|Where did you grow up, and how big a fan were you of professional wrestling?
I was born in Chicago, and grew up around Pittsburgh. And when I went to Pittsburgh it was the first time I watched pro wrestling. It was around 1965. And you know, Bruno Sammartino became my hero. And I loved it so much when I was a kid, I actually started wrestling in grade school back then. And then wrestling in high school, and did some wrestling for Penn State, and then met Bruno. One day I walked into his backyard -- I used to stalk him when I was a kid. And that's how I got into it, started watching on TV in Pittsburgh.
How did he react to you, I'm sure he had a bunch of people knocking at his door saying 'I want to be a wrestler?'
Well, you know it was weird. I think my buddy was 16, and was I was 15 or something, and we were driving around because I knew where Bruno lived. He lived a couple miles from my house. And we'd drive by his house every now and then to see if we could get a glimpse of him. And one day, there he was, I could see him through the hedges sitting in his backyard. My buddy stopped the car, so I jumped out of the car and busted through his hedges. (Laughs)
So he's sitting there in his yard playing with one of his kids, David -- who was little at the time -- and he looks at me, and there's this little kid, you know, coming through the hedges. And he gets up and kind of looks at me like, "What the hell?" And when he got up, my God, he looked like a gorilla. He was a big man. He was not that tall, maybe 5'11", but he was like 265 pounds. I mean, a gorilla. And I was a nervous wreck. I introduced myself, I was very respectful, you know. I told him that he was my hero, and my favorite wrestler, and blah, blah, blah, and I kind of started like that.
I think I busted in his yard a couple of other times. As I got older, he met my folks, and he took me under his wing. I started training in his basement gym, that's why I sort of looked like him, I did the same workout for years. And he told me he'd start me in professional wrestling when I finished school because professional wrestling wasn't a guaranteed type of career, and it was smart to have a back-up plan. So I finished school and majored in basket-weaving and he got me in the professional wrestling game.
It sounds like he sort of took you under his wing just so you'd stop busting in on him and the family.
Yeah, just to get me out of the way.
Because you had some amateur wrestling experience, did he think that you were different from maybe some other guy that was busting in saying "You're my hero, I want to be a wrestler?" He maybe thought you would take it a little bit more seriously?
Yeah, I think he did. You know, the fact that I loved wrestling and was doing the amateur wrestling -- and doing very well at it -- impressed him. And for some reason, I don't know, maybe it was destiny, but it worked out well.
About what year was that when he started training full-time to get into this business?
Well, it was like 1970, 1971-72. I started about '73.
What area did you start in?
I started wrestling around the Pittsburgh area doing some local TV and shows in the high school gyms. And then Bruno sent me to British Columbia. Vancouver --- there was a wrestling territory.
Was that Al Tomko?
No, it that was like Gene Kiniski and Sandor Szabo. And so I went there for about six months, because he (Bruno) wanted me to get experience. And then he brought me back and I started in the WWWF, I think around '73 as "Bruno's protégé."
We’re going to be interviewing Newton Tattrie coming up here real soon…
Ah, Geto, yes.
I know he helped in part to train you.
Well, yeah, in a way he did. He had a big -- kinda like a farm, with a barn on it, outside of Pittsburgh. And me and Bill Eadie, and another guy, Ron, used to work out in Geto’s barn. And once in a while Geto would be there too, and we’d mess around, and ride some horses. You know, Geto was a hell of a guy, and was instrumental in giving me a place to work out, and helping me out a bit. He was running some shows that I used to start on back there.
Did he run the territory for Bruno, or was that kind of his territory?
Well, he bought it from Bruno, and owned it for a while. And when I first broke in, I did some the shows around Pittsburgh for Geto. And I worked out at his place, and he was there with me and Bill Eadie. He was a good guy.
How were you viewed when you came in? Was it one of those things where guys were open to you, or was it like "Ugh, here's Bruno's sidekick"?
Well, you know what, the politics were still there because Bruno was such a big star, he was the man. You know, to be Bruno's protégé was an honor. Everybody from the promoters, to the top guys around at the time, to the older guys that would really give you shit -- everybody was very nice to me. Everybody opened their arms to welcome me to the business, and would tell me things that they wouldn't tell everybody else. How to make money, the psychology. l had the best array of teachers in the business. I have an education that no one else in this business has from Bruno and these guys because they opened up to me, as ‘Bruno's protégé.’ It was all politics, and he was the man.
When you say drawing money and little hints that you got from the jump, who were some of the guys and what was some of the advice that they gave you that they didn't give anybody else?
Oh, God, you're talking about some dead brain cells. Everyone from Arnold Skaaland to Chief Jay Strongbow to Tony Altimore to Gorilla Monsoon, the Savoldi's. A bunch of people who have been in this business for years. Plus all of the wrestlers, the other guys. The George Steele's, the list goes on. It would take me hours and hours of sitting here thinking to remember what each quote from somebody was. But, it was just like a whole bunch of tutors.
Did you stay there long? Because I know you had gone out to California. Was that before or after you started with the WWWF?
Well I was with the WWWF for maybe a couple of years. Two or three years and then I hit the road a little bit to a couple of little places, and then I went out to California for maybe six or eight months in '75. And then maybe a wee bit in Georgia.
What they wanted to do in those days was get you out of the area for a year or so, and then when you came back you were fresher. So I started off there, and won the Rookie of the Year and hit a couple of places. You know, six months here, three months here. And then I went back to the WWWF in probably '75-76. And then teamed up with Tony Garea and took it farther. And then, of course, in the late-70's, turned on Bruno. The big angle in Shea Stadium, and with that feud my career was made. And that gave me a big name and experience, and away I went.
Well, your career started with a good angle in, I guess it was '74, when Spiros Arion turned on Bruno. You were a pivotal part of that, weren't you?
A little bit because I was Bruno's protégé, and you know it was perfect heat for Spiros to beat up the young protégé and, in turn, stab poor Bruno in the back. But that was just the beginning of it. But, that was the kind of stuff I learned, so when the late-70's came by I was able to put together an idea to make my career.
When did you find out you were making that turn? Whose idea was it to start the process along from making that turn from All-American babyface to...
Well, it was my idea. It was at the time, Bruno was basically retired. He was doing the broadcasting, and the business was in the crapper. I mean, it was way down. Bob Backlund was the champion, and nobody cared. People wanted Bruno to come back, but he was all beat up and didn't want to come back. And there were a lot of guys in limbo. And I just put together all I learned from those guys, and said "damn, if..." -- because I wanted Bruno to make a come back -- "if Bruno comes back whoever he wrestles is gonna be a big star." But, the whole thing would be great because the people want him back so bad that it can't miss.
So, then I went to Bruno and ran by the idea of what I wanted to do. And he sort of thought about it and said, "Okay, we'll do it." But, he was the one that programmed the whole thing, and along with some other circumstances, it became the biggest feud of the old school.
Building to that, you asked him for a scientific match to try and escape from his shadow. What kind of led up to that match? Were you showing frustration in any of your other matches in trying to get ahead? How did that work?
Well, it was just doing interviews basically about the story, which was kind of true, Saying, "Look it, Larry Zbyszko can't survive anymore here being Bruno's protégé. Surviving in Bruno's shadow, and Bruno's not even wrestling here anymore." And I said, "This is ridiculous." I said there's only one way for me to prove that I'm as great as my mentor, and that's to call Bruno out here and have the match of a lifetime. I said "He'll always be my hero, no disrespect." And then Bruno didn't want to wrestle me, because I was his protégé. And, of course, that made everybody want it more. And then I started getting more frustrated and said "Come on Bruno give me a shot," and blah, blah, blah. But, I did it so well, and it was laid out so well, that the people actually bought it. I mean, they actually wanted Bruno to give me a chance. And then when Bruno finally said "Okay, but it'll be a scientific match." And I said, "Oh, okay. That's great. I couldn't ask for more."
And then when I clobbered him with the chair, and he drowned in a pool of blood, my God, people hated me. Talk about wanting to kill me, I was stabbed in the ass in Albany, New York. God, I had cars smashed. I had cabs overturned. I had threats from Little Italy.
Those were the days when people believed, and the hate was real -- and the love was real too. The people loved Bruno so much in those days that when we were in the middle of a show where Bruno would get bloody and fall down, people had heart attacks. I swear to God. I think at the Civic Arena (Pittsburgh) one time the most I did was four heart attacks. I mean, people dropped dead because Bruno was bleeding! That's how serious it was taken, it's completely different today.
Was (Vince, Sr.) McMahon comfortable with Bruno running the angle himself, and what kind of thoughts did you get from the guys in the back and the people who ran the shows about whether it would be a massive success or not?
Well, the McMahon’s were just thrilled that Bruno was willing to come back and do anything. Like I said, when he was in retirement, the territory was way down. They were losing money left and right. Bruno, his whole career there, he ran his own stories and his own scenario's. He decided who he was going to work with. So, you know, he was never told what to do. They were never involved in our stuff. Basically, they were just happy he was coming back.
When all this was going on and you made the turn on him, you were from the Pittsburgh area, he was in the area. The people went nuts and turned on you, how did you feel actually going back there? Did you think "Wow, it's great I'm inspiring all this heat, but it's getting a little scary"?
It wasn't like it was hairy or scary, it was always very exciting. It's hard to explain. It was exciting, there was intrigue to it. I'd have to sneak into buildings, make sure I'd wrestle third, and I'd have someone pull my car around the back, and have them slip open a big garage door and I'd crawl under it and run out in the darkness. It was kind of like being a thief. It was exciting. You had to watch your back though. Like I said, I got stabbed in the ass, I got popped in the head with a crutch. People sneaking into the ring to try and get at me.
The stabbing happened in a match with Ivan Putski correct?
No, the match with Putski is when I got hit in the head with an iron pole...
Oh, God. (Laughs) Sorry, I must have mixed up my assaults here. The match in Albany, was that against Bruno or did that come in the wake of Bruno?
I think that was with (Pedro) Morales. I got stabbed around Boston somewhere with Morales. I mean, it got so bad in Boston they had to put hockey glass around the ring, and a net over the top. It was like wrestling in a bird cage. Fans were throwing so much crap at you.
What was it, like a butcher knife or what?
You know what it was? You know those Japanese knives that look like a slender piece of wood? And they pull out, and the blade is kind of thin? I was in the crowd and it felt like someone kicked me in the ass, and I got a charley horse. And I spun around, and the cops grabbed somebody. And I go hustling out, because you never stand there, so I go hustling out. And I go back to the dressing room and I'm thinking it was a good kick, because my butt still hurts. So when I put my hand back there, there's a blade about four inches long, and it's one of those wooden little Japanese knife things. And when I spun around, I must have broken the blade off.
Oh, yeah, it was a fun career!
How was it for your family? Did you ever relay any of these stories to them, or did you just say, 'Eh, I'm fine'?
Well, I didn't really have a family back in those days. I was kind of young and crazy, and I really didn't get married and settle down until I was like 36. So, the business had changed and I did more broadcasting. My two boys now really aren't into the old school of what it was like years ago thing.
Do they know what kind of successes you've had? That match with Sammartino drew an insane amount. It was over 36,000 and, even more impressive, over a half million at the gate. (Dave Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer Newsletter reports the numbers are it drew 36,295 – although it was announced as being 40,717, so it could be larger than the Chicago crowd that saw Buddy Rogers win the NWA World title over Pat O’Connor – and earned a then-record $541,730 in gate revenue.)
Oh yeah. In those days, selling out a stadium for wrestling was unheard of. Unheard of.
I think it was a quote from Bruno that said he was more impressed with the match with you than the match between Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant at WrestleMania III drawing the crowd they did because, technically, it was a regional event.
Oh yeah, I mean if we would have pulled it off down the road some years when national cable and they were on network? Shit, it would have been unbelievable. In fact, that Silverdome show that they claim was 90,000 people? They gave 30,000 tickets away.
I remember Dave Meltzer reporting the actual paid was far, far less than that.
Oh, yeah, so if you consider what we did at Shea Stadium to what they really did at the Silverdome, plus the TV in New York. The TV was on at like midnight to one in the morning, and that was it.
You said Backlund was a terrible draw as champion, the people got sick of him quick. What was going on behind the scenes up there with just the general feeling of what was going on as Senior kept getting older and Junior got more involved?
God, you know I'm really not sure what exactly happened after that. I left the WWWF in 1981, shortly after me and Bruno did our big thing, and I'm really not sure what the politics were because shortly after Senior passed on and Vince Junior took over, because I really wasn't around for all that. I really don't know.
There have always been rumors that say, "Okay, well, you were going to turn face again" and be like the "New Bruno," and there's a flip-side that says that you were going to stay heel and make a run after Backlund and be groomed for the title. What the heck happened there that all of a sudden your WWWF career after that just kind of spun out quietly?
Well, yeah I never went back, and to tell you the truth, I'm really not sure, but in that couple of years, '81, '82, were basically when the business changed. And I took a break from that area after the big Bruno thing. Bruno was in and out a couple times for Vince Junior, even though he really didn't want to be, but then he was trying to give David a break, and then that bombed out soon.
But the business changed, and the WWWF became the WWF, and what McMahon Junior was into promoting at the time was big, giant guys. You know, Hogan, and the Warrior, and Zeus, and all the big pumped up, muscled up guys who could never work, so that's why they invented the clothesline. (Laughs) And my kind of character was really ‘the Wrestler.’ And I found a home in different places. A little bit in the Carolina's, but mostly in the AWA because Verne Gagne was an old-time wrestler, and he still liked the wrestler characters. And ESPN was going nationwide, so that was good publicity. I just wasn't the WWF's cup of tea anymore, and they weren't really mine anymore because I didn't want to become a giant, puffed up character.
But there was no attempt to strike while the iron was even a little bit hot after that? I know you had a couple of matches with Backlund, but there was really no effort made at all to kind of push you up and keep you going?
Well, not with the WWF. You know I did well with the AWA for some years, and that worked out real good. So I was pretty happy there. You know, I never really pushed the WWF. They never called me, and I never called them. (Laughs)
Any truth to the rumor that you were basically “holding up” the McMahon’s in the wake of the Bruno turn, and going in to face Backlund, that it became such a big money issue there, and you were holding them up for more or you’d go, and they said, “Okay, go”?
No, (chuckles) not exactly true. Long story short… oh my God, this is a whole story, Mike. (Laughs) In those days business was different. And, basically, I did hold them up a few times, but it wasn’t out of meanness. It was out of getting what I deserved.
I was drawing the houses, and Backlund, who was the champion that no one cared about, was making more money than me. And I was “Whoa, dudes.” All I wanted was a fair payday. So I held them up on some shows – and they paid. (Laughs) And that’s probably why they hate me! But they had no choice, because it was me and Bruno in the main event, and that’s what their business was dependent on. But, they weren’t paying me fair for what I was doing at that time, and I had to make a stand. And I guess they don’t appreciate people who stick up for themselves! But, anyway, to make a long story short, we did have our differences over money. But they paid, and in return, I put them on the map, too.
Right after you left, where did you go next? Is that when you went down to the Carolina's?
I did the Carolina's a little bit on and off. You know, I enjoyed it. The Crockett's were okay, and so were some of the people. Then I went up to the AWA, and I really enjoyed that territory, it was fun working there. A nice setup. It was like the last of the territories.
Did you go to the Carolina's first, then some time in the AWA, and then bounce to Georgia when you had that run down there in '83? Between '81 and '83...
Oh, my God!
Am I killing you here? (Laughs)
It's crazy, I don't even remember a lot of this stuff! My God. I really don't know. I was in the Carolina's a little bit, and I did a little bit of the Georgia stuff with Ole (Anderson), when Ole was running with Tommy Rich and Buzz Sawyer, but those guys were so insane I couldn't take it long. (Laughs)
How was Georgia then? We hear stories -- and Ole just came out with a book. When you first went down there did you have any expectations on what it was going to be like? Or did you just kind of go and say, "Hey, I'm here?"
It was good to go there because TBS, ‘the Superstation,’ was growing and was getting national exposure. And me and Ole got along good, cause he liked me because I was Polish. It has nothing to do with talent, you're Polish... (Laughs) But it was alright. It just wasn't big enough, it was just a small territory. So it was alright to come in for a while, but like I said, the guys were so crazy and it was not a place to make big money.
There was much more money in the AWA so there was more opportunity, so then I went up there. But, in the days of the territories, you went to one place for a few months, and then you went to another place and made some money, but I didn't care for it, I liked the AWA deal better.
Any good, crazy stories that you can recall about those guys down there? Anything that sticks out?
Oh, Christ. They were all insane! I didn't realize it before some of them died, but I mean even this Buzz Sawyer, my God. We used to do a TV in the morning, and then drive up to Knoxville, and he'd be passed out in the car half dressed. All he'd have on would be his wrestling boots, and he'd be naked. He'd be passed out by the time we got to the arena, so somehow we're trying to cover him up in some rug and carry him in the back door, so the fans wouldn't see. Tommy Rich was in a wreck every week. I mean, it was insanity. It was fun when you were young and single, but I couldn't take too that much.
Well, there was a casting call for characters that actually ran the joint. What was it like to have a squad that included the Brisco's, and Ole, and Jim Barnett? What were they actually like to work for?
It was a cast of characters. Barnett would be running through the dressing room doing his thing, and Ole would be yelling and screaming at somebody, and half the guys are lost trying to find the building because they're in outer space... (Laughs) ...it was ridiculous. (Laughs)
How did the feud come about for the National title, and how did you end up getting hooked up with Killer Tim Brooks? Who's idea was that?
Oh, my God. (Laughs) I'm really not sure whose idea that was -- probably Ole's. You know, I really don't know. It could have been Ole's idea at that time. Well, I mean the guys would have ideas and I'd refine them. I, uh, can't really remember, I'd imagine it was Ole's. Dusty (Rhodes) was around then. He was in and out sometimes, you never knew.
He was in Florida mostly?
He was in Florida and the Carolina's
I actually have here -- and this is what Rich (Tate) does with his spare time -- he's actually got your match records, if you can believe that.
He actually knows more about me, than me!
It says your first match he can recall was in Chattanooga, and you got into a series of matches against Joe Lightfoot and Johnny Rich...
(Laughs) Johnny "Crash" Rich?!
He was one of your first opponents, what was he like?
Who? Johnny Rich? Well, he was a nice kid. In terms of being in the ring, he was a good wrestler in the ring. It was fun, and to tell you the truth, I don't remember wrestling Johnny Rich in Chattanooga! (Laughs) I don't have a clue! Wrestling Johnny Rich. I knew Johnny, and I knew we worked together and he was a night off. I tell 'ya, Tommy was a hell of a worker, but he was always at 90,000 feet! (Laughs) Man, I had some great matches with Tommy, and Johnny was good, too.
How did the whole scenario with Paul Orndorff and buying the National title come about? Who's idea was that? And how did that kind of unfold?
(Laughs) Argh, Jesus Christ! I don't really remember. All I remember is they had this thing with me and Orndorff, and they wanted to do something different. And I think I'm the one who came up with the idea, "But well then, why don't I buy it? And we'll have him (Brooks) do it." Because I always believed in swerving the people, and at that time, if I would have wrestled Orndorff and then somehow someone ran in and I won it, it would have been predictable. So I said let's make it unpredictable. We'll throw Killer Brooks in there, and it should look like Orndorff would kill Killer Brooks, and then we'll swerve it that way, and have Killer Brooks win the belt, which nobody would ever imagine.
We swerved 'em, right? And as soon as you swerve 'em, Killer Brooks says "I'm the champion, I'm the greatest," and here I walk out and buy it from him, and he goes, "Oh, sure, here." Then I brag I'm the champion. I mean, it's just more heat for the complete unpredictability. That's what they don't have today. They don't have any unpredictability. This guy's in love with this broad, these guys are going to pop around, and on and on and on.
It's always kind of by the numbers. Did you ever get into backstage politics, were you ever drawn into it, or did you just try and stay the hell away from it?
You know, I really never was drawn into the backstage politics because it was just insanity. The only thing I would do is get involved in politics with my stuff to make sure the promoters wouldn't screw up the angle. There weren't that many smart promoters, and if you weren't careful, they would kill you off and they wouldn't even know they were doing it.
It was amazing. But I did what I had to do for my angles and my stuff, but I really never got involved in the whole booking, or the backstage thing. Not that they wanted me there. I was one of the kind of guys that told it like it was, if the boss comes up with this great idea, I'd be the first one to say, "Look, if you do that you're going to kill this, and this, and this is really dumb." So, you know, they didn't want me around.
Did you ever butt heads with Ole considering how not quiet he liked to be?
Ole and I agreed pretty good. We got along pretty good, and I wasn't in there a whole long time anyway. Kinda in and out.
Were the Brisco's there at any time, or were they just kind of...
Jack was down south. When I started, he was pretty well gone. Gerry was around a little bit, but I really never saw much of the Brisco's. Rare.
Do you remember anything a longtime Georgia fan wouldn’t know about the territory, or something that would make them while they’re reading this go, “Oh wow”?
I’m trying to think of any old Georgia historical stuff. I wasn’t here much in those days. In for three or four months for a while, and this and that. I’ll tell you one story from the early Georgia days – even Bruno wasn’t in here a lot. To make a long story short, now remember, the NWA used to cooperate.
Jim Barnett who ran Georgia, used to work with Eddie Graham, who ran Florida. I went down to Florida to work for a little bit. But then, I didn’t appreciate what they were trying to do. And it involved breaking a promise to Bruno to bring me in, and I wouldn’t do what they wanted me to do, so they fired me. And I thanked them.
Yes, I think that was the thing about Mr. Watts there?
Yeah, (laughs). The funny bit was, at the time, Bruno was supposed to come down to do a shot when, I think it was when, The Omni first opened for Jim Barnett. And he didn’t want to travel around. He didn’t want to come to Florida. He didn’t want to come to Georgia. He was kind of doing it as a business favor for Vince McMahon Sr., and whatever deal they had, you know?
So when they fired me from Florida, when Bill Watts fired me from Florida, I called Bruno and told him they fired me. And Bruno said, “They did what! Those dirty, rotten…” (Laughs) So he used that as an excuse to get out of coming to the Omni. “Well, the fired Larry so screw them. I’m not coming down there.” He really didn’t want to anyway. So when Barnett finds this out, like two days later -- before I even had the chance to drive out of Florida – Barnett calls me up and offers me a job to come to Georgia. And the only reason Barnett offered me a job in Georgia was he wanted Bruno to come down and wrestle Professor Tanaka, or whoever, at the Omni show when it first opened. So he invites me up to a meeting, okay, a Saturday morning meeting.
And I get there at like, eight o’clock in the morning. It was just that early morning TV back then, and there’s all the guys sitting around on the floor – and they’re all dead from the night before – and they have to do early morning TV. And I think it was Bearcat Wright who was a manager in Florida, and managed Abdullah (The Butcher) in Georgia. I think it was Bearcat Wright, it may have been someone else. I don’t think it was Sonny King. It just shows you how long ago this was.
But, he was in Florida when Bill fired me, and I thanked him, and I wouldn’t do what they wanted, and blah, blah, blah. And I was very nice and business-like about it. So, I walk in this room. And when I walk in this door, all these guys are looking at me. And they know who I am, and I know who some of them are, but I really don’t know them because I’d never been there. And I walk in, and all of a sudden Bearcat jumps up, and he points at me and goes, “Hey guys! This is the guy right here that told Bill Watts to go F himself!” (Laughs) And he said that and everybody’s jaw drops because who walks in the doorway, and are standing behind me? Is Jim Barnett and Bill Watts. And this is as he’s screaming it out. “This is the guy…,” you know.
So anyway, Bill is biting his lip, and Jim goes, (imitating him) “Come with me, my boy.” So I go off with Jim, and he says, “We’d like to bring you in here,” blah, blah, blah, and Bill Watts is right with Jim, and he’s biting his lip as he’s telling me this, right, he’s biting his lip. And he goes, “I just wanted to tell you kid, I didn’t want to fire ‘ya, but Eddie Graham would have made me anyway.” And they’re just doing this so Bruno would come down and make a shot!
Did you have any clue at the time of what was going to happen that ended up leading to what's known as ‘Black Saturday’?
That's the term that Georgia fans called it when WWF took over the slot, and they sold the stock out from under Ole.
Ooohh, I remember what you're talking about. But, I wasn't there. I was there for a while, but I had just left. I remember watching it one day, and who walks out there but Vince. And I remember it shocked the hell out of me, and went "What the hell is Vince doing on there?!"
I wasn't there at the time, I had probably just left. And I didn't know what happened with that, and before I knew, Vince was gone. I don't know what the hell... I remember it happening, but I wasn't there so I don't know. I still don't know. (Laughs) This is a hell of an interview, you ask me a question, and I say that I don't know. (Laughs)
(Laughs) We'll figure out some creative editing. Kind of backtracking to Vince a little bit, as he was taking over power from his Dad, did you think he was going to be successful or fall on his ass?
As far as blowing it up to the way that he did, and going in the "Rock-N-Wrestling" direction.
Actually, a bunch of us guys, we were kind of in shock at what he did. Because it was basically breaking all the rules. Breaking the rules of the kayfabe, having good guys and bad guys do skits together and all that shit. And it got big, and one of the reasons it got big was because of that network show...
Saturday Night's Main Event.
Yeah, and that really helped. And a handful of the characters got over as characters at the right time, and it wound up good for a while. And then it hit a slump, too, and that's what the old-timers were worried about, it was like, "Okay, you can hotshot to this now, and these guys will get over for a couple of years, but then what?" And the business did go into a slump in probably around the late-80's and early-90's. The death of the territories were coming, they were all dying out. And the business really didn't get big and exciting again until WCW started and you had that two big national competition thing.
One of the ways people love to pop holes in McMahon's balloon is just by pointing out that he needed Bruno to come back -- and I was actually at that match in Baltimore, and they did it a couple of other times, where it was him and Hogan, I think, against King Kong Bundy and the One Man Gang -- but it was they needed Bruno to come back and actually fill seats, even during the height of Hulk-a-Mania.
Oh, yeah, they still needed Bruno to come back. And, like I said, it was like a quick eye-catcher and it got over for a couple of years. And a few of the characters like Hogan and Macho (Randy Savage), and a handful of them, got big names and were smart enough and lucky enough to get movie bits and that kind of stuff. But, other than that, it kind of went down relatively quick. They had to have Bruno come in, who was 50 years old you know, but after Bruno was done with that -- quickly -- then it kind of dropped down. The Crockett's went out of business, they had to sell out. And WCW when it started wasn't drawing any people. It took a lot of hard work to get it up there.
When you were in Georgia, is that when you started to do some stuff with Bruno's son?
Yeah, David came in a little bit for Ole, I think. We were down here, I remember wrestling David in some places.
What did you think of David as a wrestler? And what did you think of his future possibilities in the business?
Well, he's a good wrestler. I mean, he was a good wrestler. A lot of fire. He just got frustrated easy, it just didn't work out like he thought it would being Bruno's son, and he couldn't fill the shoes. And the politics were bad, too, for him, because Bruno wouldn't take no shit, so there were a lot of promoters and people that didn't like Bruno, so it didn't help Bruno's kid, if Bruno wasn't involved.
Did you ever, especially while you were in Georgia, ever look at McMahon (and the WWF) going nuts, was there ever a thought of going back? Did you leave on good terms, or was it like, "Eh"?
You mean the New York area?
Yeah, did you ever look back up there and go "Do I want in on this?", when it was really starting to boom big?
Well, when I left, it really wasn't booming big then. It was booming big when I was there, and it was a year or so until the business was changing, eh, yeah, I'd say a year. At the time, it was just time to go. We did some things, we had a lot of talks. No big arguments or nothin'. A couple little run-in's with the McMahon's for money, but that was natural in the day. Everybody argued for money otherwise they'd screw 'ya. But you know, it was just time to go. And I wound up never coming back. (Laughs)
In I guess it was in '84, when you really started to be a regular in the AWA, and they had that thing called "Pro Wrestling USA" (whose important flagship station was WPIX-11 in New York) where the idea was that let's band together with the AWA, the Jarrett's (and also Georgia, among others), and we'll all do these shows together. Do you recall any of that, and what was like?
Yeah, it was interesting at first because they had a good idea and they were putting together some shows. The Crockett's and Verne, and some other people.
I remember one time we ran the Meadowlands, and actually they had McMahon on the ropes for a while. Things were going good, but it was that old adage, man, "Too many cooks." And all of a sudden the different promoters all wanted to be the bosses. And then that kind of broke down because they could never agree with each other, or whatever. So they kind of broke down. It was a good idea, but too many cooks, I think.
When you first went to the AWA, you kind of aligned yourself with Nick Bockwinkel. What was it like working with a legend like Bockwinkel?
Oh, Bockwinkel was great. He was a great old school wrestler, and he was right up my alley on how to work like that. Easy to work with. Nice guy. Now it was a lot of fun in those days. It was real fun territory. A real fun place to work.
Now what was Verne like? He lost Hogan. He lost Okerlund. They did some mean-spirited raids on Verne. What were his spirits like? And as far as his booking philosophy, that was not changing, and was part of the problem, what was his mindset, and what was he like to work with when you first came in?
Well, he was an interesting character. He was a typical old school, old wrestler-promoter. He didn't want to change the ways, but he saw what was going on in New York. But they wanted to stay more traditional. And they tried to keep up and change, but he wanted to stay up and change, but he just didn't know how to do it at the time. And he made a lot of mistakes. And I was one of the guys that was trying to do it different, but they just wouldn't listen. (Chuckles)
You know, maybe it was just meant to be. It was just a time when the mom-and-pop store went away. Verne probably even stayed in business too long trying to compete with it, because he was a fighter and he didn't want to give up.
I guess not long after that you got into a feud with a guy that actually left the WWF when it was taking off, Sgt. Slaughter. You got a hell of a lot of heat in that feud...
Aw, yeah, it was great. It was real easy because his character was over so good at the time from New York, and he had some cartoons and the G.I. Joe doll, or something, so he had a hot character going, and I was so good with shootin' my mouth off getting heat. Plus, Slaughter was a big guy, so the whole illusion of this big guy coming in to "kick my ass," oh, people loved it. When me and Sarge got in the ring it's like the crowd was going so nuts that it was easy to work. It's easy to have a match with the Sarge, and the place going nuts.
We had one match in Chicago I remember at the Horizon and the crowd went nuts. We came back and Bockwinkel said, "That was a ten!" It clicked, and the crowd went nuts. It was a night off with the ‘ol Sarge, he was good.
How was Greg Gagne, because you also got into it with him pretty early on? Greg takes a lot of hits as far as his story goes when people look back and say, “He’s Verne’s son.” He was a pretty good amateur wrestler, what was it like working with him? What were the general feelings on someone who’s actually worked with the guy, instead of just hearing, “He was just Verne’s son”?
Greg was a good athlete and he was an excellent worker. He was a very good worker in that ring. Him and (Jim) Brunzell made a great team. Greg’s only problem was he just wasn’t a very big guy.
He was an excellent worker in the ring, and a good talker, and blah, blah, blah. The only thing they did wrong with Greg is sometimes push him too hard. When you take somebody and push him too hard, harder than the people will buy them, then right away the people start with, “Hey, who’s this kid? No, no, no.” So they made a couple mistakes in that area, but, he was great to work with.
To kind of tie two things together, do you remember when Sgt. Slaughter took Greg under his wing…
God, when he was running through the mud like Rambo?
(Laughs) Whatever movie is hot at the time, every wrestler has to rush out and be Rambo.
The vignettes of him busting through in slow motion. How did that go over? Did the people buy into it? Because looking back, it looked incredibly hokey – but, then again, I guess a lot of stuff does. At the time, what did you think of the whole thing?
Honestly, did you just look at it and go, “Oh, Jesus”?
Back at the time, I probably looked at it and went, “Oh, Christ, they’re grabbing at straws.” It wasn’t a bad idea, but there was a time when it was still Greg Gagne, and they needed some new talent. One of the problems that Verne did wrong, and God love him, at the time where he was trying to compete and change things, he had a hard time changing the top guys. I mean, I was there and I was a hot heel. We brought some other guys in, especially at the end when I had the belt.
But before that, the days you’re talking about, he was pushing the same guys. He kind of got stuck with them when Vince started stealing his top guys. Bockwinkel had already been there 20 years. Greg Gagne had already been around near 20 years. And some other guys. They needed to push new guys.
Was that a pretty much a one-man operation? Was it Verne’s word?
Yeah, it was pretty much a one-man operation in them days. I mean, he had people he listened to. There was pretty much him with the “Yea” or “Nay.” Like it is with Vince today.
Did they kind of ”yes, sir” him to death, with everything he came up with, “Well, that’s a good idea, Verne,” and they just didn’t allow to change?
No, there really wasn’t too much of that. It wasn’t like a bunch of yes men, because the guys he had around him were like Bockwinkel and (Bobby) Heenan, and some other guys that were there for years and years that, you know, had a great relationship with him. They were more like a group of buddies than yes men. It was a good atmosphere. It was a nice atmosphere.
It was around this point that you discovered that you were in the martial arts, and started whipping out those nun chucks.
I used to take the martial arts years ago to supplement the wrestling background, and the amateur wrestling and stuff. And I used to love the nun chucks, so I messed with them for years. And I used to carry them around in my bag to keep fans away when they really hated me, and I used to warm with them before a match. I’d go in the shower and start swinging the chucks around, and loosen up the shoulders, and stretching out a little bit, getting the timing with them.
And one day, I’m warming up in the shower and all of a sudden I hear, (in a excited Verne Gagne voice) “Holy shit! What are those?” And I look over, and it’s Verne! And Verne sees me doing this, and has no idea what these things are… (Laughs) …and I tell him, “It’s like an oriental, martial arts weapon.” And he goes “No shit! Look at that!” (Zbyszko then makes the sound of the nun chucks whipping around) And he freaks out, he’s like “That’s the shit I’m talking about. New shit that people haven’t seen on TV before in wrestling!” He says you gotta bring them on TV, and the next thing I know, I’ve got a Super Ninja. I don’t know where in the hell he got the Ninja.
Who was it?
Some guy Mr. Go from Japan. I had one even bigger down he road.
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|CONVERSATIONS: LARRY ZBYSZKO|