“Borrrring! Borrrrring! Borrrrring!” is probably the chant you’d hear at a WWE show if the Superstars displayed some technical mastery in the ring. Since the 1990s, Vince McMahon, Jr.’s product has evolved into a display of high spots, a stark departure from the meat-n-potatoes grappling that Vince, Sr. built his company on.
This paradigm shift isn’t absolutely a detriment to the viewing experience. The change is completely in line with our decreased attention spans and decreased sensitivity for longer matches.
Still, the WWF sometimes managed to merge the old world and the newer one with some of its more technically savvy performers. These men found a way to captivate audiences with their academic approach to ring combat, making them irreplaceable assets in the generation before McMahon began distancing his product from the competitive artistry that made it special.
So here is the 4th tier of the WWE Pyramid, dedicated to the wrestlers who exemplified “work” in the business and appreciate applause for their displays just as much as a deafening roar:
#10 – Dean Malenko
Purists, be still. In a perfect world, “The Man of 1,000 Holds” would be higher on the list. But if his stock as an onscreen asset were the only factor, he wouldn’t rank at all. Luckily, Marz Daily Media knows what a legend Dean Malenko became during the 90s working in Extreme Championship Wrestling, World Championship Wrestling (WCW), and the WWF.
Malenko’s stoic demeanor and diminutive stature made him a marketing challenge for McMahon’s creative team, but his talent made him an integral component to the small-scale coup that McMahon pulled off by debuting Malenko, Perry Saturn, Eddie Guerrero, and Chris Benoit on the same night as a WCW-transplanted group called The Radicalz.
Malenko used this instantaneous Horsemen-esque pedigree to springboard into the WWF’s now defunct Light Heavyweight Division, becoming one of its greatest champions. Unfortunately, the WWF began to care less about its light heavyweights, forcing Malenko into a strange storyline involving a new nickname (Double Ho Seven [turrble]) and a title defense against a woman (Lita, but still).
“The Man of 1,000 Holds” deserved better, so hopefully his place in this pantheon can make up for his weird tenure with the WWF.
#9 – Bob Backlund
Most WWE fans have no idea who Bob Backlund is. But any top-50-wrestlers list without the first WWF Heavyweight Champion doesn’t deserve to be published (not even on some low-rent blog that a handful of people visit daily [thanks, friends]).
Backlund’s clean-cut, boy next door look combined with his exceptional strength and in-ring ability to create a great white hope in a show that was built on ethnic allegiances. But during his 6-year reign as WWF Champion, Backlund proved to the world that he could transcend those barriers and give the WWF the prestige it needed to be a legitimate company in the industry. Many performers who came after him helped the WWF skyrocket into the household name it became, but Backlund was one of the men who laid the foundation…because he could wrestle.
#8 – Haku
Wrestlers from the South Pacific tend to get pigeonholed for their in-ring style, often wrestling barefoot and incorporating a martial arts repertoire. And the marginalization of brown people in America definitely influenced how most fans perceived Haku.
But Haku’s run in the WWF from the late ‘80s to the early ‘90s demonstrated how reliable a force he could be. As part of Bobby “The Brain” Heenan’s stable, Haku was a legitimate threat for his affiliation alone. But Haku was strong and agile enough to make opponents nervous even without someone in his corner.
Haku, a.k.a. Tonga ‘Uli’uli Fifita, left the WWF to become Meng in WCW, but it was his reputation from his WWF days that established him as a performer guaranteed to systematically dismantle opponents with his special brand of controlled brutality. Haku breaks the mold of honorees as a Ringmaster, but no one can deny that he showed up whenever asked and worked his Tongan tail off.
#7 – Greg “The Hammer” Valentine
He looked like a blonde version of Mama Fratelli…and he was just as mean. Greg Valentine built his reputation on a hard-nosed, unforgiving style that made him a feared opponent for even the most over faces. When WCW wrestlers dreaded Ric Flair’s figure-four leg lock, all wrestlers cringed at the thought of Valentine’s.
In a sport with predetermined outcomes, it feels silly to legitimize a commentator’s observation that the longer a match with Greg Valentine went on, the tougher he was to beat. All exceptional ring performers are conditioned to endure more than the five-minute matches we see today. But watching a half-hour wrestling match can be downright unwatchable with the wrong guys in the ring. For epic matches that valued the art of grappling and punishment, Valentine was your guy. No one spends over 8 years in the WWF and becomes Intercontinental Champion along the way by boring people to death.
#6 – Tito Santana
Today, he’s a gym teacher in New Jersey and still wrestles at indie shows in his spare time. But in the 1980s, Tito Santana was one of the most exciting workers in the WWF. Drawing on the positive aspects of his Mexican heritage, Santana (nee Merced Solis) embodied hard work and unbridled passion, making him a transcendent fan favorite.
Santana should be remembered for his technical prowess as well as his professionalism. Whether Santana was headlining as an Intercontinental Champion, opening shows in tag team action, or donning a matador costume (still an unjustly cheap gimmick of a future legend, even in the 1990s), Santana took whatever program he was involved in and made the most of it. And when he was in quality feuds with guys like Greg Valentine, he always took his game to another level.
#5 – Owen Hart
If you can find anyone who didn’t like Owen Hart, you’d probably find an insufferable a-hole. The fun-loving Canadian grappler from the legendary Hart family spent most of his WWF years in the shadow of his brother Bret. But Owen used his personality to make him a star in his own right.
Still, Hart’s undeniable pedigree was what made him a formidable performer in the ring. The novelty he provided with his angry promos or neon parachute pants would have fallen flat coming from a guy who didn’t know how to work.
Instead, Owen’s combination of infectious spirit and top-notch technical ability is what made his untimely death one of the more tragic events in the history of live performance, not just professional wrestling. Alas, he didn’t make the official list of greatest superstars of all-time. But anyone who thinks his contribution to the WWF wasn’t big enough to earn a spot in the top 50 should seriously rethink what makes a great superstar.
#4 – Chris Benoit
Given the details surrounding Chris Benoit’s death, the WWE has pretty much erased any evidence that he existed in the company. But as senseless and tragic as his passing was, the mark he made as a performer needs to be acknowledged.
“The Crippler” was already a star before arriving to the WWF in 2000. His accolades in New Japan Pro Wrestling and WCW gave him a resume with which most would-be wrestlers would love to retire. But Benoit’s time with McMahon’s company exposed him to a larger audience than ever before.
Never the largest competitor, Benoit used his technical expertise and aerial assaults to dismantle opponents who often dwarfed him in the ring. Winning the World Heavyweight Championship wasn’t only the final piece to secure his legacy, but it also changed the game for what World Heavyweight Champions looked like. At 5’11” and 220 lbs., Benoit was the smallest man (up to that point) to win the title. Since then, Rey Mysterio, Jr. (5’6” 175 lbs.) has also been World Heavyweight Champion. But without Benoit’s mastery in the ring, the powers that be in WW(whatever) would have never even considered crowning a champion who didn’t fit the typical 6’4” 250-plus-pound mold.
#3 – Curt Hennig
Curt Hennig became one of the greatest Intercontinental Champions of all time by living up to his nickname, “Mr. Perfect.” Hennig’s impeccable technique and ability to control the audience with the psychology of his matches made him one of the most respected heels in the company, boasting an undefeated streak that lasted for over a year.
For fans of the good guys, Mr. Perfect was the guy they wanted to see get his clock cleaned. And he would. What made him such a great character was his ability to win even after having the tar beaten out of him.
Hennig’s alliance with Bobby Heenan certainly gave him a competitive edge in the scheme of matches. But before arriving in the WWF, Hennig became a renowned World Heavyweight Champion in Vern Gagne’s American Wrestling Alliance without a ringside manager, and he did it by being a phenomenal worker. Hennig went on to raise the level of prestige that the Intercontinental Championship had in the WWF with matches against legends like Tito Santana and Bret Hart.
Although Hennig is on the long list of wrestlers who’ve passed on before they reached old age, the impact he made on professional wrestling still gives today’s performers a lot to aspire to. Perfection has that effect on people.
#2 – Ricky Steamboat
The list of superlatives that Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat earned during his wrestling career is long enough for its own post. But being one of the most well-conditioned, most exciting wrestlers to be in one of the best WWF matches of all time should be enough to support Steamboat’s distinction as a Ringmaster.
Since Steamboat stepped away from a projected long run with the Intercontinental Title to spend time with his family, fans still wonder about how much greater his legacy would have been had he not been such a good guy in and out of the ring. But how can a legend be more legendary?
Even without his stretches in the WWF, fans would look to his matches with Ric Flair as evidence that Steamboat was one of the greatest workers in the business. Through their series of matches that lasted 60 minutes each—also known as Broadways—Flair and Steamboat demonstrated that epic matches are not all about high spots and chair shots.
Steamboat continues to be a mentor to younger performers in the WWE, including his son Ricky, Jr., who has been working in one of WWE’s minor league promotions, Florida Championship Wrestling. It’s safe to say that Ricky, Sr., the hard worker that he is, wouldn’t want it any other way than to see his son succeed on his own merit instead of coasting on their bloodline.
#1 – Kurt Angle
Several Olympic hopefuls have made the transition from amateur wrestling into sports entertainment, but none of them have had professional careers as decorated as Kurt Angle. Kurt Angle’s gold medal win in the 1996 Olympics turned into an 8-year contract with the WWF in 1998, and he did not take that commitment lightly.
Using his amateur wrestling experience to inform his character, Angle became a compelling character who espoused many of the classic good guy attributes (patriotism and dedication to hard work) while turning them into ways to alienate the fans.
Angle’s 8-year run in the WW(x) was filled with title wins and action-packed rivalries that people still rave about today. His ability to build on the skill set that he honed from a young age and compliment it with audience-desired aerial moves make him an invaluable talent to this day, injuries and all. His unparalleled charisma and commitment to his craft made him an irresistible personality long after he left the WWE.
The punishment he has endured from his work in the ring has never deterred him from giving the fans a show that they’ll never forget. And he single-handedly resurrected a movement that celebrated technical wrestling for a mainstream audience who wouldn’t have normally been bothered. Vince McMahon might not want the first W in WWE to stand for wrestling anymore, but Kurt Angle is one man who continues to demonstrate that there is no way to divorce the two.