Heel turns are a normal part of the business of professional wrestling. Think back to some of the greatest heel turns of all time. Which ones stand out to you? Was it Hulk Hogan joining the New World Order? Rocky Maivia joining the Nation of Domination? Barry Windham joining the Four Horsemen? All solid heel turns indeed, but what about one that took place in the WWWF back in 1980 and that’s today’s topic.
The heel turn in question, was Larry Zbyszko turning on Bruno Sammartino. It was the student turning against the teacher. It was an angle that dragged the legend Bruno Sammartino out of retirement. It was also the angle that culminated inside of a steel cage in front of over 40,000 fans at New York’s Shea Stadium. For years, it was widely recognized as, one if not the, single greatest heel turn in pro wrestling history.
If that is the case, why is it not talked about much anymore? Have the younger generation of wrestling fans forgotten about this angle and what it meant for not only both Sammartino and Zbyszko but the future of the WWWF? If so, this piece will take us back over 37 years ago, to refresh our memories of the greatness this was for various reasons.
To understand the importance of this angle, we must first go all the way back to the beginning. In the early 1970’s, a young man named Larry Whistler sought out one of his idols (Bruno Sammartino) to help train him to become a pro wrestler. After initially rejecting Whistler numerous times…Sammartino eventually broke down due to the youngster’s persistence to live out his dream. Whistler would soon adopt the name Larry Zbyszko and make his debut in 1973. Zbyszko would almost immediately gain success as he was voted Pro Wrestling Illustrated’s Rookie of the Year for 1974. In 1978, Zbyszko teamed with Tony Garea to win the WWWF tag team titles. They held the belts for a little less than four months.
Zbyszko continued his singles career as a babyface for a few more years. During this time, Bruno was facing the end of his career. Having suffered a fractured neck in a match against Stan Hanson that nearly paralyzed him for life in 1976, Sammartino started to slow down considerably. By the time 1980 rolled around, Sammartino was transitioning into a color commentator on WWWF programming. Zbyszko was still wrestling regularly for the promotion, but wasn’t moving up the card at all. As a matter of fact, wrestling magazines and commentators were still referring to Larry Zbyszko as “Bruno’s protege” despite being a wrestler for over seven years.
Seeing that Vince McMahon Sr. was moving away from the Sammartino era with newer guys like ‘Superstar’ Billy Graham and Bob Backlund…Zbyszko felt his time would never come. It was then that Zbyszko began concocting a plan to help launch his career to the next level. The WWWF’s business wasn’t as strong as it was earlier when Sammartino was champion. Zbyszko felt Bruno still had one more good run in him.
Larry Z approached Bruno with an idea for him to come out of “retirement” and work a program with his protege. Much like the persistence Larry showed Bruno when he first wanted to train to become a wrestler…he showed it again with his idea. Bruno agreed and proposed the idea to the McMahons. Vince Sr and Bruno had developed a strained relationship over the years and weren’t sold that Larry Zbyszko could sell tickets. There was no denying, however, that fans were still clamoring for a Bruno return. So eventually, the McMahons agreed to the idea with Bruno being in charge of booking it.
Bruno came up with most of the ideas with some creative input from Zbyszko as well. The stage was set with Bruno wanting to continually interview his protege…and Zbyszko brushing him off. Finally, Zbyszko agrees to an interview where he says he is tired of being in Bruno’s shadow and asks his mentor to wrestle him in a friendly exhibition match. Bruno agrees and the two faced off on WWWF TV.
The majority of the match was purely technical…but as the match wore on…Zbyszko started showing his frustrations. Zbyszko would finally snap and attack his mentor in the middle of the ring. The stunned crowd started pelting the ring with debris as Zbyszko got a hold of a wooden chair and began hitting Bruno over the head with it…busting him wide open.
The heat this feud generated was off the charts and arenas were selling out to see Bruno get his revenge on his former student. It became appararent to the McMahons that Madison Square Garden just wasn’t big enough for the fan demand for their rematch. That is when the WWWF booked Shea Stadium in Queens, New York to house their match inside of a steel cage. This WWWF “super show” also featured Tony Atlas versus Ken Patera, Bob Backlund and Pedro Morales vs. The Wild Samoans and Andre the Giant versus a young heel Hulk Hogan.
The 14 minute match saw Sammartino escape the cage and defeat Zbyszko to gain his revenge. Coincidentally, despite his victory over Larry Zbyszko in the cage match…Sammartino never pinned Larry Z in a match. That was not by accident…according to Zbyszko, Bruno wanted it that way so Larry could always have those bragging rights to help further his career.
As things would turn out, Bruno would eventually retire officially in 1981 and Zbyszko would be promised a big program with Pedro Morales. There was even talk of making Zbyszko WWWF champion for a while…but like the Morales program it didn’t pan out. Seeing the writing on the wall, Larry departed the WWWF and became a top heel for other territories across the country. While his career never got as big as Bruno’s, Larry Zbyszko would win his own version of the world title in the AWA.
A truly great angle in 1980 that for years was considered for years to be one of the very best and most successful. The WWE in the years following that angle have attempted to replicate it several times with the likes of Chris Benoit and Gunner Scott, Tommy Dreamer and Colin Delaney and even to a smaller degree with Dean Ambrose and James Ellsworth. All with little to no success at all.