It is reported by sources in New York that over 30,000 fans will embark to Shea Stadium, the home of the New York Mets on August 9th 1980 for the World Wrestling Federation’s biggest show to date, “Showdown at Shea”. There is only one match that could headline an event of this magnitude, Larry Zbyszko vs. Bruno Sammartino writes Will Burns.
“No Mr. Nice Guy” proclaimed Larry Zbyszko shortly after exhibition bout with his mentor Bruno Sammartino on a February 2nd 1980’s edition of WWF Championship Wrestling. The fan’s jaws dropped to the floor when Zbyszko erupted violently in a vicious attack against the former legendary WWF champion. The student stabbed his teacher in the back and at Shea Stadium, he must pay the consequences.
Larry met Bruno in 1967 and describes the moment perfectly in his autobiography “Adventures of Larryland”: “So, when I turned 16, I became a stalker. I couldn’t help it — when I found out my larger-than-life, living and breathing hero lived only two miles away, I had to drive past his house every chance I got. One day, I damn near wrecked my car. There he was in his backyard — I could see him through the hedges. I’m sure it made his day, some 16-year-old, pimply-faced kid stumbling through his humble beginnings shrubbery. But that’s how it started —I trespassed into his privacy. I introduced myself, very respectfully, and for some reason, he bought my dream. It really was as simple as that — Bruno’s protegé, Larry Zbyzsko, was born.”
Bruno agreed to train Zbyszko and then began working out regularly in the two-time WWF champion’s basement and by 1972, in a business which is incredibly difficult get into, Bruno introduced his protégé to Vincent James McMahon, the owner of the World Wide Wrestling Federation, and Zbyszko was signed to appear on their shows. Larry idolized Bruno and Bruno treat Larry like a younger brother. They were incredibly close.
Then as time went on Bruno suffered injuries and semi-retired from the ring and Larry started plying his trade with great success, winning the WWWF World Tag Team Titles with partner Tony Garea in November 1978.
However, in December 1979, the student-mentor relationship showed signs of cracks when Bruno (now a colour commentator on WWF Championship Wrestling) was snubbed by Larry when he tried to interview him. A week later, Sammartino stated that he had tried to reach out to Zbyszko to talk to him but he could not get him to acknowledge his calls. Vince McMahon was able to talk to Larry at ringside and Larry made his feelings known…
“I was trained by Bruno Sammartino and he taught me almost everything I know. And it was very hard for me not to talk to Bruno but I couldn’t get myself to talk to the man and I am going to tell everybody why.
I want to make this clear to everybody – I do not hate Bruno. I do not disrespect Bruno but I have to become Larry Zbyszko to survive in my chosen field, in my career. For years now, I have been walking down the street and I have been recognised as “hey, you’re the one that Bruno trained aren’t ya?” and I have been walking down the streets for years and people say “hey there’s Bruno’s protégé”. And I have been getting this all over the world, not just where I live, I’ve even been getting this off some members of my own family.”
“The man who helped me so much is now standing in my way. I cannot become Larry Zbyszko, the veteran while I exist in Bruno Sammartino’s shadow.”
“I have to prove myself and I deserve a chance. I have asked Bruno for my favours in the past and I have to ask for one more. I want to wrestle Bruno Sammartino and prove myself to the world and the fans and to the promoters that won’t give me the recognition I’m due.”
As the weeks went by on the television shows, Bruno rejected the idea of the match saying that he “loved Larry like a brother”, he could not fight his brother and Zbyszko’s challenge hurt him deeply.
After a match on the 26th January edition of Championship Wrestling, Zbyszko called Vince over to talk and he stated if Bruno would not wrestle him, he would leave the business. He called out Bruno face-to-face which Sammartino obliged. Bruno said he did not want Zbyszko to end his career due to his willingness not to wrestle. He reluctantly agreed to the match and give Zbyszko the chance to prove himself however, that he would not go easy on Larry but he would not go out to hurt him.
The next week on television (February 2nd), the match took place. The bout was a technical exhibition bout and Zbyszko was being clearly being outclassed by his mentor. Larry began to show his frustrations and after Bruno reversed a hammerlock that sent Zbyszko hurtling to the outside, Bruno held the ropes open to invite Larry back into the ring. Zbyszko snapped and viciously attacked Bruno stomping away at his chest before slamming him headfirst into the turnbuckle.
The crowd were shocked and Zbyszko’s actions had only just begun. He grabbed a wooden chair from the outside and smashed it across Bruno’s forehead three times and the Italian was bleeding copiously laying on the mat. The boos rang out of the Agricultural Hall in Allentown, Pennsylvania as Larry eventually left the ring as Bruno lay in a pool of his own blood. Betrayal of the lowest order.
Bruno spoke shortly afterwards, very sombre and talked about the loss of blood he suffered and the sleepless nights he had been experiencing due to the incident. In contrast, Larry was brash and cocky, proclaiming himself as “the new living legend”.
Bruno was out for revenge and the pair met at a huge show on March 1st in front of a sold-out Philadelphia Spectrum. In a back and forth affair, it was Bruno that displayed his frustrations and while pummeling Zbyszko in the corner, Bruno threw the referee out of the way and many from the locker room had to peel Sammartino off from causing Zbyszko serious damage. Bruno was disqualified and Zbyszko was announced as the winner.
In a rematch at Madison Square Garden on 24th March, Bruno failed to release a chokehold on Zbyszko and was again, disqualified. The next month with the Spectrum sold out again, Bruno gained some revenge when Zbyszko’s attempt to bring a steel chair into the ring backfired. Sammartino gained control of the chair and he slammed it into Larry’s head. Bruno was declared the winner after Zbyzsko was unable to continue.
This bitter feud was in full swing when the pair returned to MSG on 21st April. Zbyszko tasted defeat again but via count-out when he walked from the punishment that his mentor was dishing out. The pair battled at the Boston Garden on May 10th, again Larry walked out to give Bruno the frustrating count-out victory.
On 9th August 1980 at Shea Stadium, in a match that has attracted over 30,000 fans, Bruno will meet Larry again. But this time there is nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, as the bout takes place inside the confines of the demanding steel cage. The heartbreaking war will end so join us here for a full report in the coming days.