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Adventures in Larryland!
By Larry Zbyszko, Michael Holmes
ECW PRESS Copyright © 2008 Larry Zbyszko
All rights reserved.
Welcome to Larryland, the mythical residence of my alter ego, the Living Legend.
It all started more than thirty glorious years ago. I was raised as a child of the '50s, a time when cities became suburbs and black and white television sets became standard equipment in every living room across America.
I was totally brainwashed by my childhood idols: comic book heroes like Superman, the Lone Ranger, and one of my all-time favorites, Zorro. There was no doubt in my mind that saving the helpless from injustice, thwarting evil and winding up with the beautiful damsel in distress was what life was all about. In fact, the first thing I did to my first house was put in a secret door so I could be just like Don Diego. Man, was I screwed up. Nevertheless, by the time I was twelve I knew what I was destined to become. I was going to be a hero.
When my family moved to Pittsburgh from Chicago in 1964, the future I envisioned came into perfect focus. There he was, the embodiment of everything I wanted to be: a 5'11? 270-pound gorilla named Bruno Sammartino, who tossed bad guys into the air and crushed the life out of evil with his deadly bear hug. There was no doubt in my mind that I could achieve my childhood dream if I emulated this guy. I'd protect the weak, stop evil in its tracks and fly above the real world just like Clark Kent. That's right, I was going to become a professional wrestler.
But being Polish, it just wasn't going to be easy.
So, when I turned sixteen, 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 sixteen-year-old, pimply faced kid stumbling through his 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.
We started working out in Bruno's basement. In between the armbars, wristlocks and lessons in psychology, we lifted weights. For three hours. We spent an hour and a half just working on the chest. Man, was Bruno strong. He once held some record for bench pressing 565 ½ pounds with a body weight of 265. When I started working with him he was in his early forties and had suffered numerous injuries but he was still doing 505 pounds when I hit my best bench press at 435 ½ pounds (while weighing 240). During one workout, after reaching our maximum weights, we put 350 pounds on the bench just to see how many reps we could do.
I did nineteen.
Bruno did twenty-four—and he was two decades older than me.
They say you never forget your first match, and they're right.
Barely twenty-one, I was ready to go. All pumped up (without steroids), after years of amateur wrestling and martial arts, and now armed with the old school submission holds, I entered the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh and made my way to the ring like I was Bruno Sammartino himself. There I was, at the bottom of those three little steps, my stairway to heaven in the squared circle. I was a massive hunk of muscle, glowing under the lights—a killing machine. But I could hardly pick up a leg I was so nervous. I couldn't breathe, my mouth was dry, my heart was pounding and my muscles were absolute rubber. I looked around the arena. Standing there dumbstruck in front of thousands of strangers, I realized they were all dressed while I was wearing nothing but these stupid little trunks. It felt like I was in some kind of naked-in-front-of-the-whole-world nightmare. That first trip to the ring was absolutely horrifying. But then suddenly, my opponent, "Slip Mahoney" Dorso, attacked. Because of my great mentor, I subdued the wicked Dorso with two arm drags. Then I hoisted him up in the backbreaker, Bruno's finishing hold. Dorso submitted. The fans went berserk, blowing the roof off the arena. I was victorious—in just seventeen seconds. It couldn't have happened any other way: Bruno's protegé had just exploded onto the scene.
Feeling the energy, the emotional outburst of thousands of people in unison, I was hooked. I began to live to pop crowds. And I was never nervous again.CHAPTER 2
THE PROTEGÉ GIMMICK
Being a new, young talent that Bruno Sammartino himself brought into the business opened doors for me—doors that would have remained sealed to just about any other newcomer. Back then, professional wrestling's secret society did not want you anywhere near the business. Today, there are countless wrestling "schools" that will gladly take your money and invite you in. In the good old days of the territories—before Vince McMahon's WWF changed the landscape—wrestling had "policemen," guys who were there to keep you out.
When some wannabe showed up at an arena to pester somebody for a chance, they'd wind up in the ring that very afternoon with someone like Karl Gotch, Billy Robinson or some other heartless submission master. You know, just to see if they "had what it takes." Well, they never "had" anything, not even a chance. They would limp home, nursing their broken wrist or dislocated shoulder—proud as can be about being brutalized by their television hero, but never to be seen in the ring again.
Thanks to Bruno, I had a storybook entrance into this "closed shop." Almost from the beginning, the big stars of the time, from Chief Jay Strongbow to Killer Kowalski, as well as the most important agents, men like Arnold Skaaland, Gorilla Monsoon and Angelo Savoldi, treated me like I was family. They actually went out of their way to make gifts of their precious knowledge. Sure, I was being educated in professional wrestling. But I was also learning the power of politics. In 1973, when Bruno brought me into what was still called the World Wide Wrestling Federation, the WWWF, even the McMahons were nice to me.
Within months, I was "Rookie of the Year." The early '70s were very good times—it was like high school, but with money. Still, I don't think the McMahons knew what to do with me. All they knew for sure was they could not make Bruno look bad—so I had to look good.
I did some tag-teaming for a while with a couple of classics: Haystacks Calhoun (who should have been dead ten years earlier) and Andre the Giant (who I wish was not dead). A year or so later I wound up as one-half of the WWWF World Tag Team Champions with my partner Tony Garea. We made a pretty good team, and had some vicious battles with the like of Mr. Fuji and Professor Tanaka and the Valiant Brothers, managed by the infamous Captain Lou Albano.
Because of what I was able to achieve in the ring, life was exciting. And it certainly didn't hurt to be hanging out with Bruno and his cronies. I was always meeting some high-profile personality—like the time Frank Sinatra was in New York to record a live show at Madison Square Garden.
Jilly Rizzo was Sinatra's right-hand man and owned a local bar in the city. Rizzo was a big Bruno fan, so one night, off we went. Bruno, Dominic DeNucci, Tony Parisi, Angelo Savoldi and the token Pollock—me—were going to meet the "Chairman of the Board." Jilly's Bar was not a big place and it was packed. "Ol' Blue Eyes" was sitting at a table in the back meeting and greeting hundreds of people there to show respect. Henny Youngman, Shelly Winters and other stars were everywhere, so many that I can't remember them all. As I was standing among this mass of humanity, a rather small, skeletal old man slowly made his way over to me. In his hand he was holding a small cardboard tube—the kind in the center of a roll of toilet paper. At one end of the tube there were matchsticks, secured with Scotch tape. He looked up at me and said, in a heavy Italian accent, "Do you knowa what thisa is?"
I replied, "No, I don't."
He answered, "Thisa is a Polish flashalight." Everyone was laughing.
Well, even then I was famous for my quick wit, so I blurted: "You know why Italians don't have freckles? They slide off their face."
No one laughed.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Bruno moving his thumb back and forth across his throat. He was giving me the universal sign for "Shut your stupid mouth, you idiot!" I had no clue why as the old man slowly shuffled away, clutching his cardboard prop. Later Bruno informed me the old guy's name was Carlo Gambino....
I always wondered if the FBI got a good picture of me leaving Jilly's that night. Over the years I've more than amused myself with the fact that once upon a time I told the Godfather an Italian joke—and lived.
In the '70s professional wrestling wasn't like it is today. Back then, many different wrestling promotions thrived and coexisted in relative harmony. Because the territories were confined to small sections of the country, and because television was still local enough to feature programming from the immediate area, it made sense for wrestlers to travel to different parts of the country. If the fans kept seeing the same guys in their town, over and over again, things would get stale, boring—much like wrestling is today.
Around 1976, I flew into the Los Angeles territory, and that's where I first met a couple of other new, future stars: Roddy Piper and Chavo Guerrero, Sr. The territory was owned by the LaBelle family. Mike LaBelle ran the business end of things, and his brother "Judo" Gene LaBelle went from town to town to choke out fans with his famous sleeper hold. Their booker, a guy named Leo Garibaldi, came to me for help one day in San Diego. Apparently some guy was driving the promotion nuts, wanting to become a wrestler. For whatever reason, the gods of the squared circle had given this guy the thumbs-down. I was awarded the great honor: to act as guardian and protect the tradition of the "secret sect." So, when I said, "You want to be a wrestler? Get in the ring and let's see what you've got," what I—like so many before me—was really saying was "I hope you have insurance, kid." Anyway, I got in the ring to do my duty. Across from me stood a very big guy—this kid was probably 6'4" and 300 pounds, not ripped, but a very solid, very big guy. I don't know what Leo was thinking; hell, I would have booked him. It just wasn't his lucky day—but he was way too big to mess with. As he came toward me his weight was all on his left leg, so I shot in low. I cupped my hand behind his heel and drove my shoulder in under his kneecap. His knee joint popping sounded like a .357 Magnum going off. He came about an inch or two off the canvas and fell like a mighty oak. As he laid there in utter misery holding his rapidly swelling knee, he thanked me for my time and thought he should go home now. One of Gene LaBelle's judo students came running over, yelling, "What a great move!"
I did not share the joy, however, even though the ghosts of Ed "Strangler" Lewis and George Hackenschmidt were smiling upon me. As time went on, I regretted it more and more. It really wasn't necessary. But that is how seriously the business protected itself back then.
For those of you with a strong sense of justice—don't fret. Just a few short weeks later, life would get one up on me once again.
It started one night after a match in Los Angeles. I received a message that some movie guy wanted to talk to me. I met him after the show and he said he was very impressed by the way I moved, for a big man. He was making his first movie, a three-week location shoot out in the desert. The next day I went to his office somewhere on Sunset Boulevard. He gave me a script and told me he would pay me $1,500 for three weeks and I would do my own stunts. I took the script home and did not think too much about the money. But after reading the garbage he'd given me, I didn't think I'd have done it for $1,500 per day (well, okay, maybe). The script called for me to run around the desert, fall from a couple cliffs and kill people with my psychotic "family" so we could eat their babies .... I did not have the heart to tell the guy his very first movie sucked. So I told him my wrestling schedule paid me a lot more money, and that I didn't have the time to disappear into the desert....
Turns out the man's name was Wes Craven. He was making his first movie, and the film called The Hills Have Eyes was recently remade. The original—the film I turned down—became a cult classic, and so did Wes. I still kick myself for not taking that part. Maybe I could have had the chance to be Freddy Kruger.... But that's showbiz.
Fed up with Hollywood—just kidding—it was time for Bruno's protegé to hit the road and return to the WWWF. And hit the road I did.
I don't know why we're called professional wrestlers. We were actually professional drivers. That's what the life was all about. Driving eight hours a day to wrestle for ten minutes. Day after day, 50,000 miles per year, year after year.
After just three years, I felt I couldn't take it anymore. There had to be a better way.CHAPTER 3
UP, UP AND—OH SHIT!
I was not the only wrestler who wished for a way to avoid all the driving, to just be at an arena and then magically get back home. It seemed like a simple enough wish and I found myself hoping science would invent some sort of nuclear-powered transmitting molecular reorganizer—but Captain Kirk and Scotty were not going to show up in time to change the future.
So I did the next best thing: I started flying small planes. In 1975, I earned my private pilot's license, something I am still very proud of today.
The feeling of getting into a bird and soaring into the wild blue yonder, high above the rat race and traffic, with no cops hiding behind the clouds, was pure ecstasy—and the perfect cure for my highway blues. I almost felt sorry for the boys, those poor bastards sitting in their cars for hours and hours, paying tolls every five miles.
But soon I was feeling sorry for myself—all that flying around from town to town wasn't cheap, so I started recruiting passengers. I would be strutting around the locker room bragging about my wonderful flight and how it only took me an hour and fifteen minutes to make the trip. I knew the other guys had a five-hour drive. Talk about heat. I would go on to point out that I would be back home at 11:00 p.m., out at some club for a good time and dreaming about tomorrow morning's golf game hours before they made it back. It was a hell of a sales pitch, but some of the boys were just too scared to think about it. And some were just too damn big to get in the plane. Truthfully, most of the boys were pretty uptight about small planes.
In the fall of 1975 a plane crashed in the Carolina territory and the pilot was killed. Ric Flair broke his back and Johnny Valentine was paralyzed for life. As if that wasn't bad enough, not long before that Buddy Colt crashed his small plane into Tampa Bay. Buddy never wrestled again and Bobby Shane was killed. Even in light of these tragedies, there were always one or two brave souls who wanted to fly with me—which was all my plane could carry anyway. Gorilla Monsoon, who once wrote "You'll never make it!" on one of my ground school study books, was now eating his words, and a veteran private pilot, Killer Kowalski, was explaining to me that "flying was hours of pure boredom broken by seconds of excruciating terror."
The boys had a remedy to fight off boredom between towns and matches—it was called "the rib." I never ribbed anyone on the ground all that much because I did not want to deal with the revenge rib. Some ribs went back and forth for years. Up in the air passengers were at my mercy, and I do not know what mercy means.
But whether it was family members, friends or other wrestlers, I figured a few seconds of terror would always make their in-flight experience more memorable.
Excerpted from Adventures in Larryland! by Larry Zbyszko, Michael Holmes. Copyright © 2008 Larry Zbyszko. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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