In this sport, there are 2 kinds of people, the ones who are defined by the Title and the ones who define the Title. While wrestling is ripe with examples of the former, such as The Ultimate Warrior, Goldberg, and Alberto Del Rio, the are very few men who define the belt that they carry. The video packages on Raw this past Monday showed many of the greats over the years that defined the Titles and did well to teach younger and newer fans of some of the legends who came before the stars of today. I want to take a moment to look at each man that was highlighted.
“Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers was the first WWWF Champion after Vince McMahon Sr. split off of the NWA in 1963. Even though his reign would be very short due to a mild heart attack that made him lose a lot of his endurance in the ring, his mark on professional wrestling is felt today in the likes of Ric Flair and The Miz, as he not only created that high class, cocky gimmick but also invented the Figure Four Leglock.
Lou Thesz was the first Unified World Champion of the territorial era, as a pioneer of the early daus of the NWA. It was Thesz, who had ceased to be a big draw in the Northeast, that caused Vince McMahon Sr. to split off of the NWA to form the WWWF. Thesz had a storied career, being able to claim that he helped popularize wrestling in Japan thanks to his numerous bouts with Rikidozan. He was also the innovator of many of the moves we take for granted today, such as the Powerbomb and the Belly-to-Back Suplex.
Bruno Sammartino has well earned the title of being the Living Legend of professional wrestling. Between his storied reigns as WWWF Champion, his ability to claim that he was one of the first mainstream Superstars, and his pure drawing power even to this day, he is the epitome of greatness in professional wrestling.
Harley Race was a wrestler that anyone growing in the industry would aspire to be. A rough and tumble man, he would be a huge focal point of the NWA in the 70′s and early 80′s, eventulally passing the torch the Ric Flair. Many modern wrestlers attribute Race as an influence to their growth, specifically Triple H.
Bob Backlund was one of the most gifted performers to ever grace a ring. Having both intellect and great physical conditioning, he was a perfect candidate to follow Bruno Sammartino as the face of the company and WWF Champion, winning the belt from “Superstar” Billy Graham. He would hold the title for 6 years. But Backlund was also an innovator of psychological gimmicks, proving that he could still go with the best after returning to WWE in 1992 and feuding with Bret Hart.
Dusty Rhodes may have been “a common man”, but his charisma in the ring was anything but. Having legendary feuds with Ric Flair and The Four Horsemen as well as Harley Race, Dusty showed the world that anyone could make their dreams come true with a little hard work. Dusty also has one of the best reputations in the business for helping young talent, as he has been a head booker in FCW/NXT for years.
Hulk Hogan is one of the greatest icons in pro wrestling’s history, having won both the WWF and WHC multiple times over his career. In addition to those accolades, he is the biggest name to ever transcend the boundaries of the ring.
Ric Flair is easily the second biggest name in wrestling history, having won 16 World Titles recognized by the WWE and over 30 different regional promotions World Titles. A founding member of the Four Horsemen, one of the few men who can claim he main evented both WrestleMania and the NWA/WCW equivalent in Starcade, and the only 2 time WWE Hall of Famer, Slick Ric still elicits a huge response no matter where he goes.
“Stone Cold” Steve Austin revolutionized the art of “Sports Entertainment” with his cutting edge character and massive appeal as the man who fought the boss. He is credited with the advent of the Attitude Era along with the infamous Montreal Screwjob. Having won the most Royal Rumbles with 3 out of his 6 appearances and 6 WWF Titles, he is guaranteed to be one of the most memorable stars of all time.
Sting was arguably the biggest star that WCW ever produced. Facing a veritable who’s who of pro wrestling such as The Great Muta, Ric Flair, Vader, and the nWo, Sting cemented his legacy in the industry with 9 World Title reigns in WCW. Despite interest from Vince McMahon, Sting would not sign over during the buyout of WCW, making him the biggest star to have never signed with WWE.
Triple H was one of the most prolific world champions to come out of the 90s and early 2000s, having won the WWE Title 8 times and the World Heavyweight Championship 5 times. Possibly the most powerful man in the industry to start as a wrestler due to his marriage to Stephanie McMahon, Triple H has transcended into the front office as the Executive Vice President of Talent Relations.
Booker T is the ultimate rags to riches story in wrestling. From wrestling to provide extra money to raise his family to becoming the most decorated champion in WCW history with 23 titles, 5 of which were World Heavyweight Titles, Booker T is easily one of the most successful African American superstars in wrestling history.
Every single one of these men defined what it should mean to be the top guy in the WWE and while I know that every champion can’t hit the lofty heights that these men did, the ones that do are guaranteed immortality. John Cena and CM Punk have easily hit that mark, as did Edge when he was an active Superstar. But my challenge to you is to look over the WWE Roster and name any other wrestler that has hit that level. Feel free to leave your thoughts and suggestions in the comments below.