Book review: Taking a trip to Larryland

Whenever I'm asked what the greatest wrestling angle is that I've ever seen, it doesn't take me long to answer. I was 13 in 1980 when Larry Zbyszko turned on his mentor, the "Living Legend" Bruno Sammartino, and nearly 30 years later I have yet to see anything equal it.

Overnight, Zbyszko went from being a bland, mid-card babyface to the No. 1 heel in the business (in addition to becoming one of my favorite wrestlers). Largely because of his battles with Sammartino in what then was known as the WWWF, Zbyszko would go on to have a successful career that spanned decades.


Not surprisingly, Zbyszko's turn on Sammartino is the subject of several chapters in his recently released autobiography, Adventures in Larryland.

After Zbyszko – who really was broken into the business by Sammartino – shockingly smashed his mentor over the head with a chair three times and left him lying in a pool blood during a televised bout, matches between the former friends sold out arenas throughout the Northeast during the spring and summer of 1980, culminating in the famous cage match before more than 40,000 fans at Shea Stadium that August.


On the surface, Zbyszko's heel turn was a basic student-turns-on-teacher angle, but it actually went way beyond that. The attack on Sammartino was viewed as second only to Judas' turn on Jesus as the biggest betrayal in history. Sammartino, in fact, began referring to Zbyszko as "Judas," which led to Zbyszko delivering one of the greatest comeback lines ever: "If I'm Judas, I guess we know who he thinks he is." Sammartino was so universally loved by the fans that his protégé stabbing him in the back led to one fan literally stabbing Zbyszko in the back – well, actually his backside.

As heated as the Zbyszko-Sammartino feud was, the two wrestlers' power struggle with the McMahons – Vince Sr. and Vince Jr. – behind the scenes was just as intense. In the book, Zbyszko pulls back the curtain and reveals a classic example of the often adversarial relationship between wrestlers and promoters. One phone call between Zbyszko and McMahon Jr., the current WWE chairman who was working under his father at the time, is almost too strange – and funny – to be believed. It's also perhaps one of the main reasons Zbyszko was never brought back to the company after McMahon Jr. took over.

Much like Chris Jericho's book, A Lion's Tale: Around the World in Spandex, Adventures in Larryland tells the story of a young man following his dream to become a professional wrestler and ultimately making it big in the business. In addition to his WWWF run, Zbyszko also chronicles his stints in the AWA and WCW, including his key role behind the scenes in the creation of the nWo angle, as well as his aborted feud with Dusty Rhodes.

Another trait that Zbyszko's book shares with Jericho's is its humorous tone. Both recount some laugh-out-loud stories and you definitely can hear the author's voice when reading them. Zbyszko wrote the book himself, and while Jericho did have a co-author, A Lion's Tale clearly was not an as-told-to book. Zbyszko's funniest stories involve airplanes, including one about the 601-pound Haystacks Calhoun that has to be on the short list of the best wrestling travel stories of all time.

When comparing the two books, however, the similarities end there. Although both tell some great stories, Jericho has a lot more of them. A Lion's Tale is 432 pages (and the story ends with Jericho making his WWE debut in 1999), while Adventures in Larryland is 189. I expected more road stories, backstage tales, observations and opinions from someone like Zbyszko, who made his debut in the territorial days in the '70s and also was relevant during the Monday Night Wars era (he had pay-per-view matches with Scott Hall and Eric Bischoff when WCW was at its peak).

While Jericho's pro wrestling career was the focus of his book, he also went into detail about his personal life, which Zbyszko really doesn't do. I was especially disappointed that Zbyszko didn't discuss his marriage to AWA promoter Verne Gagne's daughter, and the positives and negatives of being the boss' son-in-law in a competitive, cut-throat business.

When it comes to writing about the women in his life, Zbyszko definitely is a tease. He mentions having a beautiful but psychotic girlfriend during the time of his big heel run in the WWWF, but only says, "I could write an entire novel about this relationship alone, but no one would believe me." And let's just say the chapter about love and the wrestling business is rather short.

But don't get me wrong; I enjoyed my trip to Larryland. I just wish my visit would have lasted a little longer and I could have been exposed to more of the landscape.


Note: Check back later for a Q&A with Larry Zbyszko.