This article was originally published in Wrestling Perspective,Volume XIV, Issue #108.
The Top 100 Pro Wrestlers of All Time
By John F. Molinaro
Edited by Jeff Marek and Dave Meltzer Winding Stair Press, 2002
Buy It At Amazon.com
Americans, as a whole, have always had trouble with the past. Perhaps it is because we as a nation have no founding mythology. Britain has the romanticism of Arthur and Camelot, Rome has Romulus and Remus, India has Brahma and Shiva. We, on the other hand, have the cold logic of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitutional Convention. There is nothing fuzzy and warm about the leading men of our time using the tactics of debate and philosophy to forge a country. Countries should be forged by super heroes wielding magic swords and doomed by the gods to a fate worse than death upon completion of their tasks.
To compensate we have created various myths from our own young history: God is always on our side. Presidents such as Washington, Lincoln, and FDR reach Olympic proportions. We never do anything out of self-interest; rather we are always fighting for justice, democracy and like ideals. This new mythos has served us well, even seeing us through a civil war that would have rendered any other country into a state of permanent unrest.
However, no mythology could have prepared us for the electronic age and its new credo: Nothing is absolute; the only thing that matters is the present. Television has done such a wonderful job at obfuscating the past that the assassination of John F. Kennedy, a television event in and of itself, which shook this country like few others and transformed a mediocre president into a heroic martyr, is as remote to the MTV generation as the assassination of Julius Caesar.
Television, in fact, is the great leveler, becoming not the main source of information, but the only source of information for so many Americans. Because the past, when televised as a play, movie, or documentary, takes place in the present, it tends to become part and parcel of the present moment. Memories become not only individualized, but also personalized, and nostalgia (a past that really didn’t exist) replaces clarity.
Case in point: The New York Daily News recently held a poll for the greatest Yankees of all time by position. It should come as no surprise that many of today’s Yankees finished high in the poll, even though their careers are not finished. But then, today’s viewers see Alfonso Soriano play second base, while Tony Lazzeri is only a distant memory. That Babe Ruth still enjoys the adoration of fans is more due to the fact he has become a media icon – there were movies made about him, film of him is available of ESPN, and most importantly, statistics of his achievements survive, because baseball has a history. No one can take away the fact that he hit 714 home runs in his major league career. But get rid of the stats and the Babe is on the same playing field as any other Yankee, dependent on the mercy of memory.
Now let’s move on to wrestling. (About time, one would think.) There are two forms of wrestling: amateur, born in the Western World of the Greeks and passed on down through the years by such stalwarts in this country as Washington and Lincoln, and professional, born in the carnivals and backrooms of saloons and passed on down in this country by such stalwarts as Farmer Burns and Toots Mondt. Amateur wrestling is rich in history and enhanced by statistics: won-lost records, victories by pinfall, team results, to name a few. Professional wrestling, on the other hand, has no history, only a past. It abhors statistics, for statistics expose rather than enhance its spectacle. Imagine a sport with 20 world champions, each of whom defends his title 360 times a year in squalered locations such as high school gymnasiums.
It is precisely because of this, however, that professional wrestling was made for the tube. In the beginning, television adapted to wrestling, treating it much the same as baseball and football. But that couldn’t last, especially when one has a Gorgeous George as a star. (Try to imagine George and his persona in any other sport.) There was no way wrestling would be taken seriously, so in order to survive wrestling did the next best thing: it adapted to television, becoming one of television’s first infommercials, localized to meet the needs of its audience and promoters.
The revolving story line was introduced. Whereas before television, the weekly cards depended on such things as the Crusher defeating the Masher by a controversial DQ, now the Crusher gets over on television by stealing the Masher’s title belt, car, wife, etc. Before, we went to the rematch to see if the Masher could score a clean victory over Crusher. Now, we went to see the evolving soap opera, whether a “title vs. hair” match or a “title vs. possession of Masher’s wife” match. Drama, or rather melodrama, was thus added to keep audiences guessing, watching, and attending.
Given all this, it becomes difficult to choose a list of the greatest wrestlers of all time. Where does one begin? Do we begin with wrestling ability? Sounds good, but do we limit it to that? Wrestlers having only a rudimentary knowledge of the basics and a great gimmick made some of the biggest impact over the years. How about those who were good on television? All right, but what about those who made an impact on the game before television? What is meant by “impact,” anyway? Is it tied to audience recognition alone or is it the influence a wrestler has made within the game? How about a wrestler’s won/lost record? How about trying to find an accurate one? Even the compilers of the most detailed wrestler’s record will admit there are plenty of matches the wrestler had of which there exists no record at all.
The good news in The Top 100 Pro Wrestlers of All Time is that, in the foreword, editor Dave Meltzer provides a criterion for choosing a Top 100. The bad news is that in the foreword editor Dave Meltzer provides a criterion for choosing a Top 100. Meltzer’s arguments have more holes in them than a wheel of Swiss cheese. To justify his selections he gives the following criteria:
- Professional success
- Importance to history
- How good they were in the ring
- Their drawing power
- The mainstream status they achieved.
But even this is hedged, for Meltzer qualifies the criteria by refusing to aver that this is the final standard. He mentions that among the criteria followed were the former. Hmmm.
Just who is the ultimate beneficiary of all this? Why Ric Flair, of course. And that should surprise you? Meltzer has had a jones for Flair for years; this would be his ultimate tribute to his god. Dave, though, anticipates the problems people would have with such a list:
"You can argue every position endlessly (and they were argued, as this list was not based on one person’s opinion, but was the collaboration of several wrestling experts)."
Not surprisingly, these “experts” aren’t named (much like Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame star chamber, the members whose identities he “protects” because some might supposedly fear retribution … but that’s a subject for another day). Perhaps if these “experts” were named they might want to get paid for being in print. Or, being in Dave’s circle, they simply parroted the Master. I have always had the feeling that if Meltzer named Barry Horowitz as history’s greatest wrestler, most of his sycophants would not only support the choice, but also provide additional reasons as to why it is the case.
Actually, though, I get the feeling that the “experts” who picked this list were none other than Dave Meltzer and Jeff Marek. If you notice, their names are featured on the cover of the book as editors. As this is a book by one individual and not a collection of essays or chapters by different contributors (nor is the author deceased), I find it rather strange that the editors should also be prominently mentioned on the front cover.
It gets stranger still. Author John F. Molinaro has stated, on the Wrestling Oberserver Web site that the group of experts was basically a trio: himself, Meltzer, and Marek. Yet, Meltzer, strongly disputes this statement, insisting that he had lenghty dicussions with more than a dozen people about the subject (though none have come forward to confirm this). Meltzer does confirm that he had a great deal of influence on the ranking of the candidates. It wouldn’t be a pro wrestling book if there wasn’t some element of mystery, kayfabe, con, or whatever going on, now would it?
Meltzer saves his strangest argument for last. I say “strange” because the argument is an obvious tautology. Comparing contemporary wrestlers to those in the past on a level playing field can produce weird results:
"It is also important to remember that many of the best wouldn’t necessarily have been successful in other eras. For example, it’s doubtful that the Lou Thesz of 1950 would be a star in the WWE of 2002. For that matter, neither would Andre the Giant, as the fascination with slow-moving giants is long past (as we have seen with the Big Show, a bigger and more athletic version of Andre that has been the WWF’s [sic] single-biggest marketing disappointment of the past several years). Santo and Rikidozan were cultural heroes at a time when their countries needed them. What they did in their day wouldn’t have any relevance to wrestling today, but each performer’s influence still remains strong. The popularity of Santo in the Fifties led to the popularization of the mask, which is still the most important element of Lucha Libre 50 years later. Rikidozan exuded real toughness, which, in Japan, is extremely important. You can be the flashiest wrestler or the best talker around, but if the people don’t think you are legitimately tough, you’ll always be missing one of the most important ingredients for stardom there."
The next paragraph continues the fun:
"In the U.S., with the advent of Hulkamania, you had to look like a star, complete with the tan and physique. While appearance was important beforehand, it took on a far greater importance after 1984, and would exclude many wrestlers prior to this era from today’s version of the sport. Certain wrestlers, such as Hogan, Flair, Austin, Rock, and Bruiser Brody would probably have been stars at any point and anywhere in the modern history of wrestling had they been given a fair chance."
That certain wrestlers from the past would have a difficult time today is a given. Stars such as Stan Zbyszko and even Frank Gotch would have trouble. But, like Santo and Rikidozan, they were products of their times. (Actually Santo and Rikidozan would not have a hard time achieving stardom in today’s rings, for the game in Mexico and Japan has not changed as drastically as has the game in America and Europe.) The example of the 1950 Lou Thesz, however, was poor indeed. Update Lou Thesz and we get Kurt Angle.
On the other hand we are told that the likes of Hogan, Flair, Austin, Rock and Brody would be stars anywhere within the time frame of modern wrestling (whenever that is, but for argument’s sake, let’s assign 1947 as our boundary). It is far easier for a Thesz to adapt to the future than it is for a Hogan to adapt to the past. Hulk Hogan in Fifties wrestling is Sterling Golden, a big, bleached-blonde heel, most likely managed by Count Rossi in the South. Flair might make it, but as an ex-power lifter and most likely as a Buddy Rogers imitator, which, in actuality, he is. But unlike today, with Rogers forgotten by fans, Flair seems fresh. Back then, Rogers would still be around to remind fans who the real deal is. Austin would not be much of a talker without the use of profanity and would probably wind up in a tag team as a “Hollywood” or “Atomic” Blond (since steroids weren’t around back then, he might still have his hair).
Considering the racial atmosphere of that earlier era, Rock would either have to become an Indian or a Pacific Islander to get over, and there would only be so far he’d be allowed to go, as he isn’t white. Perhaps in Los Angeles he might achieve some real stardom, but elsewhere it’s gimmick time. If he ever were to campaign as an African-American, he would exist only to give Shag Thomas and Luther Lindsay a respite from each other. Brody would have the best chance of success, but as a freak act. With that wild mane of hair and fur lined boots he wore on occasion, he would be billed as a Wild Man of Borneo type, good for a couple of appearances a year, but boring beyond that point.
Lesson: Wrestling, more than any other sport, is time-sensitive, and 1984 was the beginning of a radical break with the past.
Before I subject the Top 25 on this list to scrutiny, let me say a few words about the book itself. John Molinaro did a superb job in writing the capsule biographies and the photos, most of which were provided by Dr. Mike Lano, should go far in reinforcing his reputation as one of wrestling’s greatest photographers. Add a tip of the hat to the editors in their choice of photos to accompany the text. Whereas in some books the photos clash with the text, in this case the photos serve to enhance the text and, consequently, the reader’s pleasure. If you were to ask me if you should buy this book, my answer would be an enthusiastic “yes.” The book itself is important to history, though there are some historical blunders that make you wonder just how hands-on Meltzer was in terms of actual editing. As entertainment goes, it is far superior to most of the “biographies” WWE stars have been putting over on the public.
Now to the critique: I shall use the criteria provided to assess each for my own Top 25. The reason I hold myself to 25 is two-fold: (1) To cover all 100 would be tedious to both author and reader; and (2) after 25 it tends to be a crap shoot.
It must also be mentioned that because the category of Importance to History is ambiguous, I am taking it to mean both the impact of the novelty and its impact on the future direction of the game. Wrestlers still active so far have little, if any, impact on the future direction of wrestling, save for Hogan and Flair, who seem to transcend time. Their standings in the Phantom’s list will be so reflected. Following is the Top 25, along with a criteria (by me) of their impact and where they would reside on the Phantom’s list.
“Let the arguments begin.”
1. LOU THESZ (2)
Professional Success: Six-time NWA World’s Champion at a time when the belt meant something.
Importance to History: The glue that held the NWA together. No Thesz, no Flair, period. Wrestlers still use the “Lou Thesz press.” Hero and role model of Kurt Angle, his solid style will always outlast the performance art of the moment.
How Good in the Ring: On a scale of 1 to 10, he was a 12. I never saw a bad Thesz match, even against the likes of a Rocca.
Drawing Power: Good enough to keep the NWA financially viable. Bad gates didn’t doom the NWA, the US Government did.
Mainstream Status: Considerable in Japan. Accepted as the real thing in the US by the amateur wrestling community, no light accomplishment.
Phantom Comment: Amazing, isn’t it, that the editors could place Thesz behind anyone in the long history of pro wrestling. No one, and I repeat, no one, has done more to shape the history and direction of the game than Lou Thesz. Though he didn’t found the NWA, he gained his fame by reigning as its champion, being at the same time an ambassador for the sport and a role model in bringing in collegiate wrestlers. Without Thesz there is no NWA, and without the NWA there is no Flair, because being NWA champion got Flair out of the Mid-Atlantic ghetto and provided him with a worldwide presence. Without the NWA title, Flair would have ranked the same as Ray Stevens.
2. GORGEOUS GEORGE (17)
Professional Success: The right man at the right time for the right medium. Television made George a superstar and George did more to sell television sets than any other athlete. Had an amazing run at the top, from about 1944 to 1955. Cooled off after that, but could still be counted upon as a special attraction.
Importance to History: Every bleached blond baddie owes a debt of gratitude to The Gorgeous One. Jack Pfeffer copied George’s use of a valet and began the career of one Fabulous Moolah, a trend that has lasted to this day. Was the first to do the freak act without actually being a freak, which opened the door to future flamboyant wrestlers.
How Good in the Ring: No Lou Thesz, that’s for sure; but could hold his own as a worker. Never embarrassed himself in the ring and could hold an audience’s interest past the pre-bell routine.
Drawing Power: Because he had to be seen to be believed, he had to be seen. No one even remotely like him had ever been seen before; remember that he debuted in the staid Forties and lasted into the conservative Fifties. Now we take his imitators for granted. Nothing shocks anymore.
Mainstream Status: Mention Ric Flair to a non-wrestling fan you know. Then mention Gorgeous George. Case closed. Comedians of the time such as Bob Hope and Jack Benny always had a Gorgeous George joke or two in their monologue; the last time I heard a Ric Flair joke was never. He was also one of the first wrestlers to have a movie vehicle in Alias the Champ.
Phantom Comment: One day we’ll get over our kay fabe prejudices (your not-so-humble commentator included) and appreciate this man for the breakthrough performer he truly was.
3. JIM LONDOS (12)
Professional Success: Multiple holder of various world titles. He was the dominant wrestler/gate attraction of the Thirties.
Importance to History: Lengthy career spanned from about 1916 to 1960. He was the first non-hooker to hold the championship for any appreciable amount of time. (Having Ray Steele as your personal policeman doesn’t hurt either.) His acrobatic style helped take the game off the horizontal confines of the mat.
How Good in the Ring: Credible worker who made fans believe they were seeing the real thing. A Frank Gotch would have made mincemeat of him, but Londos was careful never to wrestle Gotch-types without pre-set agreements.
Drawing Power: First wrestler to bring large numbers of women fans to the arenas. Londos even sold a beefcake calendar of himself in wrestling togs with a muscleman pose at the beach. The fact that he could draw sellouts against Primo Carnera in the Fifties coming-out-of-retirement matches is a testimony to his charisma. He also drew well in a later Australian tour.
Mainstream Status: How many other wrestlers starred in their very own X-rated comic? Answer: none that I could find (and my research was extensive – and enjoyable).
Phantom Comment: Steve Yohe must be smiling just about now.
4. BUDDY ROGERS (10)
Professional Success: AWA (Al Haft), NWA and WWWF champion. Considered one of the greatest workers of the postwar era.
Importance to History: A bleached blond blowhard who was the macho version of Gorgeous George. Every blowhard afterward, from Fred Blassie to Ric Flair, is in his debt. Practically invented the art of the interview. One of the few wrestlers who knew how to use the tube to his advantage.
How Good in the Ring: One of the smoothest and most consistent workers when healthy. His ego led to more than a few locker room skirmishes, the most famous of which was the confrontation with Karl Gotch and Bill Miller.
Drawing Power: Women loved his arrogant bluster with a sense that they knew it was no act. Men hated him but came out in droves to see him anyway. Along with Rocca and Thesz, the drawing card of the Fifties.
Mainstream Status: Featured in many magazine articles and appeared on quite a few television shows. Even made the pages of Mad Magazine in 1964, in a parody entitled “Angry Magazine.” Buddy shares a round-table forum with boxer Sonny Liston, labor leader Walter Reuther, and U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater. Highlight was a drawing of Rogers trapped in a leglock by Goldwater.
Phantom Comment: The total heel package. Killer Kowalski was a better and more consistent heel, but Rogers was the superior worker who could change hats from time to time.
5. HULK HOGAN (5)
Professional Success: Are you kidding? The biggest attraction in wrestling history and the man who made Vince McMahon king of the hill.
Importance to History: Wrestling history from 1984-1990 will always be known as “The Hogan Era” for better or worse.
How Good in the Ring: Fantastic until he actually had to wrestle. The wrestling always seemed to him to be an unnecessary interruption of his posing.
Drawing Power: The best draw in history. It is said Steve Austin drew even more, but Austin was gimmick-created while Hogan drew on his persona.
Mainstream Status: Even non-wrestling fans know who Hulk Hogan is. Would Jay Leno get in the ring with any other wrestler?
Phantom Comment: Image is everything.
6. FRED BLASSIE (33)
Professional Success: Bleached blonde blowhard who has wowed them in both the U.S. and Japan. Known as a heel that would do anything to win, his interview style was the best in the history of the game.
Importance to History: Made his mark as both a wrestler and manager. Fondly remembered in Japan where he boasted he caused a number of heart attacks because of his style.
How Good in the Ring: A cross between Rogers and Kowalski in style, and one of the great ring psychologists.
Drawing Power: Filled arenas in the Atlanta area in the late Fifties, then went on to become the leading draw in California’s WWA during the Sixties. His series against Bruno Sammartino in 1964 helped establish the WWWF. In Japan he had the lure of Dracula – frightening, but they paid by the droves, especially in his series with Rikidozan.
Mainstream Status: A frequent television guest, whether sitcom or a talk show, he is also a pop-culture icon, with his record, “Pencil Neck Geek,” a phrase he made into a mainstream quip.
Phantom Comment: Beats everyone on interviews, but Rogers got there first.
7. RIKIDOZAN (3)
Professional Success: The God of Puroresu.
Importance to History: His ability built professional wrestling in Japan; his persona kept it together and respected.
How Good in the Ring: Could match styles with anyone. His matches with Thesz and the Destroyer were classics.
Drawing Power: A given in Japan. Drew extremely well in California with his only gimmick being his ring ability.
Mainstream Status: Still a God in Japanese sports. Unknown in the U.S., except to a handful of specialists.
Phantom Comment: I saw a tape of Rikidozan versus the Destroyer. I was totally in awe. The impressive thing about him was that he could back up what he did in the ring and behind the scenes – until the odds became too great.
8. BRUNO SAMMARTINO (15)
Professional Success: THE WWF champion. No Bruno, no WWWF, no WWF, no Vince McMahon, Jr. (Bruno will love reading this!)
Importance to History: The dominant wrestler of the Sixties. Also established the big man as a champion, for better or worse.
How Good in the Ring: Better than a lot of people thought, especially before his back injury limited him. Took pride in his profession and always strived to be better on the mat. Great ring psychologist; could make the most hard-hearted fan sympathetic to his plight in the ring.
Drawing Power: Call him Mr. Madison Square Garden, where he headlined forever and set a record for sellouts. So necessary to the fiscal health of the WWWF that they brought him back after Pedro Morales turned out to be less of a draw than expected.
Mainstream Status: Well-known still in the Northeast, thanks to personal appearances. His memory is fading in the rest of the country.
Phantom Comment: A class act in every sense of the word – and a lot smarter than he lets on.
9. EL SANTO (7)
Professional Success: The God of Lucha Libre. Movie Star extraordinare.
Importance to History: The right man at the right time for Mexican wrestling. His influence is still strong.
How Good in the Ring: His acrobatic style set the standard for others to follow. More than just another hero in a mask.
Drawing Power: In Mexico and anywhere else his fame was known, he was money in the bank. His movies are still popular today both in Mexico and the U.S.
Mainstream Status: A household name in Mexico, a cult hero in the U.S.
Phantom Comment: The only ones to ever rival him in crossover fame in Mexico were Blue Demon and Mil Mascaras.
10. RIC FLAIR (1)
Professional Success: Umpteen-time NWA/WCW champion. Also held WWF belt, no small feat when we consider the fate of most NWA stars who jumped to the WWF during the Hogan era.
Importance to History: Last believable NWA/WCW champ.
How Good in the Ring: One of the best who ever donned a pair of tights. In later years became somewhat predictable.
Drawing Power: Considerable by NWA/WCW standards.
Mainstream Status: Practically none outside the Southeast. May run for governor or senator in North Carolina. We’ll see.
Phantom Comment: If I’m still around 10 years from now to revise this list, readers could well find Flair ranked higher. Much depends on those he influences. He’s not doing himself any glory right now as Preparation H’s caddy.
11. FRANK GOTCH (11)
Professional Success: Dominant wrestler during the turn of the century. His matches with George Hackenschmidt were front-page news in the Midwest and made the front page on the sports pages in the rest of the country.
Importance in History: As the man who made professional wrestling into a worthy news item, his place in history is assured. However, there was no Frank Gotch influence after his retirement. His choice for champ, Henry Ordemann, was quickly deposed by Charlie Cutler. Cutler, in turn, was deposed by Joe Stecher.
How Good in the Ring: The real deal. Worked a strong style; so strong, in fact, that I believe it led to his early death from kidney failure.
Drawing Power: Great until the second Hackenschmidt bout. The distaste over that, combined with Gotch headed toward retirement, dulled his box office appeal.
Mainstream Status: It was a different world for wrestlers back then. Gotch was idolized like any other mainstream athlete. There was no distinction.
Phantom Comments: The strangest thing about the career of Frank Gotch is that he merely retired and left the game, unlike other wrestlers in his position, who used the championship as a power base.
12. ED “STRANGLER” LEWIS (13)
Professional Success: The dominant wrestler of the Twenties. His reputation was such that he survived the many scandals about wrestling during the decade. The consensus was that wrestling may be fake, but the Strangler was the Real Thing.
Importance in History: Led a wrestling renaissance after the attendance doldrums of World War 1. Along with Billy Sandow and Toots Mondt, Lewis held a virtual hammerlock on wrestling during the decade, with practically every name wrestler under contract. After retirement, he worked with Leroy McGuirk and trained Danny Hodge and Dick Hutton for the ring. Lou Thesz credits Lewis with polishing his style in the ring.
How Good in the Ring: He could fake it with the best of them, but no one wanted to face him in a shoot. If he grabbed you with those arms, the next step was being squeezed into unconsciousness with that famous headlock. The “trustbusters” such as John Pesak could taunt him, but stopped short of stepping into the ring with him.
Drawing Power: His reputation drew the crowds. In his later years, he reaped good crowds as a “living legend” type of attraction.
Mainstream Status: Featured in personality pieces and guest-starred on popular radio programs of the day.
Phantom Comments: It’s a shame none of his filmed matches from the Twenties survives today, especially the match with Joe Stecher.
13. ANDRE THE GIANT (6)
Professional Success: The greatest freak act in the history of wrestling.
Importance to History: None. Frankly speaking, he was an anomaly. “Giants” before his tenure and after have all been disappointments, to say the least.
How Good in the Ring: Better than one would expect, until his acromegaly and alcoholism wore him down to the workrate of a slug.
Drawing Power: Tremendous, provided he wasn’t a steady diet. Vince McMahon Sr., who booked him, knew that and kept his appearances in each territory at a minimum.
Mainstream Status: As with Hogan, even non-wrestling fans know who he is; a pop culture icon.
Phantom Comment: It was a great publicity stunt for wrestling when the Redskins looked into signing him for their defensive line. Unfortunately, Andre didn’t train on Gatorade.
14. MILDRED BURKE (77)
Professional Success: Not the first woman wrestler, but certainly the best. Built an empire with then-husband Billy Wolfe. When they split, she later went to Japan, where she helped build Japanese women’s wrestling.
Importance in History: Vital to women’s wrestling. She was the pioneer who took her sport mainstream.
How Good in the Ring: Ask the men who wrestled her in carnivals.
Drawing Power: As a special attraction, she had good drawing power.
Mainstream Status: She was more highly regarded in Japan than here in the U.S., where her successors worked feverishly to erase her name from the books.
Phantom Comments: Without Burke, it’s highly unlikely there would have been the Crush Girls. She is given short shrift in the book, which is unfortunate, given her contribution.
15. VERNE GAGNE (21)
Professional Success: Founded the AWA, where he reigned for many years as its champion.
Importance in History: Top-notch amateur who turned pro, founded a promotion, and ended up among the many blindsided by McMahon Jr. in the Eighties.
How Good in the Ring: Could work any style of the era. He was as good against a Billy Robinson as against a Dick the Bruiser. Stayed active too long, however.
Drawing Power: He was a fantastic draw in the Midwest; rather poor elsewhere because he rarely ventured outside the AWA.
Mainstream Status: Limited to the Midwest.
Phantom Comments: The tendency of late is to kick him for not seeing McMahon coming, but I prefer to remember both Verne and the AWA from the Sixties, when everything he touched turned to gold.
16. ANTONIO ROCCA (58)
Professional Success: Acrobatic wrestler whose style and persona made him the Toast of the East Coast for years and a nationwide attraction. Spawned more imitators than any other wrestler.
Importance in History: Acrobatic style set the standard for his followers.
How Good in the Ring: Decent worker who was better with familiar foes.
Drawing Power: Ruled the Northeast from 1951 until about 1960.
Mainstream Status: Strength trainer for the New York Yankees in 1958. Sought after for talk shows.
Phantom Comments: Had he approached wrestling seriously and trained properly, he might have gone down as the greatest gate attraction of all time and made far more money, which was his driving force, in the process.
17. DANNY HODGE (43)
Professional Success: First and only athlete to win both the NCAA wrestling title and the Golden Gloves.
Importance in History: Made the Junior Heavyweight title a force in the world of wrestling and struck a blow for lighter-weight wrestlers, especially in this country.
How Good in the Ring: One of the very best. Amazing tensile strength; could bend pliers with his hands and crush apples. Remember, this is a 230-pound man and not Andre the Giant we are talking about.
Drawing Power: Phenomenal in the South, Southwest and Japan.
Mainstream Status: Little, if any. There is a movie rumored to be made about his life.
Phantom Comments: Can you believe the editors have him ranked behind the son of Santo?? Amazing.
18. THE DESTROYER (78)
Professional Success: Best of the masked men in terms of ring success and ability.
Importance in History: Gave a respect to a masked wrestler not seen before in the U.S. The Zebra Kid’s outfit was more flamboyant, and thus, more carny. With the Destroyer, one forgot he was wearing a mask. It became a part of him.
How Good in the Ring: Superb. Remember, he was trained by the great Dick Hutton. His acceptance in Japan is a testimony to his toughness and ability, especially as they were awed by his victory over Rikidozan.
Drawing Power: Great in California and Japan.
Mainstream Status: Little, if any.
Phantom Comments: Great wrestler and worker whose wife sewed his masks.
19. TERRY FUNK (23)
Professional Success: Hardcore icon and former NWA champion.
Importance in History: Helped establish hardcore ECW-style wrestling as a force to be reckoned with. Famous for his garbage matches.
How Good in the Ring: In his youth, he was a talented wrestler. As he got older, he turned to brawling.
Drawing Power: If they didn’t think he could draw, he wouldn’t have been NWA champion.
Mainstream Status: Known for his roles in movies such as Paradise Alley and Road House.
Phantom Comments: Should have retired five years ago. Had more retirements than Liz Taylor had husbands.
20. BILLY ROBINSON (68)
Professional Success: Wigan-trained strong-style wrestler who was able to successfully adapt to a lighter style, keeping his training for when he needed it during trips to Japan.
Importance in History: The best English wrestler since Bert Assirati, which is really saying something. Inheritor of a grand tradition that goes back to the great George Steadman in the 19th century.
How Good in the Ring: His ability to adapt his style to his opponent made him stand out among his peers.
Drawing Power: Better in Canada, Japan and Europe than the U.S., where he toiled in the AWA.
Mainstream Status: Held in great esteem in Japan.
Phantom Comments: One of the true hookers in the game.
21. AKIRA MAEDA (44)
Professional Success: Known forever as the wrestler who injured Riki Choshu with a shoot kick. Used the incident to great advantage.
Importance in History: Founded the strong-style UWF; became the ancestor of Ultimate Fighting.
How Good in the Ring: More of a martial artist than a wrestler; his reputation as a legitimate tough guy won the fans to his side.
Drawing Power: Huge in Japan.
Mainstream Status: Not much outside the sports pages in Japan.
Phantom Comments: Will have a great impact on the future of wrestling after the McMahon carnival burns out.
22. ANTONIO INOKI (4)
Professional Success: Most popular wrestler in Japan in the post-Rikidozan era. The most politically savvy wrestler since Bill Muldoon.
Importance to History: Rescued Japanese wrestling scene after the scandals involving the late Rikidozan and the Yakuza were made public. Fought Muhammad Ali in the most hyped boxer versus wrestler match in history.
How Good in the Ring: Credible performer already hyped by the con of his ability. Met his Waterloo as a serious performer in the Ali bout. Could anyone see Lou Thesz ducking Ali the way Inoki did? So it turned into a shoot. Thesz would have licked his lips and taught Ali a quick lesson in real wrestling.
Drawing Power: Considerable in Japan and throughout Asia. In the U.S., it was another matter entirely. When he bought the NWF in 1973 and put himself over as champion, crickets could be heard at the arenas where he defended the belt.
Mainstream Status: Uncontested in Japan. In the U.S., people still scratch their heads when asked the question, “Who was the wrestler who fought Ali in Japan?”
Phantom Comments: The Japanese Jim Londos.
23. MIL MASCARAS (24)
Professional Success: Most popular crossover Mexican wrestler of all time.
Importance in History: Champion of the IWA, the first time a Mexican wrestler headed a mainstream U.S. promotion.
How Good in the Ring: A 230 pounder who moved like a flyweight.
Drawing Power: One of the best draws ever in the WWF; his persona held the IWA together.
Mainstream Status: Followed Santo and Blue Demon onto the silver screen in Mexico as an action hero.
Phantom Comments: It amazes me he’s still working; he only three years younger than Bruno Sammartino. (Mascaras was born in 1938.)
24. GIANT BABA (8)
Professional Success: If not for Baba’s skills as a promoter, Inoki would have ruled Japanese wrestling.
Importance to History: More as a promoter than as a wrestler.
How Good in the Ring: Mediocre at best, but tried hard.
Drawing Power: Great in Japan and the rest of Asia, so-so in America.
Mainstream Status: A Japanese sports cult icon.
Phantom Comments: A far better promoter/administrator than a wrestler.
25. BERT ASSIRATI (73)
Professional Success: Greatest English wrestler of all time. Trained at Wigan.
Importance in History: Dominated English and European rings during the Postwar period, when wrestling was at an all-time low.
How Good in the Ring: A hooker extraordinare. Too bad he and Thesz never matched up. That would have been the match of the century.
Drawing Power: Superb in Europe, particularly in England, and India. He never came to the U.S.
Mainstream Status: Known as the real deal in Britain.
Phantom Comments: A hooker who has never gotten his just due.
EIGHT WHO JUST MISSED
BRUISER BRODY (18) – A good big man who was a better draw in Japan than the U.S. His unfortunate death in Puerto Rico made him a wrestling martyr. (Paul MacArthur thinks his death turned him into the Jack Kennedy of wrestlers.)
RIKI CHOSHU (19) – Sensational Korean wrestler who wowed ‘em in Japan and was the victim of Maeda’s famous shoot kick. A good performer and booker who put the company ahead of his own ego, which resulted in his firing during a political brawl between Inoki and the rest of the promotion.
DORY FUNK, JR. (26) – NWA Champion from 1969 to 1973, he brought a sense of youth and vitality to the belt. Famous for his feud with later NWA champ Jack Brisco. Word was that Funk wouldn’t drop the strap to Brisco, so Harley Race was brought in as an intermediary, beating Funk and dropping the belt to Brisco one month later.
BRET HART (25) – Former WWF champion and on the receiving end on the most famous and publicized screw job in wrestling history. The rest of his career was spent in WCW, where he gave uneven performances and made his screwing by McMahon into a cottage industry.
JERRY LAWLER (65) – Dominated the Mid-South wrestling scene, where he was by far its most popular performer. A great worker and apt psychologist, he is best known for his feud with Andy Kaufman, which briefly put wrestling on the national map and even made marks out of the wrestlers themselves. Now working as a color commentator for the WWE.
DUSTY RHODES (31) – A three-time NWA champion who began his wrestling career as a heel. Half of the wildly unpopular Outlaws tag team with Dick Murdoch. Turned babyface in Florida in 1975 and went on to become the biggest draw in the territory and eventually its booker. Outside Florida he was a good draw as an attraction, not as a long- term item.
RAY STEVENS (48) – He made his wrestling debut in 1950 at the tender age of 15, learned the business by being Roy Shire’s tag partner and exploded upon the Northern California scene, becoming its greatest draw in the Sixties and early Seventies. Teamed with Pat Patterson in one of history’s greatest tag teams, then entered into a sellout feud with Patterson by turning babyface in 1969. Went to the AWA in 1971 and later teamed with Nick Bockwinkel in another fondly remembered pairing. His “bombs away” finishing move was considered the most dangerous in wrestling at the time.
JUMBO TSURATA (22) – The best Japanese ring psychologist, he was an amazing worker who pushed himself to the limit in almost every match. This would eventually cost him his life, for he contracted Hepatitis B, which destroyed his kidneys and liver and led to his death at the young age of 49.
JOHNNY VALENTINE (32) – One of the toughest wrestlers ever to don a pair of trunks, he was just as tough out of the ring. Loved to work a stiff style, “make each punch and kick count” was his motto. Wherever he went he became a major draw and fan favorite, whether wearing the white hat or the black, in large part due to his ring work. In 1975, he broke his back in a plane crash that ended his career at the age of 47. If not for the accident, his career easily would have lasted another 15 years. Died in 2001 after re-fracturing his back and damaging his colon.
MR. MAGOO LIVES
The following wrestlers were ranked by the editors in the Top 25:
STEVE AUSTIN (9)
A decent worker slowed over the years by injuries, he was headed to Mid-Card Land until he changed his image and became a fan favorite with an angle right out of a Johnny Paycheck song.
Although he is proof that wrestling could survive in popularity without Hogan at the helm, he owes his success in very large part to the help of Vince McMahon.
His drawing power remains strong, but not as good as when he was the Johnny Paycheck character versus the Boss From Hell, Mr. McMahon. He is said to be the biggest moneymaker in the history of the promotion, but Austin peaked after a couple of years and is clearly on the downswing. In large part this is due to injuries and a rotating character. Fans just didn’t take to Austin as a heel, whereas the change of style injected new life into Hogan’s character.
Austin’s t-shirts remain popular among fans and non-fans alike, mainly because he unveils a new design every so often.
THE ROCK (16)
Dwayne Johnson is blessed with great lineage, but it hasn’t translated to his wrestling ability, which is slightly better than average, if that. But his real gift is ability to grab the microphone and dazzle the crowd. One would almost think he was the child of Fred Blassie rather than Rocky Johnson.
The first black wrestler to gain wide acceptance, and the WWE title, he had great drawing power when hot and when given the right opponent. However, his long absences from the ring to make movies have hurt. In wrestling, absence does not make the heart grow fonder.
Hasn’t been around long enough to make an objective determination, and may not be if his Hollywood career catches fire. In that case, he’d be smart to leave wrestling.
MITSUHARU MISAWA (20)
A champion amateur wrestler, Misawa first tasted professional fame when he took over the character of Tiger Mask from the original, Satoru Sayama. He doffed the hood in 1990 and began wrestling under his real name.
The dominant Japanese pro wrestler of the Nineties, his popularity kept All Japan a viable promotion. When Baba died, Misawa’s true talent as one of wrestling’s greatest politicians came to the fore after repeated arguments with Baba’s widow Motoko, over booking and business policy. He severed his ties to All Japan and founded a new promotion: Pro Wrestling NOAH. He also took most of All Japan’s leading talent with him and convinced NTV to dump its long relationship with All Japan for his promotion. Inoki must be proud.
Because the vast majority of his career was spent in Japan, it is impossible to gauge how well he would do in the U.S. and Europe. Perhaps that is good in one sense, because if he came to WCW he’d be typecast as an nWo member and toady to Hogan and Nash. Vince would have kept him in the mid-card range because he’s not all gassed up and could have caused problems for Shawn Michaels, Austin and Preparation H.
Never served as a judge on Iron Chef.
The Phantom of the Ring is a regular contributor to Wrestling Perspective.
Copyright Notice: This article is Copyright © 2003 - 2006 Wrestling Perspective. All Rights Reserved. This article may not be quoted, reprinted, posted on Web sites, or distributed without written permission from Wrestling Perspective publishers Paul MacArthur and David Skolnick.
Footnotes/Endnotes for this article should read as follows:
The Phantom of the Ring, "Mr. Magoo's History Lesson," Wrestling Perspective, Volume XIV, Number 108, (2003).