Sammartino and Zbyszko. Teacher and protégé. When Zbyszko unexpectedly turned his back on his mentor, it brought Bruno out of retirement and incited one of the greatest rivalries and heel turns in wrestling history.
“It 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, who 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 to 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, a moment that 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 Sammartino and Zbyszko in a steel cage to settle their intense feud was the headliner.
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 14 years, which included his two lengthy championship runs comprising 11 of those years.
While this was occurring, his former student and protégé Larry Zbyszko, who had been brought in by Sammartino, debuted in 1973 as a babyface in the Pittsburgh area. He had convinced Bruno to train him around 1971 after he began stalking Sammartino’s house. Bruno took him under his wing with the agreement that Larry go to college and get 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, 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.
After a brief stint in California, 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 quite 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 was transitioning to a color commentator/interviewer role and was retired as a wrestler. Zbyszko says even seven years after his debut, he still had some people having a hard time even remembering 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 get back in the ring could stand to make a lot of money if everything was handled the right way. The McMahons were leery about how much 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 handle the booking of the matches they were going to have.
Rumors began swirling around that the newly named WWF and their territory was 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 very 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, who would try 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."
Sammartino and Zbyszko – A heel turn for the ages
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 that he could finally get out from 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 that if he didn’t have the chance to prove himself, he would stop wrestling altogether.
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 agrees to face his protégé, Larry Zbyszko
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 ended up soaking 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 bad. 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, and 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 Zbyszko leaves Sammartino bloody and beaten!
"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 the way wrestling is presented. They really don’t love you or hate you. They just 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 starting to become really comfortable with his heel persona and begin to evolve into the obnoxious rulebreaker that fans grew to hate.
"I’ve created a Frankenstein, and I’m going to destroy that Frankenstein I created. You climbed that mountain by using me, the guy that 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 gonna make such a big splash there won’t even be a spot left of ya. No one will even remember that such an idiot like Larry Zbyszko existed!" – Bruno Sammartino.
"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 tried to embarrass me, and it didn’t work. Well, I want to confess to everybody: I have never felt so happy and more 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 8 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 that 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: Bruno Sammartino and Larry Zbyszko promos leading up to their encounter at MSG
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. This was Bruno’s final lesson to his student: Put over your opponent whenever you can if it will help the business.
By not pinning him, 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 Sammartino and Zbyszko rivalry inside a steel cage at Shea Stadium!
The best rivalries are grounded in reality. 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 was able to secure his legacy in pro wrestling by taking part 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.
WATCH: Something special- Zbyszko (in a throwback to his obnoxious, arrogant self circa 2005) challenges Sammartino
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