The Rock. Steve Austin. Ric Flair. Randy Savage. When I took up the task of naming The Greatest Wrestler of All Time, it was partially out of frustration with similar pieces (though, those being ranked lists, they weren’t similar at all) where the same names kept cropping up. If pieces like this are a conversation, the one surrounding all-time great wrestlers ground to a halt the moment websites that covered wrestling gained access to slideshow plug-ins.
What makes a wrestler great, according to those posts? In-ring ability and drawing power.
You know what I don’t particularly care about? In-ring ability and drawing power.
The Greatest Wrestler of All Time
If you focus on greatness according to how well someone draws, you’re limiting yourself to the same 10-20 people, shuffled around based on the author’s rough approximation of skill. You’re welcome to base your opinions along those lines, but that is a room that has been closed and locked shut. Enjoy reading the 100thlittle blurb about Ric Flair’s charisma and ability, I guess?
The Greatest Wrestler of All Time is an argument for expanding the canon. Yes, people who draw money are important, but everyone on the card is important.
Midcarders, workhorses, cruiserweights, comedy guys, impossible slabs of meat, tag team specialists, heaters, exoticos, whatever — professional wrestling does not function without these people, and while the old saying goes that if you don’t want to headline WrestleMania/be the World Champion, you shouldn’t be in the business, I think the careers of the vast majority of wrestlers, active and retired, are an argument that, more important than grabbing the brass ring, carving out a niche for yourself in a business that chews up and spits out so many is itself a massive accomplishment, like being a basketball player who gets drafted into the NBA.
This column has featured many wrestlers who are fixtures of greatest wrestlers of all time lists. It’s also featured Razor Ramon HG, The Great Khali, Glacier, Junkyard Dog, Toru Yano, Monty Brown, and others who, for one reason or another, couldn’t sniff those lists.
That is my gain and their loss.
As Fanfyte closes its doors, I imagine that I’ll be doing a lot of posts like this, which, I hope, have expanded our collective understanding of what wrestling is and could be. The theory behind this series is as follows: on any given night, any wrestler is the Greatest Wrestler of All Time. Over the length of a career, one’s contribution to wrestling can be so unique as to qualify.
More Professional Wrestling
- Vince McMahon Has Retired
- Nobody Has a Lariat Like Stan Hansen’s Western Lariat
- A Field Guide to the Gimmicks of NXT 2.0
Like many mediums of visual entertainment, professional wrestling is something that is caught by camera, frame by frame, which is then transmitted to the viewing audience. Let’s call that captured time. While a lot of captured time is disinteresting to you or me, if you want to play the “wrestling is a variety show” card, you have to allow for the fact that out there, in an audience of millions, there is someone whose eyes have been transfixed by something you despise. This was the general operating theory of John Cena, this was true of the Divas Championship era of women’s wrestling, and this is true of every wrestler who’s received the Wrestling Observer Newsletter’s Worst Wrestler of the Year award.
This has been a column for those transfixed eyes, those slices of captured time, those wrestlers whose critical acclaim does not match their cultural importance. I’m sorry I won’t make it to 100 in this space like I promised, but believe me, I could do 1,000 before I got to The Rock, Austin, or Flair. Of course I included Randy Savage. He’s the Greatest Wrestler of All Time.
The Bushwhackers are nobody’s idea of the Greatest Wrestler of All Time or “a good tag team” or “fun to watch.” They’re actually pretty fucking gross, actually, licking the heads of kids as they came down to the ring. Normally when someone brings up The Bushwhackers, it’s to heap praise on the Sheepherders, their pre-WWF gimmick where they were experts in the art of bloody brawling — hardcore before hardcore was hardcore, you might say.
Yeah, that stuff is good, but look — what makes The Bushwhackers great is that they stopped caring almost the moment they signed to the WWF, slowing things waaaay down and developing their Bushwhacker Bounce gimmick that they never, ever dropped. Guys who signed with Vince and got lazy are a fascinating genre of wrestling to me. “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan is one, a guy who, like The Bushwhackers, was considered to be a great brawler and legitimate main eventer in other territories, but in the WWF was content to rely on a routine that was never not over.
Will I watch that shit? Not usually, no. But these dudes rule because their act is to suck, and people eat it up.
Duke “The Dumpster” Droese
If you think about it, “Droese” is an astonishing last name for wrestling creative to come up with. His possibly self-written Wikipedia page states that he was one of the first wrestlers to do hardcore wrestling on WWF television, but that’s not true given the alley fights and boot camp matches of the 1980s. That said, I respect lying about your wrestling resume. Mostly I like Duke because he’s one of those early Triple H feuds that seemed designed to punish him for playing a rich dude or for being the member of the Kliq that wasn’t over during the MSG Curtain Call. That hazing really paid off in the end.
Doink the Clown
Yes, Matt Bourne was a very good wrestler who was never truly given his due, but Doink the Clown’s greatness lies in the fact that he was something of a Ghost of Christmas Future for later gimmicks like Hornswoggle, Hornswoggle as Vince McMahon’s son, Hornswoggle the member of DX, and The Boogeyman. I like how wrestling fandom acts like the evil clown stuff Doink launched with was some supergenius idea. I also like how Doink being a supergenius idea meant that it took Mr. Perfect three tries to put him down and qualify for King of the Ring. The ultimate “you had to be there and also eight or nine years old to get it” wrestler.
Hulk Hogan had a lot of dumb friends. His dumbest friend may have been Tugboat, a gigantic man who dressed like a sailor and enjoyed imitating a ship’s whistle. I say “dumbest” in fondness because Tugboat ripped and his betrayal of Hogan ruled. His theme song, which is a mid-tier Jim Johnston effort aided by a boat whistle, is a total banger as well. Tugboat was so prominently featured in this role and as Typhoon that The Shockmaster isn’t all Fred Ottman is known for, which is astonishing considering the milage WWE has gotten out of that clip. Go get ‘em, Tugger.
The WWF had a weird thing for sports in the 1990s, from Bob “Sparkplug” Holly’s legit flirtation with stock car racing to Abe “Knuckleball” Schwartz’s bizarre anti-union commentary on Major League Bastball to the Raw Bowl to Lawrence Taylor headlining a WrestleMania. The Goon was just a hockey player who liked to fight despite sucking at it. It is shocking that anybody in WWF creative knew what a goon was, but whoever was holding out a candle for Tie Domi and Marty McSorley, thank you for giving us the gift of wrestling boots made up to look like hockey skates.
John Tenta is legitimately one of wrestling’s most underrated big men. Real ones know, but he was much, much more than the light touch with which he menaced Hulk Hogan. One of the few “____ on a pole” matches I can earnestly recommend is his bout against Big Bubba Rogers (Big Bossman) from WCW Bash at the Beach 1996. Also of note is his stint in UWFi, where he teamed with Vader. More than being a hidden gem guy, John Tenta had a hell of a dropkick, and not just for a man of his size. There are plenty of gorgeous dropkicks in wrestling, but his in in the upper echelon — smooth, forceful, and at about shoulder height on someone his size. Everything you want out of the move, which is a lot more difficult to execute with grace than many realize. More than just a late-era Hogan foe, Earthquake is the kind of guy who is fun to think about in different generations. I think he’d kill it in 2022. Frankly, I think he’s timeless.
WWE figured out that there was a market for making fun of their famous Survivor Series 1990 flop long after sites like Wrestlecrap had tapped the well dry, demonstrating that they were not only years behind popular culture, but their own fanbase. You know who rules, though? Héctor Guerrero. He was cursed with the Gooker and Lazer-Tron, but if you want to watch some all-time great babyface stuff, he and his brothers Mando and Chavo are required viewing, supposing you come across the footage.
Hahaha, just kidding. Brother Love is one of the worst characters in the history of wrestling, and Bruce Prichard fucking sucks.
Michael “P.S.” Hayes
Michael “Potato Skins” Hayes was the charismatic third of the Fabulous Freebirds, which means that he was basically the least talented. Known by today’s fans as a poorly dressed racist, “Badstreet U.S.A.” is one of the great theme songs, and he does have classic feuds against the Von Erichs and Junkyard Dog to his name. But it’s the poorly dressed racist bit that really stands out, as well as his undying love for the Confederate battle flag.
One Man Gang
One Man Gang rips. I don’t know what to tell you. He is one man. He is a gang. He is large and he carries a chain and he usually has one of the worst mohawks in wrestling. With the aid of trashcan street magic, One Man Gang is capable of becoming Akeem, the African Dream. This is, uh, one of the WWE’s most problematic gimmicks, but I have a real soft spot in my heart for big guys who were slotted in as Hulk Hogan rivals after André the Giant made it impossible for Hogan to wrestle anyone under 350lbs, and his Dusty Rhodes-inspired shucking and jiving is mostly an issue because of the gimmick. This is the problematic stand I am taking in this column. All other stands are wholesome and good.
Man, one of the most depressing things about wrestling is when you learn about the origin of a gimmick like Kamala and it’s some white dude speaking rapturously of something that’s pretty fucking racist. Inspired by National Geographic and Frank Frazetta paintings and rumors that Ugandan president Idi Amin was a cannibal, Jerry Lawler painted up James Harris’ face and torso and Kamala the Ugandan Headhunter was born.
While it’s impossible to navigate around the colonialist nature of the gimmick, James Harris occupied it from 1982 to his retirement in 2010, one of those gimmicks that was never not over. If he had taken up the Kamala gimmick before the World Wrestling Federation’s expansion, he would have been over from territory to territory as an immediate threat to the champion based on presentation alone, but instead he filtered in and out of the WWF from 1984 to 1993, beginning with a Hulk Hogan feud that saw Sports Review Wrestling doctor an image of Hulk Hogan’s head on his spear to a weird angle with Slick where he tried to Anglicize Kamala by taking him bowling and leading the crowd in chants of “YOU ARE A MAN.”
But if you want real sicko shit? Check out his 2006 ROH World Title match against Bryan Danielson.
I have no idea what Kim Chee is supposed to be. Like, I know he’s Kamala’s handler, but is “Kim Chee” a pun on the food? If so, what sense does that make? I have a lot of questions for Kim Chee, and none of them are kind. Had he but stayed at ringside with Harvey Whippleman during the WrestleMania X7 Gimmick Battle Royal, I could ignore him. But what’s with the pith hat? Wouldn’t exploring the jungle be hot in a mask? Are you here just to make Kamala a little more racist? Why do you exist?
Look, man, I think Jim Cornette is one of the greatest managers in the history of wrestling. The distinctness of his character, the candor of his promos, the way he always seemed to slip a beating — the Louisville Lip had everything you could possibly want in a heel manager, with the dial turned way past 11. Sadly, wrestling passed him by. Or it kind of did, because his podcast is basically a vortex of the worst possible people throwing money at him to talk shit about flips, a gimmick he’s worked for over a decade at this point.
But wrestling passed him by, and relatively early in the 1990s, as his brilliant Smokey Mountain Wrestling promised “wrestling the way it used to be” at a time when WCW was fiddling around with rules like shoving your opponent into the ringpost being a DQ. “Wrestling the way it used to be” is one of those moth-to-flame promises — there are always going to be people who want that, however “the way it used to be” is defined, and they will always listen to the loudest voice in the room. Jim Cornette’s voice is the loudest. Goddamn is it loud.
What does this have to do with The Greatest Wrestler of All Time? Nothing. I mostly do not care about what Jim Cornette has to say because caring about him means having to care about Kenny Omega and the Young Bucks as something more than guys who are good at their craft. I say that they’re good at their craft despite not particularly liking them, and I am actually pretty cognizant that “what killed the wrestling industry” is a combination of decisions made by WWE over the past 20 years of monopoly and the dilution of cable TV, not the V Trigger.
I’d call Jim Cornette sad, but he’s not. He’s doing exactly what he wants to do and does not have to back any of it up with his own product. Good for him. But I remember something he said in 1997 about the awful Hulk Hogan/Roddy Piper cage match at Halloween Havoc, about how Hogan was a household name, “but so is garbage, and it stinks when it gets old, too.” That’s Jim Cornette. Only he’s not a household name, unless your household is weirdly into shoot interviews.
Barry Darsow had about 400 gimmicks. The only one that approaches Repo Man is “Mr. Hole in One,” a guy who challenged people to sink a putt, only to attack them with a club. Repo Man, however, is unsurpassed. His trench coat? Tires as shoulder pads and license plates that spell out his name on the back? Absolutely inspired. His wearing a domino mask despite having a legitimate job? Oh man. His theme song? HIS THEME SONG.
Repo Man is beyond reproach. The best of WWF’s “guy with a job” gimmicks by far, since instead of passively threatening people with the tax code, he was actively breaking into middle class houses and taking things that were clearly up to date on payments. Once, he claimed that one of Macho Man’s hats was behind on payments, so he repoed it and got his ass kicked the next week. Imagine insinuating that Randy Savage couldn’t afford to pay for a hat straight up. What was he doing, building his credit score? Repo Man forever.
I know the footage exists, but I don’t think I’ve seen one Hillbilly Jim singles match. He’s usually out there stompin’ and clappin’, a-hootin’ and a-hollerin’. He’s also ripped as hell and has one of those torsos that is shaped like a Dorito. I love a Dorito-shaped man. He’s also a bucket hat icon and a genial presence on WWE’s sadly failed reality show Legend’s House. Keep on doing nothing, Hillbilly Jim. You’re doing great.
I like Sgt. Slaughter a lot. His Alley Fight against Pat Patterson is one of my favorite wrestling matches. He’s one of those dudes who bumps like an absolute freak, especially in the corners. He has a wild chin. He’s apparently pretty proud of the Iraqi turncoat angle.
He’s also not a military veteran, which has been a core component of his professional and private life for decades.
This, friends, is as professional wrestling as professional wrestling gets. Fanfyte contributor David Bixenspan investigated the issue for MEL Magazine in 2020, and it is a wild blurring together of character and performer, of lies told to coworkers and employers, of outright fabrications of tours of Vietnam and vaguely outlined atrocities that he had witnessed or participated in.
Does this make Sgt. Slaughter The Greatest Wrestler of All Time? No. It’s the other stuff. The wrestling, if you will. The stolen valor bit is a reminder to never buy into your own bullshit too much. Just enough, but not too much.
The Iron Sheik
The Iron Sheik rules. Straight up, anybody who gets on the mic and says that America sucks in front of a live audience of Americans is precious in my sight, but The Iron Sheik dialed that up a notch by spitting on the word “USA,” which is cool as hell. No, he never made any salient points about American foreign policy or the hypocrisy of Americans considering the rate of decay of their own civil rights, but he’d say “USA” and spit like a cartoon character, “ack-patooey.” Those critiques are in that spit somewhere.
The Iron Sheik’s peak was relatively short-lived — after losing the WWF Championship to Hulk Hogan, he was put into a tag team with Nikolai Volkoff that protected both men from overexposure — but he’s another heel who always had a spot, regardless of how chaotic his personal life was. Arguably the best part of his gimmick was the Persian club exercise routine, where Sheik would challenge a wrestler or an audience member to swing these gigantic clubs over their head like he did. Most people failed. Those who did not were attacked. This is eternal wrestling heat, more potent than the full nelson or cobra clutch challenge because anybodycould try and fail, while The Iron Sheik could do it effortlessly.
After wrestling, he became known for his appearances on The Howard Stern Show and for his Twitter account. Both suck. I’m never one to guess at how lucid someone is, but I feel uncomfortable listening to Sheik answer questions that are designed to be memed at his expense, and I absolutely loathe his twitter account, which he does not write. In 2014, Matt English compared the account to Mad Libs. He’s not wrong.
Anybody can write an Iron Sheik tweet. Just choose a subject and go for it.
- FUCK the Buzz Lightyear, I am the real legend, bubba.
- I’m going to break Son Goku’s back and make him humble.
- Miss Muffet and her tuffet can both fuck themselves.
- May the Fourth go fuck itself.
- If Hulk Hogan is in front of me at Halal Guys I show him why I am the real
- Bob Minion looks like Ukrainian flag. If you disagree GO FUCK YOURSELF.
The dudes that run that account probably spend hours trying to make it sound plausible that he was doing drugs with Santana in San Francisco while he was wrestling in Canada and Japan, but all you need to do to be the Shiek on Twitter is grip it and rip it, like
If I ran up that hill I would put God in the camel clutch and break him.
All of which is to say that The Iron Sheik, The Greatest Wrestler of All Time, deserves better. That his legacy is dominated by vultures sucks, quite frankly. This man was a world champion. This man spit on America. Spitting on America is cool. The Iron Sheik is cool. Fuck the Hulk Hogan and fuck the Twitter.