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Ask 411 Wrestling: What Tier Of All-Time Greats Is Bret Hart In?

February 5, 2020 | Posted by Ryan Byers
Bret Hart WWE

Welcome guys, gals, and gender non-binary pals, to Ask 411 Wrestling. I am your party host, Ryan Byers, and I am here to answer some of your burning inquiries about professional wrestling.

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Tyler from Winnipeg wants to check in on a fellow Canuk:

All time, at what number do you place, Bret “The Hitman” Hart?

Though framed as a question about Bret Hart, this seems like a backdoor way of trying to get me to rank the greatest professional wrestlers of all time.

Honestly, that’s an exercise that I have always tried to avoid engaging in, because there are so many wrestlers from so many different eras and so many different parts of the world that it becomes very difficult to make an apples-to-apples comparison between them.

Thus, I think that it’s an easier and a better system overall to organize wrestlers in to tiers as opposed to trying to rank them on an individual basis. That way, you’ve got some way of distinguishing between wrestlers who are at different levels without having to make sometimes razor-thin and sometimes false distinctions between individuals.

In my mind, there are three main factors to evaluate when determining where a wrestler lands on a list of all-time greats. The first is in-ring ability. The second is charisma. The third is a track record as a draw.

When you apply those criteria, the absolute top tier of greatest wrestlers of all time is pretty clear. Guys like El Santo, Rikidozan, Antonio Inoki, Lou Thez, Ric Flair, Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin, and the Rock, who transcended professional wrestling and became cultural icons in their home countries, fall in to that category.

Then, there is a second tier, which is a group of wrestlers who were very talented and/or were incredibly charismatic and were on top of their respective promotions during hot periods and made positive contributions but still didn’t break through and have the mainstream appeal of the people named in the first tier. That’s where I would place wrestlers on the level of El Hijo del Santo, All Japan’s Four Pillars of Heaven (Misawa/Kobashi/Kawada/Taue), New Japan’s Three Musketeers (Chono/Mutoh/Hashimoto), Dusty Rhodes, Randy Savage, Triple H, and Mick Foley.

Below them would be a third tier of wrestlers who were exceptional in terms of their in-ring ability and charisma but were only on top during very down periods for business and thus really don’t have the credentials as draws that others further up the list do. Eddie Guerrero, Yuji Nagata, and Shawn Michaels would all go here . . .

and, honestly, I think that’s where you have to put Bret Hart as well. He was an excellent in-ring performer and no doubt better than some of the guys who I mentioned in the two higher tiers, and, though he was not the most dynamic personality or most eloquent promo, he did have an aura that drew some people to him. Unfortunately, though that aura kept some people tuned in to wrestling, it didn’t translate to great box office overall.

I should emphasize that putting Hart in to the third of these three tiers is in no way a knock on him. I think that just about everybody in all three of these categories has had a hall of fame level career, but, when you compare hall of famers to other hall of famers, some did have better careers than others. Bret is a legend, but I wouldn’t say that he’s at the top of the heap among legends.

Stu in the UK sent this question in as part of a multi-query email, but this one is complex enough, so I’ll get to his others in later columns:

How many world titles, past and present, have been defended on the six continents with civilian populations (North America, South America, Europe, Australasia, Asia and Africa)?

I am open to being corrected on this one, but I think that the only viable answer to this question is the WWE Championship.

Obviously, that title has been defended in North America. Here are some examples that I was able to come up with of the championship being defended on the remaining five continents:

1) On May 24, 2012, CM Punk defeated Chris Jericho to retain the WWE Championship on a card held in Sao Paulo, Brazil in South America. This match became somewhat infamous because Jericho, who was the heel, at one point snatched a fan’s Brazilian flag and threw it to the ground and kicked it for heat. Jericho was threatened with arrest and had to break kayfabe and apologize before he could leave the venue. WWE also suspended him for thirty days after the event, which I can only assume was a move to placate the Brazilian government and/or the E’s business partners in that country.

2) Even before the WWF started running its own shows in Japan, they had a long-lasting working relationship with New Japan Pro Wrestling. This lead to many WWWF/WWF Title matches taking place in that company, including champion Billy Graham retaining against Seiji Sakaguchi on February 8, 1978 at Budokan.

3) The WWF toured Australia in the 1980s, but the results from those shows are pretty hard to come by outside of the fact that Velvet McIntyre defeated the Fabulous Moolah for the Women’s Title on one of the tours and lost it back to her in short order. As near as I can tell, there wasn’t a recorded WWF/WWE Title match until 2002, when, on August 10 of that year, The Rock successfully defended against Triple H and Brock Lesnar in a triple threat match that headlined a show called Global Warning: Melbourne, which actually got its own DVD release in the U.S.

4) It’s not uncommon at all to see a WWE Title match in Europe these days, but one of the first came at the company’s United Kingdom debut on October 10, 1989 in London when Hulk Hogan, seconded by Miss Elizabeth, pinned Randy Savage, seconded by Sensational Sherri.

5) Africa is probably the continent that has seen the fewest world title matches from any company, but the WWF Title has been defended there in the past. One such match saw the Undertaker put the strap on the line against Bret Hart on April 6, 1997 in Durban, South Africa. The match ended in a double count out. Interestingly, the company had also toured South Africa the year before, but there were no championship matches because half the roster, including then-champion Shawn Michaels, stayed home to run house shows in the U.S.

Going in to this question, I would have assumed that the NWA World Title was a strong contender to have been defended on all six populated continents, but I could not find record of a championship match in either Africa or South America. Interestingly, Lou Thesz was the first man to defend the NWA Title in both Australia and Asia, which he did as part of the same tour in 1957. He defeated a man named Ricky Waldo in Sydney on August 29 of that year in the title’s first defense outside of North America, and then on September 28 he defended against an interesting character by the name of King Kong Czaja in Singapore. I was very surprised to learn that the first NWA Title match in Asia took place in Singapore as opposed to Japan, though later in the same tour, Thesz did defend against Rikidozan twice in Tokyo.

Also surprising was the fact that the NWA Title didn’t show up in Europe until 1993, when champion Barry Windham wrestled challenger Dustin Rhodes to a double count out in London on March 11. I wonder whatever happened to that Dustin Rhodes kid.

I don’t know that any other championships come close, though there are several that have been defended on at least three continents.

In an odd coincidence (and I’m not even making this up), AG Awesome asked this question on Martin Luther King Day:

In your opinion, why has WWE never released a DVD set on any black wrestlers other than the Rock? Unless I’m missing someone, I believe he is the only one. Surely Harlem Heat/Booker T, Ron Simmons, and Mark Henry have had careers with plenty of content worth covering (plus fascinating documentary material) and deserve one. Or at least deserved a set back when WWE was still big on the DVD release era.

Maybe it’s just Farooq and all the 1997 RAWs I’ve been watching that is starting to get to me, what with his NOD work and promo points.

First off, there have been a handful of WWE DVDs featuring black wrestlers other than the Rock, though they’re not necessarily the larger, multi-disc sets that Rocky has gotten. In 2012, Kofi Kingston was the focus of a DVD in what was referred to as the “Superstar Collection,” a selection of single-disc budget DVDs each focused on a particular wrestler. Sasha Banks got the same treatment in the U.K.-exclusive series of budget DVDs called “Iconic Matches” which hit the shelves in 2018.

There are also a couple of other DVDs that you may or may not want to include in this category. In 2016, Straight Outta Dudleyville: The Legacy of the Dudley Boys was released, and, of course, one of the two Dudley Boys is a black man. Also, in 2004, WWE released a series of DVD that collected episodes of their old Legends of Wrestling roundtable show that originally aired on their old Classics on Demand subscription service. Each DVD contained two episodes of the program, and one of the combos was Jerry Lawler and the Junkyard Dog.

Despite those releases, it is true that there have been far fewer DVDs and DVD sets featuring black performers than there have been focusing on white performers.

Why?

It seems that there is a pattern to WWE’s DVD releases. Obviously, wrestlers who are top-level stars in the company will get DVDs, which is why there have been plenty of discs focusing on the Rock, Steve Austin, and Ric Flair. When lower card wrestlers get DVDs, they tend to be wrestlers who are renowned for having particularly great or otherwise memorable matches, which is why you see DVD sets focused on Chris Benoit, John Morrison, and Mr. Perfect.

Whatever the reason, there have been disproportionately fewer a-list main eventers in wrestling history who are black. Though Ron Simmons, Mark Henry, and Booker T. were all world champions, they were champions who were always overshadowed by bigger stars that were in their promotions at the same time. As far as particularly athletic performers go, Kofi Kingston and Booker would qualify, and, as noted above, Kofi got his disc. The lack of a Booker T. DVD does seem like a bit of an omission, though no moreso than the lack of a Vader or Barry Windham DVD.

Ultimately, black stars haven’t had nearly the volume of DVDs as their white counterparts, though I don’t know that there’s a reason for that beyond all of the reasons that factor in to there generally being fewer black wrestling stars than there are white wrestling stars.

As is standard for him, Night Wolf the Wise chimes in with two totally unrelated questions:

1. So what’s the story with Lance Steel vs Darkness Crabtree from 2004?

Night Wolf is asking about a series of matches that occurred beginning on CHIKARA’s October 29, 2004 show from Reading, Pennsylvania, entitled “More Songs about Buildings and Food,” because 2004 CHIKARA had this thing where they were naming shows after Talking Heads albums.

Lance Steel and Darkness Crabtree are two of CHIKARA’s whackier characters, with Steel being a medieval knight who was accidentally transported to present day by a time machine and Darkness Crabtree being an elderly gentleman, billed as the world’s oldest professional wrestler. There have actually been three different Lance Steels in the history of CHIKARA, but the 2004 show that we’re talking about here was the very first appearance of the very first Lance Steel. Meanwhile, it has long been reported that CHIKARA headman Mike Quackenbush is the man usually underneath the Darkness Crabtree hood, though the character was occasionally played by others.

When the two men locked up at More Songs About Buildings and Food, Steel first pinned Crabtree in a matter of seconds and Darkness challenged him to an immediate rematch with different stipulations, which repeated several different times until the two men were going at it in a no time limit, falls count anywhere match.

You can actually view the match from that point onward right here:

Eventually the two men brawled out of the building and just vanished, with the powers that be deciding that, if they could no longer find the wrestlers, they would just continue on with the rest of the card.

The next night, CHIKARA ran a second show called “The Cibernetico Cometh” in Emmaus, Pennsylvania, and, in the middle of that card, Steel and Crabtree suddenly appeared through a side door and brawled into the ring, where Steel tapped him out with an Liontamer. (For what it’s worth, even though the match finished on Cibernetico, I believe that the beginning and end are both on the More Songs DVD/streaming release.)

In CHIKARA canon, they treat this as though it was one continuous bout, with the two men continuing to wrestle for the entire space between the two cards. In fact, they’ve billed it as the longest professional wrestling match in history, clocking in at 23.6 hours.

That’s pretty much the whole story. The only other question that I can think of that somebody might ask after reading the above is exactly WHY the promotion booked things this way, and the only real answer to that question is: It’s CHIKARA. They do goofy stuff like this all the time. It’s part of their charm.

2. I notice they are going to be doing Season 2 of Dark Side of the Ring. One of the episodes has to do with Herb Abrams. Is his death the most bizarre in wrestling history or is there another that beats his?

For those of you who don’t know Abrams’ backstory, I’ll give you the fairly abridged version: He was the brains behind an early 1990s wrestling promotion called the UWF, which had no connection to the Bill Watts-run UWF that grew out of the Mid-South territory or the Japanese shoot style group called UWF (later UWFi). The promotion was pretty much a flop, though they did always seem to convince some a-list talent to work for them and they had some not-horrible cable TV deals for the era.

Abrams died on July 23, 1996 after going in to cardiac arrest induced by a cocaine overdose. He died while in police custody, and he was in custody because, earlier that evening, he decided to get naked and trash his own office with a baseball bat. Often forgotten because of his death is the fact that, at the time, he was also facing criminal charges related to an earlier incident in which he had allegedly kidnapped a woman and held her hostage in the very same office.

Is that a bizarre way to die? I suppose so. Overdosing on cocaine isn’t the average death, though there’s certainly more of it in the wrestling and entertainment industries than there is the rest of the world. It’s really the nudey baseball bat rampage that makes this one odd.

There are at least two wrestling deaths that strike me as being at least this odd, if not moreso. Coincidentally, both of them involve organized crime. Rikidozan, the man who popularized puroresu and trained both Antonio Inoki and Giant Baba, died from a stab wound inflicted upon him as a result of a nightclub brawl with a member of the yakuza. He actually lived for another week or so after the incident but ultimately succumbed to peritonitis, which is an inflammation of the abdominal wall, often caused by a bacterial infection. Though this detail is left out of some versions of the story – which causes me to question its credibility a bit – the infection was supposedly brought on in part by the fact that the bade of the knife that stabbed the wrestling legend had been soaked in urine before the deed was done.

Meanwhile, former WWF star Dino Bravo is believed to have been gunned down by mobsters in his home, leading to his death in 1993. Apparently in Canada at the time, taxes on cigarettes were quite high and American smokes were in demand, leading to a booming black market for imported ciggies. Bravo, having ended his in-ring career by this point, decided that becoming a player in this black market was a logical next career move. Though the murder is unsolved and those nobody is 100% sure of a motive, it is largely believed that Bravo was killed in retaliation for a black market business deal gone bad.

Those are three of the more odd wrestling deaths. If you’ve got any other examples, feel free to share them in the comments.

That will do it for this week’s installment of the column. We’ll return in seven-ish days, and, as always, you can contribute your questions by emailing [email protected].