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Underrated: Superstars without their due
One month ago, we were alerted to this tweet by our extreme colleague, @ JoeyStyles:
WWE Classics does not take these sort of loaded queries lightly, and pondered the possible options in a roundtable discussion that included several editors and our own resident WWE Hall of Famer, Howard Finkel. We also went to perhaps the best people to answer this question -- people who know the canvas better than any -- current WWE Superstars.
Click through to see who your favorite Superstars believe is the most underrated performer in the history of sports-entertainment. We'll respond with our thoughts regarding whether they actually are underrated. Plus, Finkel weighs in with his selection, and we respond with our pick of perhaps the most quinessentially underrated grappler in the history of our industry.
Sound off on Twitter with who YOU think has flown under the radar by using this hashtag: #WWEUnderrated.
Billy Gunn, chosen by Dolph Ziggler
ZIGGLER: "One of the ones that I was a huge fan of growing up, and still am a big fan of, is Billy Gunn from The New Age Outlaws. He's very athletic, he looks like a million bucks, he's like 6'5'' or 6'6'', stronger and more athletic than almost everybody else. He was just fun to watch no matter what he was doing. Week in and week out, he was always almost near the top, but he never quite got to the top. He even won King of the Ring, and it seemed like he was going places. He just never got to the full-time main event status that I thought he would, but man, that guy was a hell of a competitor. Looked great, made others look great, and looked like he gave it all every single time he went out there, which I'm a huge fan of."
WWE CLASSICS: During his more than 10-year WWE career, Billy Gunn was one half of three highly successful tag teams, but hardly remembered for his extraordinary singles talents. As alluded to by Ziggler, Gunn won the King of the Ring tournament in 1999 at the height of WWE's popularity, and went on to face off with The Rock at SummerSlam. Afterward, he formed a unique partnership with Chuck Palumbo, but mostly faded into obscurity. There is no doubt that Gunn's talent translated into longevity and championship success, and while his tag teams are looked back on fondly, Gunn himself is an underrated performer. Ziggler, who clearly shares many attributes with his selection, must strive to achieve what Gunn never did: win the WWE Championship.
Billy Robinson, chosen by Daniel Bryan
BRYAN: "My favorite guy to watch who you don't hear a lot about, who to me is a legend, is Billy Robinson. In Japan, he was considered a legend, and he trained a lot of the original shoot fighters, but his pro wrestling was amazing. He was probably one of the most technically gifted guys you'll ever see. As far as doing cool, legitimate stuff on the mat, there's nobody better."
WWE CLASSICS: Few members of the WWE Universe have heard of Billy Robinson, let alone know his credentials. His only notable appearances in North America came in the AWA, where he was the British Empire Heavyweight Champion. He also defeated former WWE Superstar Dino Bravo, and battled then-WWE Champion Bob Backlund in a 60-minute matchup. Although he never won an AWA Championship, Robinson had classic rivalries with WWE Hall of Famers Verne Gagne and Nick Bockwinkel, and had a notable bout with Antonio Inoki, another WWE Hall of Famer. There is no question Billy Robinson is supremely underrated.
Johnny Ace (John Laurinaitis), chosen by Eve
EVE: "You know, hands down, I would have to say John Laurinaitis. He was huge in Japan. He was so innovative, he was so athletic, and now we see him as General Manager of both Raw and SmackDown and EVP of Talent Relations, but he is an animal. He is incredible in the ring, and he's somebody that should definitely not be underestimated."
WWE CLASSICS: Eve might be speaking with a clear bias, but she has a point. Although Johnny's WCW tag team, The Dynamic Dudes, is mostly considered a punchline at this point, there is no doubting the success of Laurinaitis in Japan. Those knowledgeable about Japanese professional wrestling are well aware of his partnership with Kenta Kobashi, but are also a very niche fanbase in the States. While Laurinaitis competed against many of WCW's biggest names, he never crossed over to the premier of sports-entertainment, WWE, like many of his peers did. Although Johnny is credited with being the proprietor of the innovative "Ace Crusher" maneuver, Superstars that followed in WCW and WWE perfected it to win World Championships. Based on that, and being embarrassed by John Cena in his heralded return to the ring at WWE Over the Limit, we feel the General Manager of both Raw and SmackDown is a highly skilled executive, but ultimately not underrated.
X-Pac, chosen by Alex Riley
RILEY: "I always thought X-Pac deserved a little bit more than what he got. X-Pac always stuck out in my mind as a fantastic entertainer. I loved when he was part of D-Generation X, what he brought to that group. His athletic ability. When you saw him come through the curtain, it was like, 'Man, that guy is a professional wrestler. He's living every moment.' He was really 100 percent committed to that persona and being who he was. I can attest to that, because you meet him, and that's really who he is. I always thought in the ring he was extremely talented. Just a very, very entertaining guy."
WWE CLASSICS: Sean Waltman certainly made a splash upon returning to WWE in 1998 after a previous stint as The 1-2-3 Kid. Although X-Pac picked up several championships — including a memorable rivalry over the European Championship with Shane McMahon and a popular World Tag Team Championship reign with Kane — the WWE Universe turned their backs on the resilient DX member late in his tenure. Nevertheless, Waltman was one of the most engaging performers in the height of WWE's most successful era, and his departure from WWE has likely resulted in true underrated status.
Tito Santana, chosen by Ezekiel Jackson
JACKSON: "I remember the reaction I felt when Tito Santana came out as the torero with the bullfighting outfit. You know, 'Ole!' I remember how excited I got when I saw that, but today you don't hear much about him. You don't hear that he was an Intercontinental Champion, that he was a World Tag Team Champion. He was one of those dudes I liked. He was in the first match at WrestleMania. I just remember him being somebody that I liked, and today doesn't get that respect or recognition that I think he deserves."
WWE CLASSICS: There is no question that "El Matador" Tito Santana was one of WWE's most exceptional performers for nearly 15 years. His first taste of success came when he won the World Tag Team Championship along with Ivan Putski by defeating WWE Hall of Famers The Valiant Brothers. Santana had memorable Intercontinental Championship wins over two more WWE Hall of Famers, Don Muraco and Greg Valentine, becoming the first Mexican American to win the prestigious title. Although he lost it in a fierce bout with "Macho Man" Randy Savage at the Boston Garden, he found tremendous popularity as a member of Strike Force with Rick Martel, including besting The Hart Foundation for the World Tag Team Championship. Following his split with Martel, Santana became King of the Ring in 1989 by defeating his former parter, and was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2005. Due to this litany of accolades, and his extreme popularity at the height of his career, Santana must be considered not underrated.
Billy Kidman, chosen by Kofi Kingston
KINGSTON: "I think Billy Kidman was extremely underrated. When you think about Billy Kidman you think Shooting Star Press, but if you go back and watch his matches, he has really good matches with a whole lot of people. He's a lot more than just a guy who can do cool things. He can work, he can be technical, he's crisp, he's intense. He can be a good guy, he can be a bad guy, he can really do it all. I don't think a lot of people realize that because when you think Billy Kidman, you think, 'Oh, high flyer. Shooting Star Press.' And he's a lot more than that."
WWE CLASSICS: It's hard to argue the selection of Billy Kidman. A seven-time Cruiserweight Champion, two-time WCW Tag Team Champion with partners Rey Mysterio and Konnan and a WWE Tag Team Champion alongside Paul London, Kidman was about more than just high-risk. Although his most memorable contests were against fellow cruiserweights, he also engaged in a notable rivalry against The Immortal Hulk Hogan during the final months of WCW. Following his in-ring career, Kidman became a trainer for the future of sports-entertainment, teaching young Superstars like Wade Barrett the sound fundamentals they need to succeed in WWE. And oh yeah, that Shooting Star Press was awesome. Billy Kidman is underrated.
Johnny Rodz, chosen by Matt Striker
STRIKER: "Underrated is a great word. It's something that I enjoy because I've often been called underrated. But for me, being a historian, I've always liked the guys who do what they were supposed to do without a lot of fanfare. Names such as Buzz Sawyer, Barry Horowitz, Kevin Sullivan, Eddie Gilbert and, of course, the guy who trained me, Johnny Rodz. For every John Cena, for every Randy Orton, for every Kane, there has to be someone to get beaten up. There has to be someone to lose so that you can root for John Cena. So without the Johnny Rodzes, and the Rene Goulets and the Pete Dohertys of the world, without these names, there wouldn't be the Ric Flairs, and the Hulk Hogans, and the John Cenas. What I'm trying to say is that for Babe Ruth to hit all those home runs, someone had to throw the ball, and it was guys like Buzz Sawyer, Johnny Rodz ... and Matt Striker, who threw that ball."
WWE CLASSICS: Last month, WWE Classics looked back at some of sports-entertainment's greatest journeymen ( FULL STORY), and discussed featuring Johnny Rodz in the piece. Ultimately, we felt Rodz's 1996 induction into the WWE Hall of Fame disqualified him as being an "unsung hero." Johnny certainly deserves his due, having helped catapult the careers of many top WWE stars as an in-ring performer, and is credited for training ECW Originals including The Dudley Boys, Tommy Dreamer and Tazz. He continues to operate a school in the DUMBO neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., giving youngsters the sound fundamentals needed for a bright career. But with no significant title reigns to his name, and a WWE Hall of Fame induction for a career spent mostly looking at the lights, Johnny Rodz might be respected, but is not underrated.
Bam Bam Bigelow, by Howard Finkel
During WWE Classics' roundtable discussion of underrated performers, we conferred with our frequent WWE Hall of Famer collaborator, Howard Finkel. The Fink has seen it all in the world of sports-entertainment. Here's how he weighed in on behalf of the WWE Classics team.
He was the exact antithesis of the phraseology that “good things come in small packages." And Bam Bam Bigelow definitely made his mark in WWE rings with a persona and style that in our estimation makes him the most underrated performer in WWE history.
When you got your first glimpse of the Asbury Park, N.J. native, the first thing that stood out was his unique look: an outfit that depicted flames, and a flame tattoo that adorned his head. His size and more than 350-pound body made you wonder if his looks alone were going to get him to where he wanted to be. Well looks were definitely deceiving in this case. From bell to bell, Bigelow showed amazing agility for a man of his size and stature, and he won the plaudits from both his fellow brethren and the WWE Universe. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment was his appearance in one of the main events at WrestleMania XI in 1995, as he faced New York Giants legend and Pro Football Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor.
Bam Bam Bigelow was always on his game inside the squared circle, and certainly proved his mettle night after night as a performer who gave the word underrated new meaning!
Dean Malenko, chosen by WWE Classics
Dean Malenko is so universally considered to be underrated that he teeters on the realm of overrated.
The reasons why so many ring fans believe the stoic Malenko flies under the radar are numerous. As his Iceman moniker suggests, the understated second-generation grappler brought a quiet, unflinching intensity to his craft that was lost on the casual viewer. His ring gear was dully pragmatic. Forget kaleidoscopic tassels around the biceps – Malenko opted for plain white athletic tape around the wrists.
A perennial threat and titleholder in WCW’s Cruiserweight division and WWE’s Light Heavyweight Championship scene, the 5'10" Malenko never bowled anyone over with colorful interviews, nor did he pander to audiences, nor did he stand above the competition in any literal sense. But what he did do better than just about anybody else was wrestling.
Nicknames like "The Man of 1,000 Holds" were justifiably bestowed upon Malenko because his knowledge of the sport was so vast. He dissected limbs with the persistence of an Anderson and glided in and out of holds with regal finesse. Although Malenko was never a main event stalwart, his matches frequently stole the show. During WCW’s late-'90s peak, the cruiserweight division – anchored by Malenko – kept fans on the edge of their seats.
Dean Malenko was never credited with popping a buy rate or moving merchandise, but he was known for forcing opponents to raise their game. Even if fans didn’t think much of Malenko when he stalked his way to the ring, by the time the closing bell rang, they knew they had witnessed a specialist at work. — JOHN CLAPP