wrestling / Columns

The Magnificent Seven: Wrestling’s Top 7 Hometown Heroes

April 13, 2017 | Posted by Mike Chin

Homefield advantage does not work quite the same way in professional wrestling as it does in sports. Yes, a performer is more likely to get crowd support in front of the people he grew up around or the denizens of his chosen home, and that might even push that wrestler to a great performance. But in terms of wins and losses, we all know the outcomes are predetermined, and sometimes—particularly in the case of contemporary WWE—the powers that be may even push for a performer to lose at home to add heat to the person who beat him or the rivalry at large

Nonetheless, there are some wrestling acts that transcend genre—either their character identity, the individual performer, or both have such profound ties to an area that when they return to that city, state, region, or even country, the crowd reaction is big enough that an entire event feels more significant, more electric.

So, this week I’m looking back seven professional wrestling acts tied to specific places. The place may represent an actual hometown or the place a character is billed for or otherwise associated with. As I alluded to earlier, I’m stretching from hometown to city, to state, to part of the country, to entire nations in ways that I think will make sense once you start reading. This countdown is most closely tied to the level of fan support a wrestler had in a particular market, rather than necessarily prioritizing kayfabe success achieved in that market. As always, there’s a high degree of subjectivity involved, and my opinion weighs heavily.

#7. Shawn Michaels in San Antonio, TX

Maybe it was Shawn Michaels’ relatively small size and consequent underdog status, but once the WWF started taking Michaels seriously as a main eventer, there was a lot of talk of his boyhood dream, the insertion of his trainer Jose Lothario into storylines, and, at his peak, a return to Michaels’ hometown for him to regain the WWF World Championship in front of a stadium crowd at Royal Rumble 1997 opposite Sid.

This was a rare instance of WWE returning to a star’s hometown only for him to have a moment of glory, at odds with booking like John Cena and Edge trading victories in their respective hometowns, or Sasha Banks and Charlotte more recently doing the same. Instead, the powers that be contrived circumstances for Michaels to have an epic career moment—dropping the title to Sid two months earlier to set up this rematch. Presumably, Michaels would have surfed along this wave of momentum straight into WrestleMania, but instead went on to deliver his infamous “lost my smile” promo and walked away for a period of months.

Michaels would have another hometown moment nearly seven years later, pinning World Heavyweight Champion Triple H on Raw at the end of 2003, only for the decision to be reversed on a technicality. Regardless, Michaels conclusively proved himself above the hometown curse WWE has imposed on a number of stars, and with these big wins in addition to general acknowledgement of his Texas heritage over the course of his main event work and second act of his career, made Michaels stand out as a hometown hero.

#6. Davey Boy Smith in the UK

As I mentioned in the intro, I’m stretching hometown at times, in this case all the way to home country. After his tag team partner—the more talented Dynamite Kid—went down to injury, Smith got his shot at singles stardom. Particularly during a flux/down period for the WWF, when international business started to look better than domestic business, the WWF leaned into its European tours, and into Smith, The British Bulldog, as the guy to carry the torch in Western Europe.

And Smith was wildly over in front of those crowds. After winning battle royals and big singles matches, Smith got his biggest opportunity of all, main eventing SummerSlam 1992 in front of 80,000 fans at Wembley Stadium—in so doing defeating Bret Hart for the Intercontinental Champion. When Smith defected to WCW for a short spell in 1993, he’d prove enough of a draw to headline European shows for them as well.

Smith would further reinforce his status as the hero of his country when he became the first European Champion. Then, Shawn Michaels would assert his status as the biggest heatseeker of the day, relieving Smith of the title in front of a British crowd at a One Night Only show.

While Smith never quite broke through to become a full-fledged, consistent main event star state side, he was a reliable a top draw in his home country throughout the nineties—a character whose gimmick was often as not inextricable from his roots.

#5. Ric Flair in the Carolinas

Although he wasn’t born or raised there, Ric Flair adopted Charlotte, NC as his hometown, early in his career, particularly working in the NWA’s Mid-Atlantic territory that had so many of its biggest matches in the area. As such, Flair became an adopted son of the Carolinas. The run to follow included working the first Starrcade main event in Greensboro, a face challenger who regained his world championship from Harley Race. Flair would go on to headline Starrcade shows, particularly in Greensboro, for years to follow, and he’d become quite arguably the biggest star in the Carolinas in perpetuity.

Flair’s connection to the air only expanded through the 1990s, including beating Big Van Vader in Charlotte at Starrcade 1993 to launch what was arguably his last run as the man for a national promotion, and then reuiniting the Horsemen to challenge the now in front of a rabid crowd in Flair Country, Greenville, SC.

Flair is a legend with few peers who nowadays gets a tremendous reaction wherever he shows up, but in the Carolinas, he reaches that next tier from respected celebrity to God-like folk hero.

#4. CM Punk in Chicago, IL

Chicago is a smark town in which fans were known to boo the good guys and cheer the heels long before it came into style more broadly. As such, legit hometown boy CM Punk was a perfect fit for his people—ultimately one of wrestling’s best talkers, best in-ring workers, and completely anti-establishment.

Before he was an international star, though, Punk got his beginnings organizing and performing in backyard wrestling shows in and just outside Chicago, before more formally making the transition into the indy wrestling world. His star would remain biggest in and around Chicago, including a memorable ROH bout with Samoa Joe, but it would be Punk’s work after he arrived with WWE that stood out most of all. He slowly but steadily got over with the fans at large, but always had a special connection with the people in Chicago. Most famously, after the Pipebomb promo, Punk went into his most celebrated WWE effort—a PPV main event match challenging John Cena in front of his hometown crowd in what was billed as (and had purportedly originally actually been) his last match under WWE contract. The crowd was electric, and elevated a legit high four-star match into five-star terrirory for staying so invested over a long match, popping unbelievably on both Punk’s entance and victory, and adding to an overall sense of mayhem with their chaotic celebration to end the show.

Punk would go on to more great moments in Chicago like beating Chris Jericho in a Street Fight at Extreme Rules 2012, and after his departure from WWE, Chicago became a particularly sensitive spot for WWE to book and execute carefully in front of because for a period of years CM Punk chants were an inevitability. Though time has passed and things have cooled off, the reality remains that Punk is Chicago’s favorite son in the wrestling world, and one of wrestling’s great hometown heroes.

#3. Bret Hart in Canada

Wrestling’s Canadian stars have a tradition of being extra over in front of their country men, but there’s over and then there’s Bret Hart in Canada over. The kind of over that makes a mid-carder feel main event when he crosses north of the border. That kind of over that transforms a respected main event player into a Hulk Hogan-eque national folk hero.

That’s Bret Hart in Canada over.

And justifiably so. For Hart represented his family’s legacies of the Stampede Wrestling, and an act who seamlessly merged the WWF’s new mainstream approach to character-based wrestling with the sort of technically oriented, realistic wrestling he learned in his father Dungeon and refined working with the best of the best on the road.

While Hart was super over as a face in his home country, the truer test was what happened when he returned, ostensibly a heel, only to find himself, and by extension his whole Hart Foundation over like the biggest faces in the world. The dynamic created some red hot, bizarre editions of Raw in the early Attitude Era, and reached its climax at the In Your House: Canadian Stampede show where Hart and company worked a superb ten-man tag opposite five faces from the US and positively blew the roof of, earning one of the great in-ring post-match celebrations in history as family, friends, and fans flooded the ring to celebrate their hometown boys, and in particular Bret, and his brother Owen who had scored the decisive fall.

#2. Jerry Lawler in Memphis, TN

It’s not uncommon for wrestlers who promoted and booked their own territory to put themselves over as main eventers, top faces, long-time or many-time champions. I’d argue that Jerry Lawler’s connection, however, is beyond compare. Check his stat line, and you’ll see that Lawler has won the top strap of the Memphis-based territory of the day roughly eighty times. Remarkably enough, by all accounts this is not a case of pure nepotism. To the contrary, Lawler has remained over like rover with the Memphis fanbase for over forty years, including spells when he was simultaneously playing a heel on national TV and the conquering face hero for the local market. Sure, booking has something to do with that—Lawler purportedly split time with Jerry Jarrett as head booker for a period of years and did put himself over in the main event scene—but to never feel the backlash of fans who felt he overstayed his welcome, or was pushed too far is a remarkable feat when it comes to connecting with an audience and not only capturing, but retaining their imagination for a sustained period of time.

Lawler worked elsewhere—a champion in the AWA and SMW, an active worker then more legendary commentator for WWE. He’s a worldwide wrestling legend. But in Memphis wrestling lore, I’d argue Lawler was bigger in Memphis than Hulk Hogan or Stone Cold were on a national scale, and stayed bigger for decades. There’s only one hometown act to really rival him.

#1. The Von Erichs in Dallas, TX

I’m so glad that, over the last decade, World Class Championship Wrestling has earned something of a resurgence in terms of recognition and acclaim. As an elementary school kid, I remember sporadically catching this promotion after school on ESPN, and the degree to which, even then it captivated my attention, and did so without the benefit of fully being able to follow storylines, let alone tap into the local zeitgeist of the Dallas-based promotion.

WCCW had Fritz Von Erich at its helm, his sons at the fore. Not unlike Jerry Lawler in Memphis, there was nary a complaint about the boss’s sons getting too many opportunities. On the contrary, from the late 1970s through the late 1980s those Von Erich boys—particularly David, Kerry, and Kevin—were white hot, and it’s only toward the very end of their run that opinions seem to split, as some critics suggest the fans were ready to move on from the family.

With Fritz’s booking, and David rising to the tip-top nationally before his untimely death, only for Kerry and Kevin to take up the mantle, WCCW grew from a popular regional territory to a promotion that pushed national boundaries, arguably arriving right alongside the WWF, the NWA’s Mid-Atlantic, and AWA as one of the big four promotions of its day. Fritz’s sons engaged time and again with The Freebirds, and provided a base for acts like Chris Adams, Gino Hernandez, Eric Embry to rise up.

The story of World Class and the Von Erichs is ultimately one we remember sadly for a series of untimely deaths and sad addendums like knowing that when Kerry made it to the WWF, he was somehow wrestling on one foot (before he committed suicide). Just the same, in the age-old question of whether it’s better to burn out bright or fade away, the brothers gave their answer, hotter than anyone anywhere for a spell in front of their hometown crowd in Dallas, the princes of Fritz’s kingdom, unparalleled heroes ot the local masses.

What would you add to the list? Some of my top honorable mentions included Pat Patterson in Montreal, Verne Gagne in Minnesota, and Goldberg in Atlanta. Let us know what you think in the comments section.

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

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The Magnificent Seven, Mike Chin