In the autumn of 2014, the Pro Wrestling Only message board introduced the “Greatest Wrestler Ever” project. The concept was for members of the message board and any other wrestling fan who wished to participate to watch and re-watch as much of the candidates over the next eighteen months before submitting a ballot of the 100 wrestlers each voter considered to be the greatest of all time. The only guidance given to voters was that they were to vote based on footage they had seen rather than on reputation. The final list, full rules, and all of the discussion topics that accompanied the process can be found here.
The Greatest Wrestler Ever poll hosted by Pro Wrestling Only wrapped up more than two months ago on April 30th when Ric Flair was officially revealed as the top vote getter. Two months can seem like an eternity, especially for a pro wrestling fan in 2016. Most everything is so immediate these days. This is a scene where a show can be viewed as outdated if it is uploaded to an on demand service five days after it took place. We tend to move on rather in 2016. We move on so quickly that I questioned the relevance of writing general thoughts on a project that has largely been over with for more than two months (tag team list notwithstanding).
The thing about the GWE project or any other project like it is that if the project is judged on the final deliverable (the group list) and not much else, then the entire project losses most any value it might have otherwise had. These one hundred names are not written on stone tablets and they were not passed down by a divine entity. The list is a snapshot of a specific point in time where the watching habits of the voters, footage availability, and the current hot topics among hardcore wrestling fans greatly influenced the composition of the list. It is those timing elements that most greatly interest me about the entire GWE project.
There was a critique that the list was disproportionately slanted towards current wrestlers. There were discussions concerning how some older wrestlers whose reputations as great workers had only relatively recently been made would fare. There was also a minority – but pervading – opinion that the traditional opinions were also old opinions and therefore needed to be altered for the project to have true value.
From the moment discussion began way back in the autumn of 2014, the greatness of Ric Flair – who did eventually place in the top spot – was a contentious subject of discussion. Flair long ago assumed the mantle as the greatest pro wrestler of all time among hardcore fans. Whenever any figure receives as close to consensus praise as Flair received in the late 1980’s and 1990’s, he or she is going to experience the inevitable blow back. That has been happening for years with regards to The Nature Boy. We don’t need to look any further than the predecessor of the PWO poll, the 2006 SmarksChoice poll. Flair ended up in the 8th spot in that poll a decade ago which serves as definitive proof that people questioning Flair’s greatness is not anything new. The reasons why (his formula, his repetitiveness, and the perception that he wasn’t a smart or adaptable wrestler to name a few), have been debated for well over a decade.
I don’t want to generalize but there was certainly a palpable feeling from some that if Flair finished in the top spot, it would be because the voters held onto a conventional belief that they refused to challenge. Flair was not alone in receiving that treatment. Jumbo Tsuruta – who unlike Flair, actually was held in very high regard by the voters back in 2006 when he finished #1 – was similarly looked at by some as a previously overrated wrestler who would regress back to his “correct” position if only those voting in the poll did their proper due diligence on him and the other candidates.
I admit, I might be biased here because I placed Flair and Jumbo in the top two spots of my ballot, but that sentiment bothers me. To be fair, I wouldn’t describe it as the overwhelming sentiment (it couldn’t have been or else Flair and Jumbo would not have finished as high as they did) but it did pervade throughout the process in a noticeable way. Frankly, it is insulting to the other voters to even imply that a high vote for Flair or Jumbo demonstrated a lack of due diligence. It is a balancing act. I wanted to challenge conventional wisdom but I did not want to do so to the point that I chose different wrestlers just to choose different wrestlers. As easily as one can claim that Flair and Jumbo were helped by their historical standings, it can just as easily be argued that the greatest test is time and they have thus far withstood that test.
Naturally in a project such as this where performers across generations are compared, there is going to be discussion about biases for or against particular eras. Eyeballing the finished list, I cannot see any obvious time period-driven biases. Participants were instructed to vote based on footage they had seen, so wrestlers who made their mark before the 1980’s were handicapped somewhat. Even so, two wrestlers whose cases rely significantly on their matches from the 1970’s (Terry Funk and Jumbo Tsuruta) finished in the top twenty, while a handful of others in the top twenty wrestled a significant portion of their career prior to the 1980’s. Somewhere in the vicinity of 40% of the top twenty made their cases largely with their work in the 90’s. The 80’s seem to be the most well represented decade. That is not entirely unexpected as a lot of the footage we have of 70’s and prior candidates comes from the 80’s and those responsible for much of the great wrestling worldwide in the early 90’s got their starts in the 80’s. The 1980s was a transitional decade of sorts and I think the results reflect that.
Any perceived bias towards current wrestlers appears to be confined to the back end of the top 100 and the honorable mentions for the most part. Bryan Danielson was the only wrestler in the top twenty who had his prime in the 2000’s. We have to go all the way back to #30 and John Cena to find the next 21st century wrestler. There is no doubt that there were a plethora of modern wrestlers that finished outside the top 100 and that seems reasonable. We have more access to footage and easier access to footage than ever before, which means more wrestlers are on our radars than at any other time. The accessibility of current footage results in a wider range of personal and cult favorites. It only took one or two people to REALLY like a modern wrestler for that wrestler to finish in the top 200.
The fact that the list is a snapshot of a moment in time also means that whatever wrestlers, styles or promotions an individual or the collective community was into at the time probably played a factor. Any sort of recency bias would deal with more than just modern wrestlers; it would also deal with historical wrestlers who were recently afforded a spotlight. Just like it has never been easier to watch modern matches it has also never been easier to watch historical footage. The footage explosion of the last fifteen years has shone a spotlight on wrestlers that in the 90’s and early 2000’s were in the dark. The various projects and compilations – 1990’s Year Books, DVDVR 80’s project – have also helped disseminate that footage and facilitate discussions about once-forgotten wrestlers.
With guys like El Satanico or Buddy Rose, we saw the opposite of the “Flair/Jumbo effect”. Whereas Flair and Jumbo have been in the spotlight for years to the point they have picked apart over and over again, those wrestlers and others are fairly new to the “greatest ever” discussion. Just as it is fair to state that not challenging conventional opinions would have been problematic, getting caught up in the fervor of a relatively new candidate is just as potentially problematic. Is Rose way too low at #36 because not enough people have investigated his career or will he fall back in future polls after more dig into his career with the same level of scrutiny that we have for someone like Flair? Is Satanico really a candidate for best luchador of all time or has cherry picking his best stuff on the 80’s sets and 90’s yearbooks clouded our collective judgment on his overall career? There is an obvious timing issue here but an interesting one in that it could have swung either way. Wrestlers whose “greatest ever” cases are relatively new might have finished too low or they might have benefited from the spotlight they have recently been afforded.
Those questions remain to be answered and will only come with proper perspective. Unfortunately, that’s the frustrating part of this type of project. We will never, ever gain the proper perspective needed to be impartial judges. Its human nature and it is also an effect of dusting off the poll once every decade. Rankings are always going to be influenced by both overexposure and shiny new toy syndrome. I think for the most part, the participants appreciated that imperfection for what it was and viewed the list as an opportunity to explore wrestlers and styles with an open mind. I know that has been the case for me. Since getting past any post-GWE hangover, I have really enjoyed diving deeper into wrestlers/styles I already enjoyed as well as others that represented blind spots for me.
And ultimately, that is why I decided to write about this project even if it is not all that timely. The conversations and discussions the list invoked are timeless. The list itself was – in any of the number of ways mentioned above – a product of its time. There is a dichotomy between moving on from the list and project because they are now in the past, and using the list and project to help shape and reshape my thoughts going forward. In the end, the project was both a lot of fun for me and helped me enjoy wrestling in ways I hadn’t necessarily enjoyed it before. I also see it as less of a project and more of an ongoing process of watching great matches and assessing wrestlers. Only now, I have a personal list to use as a starting point and a whole lot of discussion/rankings from others to guide me along, both of which are invaluable.
Paul runs the pro-wrestling review site, crossarmbreaker.com, at which you can find his match reviews as well as his match guides sorted by region and time period. Paul is also the co-founder of the Orioles Observer. You can follow Paul on Twitter @stomperspc!