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.