By Mike Mooneyham

Jan. 5, 2003

Toronto-based journalist John Molinaro takes a bold step in attempting to rank the greatest pro wrestlers in the history of the game in his new book, “Top 100 Pro Wrestlers of All Time.” Unlike many of the “best” and “greatest” lists that spread like wildfire at the end of the millennium, Molinaro’s compilation has blossomed into a well-written, thought-provoking work that’s sure to spark spirited debate among wrestling fans for years to come.

And that’s a good thing.

[ad#MikeMooneyham-336×280]Like many similar lists, the Top 100 is not one with which everyone will agree. Any effort to rank athletes in any sports endeavor over such a long period of time is a risky proposition at best. But Molinaro, who at age 28 is already one of the top writers on the pro wrestling scene, covers all the bases in his study, giving a detailed, biographical account of each wrestler on the list.

The rankings are not solely based on the opinions of Molinaro, who was a driving force behind Canada’s SLAM! Wrestling site. The list was compiled by some of the industry’s leading experts, along with the assistance of several mat historians.

The book is further strengthened by Molinaro’s inclusion of Dave Meltzer as a contributing editor. Meltzer, longtime editor of the authoritative Wrestling Observer newsletter and author of “Tributes: Remembering Some of the World’s Greatest Wrestlers,” lends his considerable expertise to the effort, explaining the selection process in great detail in the foreword of the book. Serving as a co-editor was radio broadcaster/writer Jeff Marek, founder and host of the world’s longest-running wrestling radio talk show, The LAW (Live Audio Wrestling), based out of Toronto.

The book’s strong points are many. Not only is the writing crisp and concise, but some intriguing, rarely seen photos – most from the collection of noted wrestling photojournalist Dr. Mike Lano – accompany all 100 listings. There are countless stories and first-hand accounts of the performers who shaped the wrestling business, along with bios that help put their illustrious careers into historical perspective.

Molinaro’s Top 100 also is a truly global ranking, since it includes wrestlers – male and female – from all over the world, representing every style of wrestling, from every major promotion.

Among the criteria used in determining the rankings were professional success (including the number of titles a wrestler had won), importance to history, ability in the ring, drawing power and mainstream status achieved. Also considered were those qualities that can’t be measured in numbers, such as the ability to put on a great match each night.

Perhaps the most studied and researched ranking revolved around just who was the greatest of all time, a question that has been tossed around, it seems, forever.

For his consistency and longevity, along with his ability to make opponents look better than they really were, Ric Flair was unanimously chosen as the greatest pro wrestler to ever step inside the ring. It was noted that Flair put on probably as many great wrestling matches over a lengthy period of time as anyone in history, along with being considered by many to be the greatest talker the business has ever produced.

“The ranking process was a collaboration between myself, Dave Meltzer and Jeff Marek. We were all unanimous in picking Flair No. 1 and the three of us pretty much had the top 5 almost identical,” Molinaro said last week. “The real tough picks were No. 11 to No. 20 because those were the bunch of guys that we felt were so close together. There’s a great deal of parity with that cluster of performers, so it was hard to make the final decision and say one guy deserved to be higher than the other.”

Molinaro aptly described Flair’s contribution at the conclusion of his bio: “In the final analysis, what Ric Flair is, in essence, is an artist. He is a gifted visionary dedicated to his sport, his craft, his profession, his trade – his art. He is a man who has used the wrestling world as his canvas – molding, sculpting and stretching the sport in ways never thought possible. In a business where grandiose metaphors such as these are commonplace, Flair, perhaps more than anyone else, is truly deserving of them.”

Lou Thesz, categorized by Flair himself as the greatest wrestler of all time, wasn’t far behind in the rankings at No. 2. Thesz, known to a generation of fans as “The Champ,” had even more longevity than Flair and a career than spanned more eras (seven decades). He was the consummate pro wrestler, bringing legitimacy and credibility to the sport of professional wrestling.

This book undoubtedly will serve as fodder for lively discussion among those who follow the business. Molinaro said he expects Hulk Hogan’s ranking at No. 5 to fuel the flames of the debate, but he’s more than ready to defend his decision.

“I don’t find it the least bit controversial but I think a lot of people, especially casual fans, are going to have a problem with Hogan not being ranked No. 1 and having four guys ahead of him,” said Molinaro.

“To so many, he was the biggest star of all time and I think to non-fans he’s the one guy they automatically associate with pro wrestling. But I just felt that Flair, for everything he’s meant to the business as the best in-ring performer of all time, deserved to be No. 1. There’s just no question in my mind.”

“Thesz, Rikidozan (No. 3) and (Antonio) Inoki (No. 4) all had much greater historical impact on the business as a whole than Hogan, and that’s why they’re rated higher than him,” added Molinaro. “But I don’t think a lot of people will appreciate that and naturally scoff that Hogan isn’t No. 1.”

Others in the top 20 should invite debate as well. Although Stan Hansen enjoyed a long and successful career, especially in Japan where he was that country’s top foreign star for many years, his No. 14 ranking seems particularly high when matched up against more celebrated national performers such as Verne Gagne (21), Dory Funk Jr. (26), Johnny Valentine (32), Jack Brisco (39) and Harley Race (40).

But, it’s hard to argue with Molinaro’s convincing, insightful analysis. As Meltzer adroitly points out in the foreword, many perceptions of a wrestler’s greatness were based on one’s childhood and who their favorite wrestlers were at the time. Molinaro himself admitted that he grew up watching many of the Mid-Atlantic stars who were included on the list.

“I think writing about guys like Flair, Johnny Valentine, Wahoo McDaniel and Ricky Steamboat (was the most enjoyable part of writing the book). Guys that I loved to watch as a kid. Having grown up watching Jim Crockett Promotions and Mid-Atlantic Wrestling, it was great to write about the territorial days because it brought back so many memories for me. It really allowed me to go back in time and reflect on an era in wrestling that is vastly different to today’s.”

Some readers, no doubt, will roll their eyes and cluck their tongues over both selections and omissions. But, Molinaro noted, there were only so many slots available.

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“There are a few after reflection upon it,” said Molinaro. “I think you can make a strong case for Jimmy Snuka being included, because of the influence he had on so many guys that followed him. Certainly Bob Backlund, because he was such a tremendous draw as WWF champion. There are a lot of guys from the late 1800s and turn of the century like Earl Caddock, Farmer Burns and Wladek Zbyszko that should probably be in there. The problem with a list like this is that inevitably somebody deserving is going to be left off because there are only so many spaces available. Considering the history of pro wrestling, I don’t think 100 spots is nearly enough to include everybody who should be on such a list like this.”

Steve Austin, who came in at No. 9, is the only man in the top 15 who is still active and under the age of 40. The Rock, at age 30 and with only seven years of pro experience under his belt, is already No. 16 on the list. Outgoing Minnesota Gov. Jesse “The Body” Ventura made the cut at No. 99, while Eddie Graham, known more for his accomplishments as a promoter and booker than as a wrestler, rounded out the list at No. 100. The book also looks ahead at future stars of tomorrow, including Kurt Angle, Chris Benoit and Chris Jericho.

The 212-page book (Stewart House, $24.95) is beautifully illustrated with nearly 300 color and black and white photographs. Some of my favorite photos are part of a pictorial presentation entitled “Ring of Friendship,” a special section that shows a number of mat legends bonding backstage at WWE pay-per-views and at Cauliflower Alley reunions.

With the recent spate of wrestling autobiographies on the market (The Fabulous Moolah, Bobby Heenan, Roddy Piper, Hulk Hogan, Jerry Lawler), this work is a refreshing change of pace. It’s a must for any wrestling (or “sports entertainment”) fan.

- Duke Hoffman, a former AWA world tag-team champion with Larry Hennig, passed away recently at the age of 76. His real name was Robert Leipler.

- WWE talent relations vice president Jim Ross filed his final Ross Report last week. The man in the black Resistol hat, long one of the hardest-working individuals in the wrestling business, cited time constraints as the major reason for ceasing his popular weekly report on the WWE Web site.

Ross, who was on the sideline for his beloved Oklahoma Sooners’ Rose Bowl win over Washington State Wednesday in Pasadena, also had become increasingly frustrated in recent months over reaction to his reports.

“I have found it to be very challenging to continue to write about the talent roster I manage,” he wrote. “I compare it to declaring which of your children you like the best, which is unfair to the talents not mentioned in any given Report. Kinda like my late dad used to say, ‘Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.’ I have never intended to slight any talent, but the mere omission of a particular talent from a Ross Report can be perceived as a negative for that individual. That was never my goal, but it seemed like the column oftentimes took on a life of its own, with many often writing about what J.R. really was saying.

“My goal was always to be honest and up front and to provide a unique perspective of WWE, especially our talent roster of Superstars, which I have the utmost respect and appreciation for. 2003 is going to be a great year for WWE, led by the greatest array of talent, from top to bottom, on both the Raw and Smackdown rosters, that I have ever been associated with in my 25-plus years in our wonderful business. My sincere thanks to all of you worldwide who have supported the Ross Report over the years and for your continued support of WWE.”

- Shelton Benjamin’s arrival to the big show was long overdue. The Orangeburg native should be an impact player if the WWE writing team doesn’t bury him first (see John Cena).

- Reports have surfaced that Vince McMahon is considering giving partial creative control of Raw to Eric Bischoff. The former WCW boss has been used strictly as an on-air talent thus far, but sources say he’d like to have a bigger hand behind the scenes. McMahon could make the move to give Raw more of an identity of its own.

- Brock Lesnar needed several stitches after taking a stiff chair shot from Matt Hardy on Smackdown Thursday night.

Mike Mooneyham can be reached by phone at (843) 937-5517 or by e-mail at [email protected] He is the co-author of “Sex, Lies and Headlocks: The Real Story of Vince McMahon and the World Wrestling Federation,” published by Crown. For more wrestling news, check out www.mikemooneyham.com.