If I Could Be Serious For A Moment 01.27.09: Nothing Compares
Posted by Chris Lansdell on 01.27.2009
Everyone thinks they know who the best is. Many disagree. Who's right?
Greetings, humanity! Thank you for joining me for If I Could Be Serious For A Moment, your weekly dose of intelligent wrestling discourse. No, that's not an oxymoron. Having touched on a fairly sensitive topic last week, I was pleasantly surprised at the comments section and the largely positive response. Sometime soon I will respond to some of these comments, but not this week. This week I have a humdinger of a doozy of a topic for you. Are we all sitting comfortably? Then let's begin.
Simply the Best
Better than all the rest, says Tina Turner. And who are we to argue, disagree, whine, bitch, complain, insult, belittle or fight? "The best" is an absolute term, a superlative, and can only ever apply to one person at a time. Unless there's a tie, but we won't get into that right now. With that in mind, it should be obvious to everyone who the best wrestler of all time is, right? Why yes, it's obviously Ric Flair. No, it's Hulk Hogan. No way, it's Shawn Michaels. Oh dear. Looks like this isn't so cut-and-dry after all.
It's a bit like trying to figure out the greatest hitter of all time. Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Alex Rodriguez…all from different eras, all having different skills, and each one having his supporters as the best hitter. They can't all be right, so who is?
Having seen so many people, columnists and readers alike, argue futilely over the identity of the best of all time, I figured it was about time that we tried to at least put some objective analysis behind it. I will try to keep my personal opinions out of it as much as possible to get the purest possible answer. First, some restrictions. I'm only 30, and I will not include anyone I haven't seen personally. That means no Lou Thesz, no Sammartino, no Morales or Buddy Rogers. It also means El Santo, Mil Mascaras, Mitsuharu Misawa and a whole host of Japanese and Mexican wrestlers were not included. The reason for these exclusions is partly as I haven't seen enough of their work, but also because wrestling has changed so much. The focus shifted from in-ring ability to selling power, from being able to shoot in a match to being able to charm kids. Comparing Frank Gotch to Hulk Hogan is like comparing a kumquat to a Concorde.
I propose to look at the five people mentioned most often as the best of all time, and to compare them over 6 categories: drawing power, in-ring ability, charisma, legacy, shifting merchandise and cultural relevance. There will be no ties in any category – there can only be one "Greatest". In the event that two wrestlers are tied at the end of the column, the first tiebreaker will be number of first-place finishes, then second-place. If we're still tied, I'll go to a 6th category: World Appeal. The 5 contenders:
Stone Cold Steve Austin
In anticipation of the bitch session for leaving out certain people, here are a few notable exclusions:
Triple H, Sting and The Rock - When the list was going to be 6 names, these 3 were in contention for number 6. Ultimately I realised that it didn't matter which of the 3 I picked, because they had no hope of winning against the other 5. So instead of choosing one to lose, I left all 3 out. Rocky wasn't around long enough to crack this list, Sting was below everyone on the list for almost all categories, and HHH would have caused all the politics arguments to start, no matter how unwarranted.
John Cena - He's been around for 5 minutes. Although he'd be second only to Austin in terms of merchandise, it's not really fair to assess him on things like his legacy and drawing power when he has a good 10 years left at least.
The Undertaker - This was another tough one. He's certainly one of the top 3 big men of all time, and could probably crack number 6 on this list, but in all fairness he belongs with Rock, HHH and Sting at the top of Tier 2.
OK, that's out of the way. Allow me to reapply my flame-retardant coating and we'll dive in!
Drawing Power – If you book them, fans will come
The top name on your brand obviously has to be able to make fans want to watch, whether it's live, on TV or on PPV. Rightly or wrongly, the success of a champion is often measured by the ratings and buy-rates the company achieves while he is at the top. Right from the outset then, it would seem that Bret Hart is going to come up short here. Although he was champion at the outset of Stone Cold's rise to the top, and is probably responsible for it, the fact remains that he was champion during a bad time for WWE. So was Shawn Michaels, who followed immediately after Bret, but at that time the numbers were starting to rise. Ric Flair was never champion at a time when his promotion was dominating, not for an extended period at any rate. The numbers were good, but not spectacular. Not like Hogan and Austin enjoyed. The problem then is in choosing between those two for the top 2 spots. Hogan's run at the top was longer than Austin's, and came at a time when there was little serious competition nationwide. It can't be denied, however, that he main-evented cards that sold upwards of 70,000 tickets and broke all sorts of attendance records. Austin's success was more tangible in that he was on TV more often, sold out more house shows and was on more pay per views each year, and still remained on top. It's very, very close but I have to give the edge to Hogan, mainly because Austin's undercard was often more attractive than Hogan's, meaning some of the drawing power could have been diluted. Also, Hogan was on top for longer and wins out on sheer volume.
One aspect of professional wrestling that has never changed is that matches are mostly contested in a ring. As a top name you not only have to be able to look good on offence, you also have to make your opponent look good on offence. The better they look, the better you look when you beat them. You also need to be able to work good to great matches with any size opponent, of any skill level. Although it would seem obvious to any wrestling fan that Hulk Hogan should be at the bottom of this list, it's not as much of a slam dunk as you might think. Say what you want about Hogan's technical acumen (and I have), he sold for most of his opponents like they were killing him, and his limited offence looked good until the last few years of his career. He also worked with more of a variety of guys than you would think: from Perfect, DiBiase and Savage to Andre, Earthquake and Big Show. He's still at the bottom, but it's because the others were standouts more than because he was terrible.
The next 4 places are very, VERY tough. I'm fairly comfortable with Austin at 4, because although he was severely underrated as a technician during his run at the top, he resorted to a brawling style to fit his character. He had the ability, but did not use it very often. He also didn't really work with any big men except Taker, which hurts him from a variety perspective. However, the next 3 are all killers.
Ric Flair was a master tactician who could not only work a mat game but also told stories in the ring like nobody else could. Over the years he worked with everyone from cruiserweights to The Big Show and Vader in title matches, and was able to get a strong match out of them all.
Shawn Michaels can carry a broomstick to a four-star match, as was proven by his match with The Great Khali, but at the same time could work a ladder match, a cage match or an Iron Man match and be equally dazzling. Michaels defended the title against Kevin Nash, Sid, Mankind and Ken Shamrock in a stretch of several months, and all the matches were thrilling. Bret Hart has the unique distinction of pulling a watchable match out of Yokozuna, as well as working 2 classic title matches with Shawn Michaels, a legendary non-title main event I Quit match with Steve Austin, and very good matches with Nash, Sid, Taker and others. Flair has to come in below Hart and Michaels, not because he's bad but because Hart and Michaels were slightly more rounded by their tag team experience and gimmick matches, which have been a big part of wrestling in the last 12-15 years. Picking between Hart and Shawn is like choosing your favourite child. Their opponents were mostly the same. Bret had Yoko, Shawn had Khali. Bret had classics with Owen, Shawn had them with Hunter. Bret made Austin, Shawn made Austin. The only reason I am picking Shawn over Bret is that Bret lost a step when he went to WCW, whereas Shawn doesn't appear to have lost one even now.
Drawing power and charisma are related, but different. Santino Marella has charisma, but you wouldn't pay your money to see him at the top of the card. Goldberg had drawing power, but it wasn't due to his magnetic personality. The truly great ones have both, and all 5 contenders did. The results of this one may surprise you.
The key, in my mind, is that charisma is the ability to make fans respond to you in the way you want them to respond. Although Austin's popularity at the height of his powers was unmatched, he was close to a failure as a heel. His initial heel run was receiving cheers and led to the creation of the Attitude Era after one of the best executions of a double turn ever. After a long and successful face run (which initially was meant to be a tweener run), Austin turned on The Rock at Wrestlemania and tried to be a heel by aligning himself with the biggest heel in the company, Vince McMahon. Oh it worked for a little while, but soon the cheers started again because Austin was just too entertaining and popular to make people hate him. You can blame it on the booking team waiting too long to turn him, or on creative for giving him too many amusing quirks, but the bottom line is that Austin could not make people hate him.
Shawn Michaels had a similar problem: once he broke through to the main event level, he could not keep the fans booing him. He had very few heel runs at that point anyway (DX was getting a lot of cheers and laughs, especially when they took on Slaughter), and even got turfed out of the nWo because he would ruin their heel buzz.
Bret Hart had the opposite problem. He was popular enough as a face champion, especially with the kids, but he never really made it to the upper echelon of face popularity that Michaels and Austin did, at least not in the US. However, he has an advantage over both in that he was a stellar heel in the US while achieving near demigod status as a face in Canada and Europe. The anti-American angle he worked just before leaving the WWF played off this perfectly and it's why I place him ahead of Shawn and Austin.
Hogan would come next, and that's because of one key point: the reaction to him in WWE was always a face reaction. As the leader of the nWo in WCW he was hated almost to the point of violence, and as the uber face in WWF he was nearly worshipped. It was his return at No Way Out the month before Wrestlemania 18 that cost him the top spot here. The entire nWo group, which he was spearheading, were to come in as heels for a lengthy storyline. To start with Hogan got the heat he was supposed to get, but come WrestleMania he was getting cheered even against The Rock. As a result the nWo died out quickly and Hogan was turned face. WWF/E fans will never be able to hate Hulk Hogan, no matter what he does, and that costs him the #1 spot.
Which of course goes to Ric Flair. In his early career Flair was very often a heel, hated for being a cocky, flamboyant cheat who surrounded himself with other cocky, flamboyant cheats. He was good enough to back up most of his gloating and lucky enough to escape on the rare occasion when he couldn't. He occasionally played the face and was revered as such. Normally in professional wrestling, veterans like Flair in his later years are cheered for everything they've given to the business. The Iron Sheik gets cheered now, Ted DiBiase gets cheered now. Flair was different. As a member of Evolution he managed to draw heat, and when facing the Rock n Sock Connection at WrestleMania he STILL got heat. The ability to get the reaction that the writers want instead of the one the fans want is what puts him at #1.
All five of our contenders have had an impact on professional wrestling. In order to be considered the greatest, that impact needs to be memorable, but not necessarily a result of a positive event. You can have a great positive effect on those who follow by showing them the WRONG way to do things (see Hall, Scott and Roberts, Jake). This category was incredibly hard to score. I first had to figure out what each person's legacy was (or will be, in the case of Shawn Michaels) before I could decide which was the most meaningful.
Stone Cold showed professional wrestling that "being yourself with the volume cranked to 11" was the best way to be successful in wrestling, and that you can recover from bad booking and the mistakes of Creative. Important yes, but by no means THE most important, especially as it has minimal impact on young talent. Who did he put over on the way out? The Rock, who was already over, and not many others. What stars did he make? Again, The Rock arguably, and possibly Vince McMahon if you want to stretch things. What can a young wrestler learn from his story, his career? Perseverance. Austin was fired over the phone, told he would never make it, and then became the catalyst for the biggest ratings period the WWE has ever known.
The Montreal Screwjob is one of the most important events in wrestling history, and it plays a role in Bret Hart coming in at 4. Without it, Bret's legacy is solid: works his way up the WWF ranks, makes a few stars, makes opponents look good, rides off into the WCW sunset having dropped the title to the next big thing (Michaels, or if Bret had his way Shamrock, Foley or Vader), gets inducted to the Hall of Fame, makes a gracious speech, and helps train a new generation. The problem is, the Screwjob DID happen. Regardless of where you choose to apportion the blame (and for years, I laid it squarely at the feet of Shawn), Bret is the one who has remained a sour, bitter old man. Michaels is over it, Vince is clearly over it, and Bret has even forgiven Vince. His attitude towards Michaels is the problem, and it serves to educate young wrestlers that in wrestling, you have to let bygones be bygones. Nothing is forever, unless your name is Randy Savage.
Despite my distaste for it, Hogan's legacy is an important and relevant one, perhaps today more than ever: the ability to talk and look good is more important than the ability to wrestle. As much as wrestling purists might shudder at that sentence, they also must admit that it is and has been true for the past several years. What brings the Hulkster down is the way he's tarnished his reputation in recent years by almost begging for places on big shows, despite being close to physically incapable of performing, and his unwillingness to put anyone over. Hogan's ego arguably killed WCW, or at the very least dealt it a telling blow, and his numerous comebacks since have often been at the expense of a younger active talent. His recent Celebrity Championship Wrestling venture, while relatively inoffensive to view and comparatively successful, nonetheless exposed more of the wrestling business than even Tough Enough had done before.
Not putting Shawn Michaels at #1 was a tough choice. When you look at all he's done wrong (his part in the Screwjob, his monopoly of the main event with the Kliq, his refusal to put certain people over), it's hard to fathom how he ranks so highly. The thing is, he's done so much right since returning for good that it outweighs the bad. He's dragged good matches out of anyone he was given, has been a part of some of the most memorable storylines and has been pinned clean by the likes of Mr Kennedy and John Cena. However, everyone he's put over, he has also beaten. The only feuds Michaels lost were against names that did not need the push: Jericho, HHH, Batista, and so on. He's also not done yet, and has a chance to damage his legacy further in the next year, 2 years or however many years he sticks around.
Surprisingly, I had a lot of trouble putting Ric Flair ahead Shawn Michaels. This has nothing to do with Michaels retiring Flair and everything to do with Flair sticking around long past his prime. Don't get me wrong, Flair was still entertaining right to the last minute, but he was still involved in wrestling because he HAD to be as much as because he WANTED to be. The Nature Boy stands as a perfect example of how not to manage your money and of not knowing when to say when. Flair was such a pale imitation of his former self towards the end that it almost hurt to watch him wrestle. Sure he could still cut a promo and tell a story in the ring, but it was a much slower story, and he LOOKED horrible. We cannot overlook what he did for wrestling and wrestlers, however. Flair made stars out of Lex Luger, Sting and Vader in his early career, and even later in that career he had no trouble putting people over. Although "I beat Ric Flair" became less of an achievement in 2008 than it was in 1988, Flair milked his name for everything it was worth and used that to further feuds in which he was not directly involved, to lend credibility to a push, to showcase younger stars and to bring class to the product. The fact that Flair created so many more megastars and the fact that he's done just gave him the top spot.
Flair takes a commanding lead, but he has some weak categories coming up.
Shifting Merchandise – Selling in more ways than one
Pro wrestling never used to be about anything but the wrestling. Then Vince McMahon came along and turned it into an entertainment circus, where anything and everything could and would be marketed and sold. Over the past 2 decades the size of a person's push has hinged in part on their ability to move merchandise bearing their likeness, so it makes sense to include this as a criterion for choosing the best ever. As an aside, the current runaway merchandise sales leaders are Jeff Hardy and John Cena, who were both World champions until Sunday night. This is not a coincidence.
Poor Ric Flair. He spent most of his career outside McMahon's marketing machine, and by the time WCW caught on to the idea Ric wasn't at the forefront of the merchandise push. In recent years his DVD sets have sold incredibly well, but Flair never did have a large range of t-shirts or other memorabilia to his name.
On the face of it, Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels would appear to be fairly close in this category. Bret's teddy bears and sunglasses sold very well, and the pink and black look even attracted female fans. The very first wrestling t-shirt I bought was a Bret Hart one. However, Bret is missing one crucial component that Shawn has, and that is that Bret's faction never really had marketable merchandise.
Shawn, on the other hand, had DX. With the exception of the top 2, DX shirts were seen on more casual fans than any other wrestling apparel. In recent years his faith-based apparel has also sold well, and his inevitable career DVD will too. Shawn would compare favourably with almost anyone on the merchandise front, but the 2 ahead of him are off the charts.
The battle for first and second is a very close one. Austin 3:16 shirts were worn by EVERYONE between 18 and 29 during the Attitude era, even by people who didn't watch wrestling. They were actually in fashion. The beer coolers, the beer mugs, the posters…Austin merchandise sold like crazy, and in the midst of the biggest boom period professional wrestling had ever known. On the other hand you have Hulk Hogan, the man that epitomised Vince McMahon's marketing machine, who had everything from a Saturday morning cartoon to bandanas to cookies. Chances are that if you know someone who grew up in the 80s, they probably had the lunchbox. Or chewed the gum. Or watched the cartoon. Although Hogan was the key member of the nWo and deserves credit for the high popularity of that merchandise also, Austin only has to show up on WWE TV wearing a new shirt for it to hit #1 on the sales charts. So who gets the edge? Hogan has the longevity, but Austin's potential for future sales is higher and it's that potential that tips the scales in Stone Cold's favour.
Well, this is interesting. Bret and Austin are out of the running for first, and Michaels needs Hogan and Flair to finish more than one place behind him to pull it out. Let's get to the final category.
Cultural relevance – Beyond the Mat
Pro wrestling has had an interesting place in American pop culture. It has been a popular family show, an edgy teen drama, a sports show and a childish life parody. Whatever it has been, wrestling has also had a stigma attached to it of being "fake" and low-brow entertainment. A few wrestling superstars have managed to transcend that barrier and become popular in mainstream culture, which is essential to attract new consumers to the product. In this category falls cross-promotion : any appearance made by a wrestler helps promote the product. As is fitting for the final category, this one is the toughest to judge.
The problem is that each person promoted the business in their own way, each with success, and each became well known outside of wrestling. I'm comfortable saying that Shawn Michaels is the least known of the 5. His appearance in Playgirl would have appealed to a very limited market, and although DX is widely known for its catchphrases and irreverence, it is more commonly associated with the incarnation AFTER Shawn left. As popular as Shawn is within the business, his popularity OUTSIDE it has been less prominent.
Through his political activities, his longevity in the business and the fact that he wrestled in Japan and the Caribbean, Ric Flair is a name that people of a certain generation will associate with wrestling automatically. Anyone who watched the NWA in Flair's heyday will know who he is, but the fact remains that he is largely known for his wrestling accomplishments, not for having crossed any barriers. In Charlotte and surrounding areas he is a cultural icon, but the further afield you go the more he is just a very good wrestler.
Bret Hart has a bit of an edge here in that there just weren't many famous Canadians in his generation. Apart from being almost universally adored as a wrestler outside of the USA, Bret has achieved a measure of popularity in Canada, being named as one of the top 40 Canadians of all time in 2004. He is also known for the minor hockey franchise he owned (and may still own, though I'm fairly sure he sold it), the Calgary Hitmen. Bret scores above Flair because his sphere of influence is greater.
So once again the top two comes down to Hogan and Austin. Both men have had success outside of wrestling, and have used that success to attract more people TO wrestling. Hogan had appearances on the A-Team, numerous movies, a cartoon and countless other spin-offs that are not even loosely related to wrestling. Austin had a recurring role on Walker, Texas Ranger (and possibly Nash Bridges? The old memory isn't what it used to be…) as well as a few film roles. Although Hogan's reach may have covered more avenues, Austin's penetrated deeper, and at the height of his popularity people were wearing his apparel and spouting his catchphrases whether they liked wrestling or not. The deciding factor, though, is that if you ask a non-wrestling fan to name a wrestler, more of them will say "Hulk Hogan" than "Stone Cold Steve Austin".
5th – Bret "Hitman" Hart
4th – Shawn Michaels (One first, one second)
3rd – "Stone Cold" Steve Austin (One first, two second)
2nd – "The Nature Boy" Ric Flair
1st, and the greatest North American wrestler of recent times – Hulk Hogan
That's a surprise. I am NOT a Hogan fan and honestly expected Austin or Flair to come out on top of this. I guess more than anything this exercise shows that the focus in wrestling has shifted so far from the in-ring aspect that it's no longer important to be the best WRESTLER.
This test was as objective as I could make it, and although several things within the test are subjective, I tried wherever possible to explain my reasoning. I welcome alternate takes on the information presented, and maybe a month or so down the line we can re-evaluate based on intelligent arguments.
Well, our little Rumble experiment is over and, like almost every other special feature here on the site, it was met with mixed reviews. Despite Hubbard's modest admission that I made a few booking suggestions, this was his baby and almost everything was from his fertile imagination. I would love to know who provided the commentary on this. Some thoughts:
Imperial Rumble entry #21 – RVD. Royal Rumble entry #25 – RVD. I'm just saying.
Randle is evil.
As funny as this was to some readers, it's even funnier to the writers who got all the inside jokes.
Needed more Small and Slimmer. The heat World order would have been hilarious in this match.
A bunch of Benoit jokes AND a Nazi joke? Only thing missing was an Owen joke!
I have no idea what I did to deserve the push.
Thinking about it, no Small and Slimmer + brand of humour in commentary suggests Small and Slimmer.
That's it from me. Enjoy your week, Stay Cool, Rock Hard.