As I stood atop the wooden base of the futon – ready to deliver a flying elbow – I didn’t think about how I got there or the potential health-threatening consequences of my actions.
What I was more concerned with was aiming at the heart of one of my best friends, who was lying motionless on the floor. After all, it wouldn’t be a flying elbow if it wasn’t delivered with Shawn-Michaels-like precision.
It was the night of Sunday, April 7, and Wrestlemania XXVIIII had just ended. A group of friends and I had convened in the lounge room of my Hatboro, Pa., home to be a part of the single biggest night in professional wrestling. More specifically, we were there to yell things at the TV as grown men in tights faked it in front of more than 80,000 people at Metlife Stadium.
After we finished watching John Cena anti-climactically defeat The Rock in the show’s main event, the eight of us naturally broke into some post-match wrestling. We pulled the usual stunts – foreign objects, botched attempts at submission moves, kick-out after kick-out. The toy chest in the room was ransacked and the Walls of Jericho were inevitable.
Our behavior wasn’t normal. A 20-year old, I was the youngest person in the room. Yet there we were, sharpshooting and stone-cold stunning our way deeper and deeper into the bounds of immaturity.
My love for professional wrestling can be traced to the Attitude Era, when some of the greatest performers in the history of the World Wrestling Entertainment competed against each other at the end of the 1990s. With headliners like Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock, sub-plots involving Kane and The Undertaker and the peak of the tag-team division, the WWE was never better.
If asked, I might say that the best birthday present I’ve ever received came on my ninth birthday, when my mom purchased Wrestlemania X-Seven on pay-per view. My brother and I stayed up late, watched the legendary TLC match for the tag-team championship, and saw Stone Cold turn heel in one of the greatest Wrestlemanias of all time.
That Wrestlemania is often cited as the end of the Attitude Era, and thus I often regard it as the point in which I stopped paying attention to pro wrestling at a young age. Stone Cold became a joke, The Rock was written out of storylines so he could pursue his movie career, and some guy who rapped in jean shorts soon took over the company.
I lost interest.
But my appreciation for professional wrestling never went away. It’s a blend of athleticism and performance that is totally unique in the entertainment industry. I don’t have time for ignorant critics who blast the industry for being phony or immature.
“You know it’s fake, right?”
Yes, I know it’s fake. Don Draper isn’t an actual person, nor does a man named Walter White cook meth, but it doesn’t stop millions from tuning in on Sunday nights. Story lines are story lines, whether they’re told as a stylized drama or through piledrivers and DDTs.
In fact, professional wrestling is more real than most of the stuff you watch on TV. Mick Foley broke 12 bones, received more than 300 stitches, and lost two-thirds of his right ear during his 15-year career. Try telling him wrestling isn’t real.
My list this week is a tribute to Foley’s career and the careers of any other wrestler who put their bodies on the line every week, despite being ridiculed for dressing up and pretending. In a world of pre-tapes, publicity stunts and stagings, professional wrestling stays dedicated to the art of live theater.
Can I get a “Hell yeah?”
10. John Cena
He’s an average performer and his character lacks originality, but it’s hard not to include John Cena in a list of the Top 10 wrestlers of all time. He’s currently in his 11th reign as WWE Champion – a record – and was most responsible for ushering in a new era of wrestling after the Attitude Era concluded.
9. Triple H
Few wrestlers have been more loyal to the company than Triple H, who married the big man’s daughter, holds the role of Vice President of Talent, and sports one of the most illustrious careers in WWE history. A 13-time world champion, Triple H has been with the company for 15 years, and never once did he leave to pursue other opportunities.
8. Mick Foley
No matter what character he was channeling – “Mankind,” “Cactus Jack” or “Dude Love,” Mick Foley always had the hardest head in the ring. His hardcore matches – most notably the 1998 King of the Ring Hell in a Cell match against The Undertaker – are legendary.
7. Bret Hart
Bred from a family of wrestlers, Bret Hart stands out as one of WWE’s greatest in-ring performers whose prime coincided with the peak of the company. He held the WWE title for a longer time than any other wrestler in the 1990s, and is a seven-time world champion overall. His submission match against Stone Cold at Wrestlemania XIII stands as the greatest double turn in the company’s history.
6. “Stone Cold” Steve Austin
His reign atop the company was relatively short, but Stone Cold was nonetheless one of the most important superstars in the history of the WWE. He was the most vital piece of the Attitude Era, and his feud with Vince McMahon created an all-time peak of the WWE’s popularity.
5. The Rock
The Rock is the complete package. A born athlete, his in-ring capabilities were second to few, and no one in the history of the WWE is better behind the mic. His feud with Stone Cold remains the company’s gold standard, and his recent return to wrestling has brought about a revitalization to the WWE.
4. Hulk Hogan
With his charismatic promos and legendary matches, Hulk Hogan was the performer most responsible for ushering in the modern era of professional wrestling. He was a fixture of both the WWE and WCW – he holds six world titles in both companies and headlined main events throughout his career. At Wrestlemania III, Hogan bodyslammed Andre the Giant, won on a leg-drop and changed the wrestling world forever.
3. Ric Flair
It has been said that if you polled former and current wrestlers and ask them who is the greatest wrestler of all time, most of them would say Ric Flair. Flair finished a 40-year career with a record 24 world titles in the NWA, WWE and WCW. An old-timer who changed the game, and adapted as the game changed around him, Flair’s influence permeates the WWE.
2. The Undertaker
What began as a gimmick has evolved into not only one of the most successful reigns in WWE history, but one of the most remarkable careers in all of professional sports. There’s nothing Mark “The Undertaker” Calaway hasn’t done. He’s been tag-team partners with Hulk Hogan, won the world championship seven times, and is a perfect 21-0 at Wrestlemania. The Undertaker is as perfect a character as the WWE has ever created.
1. Shawn Michaels
The greatest in-ring performer of all time and the man who has been at the center of more memorable moments than any other wrestler in WWE history, Michaels is the greatest to ever step into the ring. He was only honored as WWE champion four times, but made anyone who’s ever wrestled against him better. His back-to-back epic bouts against the Undertaker at Wrestlemanias XXV and XXVI – the second of which ended Michaels’ career – are the greatest matches in WWE history. A fitting conclusion for a man who gave everything to the company.
“Macho Man” Randy Savage, Sting, Kurt Angle.
Joey Cranney can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @joey_cranney.