Shining a Spotlight 02.01.13: The Top 50
How do you pick the best?
It’s a question talked a lot in various aspects of sports and entertainment. Whenever someone puts out a list of “the best,” the talk is less on who’s on it and more on who’s not or who’s ranked where. I try to avoid ranking for the most part in my stuff but I still do it for things like the Top 5 lists here at 411mania. Of course, that shows how tough it can be as everyone has their own opinions on the best and are convinced they’re right. So when you put out a book ranking the 50th best wrestlers ever, you damn well better be able to back your words up.
Thankfully, that’s exactly what Larry Matysik has done. The 50 Greatest Professional Wrestlers of All time: The Definitive Shoot (ECW Press, $19.95) tackles this daunting task with a great flair. What is notable is that he just doesn’t list these guys but gives several chapters explaining his choices and why he ranked some guys over others. It’s a great examination that lets you see how much the business has changed and a must-get for a wrestling fan.
Deciding the Best
The problem with such choices is that we all have our own criteria and feelings. Just look at the Top 5 lists every week here at 411mania. I like Bryan Kristopowitz and all but a tad annoyed with how he elevates ‘90’s B-movie Trancers to some massively beloved film. I take stands others might find annoying such as how I don’t consider the Star Wars prequels a massive abomination. With wrestling, it’s more complicated as so many guys have varying opinions on who they like, who they think the fans should like and such, that it’s hard to find any real common ground. So when you put out a list you claim to be a definitive one, you need to back it up.
However, Matysik can do that. This isn’t some random guy with a blog doing this. The man grew up learning and working for the legendary Sam Muchnick, one of the most fair-handed and successful bookers in history. He learned the ropes of how to work a show, the good and bad of booking, how the crowds may not respond as well to some guys as you hope and such. While he remembers the old days, he acknowledges how they weren’t perfect, how audience tastes have changed and such and wrestling has to adapt as well. He’s the author of several books, including Wrestling at the Chase and Drawing Heat the Hard Way which I’ve reviewed in earlier columns, showing great analysis of the business and where it can go. So when he talks, it’s with some in-depth knowledge of how wrestling really works to back up his words, such as the brutal truth that in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, Stampede was one of the worst territories to work for or when he talks of WWE dominating with the aside “Please, let’s agree TNA has posed no threat thus far.”
That comes forth in the first pages as he talks about his annoyance with WWE seeming to hate labeling itself a “wrestling” company but says he wants to be positive about Vince McMahon.”Love him or hate him but always respect him and his accomplishments while noting his failures.” He notes that someone was always going to change wrestling and Vince was the one with the smarts and drive to do it. So when Vince and WWE put out a DVD on the 50 greatest superstars in 2010, you’d expect a lot but you didn’t quite get it.
Now, many of us have debated that list, including myself and agree many of the rankings are off. Hell, on the actual DVD, they admit it; I remember Todd Grisham introducing Hogan at #23 and saying “don’t yell at me, I had nothing to do with this.” Matysik notes this but also acknowledges how Harley Race was all the way at #6 so Vince wasn’t blasting that entire older era. The issue is that a whole generation knows almost nothing of wrestling history so are wont to believe whatever WWE tells them it was. “The list is an indictment of the business itself and of all those who watch it.” To Matysik, this attitude, that Vince thinks fans can’t understand who the best are and just tell them who they should be, is what pushed him to write this book…but also realized how tough that really is.
Matysik says that the list is comparable to a baseball greats that leave off Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth because they were pre-TV or boxing leaving off Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis. Now, to be fair, the author does seem to ignore the fact that the list was based off a poll of guys in the locker room; they’re the ones who pushed Hogan and Flair low and elevated guys like Taker and Shawn up. Matysik says it was all Vince which may not seem very fair but still drives him on with how the list ignores the trailblazers who paved the way for the really successful guys we know today. He does acknowledge times change with how baseball has more home runs, football more passing and wrestling more talk and less ring action but the basics remain. He notes how guys helped choose names but most were to curry favor with Vince and add to the marketing of the DVD (such as Rey Mysterio put high to bring in younger viewers). But he notes that, in the end, Vince always gets what he wants and no doubt put his influence to shape the list the way it was.
Thankfully, Matysik addresses the key problem: “Common sense is not easy to come by in a venture like this.” It may be right but it’s not easy as everyone has their favorites. He limited himself to English-speaking territories, saying that’s the key market and while he hated leaving out so many big stars from Japan and Mexico, he had to. Some might find this a tad hypocritical but at least Matysik is up front about whatever bias he might have from the start. He also acknowledged the issue of steroids and changed times but insists guys like Thesz would have been stars no matter the era. A quote from an insider notes that today’s guys don’t have the benefit of the old territory system to build up their repertoire before moving to the big leagues. Matysik briefly had the idea of polling a dozen different guys but realized that risked turning things into a popularity contest with too many guys putting in favorites over real quality. He began with about a hundred big names known to everyone. He then tried to cut it down, noting how the same cluster of stars came up time and again but the ranking was the big issue.
Matysik notes that the key criteria was “real.” A guy fans looked at and knew was a true star, not created or pushed or booked a certain way but a massive guy boasting not just ability but stunning star power that couldn’t be duplicated. To be among the Top 50, Matysik says, is to possess more than a pretty face or pumped-up physique but a quality to suck people in. He cites as an example an encounter between the Rock and John Cena on the February 27, 2012 RAW as their tempers flashed and you had a moment that felt so damn real, made you believe these two hated each other for sure and would push their big showdown. That’s what Matysik looks for in this list, the guys who seemed so real, they convinced you it was real, much better than just wrestling ability alone. Guys like Thesz and Angle had the ability while others like Dick the Bruiser had the charisma that Steve Austin would later tap into, to make their brawls meaningful. He even cites Hogan as better than his critics claim, quoting John Studd talking about Hogan being for real in a battle and fans knew it.
Also brought up is how being a great worker isn’t always enough. Even Muchnick used the line of “he’s a good worker but he doesn’t drawn money.” Matysik says the definition used by so many online has to be widened, not just a guy great in the ring but able to pull you into a match and get the crowd going well. Mock Undertaker and HHH all you want but they trade moves and the fans eat it up because they make it feel as real as Thesz in his prime. Guys today borrow constantly from those of earlier times to stand out and the author points out that while some may grouse about today’s guys not able to handle the stiffer times of yesterday, it’s also important to note if those stars of the past could handle the more fast-paced work of today. Indeed, Matysik has the brilliant observation that fans may want seamless matches and complain about missed spots or such but “great workers had and have rough edges.”
Charisma is tricky as Matysik knows from first-hand experience how easy it is to book a guy who seems to have plenty of charisma but fans don’t respond. Ultimate Warrior had the look, energy and awesome entrance but couldn’t quite back it up in the ring. On the other hand, Cena had support early as Jim Barnett and Paul Heyman both saw the potential in him when he broke out in Ohio Valley but it took his goofy rap one Halloween to finally find the character needed to take off. It was easier to figure out a guy on the mic when they did their promos themselves rather than scripted out and makes it tricky with the frank truth guys today are better at promos than those of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s but important to remember the vastly different times for audiences that expected different. That adds to the difficulty in deciding the best, you can’t judge by one thing alone like ability, mic power or drawing strength. This leads to a list of who drew the best with the surprising numbers of Jim Londos at number one, followed by Bruno Sammartino, Hogan at 5, Flair at 8, HHH at 13, Backlund over Andre the Giant, Rock at 21 and Bret Hart nowhere on the list. Plus guys most have never heard of like Joe Stecher, Yvon Robert and Dick Shikat above some huge name stars showing how drawing numbers isn’t always the best judge either.
This leads to talk on whether championships matter to this debate as champs are paid more money and the truth that no promoters allow their champions to remain unless they had the goods to deliever a busy box office. Bruno was WWF champion for eleven years total, Thesz on top of the NWA for even longer. Also, forget how many times a guy wins a title, it doesn’t make as much difference as you’d think. Verne Gagne reigned longer than anyone in the AWA but the fact he owned the company makes it harder to judge his merits as a champ. Plus, there’s the political struggles (particularly Flair with the NWA/WCW) that affected things while Thesz’s power was so great he really could dictate to the NWA whether or not he kept the title, no mean feat considering how harsh the NWA board was. So while being a champ doesn’t automatically mean you deserve consideration for this list, it’s a major factor to be sure.
Before getting to the list, Matysik takes time to talk of who got left out and why. It begins with talk on how most might expect Matysik to leave out Cena but he argues Cena belongs as he may not wrestle like Flair or Thesz but he’s proven himself the biggest star of the current era, reliable, hard-working, loyal to the company and proven as a champ against just about every major star in the company today. He then debates the WWE list with how Mysterio and Guerrero were put in to attract Latino fans, that in old territory days, Guerrero would have been just the headliner for smaller places, not a big company and Rey probably never would have left Mexico. Matysik applauds both men but states they just don’t belong in a list of the 50 greatest ever. He’s more brutal in that Rey’s size is his novelty so he doesn’t belong anymore than Abdullah the Butcher for his blood battles. He then moves to talk on others like Curt Henning (great bumper and worker but not main event material), Edge (his high vote probably due to sympathy over his career cut short by neck injuries despite a good worker who could have been a territory headliners), Lawler (not big enough to headline outside his own Memphis although Matysik does share stories of how everyone in St. Louis loved Lawler’s artwork) and Jericho (very good but just not on the same level as Brisco, Savage or even Dusty Rhodes). He also takes issue with Moolah listed as a token female over really major stars like Mildred Burke and her success late in her career was due to friend Pat Patterson making sure she got plenty of TV time. In the opposite of the WWE list, Matysik has Stevens but not Patterson as Stevens was the bigger star for years while Patterson was more a secondary one.
As far as Matysik is concerned, even Kane has to think being listed as one of the 50 best is ridiculous. While Matysik is close to the Iron Sheik, he thinks the high placement on the WWE list is a bit much over more famous workers. He also argues against Mick Foley, a man to be respected for his amazing toughness and ability to break out despite not being a marquee main event star but not real all-around game. He admits wrestling is overloaded with characters but guys can back it up like Snuka but not enough to really merit Top 50 consideration. Jake Roberts was a genius on camera with promos and the innovation of the DDT but his various personal demons and quirks marred his ring skills, “his smarts were better than his athleticism.” Slaughter made his gimmick work with various runs but more of a cartoon character than a real worker. Junkyard Dog deserves respect for his huge stardom but it was openly acknowledged by promoters that the guy was garbage in the ring. Also Big Show is one of the better “big men” the business has known but certainly not on the level of Andre while Rick Rude was a brilliant heel but his short life showcases the problems that kept him from rising as a main-eventer. More brutal is on Jeff Hardy and “yes, I hear the squeals of disagreement from certain fans.” His risk-taking high-flying moves are amazing but has shown a deeply unreliable streak of behavior that’s ruined a few pushes and his inclusion on the list shows the DVD was more about marketing than real wrestling ability. And Batista and Monsoon were both great monsters but neither real good workers able to carry things (especially Batista’s slate of injuries).
The next chapter talks about those left off the WWE list who are also not included in Matysik’s. Topping this is, of course, Chris Benoit but not for the reasons you think. Yes, he was a superior worker but was never really the top man or a major program with below-average promos and in the old days would have headlined small territories as a great shooter but not a top guy. The Sheik was one of the best heels ever but his phenomenal heat doesn’t make up for his lack of real wrestling skills and can be argued as helping harm the Detroit wrestling scene after a good start. Dick Murdoch would get in if his peers had anything to say about it, highly respected but his hard brawling doesn’t really match the true skills of others on the actual list, his amazing character hurting his standing as much as helping it and even Murdoch acknowledged he wasn’t trustworthy enough to be considered for the NWA title despite his great charisma. Even great workers like Billy Robinson and Frank Gotch are left off the list despite Robinson’s utter brilliance as a technician and Gotch lacking real interview skills and drawing power. Matysik acknowledges the possibilities are endless, making it much harder to come up with a definitive list. But he argues WWE should have at least argued all this before their list and keep an eye to the future, to how the likes of Cena and Punk will be judged or if some new young player will pop out of TNA or ROH to shine brightly. That, Matysik says, is the joy of wrestling, looking to the past as a way to gauge the future. Surprisingly, he does avoid discussing the major omission of both his list and WWE’s: Sting, who I thought merited at least talk on consideration.
So, after all that talk and debate, we finally get to the list itself. I won’t give it away totally (after all, have to give a reason to buy the book). It’s actually prefaced by a chapter on Taro Myaki, a journeyman worker who may not be famous but amazing worker and helped build other stars. To Matysik, that was key, to recognize the guys who built up others, laid the groundwork that set up the 50 best ever. Despite how Vince ignores it, there is a tradition to the business that must be recognized and he grew up in a time when it was important. He acknowledges the accusation of his being a “Muchnick mark” but the fact remains that the promoter was one of the most level-headed judges of talent in his time and Matysik follows that example as best he can. Even through to the last edit, Matysik was reworking the list, fiddling with rankings as he thought of new factors to consider and the difficult question of how to compare the different eras of wrestling history. Pro wrestling doesn’t lend itself to statistics, so many variables so Matysik relies on his instinct from years of experience up close to how to make stars and quotes a mystery writer that “Not much could be proven but much could be understood.”
So we get to the list and Matysik’s bluntness continues as he talks of Bret Hart “isn’t, wasn’t and won’t be the best ever.” He places Randy Orton at 50 with notes on how he seems stalled due to personal issues but still much potential due to his amazing talent and deserves credit for beating out much older guys for a spot on the list. Matysik isn’t all “good old days” as he puts Stan Hansen at 49, Brock at 48 as being more “real” than most other guys and Billy Graham is low as he certainly paved the way for other larger-than life characters but not a really good worker. Matysik doesn’t let his own bias get in the way; despite his well-known love for Bruiser Brody (he co-authored a biography on the man), he only rates Brody at 32 and even notes the rep of the man for damaging as many territories as he helped but still rates as one of the most riveting monsters ever. The entry for Cena at 31 is interesting as it starts with a long bit on why Cena shouldn’t be included but Matysik realized the man deserves the ranking as the major star of today and a much better worker than his detractors give credit for (not to mention his amazing charity work).
Sure, you can argue the rankings. I would daresay Ricky Steamboat deserves higher than 45 with his amazing selling abilities and skill. Some would argue against Dusty Rhodes included so high but Matysik says character overcomes any lackings in the ring. In some cases, guys are ranked due less to their ring prowess and more their influence like Piper, Savage and Andre but he also recognizes lesser-known guys like Joe Stecher, “Wild Bill” Longson and Big Bill Miller, his words making them as big stars as any guys like Undertaker. It’s interesting that of all the Von Erichs, Fritz is the one on the list, never given proper credit as a good worker and great heel. Matysik says Shawn Michaels is mostly “right guy, right place, right time” but does credit it massively for coming back from his crippling back injury and playing the political game. He admits to cheating by having Dory and Terry Funk paired together in a tie as they’re so tightly wound together in success and makes the surprising choice of Verne Gagne over Harley Race. But he does put Flair and Hogan in the top 10 where they belong due to their massive influence and how they shaped the entire business.
Okay, maybe it’s not the “definitive” shoot or list. But you have to admire how Matysik spends half the book explaining his choices and criteria, using his real experience in wrestling (which is a lot more than most of us in the IWC can say) to back up his opinions and real knowledge of how the business works as he knows first-hand what it takes to be a star. He uses that to give us a list much better than either a WWE marketing bit or some random thing a guy with a blog can make. It also makes you think about the criteria we judge “the best” on, it can’t be just ring work or mic skills but a combination with that certain something that makes you stand out. Whatever else, each man on the list had that in spades and Matysik makes a compelling case for why they stand out and others don’t. So check out the book for the debate on the rankings but truly enjoy the reasons why and what it says about how the business has evolved, a truly compelling book.
For this week, the spotlight is off.