an unfair thing.
They want puppets. I want my money. I made 50% more by standing up for myself.
MG: After being away for a year you did indy shots in Georgia and the east for Denucci. You were involved in a program with Bruno’s son. Why didn’t that go to New York?
LZ: I left New York after 8 straight years, took a year off and then went to Japan and did the indy’s for Denucci. A feud with Bruno Jr., as he was called, that was the natural thing but (ruefully) I guess Vince Jr. didn’t like me.
I feel that I shouldn’t speak about the personal problems between David and Bruno, but David was a smaller guy and as a child he had a hard time. He was picked on and it was hard for him. David was good in the ring, but he was smaller than Bruno and not intimidating looking. You can’t jam it down the people’s throats. When he came into WCW in 1997 and was all lean, I thought he was a very good cruiserweight.
MG: But the feud played out in Georgia instead of New York. I thought it was a natural for Wrestlemania 1, you vs. Bruno’s kid.
LZ: You know, I think, people would have chanted “BRUNO, BRUNO” so loud that it would have overshadowed Hogan . In MSG Bruno was king.
Working for Ole Anderson in Georgia I did good. I bought the National title and it was the first time someone did that. I helped Killer Brooks beat Paul Orndorff and paid him $25,000 for the belt. In the early days of cable it had a lot of fans talking.
MG: The AWA was next but you were buried in the midcard at first.
LZ: Verne Gagne’s clique was hard to break through. He had Ray Stevens and his son Greg and Mad Dog Vachon, it was hard for new guys to break through and create some excitement.
Verne was old-school and set in his ways, which is what doomed him and the Crocketts in mid-Atlantic. Now Verne was a very good payoff man. I have to say that.
In MSG the McMahon’s paid $300 for the opener. In St. Paul, Verne would pay $1500.
And I thought the fans in the midwest were pretty cool.
MG: One question I saw on the internet wondered if you ever wrestled Hogan?
LZ: No he wasn’t in the AWA whenever I was there and in WWF he was strictly fodder for Andre. We never wrestled.
MG: In your second run in 1985 they put the America’s title on you to heat up a feud with Sgt. Slaughter, who had been top babyface in WWF before Hogan came back to take over as champion from Backlund.
LZ: Slaughter had a lot of fans and I had tons of heat. They were better fans in the AWA. In New York, they drew huge crowds because of the population base. But when they started exposing the business the crowds were all sceptics. I never heard “bo-ring” chants in my matches in the AWA.
The Road Warriors would say, oh Larry you’re doing all that stalling, and I’d laugh, “hell listen to the people!”.
In New York by then, they were all over the guys. You know, one of my favorite matches in the AWA was the Superclash boxer vs. wrestler fight with Scott Ledoux, with Larry Hennig reffing. The whole build-up was great. That should have been on a Wrestlemania. That was at Wrestlerock (April 20, 1986).
MG: One of your fans wanted me to ask you, did you really pass a roll of dimes to Curt Hennig at Superclash 3 ( San Francisco, May 2, 1987 where Hennig knocked out Nick Bockwinkel to win the AWA title)?
LZ: Aw, that started because Ray Stevens hit the ring and pulled my hand out of my pocket. I had like 72 cents in my pocket that went flying and him and Bockwinkel made a federal case out of it. San Fran was his town.
Ray was a classic, a fiesty guy and buggy whip armed, never worked out ever, a tough crazy guy they don’t make anymore. Today you don’t have to be good or learn. Ray knew how to work and do interviews and build heat.
I took a little from Ray, from Bruno, from Jay Strongbow – Strongbow could do nothing and start a riot in there!
I’ll tell you what I did. I gave Curt Hennig “the world’s greatest advice”. I must have because he beat Nick Bockwinkel. And you know, if the fans knew what really happened they wouldn’t care. 15 years later they still ask.
Curt – I really liked Curt. I’m still shocked at his passing. From what I heard his heart was damaged already. His blood vessels contracted and with the drugs in his system it killed him. That’s what’s surprising, he was not that kind of guy.
MG: By 1988 you had gone back to work for the NWA which by then was Crockett. After taking the Western States title from Barry Windham you were involved in an angle with Baby Doll and Dusty Rhodes. Were there really…
LZ: OH there WERE pictures in the envelope, that was true, but I never saw them. Baby Doll came in and they put me with her, and she won’t even show me the pictures!! I wasn’t in the right clique there too.
Crocketts probably told her not to show the pictures to anybody. Maybe they had something on Dusty…
Now she was supposed to give Dusty “the kiss of death”. But she had just gotten married to Sam Houston. He was a jealous little shit. Sam was an immature goof, there he is working in New York and all worried like an interview with Dusty is going to cause his marriage trouble. Anyways she didn’t do it, got fired and Baby Doll disappeared. (Laughing) The office probably didn’t appreciate a guy working for WWF calling the shots on her interviews.
MG: Then it was back to the AWA when you took the belt after Jerry Lawler walked out. You got to brag about being the ESPN champion calling Chris Berman “the blimp” and issuing challenges.
LZ: Well in a way I understand why he left, in the old days you got paid immediately and to wait months for Pay Per View money, it didn’t make any sense to the boys. But Lawler is strictly for Lawler. So I won the battle royal over Tom Zenk and held the AWA title.
Now the challenges were serious. I knew none of them like Flair and Hogan would accept cause none of them could wrestle.
It wasn’t like I was challenging Karl Gotch. I woulda stretched ’em.
I couldn’t possibly get heat if I kept going off about Bockwinkel because he had retired, and really no one cared about Greg Gagne by then. When they put him in the cage with Bruiser Brody it was like Mutt and Jeff and Brody was expected to make him look like Superman. I couldn’t get heat with anyone there. Wahoo was old, Tommy Jammer was greener than grass-
MG: Well what about Mr. Saito?
LZ: OH Masa was a very good wrestler. Our styles meshed. When we swapped the title, the match at Japan Dome was classic with him under the rising sun flag, me under the stars and stripes, the anthems playing.
We had a helluva match, you know — it was the biggest rip-off since the 1919 Black Sox scandal. I was fast counted. The fans were so ecstatic and respectful of Masa Saito they gave him the wave. And the Japanese fans are normally so reserved by our standards, to see that happen, was really a great moment. Of course then I took the title back from him in St. Paul (April 8, 1990).
MG: … can you tell me what in your opinion is wrong with the industry today (ed. note -in 2003)?
LZ: The lost art of working the marks. They pay their money to be worked, not to have the business exposed to them. When they yell boring, that means they are not being worked because they are showing they do not care.
MG: One last thing. Back in his AWA TV jobber days, a good friend of ours worked at the Winnipeg Arena and you showed him your ring jacket with the Z on the back and said “see this? $13.00 kid. I don’t believe in spending a lot of money on my gimmick”. Dan Denton was a rookie then and laughs about it to this day.
LZ: (laughing) Well it’s true, if I had a fancy robe, sure, but I was carrying on the tradition of Bruno, the legacy of being a man. That is why I am the Living Legend.
The official WWE BIO with links to some of Larry’s great matches is here