Pro Wrestling History: Five Classic Rivalries Every Fan Should Know
I recently posted a relatively well received ranking of wrestling's top 25 rivalries of all-time. Of course, any ranking is always open to criticism and suggestion, but I noticed two things about the reader comments.
The first thing that struck me was that there was a tendency among a few of those commenting to confuse an attempt at objective analysis with an assessment of personal favorites.
The second thing I noticed was a bias towards the modern era and the way in which certain feuds managed to stick in the minds of readers, when other more notable and far more historically important rivalries went unnoticed.
But I came to realize that I was guilty of some bias myself.
Though I tried to remain objective and consider the ranking from a historical perspective, I missed the mark concerning at least five great rivalries with which every fan should at least be passingly familiar.
When so many readers were in favor of a particular rivalry I did not list (HHH/Rock) yet never even thought to question the exclusion of others, I realized that I should have added those others but failed to do so because of an unintentional modern era and ethnocentric bias.
This list attempts to rectify that error in judgment and gives five historic pairings their rightful due.
Nick Bockwinkle vs Verne Gange
I never much cared for Verne Gagne, in or out of the ring. But that doesn't mean I can't see the impact he had on the business and the tremendous numbers he did with a great many stars of the 60s, 70s and early 80s.
The most successful of his rivalries was probably against Nick Bockwinkle, one of the most famous (and despised) heels in wrestling history. The two men wrestled in countless matches throughout Gagne's then thriving AWA. The mat-wrestling clinics put on by the two over the AWA World Title sold out buildings in the territory from the early 70s through 1980.
Verne retired after a title victory over Bockwinkle—allowing him to retire as Champion—and then simply gave the title back to Bockwinkle, making him despised even more for getting a title he didn't deserve.
Gagne's selfish booking makes me dislike him even more, but Bockwinkle was a pro's pro and used that heat to make Hulk Hogan a star just two years later.
Larry Zbyszco vs Bruno Sammartino
On January 22, 1980, Brunno's protege Larry Zbyszco turned on his mentor and the northeast was never the same.
While the 60s and 70s were certainly Sammartino's prime, he was still a massive draw and a respected legend as the 80s began. Those who were in the northeast recall Zbyszco's treachery as the most emotionally charged story of which Sammartino had ever been a part.
The rivalry was both the launching pad for Zbyszco (for whatever that ended up being worth) and Sammartino's final run before semi-retirement.
Though he wrestled part-time both in the US and Japan afterward, (even filling in for Ricky Steamboat against Randy Savage as the Dragon sold the larynx injury angle of early '87), the Zbyszco feud is largely considered Sammartino's last top level rivalry in the territory he dominated for so long.
The emotional impact of the rivalry was its selling point, and sell it did! Until Hogan vs Andre at Wrestlemania III, this rivalry could be considered the most successful out of the northeast in terms of actual gate revenue and fan interest. Records indicate that every match the two had was the main event without the world title on the line, and every one of the events sold out.
To be fair, by the time WrestleMania III came around, the territory system was dying and the WWF was national and eying a global reach.
The feud came to a head on August 9, 1980, in front of 36,295 fans at the third "Showdown at Shea" event. Their steel cage match was the main event (again, with no title on the line) and is referenced as the gold standard for grudge-matches by many fans and wrestlers of the time.
Perro Aguayo vs El Santo
To make a list of greatest rivalries and not include El Santo was a massive oversight on my part. In Mexico, El Santo was not just a household name, but an outright cultural icon with popularity and pop culture awareness that was greater than Hulk Hogan, the Rock and Steve Austin combined.
The legend had no greater rival than the villainous Perro Aguayo. The two men dominated Mexican sports in 1975 highlighted with Aguayo losing his hair in a luchas de apuestas. El Santo had already won 32 luchas de apuestas before defeating Aguayo dating back to the early 1940s and would go on to win an additional four of them before retirement.
In his last match ever on September 12, 1982, he was in a tag-team match opposing a side that featured none other than Perro Aguayo. The two were rivals right up until the most storied career in Mexico came to an end.
Aguayo has even kept the rivalry burning at times against El Hijo del Santo. Aguayo Jr has been involved as well, as one of Lucha Libre's most iconic feuds spills into another generation.
Mitsuharu Misawa vs Toshiaki Kawada
The late Mitsuharu Misawa is considered by anyone truly familiar with Japanese wrestling one of the greatest performers ever. Kawada is not far behind.
Together they were absolute genius.
The two were on-and-off tag team partners and multiple time tag champions in the 1990s, but their singles matches as rivals remain legendary to the point of almost religious reverence.
Some rivalries are great because they define an era, or move characters and even companies forward, but others are great because between the ropes it was just so magical that history is made.
I don't have much context for this rivalry due to my limited personal library of Japanese wrestling, and I certainly was unable to follow the papers. But with matches like these two had, the action speaks for itself.
Find what you can and watch. You won't be sorry.
Frank Gotch vs Georg Hackenschmidt
Well, where do I even start?
How about the beginning, since that is technically what this is: The beginning of professional wrestling as we know it...maybe.
Georg Hackenschmidt (there was no e on the end of his name, officially) was the first ever recognized World Heavyweight Champion, as he defeated Tom Jenkins in the first ever European and Grecko-Roman champion vs. an American champion match.
He held the title and was undefeated, until facing Frank Gotch in Chicago on April 3, 1908. Gotch became the second World Champion in history, but not without controversy.
The two-hour match (can you even imagine?) ended as Hack submitted to an ankle-lock. Didn't Kurt Angle just use Twitter to accuse Swagger of stealing his move? Irony.
Anyway....back to our story. Hack publicized his displeasure with some of Gotch's tactics, which included using a great deal of oil to avoid Hack's famous bear-hug submission hold, as well as a few other tricks that should have resulted in a DQ.
Hack and Gotch met again in Chicago for the rematch on September 4, 1911. This match was held at a brand new venue: Comiskey Park. The attendance was nearly 30,000 (though some sources claim it topped that. No way to really know) and a record setting gate revenue of $87,000 (according to wrestlingmuseum.com)
This proved more controversial than the first match.
Hack suffered a leg injury in training, but accusations flew that the sparring partner, a catcher/shooter named Ad Santel, was paid by Gotch to take Hack out of action. Santel himself confirmed this. Gotch claimed an injury as well, which turned out to be bogus, and the match went on as planned.
Rumors persist that even at this early stage certain matches were works, while others remained shoots. Depending on whose book or documentary you trust, Gotch was to go over but Hack was to look strong by getting a good second fall (back then all matches were two out of three falls).
Apparently, Gotch screwed him in what may be the first ever screwjob, and took two quick falls. He escaped with the title and Hack retired shortly thereafter.
Work? Shoot? A little of both? Who knows? What we do know is that Frank Gotch vs Georg Hackenschmidt is the first actual rivalry in what we know as pro wrestling.
How could I have forgotten to include this one in my initial top 25?