Beginning with his stellar amateur wrestling career that led him to collegiate powerhouse Penn State University, the “Living Legend” Larry Zbyszko has journeyed over 30 years as one of the most controversial and sometimes hated figures in professional wrestling.
Zbyszko’s pro wrestling career began in 1972 in a small promotion in California. He won Pro Wrestling Illustrated magazine’s Rookie of the Year Award in 1973 and not long after he was discovered by a talent scout for the World Wide Wrestling Federation. In 1975 Zbyszko debuted in the WWWF (now WWE).
In 1976, Zbyszko and Tony Garea teamed together and briefly held the WWWF World Tag Team Titles. Zbyszko then became protégé to the original "Living Legend" Bruno Sammartino. Sammartino, a two-time WWWF Champion, is also a Pittsburgh native and was a natural mentor for Zbyszko. The two teamed together regularly.
1980 turned out to be a breakthrough year for Zbyszko. The year began with Zbyszko and Sammartino as allies. Zbyszko then challenged Bruno to a "scientific" match on WWWF TV. The result is one of the most talked about events in pro wrestling history.
Zbyszko lost his temper during the match and nailed Bruno with a wooden chair, badly bloodying his face and forcing him to be carried from the ring on a stretcher. A huge feud resulted from this event, culminating in the famous August 1980 showdown at Shea Stadium, in which Sammartino defeated Zbyszko in a steel cage.
When he raised Bruno's hand after the Shea Stadium cage match, many thought Zbyszko had changed. Fans seemed to believe that this new “respect for Bruno” may lead Zbyszko right to the WWWF Title. Instead though, Zbyszko began to claim that he "retired Bruno" (Sammartino retired in late 1980) and consequently cemented his status as one of the most hated men in the sport.
Zbyszko moved to the Georgia area in 1982, where he continued to be one of wrestling’s most notorious rule-breakers. He also regularly doubled as a color commentator alongside Gordon Solie, establishing himself as one of Georgia Championship Wrestling's top draws.
Zbyszko attempted to actually buy the National Heavyweight title from Killer Brooks for $25,000 in April 1983. He was immediately stripped of the title, but then won the tournament for the vacant belt, defeating Mr. Wrestling II in the finals. Mr. Wrestling II and Zbyszko had a heated feud for the title before Zbyszko finally lost the belt to Brett Wayne and left the Georgia area.
Zbyszko's career really took off in 1984, when he debuted in the American Wrestling Association. He immediately aligned himself with former champion Nick Bockwinkel, and challenged current champion Rick Martel several times for the AWA World Title. In 1985, Zbyszko won and lost the Americas title. He then committed another infamous act in at tag team match against Greg Gagne. First, Zbyszko would knock out Gagne with brass knuckles, forcing him to be carried out. Then, Zbyszko knocked out his own partner Bockwinkel, beginning another longtime feud.
During this time Zbyszko continued to tell everyone that he “retired Bruno” and would call the fans "Spudheads." He never failed to mention his "glorious years" in professional wrestling and always said he’d take his opponents to "Larry-Land." He would go on and on about how he wanted to be the "Heavyweight Champion of the World" to a chorus of boos. Fans loved to hate Zbyszko.
In 1987, Zbyszko was again involved in a heated situation. Curt Henning (later known as Mr. Perfect) challenged then champion Bockwinkel for the AWA World Title in San Francisco on May 2, 1987. During the match Zbyszko walked to ringside and appeared to hand Henning something. Henning knocked out Bockwinkel with one punch, pinned Bockwinkel, and won the World Title. Ray Stevens, who was Bockwinkel's longtime partner, came out and shook Larry's jacket, causing a roll of coins to fall out. Zbyszko denied any involvement, and Henning's title win stood. This was one of the most controversial title changes in history, all courtesy of Zbyszko.
In 1988, Zbyszko appeared in the NWA, and quickly won the Western States Heritage Title from Barry Windham. Zbyszko would be the last man to hold that title as it was retired later that year. Zbyszko then started a brief feud with Dusty Rhodes, when his valet (who was formerly Rhodes’ valet) Baby Doll began showing some incriminating photos of Dusty, attempting to blackmail him into giving Zbyszko a U.S. title shot.
In early 1989 Zbyszko returned to the AWA, just in time for a battle royal for the AWA World Title, which had been vacated by Jerry Lawler. The battle royal featured such wrestlers as Sgt. Slaughter, Col. Debeers, Chief Wahoo McDaniel, Pat Tanaka, Paul Diamond and Greg Gagne. In the end Zbyszko would eliminate Tom Zenk to win the battle royal, and at long last, become the AWA World Heavyweight Champion. Zbyszko held the belt for a year, defending it against the likes of McDaniel, Zenk, Tully Blanchard, Nikita Koloff, Sgt. Slaughter, and others. Then, while on a tour of Japan in February of 1990, Zbyszko was upset by former tag team partner Masa Saito. In April though, Zbyszko regained the belt, and became a multi-time AWA World Heavyweight Champion, a feat accomplished by only four other men.
Zbyszko would never lose his World Title because the AWA sadly folded in December of 1990. Zbyszko signed with WCW, and wrestled off-and-on for a few months, before finally deciding to wrestle full-time in 1991.
In WCW Zbyszko formed a successful tag team with Arn Anderson and together they called themselves the Enforcers. The Enforcers won a tournament for the WCW World Tag Team Titles, and were voted the 1991 Tag Team of the Year by Pro Wrestling Illustrated magazine. Zbyszko and Anderson also became charter members of manager Paul E. Dangerously's stable “The Dangerous Alliance.”
At Clash of the Champions XVII, the Enforcers were scheduled to defend the tag belts in a match against the duo of Barry Windham & Dustin Rhodes. Prior to the match, Anderson & Zbyszko slammed Windham's hand in the car door, breaking it, and forcing him out of the match (this incident earned Zbyszko the nickname “The Cruncher”). Windham’s replacement in the tag match was Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat, and Rhodes & Steamboat upset The Enforcers to win the titles. Dangerously broke up the Enforcers, and teamed Anderson with Bobby Eaton, much to Zbyszko's chagrin. Eventually this led to a brawl between Zbyszko and fellow Dangerous Alliance members (Anderson, Eaton, Rick Rude, & Steve Austin – as in Stone Cold Steve Austin) and turned Zbyszko into a fan favorite for the first time in 12 years.
Zbyszko would ultimately fade from active competition and take his place as a broadcaster for WCW. He did however make a brief comeback, after taking exception to Steven Regal's derogatory comments. Zbyszko returned to the squared circle and defeated Regal to capture the WCW TV Title in 1994. After losing the title back to Regal, Zbyszko returned to the announce booth. He continued to lend his expertise as color commentator until WCW was purchased by the WWE.
Ironically, one of the greatest rule-breakers of all-time is now regarded as one of the most well-respected competitors to ever step into a ring. Zbyszko’s legacy is that of a cunning grappler whose scientific style and arrogant honesty earned him a place in the Hall of Fame as a true legend in the sport of Professional Wrestling. Now the “Living Legend’ Larry Zbyszko returns home to Pittsburgh, PA for Pgh Pro Wrestling’s Rumble in the Rox 2! Saturday, March 27 at the SJG Gymnasium in McKees Rocks will truly be a night of legendary proportions!