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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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