Bruno Sammartino and Larry Zbyszko: A Heel Turn For the Ages

Sammartino and Zbyszko. Teacher and protégé. When Larry Zbyszko unexpectedly turned his back on his mentor, it brought Bruno Sammartino out of retirement and incited one of the greatest rivalries and heel turns in wrestling history!

The heel turn and chair shots heard 'round the world! Fans were stunned by Larry Zbyszko and his merciless treatment of his mentor and friend, Bruno Sammartino, in 1980.
The heel turn and chair shots heard ’round the world! Fans were stunned by Larry Zbyszko and his merciless treatment of his mentor and friend, Bruno Sammartino, in 1980.

“Bruno Sammartino and Larry Zbyszko became undoubtedly the most bitter feud of all time in pro wrestling.” – Vince McMahon.

When you tune into Raw, SmackDown, or any of the many other pro wrestling shows available today, heel turns (when the good guy becomes a bad guy) are not uncommon, nor are they necessarily a surprise anymore for the viewers who are now mostly smartened to the ways of the business or have beforehand learned the results of said show.

When talking about famous heel turns, fans often mention when Paul Orndorff turned his back on Hulk Hogan in a match where they were partners against King Kong Bundy and Big John Studd. Orndorff practically clotheslined him out of his boots and nearly piledrove him through the mat. The Hulkster seemed legitimately injured as he lay there, twitching his legs in front of a stunned crowd in 1986.

Fans may also think back to Sgt. Slaughter, the ever-present patriot and defender of the red, white, and blue, shockingly became an Iraqi sympathizer in 1990, right when the Gulf War was in full effect. He was so hated that he and his family received death threats after this change of allegiance. There were security concerns at every venue he was scheduled to attend.

The "Real American" Hulk Hogan eventually disposed of the traitor. Slaughter pleaded to be accepted once again by the fans a year later before his retirement in 1992.

What about The Rockers, comprised of Marty Jannetty and Shawn Michaels, where "The Show Stopper" decided that he’d be better as a singles competitor and gave Jannetty a dose of some "Sweet Chin Music" with his superkick? Or "Stone Cold" Steve Austin’s unfortunate turn at WrestleMania XVII when he joined his hated boss Vince McMahon against The Rock.

You can even look at André the Giant ripping Hogan’s shirt and the cross he wore around his neck, leading to their epic clash at the record-setting WrestleMania III, or when Hogan went "Hollywood" causing the creation of the nWo. This moment was instrumental in WCW’s domination of the cable ratings for 83 straight weeks during the Monday Night Wars.

These are all prime examples of memorable heel turns that stick out in the minds of many wrestling fans.

Although forgotten or unheard of by many, the young protégé Larry Zbyszko turning on his mentor and friend Bruno Sammartino still serves as the measuring stick for all turns that came afterward.

The student turning on the teacher led to a series of grudge matches and finally to the "Showdown at Shea" in front of more than 36,000 fans who wanted to see Sammartino finally get his revenge against the ungrateful Zbyszko inside of a cage.

This event was stacked with talent, including a match between Andre and Hogan and The Samoans defending their WWF tag belts against Pedro Morales and Bob Backlund. But Bruno Sammartino and Larry Zbyszko in a steel cage to settle their intense feud was the headliner.

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A little background

Bruno Sammartino’s last run as champion with the WWWF lasted approximately three years and four months until dropping the belt to "Superstar" Billy Graham in April of 1977.

After this, injuries and the neck fracture he suffered at the hands of Stan Hansen the previous year greatly influenced his decision to take on a much lighter schedule.

This led him to pick and choose a variety of opponents around the world and in different territories, such as Harley Race, Ray Stevens, and Lord Alfred Hayes. But, without the grueling schedule, he maintained the previous fourteen years, including his two lengthy championship runs comprising eleven of them.

While this occurred, his former student and protégé Larry Zbyszko, who Sammartino had brought in, debuted in 1973 as a babyface in Pittsburgh. He had convinced Bruno to train him around 1971 after he began stalking Sammartino’s house. Bruno took him under his wing only if Larry attended college and got a degree first.

Zbyszko had a quick start and, in 1974, was voted "Rookie of the Year" by Pro Wrestling Illustrated. Doors opened because of Bruno’s political clout in wrestling, and thus Larry did not have to go through the usual gauntlet of hardships most rookies endured during their first years.

In later promos, Larry Zbyszko seems to conveniently forget the advantages he experienced as Sammartino’s real protégé.

On the other hand, Bruno seems not to have forgotten. In turn, his promos are delivered from the standpoint of an upset teacher knowing his student has been ungrateful, leaving him no choice but to have to teach Zbyszko a lesson in humility.

With his feud versus Bruno Sammartino, a young Larry Zbyszko would reach heights of infamy few had attained before, and displeased the fans with his newfound uncaring aloofness towards them.
With his feud with Bruno Sammartino, a young Larry Zbyszko would reach heights of infamy few had attained before and displeased the fans with his newfound uncaring aloofness towards them.

After a brief stint in California, Larry Zbyszko returned to the WWWF in 1976, where he won the Tag Team Championship with his partner Tony Garea.

The reign lasted four months until they were defeated by the great team of the Valiant Brothers ("Handsome" Jimmy and "Luscious" Johnny). Afterward, Zbyszko feuded with Killer Kowalski, Bugsy McGraw, and Baron Mikel Scicluna, to name a few.

Even with this success and establishing himself as a respectable babyface, Zbyszko could never entirely escape the shadow his mentor Sammartino had inadvertently cast over him. It was a shadow cast by one of the greatest legends the sport has ever had.

In late 1979 and early 1980, Bruno Sammartino transitioned to a color commentator/interviewer role and retired as a wrestler.

Zbyszko says that even seven years after his debut, he still had some people struggling to remember his name and was often referred to as "Bruno’s kid" or his protégé.

He believed that Sammartino still had another good run in him and knew that Bruno could still be a huge draw. Whoever persuaded him to return to the ring could make much money if everything was handled correctly.

The McMahons were leery about how much Larry Zbyszko could draw as a heel because of his lack of size but placed trust in that a Bruno comeback could still attract the fans to the shows. So, they allowed him the freedom to book the matches they would have.

Rumors began swirling around that the newly named WWF and their territory were in a slump. Some also point to Bob Backlund not generating the fan interest Sammartino once had during his runs, and Bruno getting back in the ring could be a welcome financial windfall.

"Bruno knew wrestling psychology,” Larry Zbyszko recalls on Sammartino’s booking virtues in an interview with the Miami Herald.

“He ran the whole top programming of WWWF for almost 20 years. He was smart enough to keep himself alive for 20 years and sellout Madison Square Garden every card. No one could ever do that. Not only did I learn, but I also had an opportunity to make myself a name and become a star. Because of what I learned from him, I came up with an idea to pull off a big thing."

In recalling Sammartino not getting along with the McMahons, Zbyszko said, "I was a young guy. I got caught up between Bruno, the biggest star, and the McMahons, the biggest promoters. And Bruno couldn’t stand the McMahons.

“They were the typical promoters trying to get everybody to do everything for nothing. It was an interesting time in the business before contracts came out. It was a wild adventure for a young guy to be caught in the middle of that and pull off the biggest thing wrestling had ever seen before."

Bruno Sammartino and Larry Zbyszko: The Heel Turn Nobody Saw Coming

Larry Zbyszko and Bruno Sammartino would have the fans coming out in droves to watch their grudge matches, leading to the "Showdown at Shea." [Photo courtesy of Pro Wrestling Illustrated]
The feud started to simmer until reaching a boil when Zbyszko avoided answering Sammartino’s questions during an interview attempt on television. He then admitted that he was frustrated at being seen only as Bruno’s protégé and challenged his mentor to a TV match. He claimed this was the only way to escape under his shadow. Bruno refused the challenge and was worried that such a match might hurt their friendship.

Weeks later, Zbyszko persisted and said that he would not stay in the business if he had to remain a shadow and would stop wrestling altogether if he didn’t have the chance to prove himself.

Vince McMahon was conducting the interview and called Bruno to join them to clarify his position in all of this. Bruno said that even though his heart was not into it, he’d allow Zbyszko to prove himself because that’s what he wanted. Sammartino emphasized that he would not be going in there to hurt Larry, but he wouldn’t be giving him anything, either. His student would have to prove himself.

Watch Bruno Sammartino agree to face his protégé, Larry Zbyszko:

YouTube video

The exhibition started and provided the fans with good wrestling maneuvers and counters, but we would soon see Zbyszko shock the fans with a heel turn for the ages. After several shots to the head with a wooden chair, Zbyszko’s former mentor soaked the ring with his blood and needed to be carried out on a stretcher.

When the match was replayed later, Bruno and Vince McMahon did the commentary, with Vince saying that it was not for those with a weak stomach or with children around. It became, in Vince’s words, "Undoubtedly the most bitter feud of all time in pro wrestling."

Bruno repeatedly said on commentary that he was not trying to beat Zbyszko but merely counter his moves.

According to the book The Heels by Greg Oliver and Steven Johnson, Bruno told Pro Wrestling Radio, “I got mad because what a lot of people don’t know is, he really clobbered me with that chair. I mean, he hit me so damn hard that I was really bleeding badly. I lost a lot of respect… I just had a completely different feeling about Larry after that."

In 1980, it wasn’t so common to see someone get hit by a chair; when they got hit, they often didn’t get up. Nowadays, chair shots go on all the time and are pretty tame by today’s standards, almost like a normal prop during matches.

Watch the heel turn where Larry Zbyszko leaves Bruno Sammartino bloody and beaten:

YouTube video


"Larry Zbysko is a creep of Shakespearean proportions, eyes darting behind that handsome face, wheels turning, creepiness oozing from his every action. He would do anything to succeed. He would sell his mother swampland in Florida. He would steal the March of Dimes canister from the neighborhood variety store counter. He would kiss and tell. He is not just a creep. He is a real creep."

– Leigh Montville of the Boston Globe offers his opinion of Larry Zbyszko


The feud spun yarn so compelling to the fans that the next several months saw venues in Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and New York sold out but without a clear-cut winner to the feud, all ending in some form of disqualification.

“As much as people loved Bruno, they really hated me,” admitted Zbyszko. “It was an emotion fans don’t have today because of how wrestling is presented. They really don’t love you or hate you. They like to watch you fall through a table." He also adds that he was stabbed once at a show in Albany, New York, and his car was overturned following a match in Boston.

Sammartino was usually direct and remained even-tempered in his interviews. But during this feud, we can witness some of his angriest promos leading up to a match between the two at Madison Square Garden. In Zbyszko’s case, we can observe him becoming really comfortable with his heel persona and beginning to evolve into the obnoxious rulebreaker that fans grew to hate.

BRUNO SAMMARTINO:

"I’ve created a Frankenstein, and I’m going to destroy that Frankenstein I created. You climbed that mountain using me, the guy who poured his heart out to you. Larry, you’re going to make the biggest splash when you fly off that mountain and hit the bottom. You’re going to make such a big splash that there won’t even be a spot left of you. No one will even remember that such an idiot like Larry Zbyszko existed!" – Bruno Sammartino.

LARRY ZBYSZKO:

"I don’t know if I can go through another three minutes of Bruno crying to his fans over how bitter he is. What does he have to be bitter about? He came on TV and tried to embarrass me, and it didn’t work. Well, I want to confess to everybody: I have never felt so happy and free in my entire life.

I took myself, by myself, out of that ridiculous little box of a shadow Bruno put me in for the last eight years, and I broke it myself and raised it myself above everybody. Now Larry Zybyszko is on the front page everywhere, and the only thing I lost was the support of Bruno Sammartino, you fans, maybe you (Vince), and some of the wrestlers. And you know what? It doesn’t matter!"

The above quotes were taken from the video below.

Watch the Bruno Sammartino and Larry Zbyszko promos leading up to their encounter at MSG:

YouTube video

The rivalry ended at the "Showdown at Shea" in a much-anticipated cage match that saw Bruno Sammartino finally defeating his backstabbing Judas of a protégé by escaping the cage that surrounded the ring. Zbyszko, though battered and beaten, was not pinned by his teacher. Bruno’s final lesson to his student was: Put over your opponent whenever possible if it will help the business.

By not pinning him, Larry Zbyszko would retain his heat with the fans by always being able to claim that he never got pinned. And thanks to Bruno’s deed, Larry staved off any possible injury at the hands of the fans on his way back to the dressing room, at least for one night.

Recommended read: Too Much Heat: The Night Blackjack Mulligan was Nearly Murdered in the Ring.

After Bruno left the cage victorious, Zbyszko confronted him and got punched twice in the face by Sammartino. Larry, always playing mind games, didn’t punch back. Instead, he raised his mentor’s arm in victory.

The match at Shea Stadium, pitting these two embittered rivals, was voted Pro Wrestling Illustrated’s Match of the Year in 1980.

Watch the conclusion of the Bruno Sammartino and Larry Zbyszko rivalry inside a steel cage at Shea Stadium:

The best rivalries are grounded in reality. Larry Zbyszko was indeed obscured in the eyes of the fans by Bruno Sammartino’s large shadow. He needed to find a way out (in reality and kayfabe). In the process, he secured his legacy in pro wrestling by participating in one of the most intense and profitable rivalries of all time while giving the fans one of the most unexpected heel turns we ever had the displeasure of seeing.

Compared to many of his peers, Zbyszko led a quiet life and was not known as someone to party or drink often. His high was when he got booed; it’s a natural high. "It’s a feeling you can’t explain,” Zbyszko admits in the highly recommended book The Heels. “It’s an addictive feeling that no drug could produce."

He continues, "In the old school where I came from, more people believed. No matter what people thought of wrestling, they believed Larry Zbyszko was a real asshole in real life."

You can see pictures of the official program sold at the "Showdown at Shea" here.

Listen to author Javier Ojst dive further into the Larry Zbyszko and Bruno Sammartino feud on The Outdated Wrestling Hour podcast with former Pro Wrestling Illustrated managing editor Bob Smith:

Something special: Larry Zbyszko (in a throwback to his obnoxious, arrogant self circa 2005) challenges Bruno Sammartino:

YouTube video

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https://popcultureretrorama.wordpress.com/author/javierojst/

Javier Ojst is an old-school wrestling enthusiast currently residing in El Salvador. He's been a frequent guest on several podcasts and has a few bylines on TheLogBook.com, where he shares stories of pop culture and retro-related awesomeness. He has also been published on Slam Wrestling and in G-FAN Magazine.