Thursday, June 25, 2009

Larry Zbyszko

Larry Whistler trained under Bruno Sammartino and debuted in 1973 as the babyface "Larry Zbyszko", with his name a tribute to 1920s Polish American wrestler Stanislaus Zbyszko. He initially wrestled in the Pittsburgh area, appearing on the local wrestling program Studio Wrestling, before receiving bookings in Vancouver. He spent three years in the World Wide Wrestling Federation before travelling to California in 1975.

Zbyszko was one of the attractions in the 1976 Latin America Wrestling Alliance World Heavyweight championship, held in Guatemala City, under Jose Azzari promotions. Three days after the end of the tournament (Mil Máscaras won the title, defeating Jose Azzari in the final), an earthquake destroyed much of that Central American nation. Zbyszko returned to the WWWF in 1976 and formed a tag team with Tony Garea, with whom he won the WWWF World Tag Team Championships on November 21, 1978 in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Their reign lasted until March 6, 1979, when they were defeated by the Valiant brothers in Allentown.

Zbyszko feuded with Bugsy McGraw, Abdullah the Butcher and "Superstar" Billy Graham in addition to wrestling Killer Kowalski and Baron Mikel Scicluna. In 1978 he summarized his mat-based ringwork with the statement, "I just believe in science over brawn". At the end of the decade, 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. So despised was Zbyszko by partisan Sammartino fans in the northeast that his car was repeatedly damaged and taxis in which he was travelling were overturned by fans. Zbyszko was struck with an iron pole following a match with Ivan Putski,and was stabbed in the buttock following a match with Pedro Morales in the Washington Avenue Armory in Albany, New York.

After turning against Sammartino, Zbyszko was approached by the WWWF's "Unholy Trio" of managers (Fred Blassie, The Grand Wizard, and "Captain" Lou Albano), but he decided to continue wrestling without a manager. Sammartino and Zbyszko fought one another repeatedly in a lengthy feud that stretched throughout 1980. In the course of the feud, Zbyszko began referring to himself as "The New Living Legend" (a reference to Sammartino, who was often addressed as "The Living Legend"). The feud culminated in a steel cage match at Showdown at Shea at Shea Stadium in Flushing, New York on August 9, 1980 that saw Sammartino defeat Zbyszko in front of an audience of 36,295.

I watched this match a couple of nites ago, and let me say it holds up well. The tension is great, and it tells a good story. After the match Zbyszko even raises Sammartino's hand, something I'd never seen reported in any articles I'd seen.
It is interesting to note, that after losing to Sammatino, Zbyskzo still spent the next 30 years referring to himself as the man who retired Bruno ( even tho he was still wrestling at least 5 years later ), and a "Living Legend". Still, I may be in the minority, but I always liked the "cruncher".

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