Timeline: The History of WWE
As Told by Larry Zbyszko
On Demand $15.00
Reviewed by Joe Babinsack
As Sean Oliver comments near the conclusion of the nearly two hour program, this is a Civics lesson – “history, politics and economics”. A lesson with a professor, who himself was taught by a man who learned from one of the greatest, and in my biased mind, the greatest professional wrestler of all time.
But we’re not talking the greatness of Bruno Sammartino here, instead focusing on one of the all-time great storylines, which commenced with a stunning heel turn that can never be truly duplicated, and concluded (in many ways, but not fully) with one of the best Cage matches of all time.
Larry Zbyzsko calls this storyline, which took up most of the year 1980, the last great angle of the Old School era.
It’s weird to consider Larry the bridge between Old School wrestling and the modern era, but that position really comes into focus with the dialogue, guided skillfully as ever by Sean Oliver.
The realization that arises after about an hour is that Larry truly is the guy who was the last warrior of the Old School, even as he was the man who took us to Larryland, who brandished nunchakus as AWA Champions, who all but upstaged the NWO in one last, great gasp of working a lot of people – but with an eye towards entertaining the masses, doing business the right way and setting up situations.
Unlike so many of the modern era politicians who were vastly more clever and insipidly less inspiring in the big picture.
Most of all, Larry Zybyszko is the protégé of Sammartino and the most brilliant student of wrestling’s in-ring psychology, as taught by the Master. But even Larry is overawed by comments from Lou Thesz, Nick Bockwinkle and others as they praised his psychology and his working ability.
Thesz, Larry says, called him the best wrestling heel of all time, referencing his ability to work to the styles of his opponents.
Bruno touts Larry as a great, for his ability to go from babyface to heel, completely changing his style. Unlike so many so-called greats of the past thirty years who tweaked a few things and said a few things differently, the self-proclaimed “New Living Legend” completely remade himself.
Sure, there are those that complain about the stalling, but that’s a tactic that was badly duplicated and poorly executed.
With Larry, milking that sheer hatred from clobbering Bruno with a wooden chair was something he built a career upon. Sure, we can wonder why he squandered a few years in the early to mid 1980’s, but he touches a bit upon that on this DVD/On Demand stream, but then again, his personal life is something up to him to reveal.
What Larry does reveal in Timeline: 1980 is a lot more interesting to this wrestling fanatic, even if he’s vastly mis-cast as a typical Kayfabe Commentaries guest.
There’s no real awkwardness, but Larry’s decidedly Old School in language, in staying true to kayfabe, in keeping back some of the more colorful stories, and there’s an ongoing sense that Larry is doling out what he wants to reveal.
But surprisingly, Larry (and hey, I’m a part Polack who grew up in a Polish steel mill town, and even I hate spelling his stage name!) is really “on” here. There’s no dodging of questions, and only one jump-cut that made me wonder what was really said.
(Larry is not one that’s going to talk about sex stories, is not one to spout more than “F” and even at Oliver’s tame prodding, it’s Oliver that drops bombs. The worst we hear out of Zbyszko’s mouth is “blow me” in regards to a funny Japanese wrestler story, although it’s hilarious to realize that Larry wasn’t about to “smarten” the guy up).
I watched this DVD with the unique perspective of someone who has talked often with Bruno Sammartino, who has heard and discussed the happenings, who has also talked about Larry’s book and his recollections about what happened previously.
The only thing I’m slightly questioning of is the timing of Larry, at the suggestion of Bruno, missing a few “B” level shows to get Vince Sr.’s attention and a better cut.
I’m also dubious as to Bruno not knowing what Larry was getting himself into with the heel turn. Mostly because Bruno definitely told Larry (which Larry explains here) that if Larry was to win at Shea Stadium, he would likely get shot before he left the infield.
Which I really don’t believe is in any way related to that “Polish flashlight” joke and incredibly, dangerously ostentatious retort. (Watch the DVD to see what crowd, and to what infamous figure, he told an Italian joke).
Larry does give lessons about industry politics, in the history of the business and also about economics. Actually, most of it surrounds the big storyline of Mentor/Protégé, and a bit more is drawn out by Oliver, talking about the various arenas that are no longer around, and a number of interesting wrestlers in and out of the then WWWF, in 1980.
A lot of that was trivial in comparison to the big story.
As most know, Larry was pretty much a mid-card babyface, and someone that Bruno took under his wing. Larry’s book details a lot of how that played out, and it was vastly more shoot that work, as Larry got involved in the weight lifting, learning the business and most importantly, learning how to work like Bruno worked.
It’s still rather amazing to me how far too many people assume that wrestling is what wrestling is today, that wrestling matches were scripted, discussed, worked out before hand. Sean Oliver’s questions about Bruno and Larry talking about things, before and after certain events, were readily sidestepped (but Larry did set things straight).
It is amazing to hear Larry’s description of the post chair shot reactions.
Bruno himself was a bit pre-occupied for that one, but there’s a strange resonance between Bruno losing to Koloff and thinking his eardrum was broken because of the silence, and the eerie reaction of ringside fans after Zbyszko’s almost unfathomable heel turn.
The shock, the lack of reaction and Larry’s explanation that the people needed a few days to understand what they saw.
But for wrestling fans interested in how the business played out then, and not now, the who storyline began many weeks early, and the ‘scientific’ exhibition was a point that was established by a foundation of believability, a few interview blow-offs, and a promo cut by Larry that cemented his position in the minds of fans who wanted to see him get what he was asking for – just a chance to prove to Bruno what he was made of.
In 1979, Bruno was an interviewer and color commentator, and there were several interviews that Larry refused. Over the course of four weeks, the setup was established, beginning with Larry appealing to the fans to understand his position, and that he could never stand on his own as long as he “stood in Bruno’s shadow”.
That angle is explained by Larry, and most know how that played out. Larry’s insight into his promo, the scene, the aftermath and how he rocketed to one of the most hated wrestlers in the history of the business are all stuff of brilliance.
As we progress through 1980, Larry continues to talk about Bob Backlund, Hulk Hogan and about the dealings with the McMahons. I’m not sure if Larry really should be talking about how he make Vincent K. McMahon cry on the phone, but he talks about that, later in the summer, after he suggested to Vincent J. McMahon that he get the strap from Backlund.
Looking at the attendance figures, a case can definitely be made for that.
What’s interesting on a lot of levels is that Bruno was not doing house shows – just the big arenas – at this time. So Larry was programmed with Ivan Putski and Pat Patterson and the TV shows had little interaction between Larry and Bruno.
If you wanted to see the hottest feud in the nation, you had to go to Philadelphai, Boston, Pittsburgh, Landover or, of course, Madison Square Garden – where the first matchup between the two drew over 26000 fans on March 24.
Interestingly enough, the return match between Larry and Bruno drew nearly 20,000 to the Spectrum in Philadelphia. A month later, the spectrum drew a reported 8500 fans…. The main event? WWWF Champion Bob Backlund vs Hulk Hogan.
Meanwhile, the momentum at MSG for Larry allowed the WWWF to draw a “near capacity crowd” according to http://www.thehistoryofwwe.com/, for a 16 man Battle Royal.
It’s about this time that Larry describes his prodding by Bruno to ask Vince Sr. about getting the belt. Larry’s elevation to the top of the cards bought him a lesson in hardball politics, and he found himself in the middle of one of wrestling’s biggest, most turbulent and likely relatively most profitable wrestler/promoter relationship of all time.
Whether Larry’s talk about hatred was on the mark or not seems a little too much, there were definite issues and long standing ones, between Bruno and the elder Vince.
What’s interesting is how both Bruno and Larry worked and politicked and maneuvered things to the Shea Stadium show. Also the June title match between Larry and Backlund, where Larry talked up a power play, likely deserved by his momentum, and also very likely one more building block to the stadium show.
Bruno had already talked up the potential of Shea being a retirement match.
Putting the belt into play, if Larry had won it, would make a can’t-miss event – who would want to miss the opportunity of either one last match for Bruno, or a return to the belt he made famous?
But that never quite played out, and in the end, the match needed no further stipulations or gimmicks. Larry talks big about the attendance – over 36,000 to the stadium, and jokes about Hogan’s claims of being the draw, jokes about Backlund being relegated to the Tag Team title match, and provides some interesting details about the match.
And that there were no discussions before or after.
Larry’s run in the WWWF sort of faded away. He was programmed with Tony Garea (his former WWWF Tag Team Champion parter) and his matches with Bruno hit the secondary circuits as late as November.
But for the few months before and after Shea in August, Larry had his dream come true, and he was headlining the big arenas, including the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh – where he once went to watch Bruno Sammartino beat the bad guys.
For me, the insight into psychology and the way wrestling was is the best part of the talk. Larry talks about ad-libbing, about working to the crowd, about knowing the energy (positive and negative) of the fans reactions, and even about being able to create riots – even when one got him stabbed in the butt.
There’s just something about the realization that wrestling has long forgotten 90% of what Larry Zbyszko learned from Bruno, and that with each year, the aspects of knowing how to work, not just how to follow a script, is dying fast.
But there’s still guys out there who know a lot about how things can and should work, and Larry Zbyszko is definitely one to listen to.
Joe Babinsack can be reached at
. Ring of Honor coming up, plus several other indie promotions.