Friday, April 20, 2001

Ringside Shadows #170: The Evolution of the Heel

It's often been said that a good hero is nothing without an interesting and / or threatening rogue's gallery. Being a hardcore comic book buff myself, I find it quite easy to draw a similarity between the villains that dominate that world and the "heels" of the WWF and WCW. For instance; Batman has long been regarded as having one of the finest lists of opponents in the industry, while Superman had, until recently, never been given much of a run for his money. Thus; Batman was largely considered the more interesting of the two, while Superman remained the "boy scout" and eventually lost his popularity, bit by bit. In pro wrestling lingo, that's like comparing the Austin / McMahon feud with Bret Hart's past angle with Jerry Lawler. It's just a completely different game.

Without Roddy Piper, Andre the Giant and Paul Orndorff, there would have been no Hogan. Without Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Mick Foley or Vince McMahon there would have been no Austin. Without HHH, the Rock would still be developing in the midcard. The list just goes on and on, and it paints a blatantly obvious picture: behind every good face there are two or three great heels. Any good rivalry can promote growth not only in the storylines, but in the participants themselves. Both the heel and the face grow a little bit each time they step into the ring with a good opponent. They learn something new and take one more step towards becoming a legend.

Back in the days of kayfabe, the role of a heel was much more clear cut. He'd break the rules, perhaps earning himself a disqualification or two along the way. An assault from behind was always a quick way to grab some cheap heat. Perhaps the use of some powder or a foreign object during the heat of battle. But still, even though those were simpler times, the role of a heel was hardly a piece of cake. While audiences may have shown a strong reaction at first, if the heel didn't grab the ball and run with it an entire angle could go down the tubes over the course of only a couple weeks.

Ted Dibiase shines through in my mind as the absolute embodiment of a good heel during his era. A cocky, egotistical jerk with plenty of money to throw around... sure, it sounds easy enough. Throw a black sequinned jacket with a big gold dollar in the middle, around the shoulders of anybody on the roster. You've got an instant main eventer, right? Not quite...

See, Dibiase's run as "the Million Dollar Man" worked in part due to Vince McMahon and his merchandising conglomerate, of that there is no question. But it was also a blistering success because of the underspoken work of Dibiase himself to not only fit the role of a rich bastard, but to actually become the man he was portraying on TV. When fans saw him strutting to the ring, bellowing out that memorable cackle, they found themselves legitimately hating his guts right out of the gate. If they saw him in an airport, they'd boo him because he was so convincing at what he did. When he would casually leaf through a wad of cash, leading the audience to believe he'd actually toss a couple bills out into the crowd, they didn't see a wrestler dressed up in a fancy outfit pretending to be rich. They saw someone who knew he was better off than they were, someone with no problem rubbing that fact right back in their faces. And when he got in the ring and actually proved his point by completely outwrestling his opposition, it just made fans hate him that much more.

Now, with the advent of the "smart mark" and the revelation that these matches and gimmicks are scripted, everything about a heel has changed. The role and behaviors of a traditional face have almost flip flopped with those of a heel. Some might call it a sign of the times, others a natural progression from the innocence and naivety of wrestling's youth. Either way, the fact remains that the rules have changed and it's a brave new world in which we're living.

Take, for example, Kurt Angle. A honest-to-goodness Olympic champion and national hero, who now portrays a jock too full of himself to realize the fans don't like him. Or perhaps "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, who was every bit the traditional heel during his monstrous success as the WWF's top babyface in the late 90s. I mean, give it some thought. If Austin had burst upon the scene in 1987, stunning the owner of the federation, flipping the bird to the audience, draining beers after every match and embracing that "don't trust anybody" credo he founded, crowds would have been screaming for his blood. Hell, Andre the Giant didn't do half that and he was the biggest heel in the industry at the time. Society has taken some big steps in those fourteen years, and wrestling has kept with the times.

Building upon the groundwork laid by Roddy Piper, Gorgeous George, Ted Dibiase, Curt Hennig, Ric Flair and Shawn Michaels, the modern heel has completely reinvented himself. While the line between the "cool, rebellious face" and the "heel that went too far" is now thinner than ever, the industry's current torch bearers have never known so precisely where that line really is. In addition, these new perceptions of the face vs. heel formula have led to some interesting plot devices as well. Using Austin as an example yet again, take a glimpse at his recent heel turn. Looking back today, there were several blatant hints he'd be making the big turn along the road to Wrestlemania, but because he's always portrayed as a heel anyway, they were quite easy to overlook. Thus, the alignment with Vince at Wrestlemania and subsequent shift from "cool face" to "over the edge madman" came as pleasant surprises that were almost a natural progression for his character.

So long as society keeps changing, the world between the ropes will keep mimicking it. Coming off the major status quo shift that saw the faces become heels and vice versa, it's relatively safe to say we'll be adjusting to these new terms for a little while, but not even that is a certainty. If nothing else, you can always count on one thing; every main event face will have arrived there on the shoulders of a main event heel. Because without any opposition, what fun is the reign?

A quick note before I take off; my presence on the newsboards may be a bit slimmer than usual over the next couple weeks, as my last days as an undergraduate are inching closer and closer. Finals begin Monday, April 30th and I'll be getting my degree on May 5th... so things are bound to be hectic. Once those are out of the way, I plan to continue my writing on a regular schedule. So don't be too shaken if I'm not around next Friday.
until then, i remain

Saturday, April 14, 2001

Ringside Shadows #169: Ten Names... A Follow-Up

If you were with us last week, you saw what I considered to be the ten names every true wrestling fan should know, no matter what their age group or stylistic preference. Legends like Flair, Gotch and Baba stood alongside entertainers like Hogan, Gorgeous George and Dick the Bruiser. I even tossed in a few surprises, not for the mere shock value of it all, but because I legitimately believe they deserve a place at the forefront of wrestling history.

Not surprisingly, the said column was met with a lot of adversity. Readers wondered why someone who seemed out of place like Arn Anderson made the list, while their personal favorite was left unmentioned. To say such feedback was unexpected would be a bold-faced lie... to be honest, I've been looking forward to it. See, the whole idea of limiting the entire history of wrestling down to ten singular names is far too conclusive. Throughout pro wrestling's long, storied history there haven't been just ten names worthy of passing on to a new generation. Hell, there haven't been fifty, or even one hundred. To cover every important wrestling movement in every different culture on the planet would land a list numbering well into the triple digits. Perhaps that's a project worth pursuing down the road, but with graduation just around the corner and the real world just itching to get its paws on me, my schedule just will not allow for the kind of research a "top 100" list would demand. Besides, I think what you got was far more enlightening...

See, when I wrote those ten names last week, I never intended them to be the "be-all, end-all." I wanted them to inspire thought, to encourage readers to think, rather than just staring blankly at the screen and taking it all in. In the back of my mind, I hoped the fans would be compiling their own top ten lists even before they finished reading mine. And, if the influx of opinions I received is any inclination, I succeeded. Not only did I provoke thought within the readers, but they managed to do the same for me. In my mailbox were more than a couple names about which I'd never thought twice. Lists that didn't limit themselves to the ring itself, lists that grew off of my initial suggestions. To be honest, it was a pretty nice feeling, not to mention educational.

That's why I've decided to take a slight break this week, and post the best suggestions I received. You might recognize one of the authors... hey, one of them might even be you. After the writer has had his or her say, I'll chime in with something of a retort and a brief historical commentary for those who may not have discovered the man or woman we're talking about. As seems to be the norm around the web, reader comments will appear in italics, while my postscript comments will appear in good ol' plain text.

Charles Gibbs ( had the most recent comment;
"What about Andre? Hey, he may not have held titles, but he was the most dominant force ever in wrestling. He was one of the few "unbeatable" guys. While his matches were never the greatest in the world, he always popped the crowd. He was the Superman of wrestling... his opponent would come out, thinking they had the kryptonite, get a little success against the big man early in the match, then Andre would shut him down and win, to a huge pop from the crowd. I can't argue with your choices that much, but Andre helped keep the sport alive so that Hogan could launch it into the stratosphere... I think he deserves a little more respect..."

Nothing much I'm willing to argue with here. Andre was, is, and always will be one of the premiere names in pro wrestling history. Despite his unbelievable size, (at his largest, Andre stood 7'5" and weighed in at an enormous 525 pounds) he was surprisingly agile during his younger years. While I wouldn't go so far as to say he carried pro wrestling on his shoulders until Hulk Hogan came to relieve him of the torch, he did have a lasting impact on the sport and thus deserves mention. With Andre, promoters had a unique challenge on their hands; he was a humongous draw, obviously, but after a few weeks in the same promotion, business died down considerably. While an Andre match would be exciting once or twice for the sheer spectacle of it, by the third or fourth time it was old news. Though he was quick, as I mentioned, he wasn't an especially memorable worker and thus couldn't carry a card on his mat work alone. It wasn't long before promoters noted the problem and set about finding an answer. Instead of situating Andre in one territory, (as was the trend in those days) they toured him across the country. Visiting for a couple days before moving on to the next town, there was a sense of urgency to a visit from Andre the Giant, as though you needed to go out and see him now before he was gone forever. With Andre as their headliner the WWF started touring nationally and began to morph into the monopolistic, domineering monster we know today. There is little doubt that without Andre, the promotions would have started touring nationally anyway, but the unique problem of the Giant is what brought it all to a head.

Rich Taylor ( is the next time chime in;
"Hey, I just read your column, and as fantastic as it was, and I agree with all of your picks for one reason or another, yes even Hogan, but I feel you should give Satoru "Tiger Mask" Sayama just as much credit as Dynamite for merging all of the different styles, and for giving smaller performers a lot more credibility the way you say Dynamite did. Sayama was definitely on a par with Dynamite in ring wise and I think it's unfortunate that neither of them really get the distinction that they deserve on the whole."

Absolutely correct, and one of the names I'm surprised I forgot to mention in my own list. If you haven't seen a Dynamite / Tiger Mask Sayama match, you haven't really experienced the true potential of either man. Their matches would put to shame much of WCW's Cruiserweight division during its heyday, and they were doing it nearly ten years earlier. Sayama's important, because he proved that not even a horrible gimmick could keep a star down. The Tiger Mask gimmick was notably ill-received during its unveiling in the early 80s, but once skeptics looked away from his gaudy attire and concentrated on his amazing aerial style, they were quickly silenced. For much of their careers, Sayama and Dynamite were neck and neck, constantly topping one another and raising the bar to a level that wouldn't even be touched for the next decade. Tiger Mask was the face to Dynamite's dominating heel. Together, the two took the Junior Heavyweight division proposed and introduced by Tatsumi Fujinami, and launched it to unprecedented new heights. Tiger Mask retired at the height of his popularity in 1983, vacating both the NWA and the WWF Junior titles and leaving behind a legacy that influenced many of the stars of today. didn't provide a name with which to refer to him, but instead dove right in;
"What about Hart? Yes, those names are important, but what about The Hitman. He helped make technical wrestling. He put on some of the greatest matches of all time. Can you name one person who had the record he has had. People forget that in 1992, he and Shawn Michaels had the first WWF ladder match for the intercontinental title. What about all his wrestlemania records. Five time wwf world champ, two time i.c. champ, two time tag champ, two wcw u.s. champ, and two time wcw champ. Name me one person who has done that."

I've been pretty vocal about my support for Bret Hart in the past, though he didn't make my list of ten. His WWF career represents a sort of coming of age for me, as I started watching around the same time the Hart Foundation became a factor in the WWF's tag scene and watched every step of the way as he developed from tag champion to an established singles star to a World Champ. While I wouldn't go so far as to say he "made" technical wrestling, I will say he helped it along quite a ways and built a career as one of the most professional men in the business. Though he tainted my memories with his constant whining after the infamous Montreal incident, the fact remains Bret Hart jobbed when he was asked to. More than that, he carried his opponent to a good match every night, even if he had a strong personal dislike for them behind the scenes. Bret Hart was good enough to make anyone in the world look like crap if he felt like it, but instead he put on excellent matches against the likes of Kevin Nash, Sid and Jerry Lawler. On top of all that, Bret took great care to ensure his opponents' safety while in the ring with him. Once again, it would have been simple for Hart to mask a flagrant and purposeful injury so that it looked like accident if he so desired, but instead he made it a matter of personal pride. Hart's nearly twenty year career ended without one serious injury on his hands. With that said, I think he was quite adequately repaid for those actions. His WWF career was a fairy tale, all the way up to the sudden ending. He was an example of what can happen if you're humble and hard-working in the WWF. It's just too bad that the years after his collision with McMahon were so cloudy and forgettable. wondered;
"what about fab. mulah?"

Honestly, when I first read this mail a slight smile crept across my face. I thought it was a joke. Then, upon further consideration, I started to see his point. Before Moolah, women's wrestling was just a side attraction for the local strip club. More so than their male counterparts, the women of wrestling have been forced to bite, scratch and grip at every opportunity that's come their way... for fear that it may be their last. Women's wrestling has often been looked down upon, shunned, perhaps even ignored. However, like Gotch and Thesz before, Moolah changed all that. She transformed the "dirty" exhibitions to serious competitions, grabbing fans' attentions and never letting go. Under her watchful eye, women's wrestling has sprouted from those undesirable roots and enjoys moderate success today, with an active belt in the WWF and an entire promotion built around it in WOW. More than just attention, Moolah added flavor to the female matches. She played a heel almost exclusively, and when the faces would stumble or start to lose steam, she knew just what to do to keep the match progressing as it should. Once she'd been in the business for quite a while, Moolah signed a contract with the WWF, where she was a big part of the "Rock'n Wrestling" angle that delivered the wrestling boom of the '80s. Without Moolah, and women's wrestling in general, the landscape today would look drastically different.

Fellow Oratory member Wayne Edmondson also had a couple suggestions;
"Some names you forgot... Jumbo Tsuruta, Tiger Mask, Brusier Brody, Jushin Lyger, El Santo, Terry and Dory Funk, Jack Brisco, Harley Race, Buddy Rogers"

Quite a laundry list from Wayne, with a few names I'm surprised I forgot about. You've read about Tiger Mask, (see above) and the illustrious Mr. Edmondson covered Bruiser Brody better than I could ever hope to in his recent post, but I'll do my best to give the others the respect they deserve.

Considered the greatest heavyweight to ever come out of Japan, Jumbo Tsuruta came from an admirable amateur background, participating in the 1972 Olympics in the Greco-Roman style. He was recruited into All Japan during its infancy, and carried over all of his accumulated experience with uncanny success. Tsuruta moved wrestling in Japan from a lightweight style to a more serious, physically demanding competition. It was never about sports entertainment with Tsuruta, it was all sport or it was nothing at all. With that said, Tsuruta could also tell a story like few others when he was between those ropes. In the mid '80s, Tsuruta's group of friends clashed with the upstart invading "army" of Riki Choshu, (then going by the name "Ishin Gundan") lighting the Japanese wrestling world on fire with their bitter rivalry. Sound familiar? That's because many credit this as the inspiration for Eric Bischoff's nWo nearly fifteen years later. But perhaps his most memorable moment came at the end of his career, in a match with an up and coming athlete named Mitsuharu Misawa. Finding himself in a position familiar to Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair, Tsuruta's days at the top were coming to an end and Misawa was the company's choice as his replacement. Rather than pissing and moaning about doing a job, Tsuruta made it his personal responsibility to ensure All Japan would carry on well beyond his time. He didn't just job to Misawa, he put on the performance of his life and helped propel the young grappler to his status as the wrestler of the '90s. Despite his incredible skill, athleticism and title reigns, "Jumbo"'s pride stands out today as his most distinguishing factor.

Jushin Liger has become known for his incredible popularity, flexible style and adaptability during his years in New Japan, not to mention brief stints in the United States. Originally one of the sport's most inventive high fliers, (Liger invented the Shooting Star press) the masked puro legend injured his knee after years of misuse and took some time off after reconstructive surgery to reconsider his options. Upon his return to the ring, Liger stunned fans by completely reinventing his offense, moving from a high risk, off-the-top-rope style to a more technical, mat-based assault. The only two-time winner of the Super J Cup, Liger is a bonafide legend in his native Japan and more than just a whisper here in the states.

El Santo was probably the greatest star Lucha Libre has ever seen, and set a sort of standard that's been followed as scripture in the almost seventy years since his in-ring debut. Santo never removed his mask, using it as a physical display of his honor rather than the thin, identity-shielding bit of fabric it really was. It's because of Santo's legacy that most of today's stars are reluctant to remove their masks, and when they do it's a really land-shaping event. El Santo was active in the ring for over forty years, and during that time gained multiple titles and incredible popularity amongst the fans that frequented many of his matches. He became a crossover movie star (still wearing his mask, of course) and retired from active contention in 1983, not long after introducing his son, El Hijo Del Santo, to the wrestling scene.

Of the Funks, Dory is generally considered the most successful, while Terry has always been the more visible. Both were proud owners of some of the most successful runs in wrestling history, and while Dory's dedication and hard work netted him the NWA title quite early in his career, Terry continued wrestling well past his prime to pioneer the "Hardcore" style that owned so much of the late 90s. Dory wrestled much of his early career as a babyface, earning immense respect by not only defeating then-NWA champion Gene Kiniski shortly into his career, but by forcing him to tap out. He went on to hold that title for almost four consecutive years before dropping it to Harley Race. Terry, meanwhile, wasn't regarded as much for his style as he was his ability to make anyone look credible in the ring. More so than Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels or Ric Flair, Terry knew what he was doing every moment he was on the mat, and knew how to make his opponent's offense look like it could blast through brick walls. The brothers later paired up as one of the most successful tag teams in wrestling history, and in so doing proved they could be equally effective as dominating heels.

There isn't much more one can say about Jack Brisco, except he was the true embodiment of success. A remarkable amateur wrestler, Brisco made the transition beautifully to the professional scene, and ended up holding the NWA World Title on two occasions. He was wildly popular, highly in demand and unbelievably good at what he did. Comparisons have been made between Brisco and Bret Hart, but I think a more fitting comparison would be with Kurt Angle, whose career has seemed to echo Brisco's almost to a "T." Nobody could touch Jack in his day, and he's widely remembered as one of the greatest to ever step between the ropes, as he retired before his career could burn out.

Harley Race is best known for his multiple runs as NWA World Champ, and his vicious, rapid-fire successes in regaining the belt on the rare occasion that he lost it. During his run at the top, Race dropped his gold to Dory Funk, Jack Brisco, Dusty Rhodes, Giant Baba, Tommy Rich and Ric Flair, more often than not regaining his glory from the offender within a week's time. Regarded as a genuine tough man, both inside the ring and out, Race took part in the landmark "NWA vs. WWWF" and "NWA vs. WWF" events, wrestling champions Billy Graham and Bob Backlund, respectively, to hard-fought draws. His multiple title reigns shattered the record set by Lou Thesz, carrying the NWA's most prestigious gold a total of eight times. Race entered the WWF to moderate success, winning the first ever King of the Ring tournament and main eventing against Hulk Hogan on more than one occasion. However, he never really fit in and soon left for his true "home" of WCW, where he's been managing ever since.

The original "Nature Boy," Buddy Rogers had more than just a nickname in common with Ric Flair. Both were flamboyant, eccentric, charismatic and almost untouchable in the ring. A despised heel, Rogers carried the NWA World Title for several years in the early '60s, eventually losing a controversial decision to Lou Thesz in one fall. At the time, all World Title matches were decided in a best two out of three situation, and because this was settled so strangely, one facet of the NWA withdrew and created their own federation; the WWWF. Rogers was crowned their first ever World Champion. Idolizing Rogers, Flair has brought almost every aspect of the "Nature Boy" character into the present, from the flashy ring robes to the bleached blonde hair to the figure four finishing maneuver. The two finally came to blows in the late seventies, with Flair emerging victorious.

Whew... picks up where Wayne left off;
"Superstar" Billy Graham. If you saw him in the late seventies you know. Handsome, built and could work a stick with anyone in the business. He was a bodybuilder who could wrestle, not a bodybuilder thrown in the ring because of his physical appearance. He led the way for Hogan, Warrior, Steiner and Tony Atlas as well as others. He looked like he could, talked like he could and when he stepped in the ring you knew he could. He was my personal choice as wrestling's ultimate "superstar"."

I'm in agreement here as well. When wrestling was firmly set as one of TV's staples, Graham took the whole thing and moved it forward on his shoulders. While most of his opponents were dull, monotonous men who knew wrestling and nothing else, Graham had a personality that set him apart from the pack. He didn't shy away from the mic, and managed to build a career based around that fact alone. Graham had several successful brothers in the sport, but managed to outshine them all when he won the WWWF World TItle from the legendary Bruno Sammartino in 1977.

Long time reader added;
"I have some problems with a few people here... Frank Gotch-True he was one of the sports first superstars, but why him and not George Hackenschmidt? He was just as big as Gotch, and is more widely regarded as the first world champ. He also sounds like a better sportsman that the heelish Gotch. Maybe it was just easier than typing Hackenschmidt? Shawn Michaels-I agree that HBK was a great wrestler, but I don't think he broke the size barrier. Bret Hart, Sting, and Ric Flair were not much bigger than Michaels, but were already main event names by the time he won the world title, and Flair was the first great talker and wrestler. Giant Baba-If Rikidozan is the father of puroresu, why is Baba more important? Because he also wrestled in the States? Rikidozan also had many high-profile matches in the U.S. Because he started All Japan? Rikidozan is responsible for all wrestling in Japan. Arn Anderson-Sure he's a great old school wrestler, but so are lots of other guys. Why does Arn deserve such high placement?"

Not much more for me to add here, as most of the points covered are well explained within the mail itself. Some strong points are certainly presented here, and I haven't got the answers myself... but I'll give it a brief shot.

The main reason I included Gotch over Hackenschmidt was because his name has stood the test of time, while his longtime rival has become little more than a footnote. In addition to that, no matter how underhanded his tactics, Gotch did win both of the matches these two ever had against one another. After his dual losses, Hackenschmidt was never nearly as popular, while Gotch became a bigger and more widely recognized athlete.

I was hoping someone would mention Rikidozan, so I could do so myself in this follow-up. You're absolutely correct, without Rikidozan there would simply be no pro wrestling in Japan. Known as "the father of puroresu," he emerged just after Japan had lost World War II and needed a hero to raise their esteem again. Rikidozan took on one American wrestler after another, soundly defeating them each time and gaining a humongous fan following. After the tensions had settled between the two nations, he travelled overseas regularly, taking on Lou Thesz multiple times and actually winning the NWA International Title from the American legend. Knowing he would need successors, Rikidozan trained Giant Baba and Antonio Inoki before his sudden death in 1963.

Finally, another longtime reader, Mike ( had strong suggestion of his own;
"I knew most of those men. There is 1 name u might hve forgot... Gordon Solie. This is the guy that Jim Ross says "if it were not for him there would be no JR, and that's a fact". Gordon is the GODFATHER of wrestling announcers. If it were not for him I would have NEVER kept watching wrestling as a kid. I know he from down here in the south. BUT the guy was and still is after his death last year... The GREATEST. Not to long ago there was a guy who wrote for the paper( he was the lead sports writer, now in orlando) here in Jacksonville. His last column was written in the memory of Solie. He ended that column the same way Gordon used to end his wrestling show... In a very raspy voice... So long from the sunshine state. Hope u have heard this guy he was GREAT. "

Couldn't have said it better myself, and I'm almost ashamed I left Solie off this list. As an announcer, Gordon reshaped the landscape of broadcasting, making the shift from dull play-by-play to an emotional, interested observer. There really aren't enough words in the dictionary to do this man justice, and I can't think of a better way to conclude a "greatest of all time" piece than with those famous words.

I'd like to thank everyone who wrote in, even those who weren't published here, and everyone who gave it the time of day. It was certainly a pleasant surprise, as I wasn't too thrilled with myself when I originally posted it. Hopefully this follow-up has encouraged you to think a little more, and perhaps even to dig up some old tapes you hadn't previously considered. I guarantee if one of the names listed above is a participant, you're certainly bound to enjoy it.
so long from the sunshine state...

Friday, April 6, 2001

Ringside Shadows #168: Ten Names Every Fan Should Know

The world in which we submerge ourselves as wrestling fans is a vast, furious, almost unfriendly one. With no off season and constantly overlapping storylines, there's never really been an ideal jumping-on point for the casual viewer, someone who's interested in entering the scene as a die-hard fan. Perhaps they've heard the name "Austin" around the work place, whisperings of "Ric Flair" in the break room. But if they want to know the underlying base behind the pro wrestling scene, the adequacy of their orientation depends wholly on the knowledge of those doing the explaining.

Of course, the best way to go about getting oneself oriented is to ask the opinion of more than one person, but many new fans don't have that option. Even in this new information era, an explanation of exactly why Giant Baba meant anything to North America is hard to come by. There's a lot that's taken for granted, and not enough with an adequately explained backstory.

So, being a man of the world and all, I've taken it upon myself to throw in my two cents on the matter. Held within this short list are names I wish I'd known when I was first nibbling at the corner of professional wrestling, movements to which I was oblivious for years. To steal a line from the "... for dummies" series of books, this column's meant to serve as an initiation of sorts for newcomers, and "a reference for the rest of us." Even if you consider yourself a legitimate wrestling historian, there's likely something here that you've overlooked. Hey, just doing the research was a learning experience for me.

Dick The Bruiser

A fan of Mick Foley or "Stone Cold" Steve Austin? Richard "Dick the Bruiser" Afflis is the man you have to thank. As a real life wrecking machine, the Bruiser absolutely defined the image that springs to mind when asked to describe a professional wrestler. He was massive and bulky, standing at nearly six foot and weighing in at well over two hundred pounds. Built like a tank, Afflis was the first real monster heel, tearing through opponents with little remorse for over forty years. Decades before Austin or the Sandman, Dick would regularly light up a stogie or down a brew on his way to the next vicious throwdown. He wasn't a beautiful man, he wasn't a brilliant man. He was a monster, and he did what he pleased. Dick the Bruiser was not a technician. His form was lousy in comparison to a Dean Malenko or George Hackenschmidt, but when push came to shove there was little question who would emerge victorious if those three ever met in a bar room brawl. Dick would kick their asses.

Not surprisingly, fans noticed "The Bruiser" without much trouble. Though he was absolutely despised because of his high school bully's personality, he remained an incredibly popular athlete and a huge draw all the same. Throughout the fifties and sixties, Dick was something of a crossover celebrity, merging his former career as an NFL player with his new occupation and creating an undeniably intimidating image. With the NWA and later the AWA and WWA, Dick carried multiple titles in both the tag team and singles scenes, holding the World Title nine times. Were he around today, Steve Austin would have a competitor for the title of "World's Toughest S.O.B." in the original Bruiser.

The Dynamite Kid

I've covered it before, but it never hurts to rehash. The Dynamite Kid had more impact on the current generation of wrestlers than almost any other in the sport's long history. In a time when the WWF was the only game in town, when Hulk Hogan was the undisputed champion of the world and the ropes were meant for bouncing, not leaping, the Dynamite Kid took all the rules and pretty much tossed them right out the window. He took the best of every regional style and merged them, creating in the process a hybrid that's become the norm not two decades later. The US, Japan, Mexico, Europe, Canada... they were all rolled into one explosive package with the Kid, Tom Billington, and it should come as no surprise that he's become the most openly recognized key player in the eventual elevation of smaller workers.

Probably the most important thing about the Dynamite Kid wasn't that he had managed to merge all these foreign styles into one comprehensive unit, but that he'd introduced them to cultures that had been completely unreceptive in the years before. Add to that Dynamite's firm grasp of psychology and unbelievable timing, and you've got a name to remember.

Much like Dick the Bruiser, Dynamite split his time between singles and tag action, though he's most commonly known through his association with cousin Davey Boy Smith as one half of the former WWF champion British Bulldogs. While the Bulldogs were huge in America, even the humongous fanbase of the WWF couldn't touch the following Billington had built in Japan as a "junior." Perhaps unfortunately, the Dynamite Kid was about twenty years ahead of his time. Then again, perhaps it wasn't so unfortunate as he's undoubtedly one of the main reasons smaller workers got such an opportunity to establish themselves in the early '90s.

Frank Gotch

If I were to call Frank Gotch the "father of professional wrestling," I wouldn't be the first. When in its infancy, Gotch helped establish wrestling as a spectator sport that could draw, more than just a circus sideshow good for a few laughs. If you know your baseball history, one could compare Gotch to Ty Cobb. An absolute legend, building the industry around him and never looking back. Then again, the comparison to Cobb could also carry over to the undesirable areas, as well. Cobb was a genuine prick on and off the field, using his spikes to injure opposing players... a popular man but an untrustworthy one all the same. Ditto for Gotch. Though he won the American championship based on his own tremendous abilities near the beginning of the Twentieth century, Gotch wanted to do the unprecedented. He challenged the other major title holder in pro wrestling's world, Catch-As-Catch-Can Champion George Hackenschmidt, and the two met in a unification match amidst much publicity. Put into perspective, this was like seeing the WCW / WWF crossover that's just on the horizon... only in 1989, when both companies were on fire.

After two hours of heated action, Hackenschmidt decided enough was enough and stormed out of the ring. Gotch had been fouling throughout the match, and despite Hackenschmidt's complaints the ref turned a blind eye to it all. In addition to that, Gotch had allegedly greased himself thoroughly prior to the match, making it nearly impossible to get a firm grasp on any part of his body. Three years later a rematch was in the cards, and Gotch was victorious again through questionable means. In the days before the event, Hackenschmidt was injured by a trainer. This, of course, sent speculation out of control, and the popular consensus is that Gotch had paid his opponent's training partner to cause the injury.

Despite his questionable ethics, though, Frank Gotch's additions to the industry were irreplaceable. He was without a doubt modern wrestling's first true star, capturing the public's attention with his frequent defenses against all comers. When he retired, Gotch held the World Title and an amazing 132-8 record. WCW still traces their World Title all the way back to Gotch's first reign.

Shawn Michaels

You shouldn't really need this one spelled out to you, but for consistency's sake here goes. Shawn Michaels was important because he took the innovations made by the Dynamite Kid a decade earlier, added his own twists and proved to the general public that not only could audiences accept them... they could work in the main event. When the Heartbreak Kid first realized his childhood dream of carrying the WWF Championship, it was more than just a personal accomplishment. His triumph was also a victory for smaller workers past, present and future. By breaking down the walls of perception, he opened the doors for a more competitive industry, where size doesn't always matter. Without HBK's extended World Title reigns, the opportunities for a Chris Benoit or Eddy Guerrero would be much, much slimmer today.

In addition to that, Michaels shattered all previous conceptions that a good talker couldn't work, and vice versa. Working the mic with passion almost immediately upon his initial heel run in the WWF, he actually managed to back up his bark with a bite more often than not. Along with an intensely realistic approach to angles, event promotion and storyline advancement, Michaels knew how to tell a tale in the ring and, most importantly, how to make an opponent look good. No matter if it was Bret Hart or Kamala the Ugandan Giant peering at him from the opposite corner, Shawn was the best at building credibility within his opponents. Once he reached main event level, that particular characteristic really started to take off.

Today, Shawn Michaels stands as the WWF's only grand slam champion, holding the European, Intercontinental, Tag Team and World Titles on separate occasions. With his influence already blossoming in the current crop of young talent, there's no question Michaels will go down in history as one of the all time greats. He raised the bar higher than anyone ever thought possible from a man of such stature.

Lou Thesz

While Dick the Bruiser was wrestling's first (and perhaps greatest) pure brawler, Lou Thesz was its first thinker. Relying on strategy and innovation in a world of lumber giants, the name Thesz stands dominant throughout the middle of the twentieth century. Unlike most workers, who learn a specific moveset and stagnate, Thesz was always learning. To quote the late, great Gorilla Monsoon, Thesz always "did his homework," in itself a huge innovation when the popular strategy was to hit your opponent as hard as possible and hope he falls down. If past opponents had shown difficulty with a certain maneuver against one of Thesz's upcoming opponents, he simply wouldn't use it. Instead, the champ would use his time to discover something that would work in its place. That such a strategy seems almost second nature today proves just how far reaching Thesz's influence has become.

Due to his brilliant strategy and incredible popularity, Thesz was a dominating force in the field, holding World Titles in almost every major promotion in the world. The AWA Title, the Texas Heavyweight Title, the NWA World Title, the WWA belt, the UWA gold, all were once proudly worn by Thesz. Nearly every title Thesz set his sights upon was quickly his. He even set out on the monumental task of unifying every belt in the World, so that the NWA belt he carried would become the only true undisputed World Title in the land. And while there is little question he was the king of his era, his quest was never truly complete. In all honesty, it couldn't have happened. Too many promotions wanted a cut of the profits for Thesz to defend the title fairly, and it wasn't long before new promotions were splitting from the NWA to promote their own champion. Most notably of the defections was a little fed called the WWWF, who never recognized a one fall Thesz victory in a rare challenging role over champion Buddy Rogers. The NWA, on the other hand, found his victory perfectly legal, and put their stamp of approval on the entire affair. Thus, the NWA named Thesz as their champion, and the WWWF sided with Rogers. Years later, the war would continue to rage on.

Lou Thesz held the NWA World Title for a combined thirteen years over his brilliant career, in addition to countless other accolades, titles and credits. He delivered a much needed sense of dignity to the rowdy world of pro wrestling, proving that wrestling could be a thinking man's game as well as a physical competition. In so doing, he established the sport as legitimate in many folks' eyes, and is partially to thank for the tremendous success it enjoys today.

Hulk Hogan

I thought I could avoid it, but I just can't. Hulk Hogan deserves his due share of praise, for embodying everything about the ultra gimmicked atmosphere that defined the wrestling boom of the mid '80s. Through Hogan, wrestling learned that charisma, packaging and a little luck can go a long way in establishing someone as a credible champion. Hogan and the WWF also discovered the sport's long neglected appeal to children, and realized there was an empty soapbox before them upon which they could shout whatever message they wanted. Hogan was the first real role model young wrestling fans were meant to look up to, he represents the era in which wrestling finally "got it." With Hogan and McMahon at the helm, professional wrestling finally evolved from a decaying, motionless old pastime to the "sports entertainment" shows you're watching today. Though the Rock'n Wrestling movement caused many longtime fans to swear off the business at the time, the rewards far surpassed the risks. And while Hogan may have just been in the right place at the right time, the fact that he ran with the spotlight for as long as he did reflects positively upon his own talent as a performer.

If you're reading this, you know who Hulk Hogan is. Your grandparents probably knew who Hulk Hogan was. The WWF merchandising machine may have put him in the position to become profitable, but his tremendous on-screen presence and iconic physical build sealed the deal. While his boy scout's image hasn't fared well over the years, it made him an American hero at the time and likely influenced greatly the careers of many of today's rising stars.

While Hogan didn't hold a great variety of belts, the ones he did were generally his for quite some time. His five WWF Title reigns accounted for almost six years of continuity. His seven title runs in WCW helped the company to climb out of their role as the distant second promotion, eventually emerging as a legitimate challenger to the WWF's crown. Though he didn't do so single handedly, it was on Hogan's shoulders that the great wrestling empire we enjoy today was built.

Gorgeous George I

While Frank Gotch may have established pro wrestling as a legitimate spectator sport, the first Gorgeous George is to thank for bringing it into the home of John Q Public. Moreover, George's achievements with television transcend even the small globe of grappling. In a time when TV was just taking its first baby steps, the gorgeous one grabbed the medium by the ear and forced it to challenge radio and print as a forum for entertainment. Naturally, the sport of wrestling was brought along for the ride. In the early days of television, before tape delays and whatnot, there was actually very little programming on the small screen. Live news and perhaps a poorly converted radio program or two were all that could be found. Television as a whole hadn't yet realized it was more than radio with pictures. Often, the screen was filled with a static shot of one man reading plainly from a piece of paper. When studio wrestling burst onto the scene early on, however, viewers were overwhelmed. This largely visual form of entertainment, difficult to translate to radio because of the unique moves and fast action, was almost perfect for the fledgling television networks. While interest was still hot, George played his trump card.

Perhaps the first recognized "gimmick" in wrestling history, George grew out his hair, bleached it, threw on a sequined robe and sprayed perfume on his way to the ring. While such has become the norm in today's industry, fifty years ago such actions were completely out of left field. If fans hadn't already turned on him by the time he got into the ring, his actions after the bell had them screaming for his blood. An unintimidating man of five foot nine, George used every underhanded tactic in the book to cheat his way toward victory after victory. Audiences absolutely hated him, so much so that his appearances would sometimes result in a violent riot. And, despite the death threats and catcalls, he continued.

Gorgeous George was the first true "heel" in history. While some men were booed because they were legitimately bad people before, George turned fans against him just for the promotion it lent. He realized that every good face needs a foil, and made it his purpose in life to fulfill that role.

Arn Anderson

Serving as a polar opposite to Hogan and George, Double A stood out from the crowd because he was himself. He was an everyman, someone you could relate to. He loved what he did, and never slacked off for a second, becoming legendary for his consistency. If you had tickets to a card with Arn Anderson on it, you'd be getting your money's worth. He was an extremely solid wrestler who knew his place, wasn't afraid to put someone over for the good of the company and never had a problem with his ego. What really sets Arn apart from the pack, though, are his skills on the microphone. It all goes back to his "gimmick." He lived it. The gimmick was Arn Anderson. So when he glared directly at you through the television and said something, you knew it meant something. Arn never used a catchphrase, he didn't rely on strong booking to market a feud. If he was given a mic and a direction, he could sell an entire PPV with only a few words.

A humble man, Arn is often underspoken and never received the main event push he so richly deserved, choosing instead to continue putting over the younger generation and playing backup for Ric Flair. After Antonio Inoki, Arn Anderson was only the second man to ever hold a pinfall or submission over both Ric Flair and Hulk Hogan, proof enough of his legendary status.

I'm really not doing Arn justice here. What he gave to wrestling was substance, depth and solidarity. It could easily be overlooked, but the vacancy would be glaring had he not been around. With Ric Flair and Sting, he defined the NWA and WCW. He was a franchise player. On the mic he was a god, and every time someone integrates a bit of themselves into an interview, they're giving a nod to Arn.

Giant Baba

Perhaps a questionable choice for my list, Giant Baba is credited for almost single-handedly reviving the Japanese wrestling scene, and revitalizing things here in the States. Standing an enormous six feet ten inches, Baba only had one equal in the field; the legendary Andre the Giant. Naturally, Baba was handled as the immovable object throughout his career, and while he didn't go undefeated for nearly as long as Andre, the fact that he would lose occasionally spiced up his character immensely. If you pinned Giant Baba, you were as good as gold. After the untimely death of his mentor, Rikidozan, (the father of puroresu, and the man wholly responsible for the existence of wrestling in Japan) the unlikely Baba picked up the shaken industry and nurtured it back to full health. Holding belts regularly both overseas and in America, Baba was an international star. He bridged the gap between American and Japanese wrestling, opening the floodgates that are still seeping today.

Once he'd established himself, Baba went out on his own and formed All Japan Pro Wrestling. AJPW would almost instantly pick up where Baba had previously left off, supporting the integration of American wrestlers into regular Japanese continuity and vice versa. Fighting alongside All Japan's finest in the tournament to crown its first champion were a few names you might recognize; Bruno Sammartino, Terry Funk and Abdullah the Butcher.

Ric Flair

The one man I most respect in the entire business, and with good reason. In my humble opinion, Ric Flair is the greatest showman the sport has ever seen. A natural heel, Flair took the innovations made by Gorgeous George so many years before and magnified, examined and perfected them. He dominated the scene in the '80s with a vast array of underhanded tactics, from eye rakes to crotch shots and no matter who the opponent, Flair could make them look like gold. He's held more World Titles than any man in history, and has probably only defended them cleanly on a handful of occasions. As the rich, egotistical playboy, Flair was the best at what he did and fans would pay through the nose for the chance to see him deliver his infamous "flair flop" in person. Judged by some to have a big head behind the scenes, I see it another way. Flair has on his shoulders probably one of the top ten greatest wrestling minds on the planet. He knows when someone has what it takes to be huge, and he knows when someone doesn't. When he believes in someone, he'll do everything it takes to get them over in the spot they deserve. Take note of Sting, (who Flair put over, essentially passing his torch, in 1989) Chris Benoit (boosted unmistakably by his membership in the Horsemen) and Steve Austin, (set to dominate the industry in the Flair-booked WCW before Eric Bischoff took over mid-stride) all of whom benefitted from Flair's touch.

Another thing that sets Flair apart from the pack is his ability to work with almost anyone. Throughout the years, Flair's had great matches with five hundred pounders, cruiserweights, technicians, brawlers and high fliers. It seems that no matter who's lined up across the ring, Flair can drag a good match out of them.

Alongside Arn Anderson, Flair worked to blur the lines between gimmick and reality, especially in his interviews. Emotion drips from every word he's said, and it's obvious. It's hard to keep your mind elsewhere when Flair's on your television. He doesn't just crave your attention, he demands it. Both as a personality and a worker, the Nature Boy is absolutely legendary. The things he's done to advance the industry can't even begin to be listed.

And that wraps it up. There are certainly some names I've left off this list. Antonio Inoki, Steve Austin, Mick Foley, Rikidozan, Bruno Sammartino, Bret Hart, Andre the Giant, Verne Gagne, the Von Erichs... the list goes on and on. However, the men listed above are what I consider to be both the cream of the crop and the most important, influential in the business's long history. They're names and explanations I wish I'd been privy to fifteen years ago when I first started watching professional wrestling. But then again, half the fun of getting into something is the act of discovery, the unearthing of information.

If you see a name you think's missing, do yourself a favor. Sit down and think about what they've done, and how their lasting impression might add up when compared to the guys above. Think about what kind of an image they're likely to cast twenty, fifty, one hundred years from now. Will the effects of their legacy still be felt, or will they be just a mild footnote on the way to the present? Once you've thought about that, drop me a line and let me know. Half the fun of writing these things is seeing what others think, and encouraging thought amongst others. If I've forced you to think, just for a couple of seconds, well, I guess I've done my job.
until then, i remain