The 50 Greatest Professional Wrestlers of All Time
The Definitive Shoot
By Larry Matysik
ECW PRESS Copyright © 2013 Larry Matysik
All rights reserved.
The best. The finest. The greatest ever ... baseball players, movies, presidents, rock 'n' roll tunes, actors, books, pizzas ... No matter how specialized the interest, list-making almost always ignites passions.
Why should professional wrestling be any different? A colorful, chaotic, and thoroughly engrossing mix of athletics, theater, and excitement, since 1900 professional wrestling has lured countless fans and thousands of unique and supremely talented performers who have driven the industry in different and variously successful directions.
So, who is the best ever?
It's a great question, one fueled by Vince McMahon and World Wrestling Entertainment. National cable television and an omnipresent website are the perfect way for a mammoth marketing company to exploit the concept.
WWE is the twenty-first-century version of a national wrestling promotion, indeed a mammoth marketing operation, but it doesn't generally call what it produces wrestling because it fears being sneered at by some corporate type. And then the company and its leader berate that very disdain as being unfair to fans of wrestling, or does WWE want it called sports entertainment ... Forget it, fans who follow WWE. Talk about wanting to have it both ways!
But that isn't the point. Late in 2010, Vince and WWE released a DVD celebrating what they called the "Top 50 Superstars of All Time." Of course they didn't call them wrestlers — it's as if Vince K. McMahon (or VKM as he likes to be called) and his minions are embarrassed to be involved in the very endeavor that has made the McMahon family filthy rich. Wasn't it professional wrestling, by whatever title Vince wishes to give it, that allowed his wife Linda to reportedly spend $100 million in two failed attempts to become a United States senator?
Why be ashamed of a business that stuffs your pockets full of money while entertaining millions of people from all walks of life? McMahon and his company slap every fan who ever spent a penny on them in the face — they can claim their tactics are just marketing, or television production, but it's mostly about ego.
Certainly he has the right, perhaps even the obligation to his shareholders, to expand the company into other areas. To pretend, however, that the removal of wrestling from the business' vocabulary will increase the odds of success in other promotional fields is absurd.
I want to spend the greater part of this opening chapter saying good things about Vince and WWE. Really, that is my intention. Make no mistake; Vince McMahon himself is one of a kind. Love him or hate him, but always respect him and his accomplishments while noting his failures.
After all, his company is a monopoly and a global enterprise, so how many bad decisions could he have made? Energy, imagination, ambition, need for complete control, understanding of television's all-powerful role, little regard for either ethics or individuals when it comes to business ... all that and much more describe Vince.
He revolutionized professional wrestling at a time when television was changing. Somebody was going to do it. If the timing had been right, Sam Muchnick might have promoted pay-per-view shows, Fritz Von Erich (Jack Adkisson) might have produced a seven-camera live television show, or Jim Barnett might have gone high-def.
Vince McMahon happened to be the right guy at the right time in the right place. He was very smart. And he was very, very driven.
See how difficult it is to write something praising Vince without adding "except" or "but"?
Let's try again.
Vince can certainly broadcast his list of the 50 greatest wrestlers (performers? entertainers? superstars?) to step into the revered squared circle. Nobody else enjoys his wrestling lineage, following his father and grandfather as a mover and shaker. Think of the stories he must have heard, the education he would have received, growing up in the McMahon family's highly profitable promotion.
Admittedly, with the overall wrestling business at the time fragmented geographically into numerous smaller territories, Vince may have overlooked the true value of certain headliners, since his attention would have been focused on Dad's little corner of the business.
Still, Vince watched many of the stars from the early 1970s on, and once in command he made a high percentage of the stars from the late 1980s on. Of course, having the playing field basically to himself (except for Ted Turner's World Championship Wrestling in the 1990s) helped. McMahon should have a legitimate grasp on the warriors who made this sport what it is today.
So, we have a right to expect a lot.
But we did not get what we expected.
Here is the list that WWE and Vince McMahon authored of the best 50 superstars to ever answer the opening bell ...
1. Shawn Michaels
2. The Undertaker
3. Stone Cold Steve Austin
4. Bret Hart
5. Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson
6. Harley Race
7. Ricky Steamboat
8. Andre the Giant
9. Rey Mysterio
10. "Rowdy" Roddy Piper
11. Eddie Guerrero
12. Triple H
13. Gorgeous George
14. Randy Savage
15. Curt Hennig
16. John Cena
17. Ric Flair and Dusty Rhodes (tie)
20. Jerry Lawler
21. Lou Thesz
22. Terry Funk
23. Hulk Hogan
24. Bruno Sammartino
25. Chris Jericho
26. Ted DiBiase
27. Fabulous Moolah
28. "Classy" Freddie Blassie
29. Randy Orton
30. Pat Patterson
31. Iron Sheik
32. Jimmy Snuka
33. Mick Foley
34. Kurt Angle
35. Buddy Rogers
36. Gorilla Monsoon
37. Junkyard Dog
38. "Superstar" Billy Graham
39. Jake "The Snake" Roberts
40. "Big Show" Paul Wight
41. Jack Brisco
42. Sgt. Slaughter
44. Nick Bockwinkel
45. Jeff Hardy
46. Dory Funk Jr.
47. Bob Backlund
48. "Ravishing" Rick Rude
50. Killer Kowalski
Well now, imagine a professional baseball equivalent. The list's author would be skewered by the national media and the public alike for his abuse and ignorance of the legends who built the game — not to mention the total lack of comprehension about how past and present fit together.
Professional wrestling, too, has a true and real history, one that should be celebrated, not trashed in favor of the almighty dollar and the ego of a corporation that will not even admit that what it promotes is wrestling.
Call it what it is. Professional wrestling at its highest level requires an indefinable mix of hard work, showmanship, drawing power, and, like it or not, toughness and skill. By designating these 50 as the best professional wrestlers of all time, the wrestlers on this list would by definition have to embody the concept of being a superstar, a great worker, and having a magnetic personality.
When the WWE list became public, many in the industry — those not tied in some way to WWE — began to grumble. Even a rookie could scan the list and realize that many stars were included only to promote the current product and the alleged history belonging to WWE. Anyone could grasp what a large role personal politics played.
But really, was anyone surprised? This was marketing, with a tinge of politics. It's what Vince does, how he's always been. Get attention and turn a profit. WWE exists to make money, so why let truth get in the way? How else does Kane end up among the 50 finest talents in the history of the game? How else could The Undertaker be selected as the second greatest ever to step through the ropes?
Yet WWE putting Harley Race sixth makes you blink because it's not far off the truth. Race is part of a generation to which McMahon has shown little respect. The answer to the riddle of why Race was selected over others from the old school elite is also more the result of politics and personality than anything else.
Overall, WWE's "greatest ever" package fits right in with McMahon's never-ending quest to rewrite the history of wrestling. Vince wants to run everything, control every thought, make every decision. Why not alter the past enough so that it supports the present?
This strategy works to a degree because such a high percentage of the current WWE audience is young and, understandably, knows little about the true history of wrestling. An entire generation of followers has grown up aware of wrestling only as a McMahon product. Sadly, some of the Internet voices who should celebrate a diversity of opinion and deeper knowledge are easily manipulated — so it is as if the past never counted.
This also explains how some of the goofiest ideas for booking in the WWE pass. The team responsible for creating the television shows, more and more, is made up of people who have no background in wrestling ... and this is because of a conscious decision on Vince's part. To most of the creative team, WWE is just a silly stunt show with comedic undertones. In other words, Vince is happy to allow these limited booking minds to believe the history he has woven. It's a shock to some of these writers when Vince alters a plot, and the result looks at least a little like valid wrestling booking. Imagine what it's like when they discover wrestling existed before WWE — and that it was successful. The WWE list is an indictment of the business itself, and of those who watch it. Many griped, but not enough people did. And not enough to help new followers realize there was a Babe Ruth in wrestling, and there was a Wilt Chamberlain, and there was a Johnny Unitas — and someone comparable to Elvis Presley too.
Some truly important characters made their way onto WWE's top 50, but their lowly positions seem to display McMahon's personal distaste or disregard. It's politics as usual, no matter what WWE calls it. Only the most naïve could fail to see that the entire enterprise was corrupt.
But there are still a few of us who give a damn.
And maybe some of the young and the new are intrigued enough to delve a little deeper, to ask the right questions, to discover the rich heritage that professional wrestling has always brought to the table. The argument is not about whether those on the WWE list are good, and in some cases great, wrestlers. Of course, all are superb performers at some level. This is about who is not there; it is about where some have been buried when they unquestionably belong at the top.
The WWE list says that fans do not care to get it right. Once again, Vince and WWE should be ashamed about insulting the intelligence of their supporters.
It's time to get serious about this business. What are the parameters? What do we mean by the "best" wrestler? (You can bet your last dime that being the toughest certainly did matter into the late 1970s.) What part does charisma play? Who drew the money, the crowds? Who made an impact on popular culture?
Recognizing all the potential flaws, realizing that the end result is always subjective ... this is the antidote to WWE and its flawed version of the 50 greatest professional wrestlers of all time. In the language of the business: this is a shoot.
Vince, I really did try to be nice and balanced. But your list is tainted by profit, politics, and personality.
How to Choose
Vince McMahon and WWE had it easy. "Who can sell some DVDs for us?" was the only question that mattered to them.
The answer, naturally, was Shawn Michaels — because Michaels was headlining WWE's Hall of Marketing 2011. (Why call it anything else? Their own people openly describe their Hall of Fame as nothing but a marketing tool.) For the greater part of the 2000s, Michaels had been pushed by WWE as its premier worker, even though Michaels himself cleverly worked the system to get plenty of time off while protecting his position in the pecking order.
The deification of Michaels also fit nicely with the way WWE booked toward WrestleMania: the 2010 edition was highlighted by a truly tremendous duel between Michaels and The Undertaker. That titanic tussle was fresh in everyone's mind, and Michaels' name generated good buzz. Tying the massive promotional effort that always accompanies WrestleMania to pushing WWE's "greatest ever" DVD made business sense.
Michaels was going into the Hall the night before the 2011 WrestleMania, the show in which The Undertaker was making a comeback from a complicated shoulder surgery, so once more the marketing plan made sense — that's a compliment, not a complaint.
As for The Undertaker, his career is winding down in the wake of age and injury, but he has always been a major player, often the focus of spotlighted WrestleMania matches that put his long winning streak at stake. In fact, opening opposite The Undertaker in 2011 proved to be the perfect platform for the return of Vince's son-in-law, Triple H. No other match-up looked like it would draw much more than a hill of beans, so it was time to save the show by headlining older, proven names.
The trend continued in 2012, even with a pair of blockbuster draws like The Rock and John Cena topping the lineup. After surgery, recovery, and another year out of action, The Undertaker returned for a rematch with none other than Triple H, whose buddy Michaels was thrown into the mix as the special referee.
The others billed near the top of WrestleMania unfortunately were seen only as glorified supporting acts. The stars who made the show unique were The Rock, The Undertaker, Triple H, and Shawn Michaels.
And make no mistake, it was The Rock — in action, actually wrestling an opponent who meant something — who made WrestleMania XXVIII special.
According to the WWE version of the best of all time, clearly and obviously, Shawn Michaels is the greatest superstar of all time. He was their leading box-office draw at the time that list was issued. The Undertaker is listed at number two, because, like Michaels, he heads the group most likely to sell merchandise and pay-per-view buys.
They are the two greatest wrestlers in history — according to the gospel of Vince.
Oh, and Gorgeous George gets a slot in the top fifteen because WWE was bankrolling a movie about the erstwhile George Wagner turned bleached-blond bad guy in the hope of anointing him the father of modern sports entertainment (the McMahon rendition of wrestling today). If that movie hadn't been scheduled (and it has since slipped to documentary DVD status), poor George's stock would have sunk like a rock in the ocean. But, it made sense for WWE at the time.
For what WWE is and the goals that it has, this was without question the correct way to go. Vince made the right choice.
And any controversy only serves to boost awareness of the WWE project.
I'm helping them with this very book by calling attention to their list, and they helped me by starting the discussion. Those who agree with the selections of McMahon will be incensed by my arguments. Those insulted by McMahon's list will be more kindly inclined toward my choices.
This demonstrates excellent marketing as usual by McMahon and crew; WWE is right in the middle of every discussion, pro or con.
But let's get on with the real, serious business of deciding who the 50 best really are. WWE only dealt with professional wrestling from its rise in TV popularity. In fact, many of the big names from the early days of TV got short shrift.
Is that fair? If baseball created a comparable list, Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb would be eliminated because both were pre-television. In boxing, Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis would disappear. Think of football and Bronko Nagurski. Yet when those icons of culture, not just of sports, were prominent, so were Frank Gotch, Ed "Strangler" Lewis, and Jim Londos in wrestling.
Moreover, the public awareness of Lewis, Londos, and others was not all that far from what Ruth and Dempsey enjoyed. In some cases, certain historians would consider them comparable. Dig back through the old newspaper copies: the wrestlers often got as many column inches and headlines as the baseball players and boxers did. Additionally, the huge crowds for wrestling stars in the era compared favorably to the attendance figures for the stars from other sports. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The 50 Greatest Professional Wrestlers of All Time by Larry Matysik. Copyright © 2013 Larry Matysik. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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