This was more than a feud, it was a betrayal. It wasn't just a student turning against his teacher, it was a man turning against his friend. In January of 1980 Larry Zbyszko turned on Bruno Sammartino instantly becoming the most hated heel in the WWF.
Born in the 1950's, Lawrence Whistler grew up in Chicago but moved to Pittsburgh, Pa. in 1964, where he became friends with, and trained to become a wrestler under the great Bruno Sammartino (and to a lesser degree Newton Tattrie). 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 undercard mainstays like Eric Froelich and Butts Giraud to major headliners like Gene Kiniski, the young star learned his craft before returning to the east. He adopted the in ring name of Zbyszko to attract attention, and to try and draw on the ethnic groups that the WWWF depended upon to fill their arenas-in this case the large Polish contingencies in New England, Pennsylvania and Ohio. He proved to be a talented wrestler winning Rookie of the Year in 1974. In describing his wrestling style Zbyszko calls it, "science over brawn."
Zbyszko wrestled mainly for the WWWF and for his co-trainer Tattrie's promotion in Pittsburgh, but he also had short runs in Los Angeles for the LaBelle family and the Mid Atlantic territory for Jim Crockett. In 1976 he started tagging with Tony Garea eventually winning the WWWF Tag Team Titles in November of 1978, and holding them until March of 1979. After returning to singles wrestling he stayed mired at the mid-card position, until a opportunity of a lifetime came along.
Zbyszko was frustrated with his lack of career movement and went to his mentor-Sammartino for advice. Sammartino came up with a rough plan to have a Zbyszko and Bruno feud, possibly leading into Zbyszko winning the (now) WWF World Title. Vince Sr. was convinced that having Larry turn heel against Sammartino, (his mentor in real life and WWF story lines for almost a decade) wouldn't draw and had to be pressured into accepting the idea by Sammartino.
In early 1980 the groundwork for the feud was laid. Zbyszko became frustrated with his inability to shed his label as Bruno Sammartino's protégé. Larry would ignore Bruno (who was now a commentator for WWF television programming) when Bruno would approach him for an interview after a match. This puzzled not only Sammartino, but the WWF viewing audience as well-thus building speculation and anticipation of what may occur. As a way to prove his worth, and step out of Bruno's shadow, Zbyszko challenged Sammartino to a match. Sammartino was forced to eventually agree to the match after Zbyszko threatened to retire if it was not granted. However, Bruno insisted that this match be simply a "friendly" exhibition. Bruno would not try to harm or to pin Zbyszko, nor make him submit. Larry would abide by the same guide lines.
The match took place in Allentown, Pa., on January 22, 1980. Sammartino played the part of a classy mentor by holding open the ropes for Zbyszko to enter. A few minutes into the match it was clear Bruno was dominating. After placing Zbyszko in a bear hug, Sammartino (as per pre-match agreement) released the hold. Zbyszko was visibly upset that Sammartino had not given him the opportunity to try and escape the hold on his own skills. As they tied up in the referee's position, they turned and grappled for position. Larry slipped and fell through the ropes. That's when Bruno opened the ropes for him. Irate at what he saw as a sign of disrespect and frustrated at being out wrestled, Zbyszko seized a wooden chair and struck Sammartino in the head, leaving him in a pool of blood in the center of the ring. In a venue in Bruno's own home state, filled with his loyal fans, the heat on Zbyszko was white hot. He was instantly catapulted to the top heel spot in the company. In what could be described as a chair shot heard around the world, this feud was born.
For most of the next year Larry and Bruno would go at it all over a northeast full of Sammartino fans. Calling this feud successful is an understatement. Packed houses all over WWF's territory ate up this angle. Fans were outraged at Zbyszko's loyalty. So hated was Zbyszko, that he had a taxi he was riding in overturned, was hit with a metal pole by a fan, and even stabbed in the butt following a match in Albany, NY. In a move of mockery, Zbyszko started calling himself "The New Living Legend" taking aim at Sammartino's nickname "The Living Legend." The finale of the feud was going to be grand. Dubbed the "Showdown at Shea," it was to be a steel cage match. On August 9, 1980 at Shea Stadium in Flushing, NY, a house of 36,295, saw Sammartino defeat Zbyszko ending one of the best feuds in wrestling history.
This was Zbyszko's final hurrah in the WWF. Having come off such a highly profitable feud, which saw WWF World Heavyweight Champion Bob Backlund relegated to a background position for most of the year, Zbyszko thought he would be given that title shot Vince Sr. had talked about. This was not to be. The split with the McMahons came about not only because of broken promises of a push to Backlund, but also because they started to short him on promised monies (the Shea Stadium payoff was the start of that), and they started to try and get him to lose matches as he was still hot in the feud with Bruno and a smaller feud with ex-partner Garea. The agreement was that Zbyszko had to stay dominant, because if a lower card wrestler beat the guy who was battling Bruno, how would that make Bruno look? When the McMahons began to mess with the plans (as Bruno had warned Larry that they would), Zbyszko wisely left-and ended any chance of him ever working for a McMahon again.
After departing the WWF in 1981, Zbyszko worked for GCW (Atlanta), then onto the Indies, working mainly for Dominic DeNucci in Pittsburgh and Killer Kowalski in New England in feuds against David -then Bruno, Jr.-Sammartino and Larry Winters. He went back to Georgia for an extended run before going on to a successful career in the AWA and then the WCW.
By John Volino
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