The 20 most dangerous Superstars ever
Let’s get one thing straight — every man and woman who ever made a name for themselves in sports-entertainment has been tough. Wimps don’t fight for a living. But the appeal of getting paid to hurt people has always attracted a particularly sadistic bunch of individuals to the ring, whether they were champion amateur wrestlers, football stars with bad attitudes or roughneck barroom gladiators. ( PHOTOS)
The question of who would be left standing in a no holds barred brawl has always been bandied about by sports-entertainment fans, including us here at WWEClassics.com. Luckily, we have the phone numbers of WWE Hall of Famers Gerald Brisco and Jim Ross — two experts on all things tough — who we called up to discuss the dangerous shooters and street fighters that have always inhabited locker rooms.
Using the valuable insight of those famed Okies and more than a little bit of wrestling lore, WWEClassics.com put together this rogues’ gallery of 20 dudes you would not want to cross. That is unless you enjoy the feeling of your tendons snapping.
"Mad Dog" Vachon
Maurice Vachon grew up the son of a cop in a working-class section of Montreal in the 1920s and ’30s, and learned how to fight at a young age. At 12 years old, he was pinning much larger peers at the local YMCA and six years later earned a spot on the Canadian team for the 1948 Olympic Games in London. There, he pinned the Indian champion in just 58 seconds.
Despite being only 5-foot-7, the five-time AWA Champion was an early practitioner of the hardcore style with the bite of a much larger competitor.
“A lot of people would want to test him in the bar because of his size,” Michael “P.S.”Hayes once said. “Big mistake.”
Fellow Montreal native Pat Patterson, who often tangled with Mad Dog between the ropes, agreed.
“I’ve been in the business 50 years, I’ve seen ’em all and I’ve never seen a guy tougher than Mad Dog Vachon,” the WWE Hall of Famer said. “In the ring and outside the ring. I saw Mad Dog in action and he was vicious.” — ZACH LINDER
"Cowboy" Bill Watts
Bill Watts had the pedigree to be successful in professional wrestling. Standing 6-foot-3 and weighing close to 300 pounds, with a background in amateur wrestling and college football, Watts certainly knew he could take care of business in the ring.
“He had natural ability and confidence,” Jim Ross said of Watts. “But he had a real nasty attitude.”
It was that attitude that made Watts feared in both the squared circle and the barroom. If anyone had the gall to question Watts’ work in the ring, they quickly got a lesson in why the Cowboy was the best wrestler in the Mid-South region.
“He was involved in a lot of street fights,” Ross said. “But he had the athletic skills to back it up.”
Watts knew he was tough, and expected the same from his wrestlers. Even after he retired from full-time active competition, the WWE Hall of Famer would still get in the ring and train potential grapplers his way.
“He would assert his will on these guys to find out how badly they really wanted to be a wrestler,” Ross said of Watts’ extremely rough training sessions. “To describe it, it would be easy to say it wasn’t pretty.” — BOBBY MELOK
Steve Blackman looked fairly unassuming. But when he was put in a situation where he had to defend himself, there was no one more dangerous.
“That’s why we gave him the nickname ‘Lethal Weapon,’ ” Jim Ross revealed. “Because he could kick you and hurt you, strike you with his fists, elbows and headbutts.”
After coming back from the brink of death due to malaria, Blackman entered WWE at a time when mixed martial arts was on the fringes of sports. Top fighters like Ken Shamrock and Dan Severn were jumping into the squared circle, but Blackman’s proficiency in Shotokan karate, jiu-jitsu and various other martial arts helped him last longer in WWE than any other MMA competitor.
That training also allowed the former powerlifting champion keep a calm demeanor in the face of some of his flashier competition, like Shane McMahon, as well as other tough guys who thought the quiet fighter wasn’t so tough.
“A lot of guys from those MMA disciplines learn self control and not to impose their will until they’re forced to,” Ross explained. “They’re not taught to be bullies. Steve was never a bully.” — B.M.
Amateur wrestling is unique among sports. The intensity it requires, along with the fact that it’s an individual effort, can affect people. It’s hard to shake off the aggression and go back to everyday life. It was that mindset that gave the sports-entertainment world Scott Steiner.
“When you have a world-class athlete like Scott and they get engaged in a sport that is as grueling and physically demanding as wrestling as a child, you become a different man,” Jim Ross told WWEClassics.com. “If you’re successful, by the time you go to college, you’re a different dude than the other guys graduating high school.”
That aggressive attitude made Scott Steiner a successful wrestler at the University of Michigan. It also made him successful in the ring. He was a multiple-time tag team champion in WCW and WWE, as well as WCW World Champion. But his temper made him someone not to be messed with.
“He had that aura of competitiveness and not a lot of patience,” Ross said. “He had a short fuse and didn’t mind saying what was on his mind, because a.) he believed it to be true and b.) what are you going to do about it?” — B.M.
Although the views and opinions of Jack Swagger’s manager Zeb Colter are controversial, there is no dispute that the “Real American” is one of the one the most dangerous Superstars in WWE history. His experience as an amateur wrestler is merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of what the former World Heavyweight Champion is capable of. A two-sport athlete at the University of Oklahoma, Swagger set the record for the most pins in a season and became an All-American in 2006.
“He doesn’t have to go out and prove to anybody how tough he is, because it’s obvious just in the way he carries himself,” Gerald Brisco said of the Superstar he scouted. “You’re not going to find any guy that’s going to want to challenge him.”
Less than five years into his ring career, the “Real American” has already captured the World Heavyweight Championship and the ECW Championship. He also earned a World Title opportunity at WrestleMania 29 by winning the 2013 Elimination Chamber Match. Any Superstar standing in Swagger’s way is in a bad spot.
“I don’t think there’s anybody that has the ability, the speed and the size to compete with him,” Brisco admitted. — KEVIN POWERS
You have to be a tough guy to pull off some of the things Rick Rude did. How many men could airbrush the face of another man’s wife on their tights and still live to tell the tale? Only “The Ravishing One.”
“Some guys just have a mean streak,” Jim Ross said of the former Intercontinental Champion. “He was born tough. I think that Rick Rude truly enjoyed having a skirmish.”
Rude had plenty of brawls under his belt before even stepping in the ring. A successful arm wrestler, “Ravishing” Rick also worked as a bouncer in Minnesota. Any guy with enough liquor in him to even think about stepping up to Rude quickly learned a lesson.
“Rude’s knocked dozens of guys out with the palm of his hand,” Ross said. “He was not going to get himself in any situations he couldn’t handle. He would not be intimidated; he had no fear.”
That kind of attitude made Rude perfect for the callous world of pro wrestling.
“He liked to be challenged and liked to prove that he was a better man than whoever was standing across from him,” Ross said. — B.M.
The Iron Sheik
Today, the iconic Iron Sheik is best remembered for losing the WWE Championship to Hulk Hogan in 1984. But long before his run-in with The Hulkster, the WWE Hall of Famer kept opponents humble with his astounding mat skills and serious strength. The Tehran, Iran, native built a reputation as an excellent amateur wrestler and soldier in the Iranian army, which led to being employed as a bodyguard for the wife of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, familiar to some fans from his depiction in the movie “Argo.”
The man who would one day dethrone Bob Backlund earned a spot on the Iranian Greco Roman team for the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City and later served as an assistant coach on two U.S. Olympic squads. After the Sheik went pro, Bruno Sammartino recounted a story where the powerful Iranian came to his aid by manhandling six football players at once. Another legend tells of the Sheik daring a Marine to punch him in the face, shaking off the blow and beating the daylights out of him.
“When you start training to be a wrestler when you’re a child, it becomes a part of your life,” Jim Ross said. “[The Iron Sheik] was a prodigy. He could handle himself with anybody.” — Z.L.
Don’t let his boyish looks and big grin fool you. Bob Backlund hurt people. Just ask the litany of WWE Hall of Famers that have been physically dissected by the former WWE Champion. A two-time All-American wrestler in college, Backlund won the Division II NCAA Championship at North Dakota State University in 1971 before becoming a WWE fan favorite.
The Minnesota native’s excellent conditioning regimen — including a 500 pound bench press — made him perhaps the strongest man, pound-for-pound, in the wrestling business. His freakish “tendon strength” allowed Backlund to lift large men like Hulk Hogan and Sgt. Slaughter off the canvas with just one arm and induce severe pain with the paralyzing Crossface Chicken Wing. According to locker room lore, he even manhandled the ferocious Buzz Sawyer in an untelevised grappling contest.
When the submission specialist returned to WWE in the ’90s as a bow-tie-wearing madman, it wasn’t just his persona that terrified opponents. It was also the knowledge that, even in his 40s, he could still tear opponents apart. And when Backlund recently visited the WWE.com offices and demanded we sit up straight, you can be sure we listened. — Z.L.
"Dr. Death" Steve Williams
Jim Ross described his late friend Steve Williams as a “wonderful soul and a good guy.” But if you got on “Dr. Death’s” bad side, your night might not have ended so wonderfully.
“He didn’t go in looking for trouble,” Ross said. “But he didn’t tolerate those that were asking for it.”
Although “Dr. Death” was built like a tank at 6-foot-1, 295 pounds, he was agile and could grapple with the best of them. He was a four-time All-American wrestler at the University of Oklahoma, in addition to lettering four years on the school’s revered football team.
“He wasn’t an untrained street fighter,” Ross said. “He was a machine.”
That work ethic made him successful wherever he went in wrestling, from WCW to WWE to Japan. But Williams’ grit was best exemplified in a gruesome story Ross relayed to WWEClassics.com.
“I saw him get 108 stitches in his eye, wrestling Brad Armstrong in Shreveport [La.], and he never missed a booking,” Ross recalled. “He got the stitches, got in the car and drove to Biloxi [Miss.]. He wrestled the next night with his eye swelled shut and the stitches in it. His toughness was scary.” — B.M.
Ed "Strangler" Lewis
Ed Lewis may not look like much by today’s standards, but in the 1920s there was no grappler more dangerous than “The Strangler.”
“This guy was considered one of the meanest, toughest guys they ever stuck you in the ring with,” Gerald Brisco told WWEClassics.com
Reputed to have a grip like a crescent wrench, Lewis took a basic headlock and turned it into the most treacherous move in pro wrestling with his steely strength. The former World Champion mentored the great Lou Thesz, who spent the rest of his life claiming he never met a wrestler as capable or as powerful as the man who taught him the submission secrets of the mat game.
“I had the pleasure of meeting Ed in a retirement home in Oklahoma about two years before he died,” Brisco said. “Even at that time, he shook my hand and tears came to my eyes. And I think he did it on purpose.” — RYAN MURPHY
“He’s the yardstick,” Jim Ross said with regards to The Deadman’s toughness. “The Undertaker has worked through so many injuries that would put a normal human being in a hospital, a nursing home or on the couch. I’ve never seen anybody more physically and mentally tough than him.”
As revered as anybody ever to step foot inside the locker room, The Undertaker didn’t demand respect. He earned it.
“The Undertaker is 6-foot-10, 300 pounds, and the things that he did in the ring are things that guys his size should not be able to do,” Ross declared. “He broke the mold of what a super heavyweight and what a big man did in the ring. Without question, The Undertaker is the greatest big man in the history of wrestling.”
But Ross didn’t stop there.
“There is no greater WWE star ever than The Undertaker,” the WWE Hall of Famer announced. “It’s not just the 20-0 at WrestleMania. It’s things the common fan never sees and never knows. It makes you think sometimes that he’s not even human. His commitment is non-paralleled. There’s nobody close.” — Z.L.
The raspy voice, forearm tattoos and nasty attitude of Harley Race weren’t an act. The former NWA World Champion made even the most hardened competitor think twice about getting in the ring with him.
“In many of the old timers’ eyes,” Jim Ross said, “Harley Race is the toughest to ever wrestle.”
Race got his start in the ring as a teenager, traveling from town to town with carnivals, taking on whatever local farmers thought they were tough enough to defeat him and earn a cash prize.
“Harley learned the hard way,” Ross explained. “He was doing it for his livelihood by the time he got his driver’s license. If he wasn’t successful, sooner than later, he’d have no job.”
The Kansas City, Mo., native thrived in the carnival setting and transitioned to the professional ranks, quickly becoming an intimidating grappler and World Champion.
“He was left-handed, which caught a lot of guys off-guard,” Ross said. “He had a high threshold for pain and no fear.”
Race’s pain tolerance was out of this world. He reacted to incidents that would leave most people holed up in a hospital bed for weeks as if he had just stubbed his toe.
“He survived death several times from boating accidents and car accidents,” Ross noted. “Harley always withstood serious injury and would come back.” — B.M.
“There are shooters and there are hookers,” Gerald Brisco said of the two distinct types of wrestlers. “A shooter is a college wrestler who can put holds on you and outwrestle you. A hooker is a guy that knows all the pressure holds and all the ways to break your arm or your leg or your shoulder.”
Lou Thesz was a hooker. Trained in amateur wrestling by his father on the kitchen floor of their small St. Louis home, Thesz later learned the brutal art of hooking from Ed “Strangler” Lewis. A ghastly subset of submission wrestling that centered on how to maim an opponent, hooking could only be passed along by the small fraternity of dangerous men who knew its secrets.
Thesz never abused this power — he was considered a class act and a great ambassador for sports-entertainment — but his status as NWA Champion made him the target of every hotshot grappler around the globe. But anyone dim enough to attempt to make their name at Thesz’s expense would quickly pay the price.
“If you got a little smart with Lou, he would hook one of those holds on you and start putting the pressure on,” Brisco said. “He was a very tough guy, a highly respected guy in this business.” — R.M.
One of the original standouts of the UFC, Dan “The Beast” Severn was an integral part of the mixed martial arts boom in the United States. However, “The Beast” was also a dangerous and physical force in the squared circle, competing in Japan, NWA and WWE. In 1995, Severn captured the NWA Championship while he was the reigning UFC Superfight Champion, becoming the first and only man to hold a mixed martial arts and professional wrestling title simultaneously.
During an NWA invasion of WWE in 1998, the accomplished grappler set his sights on his former MMA rival Ken Shamrock. That same year, “The Beast” entered the Brawl for All tournament and defeated The Godfather in the first round. In a rare show of mercy, though, Severn withdrew from the tournament claiming he had nothing to prove. Severn also made it to the semifinals of the 1998 King of the Ring Tournament, only to be eliminated by The Rock. Following his tenure in WWE, Severn returned to MMA, where he’s entered the cage more than 100 times. — K.P.
“Jack never went out and tried to prove how tough he was — unless he was challenged,” Gerald Brisco said of his legendary brother. “And that didn’t happen too often.”
The first Native American to win an NCAA wrestling title, Jack Brisco came of age in the hardship town of Blackwell, Okla., where his Choctaw/Chickasaw heritage made him a target of local bullies.
“Jack took his Native American heritage very seriously and didn’t like it,” his brother said of the harassment. “There were a few fights, but he always came out on top. They knew right off the bat that this guy was no one to mess with.”
By the time he won the NWA World Heavyweight Champion in July 1973, “Handsome Jack” was respected as both a gentleman and a serious grappler by his peers. Those reckless enough to test his reputation quickly learned their lesson.
“Ole Anderson always pictured himself as a tough guy but he really wasn’t,” Brisco remembered of the gruff competitor who was one of the original Four Horsemen. “One time, they had a match and he thought he’d get a little smart with Jack and challenge his strength. Jack made mincemeat out of him. The rumor was Ole came back to the locker room and said, ‘How can a guy with skinny arms like that be so darn tough?’ ” — R.M.
“All the stories about Haku are true,” Gerald Brisco said of the most ferocious — and widely mythologized — street fighter in the history of professional wrestling.
At 275 pounds, the feared Superstar from the Isle of Tonga wasn’t the biggest guy in the locker room, but Haku was able to work himself into an uncontrollable frenzy before going into battle in the same way Nordic Berserkers did centuries ago.
“With a guy like that, it’s more mental than it is physical,” Brisco said. “I think Haku just had that mental edge over everyone else, because he just did not care.”
According to urban legends, the former sumo wrestler could dismantle waves of attackers like a scene out of a Jason Statham movie — a rumor he proved to be true one infamous night in East St. Louis.
“Over in a bar on the bad side of town, a bunch of guys wanted to see how tough they were and it was the biggest mistake they ever made,” Brisco revealed. “He bit one guy’s nose off and one’s ear off and knocked the other one out. Two of them took off running and they found them a couple of days later.” — R.M.
By the time Ken Shamrock arrived in WWE in 1997, he was already one of the most feared men in the history of combat sports. Growing up with no father and a poor mother, the Macon, Ga., native lived through a stabbing and a stint in juvie while most kids were home watching cartoons. Eventually, Ken found stability in a group home run by Bob Shamrock, who encouraged the intense troublemaker to channel his energy through athletics.
At 19, Shamrock knocked out an opponent 60 pounds heavier with only one punch in his first Toughman competition. In 1993, Shamrock became one of the UFC’s first big stars and developed an intense rivalry with seminal fighter Royce Gracie. In one legendary bout, Shamrock pounded on his opponent’s ribs and face for more than a half hour. Later that year, he choked out Dan Severn to become UFC Champion.
When WWE needed an enforcer for “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and Bret Hart’s big WrestleMania 13 showdown, they turned to the individual who ABC News dubbed “The World’s Most Dangerous Man.” For the following two years, Shamrock brought his unpredictable style to the squared circle, where he single-handedly popularized the use of the paralyzing ankle lock. — Z.L.
Kurt Angle’s tenacity has been apparent since the 1996 Olympics when he won a gold medal in wrestling with — as he often reminded WWE fans — “a broken freaking neck!” But Angle’s accomplishments extended far beyond the shiny metal he wore around his neck.
“He not only won the Olympic championship, but he also won a World Championship,” Gerald Brisco said. “In some cases, that’s a little more difficult, because of the scoring and the judging.”
There had been plenty of amateur champions in WWE before Angle’s 1999 arrival, but none on the level of the Pittsburgh native. That doesn’t mean the intense Superstar was handed any of the WWE Titles, King of the Ring crowns or WrestleMania main events that followed — he had to fight for every last one.
“I don’t think anybody walks into a locker room and gets respect,” Brisco said. “I think it’s something you walk into that locker room and earn. And Kurt Angle earned it.”
When Angle wasn’t tearing apart serious competitors like “Stone Cold” Steve Austin or The Rock, he was fighting back from unspeakable injuries. Rumors that he faced Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania XIX with a broken neck only added to his reputation.
“He wasn’t the biggest guy in our genre, but he was definitely one of the toughest guys that ever walked into a squared circle,” Brisco said. “I’d rank Kurt Angle right up there on top of anyone’s list.” — R.M.
“If Danny Hodge had come along in the days of mixed martial arts, he’d be a legend,” Gerald Brisco said of the only man to win both an NCAA Championship in wrestling and a Golden Gloves title in boxing.
An icon to a generation of Oklahomans, Hodge was never taken down by an opponent during his amateur wrestling career at the University of Oklahoma. When the limber Midwesterner turned his attention to the pro ranks in the 1960s, he became a top junior heavyweight as his impossible tendon strength inspired terror in his opponents.
“I wrestled Danny Hodge countless time and he tortured me every time,” Brisco revealed. “He’d grab your ankle and you’d have bruises.”
Reputed to have been born with double tendons in his arms, the two-time Olympian could crush pliers and bend steel bolt tires with his bare hands. But the most enduring story of Hodge’s toughness happened on March 15, 1976, when he fell asleep at the wheel and drove his car off a bridge and into a creek. The brutal crash broke the grappler’s neck, but that didn’t stop him from busting through the car window, swimming to shore and flagging down help all while holding his head in place. — R.M.
Brock Lesnar’s output in the gym has been spoken about with slack-jawed awe, but his isn’t a body that was built in a Crunch Fitness. He became a powerful man by heaving bales of hay on a Minnesota farm and a monster on the wrestling mat at the University of Minnesota.
“You could see fear in people’s eyes when Brock stepped on the mat,” Gerald Brisco said of the only man to win the WWE Championship, NCAA Championship and UFC Championship.
Debuting in WWE in March 2002 looking more like a lab experiment gone wrong than a typical Superstar, the 6-foot-3, 295-pound Lesnar won the WWE Title, King of the Ring Tournament and Royal Rumble Match all before a calendar year had gone by. But it was the way The Next Big Thing prevailed that meant more than any of his accolades. He heaved Big Show through the air as if the giant was a cruiserweight and deposited Bob Holly on his head like he was dropping a bag of groceries.
By the time Lesnar started busting the orbital bones of mixed martial arts’ top fighters, it had become clear that the world hadn’t seen men like this since the days of gladiators. That he fought again after nearly dying from an intestinal disease is amazing in its own right. That he came back to hospitalize Triple H, Shawn Michaels and Mr. McMahon is downright staggering. — R.M.