Tom Zenk narrowly misses out as ...
Larry Zbyszko Wins the AWA World Title ... In A Battle Royal! Bob Smith, PWI, June 1989
Not long ago, larry Zbyszko was the NWA Western States champion but his career was going nowhere fast. Then he left the NWA for the AWA, and suddenly the self-proclaimed "Living Legend" had captured the AWA World title - and revived his career!
1988 was not a good year for Larry Zbyszko. The veteran spent most of the year defending the NWA Western States title, but he was no longer a championship-caliber competitor in the eyes of most fans and promoters. He fell out of the NWA top 10, and most experts believed he was past his prime as a wrestler.
How quickly things change.
After months of lackluster performances, Zbyszko won an 18-man, $50,000 Bunkhouse Stampede on December 28 at the UIC Pavilion in Chicago. The story barely made news around wrestling circles, but to Zbyszko this particular victory was a sign of bigger things to come.
"Even with all this cash, I'm still disgusted,: Zbyszko moaned as he displayed his winner's check in the locker room after the bout. "I've been the Western States champion for almost a year, but what good has it done me? I'm gonna take out my frustrations on every spud head that gets in my way. I promise you, there's still a world title in my future."
It took slightly more than five weeks for Zbyszko to make good on his promise. On February 7, in St. Paul, Minnesota, Zbyszko shocked the wrestling world by winning the AWA World title in - you guessed it! - an 18-man battle royal. This victory meant much more than another battle for title for the Pittsburgh native. It was , in fact, a moment of total redemption.
"After 14 glorious years in this sport, my time has finally come, " yelled Zbyszko after. "I dominated this battle royal the way I've dominated wrestling. I've proven I'm as good - no, better - than I've ever been."
A reporter asked Zbyszko if this was the greatest moment of his career.
"are you kidding, you moron?" responded Zbyszko, a man who has called himself "The Living Legend" for years. "This is better than retiring Bruno Sammartino! It's more satisfying than crippling Nick Bockwinkel! I'm finally the World heavyweight champion."
For Zbyszko, obtaining the right to compete in this battle royal was an uphill struggle. His attorneys spent months in courtrooms, but they succeeded in lifting his lifetime AWA suspension that President Stanley Blackburn ordered in August 1987 after he sneak-attacked and injured Bockwinkel.
Zbyszko was forced to leave the AWA, but it wasn't long before he captured the NWA Western States championship, scoring an upset victory over Barry Windham on January 24, 1988. He assumed his status would ensure a series of title matches against NWA World champion Ric Flair, but one never materialized.
"They're just jealous," Zbyszko claimed, as always blaming others for his problems. "The NWA officials are mad because I came here out of the AWA and immediately won one of the top belts. Well, see if I care. If I don't get my matches against Flair, I'll just bury this Western States belt."
As the months passed, Zbyszko succeeded in doing just that. Often defending the belt only once or twice per month, many fans forgot the Western States title existed. He became a forgotten man. Even signing Gary Hart as his manager did little to boost his career.
Then came the victory in the Chicago Bunkhouse Stampede, which immediately restored the legendary Zbyszko arrogance. At the same time, the hottest rumor in the sport was that Jerry Lawler was in danger of being stripped of his AWA championship for missing title defenses. Zbyszko decided to walk away from the NWA and his Western States title, but he walked right into a berth in the St. Paul battle royal - and the opportunity of a lifetime.
"Remember Chicago," was all Zbyszko would say to reporters before the match. "Just remember the Bunkhouse Stampede, you morons."
In typical Zbyszko fashion, he decided not to get involved in the action at all once the opening bell sounded.
He stood idly by and watched as Sgt. Slaughter attacked his longtime enemy, Col. DeBeers. The Top Guns went after Bad Company. Wahoo McDaniel lunged for Manny Fernandez. Zbyszko? He simply stayed out of everybody's way.
"Hey, with all those feuds going, why get involved?" laughed Zbyszko after the match. "I decided to just step aside and let those other bums rip each other apart. It was a major key in this victory, just like it was in Chicago."
All of the feuding contenders were eventually eliminated, as well as other stars such as Greg Gagne, Ken Patera, Mike George and Akio Sato. In the end, Zbyszko stared across the ring at Tom Zenk, who was also making a return to the AWA with this bout.
Zbyszko vs. Zenk: The man who remained standing would be crowned the new AWA champion.
Zenk fought valiantly against Zbyszko, gaining a solid advantage. Unfortunately, both men collided with referee Gary DeRusha, who was knocked out for almost an entire minute. Zenk had Zbyszko covered for almost 30 seconds, but DeRusha was still shaking off the effects of the crash and couldn't count the pin on Zbyszko in time.
As DeRusha recovered, Zenk continued to dominate. Zenk attempted a flying body press as Zbyszko staggered near the ropes but Zbyszko caught Zenk and catapulted him over the top rope for the surprising victory.
"People were idiots to ignore me for so long," said an ecstatic Zbyszko after his victory. "Tell Blackburn to stick that in his pipe and smoke it."
Indeed the greatest fear of Blackburn and the AWA championship committee has been realized. Larry Zbyszko, a man they tried in vain to keep out of the federation, is now the AWA World champion.
Who knows? Maybe now when he calls himself "The Living Legend," somebody will believe him.
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