For more than forty years, Larry Zbyszko has lived and breathed professional wrestling; from his epic feud with mentor Bruno Sammartino – which culminated in a legendary steel cage showdown at Shea Stadium in 1980 – to his influential run in WCW, where he helped usher in the era of the New World Order, he’s been everywhere and worked with everyone.
Now, the man known as “The Living Legend” will join his fellow wrestling icons in the WWE Hall of Fame. And if you ask him, it’s about time.
“My gut feeling over the years was that probably someday, sooner or later, I’d be getting in – and not just because of the long career I had,” Zbyszko laughs. “I’m a fan at heart; I love this business, and the Hall of Fame is an awesome part of the business. This has been my life, and if I had to do it again, I’d do it all the same – except maybe not get married so many times.”
Zbyszko will be inducted into the Hall on March 28 – the night before WrestleMania – at a ceremony that will air live on the WWE Network at 8 p.m. ET. He’s part of a 2015 class that includes the late “Macho Man” Randy Savage, former Women’s Champion Alundra Blayze, Rikishi, the Bushwhackers and celebrity honoree Arnold Schwarzenegger – and while his name might not carry the same cultural cachet as his fellow inductees, true wrestling fans know what he represents: Zbyszko is not just a link to the sport’s past, but, thanks his work with young wrestlers in NXT, a bridge to its future, as well.
“I started at the end of the Old School era; my feud with Bruno kind of marked the end of one era, and the beginning of an era of national TV and pay-per-view,” Zbyszko says. “I grew up in the days of Crusher Lisowski and Killer Kowalski, and then when I was getting in, there was a new era of guys – me, Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes, Ricky Steamboat, Arn Anderson – and it’s just continued to evolve from there.
“I befriended Eric Bischoff, and he winds up being the boss of WCW. And there, I had a big role in the New World Order. I was the guy who kind of put the beginning together,” he continues. “Now, working at the [WWE] Performance Center, I get the chance to pass along everything I know, the psychology, to get them ready for the big time. They know the physical stuff, but anybody can fall down – drawing money is a different thing.”
Zbyszko began his career in the early ’70s, working the independent circuit and wrestling in the World Wide Wrestling Federation, where he’d feud with the likes of “Superstar” Billy Graham. But it was when he turned on Bruno Sammartino that his career took off. Zbyszko’s betrayal of his mentor – he struck him with a chair, leaving Bruno bloodied – so angered fans that they’d attack him on the street; heading into their blowoff match at the Showdown at Shea in August 1980, Zbyszko was the most vilified heel in professional wrestling.
“I was kind of an up-and-coming favorite in the early ’70s, and then over night, I became the most hated man alive! Riots every night, I got shot at, my cars were set on fire, it was a different world!” he laughs. “If I walked out in Minneapolis or Charlotte, people wanted to kill me, so I learned how to take advantage of it, because that’s what the promoters would pay for. I was hated for 20 years, but I was working!”
Fittingly, it will be Sammartino who inducts Zbyszko into the Hall of Fame later this month – and, though he always preferred to let his wrestling do the talking, Zbyszko says he’s already got a speech prepared for the ceremony. Turns out, it was easy; he’ll just be speaking from the heart.
“I already have a speech in my head; it kind of just popped in there, because it’s the story of my dream – to become like my hero Bruno Sammartino,” he says. “And I’ll also thank the people who helped me along the way. I’ve always considered myself one of the boys – everyone calls me ‘Sir’ these days, but I’m not that old!”