In Defense Of… Larry Zbyszko

Bringing the truth to the wrestling fan!

A version of this article originally appeared on 411mania.com and was updated for the book IN DEFENSE OF… EXONERATING PROFESSIONAL WRESTLING’S MOST HATED. Learn more at https://www.jpprag.com

Certain people, events, organizations, and storylines in wrestling history have gotten a bum rap. Some writers have presented overtly critical comments and outright lies as fact, and others have followed suit. Well no more! “In Defense of…” has one reason: to bring the truth to the wrestling fan!

Intro

Some dame walked into my office and said…

Well, for the first time in a while, that dame is me. Being a huge NWA/WCW fan, I always enjoyed Larry’s commentating skill. But because of when and where I was born, I never really got to see him wrestle. Were the stories he told true? Were the stories other people told true? Was Larry truly the living legend, or was he a joke as many others contend?

Why this?

As soon as I said this topic, I heard from a few people about it. First was Rusty Nailz who said:

What the fuck is up with the next one being about Larry Z… No offense man, but I could give a fuck less about this guy… Please explain to me why you’re wasting [your] time on this guy?

And there was also Feroz Nazir who said:

What did Larry Z. ever do wrong?

And that about covers the why. Larry Zbyszko is truly an icon in this industry. He has had an incredible, lasting impact and deserves to be remembered as one of the best. For his time, too, he was a huge draw, making money for everyone involved.

Yet, as time has moved on, the WWE has re-written history. As a new generation of viewers has taken over, his place in history is threatened. If not stopped now, everything Larry Zbyszko has done will be forgotten.

This will be a case unlike any other. This will be more about learning history and understanding the industry in the past and less about disproving specific charges.

I did not and do not pick cases because they will be popular. If I always wrote about what people cared about, then there would be no challenge. No, this one is about getting you to see why you should care, and why talking about Larry Zbyszko is not a waste of time.

Thirty years in the industry

On a cold windy night in Chicago on December 5, 1953, a man named Lawrence Whistler was born. Who knew that he would grow up to become a professional wrestler and call himself Zbyszko? Who would think to call themselves Zbyszko? Only one man, and that man was the living legend. But not quite yet.

In 1965, Larry and family moved to Pittsburgh, PA. Says Larry to George Wrestling History:

[W]hen I went to Pittsburgh it was the first time I watched pro wrestling… And you know, Bruno Sammartino became my hero. And I loved it so much when I was a kid, I actually started wrestling in grade school back then. And then wrestling in high school, and did some wrestling for Penn State…

So even at a young age Larry was pursuing the sport. Kayfabe was much more alive then, and he believed more than enough to get the proper amateur training. That training was good enough to get him on the Penn State team, proving that he had all the basic skills prevalent in later wrestlers like the Steiner Brothers or Kurt Angle.

What happened next, though, was entirely Larry’s doing. Says Larry in the aforementioned interview:

I think my buddy was 16, and I was 15 or something, and we were driving around because I knew where Bruno lived. He lived a couple miles from my house. And we’d drive by his house every now and then to see if we could get a glimpse of him. And one day, there he was, I could see him through the hedges sitting in his backyard. My buddy stopped the car, so I jumped out of the car and busted through his hedges. (Laughs)

So he’s sitting there in his yard playing with one of his kids, David — who was little at the time — and he looks at me, and there’s this little kid, you know, coming through the hedges. And he gets up and kind of looks at me like, “What the hell?” And when he got up, my God, he looked like a gorilla. He was a big man. He was not that tall, maybe 5'11", but he was like 265 pounds. I mean, a gorilla. And I was a nervous wreck. I introduced myself, I was very respectful, you know. I told him that he was my hero, and my favorite wrestler, and blah, blah, blah, and I kind of started like that.

And somehow out of that awkward introduction, Larry and Bruno became friends. They became more than friends, they became teacher and student, mentor and the mentee. When Larry was introduced later on as Bruno’s protégé, that was not just some gimmick to get him over. That was the god’s honest truth, but a lot more happened between them. Back to the interview:

As I got older, he met my folks, and he took me under his wing. I started training in his basement gym, that’s why I sort of looked like him, I did the same workout for years. And he told me he’d start me in professional wrestling when I finished school because professional wrestling wasn’t a guaranteed type of career, and it was smart to have a back-up plan. So I finished school and majored in basket-weaving and he got me in the professional wrestling game.

Ever since he was a child, Larry wanted to be a professional wrestler. He had all the amateur credentials and he had the training of one of the best ever. Yet, instead of just using that to jump the gun and go right into the sport at 18 (or sooner), he respected his mentor’s wishes. Larry did not want to go to college and had no huge need to go, but went anyway because it was what Bruno wanted. And as soon as that was done, he was right back in the sport. But it was not like he was just pushed straight to the top!

In 1973, Larry took the name Zbyszko. Since he was of Polish decent himself, he had a great respect for one of the most famous Polish wrestlers of just before his time: Stanislaus Zbyszko. You see, Larry was not just a fan of wrestling; he was the equivalent of today’s smart mark, except with a work ethic. But Larry took his love and knowledge of the industry and premiered as a babyface under the tutelage of Bruno. Back to our interview:

I started wrestling around the Pittsburgh area doing some local TV and shows in the high school gyms. And then Bruno sent me to British Columbia. Vancouver — — there was a wrestling territory.

[Interviewer:] Was that Al Tomko?

No, it that was like Gene Kiniski and Sandor Szabo. And so I went there for about six months, because he (Bruno) wanted me to get experience. And then he brought me back and I started in the WWWF… as “Bruno’s protégé.”

Tomko? Kinisk? What decade are we in?

Two points from this. One: Bruno wanted Larry to get some seasoning under his belt before he would help him get to the big time. He would not let Larry into the major circuits and wanted him to learn the industry and not be as green. Bruno knew how to open doors, but Larry would have to get better before he was allowed anywhere. Two: Although everyone in the industry knew Larry had trained under Bruno, he did not use that to get over with the crowd at that point. Again, Bruno wanted Larry to pave his own way before he would tie himself to him and the audience.

In 1974, PWI named Larry the rookie of the year. He was starting to make a name for himself, and that finally convinced Bruno to help him come to the WWWF (that’s not an extra W folks) run by Vince McMahon Sr. And so finally Zbyszko was allowed to become Bruno’s protégé on screen and in the papers. Back to the interview:

You know, to be Bruno’s protégé was an honor. Everybody from the promoters, to the top guys around at the time, to the older guys that would really give you shit — everybody was very nice to me. Everybody opened their arms to welcome me to the business, and would tell me things that they wouldn’t tell everybody else. How to make money, the psychology. l had the best array of teachers in the business. I have an education that no one else in this business has from Bruno and these guys because they opened up to me, as ‘Bruno’s protégé.’ It was all politics, and he was the man.

[Interviewer:] When you say drawing money and little hints that you got from the jump, who were some of the guys and what was some of the advice that they gave you that they didn’t give anybody else?

Oh, God, you’re talking about some dead brain cells. Everyone from Arnold Skaaland to Chief Jay Strongbow to Tony Altimore to Gorilla Monsoon, the Savoldi’s. A bunch of people who have been in this business for years. Plus all of the wrestlers, the other guys. The George Steele’s, the list goes on. It would take me hours and hours of sitting here thinking to remember what each quote from somebody was. But, it was just like a whole bunch of tutors.

So yes, Bruno did open a lot of doors for Zbyszko, and lots of people told Larry stuff that they would tell no others. But this not a case of nepotism. Remember, it was Larry who made the jump to meet Bruno and befriend him. Larry trained, did the amateur ranks, did everything Bruno asked him to do. At the end of the day, it was still up to Larry to put on a compelling show in the ring and get himself over with the crowd.

If you think it was all Bruno’s doing, then I have to ask you this: have you ever heard of David Sammartino? Exactly, you haven’t. And if you have, you already know what’s coming. Bruno’s son David could not make it in the industry, even with his father. From our over-used interview:

[Interviewer:] What did you think of David as a wrestler? And what did you think of his future possibilities in the business?

Well, he’s a good wrestler. I mean, he was a good wrestler. A lot of fire. He just got frustrated easy, it just didn’t work out like he thought it would being Bruno’s son, and he couldn’t fill the shoes. And the politics were bad, too, for him, because Bruno wouldn’t take no shit, so there were a lot of promoters and people that didn’t like Bruno, so it didn’t help Bruno’s kid, if Bruno wasn’t involved.

Once again, as you can see, it was not Bruno that had to work to get Larry over, Larry was responsible. But he also needed some more seasoning. Again with the interview:

[Interviewer:] Did you stay there long? Because I know you had gone out to California. Was that before or after you started with the WWWF?

Well I was with the WWWF for maybe a couple of years. Two or three years and then I hit the road a little bit to a couple of little places, and then I went out to California for maybe six or eight months in ’75. And then maybe a wee bit in Georgia.

What they wanted to do in those days was get you out of the area for a year or so, and then when you came back you were fresher… You know, six months here, three months here. And then I went back to the WWWF in probably ‘75–76. And then teamed up with Tony Garea and took it farther.

And over the next several years, he started to win championships, started fighting more challenging individuals, and working his way up the card. By 1980, though, it was apparent that he could not get out of Sammartino’s shadow. And so Zbyszko began a campaign to face his trainer and prove himself once and for all. From Wikipedia:

Zbyszko became frustrated with his inability to shed his label as Bruno Sammartino’s protégé. He challenged Sammartino to an exhibition match, claiming this was the only way he could step out of Sammartino’s shadow. Sammartino eventually agreed to the match after Zbyszko threatened to retire if he was not granted the match. The trainer and pupil faced one another in Allentown on January 22, 1980, with Sammartino dominating the early stages of the match. After Sammartino threw him out of the ring, an irate Zbyszko seized a wooden chair and struck Sammartino, leaving him in a pool of blood in the middle of the ring and instantly turning Zbyszko into a reviled heel.

And a little more detail from our beloved interview:

[Interviewer:] When did you find out you were making that turn? Whose idea was it to start the process along from making that turn from All-American babyface to…

Well, it was my idea. It was at the time, Bruno was basically retired. He was doing the broadcasting, and the business was in the crapper. I mean, it was way down. Bob Backlund was the champion, and nobody cared. People wanted Bruno to come back, but he was all beat up and didn’t want to come back. And there were a lot of guys in limbo. And I just put together all I learned from those guys, and said “damn, if…” — because I wanted Bruno to make a come-back — “if Bruno comes back whoever he wrestles is gonna be a big star.” But, the whole thing would be great because the people want him back so bad that it can’t miss.

So, then I went to Bruno and ran by the idea of what I wanted to do. And he sort of thought about it and said, “Okay, we’ll do it.” But, he was the one that programmed the whole thing, and along with some other circumstances, it became the biggest feud of the old school.

[Interviewer:] Building to that, you asked him for a scientific match to try and escape from his shadow. What kind of led up to that match? Were you showing frustration in any of your other matches in trying to get ahead? How did that work?

Well, it was just doing interviews basically about the story, which was kind of true, Saying, “Look if, Larry Zbyszko can’t survive anymore here being Bruno’s protégé. Surviving in Bruno’s shadow, and Bruno’s not even wrestling here anymore.” And I said, “This is ridiculous.” I said there’s only one way for me to prove that I’m as great as my mentor, and that’s to call Bruno out here and have the match of a lifetime. I said “He’ll always be my hero, no disrespect.” And then Bruno didn’t want to wrestle me, because I was his protégé. And, of course, that made everybody want it more. And then I started getting more frustrated and said “Come on Bruno give me a shot,” and blah, blah, blah. But, I did it so well, and it was laid out so well, that the people actually bought it. I mean, they actually wanted Bruno to give me a chance. And then when Bruno finally said “Okay, but it’ll be a scientific match.” And I said, “Oh, okay. That’s great. I couldn’t ask for more.”

And then when I clobbered him with the chair, and he drowned in a pool of blood, my God, people hated me. Talk about wanting to kill me, I was stabbed in the ass in Albany, New York. God, I had cars smashed. I had cabs overturned. I had threats from Little Italy.

Those were the days when people believed, and the hate was real — and the love was real too. The people loved Bruno so much in those days that when we were in the middle of a show where Bruno would get bloody and fall down, people had heart attacks. I swear to God. I think at the Civic Arena (Pittsburgh) one time the most I did was four heart attacks. I mean, people dropped dead because Bruno was bleeding! That’s how serious it was taken, it’s completely different today.

From this, we can learn a lot. First, we learn that this great angle was really Zbyszko’s idea, and not Vince Sr. or Bruno. Second, he legitimately had to convince Bruno to go through with it and put himself through another series of matches. And last, Larry put himself into legitimate danger. He was stabbed, shot at, hit with pipes, had his car overturned, his taxi attacked… he was no longer safe in his own home. But it was all worth it, according to Zbyszko.

And not just according to him. The records speak for themselves. He and Sammartino sold out arenas everywhere. But the biggest one of all was the Showdown at Shea on August 9, 1980. In the main event of the evening, Sammartino defeated Zbyszko in a steel cage in the largest wrestling audience of the time. From our favorite interview:

[Interviewer:] That match with Sammartino drew an insane amount. It was over 36,000 and, even more impressive, over a half million at the gate. (Dave Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer Newsletter reports the numbers it drew as 36,295 — although it was announced as being 40,717, so it could be larger than the Chicago crowd that saw Buddy Rogers win the NWA World title over Pat O’Connor — and earned a then-record $541,730 in gate revenue.)

Oh yeah. In those days, selling out a stadium for wrestling was unheard of. Unheard of.

[Interviewer:] I think it was a quote from Bruno that said he was more impressed with the match with you than the match between Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant at WrestleMania III drawing the crowd they did because, technically, it was a regional event.

Oh yeah, I mean if we would have pulled it off down the road some years when national cable and they were on network? Shit, it would have been unbelievable. In fact, that Silverdome show that they claim was 90,000 people? They gave 30,000 tickets away.

[Interviewer:] I remember Dave Meltzer reporting the actual paid was far, far less than that.

Oh, yeah, so if you consider what we did at Shea Stadium to what they really did at the Silverdome, plus the TV in New York. The TV was on at like midnight to one in the morning, and that was it.

The Showdown at Shea was the biggest North American wrestling event of its time, doing the largest numbers seen in an incredibly down time in the industry. And it was all thanks to the long feud between Zbyszko and Sammartino. Zbyzsko was actually named the PWI Most Hated Wrestler that year! Of course, this would not be the last time Zbyszko would set a huge attendance record, but we’ll get back to that shortly.

After their feud, Sammartino went into retirement (well, about half a year later) and Zbyszko got to claim he sent him there. Zbyszko then left the WWWF and moved on to the NWA where he was involved in another controversial angle. From Wikipedia:

Zbyszko initially feuded with Tim Woods and Paul Orndorff, who he was unable [to defeat] for the NWA National Heavyweight Championship. After Killer Tim Brooks defeated Orndorff for the title on March 20, 1983, Zybszko immediately offered him $25,000 for the title, which Brooks accepted. His reign lasted until April 30 of that year, when NWA President Bob Geigel stripped Zbyszko of the title due to the manner in which he had acquired it. A tournament was held for the vacant title, which Zbyszko entered. He defeated Mr. Wrestling II in the tournament final on May 6, 1983 in Atlanta, Georgia to regain the title. His second reign lasted until September 25, 1983, when he lost to Brett Wayne in Atlanta.

And where did I see that angle about five years later? Oh, that’s right, when Ted Dibiase paid Andre the Giant for the WWF championship. How familiar!

You see, Zbyzsko was a pioneer in things that are now commonplace. Turning on a mentor and beating him with a chair? Trying to buy a title? Though they may be hackneyed today, they were original and shocking then. Back to our interview:

[Interviewer:] How did the whole scenario with Paul Orndorff and buying the National title come about? Who’s idea was that? And how did that kind of unfold?

(Laughs) Argh, Jesus Christ! I don’t really remember. All I remember is they had this thing with me and Orndorff, and they wanted to do something different. And I think I’m the one who came up with the idea, “But well then, why don’t I buy it? And we’ll have him (Brooks) do it.” Because I always believed in swerving the people, and at that time, if I would have wrestled Orndorff and then somehow someone ran in and I won it, it would have been predictable. So I said let’s make it unpredictable. We’ll throw Killer Brooks in there, and it should look like Orndorff would kill Killer Brooks, and then we’ll swerve it that way, and have Killer Brooks win the belt, which nobody would ever imagine.

We swerved ’em, right? And as soon as you swerve ’em, Killer Brooks says “I’m the champion, I’m the greatest,” and here I walk out and buy it from him, and he goes, “Oh, sure, here.” Then I brag I’m the champion. I mean, it’s just more heat for the complete unpredictability. That’s what they don’t have today. They don’t have any unpredictability. This guy’s in love with this broad, these guys are going to pop around, and on and on and on.

In 1984 he then moved on to the AWA and began a feud with Sgt. Slaughter. In this feud, Zbyzsko introduced another element he made famous: excessive stalling. The fans were more into booing his stalling during the match than any other match on the card. From Richard Trionfo’s recap of Larry on Between the Ropes in April 2004:

Larry talked about how Arn Anderson hated Larry’s stalling during matches, and the longest he ever stalled was 16 minutes. Larry heard about it from the agent, Grizzly Smith. Larry said that the crowd was into his matches, while other matches were not getting the same fan reaction.

Zbyzsko’s time in the AWA continued, leading to a feud with the champion Nick Bockwinkle. In yet another swerve, Zbyzsko helped Curt Hennig defeat Bockwinkel for the title instead of winning the title himself. From the original interview:

[Interviewer:] They started pushing Hennig, and start grooming him to take the belt off Bockwinkel. Did you ever care about that mythical thing of having the World title, or were you just trying to get paid and do a good job?

I’m in the business to make the most money. In fact, I’ll tell you a secret, when I slipped Curt Hennig the roll of dimes supposedly, and Curt beat Bockwinkel to become the champion, that was my idea.

There were thinking of the inevitable after the me and Bockwinkel program of having me win the belt. But I thought that would be anti-climactic, because it wouldn’t have swerved the people. The people were thinking that’s what was going to happen. Bockwinkel was getting older and blah, blah, blah, and the whole bit. So, I said, “Everybody is thinking I’m going to get the belt, let’s swerve them,” so we did this thing with Curt.

Him and Bockwinkel had a 60-minute time limit, and I think it was going like 55 minutes, so everybody was convinced that it was going to be a draw and, all of a sudden, I gave him “the world’s greatest advice,” and he won the belt and everyone was completely swerved.

And that’s another point. Larry was about business, not about himself. He could have taken the AWA title then, but didn’t think it was best for business. He was never about just putting himself over; he was all about doing what was right for business.

After this matchup, Zbyzsko returned to the NWA (Jim Crockett Promotions, specifically) in 1987 and then won the Western Heritage Championship in 1988 (but not before claiming he also retired Bockwinkel, who did in reality retire shortly after Zbyzsko left). And when he left JCP in 1989 he took the belt with him and retired it to a storage bin somewhere.

Finally Larry ended up back in the AWA and won the World Championship. Late in 1989 he began a feud with Mr. Saito which led to a match at the Tokyo Dome. With wrestling in another downturn, this happened (according to Larry’s website):

[A]s the AWA Heavyweight Champion of the World, he wrestled a former Japanese Olympic wrestler, [Mr. Saito], at the first Tokyodome show in Japan. Over 70,000 fans were on hand to witness this scientific and brutal confrontation. This amazing attendance was more than twice the number of people to show up the following night at the Tokyodome where a championship boxing match was fought between Mike Tyson and Buster Douglas.

Once again Zbyzsko was able to prove that he was a huge draw all over the world, and he could excite with the best of them. Who else was drawing crowds that size in 1990? Want to know what else? Zbyzsko dropped the title to Mr. Saito. And unlike when Ric Flair used to drop the title, this one was fully acknowledged by Larry and the AWA. He regained the title in a rematch in the States two months later, and then left with the title in December 1990. The AWA was approaching its end. Despite being able to draw a crowd of that size, the AWA was a financial mess and soon collapsed as talent left, fans stopped showing up, and the show lost its creativity and finally its champion. Less than a year later the AWA would declare bankruptcy.

Thus in 1990 Zbyzsko was in the newly formed WCW, teaming with everyone and eventually joining the Dangerous Alliance a year later. Injuries would eventually catch up to him and he would become a color commentator. Leaving retirement a few times for some matches involving William Regal, Scott Hall, and Eric Bischoff, Larry was mostly done with active competition. He started off co-hosting Main Event in 1994, and found himself on Nitro by 1996. This put him right in the limelight again as the nWo war kicked off.

The crowds really got into him. “Larry” chants were heard all over the sold-out WCW arenas. The Living Legend was turned face by the crowd after fifteen years as a heel. Yet he never changed a thing! He said the same things, he kept the same attitude, and he talked smack on the same people. Yet, he was a new man for a new generation of wrestling fans. From our interview:

[Interviewer:] Yeah, doing the little salute, and just have people go nuts for announcing. Just for stepping up to the announcing stand!

You know what? It felt great, it came full circle. I mean you know, you did a bunch of stuff and the people hated you, but after a while they loved you, because they hated you so much. And it was like they appreciated it. It feels great, even when I do these indy shows and appearances, people are chanting, and I do the little thing and they go nuts. They love me and I love them, and it was a great time.

Larry stayed in the booth until the end of WCW. He spent some time out in the independents making appearances, and then found his way over to TNA for a short while until he had creative differences with Vince Russo. After Russo was gone, he found his way back and moved his way up from the Championship Committee and became the Director of Authority. And that is where we stand at the time of this writing in 2006.

So much had come before what we know about Larry Zbyzsko today, yet it is hardly talked about. And yet, there is so much more.

Is he Triple H?

Larry Zbyszko married the boss’ daughter. In 1988, Zbyszko married Kathy Gagne, daughter of Verne Gagne. And Verne, of course, was the owner and booker for the AWA. To our favorite interview from Georgia Wrestling History:

[Interviewer:] When did you meet your wife?

She was working there a little bit in the office when I was working for the AWA. And actually, it was funny, for like the first six to eight months it was a big secret, nobody knew that me and Kathy were dating…

[Interviewer:] Even Verne or Greg [Verne’s son, Kathy’s sister]?

Nobody. Then one day, Kathy and I went to like a Moody Blues concert, or something, downtown, and they had an intermission. And about two rows behind us, I hear this voice, and I turn around and it was Greg. Greg with somebody and they were at the concert too, and they saw me and Kathy sitting there. (Laughs)

[Interviewer:] How did that go over with Verne?

Verne hated my guts.

[Interviewer:] How long did it take for him to come around to the idea of his daughter dating a wrestler? And not just any wrestler, it was you.

After she got pregnant. (Laughs) As soon as she had the kid, I was okay.

[Interviewer:] Did that get you, like the Triple H-Stephanie (McMahon) thing, was it kind of the same thing at the time where guys look at you cross-eyed like, “Well, he’s getting it with Verne’s daughter, here we go”?

That’s a natural, I guess. I guess because I was in the position I was, and I was who I was, I really didn’t get a whole lot of it because I was a top guy. So it wasn’t like it was something they couldn’t handle. It wasn’t like the daughter running off with a jabroni.

[Interviewer:] Like Jake Milliman, or something.

Yeah. It was interesting. I really don’t know what the deal is with Triple H and Stephanie, but as far as I’m concerned, Kathy is just a great chick. Because she was Verne’s daughter, she was raised in the wrestling business so that’s in her blood[,] too. I mean, she understands the business. It’s hard to have a wife in this business, but if you have a wife that was raised in it, and understands it, then you get along great because you kind of know where each others are coming from.

A lot of guys get divorced because they don’t realize after you get married, you never see the husbands anyway. It’s a weird life.

Then I was lucky because I got into the broadcasting, and I was home every day just about, so we could raise these kids. It was a good life.

Oh, where to start with this one? First off, Larry was already a main event wrestler and had been for eight years by the time he married Kathy. And marrying her did nothing for his career. Verne hated him, and you can bet that he still was not happy with Larry after he got his daughter pregnant.

Larry overcame the hatred of his father-in-law and boss and was able to win the championship. He won it because the crowds paid to see him (or rather to see him beaten). It was during this time frame that he sold out the Tokyodome with Mr. Saito in front of 70,000 people.

You see, Larry took this chance because he loved this woman and wanted to be with her. He could have been ostracized from this industry. There was no place for a non-muscle-head in the 1988 WWF, and WCW did not yet exist (and walking away with a title did not make him a friend of the NWA). No, Larry had found a woman who could be everything he was looking for in a wife. He saw how being married affected the other guys, and knew he needed someone who understood his life. Heck, he was 36 when he got married!

There was a man who lived the prime of his life unattached. He knew that getting married and having kids would be a major change from his bachelor days, bouncing territory to territory. But that was a risk he was willing to take because he loved Kathy and wanted a life with her; not to win championships or make more money off of the AWA.

The line in the sand

It just so happened, though, that Larry became injured and found himself as a broadcaster. This allowed him to be home with his kids and enjoy them growing up (as he grew older). Yet, this also put him in the position of constantly being on the mic. Because of this, everything he said was taken as his real opinions or his version of the truth. We forget, though, that despite everything he says on a microphone or in front of a camera, he’s still in character (this goes for Jerry Lawler, too, but that’s another day). Larry is the consummate professional, and his character is always in full gear.

But because he is playing the character so perfectly, the lines between his real personal beliefs and his character are continually blurred.

For instance, the character of Larry Zbyszko claims that he retired Bruno Sammartino and Nick Bockwinkle. Of course, in the real world we know both wrestled for months after Zbyszko left them behind! But back in the day, it was a way to maintain his heel heat. As I stated in the previous section, Larry also maintained his “heel” character when he joined commentary and continued to say such things, even after the crowd turned him face. This made some think that he truly believed that he had retired these men and was rewriting history. Of course this is not what he was thinking! Pretending to retire those two is just a part of his character as it has always been, and in the real world he is eternally grateful for all they gave him.

Another point is the title “Living Legend”. From Richard Trionfo’s recap of Zbyszko on Between the Ropes in April 2004:

Discussion moved on to the use of ‘Living Legend’. Larry has been using it since suggested by Bruno Sammartino, since he was called the ‘living legend’ but it was not Bruno’s style. However, it was perfect for Larry’s character. The use of ‘Living Legend’ made him the biggest bad guy in the land, and got him a lot of heat.

Some have claimed that Larry stole the title from Bruno, and that since he lost the cage match between the two he lost the right to call himself by that name (one of the stipulations?). But Larry said it right there. Bruno was called the “Living Legend”, but that name was not for him. Zbyszko used it to gain heel heat, and it became synonymous with him. This is what Bruno wanted, and it is just Larry’s character, not how he viewed himself (except maybe with his wife, but I won’t go there).

That, sadly, has not stopped others from trying to claim the name.

It’s suing time!

Even though Zbyszko is the “Living Legend”, others like Chris Jericho and Randy Orton have tried to use it the past few years. From our famous Georgia Wrestling History Interview:

[Interviewer:] One of the smaller guys that Vince has is your buddy Chris Jericho…

Ah, yes.

[Interviewer:] The cynic of that whole situation (Larry and the WWE are tied up litigation over Jericho using the nickname “Living Legend” on television after he won the mini-tournament to unify the WWE and WCW World championships in 2001) would look and say, hey, Ric Flair took (the Nature Boy nickname/persona) from Buddy Rogers. Nicknames get passed around. What pisses you off so much about Jericho referring to himself as the “Living Legend.”

Well, it’s not so much Jericho, because Chris, he’s a good talent — he’s one of Vince’s puppets, you know, he does what he’s told. And you can say, well, Flair took the “Nature Boy” from Buddy Rogers, but that’s terrific, but Buddy Rogers is long dead. And, the fact of the matter is, after I’m dead, I don’t care if he’s the “Living Legend” or not. (Chuckles) But right now, I’m still using it to make my living. So it’s like, you know, “Hey dudes!”

[Interviewer:] I guess Rogers let Flair have it too. They did that little thing in Crockett (Mid-Atlantic Championship) where Flair went over Rogers, and kind of like ascended to the throne.

Yeah, but Rogers was always Ric Flair’s hero. And he wanted to pattern, well he did pattern, almost his whole bit after Rogers. But, you know, Buddy’s dead, and great, but I’m still using it. And the thing that kind of got me was, after I called the WWF and said, “Hey guys, do you mind? I’m still alive here. I’m not dead.” And working and making my living with what I’ve built up for 23 years. And the only reason it got to the lawsuit part was because their lawyers sent me a letter saying, “We are going to take it, and will continue to use it, and you will not interfere.” So here we are.

[Interviewer:] Do you think it (the letter) was just a big “F.U.” coming down from Vince, saying send him this, and “screw him”?

Well, it certainly sounded like it to me! I mean it was almost like, “Hey, look it. We’re the WWF. We want to use what you made famous. And you’re to go away now.” Well, I’m sorry. I still got two kids to raise here, dude.

[Interviewer:] Do you have that trademarked, or how does that work?

Well, actually, it’s in the trademark office, or whatever. But, even without that, as it is now, it’s a common law trademark. Like common law marriage. If you use something in the public eye so long, it becomes your common law trademark.

[Interviewer:] Well, I think Randy Orton used it this past week. (On WWE Raw)

Yeah, this ought to be interesting.

[Interviewer:] Does this look to be one of those typical litigation things that never ends?

It could be, you never know. It’s been going a couple years. They did the discoveries, they deposed McMahon and Jericho, and they both admitted to everything. And, I did my depositions, and they sent everything to the judge, and now it’s just a waiting game. And you could sit here for two months, you could sit here for a year, waiting for the judge’s decision on the court date or whatever.

All right, from the beginning; Yes, Zbyszko does not have a trademark on the term “Living Legend” like Christian has on “Captain Charisma”. But he has been using it for so long it is synonymous with him. Actually, he has been using it since 1980, which would definitely put it in the “common law trademark” category. From Barbara Brabec’s World:

Your constant use of an unregistered mark gains trademark status through the years. I had an interesting trademark case a few years back when someone stole my Homemade Money book title and applied it to a sleazy MLM magazine. The publisher hadn’t yet applied for a trademark, so my attorney, Mary Helen Sears, was able to stop him from using this name. Because it has been so closely identified with my name since 1984, she was able to prove that my personal reputation would have been damaged if someone had seen this name on their magazine. Ms. Sears sent a powerfully-worded series of letters that convinced the publisher he had to stop using my book’s title — or else.

As Ms. Sears explained, “Because it is strongly associated with Barbara Brabec in the minds of persons engaged in, or interested in engaging in, home-based business enterprises, the term ‘Homemade Money’ has acquired a secondary meaning, not only as the identification of a book that has the reputation of being the handbook and primer in how to start, maintain and conduct a home-based business, but as the trademark and service mark for educational materials relating to home-based business, and for educational and informational activity of all types in regard to such business.” Thus, anyone using this phrase for their own profit would be in direct violation of trademark law 15 U.S.C. 1125(a), and I could take appropriate legal action against them.

Although now associated with something that would discredit him, Zbyszko could potentially lose money from the use of the term. Others might have believed he was associated with the WWE, or had given his rights over. But this could not be further from the truth. Larry was still using and making money off of the “Living Legend” trademark, and nothing but death is going to change that.

In an interview with Slam Sports in December 2003 Larry added:

Vince has a monopoly now, so he does whatever he feels like doing, even if that means taking something I’ve been using for more than 20 years. You don’t see him being called ‘Macho Man’ Chris Jericho. It’s just the arrogance.

The WWE and McMahon truly were trying to take advantage of their monopoly position and force their will on the entire wrestling world, in direct opposition to the Sherman Anti-Trust Act (we’ve talked about this a lot, WWE).

Actually, Zbyszko did not just launch a lawsuit. He tried to play fair with the WWE. From an interview conducted with George Papoulias in January 2003:

[George:] What’s the story behind your beef with Vince McMahon. We all know on the WWA tour last year, you shot a pretty riveting promo on him. What’s the beef between you and him?

Well, basically I have no beef on a personal level. I mean I’ve never worked for Vince or the WWF in 22 years. And I never badmouthed him, it was just business, I did mine and he did his. Then one day all of a sudden, Chris Jericho is using my trademark. And then I found out about it, called some acquaintances in Vince’s upper echelon and said “hey man, you’re taking my trademark here, my phone is ringing [off] the hook, people think I’m coming there to wrestle Jericho.” Then I said “I’m not getting upset about it, but being the business man I am, if you guys are going to take it, then maybe we can do some business.” And to make a long story short, their attorneys contacted me and tried to con me into signing a release. They told me that they took it, they’re going to use it and I’m not to interfere. So, they basically drew first blood by taking my trademark, which made no sense for Jericho anyway. WWE refused to stop using it; they ignored a cease and desist, and basically told me to go to hell. Well, I worked too hard for that, I can’t go to hell and so here we are now with three federal lawsuits.

[George:] What’s the latest by the way, on the lawsuit that you filed against the WWE?

Well, it was filed last April, so it’s been close to about ten months. Some depositions have started. I did a deposition and I believe yesterday my attorneys were in Connecticut deposing Vince, so I’m sure he really likes me now (laughing). It’s just too bad, they’re kind of a monopoly and they think they can do what they want. There’s nowhere else to go and they think the boys are just going to be run over. So you got to fight for what you work for, otherwise it’s not going to work in your life.

[George:] Before these lawsuits were filed, would you have ever considered working a program with Chris Jericho in the WWE?

Well, it was one of the first things that entered my mind. I mean if they’re using my name, then it would be a natural. But, it was half emotional, I’m trying to keep business as business, but at the same time when you work for something so long and after promoting myself as the living legend for 22 years, it’s a stab in the back when they take it. I mean why couldn’t they call him “Macho Man” Chris Jericho, “Hot Rod” Chris Jericho or “Undertaker 2” Chris Jericho? They just figured, “what’s Zbyszko going to do to our corporation, screw him.”

So you see, Larry tried to be the reasonable one and just do business as he’s always done, but it was Vince and the WWE who wanted to just push the buttons because they can.

But you’ll probably notice that nobody in the WWE is calling themselves the “Living Legend” today. Huh?

And what has he done with that trademark?

Now, Larry is the Living Legend as the Director of Authority for TNA. But he is also making major strides in a new career — Professional Golf. From Wikipedia:

Zbyszko is an excellent golfer (his handicap is zero), and has tried to build a second athletic career in the sport. As such he has competed in Hooters Senior Series events and has attempted to qualify for individual Champions Tour events. He also intends to enter the Champions Tour Q School to gain full membership in that Tour.

And from an interview with Scott Brown in Florida Today in June 2005:

Zbyszko, who lives about 20 miles north of St. Augustine, is 6-feet, 240 pounds and said he regularly hits his tee shots between 270 and 280 yards. The biggest adjustment he has had to make as a touring pro involves the mental part of the game.

It’s a measure of the fame he earned as a professional wrestler that Zbyszko signed more than just scorecards while playing on the Hooters Senior Series.

When some fellow competitors realized he was the Larry Zbyszko, word quickly spread that the guy who once wrestled in a sold-out Shea Stadium was playing on their rather anonymous golf tour.

He was asked to sign his share of autographs, though requests were usually prefaced or followed with “for a buddy.”

You see, Larry is not just bragging when he is talking about his golf game. He is a good golfer who is trying to improve his game on the professional circuit. On the same end, he is not forgetting what made him famous. There are some that would try to downplay their connection to professional wrestling (see: Rock, The), but Larry just takes it in stride. It has been his life for over thirty years, so why would he not acknowledge his wrestling credentials while out on the greens?

And since when is pursuing a new career a crime? Larry has found something else he is good at and is working hard to better himself for it. If at 52 he wants to have a second career, how can we think to stop him?

It is not like wrestling is his whole life anyway. From Wikipedia:

In addition to being a proficient golfer, Zbyszko is a licensed pilot. He holds a black belt in Judo, and is trained in the usage of nunchaku.

So you see, Larry has many interests outside of wrestling that he can follow, but none compare to everything he has given to the industry.

The legendary wrap-up

Larry Zbyszko truly is the Living Legend. Aside from being in one of the 50 Greatest Tag Teams of All Time, he has had a long and illustrious career. His accomplishments in creative angles seen for the first time, selling out arenas around the world, winning championships, and always putting business first should forever legitimize him as one of the best. Yet, he is often overlooked because he is not the loudest, he is not the most revered, and often puts others above himself. His fame came at a time that most modern wrestling fans do not remember, and his misadventures have been blown out of proportion.

If we are to remember Larry Zbyszko, it should be for everything he has done, for the trails he has blazed, and for the money he has made. Let us not brush Larry Zbyszko aside, and instead prepare one day for his place in the Hall of Fame.

The defense rests.

After the Trial

Hung Jury

IN THE CASE OF THE IWC VS. LARRY ZBYSZKO, ZBYSZKO HAS BEEN ACCUSSED OF HAVING AN OVERINFLATED SENSE OF WORTH AND DID NOT MEAN MUCH IN THE HISTORY OF PROFESSIONAL WRESTLING.

And with 86.1% of the vote, Larry Zbyszko was found:

NOT GUILTY!

OK, so I definitely was expecting to win this one with little problem. And as expected, voter turnout was lower than normal. I know that Zbyszko isn’t a topic that everyone is interested in, but he was definitely worth defending. If I just enlightened a few people to what Zbyszko has done for our industry, then it was completely worth it. And judging by the e-mails I did just that.

There was another reason I wanted to defend Zbyszko now. I have touched on this elsewhere, but what we are taking about is pacing. You bring the crowd down with a less heat-generating match right before the big matches so that the big matches have even more heat. Well, that’s what I did here. As you can tell by the next chapter, we are stepping it up!

Response

This really being more of a history lesson, most people were just happy to learn something about a topic they were unfamiliar with. However, some people were around for the original run:

I am an old school guy. I grew up in the day of kayfab, and [I] must say that I have [gotten] real sick of all the bashing that [goes] on with the whole IWC. I came up in [an] odd way. My mom used to date one of the ring guys that worked for [C]rocket, so I grew up running around backstage (bugging the boys I am sure)[.] I went to the tv tapings in [downtown] [H]igh [P]oint. Hell I was there for [Flair’s] first title win. Anyway I did not mean to get off track. I just wanted to say thank you for doing some positive [writing].

Michael Roach

Even people who voted “not guilty” were not entirely happy with our defendant, especially in light of what we just established with Scott Hall:

I feel that you do need to hold Larry accountable for one inexcusable breach of announcer etiquette. During the WCW v nWo feud, fringe member Louie Spicolli sadly passed away. When something like this happens, it’s appropriate to take a moment to remember the man, not what side of the face/heel fence he’s on. I distinctly recall the Nitro after the passing, when Tony made mention of it, and passed it over to Larry, who could have simply said that he’d be missed. But instead, he made some smart-ass comment about how “I really want to say what I think about him, but out of respect for the family, I won’t”

Come on man! The guy just died, maybe you could drop the storyline for just a second?

Matt Simon

This I could not refute:

I vaguely recall the comment you are talking about. I think part of that, too, was Spicolli had some drug and behavioral problems and Larry really did not have anything nice to say about him. I agree, though, that in cases like that, you just have to keep your mouth shut or send your condolences to the family. Even if you don’t like someone, you have to remember that someone out there does care about them.

The original version of this article appeared on 411mania.com and can be found on jpprag.com:

Part 1 — January 25, 2006 * Part 2 — Februrary 1, 2006

IN DEFENSE OF… EXONERATING PROFESSIONAL WRESTLING’S MOST HATED

IN DEFENSE OF…

EXONERATING PROFESSIONAL WRESTLING’S MOST HATED

On Sale now at the following locations:

Read the FREE PREVIEW!

Stay up to date with more from J.P. Prag!

Over 15 years as a consultant, solutions architect, and trusted partner for some of the largest organizations in the world. Learn more at https://www.jpprag.com

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store