Q&A with Larry Zbyszko
Larry Zbyszko has been a world champion, the Rookie of the Year and a popular color commentator during a career in professional wrestling that has spanned four decades. He always will be most known, however, as the man who turned on Bruno Sammartino. Those who were around in 1980 when Zbyszko betrayed his mentor still talk about it as one of wrestling’s greatest angles and hottest feuds.
Zbyszko goes into detail about his career-making angle with wrestling’s “Living Legend” – including the intrigue that went on behind the scenes – as well as other experiences that he has had in the business in his recently released autobiography, Adventures in Larryland.
I spoke with Zbyszko about the book and other topics last week:
You reveal in your book that you came up with the idea of turning on Bruno and you pitched it to him. You had been in the business about six years at that point. If he hadn’t agreed to the angle, how do you think your career would have turned out?
You know, that’s a good question. If that angle didn’t happen back in those days, with the way the politics were – the McMahons were into big giant ugly guys plus other weird things, and I was never a butt-kisser – I don’t even know if I would have been in the wrestling business much longer. That made my career and it was easy after that. But if it wasn’t for that, who knows? I might have been a pro golfer.
Since Bruno broke you into the business and took you under his wing, was it difficult to play his antagonist when the time came?
It wasn’t all that difficult. I was a sharp guy. Like I said in the book, I kept my mouth shut and my ears open in those days. Bruno taught me a lot, and not only Bruno, but all the slick, old pros like [Chief Jay] Strongbow and [Gorilla] Monsoon. And by the time I saw this possibility in 1980, I was in the business five-six years or whatever, so I was pretty well-groomed by then and I was kind of ready for it.
Do you still keep in touch with Bruno?
Over the years things have kind of softened up and I talk to him once in a while. It was kind of emotional for years, but it worked out good. He’s a hell of a guy. He’s still my hero.
Was there ever any real-life heat between the two of you?
No, there wasn’t any real-life heat, but there were some years where we didn’t talk. It really wasn’t heat between me and Bruno; I think it was just more of a time when Bruno got very frustrated with the whole wrestling business and the direction it was going. But time kind of takes care of all that stuff.
When you wrestled Bruno at Shea Stadium, you said in the book that the two of you barely got a chance to speak to each other before the match. Was that a situation in which you knew the finish and then called the match in the ring? If so, is that kind of a lost art form today?
Back then you rarely if ever saw your opponent, because normally when you went to buildings, they had two separate dressing rooms – it was a very secretive kind of thing. Even in the Shea Stadium days, it was two separate dugouts. Plus, Bruno was such a big star, and the McMahons and the newspapers and everybody were so busy kissing his butt that I didn’t even see the guy. But it was different back then. Everything was just kind of done ad-lib in the ring.
Right, whereas now you’ll see guys in the back scripting their matches move for move.
It’s ridiculous. They go over a 20-minute for two hours (laughs). It’s because they can’t get any drama. It is a lost art.
In Hulk Hogan’s autobiography, he claims the reason for the big crowd at Shea Stadium in 1980 was his match against Andre The Giant, not your cage match against Bruno. Those of us who are old enough certainly don’t remember it that way. What are your thoughts on what Hogan said?
I don’t like to knock anybody, but I think the world, after what’s been happening lately, has found out Hulk Hogan’s true colors. He’s buried himself. Here’s an idiot who is trying to get a reality show based on the fact that his kid paralyzed somebody. Hogan is just not a good guy and I’m glad the world finally got to see it. No. 1, I doubt seriously that Hogan even wrote the book. It’s probably one of [Vince] McMahon’s ghost-written publications, so who knows if Hogan even said that or if it was more McMahon propaganda. But if Hogan did say it, he’s full of crap.
Anybody that knows anything about it knows back in those days, before Hogan became Hogan and broke out because he was so big and gassed up to the gills on steroids and got some movies roles, he was just Andre The Giant’s jabroni. He was on the third or fourth match with Andre, and Andre beat the snot out of him. Hogan used to follow me around the Garden crying, asking me for advice, because even though the McMahons hated me for holding them up [for 10 percent of the gross ticket sales during a dispute with Vince McMahon Sr. in 1980], I was kind of a hero to the boys.
You were the only WWWF heel during that time who didn’t have one of the big three (Lou Albano, Fred Blassie and The Grand Wizard) as a manager. Was that your call not to have a manager?
I didn’t go into the manager thing at the time because I really didn’t need one for what we pulled off. It wouldn’t have made all that much sense and it wasn’t necessary. If I would have stayed in the WWWF, then I probably would have wound up with one of them. But the way everything worked out with the McMahons, I didn’t stay there and I never went back.
When Vince McMahon Jr. started going national in the mid-1980s, I always wondered why you never returned. Do you attribute you’re not being invited back to when you held up the McMahons in 1980?
It was a combination of a couple things. They might have held a little bit of a grudge, because it got pretty personal at the time with [Vince McMahon] Junior crying on the phone – even though that was a ploy of promoters, the way they do things. But in the early ’80s right after that, which was kind of the time the old school went away and new things were happening, McMahon Jr. took over when his dad died. I wasn’t Junior’s cup of tea because he was into men’s bodies, and all he was promoting were guys like The Ultimate Warrior, Hulk Hogan, “Macho Man” Randy Savage and Zeus. He was into the guys who were so steroided up that they were breaking and dying, but he didn’t care. That’s the look he wanted. I wasn’t that cup of tea.
You state clearly in the book that you never took steroids. Being around in that era and seeing muscled-up guys that perhaps weren’t as talented as you getting big pushes, were you ever tempted to take them?
No, it wasn’t something I ever considered. I had such a name and reputation from the Bruno feud that I just didn’t need it. At 240 pounds for most of my career, I was plenty big enough. If I had gained another 30 pounds and my arms got bigger, it wouldn’t have made me any more money. And I’m scared to death of needles, so that took care of that.
Unlike a lot of wrestling autobiographies, you wrote your book without a co-author or ghostwriter. What was your thought process in writing the book?
I’m kind of old-fashioned. If you write a book, you should write the book. I had time to do it and it didn’t make sense to have someone else write it. It wasn’t a matter of not knowing the story – I knew exactly what happened. Plus, I wanted to put me into it. I’ve been lucky and I’m really good with the gift of gab, so writing is just a way of telling the story. And like I said, I had the time to do it, so I kind of got into it. I actually could have finished it a couple years earlier, but a couple years ago, everybody had a book. There were 50 books out there. So, I took a break and slowed it down a little bit. But I wanted it to be me and not some ghostwriter that would have messed it up and then I would have freaked out about it. I’m a perfectionist.
Your book definitely is one of the funnier ones I have read. The Haystacks Calhoun on the airplane story is hilarious. Did you set out to make the book as funny as it turned out?
People keep saying, “The book is so funny, I’m wetting my pants.” I didn’t think it was that funny when I wrote it. I put some humor in it and stuff, but I really didn’t think it was that funny. Actually, there’s a [film] company called Shaftesbury that’s interested in making a movie about it. You can’t believe it until you see it, but they’re interested. I think it could really be a cool flick. They’re kind of interested about the time, because wrestling was so different than it is today. When Bruno fell down bleeding, people in the audience died. I was actually shot at – I didn’t put that in the book because I didn’t want to give anyone ideas – and I was stabbed. There were riots every night. It was intense back then. It’s just so different today – and it’s too bad.
The focus in the book is on your wrestling career, with very little about your life outside of wrestling except for passing references, such as having a psychotic girlfriend. Did you just not want to reveal much about your personal life?
My idea was to write it like a dream-come-true story. I was like most little kids who see something on television and we want to grow up to be like our hero. That’s the story. If I got into some of the personal stuff – which, some of it was more outrageous than the wrestling life – I think it would have taken away from the story about the wrestling dream. Needless to say, now that people have gotten an idea from the book about the wrestling end, believe me, I’m talking to the publisher and I’m really thinking about writing another one that would involve a lot of personal stuff that went on during the same time as the wrestling stuff.
Now, when I write the wild and ridiculous more personal side, people can relate to the time it was going on with the things I was known for in the ring. It was crazy. I don’t know if I’m just a big believer in love or if I’m just an idiot. But I guess we’re all idiots because we keep getting married, right? So we’ll see what happens with the publisher. The sales are going great for this one, and I can write another one and make it different. But I don’t want to embarrass myself too bad (laughs).
Speaking of your personal life, you are married to the daughter of former AWA promoter Verne Gagne. These days, Triple H is a polarizing figure among the fans and his peers because he is Vince McMahon’s son-in-law. When you were in the AWA, did the boys look at you differently because you were Verne’s son-in-law?
I don’t think the boys looked at me differently, not anybody that knew me. There were always a couple jealous guys, like [Ric] Flair. You know, there’s always somebody that says something, but who cares? They actually wanted me to take the [AWA] championship belt a couple years before I did, and I switched it around and we put it on Curt Hennig, and that was before me and Kathy were ever an item. I already had a name and a reputation, so it wasn’t like Triple H coming along and getting rid of Chyna, the steroided-up lady. It was kind of a different story with him.
You mentioned Flair being jealous. What’s the story with that?
The fans might have one idea of Flair, but I know the truth. If he didn’t owe the IRS a million dollars and the promoters kept bailing him out, he probably wouldn’t have been around so long. Back in 1980 when I was doing the big Bruno thing, Flair was trying to get his break down in the South. In those days, all the publicity came out of the Northeast – the magazines and all that. He was jealous that I was getting all the big press and he was hardly getting anything. So he made some comments to the boys about, “Oh, Zbyszko ain’t nothing, it’s just Bruno. I’m really great.” I sent messages back through the grapevine that said, “Well, you just tell Flair that if he ever wants to find out about who’s great, let me know.” And he’s been kind of leery of me ever since, because he’s Flair – he’s an idiot.
But then there came a time in WCW when, because we’d been around 20 years and we never wrestled each other, they wanted us to wrestle. It would have been a great thing for the fans, which is my No. 1 priority in business. And Flair was afraid to get in the ring. He thought I was going to stretch him and embarrass him and all that because of what he said years ago, which I wouldn’t have. I look at the business as a business to make money and give the fans what they want. If you don’t give the fans what they want, it’s not good business. That’s kind of why wrestling is stale today.
So, what did you think of Ric Flair’s retirement and farewell?
I didn’t pay any attention to the retirement. It’s all hype and gaga. I never watch any of the WWE nonsense, but I was at a friend’s restaurant and they had WrestleMania on there. Remember in the book how I used to set the over-under on how many clotheslines there would be in a match? Well, when he and Shawn Michaels came out at WrestleMania, I set the over-under on chest slaps at 40. I’ll tell you what, I haven’t lost my touch. If you watch the match and count them, between Michaels and Flair, there was exactly 40 chest slaps, which is about all [Flair] can do now anyway.
It comes across in your book that you have a great mind for the business.
I had great teachers.
And you obviously learned your lessons well. Since you have that knowledge, do you have any interest in working as a backstage agent or producer?
I have a lot of interest in doing stuff, but I wouldn’t be an agent or a producer. What I would like to do is take control of someone’s creative end, because they really need help. Wrestling is really in a situation where they’re losing a big part of their audience to the Ultimate Fighting. What wrestling is doing – and I’m speaking for the fans – is stupid. Instead of watching wrestling and athletes, all you’re doing for an hour or more out of each two-hour show is watching ridiculous, stupid skits. And most of the stupid skits are about some broad with plastic boobs, and the guys are all becoming morons. It’s just so stupid.
And at the same time, they’re all complaining that they’re ratings are down, their buy rates are down. WrestleMania didn’t do nearly what they thought it would; McMahon’s stock dropped a whole bunch after that. They all keep crying the blues, but they don’t change it. They just keep doing stupid skits and pushing the same guys who they like that the fans don’t care about that much. It’s kind of like what I touched on in the book: The egos are running it for what they want, but they’re not giving the fans what they want, and the fans are turning it off.
Another aspect of the business that has changed since when you were in your prime is how promos are done. You came up with your own stuff, while today the guys are reciting words from a script. What do you think of that change?
It’s absolutely horrible. That’s why it sucks. No. 1, you’ve got writers in there who have no business in professional wrestling. Back in the old days, if a guy was smart enough to do a great interview without a script, he was a talent and you could push him and make money with him. Now they got a bunch of writers who have no business being in the business, and they’re writing all this stuff for guys who have no talent to think of their own stuff. So, they’re pushing a bunch of guys who shouldn’t be pushed and having a bunch of writers who shouldn’t be there, and they’re wondering why the business is stale. You figure that out.
You’ve worked for TNA in the past. Are there any plans in the works for you to back there?
I’d love to do some stuff with TNA. We got the book on their Web site and we’re going to push it on there. I was on camera with them for a few years and then took a little time off, but I’d love to go back on camera and I’d love to help them out behind the scenes. There’s a lot of politics, but they’re good people. The Carters are very nice people. Everybody that works there is working real hard, but in my opinion, they just need a little help. If you watch TNA, unfortunately they’re caught up in the wrestling mind-set that Junior set up. TNA has got it in their mind that, “Well, we’ve got a wrestling show. We’ve got to do all these stupid skits just like Vince does.” Hopefully, they’ll change. They have a chance. We’ll see what happens.
Any final thoughts?
I just appreciate that you like the book, and all the feedback I’ve got from everybody that read it, everybody loves it. I was concerned about the feedback because I was raised on making the fans happy. I’m just thrilled, and I hope everybody that buys the book enjoys it. It came from the heart, and if they like it, I’m happy.
To watch a video of Larry Zbyszko’s famous heel turn on Bruno Sammartino in 1980, click here.