The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the opinions of WrestlingInc or its staff
There are a lot of different lists out there that are self-proclaimed to be the “definitive” listing the greatest wrestlers of all-time. In recent years, there has been the WWE DVD set titled “The 50 Greatest WWE Superstars of All-Time”, the Wrestling Observer published their own list of the top 100 about 15 years ago, and wrestling historian Larry Matysik published his book titled “The 50 Greatest Wrestlers of All-Time” which was largely in response to how poor he thought the WWE list was. Numerous other bloggers and historians have come up with their own lists to define who they think is the greatest wrestler of all-time.
The list I am going to present throughout 2016 is going to be my own personal version of those lists. The rankings are only based on my opinion, with factual evidence such as drawing power and days as champion thrown in to support my case for each wrestler. I don’t think my list is going to be better, more accurate or more truthful than any other of the lists that are floating around, but it will be coming from my perspective. In the three lists I highlighted above, I thought there were flaws in all of them; WWE’s list did not include many talents outside of the WWE spectrum and featured too many current wrestlers, The Wrestling Observer’s list is now outdated and Larry Matysik’s list did not feature any talents outside of ones from the United States and Canada.
The biggest difference between my list and most of the other lists is that I am dumping the title of “Greatest Wrestler of All-Time”. I find it unconventional to try and compare wrestlers that are separated by a hundred years of wrestling evolution. Frank Gotch, Gorgeous George and Bret Hart would probably all be ranked in the same area of the list, but how could you realistically compare those three guys? It would be unfair to everyone involved, so I’m going to refrain from doing so. This isn’t a list to determine the greatest wrestler of all-time, because I don’t believe there is a method out there that can fairly determine that.
There are probably some questions folks have about the list, so I’m going to try and answer some FAQs right now before I get started:
Why draw the line at the last 50 years?
First and foremost, because 50 is a nice flat number and the entries can be published once a week and be finished up right at the end of the year. Secondly, I think 50 years, from 1966 to the present, is a fair line to judge wrestling talent equally. 50 years is right about the same time where the major wrestling promotions of history, WWE, AWA, NJPW, AJPW, were all founded. Some promotions like the NWA and CMLL pre-date the date line, but no date is going to be perfect.
In addition, it ensures that there is ample video evidence of all the talent represented on the list. We can read about how great of a worker Jim Londos or Joe Stecher was, but with little video evidence out there to support the claim, it is impossible for us to draw that conclusion ourselves. If someone pops up on this list that you might have never heard of, you don’t have to take my word for how great they are, you can just hop on over to YouTube and see for yourself.
What if a wrestler’s career intersects with the date line
My philosophy is that if a wrestler’s career took place both before 1966 and after 1966, he should be considered, but only if a MAJORITY of his career took place from 1966 onward. Dory Funk Jr. started his career in 1963, but a majority of his career and his accomplishments took place after 1966, so he is clearly qualified to be on the list. At the beginning of 1966, Lou Thesz was the NWA World Heavyweight Champion and Thesz would continue to be a big star throughout the 1970s. However, while Thesz was still relevant after 1966, his greatest success and the moments that made him “Lou Thesz” took place before 1966, so he is disqualified. With some other wrestlers, the line isn’t always that clear, and there were some tough cuts to make, but it was important to remain firm to the original philosophy.
How will the wrestlers be judged?
The biggest question most people are going to have is how the wrestlers are going to be ranked. Will it be drawing power? Wrestling ability? Charisma? The obvious answer is all of the above. This isn’t a list of the biggest stars or the best technical wrestlers or the best promos, it is a list of the greatest wrestlers of the last 50 years. Greatness can come in many different ways, some of the guys on the list might have great charisma but be mediocre wrestlers, others might be great technical wrestlers but only have so-so promo skills. There is no blueprint for the perfect wrestler, they come in all shapes, sizes and skill sets.
One of the things that I am stressing is the length of a wrestler’s career and his ability to remain a top guy for a long period of time. Wrestling history is littered with talent who were big for one year, one month, one match, but to be a big star for a long period of time that takes talent and the ability to deliver despite substandard booking and not always having the perfect opponent to work with.
Who will be represented on the list?
One of my big goals for the list was to be as fair as possible when ranking everyone. A lot of lists, particularly in the blogger community, tend to be heavily weighted towards wrestlers of the last 20 years. We all have inherent biases towards our personal favorite wrestlers, and the modern wrestlers are naturally held in higher esteem than wrestlers from the past. I have seen a lot more Steve Austin matches than Bruno Sammartino matches, I can tell you a lot more about Austin than I can about Sammartino, but does that make Austin a greater wrestler than Sammartino? Of course it doesn’t, so I tried to be as objective as possible when it comes to ranking these guys. I’m going to have my biases towards wrestlers despite my best efforts to remain objective, which is why I stress the list is only going to be my opinion.
The list will contain wrestlers from all different time periods and areas. There will be big stars from the territory days, wrestlers from the national expansion era of the WWF and WCW, wrestlers from Japan and luchadores from Mexico. Wrestlers that just barely squeeze into the cutoff date and wrestlers who are still building their legacy today. The only constant I want to have is that the wrestlers are going to be judged on the same criteria, regardless of when or how they became big stars.
Who isn’t on the list?
While creating the list and debating names, the two biggest reasons I noticed for keeping talents off of the list was that either they missed the cutoff date or their careers as a top talent were not long enough, either due to injuries, personal reasons, or just a lack of faith from a promoter. I will include their names below, along with a list of wrestlers who just missed the cutoff for no other reason than just I thought they were a shade below the Top 50, consider them the honorable mention.
Wrestlers Who Missed the Cutoff Date: Lou Thesz, Buddy Rogers, Gorgeous George, Rikidozan, Killer Kowalski, Johnny Valentine, El Santo, Freddie Blassie, Danny Hodge, Blue Demon, Whipper Billy Watson, Ray Stevens
Wrestlers Who’s Careers Were Too Short: Tiger Mask, Goldberg, The Ultimate Warrior, Curt Hennig, Brock Lesnar, CM Punk, Rick Rude
Honorable Mention: Randy Orton, Jerry Lawler, Konnan, Akira Taue, Chris Benoit, Chris Jericho, Shinsuke Nakamura, Eddie Guerrero, Pedro Morales, Paul Orndorff, Dick the Bruiser, Mad Dog Vachon, Kensuke Sasaki, Billy Robinson, The Crusher, The Destroyer Dick Beyer, Ernie Ladd
Without further ado, let’s get to the first entry on the list, #50?
#50. Ted DiBiase
After looking at some of the honorable mentioned on the list above, it may seem kind of strange to see DiBiase ranked on the list. Sure, most fans remember DiBiase as one of the iconic heels of the Hulkamania, but does he really deserve a spot on the list when world champions like Kensuke Sasaki and Randy Orton were left off?
DiBiase in a way has slipped through the cracks of wrestling history. As far as the colorful heels of the Hulkamania era are concerned, he is always going to play second fiddle to Roddy Piper, and his most significant moment in the WWF came when he wasn’t even wrestling, he was managing Andre the Giant when he organized the infamous Hebner-twin plot to get himself the WWF World Heavyweight Championship. Most fans remember him standing on the apron and laughing rather than working in the ring.
To get at the heart of DiBase, let’s start at the very beginning. DiBiase was born the son of a popular female wrestler Helen Hild, who was a foil of The Fabulous Moolah in the 1960s, and of Ted Wills, an entertainer. Wills never really had a great influence on DiBiase’s life, and DiBiase acknowledges his real father as being his adopted father, wrestler “Iron” Mike DiBiase, a significant worker during the 50s and 60s. On July 2, 1969, when Ted DiBiase was only 15, Mike DiBiase became one of the only wrestlers in history to actually die in the ring, suffering a fatal heart attack during a match against Man Mountain Mike. Harley Race of all people rushed to the ring and performed CPR on DiBiase, but he was pronounced dead when he arrived at the hospital.
Following the death of her husband, Hild fell into a deep depression and struggled with alcoholism. Ted would move to Arizona to live with his grandparents, but he would return to Texas a couple years later when he received a football scholarship to West Texas State Univeristy. This is far from the last time the West Texas State football team will be referenced on this list, as it churned out Hall of Fame wrestling talent during this time period the way Penn State produces linebackers.
After suffering an injury his senior season, DiBiase decided to get into the family business. He was trained by the Funks and made his debut in 1975 for Bill Watts Mid-South Wrestling, losing to the iconic Danny Hodge. DiBiase would work in the area until 1979, when he had his first stint with the WWF. DiBiase won the North American Championship, which he then lost to Pat Patterson, who unified that title with the fictional South American Championship to create the beloved Intercontinental Championship.
DiBiase would then return to MSW and formed a popular tag team with “Wildfire” Tommy Rich. In the early 80s, DiBiase enjoyed a really strong run as a young babyface, and was recognized as one of the top up-and-coming stars in the world. In 1981 he emerged as a top contender for Harley Race’s NWA World Heavyweight Championship and worked programs with Race mainly in Race’s home territory of St. Louis. He also held the prestigious NWA Missouri Heavyweight Championship and sold out the famous Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis against wrestlers such as Jack Brisco. Universally recognized as one of the finest technical wrestlers in the country, it was perceived as a matter of when, not if, DiBiase would become the NWA World Heavyweight Champion.
In the mid-1980s, DiBiase broke the hearts of fans in the South when he turned heel and began working a long and successful feud with the Junkyard Dog. He also had a long feud with Jim Duggan culminating in the famous “Loser Leaves Town Tuxedo Street Fight Coal Miner’s Glove on a Pole Steel Cage Match” at the Louisiana Superdome in 1985. During that same time period, DiBiase was also becoming a big star in Japan, making frequent tours with All-Japan Pro Wrestling, highlighted by a feud where he battled the legendary Genichiro Tenryu,
In 1987, DiBiase jumped ship and became a national star when he debuted in the WWF. When DiBiase originally signed with the WWF, he was told he would be getting gimmick but did not know what it was going to be. When he inquired further about, Patterson, who was booking the WWF at the time, said that if owner Vince McMahon were to go out to wrestle, it would be the gimmick that he would give himself. He was right about that.
The “Million Dollar Man” gimmick made its first appearance on WWF TV during a vignette that aired on June 27, 1987. The gimmick of the entitled rich person was nothing new to wrestling, a wrestlers in the past like Gorgeous George and Lord Lansdowne even had the man-servant gimmick down. However, DiBiase stuck out while he was doing it because he had the right experience and the right personality for the gimmick. During his time in MSW and later the Universal Wrestling Federation DiBiase had been a sneaky heel, winning a majority of his matches using a loaded black glove to deliver a fatal blow to his opponent.
DiBiase also had a natural gift that was incomparable to any previous talent. I’m of course talking about his trademark evil laugh. Blessed with a rich baritone voice, DiBiase’s cackle echoed throughout the arenas and cut right through the ears of fans watching at home. DiBiase’s entrance music, beginning with the laugh and then the high-pitched “money, money, money, money!” was one of the most identifiable entrance songs of the 1980s. In addition, the vignettes and segments involving DiBiase intended to get his gimmick over were nothing short of brilliant. In addition to forcing Virgil to perform demeaning tasks, DiBiase would also get fans in the audience involved, culminating in what I believe is the most-mean spirited thing I have ever seen someone do.
Everything that can be written about DiBiase as a heel can be summed up in that three and a half minute clip. He intentionally picks out the most sympathetic person in the audience, verbally insults him and his family, and then screws him out of the money. In an era of classic heels, nothing stands out quite as that. It’s the perfect amount of crowd interaction for a heel; the little kid is the perfect babyface for the audience to feel sympathy towards because he is so helpless. Every time he walks up to that stage I know he is going to get screwed by DiBiase and yet, I still hope that in some alternate universe he is going to make it to 15. For the record, according to his autobiography everyone that was not paid on screen for their efforts was paid off-screen, so Ted DiBiase can sleep at night.
Actions like that and the overall attitude of DiBiase made him the perfect foil for the working-class heroes that the WWF employed at the time, such as Hulk Hogan, Duggan and the Junkyard Dog. In that regard, he was better than Piper. On paper and in character, DiBiase was the perfect foil for those guys. Piper was the anti-hero which allowed him to be a babyface later in his career. DiBiase was always a jerk, and never had the babyface run that Piper had at the end, the fans would have never accepted that.
DiBiase also proved to be one of the most versatile heels of the time, a true ring general that used his technical ability to get the edge on his opponents. With the exception of Piper, who is in a whole different category, all of the main event heels of the Hogan-era were excellent technical wrestlers; Paul Orndorff, Randy Savage, David Schultz, but DiBiase was arguably the best of the bunch. In addition to being a masterful character, DiBiase was arguably the most technically sound wrestler of the 1980s, which is really saying something.
His most memorable moment came when he couldn’t purchase the WWF World Heavyweight Championship from Hogan and instead bought the next best thing, the services of Andre the Giant and then rigged the match to take the championship from Hogan. Even though Andre was the one who “beat” Hogan, it was DiBiase who ended up as the real heel of the match. It was DiBiase, not Andre, who ended up facing off against Savage in the finals of the championship tournament at Wrestlemania IV.
DiBiase began to fade from the main event in the late 80s, occasionally sponsoring a new opponent for Hogan (such as Zeus) but remained a key heel on the roster, feuding with wrestlers such as Jake Roberts, Jimmy Snuka and working a very long program with Hercules. DiBiase had his last major run in WWF when he formed a tag team with Irwin R. Schyster, titled Money Inc. and they ran through the WWF Tag Team division, winning the titles three times and feuding with top teams such as the Legion of Doom, the Steiner Brothers, the Nasty Boys and Hogan and Brutus Beefcake. Unfortunately for DiBiase, he was the victim of a spinal injury while doing a tour with AJPW and was forced to retire.
Post retirement, DiBiase remained active, most notably in WCW where he became the benefactor of the nWo and then later worked as an agent for WCW. Since then he has become a Christian minister and watched all three of his sons become professional wrestlers.
So should DiBiase be on the list? It is certainly debatable, but I think when you consider his success in different companies, different roles in the company, from a mid-carder to main event talent to tag team specialist, and was successful as both a babyface and a heel, he deserves to be in the conversation. DiBiase combined everything that was good about American wrestling in the 1980s, he had a great gimmick, he could cut promos and he was an excellent technical wrestler. His career was relatively short (only 19 years as a professional) but he jammed a heck of a lot of accomplishments into those 19 years.