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Power wrestling has been a staple of professional wrestling for as long as there has been such an industry. When comparing the slick, modern WWE product of 2014 to the original pro acts, the ones that filled carnival tents during the late-19th century, there hardly seems like there is anything in common between the two. But the carnival strongman still lives on in 2014. While wrestling presently doesn't even come close to resembling anything that our great-great grandparents would have saw, we still line up to see the big guy, the strongman, typically billed as the "World's Strongest Man" to impress us with feats of strength. Sure, maybe The Big Show has replaced lifting up a young colt, but the attraction still remains the same. We want to see a guy do something that we could never do, something that seems impossible for the mere mortal man, but these of course, are not mortal men.
The faces and the builds have all changed over time. George Hackenschmidt doesn't look anything like Bruno Sammartino, who doesn't look anything like Hulk Hogan, who doesn't look anything like Rusev. But the idea that wrestlers should not just be rough and tumble, mostly in-shape guys has always clashed with the notion best portrayed by WWE, and that is that these guys are not just good athletes, they are the BEST at what they do. Mark Henry or Rusev is stronger than any football player, weightlifter, or any other wannabe He-man, and it is important that they look the part.
But power wrestling in 2014 has witnessed a fundamental change. 25 years ago, in the WWF, pretty much anybody could become a power wrestler. All you needed was a decent frame, a good diet, and a steady stream of steroids and eventually you could turn yourself into a powerhouse. In 2014, WWE has introduced much stricter PED Testing, and now steroids are (mostly) off the table for a lot of wrestlers. That is why we are currently seeing a change in the way powerhouse wrestlers appear. Gone are the days of Rick Rude, Hercules Hernandez and other well-defined behemoths. In their place are guys like Big E and Rusev, guys that just have the natural body type for a champion powerlifter; thick legs, broad shoulders, wide backs. They don't have veins popping out everywhere, but one look at them and it's pretty obvious these guys can pull their own weight (and much, much more).
But since power wrestlers have become much more organic and less manufactured, doesn't that impact the amount of power guys that are involved? I took a look at three different events from three different generations of WWF/E and counted how many guys on the card could be considered "power" wrestlers. I chose Royal Rumbles for the obvious reason that more guys are genuinely featured in that event than in any other. Here is what I found:
Royal Rumble '89: Power guys-17 (Jim Neidhart, Jim Duggan, Dino Bravo, The Ultimate Warrior, Rick Rude, Haku, Big John Studd, Akeem, Andre the Giant, Ax, Smash, Big Boss Man, Hercules, Hulk Hogan, Ron Bass, The Barbarian and The Warlord)
Royal Rumble '98: Power guys-15 (Vader, Animal, Hawk, 8-Ball, Ahmed Johnson, Blackjack Bradshaw, Faarooq, Henry Godwinn, Kama Mustafa, Kurrgan, Mark Henry, Phineas Godwinn, Skull, Tom Brandi and The Undertaker)
Royal Rumble '14: Power Guys-17 (Brock Lesnar, The Big Show, John Cena, Batista, Rusev, Cesaro, Big E, Erick Rowan, Jack Swagger, JBL, Kane, Kevin Nash, Luke Harper, Roman Reigns, Ryback, Sheamus and The Great Khali)
Okay, so the quick snapshot I took indicates that there are just as many power guys within WWE has their always has been. But that isn't really fair. Look at the names from the 1989 rumble and compare it to the names from the other two. Obviously, JBL and Kevin Nash are one-time guys so they shouldn't really count. But even so, the names on the first list seem a lot more prominent than the names on the second and third lists. With perhaps the exception of Ron Bass, all those names were serious competitors, champions, guys who were viewed as being very legit. The second and third lists have an awful lot of jobbers and lower-tired guys filling up the ranks.
So, I have come to this conclusion: While power wrestlers are numerically still well-represented, their value has greatly diminished. Why is that? I believe that since wrestling has moved into a much faster, more athletic and technically sound pace, that it leaves the lumbering big men from generations past flat on their feet. Today, it isn't enough just to be big, you have to be big AND athletic. 25 years ago, The Great Khali's work would still have been bad, but he would have been able to keep up with the pace a lot better than he does today. 25 years ago, the WWF didn't have guys like Seth Rollins, Kofi Kingston and Dolph Ziggler always flying around the ring, it focused on a much slower, more ground based style, that played into the hands of the big men. Today, it would leave a lot of them in the dust.
What does the future hold? Mose likely, a greater trend towards guys like Big E and Rusev. Guys might not be as ridiculously cut as they were in the past, but they are a lot more athletic than they used to be. And as pro-wrestling descends more and more into reality and less and less from the cartoonish world it once came from, a greater emphasis on skill has and will continue to be placed on talents rather than look. In real sports, the guy that is the most cut generally isn't the best at their sport, the guy with the most skill is, just take a look at Kevin Durant. A guy like Daniel Bryan wasn't able to ascend to the top because of his look, but rather because fans believed that he possessed enough skill to reach the top.
One guy I'm looking forward to seeing in WWE one day is Michael Elgin. Elgin has a build similar to Rusev and Big E, but he is a really good technical wrestler, perhaps one of the ten best workers on the planet today. He is still in his mid-20s, and I think if he gets to WWE and gets the right character going, he will become a huge star.