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The best Pro Wrestler?
by Adam Knight on 2003-03-10

NOTE to READERS: This is an essay I wrote back at the end of 2001 for School. Some of the dates, numbers and facts (such as Benoit's promo ability) may have changed since then, so please take that into consideration when reading. Thank you. A.K. (February 27, 2003)

In a real sport it would be relatively easy to determine who was the "best of all time." The most logical way would probably be to look at the statistics; who scored the most points, who led their team to the most championships and who played in the most games. That seems pretty reasonable, doesn't it? Michael Jordan is considered to be the greatest basketball player of all time, and he's scored thousands of points, led the Chicago Bulls to six National Basketball Association (NBA) titles and has played in hundreds of games. Wayne Gretzky is considered to be the greatest hockey player of all time, he's broken every scoring record in the National Hockey League (NHL), won five Stanley Cups, and has also played in a great number of games.

Now I know that the stats don't tell the whole story. Arguments can be made that both Gretzky and Jordan were great for their time, but not necessarily better than players of previous eras. Julias Irving was an incredible basketball player in his day and there are hundreds of sports fans that would give anything to watch Dr. J. and Air Jordan play a game of one-on-one when both athletes were in their prime. The same could be said for a chance to watch the Great Gretzky face off against a 25 year-old Gordie Howe or Rocket Richard.

As I said, arguments can be made. But, when all is said and done, the mathematically inclined sports fan will always have the statistics to fall back on. They will always be able to point and say "this athlete is the best because he or she scored the most points, won the most titles and played in this many games."

Sounds pretty simple, right?

Now what about professional wrestling? Who is the best professional wrestler of all time and how do you rate it?

This is the sort of question that most sports journalists will scoff at. How can anyone be judged the best pro wrestler when it's "fake?" You can't go by the number of victories or by the number of titles a wrestler has held when the winner of a match is predetermined before both combatants step into the ring. I guess you could go by the number of matches that a certain wrestler has had, but with all of these guys in their 50's (and in several rare cases, their 60's) continuing to put on their tights, stumbling through a match and winning ... the whole idea just seems to lose credibility somehow.

So how do you do it then? If the stats are irrelevant because of the lack of any real competition, what sort of guidelines do you set to determine the level of greatness in the world of "sports entertainment?"

Well, the first thing that I did was to break down professional wrestling's current euphemism into it's two basic components.

"Sports" indicates to me that there obviously has to be a certain amount of athleticism involved. Which seems to be true, most of the wrestlers that you can see on television appear to be in excellent physical condition. Whether they are sculpted like body-builders or leaping and running around like something out of a Bruce Lee movie, there is no denying that professional wrestlers are athletes.

When I think about the word "entertainment," several defining words spring immediately to my mind; performance, popularity, showmanship and charisma. Performance and showmanship seem to go together because these would be the tools that entertainers would use to interact with their audience. Likewise, charisma and popularity seem to be made for each other. Think about it. In just about every walk of life, the person who ends being the most popular with the general public is often very well spoken, comfortable in front of crowds and is full of passion for whatever it is that he or she does well.

All of this sounds fairly reasonable, so let's give this ranking system a shot.

When wrestling enthusiasts get together and talk about the greatest wrestler of all time, there are two modern names that get brought up more often than most. Ric Flair and Chris Benoit. Now, just to say we did it, let's start with the statistics on both of these men and see if we can come up with any similarities.

"The Nature Boy" Ric Flair (born, Richard Morgan Fleihr) began his career in 1973 and continued to wrestle a busy schedule for the next 28 years. He has wrestled on every continent in the world and against every major wrestling star of his day. He won his first major championship when he beat Dusty Rhodes for the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) World Title in 1981. Flair went on to win the top prize in the other major wrestling promotions of his day, World Championship Wrestling (WCW) and the World Wrestling Federation (WWF). By the end of his career, Flair had become the "heavyweight champion of the world" a record shattering 17 times.

"The Canadian Crippler" Chris Benoit (born, Christopher Benoit) began his career in 1985 and continued to wrestle until the summer of 2001 when he was sidelined with a serious neck injury. Currently, Benoit is undergoing post-surgery rehabilitation and is hoping to return to action in early 2002. Like Flair, Benoit has traveled extensively to all four corners of the world and has had great success everywhere that he has been. He has held titles in Japan, Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW), WCW and the WWF. But these were mostly secondary titles that do not carry the same prestige in the eyes of wrestling fans. Chris Benoit's only world title victory was in early 2000 when he beat "Psycho" Sid Vicious for the WCW Heavyweight Title.

So what do these basic stats mean? Well, in the eyes of the fan who still thinks that pro wrestling is a true sport, these stats mean everything. Even the more savvy fans have to admit that these statistics carry some weight. After all, a promotion isn't going to give the most prestigious title in their company to somebody who isn't going to be able to entertain the fans. This is the same reason why you will never see Pee Wee Herman starring in an action movie. There just isn't a single executive producer or director in the world that thinks that the general public is going to pay good money to see it.

Now Chris Benoit is unquestionably an athlete. "I like to work out at least five days a week with a lot of weight training and cardio," Benoit says while also recommending the virtues of "350 grams of protein a day and as few carbohydrates and starch as possible." The results are obvious; Benoit's compact and chiseled physique is one of the most envied in the entire world of wrestling. At five-foot, ten inches and approximately 210 pounds, Chris Benoit is able to throw around wrestlers that are twice his size while still able to move as quickly as the ones that are smaller than him.

Ric Flair was also a very athletic man, despite what you might have seen at first glance. In the prime of his life, Flair stood six-foot-one and weighed in at approximately 240 pounds. He had the muscle tone of a man who worked out regularly but not obsessively and was certainly not the fastest guy around. The one thing that Flair did have going for him however, was his endurance. Flair used to refer to himself as a "60 minute man", implying that he could wrestle for over hour on any given night. Wrestling columnist, Bruce Mitchell says it best:

"Ric Flair set a standard for great work that no one in this business will ever equal. Three hundred nights a year, all over the world, in every city and burg and hamlet that claimed a wrestling fan. In stadiums and coliseums and civic centers and high school gyms and television studios, Ric Flair put on a four-star or better match (often going a minimum of 30 minutes per match) with every major name wrestler of the era."

Let's move on to performance and showmanship. In the case of professional wrestling, I think that it's fairly safe to say that the main goal of the sports entertainer is to somehow convince the fans in attendance that he or she is really trying to hurt the other wrestler enough to gain a victory by either pinfall or submission.

Chris Benoit is a master at this. Benoit's wrestling technique is very hard-hitting and psychological. Every time he throws a punch or a kick, the fans can see him make contact with his opponent. Now I'm certain that Benoit isn't really using his full strength when he throws these blows, but you wouldn't know it to watch it. Most notable among Benoit's offense are his open-handed slaps to an opponent's chest (also known as "reverse knife edges", or more commonly as "chops"). When Benoit chops his opponent, no one doubts that he is using his full strength. The sound of Benoit's hand chopping his opponent resembles that of a gunshot as it echoes and fills the ears of the people in attendance. These chops will very quickly leave welts, that the people can see, and will often not go away for days.

Benoit is considered a "technical wrestler," which is how television announcers refer to a sports entertainer that "weakens" (or works on) a part of his or her opponent's anatomy before applying a painful hold to gain a victory by submission. Benoit applies his submission hold by scissoring one of his opponent's arms between his legs when they are both face down on the mat, and then by locking both of his hands across his opponent's face. Once the opponent's arm and face are secure, Benoit then heaves back until his opponent's body is stretched at 45-degree angle away from the mat. The "Crippler Crossface" as it is known, is an exceptionally painful move, both in appearance and actuality, that the fans are familiar with and believe.

Ric Flair was also considered a technical wrestler. Although instead of working on the neck and shoulder area like Benoit does, Flair spent a lot of time working on his opponent's leg and knee. Whether he was wrapping that leg around a ringpost, or striking it with a combination of kicks, punches and elbows, Ric Flair was setting up his opponent for his dreaded "figure-four leglock."

The problem is that Flair's hold wasn't that dreaded. For the majority of his career, Flair was considered to be a villain in the eyes of the audience. The number of times that Flair actually beat somebody with the figure-four leglock is surprisingly small. This sadly lessened the credibility of the hold in the eyes of the fans as they watched wrestler after wrestler break free of Flair's "big move."

However, Flair was famous for his chops. Many a wrestler will tell stories of how many welts Ric Flair left on his opponent's chest after a match.

The core of Flair's believability laid in his ability to take a beating. As stated before, Flair was not a bodybuilder or even a very intimidating man in appearance. Therefore it only made sense when men twice Flair's size threw him around like a rag doll. Match after match Flair would take falls in the ring, outside of the ring, over the top rope, and off the top rope. He would be punched, kicked, clotheslined, drop-kicked, bodyslammed, suplexed, and every time Flair was hit he looked like he was getting absolutely killed. Flair would barely get in any offense on his opponent before finding a way to illegally win the match and retain whichever title he was holding at the time on a technicality.

This leads us right into charisma and popularity. You'd think that after watching Flair get beaten senseless every night, and still walk away with his title, the fans would start to lose interest in the show. Wasn't it always the same? Not when Flair did interviews (or promos) to build up interest in his matches it wasn't.

Ric Flair is one of those rare people who can convey a level of emotion and intensity when he speaks that most politicians would kill for. When Flair talks about anything, you believe him. His tempo will change from deliberate and condescending one minute to rapid and breathless the next. Flair's promos are the stuff of legend, according to current wrestler, Lance Storm:

"Flair's promo to open the show gave me goose bumps as I listened to it. When Ric has a promo that he can really sink his teeth into and get motionally involved in, he is, quite simply untouchable."

This will forever be Chris Benoit's Achilles' Heel. While no wresting enthusiast can, or ever will, question Benoit's physical gifts or his ability to make a crowd believe that what they are seeing is real, his ability to inspire a crowd with the power of his voice is lacking.

Perhaps it has to do with the five years that Benoit spent wrestling in Japan, where the audience is more appreciative of a wrestler's physical ability. Perhaps it's just simply that he gets nervous speaking in front of people. Whatever the reason, it is this lack of charisma that has made Benoit one of the world's most respected wrestlers in the eyes of the fans as well as his peers, but not the greatest.

In order for any wrestling promotion to truly place the responsibility of drawing money and inspiring the fans to watch their product, the promotion needs to find someone who has enough of the necessary physical tools, enough of the performance and showmanship ability to make the people believe what they are seeing, and enough charisma to make the people want to continue watching after the match is over.

Ric Flair was able to do this for 28 years, and that is why he is considered to be the greatest wrestler of all time.


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