Who are the toughest wrestlers of all time?

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.

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.

Steve “Dr. Death” Williams, who we signed with WWE late in his pro career, is generally regarded as one of the most feared men ever in the business. Doc was a legit, four-time NCAA All American heavyweight wrestler and played in four bowl games as a dominating offensive lineman for the OU Sooners. Plus, Doc embraced physical confrontation . . . in other words Doc liked to fight. Highly trained, massively strong, naturally nasty 300 pounders in amazing physical condition were considered bad medicine by all that wanted to test them.

In my career, I’ve never been around anyone that was any tougher than Dr. Death. It’s true that Doc once had to have 108 stitches in his eye thanks to a shot by Brad Armstrong on Mid South Wrestling television in Shreveport, La., but Doc never missed a booking and was wrestling in Biloxi, Mississippi the next night — 108 stitches and all. Watts embraced Doc, Jim Duggan, The Steiners and several other Mid South wrestlers who Watts knew could handle themselves in the Wild West atmosphere of Mid South. 

Tough wrestlers have never been uncommon. Competing and performing through injuries, enduring crazy travel schedules and wrestling with no offseason  just lends itself for one to have to be tough to make it long term and with success in sports-entertainment.

Mostly sizzle and not enough steak is a good combination for one to be future endeavored.  

Yes, men like Haku, The Iron Sheik, BlackJack Mulligan, Dr. Death, Brock Lesnar, Kurt Angle, Road Warrior Hawk and Undertaker always come up in conversation when toughness is discussed within the business. This is a partial list of men who have distinguished themselves as “tough guys” and by no means is the definitive collection of individuals who have earned the rep as bad apples.

However, let’s not discount immensely talented men like Triple H, Edge, Arn Anderson, Steve Austin, Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Mick Foley and a litany of others who have overcome serious injuries only to rehab like demons to be able to return to the ring and to continue to perform at an amazingly high level.

That may be the ultimate definition of toughness inside the squared circle — having the will to overcome a serious injury to return to elite status as a main eventer.

The legendary Dan Hodge is a great example of all that we’ve covered here. Hodge was an undefeated, three-time NCAA National Wrestling Champion in the ’50s back when freshmen were ineligible to compete. Hodge represented the USA at two Olympic games and never lost a college match nor did he give up a single point to an opponent his senior year. After his amateur wrestling career ended, Hodge decided to take up boxing and with a few months Dan won the United States Golden Gloves Heavyweight boxing championship without any significant formal training. Hodge almost went to his third Olympic Games in 1960 as the USA’s light heavyweight boxing representative. The heavyweight that year was a guy named Cassius Clay AKA Muhammad Ali. However, Dan turned pro in the world of sports-entertainment.

I have never laid eyes on any sports entertainer that could handle Danny Hodge in Dan’s prime. None. There have been better entertainers, better talkers, guys who sold more tickets and PPVs, but no one on a physical or mentally tough level ever compared to Hodge. In a legit fight, Hodge ruled his domain.

What separates the toughest men in the business from others? A skill set that’s debilitating along with physical and mental toughness have to be on a rather short list. 

One story illustrates that point. Dan Hodge fell asleep driving his car on a road trip late one night in Louisiana and crashed his car. Dan broke his neck and was in the car when it submerged into a river. Through his physical and mental toughness, Hodge used his fist to break out the driver’s side window, used his other hand to hold his broken neck in place, exited the car and swam to the surface of the river and then walked up an embankment to wave down a passing trucker to give Dan assistance.

The will to survive and the competitive nature to be the absolute best are two of the qualities that every “tough guy” that I’ve ever known possesses. It’s either in one’s DNA or it isn’t.

By the way, Dan Hodge is the only other man to be able to close the wooden head and create a face on Ed “Strangler” Lewis’ car spring-loaded publicity prop. That wooden head now resides in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Okla.

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