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# 11 Stan Hansen
The pride of Knox City Texas, Stan Hansen would join professional wrestling as a part-time job to make some extra cash. 28 years later he would step away from the industry as one of the most successful wrestlers in the professions history, becoming a top draw in both the United States and Japan.
After moving around a lot during his childhood, Hansen would play football at West Texas State, where he was roommates with future tag team partner Frank Goodish (Bruiser Brody). Both Terry and Dory Funk had played football at West Texas State and since the college was a part of their Amarillo territory, they would often recruit football players to come work for their promotion. In addition to Hansen and Brody, Dusty Rhodes, Ted DiBiase, Tully Blanchard, Barry Windham, Manny Fernandez and Tito Santana all played football at West Texas State, which would be one hell of a roster for a promotion during the 1980s.
Hansen pursued football as long as he could, spending time in training camp with the San Diego Chargers before settling down as a physical education teacher. Realizing that he could make more money as a professional wrestler, he began to be trained by the Funk brothers and made his debut in 1973. The former lineman quickly established himself as the quintessential Texas wrestler, a rough-and-tumble brawler who bended the rules.
His natural size and athleticism coupled with his intense, physical style instantly made him a qualified top bad guy in different territories. Hansen spent time working in the Amarillo territory but also worked with the Funks in Florida and for LeRoy McGuirk's Universal Wrestling Federation, which toured in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana. It was in Louisiana where Hansen was reunited with Brody, and their similar, fast and physical style made them one of the most feared tag teams in any territory, eventually winning the NWA Tri-State United States Tag Team Titles.
Since the Funk brothers were in charge of all foreign talent for All-Japan Pro Wrestling, it wasn't long before Hansen found himself in the Far East. He debuted in AJPW in October of 1975, losing to The Destroyer, who was one of the top babyfaces in the company.
It was in Japan where Hansen would carve out the majority of his legacy. By the 1980s Hansen would shift his career away from the United States and mostly wrestle in Japan, with the occasional appearance for a show in the US if he could squeeze it into his schedule. How much time did Hansen spend in Japan? His 120-plus tours of Japan stand as an unofficial record for a gaijin wrestler, and by his own estimation, Hansen believes that he has physically seen more of Japan than any other American. The idea of a big, strong brawler coming from America as a heel to destroy the often-undersized Japanese became a lynchpin for puroresu promotions, and Hansen's success would pave the way for the future stars like Brody, "Dr. Death" Steve Williams, Terry Gordy, Vader and others.
Back in the United States, Hansen began working for the World Wide Wrestling Federation in 1976. Hansen, like many top villains before him, was being brought into the territory by Vince McMahon Sr. to challenge WWWF kingpin Bruno Sammartino for the WWWF World Heavyweight Championship. It speaks volumes to Hansen's talent and workrate that just a few years into his professional career he had already earned the most lucrative role in wrestling a heel could have. At a televised show in April of 1976, Hansen would challenge Sammartino for the title, winning the match (but not the title) when the fight was stopped because Sammartino broke his neck on a botched powerslam by Hansen. History would immediately be rewritten, as it was promoted that Hansen's devastating lariat was the cause of Bruno's injury and not the botched maneuver.
Hansen immediately feared for his future after the incident. Not only had he injured the great Sammartino, he had injured everyone in the company's meal ticket. He was relieved to find out that Sammartino was not that upset with him, and while he was recovering in the hospital he suggested that the injury was good for business. With Sammartino agreeing to wrestle Hansen again, the WWWF-hype machine began whirring to promote the rematch. Hansen bragged about injuring Sammartino's neck and defeated the WWWF's B babyface, Ivan Putski in a successful house show at Madison Square Garden. Hansen's reputation as not only a dominant bully, but a genuine killer in the ring was established, and the rematch was set-up for June at Shea Stadium in Flushing, New York. Sammartino successfully defended his title against Hansen in front of 32,000 fans and the $400,000 gate was the largest in North American history up until that point. Hansen would continue to unsuccessfully challenge Sammartino for the title, including steel cage matches in Boston and Pittsburgh, with their final match being a Lumberjack match in Philadelphia in November.
With the Sammartino feud behind him, Hansen was booked by Vince McMahon Sr. to work in New Japan Pro Wrestling, which had a talent exchange program with the WWWF. Most of Hansen's early success in Japan came as a tag team wrestler. He formed a team with British wrestler Pete Roberts, with Roberts supplying the technical wrestling and submission holds while Hansen supplied the muscle. Together they would battle the top NJPW tag team of Seiji Sakaguchi and Strong Kobayashi in a multitude of matches. He would also spend some time briefly working with a young Roddy Piper in tag team matches that occasionally saw them face Antonio Inoki and his partner. Hansen would face Inoki in the occasional singles match, the largest of which saw Inoki defeat Hansen with Inoki's National Wrestling Federation Heavyweight Championship on the line.
In the United States, Hansen became a prominent heel in various Southern territories, including Georgia Championship Wrestling and the UWF. In 1978 Hansen and Ernie Ladd reached the finals of a tag team tournament at a UWF show in the Louisiana Superdome, losing to the dynamite team of Dusty Rhodes and Andre the Giant in the championship round. He would continue to straddle the fence between Japan and the United States, but his options in Japan began to exceed those in the United States. In November of 1980, he and Hulk Hogan formed a tag team and competed in the very first NJPW Madison Square Garden Tag League, a lengthy tag team tournament similar to the G1 Climax. Hogan and Hansen would advance to the finals before losing a dramatic match to the team of Inoki and WWWF World Heavyweight Champion Bob Backlund.
In 1981 Hansen would have his last significant run in the WWWF, emerging as a top contender for Pedro Morales' Intercontinental Championship and then later for Backlund's world title. The feud with Backlund was similar to his earlier feud with Sammartino, where try as he might Hansen was just unable to take the title away from Backlund, eventually losing a televised steel cage match to Backlund at Madison Square Garden. Considering how close he came to winning the title and his incredible run as a top draw in various promotions, Hansen is probably the greatest wrestler in history to never hold the most prestigious of all world championships.
He would also wrestle in NJPW, forging a feud with Andre the Giant that would lead to what many pundits believe to be the best matches of Andre's career. In June of 1981 Abdullah the Butcher, the most popular heel in all of Japan, defected from AJPW to NJPW in a move that sent shockwaves throughout the wrestling world. Lured over by Inoki for what was rumored to be the most lucrative contract in wrestling history, Abdullah the Butcher immediately became the top heel in NJPW. Sensing that he was being pushed down the ladder, Hansen began to negotiate with AJPW, which obviously had a new opening for a top gaijin heel. Unannounced to the public, Hansen returned to AJPW in December of 1981 when he walked to the ring with Brody and Jimmy Snuka in the finals of the Real World Tag League.
Hansen immediately became a top wrestler in AJPW, and he was seen as a top prospect that NJPW let get away in their haste to sign Abdullah the Butcher. Hansen was fortunate enough to be coming to the forefront of AJPW as the top gaijin heel at the same time that Jumbo Tsuruta was becoming the top babyface in the company. Like Hansen, Tsuruta was a big man that could really move inside the ring. It is likely that Tsuruta developed some of his stiff strikes, particularly his devastating elbow smash, from working with Hansen. Hansen had a reputation for being one of the stiffest wrestlers around, a characteristic that he attributed to his bad eyesight. It is no coincidence that some of wrestling's most brutal looking strikes (Tsuruta's elbow smash, Misawa's forearm, Kawada's kicks and Kobashi's chops) all developed during Hansen's time in AJPW.
In 1982 Hansen would also work dates for the NWA when he was not on tours of Japan, proving to be a top contender for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship. Ric Flair, in the midst of babyface run, proved to be the chief rival for Hansen, eventually wrestling Flair to a double-countout at the Omni in Atlanta. Hansen also spent time teaming with Ole Anderson in Georgia, often working against Afa and Sika, the Wild Samoans.
In AJPW Hansen would briefly win the NWA International Tag Team Championships while teaming with Ron Bass, dislodging the top babyface team of Baba and Tsuruta. They would only hold the titles for a couple days, as Baba and Tsuruta won the titles back the next week. Hansen would play a pivotal role in the passing of the torch from Baba to Tsuruta. Hansen prided himself on wrestling a very distinct style, which emphasized constant movement in the ring and often brawling into the stands, a style he copied from Abdullah and Tiger Jeet Singh. While working with younger wrestlers like Hansen, Baba, who suffered from chronic arthritis, realized that his time as the ace of the company was coming to an end. Tsuruta's combination of speed and size was very similar to Hansen's, and together they would help re-shape wrestling in Japan.
Hansen would win his first major singles title in Japan when he defeated Baba for the Pacific Wrestling Federation World Heavyweight Championship, in September of 1983. Hansen would hold the championship on four different occasions, tied for the most in history with Baba and only Baba held it for more cumulative days. The victory over Baba gave Hansen the distinction of being the only wrestler in history to have pinfall victories in championship matches over both Baba and Inoki. After staving off Baba in several rematches, Hansen would drop the PWF World Heavyweight Championship in July of 1984.
In 1983 Hansen would reform his tag team with Brody and the two would become arguably the most famous team in Japanese wrestling history. In December they would defeat Tsuruta and Genichiro Tenryu in the finals of the Real World Tag League. In April of 1984 they would become the inaugural PWF World Tag Team Champions when they defeated Baba and Dory Funk Jr. in the finals of a tournament.
The team of Brody and Hansen was highlighted by their physical size and their bruising style. Hansen and Brody matches were not technical masterpieces by any stretch of the imagination. Instead they were wild, uncontrollable brawls that went into the audience, where it was not unusual for Brody and Hansen to clock fans. Brody and Hansen had one of the earliest five-star matches in Wrestling Observer history, with a bout from December 8, 1984 against the Funk brothers earning the perfect score. Unfortunately, the team was brought to an abrupt end when Brody jumped to NJPW in 1985. Much like the way Hansen felt when Abdullah jumped to AJPW, Brody felt that Hansen coming to AJPW was treading on his territory, so he decided to leave. The move would end up paving the way for Hansen to become the undisputed top heel in the company.
Brody left while he and Hansen were still the PWF World Tag Team Champions, and he was replaced in the team by Ted DiBiase, a few years away from bigger fame as the Million Dollar Man. They dropped the titles in July of 1987, to Tiger Mask II (Misawa) and Tsuruta, but would regain the titles just a few days later and hold them until DiBiase left for the WWF in August. At the same time, Hansen won the PWF World Heavyweight Championship from Baba in July of 1985, dropping it next April to Riki Choshu. Choshu vacated the title when he jumped to NJPW and Hansen would win the vacated title in a match against Hiroshi Wajima.
Hansen's character was a common one during the heyday of territorial promotions, but has since gone by the wayside. Nicknamed "The Outlaw" (as well as "The Lariat") Hansen was the prototypical Western-style wrestler. He came to the ring with a cowboy hat, chewing tobacco and cracking his whip. In Japan he would even hit people with his whip.
I want to take this moment to talk about Texas, and as Hansen once said in a promo, I take my hat off when I'm talking about Texas. The state of Texas has unequivocally been the best source of talent in pro-wrestling. On this list, a whopping 8 wrestlers, 16 percent of this list grew up in Texas; Hansen, The Undertaker, Shawn Michaels, Terry and Dory Funk, Steve Austin, Ted DiBiase and Dusty Rhodes. Throw in the fact that several other wrestlers, Bruiser Brody, Jack Brisco, Jumbo Tsuruta, Giant Baba and Mil Mascaras spent time in Texas during their formative years in wrestling and the list grows longer. That is quite remarkable when you consider that a larger state, California, only managed to produce two names on the list (Sting and Vader). In fact, Texas produced more names than California, New York and Canada combined.
In December of 1985, Hansen would win his first significant singles championship in North America, defeating Rick Martel for the American Wrestling Association World Heavyweight Championship. He would defend the championship against Sgt. Slaughter, Curt Hennig and a young Leon White, who was destined to become the next generation's Hansen when he would go to Japan as Big Van Vader a couple years later.
The AWA title would become a hot-point for Hansen and the AWA, as in June of 1986 he was notified by Verne Gagne that he would be dropping the title to Nick Bockwinkel. Hansen felt that he hadn't gotten a long enough run with the title, as he was promised a much longer one. In addition, he called Giant Baba who was already promoting AWA title matches in Japan when Hansen returned. Hansen left the arena before he was supposed to drop the title, and he was stripped of it by Gagne and the title was awarded to Bockwinkel. The problem was Hansen still had the championship, so while Bockwinkel wore an old tag-team belt as the AWA World Heavyweight Champion, Hansen would defend the "real" AWA title in Japan. Gagne threatened legal action if Hansen didn't return the belt, so Hansen did finally mail it to Gange, but not before running it over in his truck and leaving a giant mud-stain on it!
In July of 1988, Hansen would defeat Tenryu for both the NWA United National Championship and the PWF World Heavyweight Championship. Eventually, he would defend both titles against NWA International Heavyweight Champion Tsuruta in a unification match to create the Triple Crown Championship. Hansen would lose the match, but he would eventually become the Triple Crown champion in 1990 when he defeated Terry Gordy for the title. Also in 1990, Hansen would appear in World Championship Wrestling, defeating Lex Luger for the United States Championship, ending Luger's record-setting 523 day reign. He would drop the championship back to Luger at that year's Starrcade in a Texas Bullrope match. Also in that year he lost to Hulk Hogan in the main event of a special super-show at the Tokyo Dome that included talent from the WWF and AJPW. In addition, he worked a few dates for NJPW, his most notable match challenging Vader for the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship at the Tokyo Dome. The match is infamous for Hansen hitting Vader in the eye with his bull-rope, causing Vader's eye to pop out of its socket. Vader would then take off his mask, punch his own eye back into its socket, and resume the match, ending in a double-countout. This all really happened.
Hansen was known for being protective of his character. He was rarely pinned and he famously never had anyone kick out of his lariat. To some this may seem like a selfish way to do business, and today it would be unacceptable, but during his time it worked out extremely well for Hansen. He got over as a truly dominant wrestler and the lariat became the most devastating move in wrestling. Also, when he actually lost cleanly and put guys over, it meant a hell of a lot, something that would greatly benefit AJPW in the 1990s.
After swapping the Triple Crown Championship with Gordy and Jumbo Tsuruta, Hansen would play a pivotal role in the rise of AJPW's next golden age of talent. Getting Mitsuharu Misawa over as a super-babyface had been a work in progress for the last two years for Giant Baba, and it was working to perfection as Misawa was arguably the best babyface in all of wrestling at this time. Hansen would be the person to finally put him over the top, as Misawa defeated him in August of 1992 for the Triple Crown Championship, leading to Misawa's near two-year run as champion. He also worked with Kenta Kobashi, wrestling a memorable five-star match in July of 1993 when he delivered a lariat to Kobashi off the top rope that looked like Hansen killed him.
He was around for the last great moment of Baba's career, teaming with his former foe in the 1994 World's Strongest Determination League and making it all the way to the finals where they lost to Misawa and Kobashi. He won his final Triple Crown Championship in 1995, defeating Toshiaki Kawada and dropped the title to Misawa in May of 1995. As Misawa became the new booker for AJPW, he began phasing Hansen out of the company. The last title he would hold would be the AJPW World Tag Team Championships, which he would win in 1996 with Gary Albright, eventually dropping the titles to Kawada and Akira Taue. He would continue to wrestle throughout the rest of the decade, mostly in tag matches with Bobby Duncam Jr. and Albright. He retired in January of 2001 and was given a huge ovation by the Tokyo faithful despite the fact that he had been terrorizing them for 25 years.
Hansen has the reputation for being the top gaijin performer in the history of Japan. While the Funk brothers could rival that claim, Hansen's durability of wrestling an intense, physical style was unmatched. Even when he was in his 40s he was having some of the best matches in wrestling against younger, more athletic wrestlers like Misawa and Kobashi. He also for a time was the most feared wrestler in the United States, sparking a feud with Sammartino that would be the most successful in WWWF history until the 1980s. A true global superstar, Hansen may very well be the best brawler in wrestling lore.
Next week #10 will be revealed, another tough brawler from Texas that had big runs both as a babyface and as a heel.
The Top 50 so far (click link for description of the qualifications of the list):
49. Superstar Billy Graham
47. El hijo del Santo
45. Bruiser Brody
43. Kurt Angle
42. Hiroshi Tanahashi
41. The Sheik
39. Perro Aguayo
38. Ricky Steamboat
37. Toshiaki Kawada
36. Jushin Thunder Liger
35. El Canek
33. Jack Brisco
32. Shinya Hashimoto
31. Roddy Piper
30. Genichiro Tenryu
28. Abdullah the Butcher
27. Keiji Mutoh
26. Bob Backlund
25. Mil Mascaras
24. Nick Bockwinkel
22. Shawn Michaels
20. Riki Choshu
19. Dusty Rhodes
18. Dory Funk Jr.
16. Harley Race
15. Andre the Giant
14. Kenta Kobashi
13. The Rock
12. Jumbo Tsuruta
11. Stan Hansen