On Friday, June 3rd, 2016, Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Clay, passed away at the age of 74. Ali’s death, and more importantly his life, is the inspiration behind this column. Whether it was musicians, actors, athletes, or any other celebrity, the one constant comment was that Ali was ‘the greatest of all time’. That’s a difficult distinction to bestow on anyone today and to even call someone ‘great’ is difficult. When we consider wrestlers of all time, who would you consider the greatest? Do names like Ric Flair, Lou Thez and Stone Cold Steve Austin resonate? Greatness is typically based on the age demographic of those selecting them. For instance, unless someone is well informed about the history of wrestling, would they consider Frank Gotch the greatest of all-time?
According to dictionary.com, greatness has a number of definitions, however, but for the sake of applying it to wrestling, it is defined as of noble or lofty character; or someone that was notable, remarkable; or exceptionally outstanding.
To some, the greatest of all time may be Ric Flair or Hulk Hogan, because of how they’re larger than life personas changed the wrestling landscape during the 1980s and 1990s. While Hogan’s popularity was a focal point of the WWE, Flair rose to prominence in the NWA. The billing of both men was intended to be of grand proportions. To assess their respective invokes a comparison between both men, their achievements, their character, and their most notable matches. Some will say Hulk Hogan and The Ultimate Warrior was a great match, while others will look at Ric Flair against Ricky Steamboat as a great match. What contributes to opinions about the greatness of these two separate matches? After all, we have men and women that will swear up and down that one is the very definition of greatness, while the other is far from great. The label of greatness bestowed upon these matches by wrestling fans who are traditionalists may be because the psychology of one match is seen as being of more value than the other.
A number of wrestling contemporaries would consider the recent Best of the Juniors match between independent stars Will Ospreay and Ricochet as being ‘great’. However, in calling the match great they are cautious as to not call it the greatest of all time. Was there something about that match that left that critical distinction of the match debatable? Others would argue that matches have a great deal of storytelling and psychology are what is best-defined as greatness. If we consider the matches between Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and Bret Hart, or Dean Malenko and Eddie Guerrero, each of them is great matches and some give them strong consideration when they consider what defines the greatest of all time.
For wrestlers, greatness is also left up to debate. A wrestlers’ greatness may be reflective of a particular era. Many would argue that “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and The Rock were the greatest wrestlers of the Attitude Era. Austin’s notable wrestling talent had continued to grow from his time in WCW. Those that booked him could see that Austin had a certain value about him in the early 1990s when he competed as “Stunning” Steve Austin. Greatness may not be initially evident for those that have achieved greatness, but rather it was something they worked toward.
When Shawn Michaels was teaming up with Marty Jannetty, some envisioned Jannetty as being the one who would be dubbed ‘great,’ and yet it was Michaels who persevered and became recognized as ‘great’. Michaels is an interesting case as he is considered great because of all of his achievements, the types of matches he has been a part of and the types of promos he’s delivered, and yet he isn’t necessarily liked. The same could be said about Bret Hart when he was teaming up with Jim Neidhart. Bret himself believed that there was more out there for him. However, at a time when wrestlers that we well over six feet tall were a focal point in the WWE, did anyone believe that two guys the height and size of Michaels and Hart could be considered the cornerstones of a promotion. The debate remains to this day as to whom is better. The debate is important when trying to decide a wrestler’s greatness.
One common argument that is made when it comes to Muhammad Ali centers on him backing up his words in the boxing ring. When we think of the classic matches, and how he backed up his words, we see why his self-proclaimed greatness was later supported by fans. To some extent, does a wrestlers’ greatness appear to be tied with a sense of self-confidence? Ric Flair called himself ‘The Man,’ and to this day many fans will repeat his popular phrase ‘To be The Man, you’ve got to beat The Man‘. Some consider an aspect of greatness in wrestling to be how humble the performer is or was, and how they are willing to make others around them look better.
My all-time favorite wrestler was Ricky Steamboat. He was never the WWF World Heavyweight Champion, but does that make him any less great? To some, once you’ve achieved that goal then you could have the claim of ‘great’ given to you. He captured the NWA World Heavyweight Title, which is what the World Championship was called when he defeated Flair.
How about women wrestlers? When the term greatness is used, how often are their accomplishments discussed? Many would say that the Fabulous Moolah was the greatest women’s wrestler of all-time. Is that attributable to the lengthy title run she had? Does that define her greatness? Wrestling fans within the last century would say that Trish Stratus’ progression from being a model to being one of the best in-ring performers of her era would make her the greatest. Women wrestling has often struggled to receive recognition, but they don’t deserve an asterisk attached to their name. Women wrestlers are great athletes, but the difference appears to be that their achievements are viewed on a smaller scale simply because their careers, in general, don’t last as long as their male counterparts. Do we define what a great women wrestler by comparing what she is able to do to what a great male wrestler can do? That, again, really should come down to one’s definition of the word, and who is in the ring. If a wrestling fan didn’t see Mae Young or other women wrestlers of years gone by competing, it isn’t fair to call them great. However, it isn’t fair to apply the label without putting into context what they achieved during their time.
One of the best female wrestlers in the world is Cheerleader Melissa. Anyone that has seen her work knows that she should be recognized for her achievements. She currently appears in Lucha Underground under the moniker Mariposa, and yet if someone isn’t able to or doesn’t see her compete could they label her as great? In comparison, would fans call Sasha Banks, Charlotte, Bayley or Becky Lynch as the greatest of all time? It isn’t likely, but it isn’t a stretch to say that in another generation from now wrestling fans will look back at these women and acknowledge that the types of matches they had, and what they achieved, is what made them great.
Something that doesn’t appear to garner as much attention is tag teams, and what would be considered the greatest of all time. Many wrestling fans that are under the age of twenty-five, unless they watch the 1970s and 1980s wrestling on Youtube, might consider The New Day greater than the Midnight Express. As someone that grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, the tag teams of the time could be considered great, but does that mean that one stood above any other as being the greatest of all time? To many, the Road Warriors may have been considered the greatest of all time because of their feuds, championships won, look, and promos. However, some fans that have seen The Hardy Boyz, Dudley Boys, and Edge and Christian argue they were the greatest of all time. What does a tag team need to have in order to be considered great? Is it longevity? Is it what they are able to do in the ring or whom they are working with or against? Many think that a team such as the Midnight Express would run circles around a team like the Hardy Boyz. That argument appears to be more of a generational one because unless they were true to face each other, who could say for sure that one team would have been successful over the other one. When it comes to tag team wrestling, is greatness determined by the generation in which they competed?
Today one of the most popular tag teams in wrestling is The New Day. Would some argue that they are ‘great’? Possibly. If so, it could be attributed to what each of the men has accomplished as a team, who they have faced, and the length of time in which they have held the tag team championships. Is the term great watered down somewhat when it comes to tag teams because in today’s wrestling there are so many moving parts that it’s hard to state a team is great? If we take for instance The Wolves, The Briscoes, Young Bucks or The Addiction, these teams’ achievements and matches haven’t been a focal point on WWE programming, does that make what they have achieved any less in value? A number of fans would say no, while others would say yes.
There really isn’t a simple answer here. Greatness, as applied to singles, women’s or tag team wrestling is never quite the same. It not only differs from athlete to athlete, but it differs from fan to fan. Greatness is what someone bestows on a particular team, male or female. It is seen differently and valued differently because greatness isn’t any one thing, but much like the wrestlers are out there seen as a number of different things.
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