wrestling / Columns

The Magnificent Seven: The Top 7 WWE Hall of Fame Classes

March 28, 2016 | Posted by Mike Chin

The WWE Hall of Fame is an interesting beast. On one hand, it is far and away the most famous, highest profile equivalent to a pro wrestling hall of fame in the world. On the other hand, no one has ever denied that the WWE Hall of Fame is in large part, if not primarily, a money-making tool, used to sell inductees’ merchandise and updated DVD tributes, not to mention tickets to the induction ceremony itself and recordings of that event. The selection of inductees is also wholly arbitrary in the sense that the WWE brass—particularly Vince McMahon—makes the decisions about who to induct, and the individual Hall of Fame classes are booked like pro wrestling cards, not necessarily inducting the greatest talents (much less doing so after a set amount of time or based on clear criteria) but rather consistently including a mix of main event draws, women, mid-card acts, tag teams, announcers, and behind-the-scenes players.

Despite these limitations, the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies remain popular events, and who is (or is not) getting inducted remains a topic of debate. This week, I’m looking back at the most “stacked” Hall of Fame classes and ranking them. Considerations include the collective accomplishments and worthiness of each class. I’m considering each class from top to bottom, but also privileging classes that were especially strong at the top of the card (e.g., the headliner(s) were particularly accomplished). I’m also giving some consideration to the satisfaction derived from the inductions—whether they were surprises, overdue, or just so well deserved. The quality of the speeches and overall presentation of the ceremony were not determining factors for this countdown.

While it is very much an arbitrary decision on my part, I have opted not to include the classes of 1993, 1994, 1995, or 1996 for this countdown, given the early days of the Hall of Fame were less publicized or routinized. I found it problematic, for example, to evaluate 1993’s class that included only Andre the Giant relative to classes of ten or more performers; in addition, these inductions were relatively quiet, not even open to the public until 1996, and never televised.

Without further ado, I give you my picks for the top seven WWE Hall of Fame classes.

#7. The Class of 2014

The WWE Hall of Fame Class of 2014 tells a tremendous story of redemption and recovery. The roster includes Jake Roberts and Razor Ramon—two guys on the shortlist for all-time biggest WWF stars to never win world championships, two guys who have, by all accounts, amazing wrestling minds, and two guys who each had their careers and reputations largely derailed based on real-life struggles with alcohol and drugs, who have each undergone major recoveries in recent years in no small part due to Diamond Dallas Page, and his teachings.

As cool as it was for Roberts and Ramon to enter the Hall, the biggest surprise of all was The Ultimate Warrior. There’s no doubt Warrior was worthy of an induction—a former world champ who headlined a WrestleMania, not to mention one of the most iconic figures for the latter half of the original Hulkamania run and a memorable figure (if only for short, and disappointing spells) in the Monday Night War. After decades of tension with the WWE brass, Warrior came to peace with his former employers and wrote the final chapter of his pro wrestling story—and, tragically, his life.

The 2014 class also included Puerto Rican wrestling legend Carlos Colon; legendary manager Paul Bearer; and women’s icon Lita, who, in addition to her substantive in-ring accomplishments, was instrumental in getting over The Hardy Boyz during The Attitude Era, and Edge as arguably the greatest villain of the PG Era. Rounding out the class, you have Mr. T, who’s rambling speech was actually nicely emblematic of his middling work as a WWF performer and the fact that he was purportedly a pain to deal with; putting those elements aside, though T was a worthy inductee for historical significance—an important celebrity player from early-1985 to mid-1986 during which time he got in the ring for matches at the first two WrestleManias, not to mention his less celebrated run to back Hulk Hogan in WCW in the mid-1990s.

#6. The Class of 2015

When it comes to long overdue inductions, they don’t get much more profound than Randy Savage—an icon of 1980s and early 1990s WWF programming who not only won two world tiltes at two different WrestleManias then, but went on to world title glory in WCW as a key player in the Monday Night War. Savage was a genuinely special performer for boasting charisma, in-ring skills, and a connection to the fans all in more or less equal proportions, to make himself a very reasonable pick for anyone’s top ten pro wrestlers of all time, regardless of the criteria. This induction wouldn’t have been out of place in 2004, and it’s a shame that it didn’t happen until after The Macho Man had passed. Just the same, the Hall feels much more complete with Savage’s name on its roster.

In addition to Savage, this class included Kevin Nash, whose lukewarm run as WWF Champion for most of 1995 would probably, in and of itself, justify an induction, but who went on to far greater acclaim as an essential player in WCW’s nWo storyline, and a world champion under that brand where he worked his natural heel charisma to the max to arrive as a legit all-time legend. Little less compelling than Nash, though, was Larry Zbyszko who engaged in one of the WWWF’s most iconic feuds opposite Bruno Sammartino, went on to world championship glory in the AWA, and thrived in a Jerry Lawler-ish role as commentator/legend-who-could-still-go for WCW where he stood up to Nash and Scott Hall in the early days of the nWo.

The Class of 2015 also featured all-time great women’s star Alundra Blayze (overcoming the sting of dropping the WWF Championship in a trash can during the Monday Night War), Japanese legend Tatsumi Fujinami, and celebrated upper mid-carder Rikishi (who may well have been a legit main eventer had he peaked at a less stacked period for the WWF roster). The Bushwhackers were a fun, if middling addition. Arnold Schwarzenegger was a questionable pick for his limited involvement in the wrestling world but a big enough icon that it was a coup for WWE to book him for the Hall. And then there was Connor “The Crusher” Michalek—the inductee with the fewest wrestling business credentials who, nonetheless, no one argued against. He was the recipient of WWE’s first Warrior Award—a brave eight-year-old fan who drew inspiration from the cast of WWE, and most prominently Daniel Bryan, before finally succumbing to cancer.

#5. The Class of 2007

The Class of 2007 was headlined by Dusty Rhodes—one of wrestling’s all-time greatest talkers and greatest minds, in addition to being the definitive hero of the NWA’s Mid-Atlantic and Southern territories in the mid-1980s. Thus, Rhodes’s inclusion in this Class is enough to make it a great one. From there, you can add on Jerry Lawler—the face of Memphis wrestling for over thirty years and an AWA World Champion, who actually got more famous as a color commentator working for WWE for most of the last twenty years. Add onto that AWA legend and iconic heel champ Nick Bockwinkel, and this Class is super stacked at the top.

From there, the Class of 2007 just keeps going. There’s “Mr. Perfect” Curt Hennig, a former AWA champ, early 1990s WWF icon, and one of WCW’s best (and-too-often-overlooked) veteran workers during the Monday Night War era, besides being on just about everyone’s shortlist for all-time great pure workers. Then there’s the incredibly influential hardcore pioneer The Sheik. Then arguably the greatest play-by-play man in wrestling history, Jim Ross. Then iconic manager (besides being a fine worker in his day) Mr. Fuji, and The Wild Samoans tag team that was not only good and important in their own right, but were familial forerunners to no lesser acts than Yokozuna, Rikishi, Roman Reigns, The Uso, and some guy who wrestled as The Rock.

The Class of 2007 is very strong at the top, represents a nice diversity of talents, and doesn’t have a single weak link.

#4. The Class of 2006

The Class of 2006 was a bittersweet one, particularly in consideration of two men who received top billing.

There’s Bret Hart. From the vantage point of 2016, this doesn’t seem like such a strange induction, but put in its proper temporal context, this is an induction that followed years of bitterness and separation after the Montreal Screw Job, Hart’s defection to WCW, and the death of Owen Hart. Hart and Vince McMahon reportedly started to make amends when Hart was in the hospital following a stroke. Shortly after, they came to terms on a DVD documentary and compilation of matches. And then there was the induction. Hart is on the shortlist of all-time great workers, and his international appeal in the 1990s certainly made him more than worthy of an induction. But perhaps even more importantly, in a tradition that Bruno Sammartino, The Ultimate Warrior, Alundra Blayze, and others would follow, this induction marked a meaningful reconciliation—a superstar coming home.

The Class of 2006 also saw the induction of Eddie Guerrero, another star undoubtedly worthy of induction, made all the sweeter for the way Guerrero overcame years of underappreciation to become a main event player and world champion, made all the more difficult for Guerrero’s untimely passing just a few months before. The immediate induction felt like the best tribute WWE could offer at that point.

The rest of the class was full of other legends—AWA owner and top star Verne Gagne; Sensational Sherrie who had thrived as both a wrestler and perhaps even better as a manager across AWA, the WWF, and WCW; long-time mid-card star Tony Atlas; and William “The Refrigerator” Perry, who justified his celebrity induction via the best of many celebrity performances at WrestleMania 2 (Mr. T be darned).

#3. The Class of 2005

In 2005, the Hall of Fame began to draw into sharper focus when a televised version of the induction ceremony aired on SpikeTV, and for the second year the entire ceremony was bundled in with the WrestleMania DVD release. With greater attention and a clearer product, it was time for the Hall to welcome quite arguably its most deserving star—Hulk Hogan.

Hogan has become a beleaguered figure in wrestling—largely for his own wrongdoings. Just the same, I doubt that there’s ever been any single person more synonymous with the concept of professional wrestling in the general public’s eye. Hogan was on top of the WWF during one of its top two periods of notoriety, and on top of WCW for its most successful period, thriving as the ultimate face, and stunning wrestling fans when he artfully became the business’s top heel. At his core, though, he was the foundation from which Vince McMahon built his empire, and thus there was little question that he was the most worthy inductee the Hall of Fame had inducted at that juncture.

WWE seemed to implicitly theme the 2005 class around Hogan, surrounding him with his WrestleMania 1 main event cohort—Roddy Piper, Paul Orndorff, and Bob Orton (one can only assume Mr. T would have gone in, too, if WWE had routinized its celebrity inductions at that point). Alongside them, there was legendary villain The Iron Sheik who had first passed the world championship torch to Hogan, and Nikolai Volkoff, a memorable Cold War Era heel who had tussled with Hogan a number of times. Rounding out the crew was Jimmy Hart who, despite doing his best work as a heel (and the best of his best work in Memphis rather than the WWF or WCW) may have been best remembered at that point as Hogan’s manager in 1993 WWF and for his early face work in WCW.

Lest I keep my description of this class too Hogan-centric, I should acknowledge that in addition to being one of Hogan’s best rivals in mid-1980s WWF and late-mid-1990s WCW, Piper was also one of wrestling’s all-time best talkers—an innovator in the wrestling talk show form via Piper’s Pit, and a good enough mic man to still be getting over contemporary stars on the mic during cameo appearances in the early 2010s. He was an underrated worker as well, assembling a heck of a body of work across his time in the NWA territories as well as more oft-remembered time in the WWF spotlight.

#2. The Class of 2009

Let’s address the elephant in the room. This is the class that includes Koko B. Ware, the default, non-celeb, low man on the Hall of Fame totem pole, and source for innumerable jokes and memes about anyone else’s induction worthiness (e.g., well, if Koko got in, sure—that BLANK can, too).

For all the ribbing he gets, Ware was a long-time mid-carder with the memorable Bird Man gimmick, who brought some visible diversity to the WWF roster during one of its most successful periods. As a lower-tier induction in an otherwise stacked Class, I don’t have that much beef with him filling this spot.

And make no mistake about it, the Class of 2009 was stacked. At the top of the card, there was Steve Austin—by my estimation, the man who stands shoulder to shoulder with Hulk Hogan and Bruno Sammartino (and, someday, Vincent K. McMahon) for worthiness of induction—the top star of the Attitude Era who, for his few years atop the WWF, was arguably more over than any other wrestler has ever been on a national scale. He delivered great promos, worked great matches, and perhaps most importantly of all, cultivated a unique culture for his character that was perfectly attuned to both his time and his own unique gifts as a performer.

The rest of this class is terrific as well. There’s Ricky Steamboat—arguably the best pure, in-ring worker to ever live. Bill Watts was an in-ring star, sure, but all the more notably one of wrestling’s great creative minds, particularly in his years running Mid-South. Howard Finkel got in as the WWF’s most iconic ring announcer of all time. And then there are two families—The Funks (Terry and Dory Jr.) and The Von Erichs (Fritz and all of his sons). In inducting them at the same time, I speculate that WWE wasn’t sure when ‘Mania would come back to Texas, and wanted to make sure it got these families in when they each had at least one living representative to accept the honors. Regardless, both families were completely worthy. The Funks were solid tag team for sure, but all the more memorable for their singles work—each of them former world champions and legends. And then there are The Von Erichs—the wrestling icons of the Dallas area. Fritz got the ball rolling as an imposing Nazi heel, but accomplished even more as a promoter of WCCW, where his sons—in particular, David, Kerry, and Kevin—were the darlings of the territory who transcended their local sphere to thrive to different degrees on a national scale as well. By all accounts, David was in line for a run as the NWA World Heavyweight Champion before his untimely death; Kerry ended up getting that run in his place, before moving on to success as The Texas Tornado in the WWF, where he captured the Intercontintental Title during a top-notch period when guys like fellow Hall of Famers The Ultimate Warrior, Mr. Perfect, Bret Hart, and Roddy Piper had surrounding reigns (not to mention thriving despite wrestling on a prosthetic foot).

It doesn’t get much better than the Class of 2009, but I would argue there was one group just a little more elite.

#1. The Class of 2013

The Class of 2013 truly had it all. Tip-top headliners. Icons through and through. The only controversial choice in this class is celebrity pick Donald Trump, and the controversy concerns itself with who the man is and what he’s said outside of wrestling (which I’m going to steer clear of for the purposes of this column)—because as a celebrity inductee, he’s among the most worthy to go in to date—a behind the scenes host to WrestleManias 4 and 5, a part of a key angle when he kayfabe “bought” Monday Night Raw, and quite arguably the guy who pushed an otherwise middling WrestleMania 23 into the stratosphere of buy rates when he backed Bobby Lashley against Umaga, cornered by Vince McMahon.

Enough about Trump, though. This class included Bruno Sammartino—not only the guy with the single longest world title reign in WWE/WWF/WWWF history and a historical icon, but also an estranged legend we never expected to come back to the WWE fold. Standing alongside him? Mick Foley—who built a fringe-Hall-of-Fame-worthy career traveling the world as Cactus Jack before he ever signed with the WWF, and then went on to be one of the big four—alongside Steve Austin, The Rock, and Triple H—of the Attitude Era to vault the WWF into the stratosphere at that time, not to mention publishing Have A Nice Day!, arguably the most important wrestling book of all time that opened the floodgates for wrestling memoirs.

On the next tier we have Bob Backlund, who held the WWF Championship for over five years (putting aside phantom reigns and vacancies that WWE had dropped from canon) and bridged the gap between Bruno Sammartino and Hulk Hogan, in addition to assembling an improbably successful heel run in 1994. Backlund easily would have been a headliner in most any other Class (and some have speculated that he was originally meant to be one, before WWE shored up Sammartino for induction). Then there’s Booker T, the last true WCW World Champion (i.e., the last man to win the title when WCW was a separate entity from the WWF) who went on to challenge for a world title at WrestleMania, and later reinvent himself masterfully as King Booker. Rounding out the class, we had Trish Stratus—WWE’s biggest female star of the post-Attitude Era who some would argue was the greatest female performer in WWE history (I wouldn’t go that far, but there is an argument for her when it comes to home-grown talents and in consideration to her kayfabe success).

Indeed, it’s fitting that in WWE’s traditional home, Madison Square Garden in New York, the company would honor it’s most elite set of legends. WWE will be hard pressed to ever again assemble a Class quite this stacked.

How would you rank the Hall of Fame classes? My top honorable mentions were 2011 (featuring Shawn Michaels and The Road Warriors), 2012 (The Four Horsemen, Edge, Ron Simmons, Yokozuna, Mil Mascaras, Mike Tyson), 2008 (headlined by Ric Flair), and 2004’s supersized class (including Harley Race, The Junkyard Dog, Sgt. Slaughter, Bobby Heenan, and the first celebrity inductee Pete Rose). Let us know what you think in the comments section.

Read more from Mike Chin at his website and follow him on Twitter @miketchin.