In the dog days of summer, sports talk radio lines start heating up with pointless discussions and arguments. Who is the G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time) in baseball? Who would win in a pick-up basketball game? Should you trade this person for that person? On a scale of 95% to 99%, how overrated is Alexander Ovechkin? Does Johnny Manziel have a shred of common sense? And so on.
I am feeling the same way about wrestling right now. Nothing seems to be breaking out into something huge lately. So I thought I would try to start a little sports talk radio insanity for this column. So today, I am going to try to convince you of who should be on the Mount Rushmore of professional wrestling. I am going to limit it to wrestlers today, so I won’t be including a promoter like Vince McMahon, who is without a doubt is the person most responsible for the professional wrestling business today. So let’s begin…
1. Ric Flair.
That’s where we start. On anyone’s list of who should be on a Professional Wrestling Mount Rushmore, Ric Flair needs to be there.
Forget about the well over-the-hill old man caricature he became later in his career. Forget about the off-screen debacles and scandals. Forget about the crying manager role to his daughter Charlotte. Let’s just end the thought of Ric Flair with the end of the last episode of Nitro against Sting. Or, at worst, his Wrestlemania defeat to Shawn Michaels sending him into “retirement.”
Instead, think about Ric Flair, the wheeling-dealing, limousine-riding, kiss-stealing, son of a gun who ruled EVERYWHERE except the WWF in the early 80s. Think about Ric Flair’s first run through the WWF, with Mr. Perfect and Bobby Heenan at his side, going up against Randy Savage in some dream matchups. Think about his classic matches with Ricky Steamboat, Sting, Nikita Koloff, Dusty Rhodes, and on and on. Think about his crazed promos. Think about the “Woooooo!” If nothing else, the “Woooooo!” has transcended professional wrestling and worked its way into popular culture. That alone, should give Flair a spot on the mountain.
I know Flair’s act wasn’t completely original. Buddy Rogers did the “Nature Boy” schtick long before Flair. I also know that Flair’s best days were when he was flanked by three other great wrestlers in the Four Horsemen. But also remember that Ric Flair could pull a great match out of Lex Luger or Road Warrior Hawk the same way he could go toe-to-toe with The Great Muta or Barry Windham. In what has become cliche in internet circles at least, the thought that a wrestler could carry a broomstick to a 3-star match originated with Ric Flair.
For all of those things he deserves it. But, if you need more, how about this? Ric Flair single handedly opened the eyes of so many of the WWF’s viewers that there was a whole other world of professional wrestling out there. For someone in the northeastern United States, well before the internet, you only saw WWF programming or live events. If you were lucky, you could find a grainy feed of an NWA show on some minuscule UHF channel in the middle of the night. But that was for the lucky ones. And in school you’d hear rumors of something else going on. Something better than Hulk Hogan beating everyone all the time. And then, in 1991, Ric Flair shows up on WWF television. And he has this big gold belt. Ric Flair said he was the real world champion and he had a better looking title belt as well. From that point on, we as viewers would not just settle for what Vince McMahon fed us, but actively sought out new and potentially better options.
Maybe I should also point out that Ric Flair was in a plane crash in 1975 and broke his back in three places. This was well before he became the “dirtiest player in the game” and a legend. Put that man on the mountain!
2. Andre the Giant.
Most people remember Andre the Giant as a big, lumbering guy who Hulk Hogan sorta slammed and beat at Wrestlemania III. That Andre could barely walk and had no reason being in a main event other than to “pass the torch” so to speak. But if you go back and look at early Andre, it’s scary. Not only was the man mammoth, but he was fast and athletic. He was definitely someone you did not want to see coming after you.
And everyone loved him. That is, until the WWF tried to make him evil. Even then, working with Bobby “The Brain” Heenan and going up against the big babyface in the Hulkster, people still cheered for him. In fact, I seem to remember that being the time where some wrestling fans started getting “smart” and wanting to see Hulkamania smashed.
Was Andre the best wrestler in the world? Of course not. But he was big and fast and, well, a giant. He was respected by almost everyone and genuinely seemed like a good guy. In fact, when the WWF/E began pushing Chyna, they gave her the nickname of the “9th Wonder of the World” because, for a company that has a hard time remembering what they did last week, they had labelled Andre as the “8th Wonder of the World.” I always appreciated that little bit of continuity.
In the early parts of his career, the McMahons pushed Andre like a carnival barker would. He was an attraction to come and see, a vaudeville act or circus sideshow. He was an oddity because not everyone knew, or had ever seen, a 7’4″, 550 pound man. He was, by all accounts, a true giant. He was immensely “over” both in the U.S. and in Japan and was a proven draw.
Andre Roussimoff also branched out into acting. His most famous role was as Fizzik in The Princess Bride. If you haven’t seen that movie, you need to see it now. It might help you to communicate with people in their 30s and 40s who can only speak through movie quotes. Andre was a standout in the movie, stealing scenes left and right. The movie allowed Andre to display a gentle side where the ring allowed him to show an aggressive side.
The man was larger than life, in every sense of the word. Knowing that, Shepard Fairey began a street art campaign called Andre the Giant Has a Posse. This morphed into the Obey Giant stickers you see everywhere these days. In fact, I would not be surprised if an Obey Giant sticker was placed on the bust of Andre’s face on the Pro Wrestling Mt. Rushmore.
3. The Rock.
Okay, I am sure this one will get some arguments.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is the man who finally escaped pro wrestling. For many, many years people talked about a wrestler transcending the sport. Someone would try to move into acting or writing or football or stand-up comedy or bodybuilding or any number of things. But mostly acting. Yet they would always come back to the sport when they couldn’t shake the label of being “just a wrestler.” Roddy Piper had some acting roles (including one spectacular role in They Live), Lou Albano appeared in some major Cyndi Lauper videos, Edge had a role in a Highlander movie, and the list goes on and on. Some people tried bringing entertainers into the wrestling world to gain some mainstream appeal (see Andy Kaufman and Jerry Lawler or Mr. T and Hulk Hogan), but eventually the entertainers would return to their Hollywood world and the wrestlers would be left behind.
For the longest time, the person closest to “breaking through” this artificial barrier around the pro wrestling world was Hulk Hogan. If someone unfamiliar with wrestling was asked to name a wrestler, they would probably answer “Hulk Hogan.” In fact, that is probably still the case. But success outside wrestling always seemed a bit secondary with Hogan. Yes, he starred in some awful movies. Yes, he had his own scripted action television action show. Yes, he made his way around the late-night talk shows and rubbed elbows with famous musicians, sports stars, and actors. But in the end, he was always “Hulk Hogan, that wrestler” and not truly one of the entertainment masses.
But The Rock has taken crossover appeal to a whole new level. His movies haven’t all sucked. He has proven himself to be a box office draw in action movies as well as displaying his comedic stylings in other movies. He has hosted Saturday Night Live. At this point, he is better known to the general public as the next one in the Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis mode of catchphrase-spewing action hero. But that would be a bit of a disservice to his overall talent.
Dwayne Johnson excelled in football in the University of Miami (FL). He came into the wrestling world and worked through being hated (like Roman Reigns times 10). He became a champion. He became famous. He became The Rock who made you laugh, cheer, and want to hang with.
During this era, Steve Austin was arguably a bigger star within professional wrestling. But here is the difference – Steve Austin presented the everyman versus his boss. He did what so many fans wish they could do – tell off (and maybe even Stunner) their boss. But The Rock gave all of the fans something they have never had, and something they probably never dreamed of having. The Rock made wrestling fans cool (in degrees).
Wrestling has never been “cool” in the culture at large. Wrestling fans have never been cool in the culture at large. Wrestling fans tend to congregate towards other fans and not really discuss their fandom in general. We gravitate to internet groups, we sneak peaks at co-workers computers to see if they are looking at a wrestling website. We salivate over anyone wearing a t-shirt from an event. But we don’t put it front and center. We don’t put “rabid wrestling fan” on a dating site. We hide our enjoyment of wrestling, and when we’re caught watching it, we mumble about it being a guilty pleasure or some other nonsense.
But The Rock was cool. Undeniably cool. His cool extended outside of the wrestling world. And all of a sudden, people in the outside world were talking about this guy. They were repeating his catchphrases. They were laughing at his humor. They were discussing his good looks and muscular build. They were talking about his movies or his interviews. They were talking about how cool he was. And we, as wrestling fans, who have never been cool, not only could enter that conversation, but we got a few props for knowing things about him that others didn’t. Because we were there at the beginning, and that made us experts on this new star.
The Rock wasn’t just one of WWE’s Superstars, he was, and is, a Star in his own right. He just happened to wrestle before taking over the world. And he gave fans not just escapism, but some reflected coolness. For that alone, he should be on the pro wrestling Mt. Rushmore over Steve Austin or Hulk Hogan.
4. The Undertaker.
Okay, I can hear the comments section heating up with this one. Honestly, this one was the toughest one for me. I thought maybe the fourth member would be an old-timer, a Bruno Sammartino or Lou Thesz or Antonio Inoki. But I just can’t deny The Undertaker’s place. Hear me out.
At some point, professional wrestling became less real to everyone. Whatever caused each fan to realize it wasn’t “real,” we got there. We acknowledged the scripted nature of the match outcomes even while we marveled at how the performers got there. We started caring less about the “character” and more about the wrestler themselves. Wrestlers, or sports entertainers, would describe their characters as more realistic, amped-up versions of themselves. We didn’t need wrestling state troopers or wrestling mounties or wrestling time-travelers or wrestling garbage men. We wanted characters we could relate to and we wanted to see good stories and matches.
This year, Vince McMahon commented during a promo leading up to Wrestlemania, that The Undertaker was his greatest “creation.” And The Undertaker is definitely a character. He is a throwback to when we suspended disbelief a little more easily. But Mark Calaway, the man, made The Undertaker. Whether it appealed to a gothic sensibility, or a dark side we don’t like to admit we have, his take on The Undertaker attached itself to us on a deep level. And he latched on to us so strongly that even when the business moved on, he remained. A ghost tying us to our childhood selves almost.
Once you get past pro wrestling not being “real,” some people can’t see the magic anymore. You see, we watch wrestling and see two or more people fighting each other. We know they don’t hate each other. We know they aren’t trying to hurt each other. But when we first saw a wrestling match, we cheered and booed and really got into the physicality of it. Now, the best we could do was admire the athleticism.
But The Undertaker is a bad ass. I don’t know this for certain, but I am pretty sure Mark Calaway is a bad ass. Early on, The Undertaker just seemed evil and devoid of any care or concern for anyone. Hell, he tried to MURDER the Ultimate Warrior in 1991. Of course the coffin was rigged and Warrior was never in true danger of suffocating, but they played the angle so perfectly that even though you knew it wasn’t “real” you still went, “Oh shit!” I mean, come on, Undertaker beat the shit out of Warrior (who was often seen as unbeatable), put him in a coffin, sealed it shut, and walked away like it was just another day at the office. It was fucking intense and creepy and awesome!
Then, later on in his career, he helped usher in a new and rough match – Hell in a Cell. And if the cell cage itself wasn’t enough for him to do damage (him taking Shawn Michaels from the ring post to the cage and back and forth was just brutal), he would take things to before unseen levels. Of course I am talking about when he threw Mick Foley off the top of the cage. Then, just because Mick wasn’t dead yet, he chokeslammed him THROUGH the cage roof!
Think about this – The Undertaker has been presented as a bad ass who will just kill you if he wants to. His mythology talks about how he burned his parents to death. He tried to kill Ultimate Warrior. Then he tried to kill Mick Foley. That’s some scary shit, people. This guy is just a murderous madman. But he didn’t care. He gave zero fucks. And he made it work.
Also, he had the Wrestlemania streak which was impressive no matter how you think of it. He basically made Mick Foley, a crazy and semi-popular deathmatch wrestler, into a bona-fide superstar through their feud. He beat Hulk Hogan for the title. He beat Ric Flair. He beat Triple H. He retired Shawn Michaels. He introduced the world to Stephanie McMahon after burning her childhood teddy bear in front of Vince McMahon. He took an out of work dentist from Memphis and turned him into his brother Kane.
Not every match Undertaker had was a classic, but he could work. And he could really turn it on for big events. His agility was unheard of for someone his size. Remember Taker flying over the top rope? I know you do and now the image is in your head.
The Undertaker never let us let go of our initial fascination with wrestling. He scared us. You wouldn’t want to piss The Undertaker off. Or meet him in a dark alley. Even though we knew it wasn’t “real,” somewhere in the back of our heads we wondered if Undertaker was just going to go try to kill someone again. And we would watch with rapt attention, cheering on this angel of death.
So The Undertaker would be my fourth person on the pro wrestling Mount Rushmore. We would just have to make sure his bust was on the part of the mountain with the most shadow.
Silly little things like this are more fun as a discussion/argument. So sound off in the comment section. Tell me who would be on your Mount Rushmore and why. Tell me where I made a mistake. Insult my intelligence and try to convince me Heath Slater should be up there. Let’s get through this summer with some fun banter.
Until next week…
Tags: Andre the Giant, dwayne johnson, Hulk Hogan, Mark Calaway, Ric Flair, Steve Austin, The Rock, The Undertaker, VInce McMahon