Contrary to popular belief, hardcore wrestling was not begun by ECW. Paul Heyman and Tod Gordon were merely taking long-time aspects of wrestling and bringing it to the mainstream. Back in the “golden age” of wrestling, you’d see massive bloodbaths which were an even bigger deal thanks to how kayfabe was king and thus the fans totally believed it was for real. Indeed, many times you would get literal riots from crowds reacting to these events and wrestlers actually being attacked for real for being hated heels. While that has faded a bit, the fact is that so many of the older territories were doing total bloodbaths long before ECW came around. That includes stuff you wouldn’t see today like fireballs and a variety of weapons used.
You can still see some hardcore stuff around but with WWE going for a more PG-rated feel, you have to look to the indies more. Some of that stuff can be too dangerous, guys going all out to entertain and taking far too many bumps and cuts to be professional. Still, so many guys in wrestling history have gone to some terrific hardcore antics, many paving the way for the guys to follow down the road. Brawlers and even great technical workers, these are men who have put their bodies on the line numerous times to get fans fired up and show how wild wrestling can be. Here are the 15 greatest legends of the hardcore wrestling division and showing that even the “good old days” could get pretty damn violent.
15 Axl & Ian Rotten
Brought in as a tag team to ECW, the Rotten Brothers would find some success but after a hard loss, they turned on one another to engage in one of the bloodiest and wildest feuds ever seen in the company. Their fights worked every type of hardcore match, including barbed wire bats, barbed wire chairs, cages and a “Tapei Death Match” which had their fists taped with broken glass, a bout that nearly got ECW kicked off the air. Eventually reuniting, the brothers continued their brawling works in ECW and various independent regions, smashing opponents with chairs and no qualms bleeding buckets across the ring if it got the crowd going. Axl passed away earlier this year from a heroin overdose while Ian continues to handle the effects of all these fights, but the two are still remembered for a feud that elevated hardcore wrestling to a bold new level.
14 Bruiser Brody
Still legendary for his wild brawling and amazing ring presence, Frank Goodish was a tall and muscular man whose shaggy hair and beard gave him a “wildman” look that he utilized to his best. Wherever Brody went, he’d engage in huge brawls, often against other monster workers and some fantastic bloody battles. His work in Japan was amazing and still well-remembered as his brawls with Abdullah the Butcher could be so bloody, they’d put ECW to shame. Brody was a good man outside the ring, smart about his money and while criticized over going over anyone anywhere he went, he was big business thanks to his fantastic ring style. Murdered in a locker room in 1988, his legend has grown in the years since and still one of the greatest stars of his era who set the standard for many a monster brawler since in terms of keeping a crowd hooked into a hardcore match.
His masked character has gotten attention in TNA, at first a silent monster with beefy attacks but in 2004, he began changing to a more hardcore style with ladder bouts and a “Monster’s Ball” match against Raven involving falling on tacks. He and Jeff Hardy went at it in a wild feud involving “Full Metal Mayhem,” with tables, ladders, chairs, tacks and more used. He had a great cage match against AJ Styles that involved some blood. That was followed by a feud with Raven involving steel chain collars and a long conflict with Sabu that guaranteed blood. Since then, he’s bounced between heel and face and bits like the goofy gimmick of Abyss’ “brother” Joseph that would go wild when he was cut. That’s included slews of brutal matches that include thrown in coffins, Christmas trees of steel weapons and more that prove Abyss can take out and dish punishment like few others in TNA while remaining one of their bigger stars.
12 The Sandman
One of the first to really help elevate ECW to its major fame, James Fullington was a bit rough in his character at first before he brought more of his edge into it. Coming out with a cigarette and beer, he added a Singapore cane to become the Sandman, the brutal weapon something different for the time. Soon, he was taking off as a heel champion with his savage attacks (including faking being blind to sucker Tommy Dreamer into an attack) and a great feud with Cactus Jack including a barbed wire bloodbath. That led to an epic feud with Raven involving Sandman’s own family turning on him, as they went at it massively. His run in WCW was a disaster with their hardcore division a complete mess, so his return to ECW was welcomed. Bouncing around the indies, he showed up for the revival of ECW under the WWE banner as well as runs with TNA. While age took its toll (and he had to cut back on the smoking), the Sandman still has to be regarded as one of the guys who loved living out his character and the fans never ceasing to go wild for that famous theme song playing to welcome a true hardcore icon.
11 Tommy Dreamer
Coming into ECW as a “pretty boy” the fans hated, Dreamer won them over when he lost a match to the Sandman and was caned 10 times, taking the blows hard. Dreamer soon moved to the feud with Raven that elevated both men to stardom, going at it in wild and bloody battles with numerous weapons with Dreamer finally winning in Raven’s farewell match. More battles included scaffold matches and other brawls that had Dreamer bleeding like crazy as the fans cheered him on. His runs in WWF and the revival of ECW showcased his ability to keep on going despite hints of retirement now and then and still a popular face, even in a short TNA run. Dreamer preferred not holding titles as the fan love was all he needed to help boost ECW to its great fame and be admired among the greats of the hardcore division in so many ways.
Scott Levy had various characters from “Scotty Flamingo” in WCW to prep-school kid “Johnny Polo” in WWF. Joining ECW in 1994, Levy came up with the idea of a goth guy who would talk in poetry and dark tones. The result was one of the most popular heels in the company as Raven took off, especially with his epic feud with Tommy Dreamer that sold out arenas and boosted the company up majorly. Raven could go through any bloody brawl and match, smashed through tables, barbed wire and other attacks and keep on coming. His WCW run was a bit muted but some stuff like holding the U.S. title before a return to ECW. His TNA run had some good stuff like a scalping that turned amazingly bloody and numerous brawls while holding the NWA World title as well. Now on the indie circuit, Raven can still provide some brutal matches and never holding back in his interviews for a guy who was bold in his views as well as his matches.
9 Dusty Rhodes
Ric Flair always said Dusty Rhodes didn’t get the credit due him as a worker (“you think I carried 300 60-minute matches by myself?”) as Dusty was skilled beyond his flabby build. While he could engage in fine battles, Rhodes was also a first-rate brawler, especially in the bull rope matches that he would engage in with Billy Graham and others. His blade jobs were so numerous that by the ‘80s, his forehead was carved up in a nasty way. Dusty was doing things like barbed wire bouts before they were popular and the anything goes “Bunkhouse Stampede” battle royals along with plenty of cage matches. He spilled blood across the Southern states and could still get going in some heavy brawling in the 2000s. Some may find him selfish for his booking style, but Dusty’s exploits made him a popular name in the business and his hardcore style would be emulated by numerous others over the years to elevate him to the status of icon.
8 Necro Butcher
A familiar face in the 2000s indie scene, Dylan Summers soon gained fame as a man willing to go to any lengths whatsoever to get a crowd going. In that time when backyard promotions were popping up all over the place, Butcher went around them, earning his reputation for fighting on broken light bulbs, nails, barbed wire and more. Some battles were so brutal they were never shown on videotape as Summers bled like crazy from staple guns, wire bats and every other weapon imaginable. He even had a stint in Ring of Honor against Bryan Danielson and has gotten praise for real ring skills outside of his “death match” battles. Finally hanging it up this year after numerous injuries, Necro may not have been a mainstream success but his legend among indie fans remains intact and better than just a “stuntman” would seem.
7 Mick Foley
No surprise to find him on this list. It remains ironic that a guy as funny and loveable as Mick Foley could be revered as a true hardcore icon. Despite having a body more suited for couch-surfing than the wrestling ring, Foley clicked with an amazing ability to absorb punishment that got him attention as Cactus Jack in WCW and then taking off in ECW with some pretty bloody battles. In WWE, he was Mankind, a whacky character but the immortal Hell in the Cell match with the Undertaker launched him to stardom that included runs as WWE champion. Since then, Foley continues to pull off some incredibly brutal matches that has led to everything from losing an ear to Vader to numerous concussions, lost teeth, broken ribs, burn marks and far too many cuts and stitches to count. He’s become famous for his books and fun attitude and still a popular face in WWE to show that you can be hardcore as hell and still a nice guy and made Foley one of the best faces of wrestling over the years even if his body is rough.
When wrestlers are asked who is the toughest guy in the entire business, the man known best as Meng in WCW and Haku in WWF generally comes out on top. He seems to truly feel no pain in battles, not just in the ring but bar fights and many a worker has come to regret trying to pull a prank on him. A famous story is how during a fight, Tonga tore out Jesse Barr’s eye out of it socket…and then popped it right back in. Another time, he was in a bar brawl with Ric Flair and literally laughed at the cops pepper-spraying him, breaking the handcuffs and it took a dozen officers to finally bring him in. Perhaps the greatest was when a trio of fans at an airport made the mistake of calling wrestling fake and Tonga bit off one guy’s nose. Most agree that if Tonga in his prime had gone to MMA, he’d be an undefeated champion, no one could hurt him or defeat him and his reputation as one of the most fearsome men in the history of the business is more famous than any of his accomplishments in the ring.
5 Abdullah the Butcher
While born in Canada, Lawrence Robert Shreve gained his fame as “the Butcher from Sudan,” a famous face in wrestling for almost four decades. Wrestling shirtless, his weight could balloon to as much as 450 pounds (a famous photo has four midgets fitting into his trunks) with his large gut marked by a savage burn scar. His head was notable for so many blade jobs that his scars were as deep as a canyon (he actually lost a blade in them) and showcased the damage he’d taken over the years. Any feud with Abdullah guaranteed blood as his long war with Carlos Colon spilled enough blood to fill the Puerto Rico hospital for years, and he and Bruiser Brody were a massive success in Japan. He didn’t have many titles but fans knew when the Butcher came around, things were going to get wild as he would go into fantastic hardcore battles that took massive damage and kept coming back. Even in the 2000s, he’d pop up in ROH and other places to get fans going and was elected to the WWE Hall of Fame despite having done little work for the company. However, the Butcher’s fame was so great in creating what we know as hardcore wrestling that he’s a legend anywhere he goes.
4 New Jack
Jerome Young started with the Gangstas in Smokey Mountain Wrestling as Jim Cornette knew a pair of cliché “street thugs” would get crowds going. He was taken aback at their openly racist promos that got fans a bit too riled up but that served the team well when they moved to ECW. New Jack would be part of the most infamous moment in ECW history when he beat young rookie Mass Transit into a bloody pulp that nearly killed the kid, causing massive lawsuits that almost shut the company down. Dragging a cart of weapons to the ring with him, New Jack was soon engaging in nasty battles using every weapon imaginable and one match had him getting a stapler in the eye that put him out of action for a while. In 2000, he suffered a gruesome injury when he and Vic Grimes fell off a 15-foot scaffold, missed the tables and New Jack was busted open with legitimate brain damage. That has apparently caused numerous run-ins with the law such as trashing a 7-11 and stabbing an opponent with a knife nine times. Still popping up now and then, New Jack’s mouth continues to run as wild as his ring style for a guy who never met a fight he didn’t love to participate in.
3 The Sheik
If you looked at wrestling magazines in the 1960s and ‘70s, you’d see the Sheik was a favorite for their covers. Born in Michigan, Ed Farhat claimed to be a rich man from Syria to get easy crowd heat and then backed it up with some of the most brutal brawling you would ever see. Fireballs, chairs, every sort of object you can think of, the Sheik used it all and his bloody visage was a constant sight on magazines and terrifying kids. He lived the character with incomprehensible promos as a lunatic and reveled in scaring the kids in the crowd. His feuds with Bobo Brazil and Freddie Blassie were full-scale wars with cage matches and bloody battles that had crowds screaming for his head. While not a bad guy outside the ring, the Sheik could be one of the wildest of all time in it and blazed a trail for so many hardcore folks (including his nephew Sabu) to follow and be revered as a legend upon his passing in 2003 as the “wild foreigner” who started it all.
2 Terry Funk
It’s almost hilarious to look at photos of a young, clean-cut Terry Funk in the 1970s and marvel at how this guy was considered a technical marvel. He and Dory are the only two brothers to hold the NWA World title and Funk’s run as champ was considered pretty good. Slowed by injuries, Funk soon changed to his more brawling style with a fondness for branding irons that gave his career a new spark. In 1989, he and Ric Flair went at it in a wild feud with Funk piledriving Flair on a table and doing some wild blade jobs in their various matches that made the feud a hit. In 1993, despite pushing 50, Funk helped put ECW on the map with the three-way match that helped make the company and soon aiding them in such battles as the infamous barbed-wire match against Sabu. He kept it up with runs in WWE and elsewhere, still the wild man able to bleed buckets and take damage like no one else. He keeps teasing retirement but most believe it will take death to keep Terry Funk out of wrestling for good as the man a greater hardcore legend than he ever was as World champion.
“Homicidal, genocidal, suicidal” was the description Paul Heyman came up for Sabu and it fit. The nephew of the Sheik, Sabu actually trained to be a technical wrestler with some high-flying moves but various attempts to break through that way never worked. So, he started emulating his uncle’s brutal style with various matches on the indie circuit. That soon led to his rise in ECW where his brutal table smashing and barbed wire matches made him an early standout for the company and set them on their great fame. His run in WCW wasn’t as effective due to them neutering him more but his return to ECW was marked by the great feud with Tazz and other brutal battles that enhanced his legend. Since then, he’s spent time in WWE, TNA and other places, each time showing his fantastic ability to endure huge pain from a broken neck to half his body covered in scars. He’s older but still shows some of that amazing strength and skill off and lived up to his uncle’s legacy as one of the most hardcore men alive.