Retro Baltimore: 50 things we miss

Top 10 favorite wrestlers of all time

I’ve often been asked who my all-time favorite wrestlers are, so I finally decided to really give it some thought and come up with my top 10.

In looking at my list, I think it’s apparent that I tend to gravitate to wrestlers with larger-than-life personas who can cut strong promos. It’s also clear that I have always favored the heels.

To reiterate, this is simply a list of my personal favorites. There are some on the list who I really marked out for when I was a child or a teenager, and others who I became fans of as an adult.

So, here’s my top 10, in descending order. Feel free to share your list.10. LARRY ZBYSZKO

If I could use just one word to describe Zbyszko from 1974 to 1979 it would be “boring.” As the young protégé of Bruno Sammartino in the WWWF, Zbyszko was the epitome of a bland, white-meat babyface. And then in 1980, he turned on his mentor and instantly became the coolest guy on the planet as far as I was concerned. Suddenly, Zbyszko had a swagger and a mean streak. He was cunning in the ring and sarcastic and condescending on the microphone. He was the ultimate disrespectful young punk rebelling against his elders. As a 13-year-old going through my own rebellious stage, I loved it. After he left the WWF, Zbyszko continued to be an entertaining heel for more than a decade in the NWA, WCW and AWA.


Having grown up in a traditional WWF city during the territorial days, I only knew Flair initially from photos and stories in wrestling magazines. Even with that limited exposure to him, however, I could tell that he was someone special. When my family got cable television in the early ’80s and I actually got to see “The Nature Boy” walk the walk and talk the talk, he became must-see TV for me before that term ever entered the lexicon. I finally saw Flair wrestle in person when Georgia Championship Wrestling came to Baltimore in 1984, and he lived up to the hype. Twenty-four years later, I shed a tear while sitting in The Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Fla., watching what I thought at the time was Flair’s final match. Unfortunately, it wasn’t, and seeing what Flair has become since joining TNA makes me sad. But for more than 30 years, Flair created countless wrestling memories for me that cannot be diminished.


During my early years as a wrestling fan, it seemed as if every babyface was humble, honorable and clean-cut. In other words, they were boring. Rhodes, however, was as charismatic as any heel. “The American Dream” was cocky, had bleached-blond hair and used jive talk to cut the best promos I had ever seen. Whenever Rhodes would make an occasional appearance in the WWF in the ’70s and early ’80s, it was a big deal. Several years later, when it became fashionable to cheer for cool heels Ric Flair and the Four Horsemen during their epic battles with Rhodes in the NWA, I remained a steadfast Dusty supporter. Heck, I even loved him when he became a yellow polka dot-clad, dancing “common man” in the WWF in the late ’80s.


The first time I saw Savage in the WWF I knew that he was going to be a huge star. It wasn’t just the sparkly robes and the gravelly voice that made him stand out, it was his fantastic skills inside the ring. Nobody blended power, speed, agility and technical skills like the “Macho Man” in his prime. Having the lovely Miss Elizabeth as his manager added to his mystique, as no matter how badly he treated her, she remained loyal to him (until that rat Hulk Hogan, with lust in his eyes, lured her away). Savage was effective as both a heel and a babyface, but it was during his two heel runs in the WWF that I marked out for him the most. It’s a shame that he never got a run as a heel world champion in the WWF.


When Graham came to the WWWF in the mid-70s, I had never seen anyone like him. Most of world champion Bruno Sammartino’s challengers were either menacing tough guys with grizzled features, wild men or foreign heels, but Graham had a tan, sculpted physique, bleached-blond hair and colorful tie-dye tights. He also cut boastful, entertaining promos that were reminiscent of boxing great Muhammad Ali. Graham instantly became my favorite wrestler, and while most of the wrestling world was in mourning when he ended Sammartino’s second title reign in Baltimore, April 30, 1977 was one of the greatest days of 9-year-old Kevin Eck’s life. Consequently, Feb. 20, 1978 – when Graham dropped the title to the ultra-bland Bob Backlund – was one of the worst. I wasn’t a fan of Graham’s attempt to re-invent himself years later as a bald-headed karate master, and trying to turn back the clock and put on the tie-dye again didn’t really work either. But from 1975 to 1978, the Superstar, truly was the man of the hour, the man with the power, too sweet to be sour.


When “Handsome” Jimmy and “Luscious” Johnny burst onto the WWWF scene in 1974, they became the first wrestlers that I was totally obsessed with. I had to have any wrestling magazine that had the cocky, bleached-blond “brothers” on the cover, and I even dressed up as Jimmy Valiant for Halloween (although no one in my neighborhood could figure out who I was supposed to be). Whenever I saw them wrestle in person, I would get goose bumps as the entire arena would be booing and hurling obscenities at them. The Valiants held the WWWF tag team title for a little over a year, a record that stood for 14 years. It was a sad day when they dropped the belts to the rather unimpressive duo of Dominic DeNucci and Victor Rivera. When the Valiant Brothers returned to the WWF a few years later with a third member – “Gentleman” Jerry – the magic was gone. I was never a big fan of Jimmy as the “Boogie Woogie Man” or Johnny as a WWF manager, either.


I took notice of Jericho when he was a member of WCW’s talented cruiserweight division around 1996 or 1997. He had an exciting in-ring style and a good look, but I remember thinking that it was a shame his inability to cut a decent promo was going to keep him from ever making it big in wrestling. After he turned heel, however, he became one of the company’s most entertaining characters, and I became a diehard Jericho-holic. Since jumping to WWE in 1999, Jericho has proved to be one of best all-around performers in the business and someone who is equally effective as a heel or a babyface. The guy who I once thought didn’t have the mic skills to be a player is now regarded as one of the very best talkers in the business. Jericho is a textbook example of talent winning out in the end.


I became a Piper fan before I ever saw him wrestle a match. In 1981, Piper was the heel color commentator alongside the legendary Gordon Solie on TBS’ Georgia Championship Wrestling, and Piper’s quick wit and acerbic comments were the best part of the show for me. What I loved about Piper – beyond the fact that he was wrestling’s most entertaining talker until The Rock came around many years later – was that he was a loud-mouth jerk who no one could shut up. The heat he generated was incredible. After the infamous incident in the WWF when Piper smashed Jimmy Snuka in the head with a coconut during a Piper’s Pit, I remember actually being fearful for my own safety because I was cheering enthusiastically for Piper when he wrestled the wildly popular “Superfly” in Baltimore and used every dirty trick in the book. Piper solidified his status as my all-time favorite heel when he battled Hulk Hogan and tried to take down the Rock and Wrestling Connection. Even though I always preferred the heels, I remained a huge mark for Piper when he became a babyface.


I like to think that I have a pretty good eye for spotting future superstars, but I have to admit that my first impressions of Rocky Maivia were not favorable. He was athletic and had a decent-enough look, but he seemed to be lacking the “it” factor. Of course, when he morphed into The Rock, he set a new standard for having “it.” In my nearly 40 years of watching wrestling, I haven’t seen anyone more charismatic or better at trash-talking than The Rock. You just can’t help but marvel at a guy who gets a bigger crowd reaction raising an eyebrow or dropping an elbow than someone performing a 450 Splash. Whether he’s a heel or a babyface, The Rock has always been the most electrifying man in sports entertainment. Having interviewed him several times both before and after he became a movie star, I’ve also become a fan of Dwayne Johnson for the way he has handled his success.


After watching The Rockers – Michaels and Marty Jannetty – for a few years in the AWA and WWF in the late ’80s and early ’90s, it became apparent to me that Michaels was a singles star waiting to happen. He eventually got his opportunity, and it was around 1994 that I was convinced that he was the best all-around performer in the business. It was also at that time that Michaels became my favorite performer. Sixteen years later, when he finished his career with yet another show-stealing performance at WrestleMania, Michaels still was as good or better than any of his peers. As talented as he was athletically, “The Heartbreak Kid” also had charisma, the gift of gab and the uncanny ability to get a reaction from the crowd – whether he was trying to make them love him or hate him. It didn’t matter if he was a crotch-chopping degenerate or a God-fearing family man, Michaels was always The Showstopper whenever he appeared on the card.

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