Who are the toughest wrestlers of all time?

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April 10, 2012

Jack Brisco is one of wrestling's toughest men.

In the 1930s, Louis Thesz burst upon the scene out of St. Louis. Thesz had learned the fine art of “hooking” — a form of submission wrestling that exploits the joints of an opponent. Thesz was 6’3”, cat quick and a lean, 235 muscular pounds when that size combination was not of the norm. Because Lou elevated hooking to an art form, he was rarely challenged and when he was, as legend has it, Thesz was never defeated in a legit fight. Thesz combined long established European techniques with American ingenuity to refine submission wrestling that would work on any adversary no matter their background or strength. Amateur wrestlers knew mat wrestling but few could approach Thesz’ skill set as a submission wrestler who also possessed extraordinary mat wrestling skills. When broadcasters speak of technique and leverage, Lou Thesz is a wrestler who oftentimes comes to mind for many of us “old timers.” 

Top amateurs, especially beginning in the late ’40s and throughout the ’50s, were generally considered at the top of the food chain when it came to being “shooters” or “pistols” as many old timers called the toughest men in wrestling. WWE Hall of Famer Verne Gagne was one of the best as his outstanding amateur wrestling and football career at the University of Minnesota gave Gagne an athletic foundation that was hard to beat. Plus, Gagne was obsessively competitive.

The definition of a tough guy could be that rare combination of a man who had a high-level amateur background, world-class strength, actually enjoyed fighting and had a mean streak with a little bully sprinkled in for good measure. That was a recipe for dominance.

My first boss, Cowboy Bill Watts, fit that description to a T. Coming out of Oklahoma University wrestling and football programs and into the wrestling game in the early ’60s, Watts could bench press approximately 500 pounds, was known to be a dirty fighter and was an athletic 6’3” 300 pounds when that size combination was unheard of.

When Watts promoted Mid South Wrestling and then the UWF, if any of his wrestlers were heard to have lost a bar fight to a civilian then the wrestler would be released ASAP.

Men like Dick Hutton, Pat O’Connor, The Funks, The Brisco Brothers, among SO many others, were also at the head of the class when it came to being men that their peers did not want to unfairly cross in the course of a business day.

Bruno Sammartino had no true amateur background, but Bruno’s unearthly strength and his mental and physical toughness made him a man that few wanted to cross.

Bob Backlund was always regarded as one of the best conditioned, best skilled amateurs in the sports-entertainment world, but the longtime WWE Champion was also one of the game’s strongest men.

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