Who are the toughest wrestlers of all time?

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April 10, 2012

Terry Funk is one of wrestling's toughest men.

Firstly, let’s establish a couple of things as an overview of my thoughts on sports-entertainment’s “toughest men.”

  • There have always been extraordinarily tough men in the business of sports-entertainment. My view is that one can’t be in the sports-entertainment business successfully and long term without being tough.
  • There is no definitive list of “tough guys” as this topic is subjective, at best, and without question any inadvertent omission of any legendary “tough guys” from this piece is just that — inadvertent — and not meant as any disrespect to anyone that I may not address.

One of the common misconceptions regarding this topic is that all the “tough guys” who have earned a living in sports-entertainment all have had amateur backgrounds. That’s not true, but it certainly helps.

In the early 1900s, wrestlers who attained main event success were largely all tough men who could handle themselves in any environment whether it be in a wrestling ring or a tavern. Some wrestlers were undoubtedly tougher than others and their reputation as being an “enforcer” to keep their peers in line was legendary.

Frank Gotch was one of the earliest legit tough men in the business. The Iowan was skilled in the art of wrestling and submissions. Gotch was the most dominant pro wrestler in the world in the early part of the 1900s. (PHOTOS)

Ed “Strangler” Lewis was a bullish man with unique strength and was nicknamed “Strangler” because of his ability to render a man unconscious with his famously powerful headlock. Lewis would take a wooden head with him on the road to demonstrate to the media just how powerful he was. The head was split in two and connected in the middle by a car spring, so when Lewis applied his headlock he would recoil the spring to create a face with the prop. It was no gimmick and there were no hidden tricks and Ed would allow anyone — athletes, police officers, military men, bar bouncers, media members, etc. — to give closing the wooden head a try. None succeeded . . . ever . . . until one man came along decades later. More on that in a bit.

Bronko Nagurski, an inaugural member of the NFL Hall of Fame and the most dominant player in the NFL in the early days of the league, was also known as a legit, tough athlete who was a pro wrestling champion. He even took a year off the NFL in his prime to wrestle fulltime because Nagurski could make more money wrestling than playing pro football. Nagurski was so athletically talented that he made All NFL as both a running back and a defensive tackle and had the rep for enjoying physical confrontations. Bronko was a naturally strong beast of a man who was rarely challenged in a street fight or in the ring because of his size and natural strength. He wore a size 18 ring and his powerful hands were like bear traps.

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