In compiling this list of my top five greatest pro wrestlers of all-time, I’ve tried my level best to be objective.
I thought about the undeniable legacy and world-renown of a guy like Hulk Hogan who meets every criteria with the exception of in ring ability. He should be on this list.
I thought about Bruno Sammartino who once held the World Heavyweight title for a record 2,803 days (Much longer than Bill Goldberg). He was a ‘Garden favorite and the fans loved him. But he was missing mic skills. He too should be on this list.
I thought about ‘Superstar’ Billy Graham, a guy with a physique way ahead of his time, who influenced Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura and Hulk Hogan. To me, he was only missing the crossover storyline component.
I then thought about Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts. He could cut a promo like nobody’s business. However, he had some issues staying in the game. Yes, he should be here too.
Then there’s Ric Flair. This is a top five list right? How could Ric Flair not be on this list? Well, he should be. Plain and simple.
And what about more current stars like Booker T or CM Punk?
There are countless contributors to the wonderful world of sports entertainment. So many that have given us memories forever etched in a specific time and place. It’s like a cookout in the fall; you don’t need to remember the food or drinks, that comes with the territory. But you’ll always remember the people, the laughter shared, and the moments. That time you tripped and fell in the water.
Who are the majority of wrestling fans? Really, it’s everybody. It’s for everyone. You can cheer for whoever you want. We all have our favorites.
Number two on my all-time list had gone against everyone mentioned above and then some. He’s arguably the best talker ever. A people’s champion. An original. A bridge. He was a common man.
Yes, I’m picking the guy who had the everyday gritty steel worker walk up with tears in his eyes and thank him for the entertainment. Someone with that extra something.
Number two on my all-time list of the greatest pro wrestlers is the ‘American Dream’ Dusty Rhodes.
Dusty was before my time. Born in Austin, Texas in 1945, Virgil Riley Runnels Jr. was way ahead of my time with his debut in 1967. But time is an interesting thing. A classic novel, for example, will cross generations because it’s relatable. The ‘Dream’ hits and surpasses this threshold. Sure, I remember his later years but the joy I had going back and watching old promos cut by the ‘Common Man’ himself made me almost regret not being there live and in person. With his words alone Dusty made you feel something. You wanted to see the battle.
The man who called himself the ‘White Soul King’ was sometimes better known for his incredible slew of still famous catchphrases. There wasn’t anybody sweeter with his words than the “265 pounds of blue-eyed soul”.
One critical component to his verbal skills, one that everybody knows and is evidenced by the promos above, is his lisp. It’s unmistakable. It’s part of what made the ‘son of a plumber’/’common man’ angle work for his entire career.
Another aspect was his body language. He had that energy and conviction that so many guys are lacking today and who could definitely benefit from him, if he was still around (more on that later).
At his Hall of Fame speech, he mentioned some of this. He never wanted the moment to end. He wanted to give the fans their money’s worth. And you could tell from the promos how important it was to him. Take a look back at some of his more interesting feuds, particularly with Ric Flair, and you’ll see why the fans gravitated towards his matches.
In Ring Ability:
Think of Ric Flair’s strut. Scott Hall’s backwards bandanna. Macho Man’s sequined garb. Now roll it into one. That’s just a fraction of Dusty’s entrance. The meat and potatoes though , the actual ability, was all there.
A flying crossbody from the top rope? Check. A crushing finisher? The Bionic Elbow.
Blood and guts? Look at the guy’s forehead. It’s scarred beyond belief. The ‘Dream’ had stamina, agility, flexibility, force, and style.
The American Outlaws were a tag duo in the defunct AWA. Dusty and partner Magnum T.A. became America’s Team and went against the legendary Four Horsemen until a tragic accident left T.A. unable to wrestle (some claim T.A. could have been the greatest of all time had the accident not occurred). But this is where Dusty honed his chops and became the ‘American Dream’. Prior to that, he’d had runs as a character called ‘Midnight Rider’ and donned a mask. He also called himself ‘Stardust’ (fans of WWE missed the irony of Cody Rhodes calling himself Stardust at the time, apparently). It wasn’t until Dusty’s entrance into the WWE in 1989 that his ‘Common Man’ character really, truly, took hold. Still, it’s what defined the character. It certainly seemed genuine in a career that spanned the time that it did. Only Dusty Rhodes could talk about himself in the same breath as a guy like John Wayne and make it work. In fact, he once said (paraphrasing) “There’s only two bad people, John Wayne and he’s gone, and this guy right here!” It’s interesting to point out that Dusty passed away exactly 36 years to the day that John Wayne did. That’s the character. It simply worked.
Dusty Rhodes was a seven time champ in Georgia South. He was also the national champ. He was the NWA heavyweight champion in two different territories. He is also a Hall of Famer in four different promotions which, to my knowledge, hasn’t been beaten. He went against the likes of ‘Superstar’ Billy Graham, Harley Race, and almost every other big name one could think of. However, his biggest storyline was the one in which he, the common man, went against the rich, brash, and good looking, Ric Flair. It was box office gold.
The other major feud that keeps repeating itself in researching the ‘Dream’ is the one with he and Sapphire against Macho King and Queen Sherri. More box office gold.
From his debut in 1967 until his passing in 2015, Dusty was involved in one way or another with the business and that’s a major reason for his being on this list. Flair, or any other great that you think should take ‘Dreams’ place on this list, probably couldn’t have done it without Dusty. He was a major creative force in Georgia South before it was purchased by WCW and even then he was a match booker, announcer, wrestler, and creative director. He was directly responsible for many WCW pay-per-view names and character licenses. WCW ‘War Games’, in my opinion, was one of the best and it was due to the ‘American Dream’. He was involved in the biggest moment in wrestling history when the NWO came into existence and challenged Vince McMahon’s throne as king of wrestling. Dusty was so well liked outside the ring that it came as a complete shock when he joined the NWO and managed the Outsiders, Nash and Hall.
His most lasting contribution may be his time as trainer and creative for WWE’s NXT brand. These guys are the future and Dusty has his stamp on that as well.
The ‘American Dream’ Dusty Rhodes is second to none in the sense that a match ending scenario is named after him. Everyone knows it; the one where the referee is knocked out and someone else gets the pin. It’s called the ‘Dusty Finish’. No one else can say that. He also has two sons that are still in the business and the one, Cody, is following in his father’s steps by taking the reigns in a fairly new promotion: AEW.
The American Dream is second on my list of the all-time greatest. He hits every metric. The Dream lives on.