I thought a lot about pro wrestling tough guys while writing my new book Shooters: The Toughest Men in Professional Wrestling. More than is healthy. More than is normal.
It's a fascinating subject, one even today clouded in mystery. What's real and what's illusory? It's a question that always has to be asked when you consider wrestling's past.
One thing we know for certain: Wrestling is a very real and very dangerous fighting art. The advent of mixed martial arts has shown the world how effective a combination of amateur wrestling and submission can be, that grapplers, and not boxers, were the toughest men on the planet.
That was shocking to sports fans in the early 1990s but would have been old news to fans in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They had seen the power of "catch as catch can wrestling" with their own eyes. Some had even tested the world's top wrestlers as they jumped from town to town with a circus or other traveling show.
Matches with the audience members were quite common—and wrestlers who lost to a local tough guy didn't stay employed very long. Those who rose to the top of the industry were the real deal. While matches may have been predetermined (and there are accusations of fixed matches that go back to the dawn of the sport), the competitors were far from fake.
Slowly, over time, that changed. Wrestling matches became more and more bombastic. Soon they failed to resemble actual wrestling at all. Most of the competitors were no longer amateur wrestlers, instead coming from football and bodybuilding circles.
Wrestlers, however—real wrestlers—never completely faded away. Since William Muldoon helped popularize wrestling as a professional sport through Brock Lesnar's reign as UFC champion, you could always make the argument that a pro wrestler was the toughest man in the world. While others foolishly claimed boxing's heavyweight champ was the baddest man on the planet, those in the know were aware that wasn't true—has never been true.
For a glorious century, longer even, pro wrestling was the king of sport. Lesnar's fall from the top of the UFC has ended that streak. MMA has supplanted wrestling as the sport of choice for enterprising tough guys. But for years, wrestling reigned supreme. The ring was where the baddest of the bad went to work—and the following 20 greats were the toughest of them all.
MMA fighters who were not originally pro wrestlers were not considered. Only pro wrestlers who made the transition to fighting are eligible for this list.
An NCAA champion in 1965, Brisco was one of wrestling's biggest stars in the 1970s. Although pro wrestling was long past the point anyone would claim it was real competition with a straight face, Brisco worked for Florida promoter Eddie Graham for years—his mettle was tested under fire.
Graham was famous for inviting loudmouths and critics who claimed the sport was fake to come to the gym and confront his wrestlers. Once there, Brisco or other tough guys like Hiro Matsuda and Bob Roop would teach the unfortunate interloper a hard lesson about what wrestling was all about.
Strengths: Top amateur wrestling star. Brisco also learned some of the tricks of the trade from savvy shooters (wrestlers who know crippling submissions as well as amateur techniques) and wasn't afraid to use them.
Weaknesses: On the small side, having wrestled at 191 pounds. Brisco specialized in amateur wrestling and never formally studied submission wrestling or any other grappling arts. He would have easily handled almost anyone off the street—but in competition with another top grappler, like Billy Robinson, Brisco was out of his element.
Wrestling history is filled with swaggering, hard-nosed tough guys, good old boys who could clear out a bar just by looking cross-eyed at folk. Every decade featured some legendary brawlers of this sort, men who were undeniably rugged and strong but lacked the legitimate credentials to make a list like this.
There is, however, one man whose legendary exploits demand he take his place among the immortals. Meng (aka Haku, aka Tonga Fifita) once bit a man's nose off in a fight for having the temerity to suggest wrestling wasn't real.
Keep in mind this was during the midst of Hulkamania, and you'll understand why that level of dedication needed to be rewarded.
Strengths: Strong as an ox. Unafraid to sink to any low, including nose-biting and eye-gouging. Possibly impervious to pain.
Weaknesses: No grappling or wrestling background. Although a scary individual on the street, within the rules imposed by the civilized world was beatable by a skilled opponent.
At the University of Oklahoma, wrestling was an afterthought for Steve Williams. His first priority was football. Only after the season was over did he join the wrestling team. Despite this obvious disadvantage, "Dr. Death" was an NCAA All-American every year, beating the likes of Dan Severn and once finishing second in the nation.
Strengths: One of the most physically imposing wrestlers of all time, Williams could manhandle even the biggest men. Combined with his amateur prowess, "Doc" was more than almost anyone could handle.
Weaknesses: No submission training to speak of. Williams is most similar to Brock Lesnar, only without the years of grappling training Brock underwent to earn his UFC title. He would destroy most tough guys, but a wily submission specialist would likely prove his undoing.
In judo circles they say, "No one before Kimura, no one after." Not only is he arguably the greatest competition judoka of all time, but Kimura was also a trailblazing pro wrestler and holds a submission victory over the legendary Helio Gracie.
Kimura's skill was so respected in Brazil that Gracie's disciples, to this day, refer to the ude-garami armlock he used to beat Helio as the "Kimura."
Strengths: Undeniable skill, both standing and on the mat. Gracie fought many capable opponents, including the catch wrestler Wladek Zbyszko. Only Kimura was able to beat him at his own game.
Weaknesses: Kimura didn't perform as well in full no-holds-barred matches, indicating he may have been vulnerable to striking technique. He was also beaten up by pro wrestler Rikidozan, although that bout may have been an elaborate work, again showing he could be beaten by a poweful striker.
Thesz was once NWA World Champion for 1,941 consecutive days, traveling around the world to do battle with the best regional champions and top challengers. By the 1950s, when Thesz ruled the roost, wrestling was no longer anything that even resembled sport, so Thesz's legitimate credentials are entirely unproven.
We do know this: The conglomerate of promoters who made up the National Wrestling Alliance trusted that Thesz, if push came to shove, could fend off anyone who challenged him in the ring. Wrestling wasn't quite as wild and wooly as it had been in the 1920s, but that ability still meant something and says plenty about Thesz's standing as a tough guy.
Strengths: Trained by George Tragos and Ad Santel, Thesz knew the art of hooking. He could make a tough amateur cry uncle using holds and techniques that, if applied right and without mercy, could and would break bones.
Weaknesses: Thesz started in the wrestling business young. He was traveling regularly throughout his career and never had the chance to truly master the art of wrestling. Insiders, speaking off the record, indicate he was competent on the mat but not a true artist.
Angle's wrestling credentials speak for themselves. Although he turned it into a gimmick, worshiping his own success for comedic effect, an Olympic gold medal was, indeed, a very impressive feat.
Of course, Angle's legend is built almost as much on how he earned his Olympic medal as his mere possession. Angle courageously (some might say foolishly) competed despite a seriously injured neck. They don't come much tougher than Kurt Angle.
It's true. It's d*mn true.
Strengths: Unparalleled skill on the wrestling mat. Angle was able to take down fellow NCAA champion Brock Lesnar when the two went at it behind the scenes when both were with WWE. That's pretty impressive.
Weaknesses: Angle doesn't have an intricate knowledge of submission technique. He was once embarrassed on WWE TV by rookie Daniel Puder, who caught him in a Kimura. Although Angle was a physical mess at the time, battling countless injuries, he didn't seem to recognize the hold and may have been at risk against other submission aces on this list.
To Kendall Shields and I, writing in The MMA Encyclopedia, Tamura is nothing less than the greatest shoot style wrestler of all time:
His bouts with Volk Han and Tsuyoshi Kohsaka set a new standard of excellence and he walked closer to the line between real and fake than any man before or since.
With his good looks, perhaps amplified by his trademark skin-tight banana hammock red Speedos, Tamura was a favorite of female fans. He was perfect as a supporting player, the man who came on just before the main event. In the UWFI, he set the stage for Nobuhiko Takada on top. When the UWFI folded, he moved to RINGS to fill the same role for Akira Maeda.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Tamura did well when shoot style wrestling died and he was forced to try his hand at legitimate fighting. Tamura holds wins over Jeremy Horn, Renzo Gracie and former UFC champion Pat Miletich.
Strengths: Legitimacy put to the test in real matches, both in Pride and RINGS. While Tamura was never one of the top 10 fighters in the world, he was a solid competitor who never once embarrassed the sport.
Weaknesses: Tamura simply wasn't one of the best of his era. Against the toughest men in the world, like Wanderlei Silva, he came up short. He also struggled with the oversized giant Bob Sapp, making success against some of the others on this list unlikely.
LeBell has competition credentials (AAU Judo Championships), credible coaches (“Strangler” Lewis, Hayward Nishioka, Bruce Lee) and success in a real organized fight against boxer Milo Savage.
No one can be as tough as LeBell was rumored to be. Many of the rumors were likely started by the colorful LeBell himself; he's all bluster and a great storyteller. But there is plenty of substance to go along with that sizzle.
Strengths: Amateur judo credentials establish his legitimacy, and he was also schooled in catch wrestling and boxing.
Weaknesses: Struggled with Savage, a much smaller boxer. That doesn't bode well for matchups with bigger and highly skilled grapplers.
Billy Robinson was the British wrestling champion in 1957, but as he'll tell you, he was still just wet behind the ears when he was mopping up many of Europe's best to finish out the 1950s. He still had a lot to learn, both from the master of the Wigan Snake Pit Billy Riley and training partners like Billy Joyce and Karl Gotch.
Robinson went on to fame and fortune in Vern Gagne's AWA, becoming a star in America. But he never forgot his catch wrestling roots and wasn't afraid to stretch a wrestler or three to show the boys in the back what he was all about.
Strengths: Solid amateur background combined with top-of-the-line catch as catch can submission holds. Robinson learned from England's best and then passed on his knowledge to future stars like Kazushi Sakuraba.
Weaknesses: Rumored to have lost a street fight to The Rock's grandfather Peter Maivia, leading to speculation that his mat mastery only went so far. While he undoubtedly had a mastery of the submission arts, Robinson came up during a time he wasn't able to test himself in true competition.
The Pancrase founder was not just a great submission wrestler—just like Martin “Farmer” Burns, he was willing to show opponents his tricks, training many of the promotion's stars before facing them on the mat.
As a technician, Funaki was as good a grappler as anyone in the world during his prime. Others in the promotion during his glory days insist Funaki only lost matches when it made business sense to do so. He was good enough to decide on his own what the outcome of a bout would be—then make it so.
Strengths: Funaki was a master of catch wrestling submissions. Combined with solid standup, Funaki was one of early MMA's most accomplished and dangerous fighters.
Weaknesses: Funaki wasn't an accomplished amateur and would have to spend much of his time against the top wrestlers of any era in a defensive posture.
The "Strangler" was one of wrestling's biggest stars, ruling the sport in the 1920s and 1930s as a box office attraction and favorite of sports reporters nationwide. In his book Legends of Pro Wrestling, historian Tim Hornbaker explained that Lewis was a legitimate celebrity:
Although Lewis wasn't the only superstar of his era, he received the best press, and his story has been told and retold so many times, some of it has become myth. Lewis was, without question, the truest of wrestling legends—a one-of-a-kind force that shaped the industry for decades.
Lewis helped usher in a faster-paced and more theatrical style of wrestling. But when push came to shove, he was a highly skilled legitimate grappler, capable of holding his own against the top shooters of his era.
Strengths: A fireplug of a man, Lewis was a remarkable defensive wrestler. He was able to compete for hours and avoid pinfall and submissions from even the best opponent.
Weaknesses: Lewis was a great wrestler, but most contemporaries and historians agree that others were his match in a straight contest. By the end of his career, he was also nearly blind, putting him at a severe disadvantage when things got physical.
Like Danny Hodge, Jenkins was a tough wrestler and also a competent boxer. For Jenkins, that was a particularly risky proposition. He only had one eye, so a boxing mishap could have been disastrous.
His physical limitations led Tom to stick with wrestling. There, Jenkins relied on brute strength and a willingness to do whatever it took to win—even if that meant he was violating more than one rule.
Strengths: Jenkins had an iron grip from his years working in a factory and used it to brutalize and control opponents. He wasn't afraid to bend rules to the breaking point and beyond, often utilizing dirty tactics like eye gouges or even punches and kicks to win a match.
Weaknesses: Jenkins was not known for his scientific technique. A more skilled grappler could get the better of him.
Like Billy Robinson, Gotch, despite an appearance in the 1948 Olympic Games, had only just begun his wrestling education. The amateur game was like high school—his true matriculation, his finishing school, was at Billy Riley's Snake Pit in Wigan, England.
It was there Gotch learned the ins and outs of catch as catch can wrestling. Wrestling Perspective filled in the details of Gotch's early career after his death in 2007:
The rules for the Snake Pit were simple: no children, no women, and Billy was always right. Riley had an excellent staff of teachers, headed by the Robinson brothers, Joe and Bob. Joe wrestled under the name “Billy Joyce” and was known as a feared shootfighter. It was Joe who took a shine to the young Gotch and taught him the ins and outs of Lancaster-style wrestling. (While training at Riley’s gym, Gotch lived above a launderette in Wigan.) Gotch worked various cards in Liverpool and Manchester under his real name while picking up his education, and, when finally deemed ready to fledge in 1955, he was christened Karl Krauser and sent to work tournaments and carnivals in France, Belgium and Germany.
Gotch eventually found his way to America, where, despite his legitimate skills, he found scant success. Still a master of his craft, Gotch was revered in Japan, where he taught a new generation of wrestlers including Yoshiaki Fujiwara and Pancrase founders Minoru Suzuki and Masakatsu Funaki.
Strengths: Stellar wrestling craft, toughness and submission prowess. Gotch could also dictate the flow and position of a bout thanks to his strong amateur background.
Weaknesses: Gotch has all the tools to beat even the toughest fighters. Unfortunately, he competed in an era after shooting matches were common and before the advent of MMA, so we can only guess how he would have done against top competition.
When Pancrase introduced legitimate professional wrestling to the Japanese masses, Shamrock emerged as the best grappler of the bunch. He was able to shrug off the takedowns of an amateur great like Dan Severn and finished matches with a variety of hooks.
Shamrock was an early star in both Pancrase and the UFC. But after a stint in the WWE, where he battered his body and fought the pain of his chosen profession with drugs, Shamrock was never again the same fighter.
Strengths: Shamrock was a solid wrestler who had a strong background in the submission holds and hooks of catch as catch can wrestling. Although he developed a rudimentary striking game, Shamrock's bread and butter were his submissions, especially devastating leg locks.
Weaknesses: Shamrock didn't perform well from the bottom position, a place he would likely find himself against a top-flight wrestler.
Stecher and Ed Lewis were the top wrestling stars of the 1920s. The two competed both on the mat and behind the scenes, each looking to secure control of the sport and the coveted world championship.
Stecher was willing to meet Lewis in the ring. Lewis declined. That tells you what you need to know about how the two men perceived their places in the pecking order.
Strengths: Stecher was a phenomenal wrestler, good enough to beat the ringers and con men of the traveling wrestling circuit at their own game. His legendary body scissors not only crushed opponents' ribs, it took the fight and desire right out of them.
Weaknesses: Stecher was of slight build and likely would have struggled with the larger men who followed him into the sport. He also suffered from mental illness, and nerves may have gotten the best of him in a serious fight.
An NCAA champion, Lesnar trained with catch wrestling expert Erik Paulsen to add submissions to his arsenal. In a grappling match, the former UFC champion’s combination of skill and brawn would be quite formidable.
Lesnar, however, struggled after battling diverticulitis and was never the same. Now back in the WWE, Lesnar and his fans will always wonder just how good he might have become if illness hadn't sidelined a prosperous and promising MMA career.
Strengths: A monstrous man who weighed in at close to 300 pounds during his WWE days, Lesnar also possesses incredible speed and quickness. More than a brute, Lesnar also has the scientific wrestling skill to control and dominate all but the best opponents.
Weaknesses: Lesnar doesn't like getting hit. While that might not matter much in a grappling match, in a full-on brawl, it might be the difference between walking out of the bar or getting carried out.
Although some question the legitimacy of many of his matches, there is no doubt Gotch knew his wrestling. Barnstorming around the country, he never met his match. That wouldn’t have been possible without some very legitimate wrestling chops.
According to Tim Hornbaker, Gotch was wrestling's first superstar:
He was the face of wrestling as it evolved into a more socially acceptable form of entertainment, and was an invincible force of nature who dominated the profession. His unrelenting style of catch-as-catch-can wrestling inspired audiences from coast to coast, and there was no one, either home-grown or from an international location, who could beat him.
Gotch was also well known in his era for his sadism. He knew a number of crippling holds and wasn't afraid of using them. The toe-hold was his favorite, and he used it in his most famous match, a win over European champion Georg Hackenschmidt.
Strengths: Big for his era at more than 200 pounds, Gotch also had catlike quickness and reflexes. More than an athlete, Gotch was a master technician and strategist who knew all the tricks to make any man cry uncle.
Weaknesses: Gotch dabbled in boxing and once took a bad beating from a seasoned pro. No one in his time could match him on the mat, but his prowess in a no-holds-barred fight is an open question.
By all accounts Ed “Strangler” Lewis was one tough hombre. He could more than hold his own on the mat. But against a trustbuster, a wrestler who wasn't willing to lie down on command and went off script to call out the champion, even Lewis had to be careful.
To prevent loudmouthed challengers from ruining a champion like Lewis' reputation, promoters employed "policemen," tough guys who would make a wannabe champion regret ever making an impromptu challenge.
These were the men promoters chose to watch their champions' backs. The best of them all was Pesek. The "Nebraska Tiger Man" could wrestle, he could rip joints and he could fight.
Strengths: Pesek was more than a skilled wrestler. He was also the meanest man in a sport filled with mean men. He didn't always look to win matches. Sometimes his goal was to hurt opponents at a promoter's command. And when he wanted to hurt a man, things often got very ugly.
Weaknesses: Pesek was a small man. Although scrappy, he might have struggled against a modern behemoth.
This genius grappler proved his mettle in real competition. Sakuraba routinely dispatched fighters 20 or 30 pounds heavier than him, primarily relying on the principles of catch wrestling.
Sakuraba had a very short prime before injuries overtook him. He's most famous for a series of bouts with the legendary Gracie family in which he, at least momentarily, helped place catch wrestling atop any list of the most effective and functional grappling arts known to mankind.
Strengths: Sakuraba's submission game was grounded in his excellent amateur wrestling. Sakuraba knew all the holds and the proper techniques but was also a genius on the mat, often displaying a rare creativity that made him stand out even compared to the best fighters of all time.
Weaknesses: Sakuraba didn't fare well against bigger, stronger, aggressive strikers like Wanderlei Silva.
Combine the best amateur wrestler in American history with a professional-level boxer, and you have the makings of a very dangerous man. That man's name is Danny Hodge, and even past retirement age, he's a man to be reckoned with, tearing apples to shreds with his bare hands.
Hodge was the longtime light heavyweight wrestling champion of the world. Competing mostly out of Oklahoma and the Mid South region, he was one of professional wrestling's most durable and enduring stars. WWE announcer Jim Ross believes Hodge to be the toughest man the sport has ever produced:
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.
Strengths: Hodge wasn't just unbeaten in his college career—he never even gave up a single point his entire senior year and was never taken down. There's a reason college wrestling's version of the Heisman Trophy is named after Hodge.
Mastering wrestling wasn't enough for the Oklahoma native—Hodge entered and won the U.S. Golden Gloves competition despite having no formal boxing training, battling fighters who had competed most of their lives with athleticism and raw desire.
Weaknesses: Hodge didn't have years of submission training under his belt. He was also a light heavyweight, though in his prime he competed at over 200 pounds.