An MWR “Respect the Legends” Special Feature.
by Josh Ray
Most pro wrestling fans rarely go back more than twenty-five years in history to name “legends”. Anything earlier than that is some how off a fan’s radar. Going back twenty-five years from press time would make the year 1983. Harley Race was nearing the end of his run in the National Wrestling Alliance and would soon be headed to the World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment). But, who trained Harley Race? Who was a wrestling legend to a young Harley Race as he was making his way into professional wrestling?
That man’s name is Stanislaus Zbyszko. He also trained a long time tag team partner of Race, Johnny Valentine. He was born on April Fool’s Day, April 1, 1879 in Krakow, Poland and was one of the top European wrestlers in wrestling history. He’s a former world heavyweight champion (twice) and a member of the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame (2003), the Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame (1996), and The National Polish American Sports Hall of Fame (1983).
His real name was Stanislaus Cyganiewicz, but his childhood friends gave him the nickname “Zbyszko”, which was a fictional medieval Polish knight from the novel “Krzyzacy” by Henryk Sienkiewicz, due to his bravery. Although he was born in Poland, he grew up in Vienna, Austria.
He was always naturally strong, but he developed more strength as well as an imposing muscular appearance in the Vindobona Athletic Club while in college, standing 5’8″ and weighing in at a massive 260 pounds. Where most wrestlers in early American professional wrestling made names for themselves by defeating the citizens in various towns for the circus, Stanislaus Zbyszko actually made his name by defeating an experienced grappler at a circus in Poland.
At this time Zbyszko followed in the established footsteps of Europe’s top wrestler, Georg Hackenschmidt, and made his way into the world of professional wrestling with Polish wrestler Ladislaus Pytlasinsky as his mentor. He gradually made himself known as Europe’s fastest-rising Greco-Roman wrestler. He competed in many tournaments and was ranked at the top of European rankings, eventually taking on the name “Stanislaus Zbyszko” as his official wrestling name.
He continued gaining steam in Europe but was surrounded by controversy in the early 1900s when a man he defeated in a series of matches was revealed to have been employed by Zbyszko. He was involved in one of pro wrestling’s earliest revelations of “sports entertainment”.
Zbyszko began competing more and more in both England and the United States, making the transition to the catch-as-catch-can freestyle wrestling over that period of time. He was billed as the top European wrestler, but was established as a top talent in the entire world when he wrestled the already legendary Frank Gotch to a one-hour draw in 1909 in Buffalo, NY. In a rematch, Gotch suckered Zbyszko in the opening handshake, pinning him in 6.4 seconds. The two never wrestled again, possibly due to Zbyszko’s anger over the entire incident.
His next big challenge came in the form of India’s Great Gama. Great Gama was an undefeated champion and had tried many times to get Frank Gotch to wrestle him to no avail. He was a feared man, but Zbyszko took the challenge. In the first match between them, Gama took Stanislaus down with ease but was unable to pin him. The two wrestled to a tremendously long 3-hour draw. Zbyszko became the first man to be able to escape a match with Great Gama without a loss. The second two meetings were less impressive for Zbyszko, losing one match by forfeit and the second one in only 42 seconds.
Zbyszko left another legacy in 1925 at the ripe age of 47. After defeating Ed “Strangler” Lewis for the World Heavyweight Title in 1921 and losing it to him neraly a year later, he was supposed to lose a match for the heavyweight title to an ex-football player with little or no wrestling experience by the name of Wayne Munn. A rival promoter paid Zbyszko to pin Munn repeatedly until the referee had no other choice but award him the belt. He then dropped the belt to the rival promoter one month later to complete the scheme. While the ploy worked, it set a precedent for pro wrestling booking. From that point until decades later, wrestling promoters were reluctant to have a champion that couldn’t hold his own if a match turned into a legitimate fight.
He retired a few years later in 1928 after a rematch with Great Gama in India in front of a reported 60,000 fans. The match was 18 years after their first match that went to a three hour draw, and only lasted 30 seconds with Gama winning. He then scouted wrestling talent in South America, discovering another pro wrestling legend, Antonino Rocca, before settling in St. Joseph, MO on a farm. He and his brother discovered and trained Harley Race and Johnny Valentine on that farm.
During his retirement, Zbyszko appeared in two movies. One was “Madison Square Garden” in 1932 and the other was a film called “Night and the City” in 1950. He played a professional wrestler in both, with “Madison Square Garden” being the one that he played himself in.
On September 23, 1967, Stanislaus Zbyszko died of a heart attack at age 88 in St. Joseph, MO.
Stanislaus Zbyszko, a world reknown pro wrestling legend. He settled in the heart of the Missouri Wrestling Revival coverage area, and we here at MWR pay respect.
Respect the legends. Respect Stanislaus Zbyszko.
[Author’s Note: I personally recommend reading Harley Race’s book “King of the Ring”. In the book, he talks about his early training under Stanislaus Zbyszko. MWR does not currently have this book in the online store but check back, as we will have it soon!]