Greatest Wrestler Ever Project: Postscript

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To be the man, you got to beat the man. 151 voters confirmed what a lot of us never doubted: that Ric Flair is the Greatest of All Time. These were 151 voters who have watched a lot of wrestling; 151 voters who, despite having various different criteria and levels of experience, felt strongly enough about being a fan of pro wrestling to take the time to list out their top 100s in a pain-staking ballot. The process was long, the debates were fierce, and at times, naturally, they boiled over.

On the PWO-PTBN feed we’ve had over 70 hours of audio content on GWE. SEVENTY. And, yes, it is perhaps an indictment on my life that I have listened to all 70 hours of that content. I will look back on April 2016 in years to come and wonder how it was I was able to spend that long listening to people talk about the top 100 wrestlers. I’ve spent even longer thinking about it.

In this essay, I just want to try to summarise and synthesise some reflections on the entire process and gesture towards some take-aways. This is going to be a dispassionate assessment. The time for arguing the ins and outs of whether or not Bret Hart is truly a top-tier candidate, or whether Jerry Lawler really can compare with Ric Flair, is over – and hopefully they are over for a long time. There is talk of 2026, right now my feeling is that 10 years would be too soon.

I just want to try to give an overview of what I saw as the main lines of contention throughout the process.

(Note: an audio version of the following is available at the bottom of the post)

Five axis of debate during the process

Throughout the process, certain lines of debate recurred time and again.

1Challengers of the canon vs. defenders of the canon

Some people saw the project as a chance to rewrite some of the wrongs of conventional wisdom. Jumbo Tsuruta finished #1 in 2006. To an extent he seemed like he was there to be torn down – and the cases of picks that had not been as fancied in the past such as Jumbo’s New Japan counter-part in the 1980s, Tatsumi Fujinami and or his upstart rival Genchiro Tenryu were often built up by tearing poor old Jumbo down.

We also saw this with Ric Flair, for many the de facto number #1, and, as it turns out, for many the actual number #1. The cases of Jerry Lawler and Terry Funk were, to varying degrees, advanced by comparison – often favorable comparison – to the darling Ric.

On the other side of those debates, there were others – myself often among in that number – who argued that in some cases the conventional wisdom was conventional wisdom for a reason. That people like Flair and Jumbo were de facto #1 picks because they had exceptionally strong careers that cannot be denied.

I don’t know if we got anywhere during those arguments. My suspicion is that this mainly comes down to a matter of temperament.

The establishment picks – Flair, Jumbo, Misawa, Kobashi – these guys are all in some sense the “chosen one”. The guy you are meant to think is the best.

The contrarian picks – Lawler, Tenryu, Kawada, and to a certain extent Terry Funk and Stan Hansen – these guys are rebels or underdogs.

The fight for Lawler is a fight for recognition in an unjust world that has unfairly maligned the promotion, Memphis, in which he made his case. The fight for Flair is a fight only for confirmation of an established fact. I can see why, to a certain temperament, one fight is more attractive than the other. And so it is with the fight for Tenryu over Baba’s golden-boy Jumbo, or for Kawada over Baba’s next two golden-boys Misawa and Kobashi.

2. Niche picks vs mainstream picks

As a corollary to the above, there is also the question of exposure and genre.  Some genres – generally US wrestling of the 80s, 90s and 00s – are seen as pretty well-worn, well-explored and even tired because of how familiar they are. Imagine the sorts of tunes that play on a Classic Rock station. You’ve heard “Great Balls of Fire” by Jerry Lee Lewis hundreds of times, so can it possibly retain the power to resonate? We might ask the same question of a Beatles album. For some people, it’s easier to get more excited by music we haven’t heard before – especially if one has gone to some lengths to uncover that obscure unheralded album from 1972 or that blues track from 1935 that sounds like it was recorded under a pit of gravel. And so it is with wrestling.

Baltimore Sun writer (and PWO poster) Childs calls people of this sort of temperament “explorers”. There are many explorers on PWO, but two of the foremost might be Ohtani’s Jacket, who throughout the process spent his time diligently unearthing and talking about 1970s World of Sport while everyone else was still talking about “boring” people like Ric Flair or Bret Hart. Another “explorer” is Phil Schneider of the Segunda Caida blog. Good Ol’ Will from Texas credits him with exposing him to more great wrestling than any other person – Phil unearths, Will champions and distributes. And most of us have been shaped in some way by that tandem. But I always get the distinct impression listening to Phil that he’s a man who is bored with the old paradigms and seeks to tear them down with the relish of an iconoclast.

On the other side, we get people who stick to what they know. My good friend Kelly, for example, turned in a ballot that skewed very heavily towards candidates who made their names primarily in the USA, and very many of them in the 1980s and 1990s from the time he was growing up as a fan. His number #1 was Randy Savage, he had Bret Hart in the top ten. He didn’t bother with a lot of guys from Mexico or Japan or the United Kingdom, and he didn’t much care about that and was perfectly fine leaving it to the “hipsters”.

The vast majority of voters were somewhere in between these two extremes. The terms of this dichotomy would not surface until we were deep into the countdown on the official list reveal, more on this later. My own view throughout was that the question of “boring” or “exciting” really should not enter into things, if the answer to the question is “boring”, so what? It’s still the answer. And it looks like the majority of the voters, in the end, agreed with me.

3. Input vs. Output

One debate that seemed to recur with some regularity during the process was the question of subjectivity vs. objectivity. It wasn’t until relatively late on that we realized that what was at the heart of that debate was really a question about how each of us are weighing “output” – that is, the number of great matches and very good matches a guy was involved in during his career – against “input”, which is more a measure of what a given worker tends to bring to any situation.

It was quite late on that I finally came to a statement about “objectivity” that I was happy with, something a lawyer told me in a café:

“In law ‘objective’ means: given this evidence, and these facts, what would the average, sane man in the street conclude?”

For me, the Greatest Wrestler Ever project was only ever about this. And a lot of “the facts” come down simply to what there is in terms of great to very good matches on tape. Flair vs. Steamboat, vs. Funk, vs. Wahoo, vs. Garvin, vs. Luger, and so on: those matches are “the facts” in a case that, I think, is probably too strong to be denied. It wasn’t that Ric was the most athletic, did the flashiest moves, had the best psychology, or even the longest career, it was always “he had the greatest career because he had more 4.5 star matches with a greater variety of different people than anyone else.” I got increasingly frustrated by people who seemed to want to pull Ric down on grounds that didn’t look at those matches. To use a phrase of a friend – who I shall not name here – I felt people were being wilfully obtuse in denying what I saw to be the hard evidence and contorting to find arguments to push whatever new-fan-dangled guy they wanted to push. There were a few people I did accept as rival #1 candidates: Misawa, Kobashi, Jumbo, Kawada, Tenryu, Stan Hansen, Terry Funk. Those seven guys had enough goods in the locker to rival Flair, enough great matches against each other and against others to produce a career that might be thought of in the same breath – at least comparable – even though none of them had the unique career Flair did. Some of the Japanese guys probably had a few more 5-star matches. Hansen and Funk had runs in more places, and both could mix up their styles to show a little more range than Flair. However, other #1 cases – Jerry Lawler, Nick Bockwinkel, Randy Savage, Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Rey Mysterio, Tatsumi Fujinami – for one reason or the other, I more or less flatly dismissed as not really having the goods, the output, to be talked of in the same ball park as Flair.

Eventually, after rapidly diminishing patience, recording a five-part series on Flair and storming off the board a couple of times, I developed a system called BIGLAV that tried to synthesize all of the different criteria that people had touted. It’s clear in retrospect that I missed a big one – consistency – but I still think that the six-factors of BIGLAV broadly capture the essence of the sorts of things people push cases on. Only my system was going to try to be fair, and going to try to factor those six things equally across the board. I wanted to show my workings. I wanted to show exactly why, considering all the different metrics, my number 1 pretty much had to be Ric Flair. Although this system was widely misunderstood as an attempt “to math” the GWE – despite my pointing out at various times that it is full of subjective value judgments – I like to think it did make people think seriously about their own processes and criteria. In the end, I tried to strike a balance between input (which corresponds to Base, Intangibles and Ability to work different styles and roles) and output (which corresponds to Great Matches, Length of Peak and Variety of memorable matches). So, crudely, 30 possible input points and 30 possible output points.

However, I’ve come to think that the debate was never really between subjectivity and objectivity. Most of us understood that all value judgments are to some degree subjective. But some of us also understood – even if we couldn’t quite articulate it – the statement from the lawyer that I’ve bolded there. Let me repeat it: “objective means: given this evidence, and these facts, what would the average, sane man in the street conclude”. This last statement, when it comes to Greatest Wrestler Ever, really comes down to the question of output. The question is as simple as this: “What matches do you have on your resume?”

Think about it like this. The “great matches” are akin to the masterpieces of the great painters. Think about something like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo, or The Last Judgement. Whether or not those paintings do anything for you is subjective, but their status as “great works” is pretty well established. In wrestling fandom, the closest things we have are Flair vs. Steamboat, Misawa vs. Kawada, Jumbo vs. Tenryu, hell, even Cena vs. Umaga, and so on. Whatever you make of those matches, they are “what is there”. They are stuff on the resumes of those guys. You CAN say “yeah, but I don’t think The Last Judgement is any good and therefore Michelangelo isn’t in my top 100 artists”, or “I think Flair vs. Steamboat and the other big Flair matches are completely overrated, so Flair isn’t a top guy for me”. You can do that. But the works are the evidence that is there, one way or the other.

The heart of the debate was really about whether we are assessing the worker or their work. Is this a measure of what a guy can do in the ring, which they could demonstrate in a five-minute squash match on TV, or is it a measure of what they actually did in the ring, which is to say how often did they put it all together to produce excellent matches? On one polar extreme end, I’d put my long-time co-host from Where the Big Boys Play, Chad Campbell. He’s very much a “matches guy”. His number #1 was always going to be Mitsuharu Misawa, because Misawa’s list of matches above the 4.5-star line is staggering, and just a bit more than the next two names on his list: his #2 Kenta Kobashi and his #3 Ric Flair. I totally respect that ranking from Chad. It makes sense to me. Not because I’ve spent over 85 hours of my life talking wrestling with him (although that helps), but because I get the argument based on the evidence. On the opposite end, was another friend of mine, Matt D. Matt is someone who doesn’t give out star ratings and, to an extent rare in wrestling fandom, is a guy who just doesn’t care about “great matches”. Where Chad would build a case from listing out all of the incredible matches a guy like Misawa would have, Matt would go about business looking at random 10-minute TV matches, and analyzing closely the creative choices a worker makes during them. He talks about “tools”, he talks about storytelling decisions. I’d find myself at times getting incredibly frustrated with him because my view, in a nutshell, was that these things were great for providing interesting analytical insight, but totally inadequate for deciding on who the GWE should be. For Matt, it seemed to be less a question of who was the greatest ever, and more about who was the smartest ever. And naturally, that’s going to come out with someone like Nick Bockwinkel on top.  Others also produced “input” arguments. One of the more infamous ones was from another co-host of mine, Steven Graham – we did the All Japan Excite series together. Steven also put the whole GWE project together and has been a rock at the center of the project. However, when he ranked Bret Hart over Ric Flair and Kenta Kobashi because he thinks Bret is a smarter worker who is closer to his personal vision what a pro wrestler should be, I thought he’d completely lost his senses. I couldn’t understand how the guy I’d spent almost 20 hours analyzing the great All Japan matches from Mitsuharu Misawa, Kenta Kobashi and Toshiaki Kawada could turn around and put Bret Hart above them with a straight face.

Like I said, this is not the time to rehearse the arguments, I’m just trying to summarize them all as best I can in one place. The bottom-line was that the wrangling over objectivity vs. subjectivity was really a disagreement over whether we are looking at a wrester’s career and the work they did in that career, or else looking at the idea of what someone could do in the ring and making a value judgement on that. I still don’t pretend to understand the latter point of view, but a good many people – people I like and respect – held to it throughout the project.

4. Personal connection vs. Peer pressure

One of the little joys of this project has been the emergence of the new Parejas Increibles podcast hosted by the aforementioned Matt D, a chap we thought we’d never hear in podcast form, and Stacey (aka Jimmy Redman on PWO). And one of the phrases they coined on there is “peer pressure candidate”. Stacey also talks, perhaps more than any other of the major voices from the GWE project, about personal connection.

This is something that warrants its own category and is where, I think, subjectivity is felt most keenly in valuations of wrestlers. As most people who have followed my podcasts and forum posts will know, I feel a strong connection to the late 80s and early 90s. This was when I grew up as a fan, and I’m always going to feel so much closer to Arn Anderson than I am to … let’s say, I don’t know, Dolph Ziggler. One thing Stacey has highlighted to me though is that different people have different Arn Andersons that they “feel close to”. You can’t really replicate the close emotional bonds that form when you are an 8-year old watching WCW Worldwide or WWF Superstars. There are all sorts of things going on: the warm fuzzy feelings of nostalgia and the incredibly strong sense of loyalty to the guys who brought you to the dance. As much as it blows my mind at times, a fan like Stacey grew her emotional bonds with guys in the John Cena era. Her Ted DiBiases and Curt Hennigs were guys like Randy Orton and Kofi Kingston. I realise that I sound like I’m taking the proverbial Michael, but this is a reality that can’t be ignored. A fan who grew up in an era like that might be a fan who thinks Shawn Michaels is the greatest of all time.

The flag-bearer for a list based purely on “personal connection” was not actually Stacey, it was yet another of my long-time co-hosts, Kelly (Titans for Life!). Kelly’s list was like a love letter to his own childhood. Randy Savage was #1, guys like Roddy Piper were in his top ten. Again, this isn’t the place to take issue with any of these things. It’s how he chose to interpret the project.

5. Universal criteria vs. “What style do you value most”?

If BIGLAV was an attempt to treat all workers the same against a universal criteria in the interests of fairness, my buddy Good Ol’ Will from Texas, maintained from the start that it is a nonsense to try to do that. Not just because of the aforementioned question of “personal connection”, but also because, in Will’s view, the question of genre and style cannot be dismissed lightly. His list has a lot of guys from two very polarizing styles – Memphis and Lucha. Will’s number #1 wrestler, as anyone who even half knows him knows, is Jerry Lawler.

My argument in the heat of the project – when I actually had Will on the Fair to Flair mini-series, was that, in order to get someone like a Lawler to number #1, you need to move goal-posts. You had to relativize the criteria and grade things on a curve to adjust for the fact that he spent most of his career in a place like Memphis. He wasn’t the NWA Champion or the Triple-Crown Champion facing the best workers in the world, a lot of time he was working jobbers and total scrubs under masks and ridiculous gimmicks. Will’s reply is something like “well, you value the NWA style, I value Memphis style”.

Now the dust has settled, I do think that he has a point and it’s one that is difficult to get past. I will never see the highly touted Lawler matches as being on par with the best of Flair or the best of Jumbo or Misawa. I mean, a lot of the time, all they do is punch each other. Yes, sweet punches, but … I guess I do value a different style of wrestling more. I have always respected the hell out of Will, and he might have had the greatest insight of all before the project even started properly.

Five take-aways from the reveal of the master-list

As the process ended, the business of revealing the results began. At first, this was quite fun. Me and Chad had put out our Top 100 list show on Where the Big Boys Play, which was the first of so many different shows running down personal lists – Steven and Tim L (Pro-Wrestling Supershow), Pete and Timothy (This Week in Wrestling), Kelly and Marty (Tag-teams Back Again), Charles and Childs (Wrestling with the Past), Dylan and Kris (Premier Podcast Brand), Matt and Stacey (Parejas Increibles), and Will with a whole bunch of people (Good Will Wrestling). This has been a blast: so many hours and I’m still not bored with those shows. I felt very relaxed after handing over my ballot, like a great weight was lifted. As the results rolled in, I also had fun with it. I got a little more active on “The Twitter”. I set up “The House of Un-GWE Activities” to try to out ridiculous-looking votes in a parody of how seriously I had taken the project. I realise that some of my American friends don’t always understand when I’m poking fun of myself, but I was poking fun of myself. That ended with the Scott Steiner #1 vote. However, as the countdown lurched on past the #100 mark, I felt that something else started happening which didn’t make me very comfortable. I withdrew from the board because I didn’t like the tone that the reactions were starting to take. I had a lot of fun with my Joe McCarthy gifs and completely burying the idea of The Undertaker as a GWE candidate, but somehow the tone turned from being fun to something else. I just want to jot down five take-aways from watching the reveal unfurl. At times, it has not been pretty.

1. Certain voices have been extremely influential in the process, but there is a limit to the extent of that influence.

I’ve said before that arguably the most influential guy on the board – and during the GWE process – is another buddy, the prolific podcaster, Dylan Hales. I think Dylan, in particular, has become influential for two reasons, first, because he has so much passion, second, because when he believes in something he’s going to push it, a lot. The cases of, among others, Buddy Rose, 2 Cold Scorpio and Jun Akiyama undoubtedly benefitted from Dylan being such a vocal supporter. I am not picking on Dylan when I say this: it is a basic reality of any community that certain people will be influential. Hell, even your dear narrator here has some influence.

Anyway, I think the results have shown that while these influences exist, there is a limit to their reach. I’ll give you some examples:

  • Ric Flair vs. Jerry Lawler: Despite all of the talk, Lawler rose dramatically from 2006, but Flair still finished higher.
  • Jumbo Tsuruta vs. Genichiro Tenryu – As the process was going on, there was every indication Tenryu would finish above Jumbo. Tenryu did rise up the list, and Jumbo fell from his perch at #1 on the 2006 list, but Jumbo still finished higher
  • Jun Akiyama / Akira Taue vs. Kenta Kobashi / Misawa – despite an awful lot of talk seeking to expand the “four pillars” to five to include Akiyama, and despite vocal support on the part of some people for Taue to be recognised as being “as great” as the other three, and despite some pretty damning critiques of Kobashi. The latter two still finished in the top 10, while the former were only top 30. In an interesting quirk, Taue actually finished in the exact same spot as he did in 2006, #26.
  • Lucha in general – Negro Casas finished 21 and got 110 ballots, but the failure of him to get into the top 20 was seen as a sad day by some lucha fans.

I don’t know what to draw from all this beyond a suspicion that there is, in any community, a vocal minority and a silent majority. Change can also be slow, and these top-line issues can mask some of the bigger jumps that were made in the list versus 2006. There were a lot of “small victories” for the crowd that were looking for them throughout the results. However, at the very top end, generally, the “orthodox” position stood its ground.

2. Negatives over-index in discussion, but not necessarily in results

“Negatives over-index” became one of my little catchphrases during the project. The most visible and recent case of this was Chris Jericho, who had a stinker of a match against AJ Styles at Fast Lane right when the ballots were due. Talk about bad timing. But why should that bad performance by Jericho matter to his case? My argument was always that it shouldn’t and that we shouldn’t let it. As it turns out, most people didn’t. Jericho finished #73: a rise on his 2006 placement of #84.

While it is true that small things can drop people a huge amount of places, for example, Will dumped Stan Hansen out of his top 10 because of his run with Bruiser Brody – I also heard other people dump Flair out of their top 10s because of his 00s WWE run, something I regard as a mere footnote to his great career – generally, the voting block didn’t punish negatives in this way.

We did see Jumbo Tsuruta fall from #1 to #11, but I put that down to a change in tastes, than negatives over-indexing. People seem to have turned away from longer matches, from the NWA style of the slow build leading to a hot finish through escalating violence and bigger bombs. Jumbo was a master of matches that clocked in at over 40 minutes. It’s not a surprise – at least not to me – to see brawlers like Stan Hansen, Terry Funk and Jerry Lawler finish above him. The community feels like it prefers shorter matches these days. It’s a combination, I think, of people like Phil and Will getting older and having less patience, and of the culture of watching matches on YouTube as opposed to DVD. If you watch a match on YouTube, you are never more than a click away from distraction. The old NWA style wasn’t really made for the YouTube generation. I’m now picturing Grumpy Jumbo giving a lariat to the YouTube generation. Damn millennials.

3. There is no hive mind, but there is a hive

I don’t want to talk about this too much, but one of the reasons I took my leave of posting in the reaction threads was because an atmosphere of decrying “mainstream” picks and bewailing the fall of more “niche” candidates  seemed to take over the discourse. To me, this was completely at odds with the spirit of the debates over the past two years. Yes, I know people got sick of the huge discussions over criteria between myself and some of the other more vocal posters, but at least we were trying to think through things. I’ve been pretty disappointed to see the reveal process degenerate into mindless cheering and decrying, as we’re told that Arn Anderson and Bobby Eaton are being overrated as other – less favoured – styles are being shafted. It has been ugly and one of the low-points of the project. It also baffled me to see some of the same people who I recall arguing various things with behave in this way. Consider the following two statements:

  • “Everyone should submit a ballot, but I retain the right to complain about niches being under-represented”
  • “Everything is subjective, but I retain the right to shout about how wrong the community list results are”

Those things speak for themselves, I think, let’s move on.

4. It’s all subjective, but people agree on a lot of things, a lot

Just have a look at the list and the breakdown of the statistics. Especially at the very top end, a lot of people agreed on a lot of things. Over the course of all of the podcasts, basically everyone had the same top 15 or so, it’s just the order that changed. Dylan and Kris had Flair #11, because they had other guys in the top 5. I had Lawler #11 because I had other guys in my top 5. Everyone low-balled someone. Those guys low-balled Jumbo and had him in their #50s. I low-balled Rey and Hashimoto. Others like Tim L low-balled Kenta Kobashi. When all is said and done, there was wide and general agreement over who those top 15 or so guys are.

 5. GWE is a corrosive way to think and talk about wrestling

Like a lot of people I know, as much as I’ve enjoyed the project, I’ve also found it stressful, and at times, an extremely unhelpful way to talk about wresting. As my friend Charles has said, GWE just ups the stakes to a ridiculous degree. It makes sensible discussion difficult. It also makes just watching stuff less enjoyable that it should be. If it didn’t come across strongly enough in this article, I’m past the point of wanting to ask the question “who is greater?” I had Jerry Lawler at #11 and gave his very best matches 4.75, they only missed out on five because of clipping. I dig a huge amount of the Memphis stuff I’ve watched so far. But I’d rather just be able to watch and enjoy that stuff without having to compare it to the very best of what I’ve seen. That’s what I mean by corrosive. Some of the best wrestling TV ever made and I’ve got “yeah but is he better than Misawa?” in the back of my head. Just not a fun way to watch wrestling. The artificial pressure of watching stuff “for GWE” and the raised stakes it bring with it simply isn’t the best way to get a true grip of any given case. It’s also made me realise that – much like Chad – I prefer discussing and breaking down matches to assessing workers. It’s because the question “who is greater?” is ultimately corrosive to the appreciation of the art. It need not be – theoretically, it shouldn’t be – but in practice it is. As soon as I say one thing about Flair, someone else has to ensure to pimp their guy or tear down the thing I’ve said so there can be no doubt that Flair is not the greatest. It’s not just wearisome, it’s the sort of thing that makes me not want to talk about wrestling. I’m looking forward to the next few months as a “new spring” in a post-GWE world.

https://soundcloud.com/jerryvonkramer/greatest-wrestler-ever-postscript

Author: Parv

Parv is the co-host of the Where the Big Boys Play and Titans of Wrestling podcast but his interests are not limited to the squared circle. Parv is a professor by day and an obsessive pop culture enthusiast by night. Send Parv an email