The Great Brawlers
Here’s the thing: I don’t have the guts to title this column The Fifteen Greatest Brawlers of All Time, but that is what I am going for here. I’ve set up a debate on the subject in the forums if anybody is interested. Click here first if you are not already a registered insidepulse forum user.
Obviously, it’s impossible to make a definitive list; there are simply too many subjective factors involved. In trying to make a list, however, it is possible that we will learn a little more about the Art of Wrestling. With any luck, some of us will be introduced to a wrestler or a match that we hadn’t heard of before. List making tends to generate a lot of discussion, and so I never consider it a waste of time, even if the end result will inevitably be less than perfect.
What Makes A Brawler Great?
The Art of Brawling seems to be one of the least appreciated aspects of the Art of Wrestling. Wrestling columnists and forum writers often complain when a match features too much punching and kicking. At its highest level, however, a brawl can be utterly captivating. What is it that makes the difference? Here are five important factors:
Intensity: This is probably the number one factor that draws an audience into a slugfest. It makes sense. If the wrestlers aren’t into what they are doing, why should we be? Intensity can be communicated a number of ways. Some wrestlers use facial expressions and body language, others use grunts and exclamations, and still others rely on stiffness, blood, and brutality. The best wrestlers and the greatest matches will use all of these tools and more to tell their believably fierce story in the ring.
Stiffness: It is no coincidence that most of the best brawlers have a reputation for being tight workers. If it is real it will look real, and that will increase the intensity.
Nastiness: Ricky Steamboat wrestled with great intensity and his chops seem pretty stiff, but he never gets mentioned when people are listing the greatest brawlers largely because he was widely seen as a nice guy and a family man. When we believe that a wrestler is a raging madman, a seething ball of barely controlled rage, or a calculating desert snake, then we are far more likely to get emotionally involved when they start hammering their opponent into the ground.
Ugliness: As David Goforth pointed out here, some wrestlers just look scarier than others. The best brawlers can communicate a sense of menace and danger without saying or doing anything. A brawler should look like the kind of guy who has spent some time hanging out in seedy bars, looking for trouble.
Toughness: What’s the easiest way to make a worked punch look real? Actually hit the guy! And what is the best way to develop a tough guy swagger? Actually be able to kick some ass! The best brawlers can both dish out punishment and take it in generous measure.
Here’s one example: During their notorious match in Japan in 1990, Stan Hansen hit Vader so hard that Vader’s eye popped out of its socket. Vader pushed it back in and kept fighting. It is no wonder that both of these men made my list of Fifteen Great Brawlers.
15) Bad New Allen:
There are easily a dozen wrestlers other than Allen who could fill this spot, and none of them are going to make my list. The reason I’m choosing Bad News is pure and simple personal bias. If you grew up in Georgia you almost certainly feel that Arn Anderson deserves a place on this list. I understand, but I grew up in Western Canada watching Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling, and Allen was the first cool badass heel that I was ever exposed to. Even when he was watered down for the WWF as Bad News Brown, Allen Coage clearly embodied all of the qualities that I’ve listed above.
14) Wild Bill Longson
I’ve never seen him wrestle, but while I was researching this article, his name came up again and again as the man who pioneered the arrogant brawling heel champion in the ’30s and ’40s. His popularity was so great that in 1944 he sold out 16 shows in a row as a headliner in St. Louis.
13) Mad Dog Vachon
In the 1960s, Mad Dog set new standards for wild matches and established a crazed heel persona that has seen countless imitators. He may be best remembered for his role in a 1996 IYH match between Nash and Hall where Vachon’s artificial leg was used as a foreign object, but his legacy is invoked whenever profesional wrestling action gets out of control.
12) Masato Tanaka
Just check out the scars. I consider Tanaka to be one of this generation’s most under rated superstars. He has the intangible qualities to make everyone around him better. Whether he’s matched up with a huge power merchant like Mike Awesome, an aging former high flyer making the transition to the heavyweight ranks like Shinjiro Ohtani, or a fat garbage wrestler like Mr. Pogo, Masato Tanaka can always be counted on to turn the match into a compelling brawl.
11) Dick The Bruiser and The Crusher
Yes, I am cheating by counting these two prototype badasses as one entry. Both had considerable success as singles wrestlers, but they are best remembered for dominating tag team wrestling together in the 1960s and 1970s. They were the original beer drinking, foul mouthed, mudhole-stomping rednecks, and their influence on modern wrestling is both clear and much appreciated.
10) Atsushi Onita
Onita was probably the greatest innovator of the Death Match style, introducing such concepts as exploding barbed wire and time bombs to FMW. Unlike other FMW and Big Japan stars, Onita never lost sight of the need to tell a story in the ring, and his matches stand out from others of their ilk largely because he always included the essential basic elements of a great brawl along with the gory spectacle.
9) Roddy Piper
The Rowdy One is probably best remembered for his Sports Entertainment antics, but he honed his craft as a brawler in Oregon under the watchful eye of Don Owen. Piper’s loose cannon persona made him the perfect foil for Hulk Hogan during the rise of Hulkamania, and his Dog Collar Chain Match with Greg Valentine at the first Starrcade was a brawl for the ages.
8) Johnny Valentine
Speaking of Greg Valentine, his father Johnny was a fantastically stiff worker who was a top star in the 60s and 70s. He believed that wrestling should be physical, athletic, punishing, and as real as possible. His influence on the art of wrestling can be seen and heard every time a Ric Flair chop echoes off an arena’s walls. It may be reasonably argued that Valentine was the toughest wrestler of his era.
7) Wahoo McDaniel
Johnny Valentine’s most memorable feud was against this former New York Jet. The two were legendary for their willingness to stand toe to toe and beat the hell out of one another, and their feud was what elevated Mid-Atlantic wrestling to its status as the top territory in the NWA. Thanks to the serious rub he is given in Ric Flair’s To Be The Man, Wahoo McDaniel is finally getting a measure of the credit he deserves.
Whether in New Japan, WCW, UWF-I, All Japan, or NOAH Vader is the living definition of a monster heel. Very few men in the history of wrestling can match his intensity, stiffness, nastiness, ugliness, and legitimate toughness. In my opinion, there are only five men who can claim to be better brawlers than the man called Vader.
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Next Week: THE TOP FIVE!