It may –or may not– surprise you to learn that I used to be an enormous, passionate fan of so-called professional wrestling, that bit of hormonal, masculine theatre of simulated violence and morality play.
I don’t really watch the product these days, but I have very fond memories of classic matches going back decades. Indeed, I proudly admit to even having been a “wrestling journalist” back in the heyday of the “Attitude Era” and the “Monday Night Wars“. My column was called, No Gimmick Required, and purported to explore the dramatical roots of the weekly TV wrestling offering. I even wrote a chapter for a highschool social studies textbook titled, “Why I Love Professional Wrestling.”
If that chapter didn’t do the job, I won’t bother trying to explain to you why I enjoy this particular form of entertainment. As Jeff Jarrett once said in a TV documentary, “For those who do not understand, no explanation is sufficient. For those who do understand, no explanation is necessary.”
As I sit here in the Toronto Island Airport, awaiting my flight to Ottawa, I find my mind wandering to thoughts of the great matches and in-ring storylines of yore. And I find myself asking that eternal fanboy question… who was the greatest wrestler of all time?
Now, many others have explored this particularly meaningless question. Just do a quick Google search to find them. There is, of course, no right answer, only opinions of varying validity and informedness. To make my list, I considered some important criteria.
First, I could not consider the wrestlers of the early territory system, including Ed “Strangler” Lewis, Frank Gotch, Gorgeous George, Lou Thesz, or even Bruno Sammartino. The reason is that those men competed in a different time, when in-ring work was rated differently, when charisma was not writ large for the TV screen, and when the illusion of athletic rigour was more important than the constructed image of a real life superhero, which is how the latter era of wrestlers are framed.
Next, I consider in-ring ability to be very very important, defined by a large vocabulary of moves, fluid transitions, and the ability to take bumps. Generalship –or the ability to call and construct a match– is something the common fans (“marks”) often aren’t aware of, but I consider that skill, as well. In-ring storytelling ability is a poorly defined, subjective criterion that nonetheless is critical to this discussion. It’s one thing to be able to execute a series of difficult moves in the ring, but quite another to artistically frame such moves to lay out a physical narrative with a begging, middle, climax and denouement.
Third is that amorphous quality called charisma. It’s not just a certain look or the ability to speak, but rather a compelling presence that invites attention. If we knew how to define charisma well, we would probably also be able to bottle it and sell it. And we can’t. Yet.
Fourth is a quality quite external to the wrestler himself, and that is the environment in which he wrestled: the quality of his competition and of the stories crafted by the writers.
An important disclaimer: I am only including wrestlers who were prominent on the North American circuits. To be honest, I’m not a deep fan of Japanese, Mexican, or Indian wrestling, and am unaware of the traditions in other countries. So I guess this post should be called, “The Greatest North American Pro Wrestler in the World.”
So here we go, here is my Top 6. Why 6, and not 5 or 10? Because 6 is as arbitrary a number as any, that’s why….
6. Curt Hennig
Whether skating by under his real name in WCW, as Mr Perfect in WWE/WWF, or as AWA world campion, Hennig exuded a relaxed, earned arrogance that reflected well his supreme in-ring ability. To the fan, it was clear that he reall thought he was Mr Perfect. Almost all of his matches were 5-star events, and somehow he managed to always make his opponent look as good as he did.
I will always fondlyremember a storyline in the dying days of WCW in which “The Powers That Be” had declared that Hennig would be fired if he lost a match, so he scrambled to find any way to always win. Finally, Ric Flair himself berated Hennig for his scrambling ways, constantly referring to him as “the greatest wrestler in the world.”
Shortly after, and just a few months before his death, Perfect would return to the WWE at the Royal Rumble. So many of us watched that PPV just to hear his entrance music. To this day, I play that music for my annoyed friends whenever I win a game of Trivial Pursuit.
5. Bret Hart
The Hitman called himself “the best there is, the best there was, the best there ever will be”. His in-ring generalship really was among the best in history, and he had a well known and well-earned reputation for always having a physically dynamic, complex match that never compromised the health of his opponent.
My problem with Bret, though, was that near the end of his career, all his matches looked the same. And, frankly, his serious personality really didn’t gel well with the emerging Attitude Era. I cringed whenever a microphone was handed to him. While his documentary, “Wrestling With Shadows” was wonderful, it did Bret the disservice of showing how humourless he often is.
4. Ric Flair
Many people would put Ric Flair at the top of their lists, just as a matter of reflex. He was world champion for many organizations multiple times, and was for a long time the actual owner of the Big Gold Belt, which is, to my knowledge, the present WWE World Title belt.
Flair had superlative in-ring skills, unparalleled charisma and a long list of classic matches. The reasons he does not top my list are that his persona, while entertaining, does not cut across different media: he is a cartoon or a caricature. And while he was a bump machine who knew how to work many styles, his in-rings storytelling was never particularly nuanced.
3. Kurt Angle
Who could have foreseen that an Olympic champion would so quickly ascend to the highest ranks of professional wrestling? From the moment he arrived, Angle was main event material. His actual wrestling was, of course, world class. But he transitioned to the art of “fake” wrestling effortlessly, incorporating some phenomenal suplexes into the game.
He dripped initially with supreme nerdy charm, which later evolved to arrogant championship confidence. Kurt Angle brought credibility, athleticism, charisma, and a very big presence to the squared circle.
I would accept an argument that Angle is in fact the best wrestler in the history of this “sport”. But ultimately, I feel that two men surpassed him.
2. Stone Cold Steve Austin
I struggled with whether to put Stone Cold at the top of this list. When he was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, Chris Jericho tellingly said of him, “He deserves his own wing of the Hall of Fame… He took this company from the desert into the promised land.”
Those who are not deep fans of pro wrestling probably would not appreciate the relevance of Austin to this artform. He is not as much of a household name to the non-fan as is Hulk Hogan or The Rock, neither one of whom make my top 6 list. But Austin’s everyman character, which flowed honestly from his own persona, was a genuine hero to generations of disenfranchised working class people.
The brilliance of Austin’s run was his pairing with the perfect foil: his boss, Mr McMahon. Here was a battle for the ages, in which every put-upon working stiff could live vicariously through our beer-swilling anti-hero who did not take shit from his rich asshole employer. It helped that Austin was an excellent ring technician, with a workman style of safe but believable holds. He knew how to build a match to a crescendo, such that he always appeared vulnerable, but nevertheless managed to heroically salvage the win.
The only reason Austin does not take my #1 spot is that he is overshadowed by one man, in terms of work rate, longevity, and in-ring brilliance.
1. Shawn Michaels
Many of you are exclaiming, “Whaaaa? Shawn Michaels? That preening pretty boy? That weirdly-voiced prima donna who screwed Bret Hart at the 1997 Montreal Screwjob? That asshole who chopped his crotch for years and who wore a diamond-studded G-string over his pants? That fool is your #1 pick?!”
Yes, that guy,
Michaels was universally reviled for most of his career, until he became a born-again Christian in recent years and gave up his selfish ways. Along the way, he had unbelievable matches, and only seemed to get better with age.
Michaels was known to be a perfectionist. His pacing, selling, bumping, and ring generalship was unparalleled. Despite hating him myself, his work rate and skills won me over with the first Iron Man match with Bret Hart at Wrestlemania XII. To conduct a grueling, 60 minute match and still have the wherewithal to produce excellent, compelling in-ring storytelling is a superlative skill.
Honourable mention go to The Rock, Triple H, Hulk Hogan (who would never ever make my taop 5), Randy Savage, Andre the Giant, Chris Benoit (despite his murderer status), Sting, Eddie Guerrero, and John Cena.
I also want to plug a resource on wrestling training that was assembled by a reader of this blog. Happy suplexing!