Hardcore Holly was known as one of the stiffest wrestlers in WWE history. While his list of accomplishments is rather threadbare, he still managed to earn the respect of Vince McMahon by being a straightforward, no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners tough guy. What he lacked in charisma or technical grace he made up for with his legitimate toughness and genuine danger in the ring.
Being a stiff wrestler has its advantages and its drawbacks. Wrestlers that dish out such punishing offense are perceived to be stronger and tougher, and it makes the recipients of that stiff offense look better afterwards. After all, how many times have you seen JBL hit a ridiculously stiff “Clothesline from Hell” and wonder how tough his opponent must be to survive such a move?
On the other hand, being stiff contradicts one of the core elements of the entertainment-focused North American style. The whole point is to create the illusion of hurting someone without actually doing so. That said, WWE is Vince’s world, and if nothing else, the man has respect for genuine toughness.
That’s why, for example, when Booker T took down Batista after the Animal was mouthing off against the SmackDown roster, Vince rewarded his toughness with a World Title reign. It’s also why John Morrison was essentially demoted during his final months in WWE: he didn’t stand up when Melina (allegedly) cheated on him with Batista (again with this guy?), so Vince saw him as a weak man from then on.
But as stiff as he was, Hardcore Holly wasn’t the stiffest wrestler of them all. In fact, there were or are 15 wrestlers stiffer than him, and all of them will be chronicled here.
15. The Nasty Boys
From looking at them, you might not think that the Nasty Boys were much of a threat. Alas, looks can be deceiving, as these two men have a reputation for being among the stiffest tag teams in modern wrestling history.
The Nasty Boys were stiff for a reason that’s different for most people on this list. They weren’t stiff because they were trained in a martial arts-based wrestling style. Nor were they stiff to send a message to someone from the political powers backstage.
They were stiff because they were sloppy.
The Nasty Boys wrestled in a ‘garbage’ brawl-style that featured a lot of hard-hitting strikes that made their matches more like shootfights than pro wrestling matches.
In fact, Mick Foley once described the Nasty Boys as ‘sloppy as hell and more than a little dangerous’. Keep in mind, this is Mick ‘I-took-an-inhuman-amount-of-punishment-during-my-career’ Foley calling someone dangerous. Take that for what you will.
14. Kurt Angle
In his book, Hardcore Holly described how intensely Kurt Angle fought in his matches. Given the degree of intensity and dedication he put into his matches it isn’t hard to believe that Angle would stiff his opponents on occasion.
Angle was known to hit stiff forearms against any opponent that wanted him to work in that style, including Holly himself. He’d also use legit amateur wrestling takedowns and holds, some of them causing very real pain. During his early career, Angle used the “Crossface Chickenwing” as his finisher, which has been described by many wrestling veterans as a legitimately painful wrestling hold.
Goldberg’s rise to superstardom was based on a booking style that kept his matches simple and formulaic. Goldberg used very few moves so that his weaknesses and limitations wouldn’t be exposed in a match (as they were in that infamous Goldberg/Regal match).
To that end Goldberg used the same moves over and again to great success: shoulder tackles, power moves and suplexes, his “Spear,” and an array of stiff punches and kicks. Much of this stiffness was due to his own inexperience, and unfortunately, it was this stiffness that had serious long-term consequences for one Bret Hart.
In 2000, Bret was already dealing with early concussion issues, but it was an errant side kick that connected squarely with Hart’s head that led to a severe concussion. Despite his best efforts to work through the pain, Hart was forced to retire due to the concussion he suffered at the hands of Goldberg.
This just proves how much training wrestlers have to go through not only to execute their moves properly, but to ensure they know how to communicate with one another to make sure things like this don’t happen.
12. New Jack
If there was one wrestler that pushed the envelope to the point of discomfort, it was New Jack. Whether he was working or whether he was legitimately angry with whoever his opponent was on any given night, New Jack would become synonymous with ultra-violent wrestling in ECW, long before Combat Zone Wrestling (CZW) was ever a thing.
Jack’s ‘regular’ matches often included such things as: stiff punches and kicks, even stiffer weapon strikes, and ridiculous amounts of blood. His matches were the epitome of the extreme spirit of ECW, eschewing anything in pro wrestling that could be considered ‘artistic.’
His penchant for stiffness and danger reached two notable extremes. The first was the Mass Transit incident, in which Jack bladed ‘Mass Transit’ Eric Kulas far too deeply, causing him to loss a significant amount of blood. The second was the infamous “Danbury Fall,” in which Jack and Vic Grimes botched a planned spot and fell into the floor. Jack suffered permanent brain damage and blindness from the result, which served as perhaps a cruel irony given how much punishment he dished out in his matches.
11. Chris Benoit/Wild Pegasus
Long before his name was erased from WWE history, Chris Benoit was considered one of the finest workers of any wrestling era. A skillful grappler, Benoit excelled in virtually every aspect of the natural sport of wrestling. A major part of his reputation stemmed from the ‘hardman’ style he wrestled: every aspect of his style was stiff or legitimate in some way.
Benoit’s chops were legendary, as he would strike as hard as possible. While most fans today do Flair’s ‘woo’ chant at the sight of one of his knife-edge chops, fans would groan in sympathy for Benoit’s opponents as he’d deliver some of the most vicious chops ever seen in a WWE ring. He would also use very stiff submission holds, which led to them looking far more ‘realistic’ holds than the seemingly artificial ones seen today.
Finally, Benoit could, on rare occasions, show off some pure power, as seen with his incredibly painful “Wild Bomb finisher.” Say what you want about his final days. Before that, Benoit was one of the few men in wrestling that earned respect pretty much exclusively from his hard work and drive to succeed.
JBL became something of a backstage ‘untouchable’ following years of faithful service to WWE. In a time when many of their top guys were jumping ship, Bradshaw stayed loyal to WWE, and was rewarded handsomely years later with the longest-ever run as WWE Champion when the belt was SmackDown-exclusive.
But before, during, and after his reign as WWE Champion, JBL was more noted for his unrelenting stiffness than for his drawing appeal. He hit his opponents as hard as possible on virtually every occasion, whether they wanted him to work stiff or not.
On some occasions he was asked to do this by the powers above him as a sort of test to see if those wrestlers could survive in WWE’s merciless and high-stress environment. On other occasions he did so because someone ticked him off.
Case in point: when the APA faced Public Enemy in a match on RAW and they told APA at the last second they weren’t going to go with the previously-agreed-upon finish, Bradshaw and Faarooq destroyed the Public Enemy with some of the most vicious and stiffest strikes ever seen. Those two wrestlers were sent packing shortly after this match ended.
9. The Dynamite Kid
‘Dynamite Kid’ Tom Billington was one of the most innovative wrestlers to ever lace up a pair of boots. He was instrumental in the gradual shift towards a more high-flying-oriented style, and his legendary match with the original Tiger Mask was the first-ever “Five-Star match.” He was so incredibly good at what he did, but there was a dark side to his skill.
The Dynamite Kid was notoriously stiff and difficult to work with. Many former colleagues of his noted just how hard he hit them, and sometimes he stiffed them without explanation. Even noted family friend Bret Hart mentioned how Billington hit him so hard so many times throughout their respective careers, and found that he couldn’t tell if it was because of his style or if Billington had some legitimate bitterness under the surface.
One cannot deny the skill that the Dynamite Kid had when in the ring, but his stiffness couldn’t be ignored either. His strikes were often executed as stiffly as possible, which led to him having many enemies and few friends, especially in WWE, where the softer working style was what people needed more often than the unrelenting stiffness often associated with Japanese wrestling.
8. Brock Lesnar
One shouldn’t be surprised to find Brock Lesnar’s name on this list. After all, if there’s one thing that we’ve learned, it’s that Lesnar does not give a single f**k about anything or anyone. That’s why he can be stiff in the ring and bust someone up the hard way without any repercussions.
In an interesting note, Lesnar wasn’t as stiff during the earlier part of his career. He was more of an amateur like Kurt Angle, but didn’t execute as many stiff strikes as his Olympipc counterpart. Lesnar became something of a stiff monster after his MMA run, where hitting as hard as possible is expected of everyone. Lesnar managed to negotiate a contract that gave him far more freedom in his actions, which is why he can get away with so much more.
Only Lesnar can give John Cena a bloody lip and get away with it. Only Lesnar can hit everyone he’s in the ring with as hard as possible and not reciprocate the selling afterwards. Only Lesnar can bust Randy Orton’s head open and turn him into a bloody mess and get thanked for it.
7. KENTA/Hideo Itami
Many WWE fans wondered what kind of wrestler Itami would become in WWE. Alas, his career so far has been characterized by devastating injuries and difficulty connecting with the audience. His future in NXT might be further in doubt, especially since he lost his position as ‘top Japanese star’ now that Nakamura’s on the roster.
If only NXT would allow him to be the same wrestler KENTA was in Japan.
NOAH’s KENTA was awesome. He suffered from a small man complex and made up for it by starting s**t with everyone around him. He slapped people as hard as possible all the time. He kicked people in the legs and torso without mercy. He stomped on his opponent’s heads and hands like a jerk. It was so easy for his opponents to hate him that many people believed he had legitimate heat with his fellow wrestlers.
If you’re a fan of seeing crazy, borderline shootfights in your wrestling matches, go watch KENTA in Pro Wrestlinh NOAH. Hideo Itami is a shadow of this former self, and one hopes that he can get his career back on the right track. Maybe if WWE gave him more freedom to be the unchained ass-kicker he was in NOAH, his career might still be salvageable.
6. Mitsuharu Misawa
If you were to make a list of the best wrestlers of all time, Misawa’s name would be somewhere near the top. He was an exceptionally-skilled wrestler who could literally do anything and everything in the ring. From impressive chain wrestling to stiff Japanese strikes to impressive aerials, Misawa holds the current record for most matches rated 5-Stars by the Wrestling Observer.
A major reason for so many stellar ratings was because Misawa’s matches were characterized by this idea that he was ‘working a fight’ instead of working a ‘back-and-forth, your-turn/my-turn wrestling match.’ To hammer this point home, Misawa delivered some extremely stiff offense.
As with any top Japanese wrestler, Misawa combined his wrestling style with martial arts and legit strikes. In his case, he used many moves that connected 100% with his opponent, instead of trying to pull a strike to reduce the impact. His missile dropkicks, spin kicks, and most famously his rolling/roaring elbow smashes were vicious when they connected.
His stiffness wasn’t limited to strikes, however. Many of Misawa’s signature ‘grapple moves’ were just as stiff and painful as his strikes. Many of his maneuvers targeted the upper neck and shoulders, from his “Tiger Suplex” and various versions of the “Tiger Driver” to his patented “Emerald Flowsion modified Powerslam.”
5. Kenta Kobashi
When they see/hear a knife-edged chop, most fans react with a ‘woo’ in tribute to Ric Flair, because he’s supposed to be the best ‘chopper’ in wrestling. Those fans don’t know Kenta Kobashi.
Once called ‘the perfect wrestler’ by Tokyo Sports, Kenta Kobashi edges out his rival Misawa in the stiffness department. Whereas Misawa’s stiff moves had an underlying sense of artistry and flow to them, Kobashi was simply an unstoppable stiffness machine that would not stop until his opponent stayed down for the three count.
Kobashi had the best physique from any of his fellow Four Pillars of Heaven, and used that superior strength to execute some devastating offence. Kobashi was likewise once called ‘the Maximum Innovator’ for creating arguably more signature moves than any other wrestler.
These include: the “Orange Crush” (a vertical Suplex into a Powerbomb), the “Black Crush” (vertical Suplex into an Acr Crusher), the “Diamondhead” (Powerbomb into a DDT), the “Sleeper” hold Suplex, and most famously, the “Burning Hammer.”
While most of these moves were sickening in their stiffness by themselves, nothing pales in comparison to the viciousness of Kenta Kobashi’s chops. Kobashi is the single-most dangerous chop master in wrestling history, capable of turning any opponent’s chest and torso purple with only a few well-aimed chops.
In fact, in his match against Samoa Joe in ROH in 2005, Kobashi barely used any offence outside of his chops. For 80% of that match, all Kobashi did was chop, and it was enough to fell Samoa Joe. After the match, Joe was barely able to complete his post-match promo, he was so badly bruised from Kobashi’s chops.
4. Low Ki/Kaval
A prime example of big things in small packages, the man known otherwise as Low Ki/Kaval made up for his small stature by being unbelievably stiff in the ring. Like Daniel Bryan and KENTA, he tended to kick people as hard as possible in his matches, which made him a popular attraction on the independent scene.
Go watch any match involving Low Ki. His strikes echoed throughout the arena and caused the fans to either cheer in approval or groan at the sound of those kicks. Apparently, he based his offense on another famous kicker from Japan (we’ll get to him later), and tried to adopt the style for himself.
Sadly, while it worked for him on the independent scene, it couldn’t translate into success during his brief WWE run. No matter how hard he kicked, Kaval couldn’t connect with either the WWE audience or its power-brokers, mainly due to his size. Now, if NXT in the early 2010s was the same as it is now, and wrestlers were more or less awarded for any outside experience, Kaval would’ve been NXT Champion for sure.
3. Stan Hansen
He’s the King of the Lariat. He’s the man that broke Bruno Sammartino’s neck in 1976. He became the biggest ‘gaijin’ wrestler in Japanese wrestling history. He’s Stan Hansen, and he’s as feared a striker as there ever will be.
Hansen had a tendency to hit as hard as possible in the ring throughout his career, which he attributed to his poor eyesight. Because of this, he tended to swing his arms like baseball bats, striking with unrelenting fury.
Because of this, he became feared in the United States (where wrestlers preferred a ‘working’ style) and beloved in Japan (where legitimate toughness has always been praised). Hansen’s “Western Lariat” was among the most feared moves in all of wrestling, and his opponents were terrified to take it.
Long before Japan became a haven for ultra-dangerous head-drop moves, the Western Lariat was the unquestioned king of stiff moves. Hansen’s recklessness also led to a famous incident in which an errant strike caused his opponent Vader’s eye to fall out of his socket. Now, Vader managed to push his eye back into his socket and hold it in place with his eyelid, because he know he’d be in for even more punishment if he dared to try and exact revenge against the legendary Texan.
Vader is one of the greatest big men in wrestling history. Despite weighing around 450lbs. for the majority of his career, Vader was incredibly agile for a big man, capable of executing a Moonsault from the top rope, which must’ve been one of the most terrifying moves ever seen.
Naturally, that athleticism was complemented by incredible stiffness, which Vader became accustomed to after having wrestled in Japan before and during his WCW career.
Everything Vader did in the ring was dangerous. His punches and forearms were stiff to the point you could hear him hitting his opponent with ease (and he wasn’t slapping his thigh to make the impact noise). He hit stiff suplexes and slams without remorse. He was even found unofficially responsible for Cactus Jack’s ear injury.
This reputation for stiffness and toughness allowed him to make a comeback in Japan after being booked poorly in WWE. Having run afoul of a pre-injury Shawn Michaels, Vader’s reputation was damaged greatly by WWE’s booking. But his legacy for stiffness and legitimate badassery allowed him to become champion in All Japan after his WWE run, which was full of equally-stiff wrestlers.
1. Toshiaki Kawada
Toshiaki ‘Dangerous K’ Kawada is the most devastating striker in wrestling history. Throughout the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, Kawada made a name for himself with his offense that was composed of high-angle suplexes, painful chops and forearms, and extremely painful kicks.
Watching him wrestle during his peak years in the 1990s, you got the feeling that he was trying to hurt his opponents legitimately. It didn’t take long for his matches to evolve into a stiffing competition, with Kawada’s famous kicks usually being enough to fell even the toughest of opponents.
Everything about Kawada’s offense screamed stiffness. His signature Gamengiri kick was a jumping roundhouse kick to the face that must’ve certainly broken many jaws and ear drums over the years. When he locked in his “Stretch Plum” submission hold, he’d have the audience wincing over how he was stretching his opponent’s face beyond normal human pain limits. Whenever he executed a suplex, whether it was a German, Dragon or high-angle Backdrop à la Steve Williams, his opponent was certainly going to feel it in their shoulders and neck the next morning.
Finally, Kawada holds the dubious distinction of inventing what many call the most dangerous finisher of all time: The “Ganso Bomb,” a sheerdrop Powerbomb/Piledriver where the victims dropped straight onto their head.
If there was ever a wrestler that you’d never want to take a move from (unless you were one of the inhumanly tough AJPW wrestlers he rubbed shoulders with), it was Toshiaki Kawada.