The 10 best wrestlers you've never heard of
Used to be enough to know that Del Wilkes was the guy under The Patriot mask to best your buddies at wrestling trivia. Nowadays, with internet back alleys playing home to all manners of ring obscura, you look like a fool if you can’t name drop self-styled Nigerian saxophonist/demigod “The Great” Power Uti or acromegalic 1940s sideshow attraction The French Angel.
And that’s a good thing. Professional wrestling truly is one of the world’s richest subcultures — a distinction which has populated it with one-of-a-kind personalities, while, at the same time, making it difficult for all of those one-of-a-kind personalities to stand out. We wanted to give the limelight to a few talented performers who don’t always get the credit they deserve, so we went to locker room experts like Jerry “The King” Lawler and William Regal to learn about the ring’s unsung heroes.
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Ed “The Bull” Gantner
“I don’t think there’s anyone that’s had more promise walking in the door than ‘Big’ Ed Gantner,” Paul Heyman said of the onetime University of Central Florida football standout who competed for Championship Wrestling from Florida in the mid-1980s.
“He was 6-foot-4, 275 pounds, with the right look, an extraordinary personality and boatloads of charisma,” Heyman explained. “[He] had every asset and gift to become a WrestleMania main eventer.”
Gantner never did make it out of Florida. After rapidly improving alongside contemporaries like Barry Windham, he became the NWA Florida Heavyweight Champion in February 1987, but was forced to retire from the ring just five months later due to serious health issues. “The Bull” passed away in 1991 at the age of 31, leaving CWF fans — and Paul Heyman — to wonder what could have been. — RYAN MURPHY
At 5-foot-9 and 225 pounds, the stocky Brit Les Thornton looked more like George Costanza than Bad News Barrett, but this Manchester, England, native was one of the most revered grapplers through the ’70s and ’80s.
“He did all this cool British mat wrestling, but within an American context,” Daniel Bryan explained. “That stocky build lends an air of credibility to somebody.”
Early in Thornton’s career, he won the top championship of Canada’s legendary Stampede Wrestling by defeating WWE Hall of Famer Abdullah the Butcher, and claimed titles across the world while cultivating a reputation as one of the best. He wrestled Ricky Steamboat, Giant Baba and Nick Bockwinkel in Japan, and tangled with England’s elite on the storied “World of Sport” program.
His reputation finally brought Thornton to WWE during the height of Hulkamania, where he teamed with Mick Foley in his first-ever WWE match against The British Bulldogs. No matter the continent, the best always wanted to face Thornton.
“When I watched wrestling,” Bryan recalled, “I was like, ‘This guy really knows what he’s doing.’” — ZACH LINDER
Back in the all-or-nothing days of territory wrestling, every promotion had their own local stud, and in Memphis that man was Austin Idol.
“Here was a guy who called himself the ‘Universal Heartthrob,’” longtime Idol rival Jerry “The King” Lawler told WWE.com. “Very good looking guy, really great physique and he did probably just as good a promo as anybody I’ve ever seen in this business. There have been a lot of guys that you see come down the pike who people in WWE know very well who patterned their interview style on Austin Idol. He was very, very good.”
By all accounts, Idol was — to steal a baseball metric — a five-tool player, so why isn’t he a WWE Hall of Famer today?
“Austin was severely injured in a plane crash that another wrestler died in,” Lawler said. “After that, understandably, he had a fear of flying. So he wouldn’t venture out; he just stayed in the Mid-South area and wrestled there. He could have been a Superstar in WWE, but he just wouldn’t fly." — RYAN MURPHY
There’s a fascinating subculture of British wrestling that’s lost on most American fans, which is understandable, because A) their showcase on the Saturday afternoon “World of Sport” television program aired exclusively in the United Kingdom from 1965 through 1985, and B) few of the wrestlers (with notable exceptions like Fit Finlay, The Dynamite Kid and William Regal) ever competed outside of England. But in the YouTube age, there’s no excuse for not discovering oddball characters like Big Daddy and Kendo Nagasaki, as well as gifted technicians like Tony St. Clair and Johnny Saint — a gentleman of the highest order who brought a bit of refinement to the ugly world of mat wrestling.
“I love Johnny Saint,” Daniel Bryan told WWE.com. “He’s so smooth at technical wrestling, he’s unreal. He does stuff that was light-years ahead of its time, and he’s one of my favorite wrestlers to watch still.”
That’s right, still. Although he formally retired in the late ’90s, Saint was making sporadic appearances on the independent scene as recently as 2009 — when he was 69 years old! If Saint does eventually step out of the ring for good, his influence will live on through contemporaries like Finlay and Regal as well as admirers like Bryan.
Said Bryan: “There’s a lot of Johnny Saint in what I do.” — RYAN MURPHY
Pepper might not sound like the handle of a particularly tough hombre, but few men possessed the Naugahyde resilience of 1960s San Francisco standout Pepper Gomez. The winner of a Mr. California bodybuilding title prior to becoming a wrestler, Gomez flaunted swollen biceps and mountain range pecs long before muscles were ring regulation, but it was an indestructible midsection that made the man a folk hero.
“He was known as ‘The Man with the Cast Iron Stomach,’” Gomez contemporary and WWE Hall of Famer Pat Patterson told WWE.com. “He would have some wrestler go up on a ladder and jump on his stomach with both feet and get up like nothing happened!”
Gomez’s belly was so unbreakable, he was able to lie on the ground and let a Volkswagen roll across his abdomen with no effect. Still, don’t mistake Pepper for a carnival act. He was bangarang in the ring, and his rivalry with California baddie Ray Stevens (more on him later) drew turn-away crowds to the San Francisco Cow Palace that hadn’t been seen before (or since). — RYAN MURPHY
Barrel-chested and with muscles bulging out of his neck as if ready to break loose, “Lumberjack” Jos LeDuc was what Paul Bunyan might look like had he spent his youth scrapping in barrooms instead of raising a blue ox. Seemingly powerful enough to uproot spruce trees by hand, LeDuc gained attention in the ’80s with Mark Henry-esque feats of strength, like wedging himself between a brick wall and a car and using his leg strength to keep the revved-up vehicle at bay.
"We didn’t have any of this elaborate ways of staging anything back then,” Memphis-area rival Jerry “The King” Lawler recalled. “He just told us he could do it, and we took his word for it.”
The crazed-eyed Quebecois scarred memories with his in-ring feats, too, like pressing The King overhead and launching him from the ring onto a table many feet away. Then there were the interviews, which bordered on insanity. Chief among them: vowing to finish off Lawler by taking a “blood oath” on live TV.
“He said, ‘I’m gonna take an oat,’” Lawler explained, impersonating LeDuc’s French-Canadian accent. “‘When we take an oat in lumberjack camps, we put a scar on our body, so every day that we see that scar it reminds us of what the oat was that we took.’ So he takes out this big lumberjack axe and he rolls his sleeve up and just starts sawing his arm and then all of a sudden the blood starts running down. It’s just gashing, a big cut right on his arm, right there on camera! He did some terrific interviews and was just a great character.” — JOHN CLAPP
In a family that boasts both a WWE Hall of Famer in “Bullet” Bob Armstrong and a major star of the Attitude Era in Road Dogg, the best of the bunch might have been the tremendously skilled and versatile Brad Armstrong.
“He had an arm drag better than Ricky Steamboat and he was absolutely phenomenal in every match,” Cody Rhodes told WWE.com. “Technically, he was at the top in the Armstrong family, and he was one of my favorites growing up.”
Although he never broke into the main event, Armstrong was a champion in every company he competed in, most notably becoming Smoky Mountain Wrestling’s Heavyweight Champion on two occasions. His biggest exposure came in WCW in the ’90s, although he was difficult to recognize under the masks of bizarre personas like Arachniman and Badstreet. Armstrong’s ability, however, could never stay hidden.
“[Brad was] one of the more talented in-ring performers I’ve ever worked with,” Jim Ross has said. “One of the most underrated, all-time greats ever in the business.” — ZACH LINDER
“Fabulous” Jackie Fargo is the rare talent whose unique approach to the mat game had an influence on everyone from Ric Flair to New Jack.
“I idolized him when I was just a kid going to matches in Memphis,” Jerry “The King” Lawler told WWE.com about the man who would become his mentor. “He was a tough, brawling guy, but he had a ton of charisma. He just had it all.”
A tag team whiz alongside a rotating cast of brothers, “The Fabulous One” was both a peroxide-headed narcissist and a devil-may-care street fighter. He invented the “Fargo Strut” — an obnoxious, hunched over chicken walk that future stars like Jeff Jarrett and Chris Candido later nicked — while bringing freewheeling, out-of-the-ring mayhem to Memphis wrestling, which later spawned the hardcore boom of the mid-90s. Still, Fargo rarely gets due credit for either of these innovations.
“This was before cable TV or anything like that, so he never got that nationwide exposure,” Lawler said. “But, you know, in our area, he was as big a star as anyone we ever had there.” — RYAN MURPHY
Mark "Rollerball" Rocco
“The two people that really should get more credit than anybody in the world would be ‘Rollerball’ Mark Rocco and my trainer, Marty Jones. They revolutionized the wrestling industry as far as what is considered the cruiserweight style today. And I’m talking about the Eddie Guerrero cruiserweight style — the hard-hitting, highflying, aggressive stuff that is continued today with the likes of Fergal Devitt.
“They started that style together wrestling each other in England in the mid-’70s. They’d both been to Japan, both been to Mexico, so they took a lot of flying moves, but made it very aggressive, very physical and it completely changed the style.
“Dynamite Kid, who at the time was a young boy, had more of a traditional British style. He started doing their style. He took it to Calgary. Satoru Sayama, who was the original Tiger Mask, was in England at the time wrestling as Sammy Lee. He had his own style, but he took their aggressive style back to Japan. Black Tiger was his original arch nemesis, which was ‘Rollerball’ Mark Rocco.
“That’s where that style comes from. And I don’t even think the people who do that style realize where it came from, but you can go and watch it on YouTube and you’ll see them doing stuff in the ’70s that holds up today. The progression of their matches up until about 1980 on TV in England on ‘World of Sport’ just blew people away. You can see the audience — a lot of old ladies with not a clue what was going on — because they weren’t used to seeing this incredibly physical, hard-hitting style.”— WILLIAM REGAL, as told to RYAN MURPHY
*The above clip features Mark "Rollerball" Rocco competing as Black Tiger against The Cobra for the vacant WWE Junior Heavyweight Title in Madison Square Garden on Dec. 28, 1984
With a paunchy belly and a mop of hair that left you wondering about the last time he’d seen a barber, Ray Stevens certainly didn’t look like one of the most dangerous men to ever step between the ropes. But during the 1960s and ’70s, few were more lethal.
“He was a natural in the ring,” Pat Patterson said of his former Blond Bombers tag team partner. “He went out there, gave you action and was very vicious.”
Stevens’ unrelenting fighting style and devastating “Bombs Away” top-rope knee drop earned him the deserved nickname of “The Crippler.” As San Francisco’s biggest villain, he even defeated Bruno Sammartino when the reigning WWE Champion came to town in 1967.
Later joining Patterson in WWE, Stevens was involved in an infamous, gory incident that saw him piledrive Jimmy Snuka twice on the concrete floor, leaving “Superfly” in a messy heap at ringside. The man was a terror, but, behind the scenes, few were more respected.
“He was a great performer,” Patterson said. “And a great guy.” — ZACH LINDER