Around the time of the launch of his WWE DVD and book, “Superstar” Billy Graham was touted as being 20 years ahead of his time. The charisma and physique of the one-time WWE World champion was trendsetting in the 1970s and Graham is often credited as an influence on many other wrestling headliners that would follow. Most notably, Hulk Hogan, Jesse Ventura and Scott Steiner are often noted to have drawn from Graham’s trend-setting style.
While wrestling has seen a great number of changes over the past generation, particularly with a migration away from pasty complexions and beer-bellied, barrel-chested main eventers of the 1970s, there are a number of wrestlers who, like Graham, may have been ahead of their time and could easily have been stars in the modern era of professional wrestling. Whether it be for their look, for their in ring abilities or for their abilities to captivate an audience on the microphone, we have lost many wrestling greats that would be a great addition to the current environment of professional wrestling – and we sure wish that we could have them back.
20 Kerry Von Erich
The most successful of Fritz Von Erich’s five wrestling sons, it is astounding even today to recognize that Kerry was at the peak of his visibility and notoriety, maintaining the WWE’s aggressive touring schedule despite missing a foot. Unfortunately for Kerry and his siblings, they broke into the Texas wrestling scene as fan favorites and immediately became rock stars in their hometown. Unfortunately, fame and youth proved to be a deadly combination for the Von Erich boys who lived hard and fast, and ultimately paid the price. Kerry, who as the “Texas Tornado” enjoyed a run with great visibility with the WWE, including a run as Intercontinental champion almost immediately upon his arrival, would still fit in the culture of Vince McMahon’s organization today – provided he could survive the company’s wellness policy. It would make for compelling television today to see a survivor of wrestling’s fabled “Von Erich curse” rise from the ashes for a spot in prime time.
19 Luna Vachon
For Gertrude Vachon, the business was in her blood since her youth. The daughter of Paul “Butcher” Vachon and niece to Mad Dog Vachon, Luna made all the right moves to be broken into the sport and establish her name in the sport of wrestling. Her runs in the WWE, primarily feuding with Sherri Martel and later Sable, demonstrated her aptitude as an on-screen villain, but with a shallow talent roster in the company, she was never really able to demonstrate her versatility on a national level. Input Luna Vachon into the mix of the women’s revolution currently underway in the WWE and there is little doubt that we would see her ascend to even greater heights in the sport and further cement her own legacy between the ropes. Consider the battles that Luna might have with the likes of Charlotte or Natalya, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
18 Johnny Valentine
“Honest” John was not just another bleached blonde elitist villain to grace wrestling’s stage. There is a reason that the elder wrestling Valentine enjoyed a 26-year career in the sport and he had the longevity to go even further if not for the plane crash, which kickstarted his career succession plan before its time. Valentine was not a villain that relied on clichéd tactics to rile a crowd, but rather presented with his own distinct subtlety that proved to be effective before masses of screaming fans who would turn out again the next week for the hopes of seeing him receive his comeuppance. Valentine presented between the ropes as a gentleman, willingly admitting to the referee when he had been caught bending the rules during the course of a match and correcting his attack accordingly. Building trust with the referee, when he capitalized on an advantage to score a victory by nefarious means, how could the referee ever doubt his version of events?
17 Randy Savage
Consider how many years it has been since fans have been treated to the intensity of “Macho Man” Randy Savage in the ring. Yet, seldom does a week go by when we aren’t seeing a clip of a match, a backstage interview, or someone delivering a bang on impression of Savage even to this day. Randy was committed to his craft to a fault. Ricky Steamboat commonly relates that Savage was such a perfectionist that he left nothing to chance in their WrestleMania III battle before 93,000 fans at the Pontiac Silverdome. That meticulous “new school” approach would see Savage readily adapt to the modern representation of wrestling where matches are measured out carefully between prime time commercial breaks. While often duplicated, we have yet to see anyone eclipse Savage in or out of the ring... though many have borrowed from him to assist in their own career ascent.
16 Brian Pillman
It has been 20 years since Brian Pillman befuddled the entire wrestling world to escape his WCW contract and make his way to the WWE. Those who were around to witness Pillman blur the line between fact and fiction years before the “reality-driven” booking style started to take hold truly had no idea what to think about the “Loose Cannon” and his antics both on and off-screen. Even his closest friends weren’t sure what to make of it and didn’t want to ask Brian himself, for fear that he’d laugh at them for falling for his ruse. Brian Pillman had the ability to create a stir. Imagine what an impact Pillman could have created if we were to be unleashed onto the wrestling world now – with the tools of social media at his disposal. The creativity of this wrestler who departed from the world far too soon would be trending daily and thrilling the numbers people that track the WWE’s brand reach.
15 Buddy Rogers
Bruno Sammartino is immortalized in bronze forevermore as one of the WWE’s greatest superstars of all time. However, we frequently dismiss the star power of Buddy Rogers which is what fractured Vincent J. McMahon’s relationship with the NWA and recognition of their world champion in favor with going his own direction. There is a timeless sophistication to “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers that, like very few others has been often imitated in the decades since. The garish behaviour of the playboy wrestler and even his ring handle have been borrowed repeatedly, but nobody has fully mastered the simplicity of driving a whole arena to a frenzy with a basic zippered ring jacket as the means to heat things up to a fevered pitch. Rogers could truly demonstrate to today’s modern wrestlers the psychology of manipulating an audience’s emotions with resorting to cheesy canned scripts and tactics that are devised by a team of writers in the back.
14 Killer Karl Krupp
Remember when Vince McMahon revealed to the world that wrestling was actually sports entertainment? He intimated that wrestling fans didn’t want to be insulted with the stereo-typical good guys vs. bad guys. Well, it seemed good on paper, but in the history of wrestling, few issues generate an emotional attachment with any sports crowd than cheering on the home team against a foreign threat. While there have been many wrestlers over the decades to adopt an ethnic persona and parade as a burly Russian, an elitist German, a syrupy British lord, a sneaky Japanese assassin – few fully embraced their character in the way that the Dutch-born George Momberg did as Killer Karl Krupp. Krupp, with his riding crop, cape and monacle terrorized fans and drew at the box office and his schtick would still command a resounding response coming down the aisle today. At the height of his career in the Canadian Maritimes, he avoided beaches with his family for fear of being discovered as anything less than he portrayed on screen – that commitment to his business in and away from the arena is what is missing from many of today’s superstars.
13 George Gordienko
There was a time when Vince McMahon himself admitted that his preference of wrestling styles was for the ring abilities of William Regal, Dean Malenko and Chris Benoit. However, prime time television ratings being what they are – a more eclectic mix of talent is required when you are the most visible wrestling product in the world. However, in recent years with the addition of technical wizards like Daniel Bryan and Cesaro and amateur wrestlers that have successfully transitioned to the pros like Kurt Angle and Brock Lesnar, it would be great to see a classic wrestler with a worldwide pedigree to shake things up. Winnipeg’s George Gordienko was that guy. Touted by former NWA World champion, Lou Thesz as the greatest wrestler to ever come out of Canada, his career was cut short in the U.S. by the Cold War when he was accused of being a communist. Still, he had a brilliant career with lengthy campaigns in England, Japan, Australia, Greece, India and Canada. Gordienko would re-educate fans and wrestlers alike in the art of wrestling.
12 Rick Rude
Take stock of the best bodies ever in the history of professional wrestling and without a doubt, “Ravishing” Rick Rude is sure to be featured on any list. Rude was produced by the Eddie Sharkey wrestling camp in Minnesota – in the same class that produced the Road Warriors and Demolition’s Smash. Rude was a hit wherever he went – Texas, Georgia, WWE and WCW. He had the look, he could talk and he could wrestle. It was the trifecta of equipment for success in the very individual sport of wrestling. Fast forward to today’s wrestling climate, an environment that presents with three hours of prime time television to fill every Monday night and Rude would easily become a cornerstone of the product. We didn’t even get to see Rick Rude at his prime during the famed "Attitude Era" ... just imagine what he would have done to the ratings if he was allowed to take his character to the limit in the same manner that wrestlers such as Val Venis and The Godfather were allowed to.
11 Davey Boy Smith
Though the British Bulldogs as a tag team are regarded as one of the greatest duos to ever hold the WWE World tag team titles, one cannot underestimate the abilities of Davey Boy Smith as a solo competitor. Davey was well-respected by his peers in the ring for being very unselfish – in short, he was willing to do whatever it took to make the match great and to showcase his opponent to make him look like a million bucks. Smith’s multiple runs in the WWE are a testament to his value to the company. Imagine what the Bulldog’s experience could contribute to today’s roster – bringing his combined influences from England, Japan, and Stu Hart’s dungeon back to the WWE ring. The British Bulldog vs. Chris Jericho at WrestleMania – consider what kind of magic they could produce?
10 Roddy Piper
On paper, a man standing six feet tall and weighing 220 pounds seems like a terrible mis-match against a man who tips the scales at 300 pounds and stands at a towering six foot seven. It’s a match that you wouldn’t expect to headline a pay per view, and yet that kicked off the legacy of WrestleMania – Roddy Piper nose to nose with Hulk Hogan. Piper, despite being under-sized by wrestling standards in his era, carried with him such a large personality and an innate ability to lure the fans into his madness that it destroyed size barriers and elevated him to a hall of fame career. Roddy Piper wasn’t just a talented wrestler, an unpredictable orator or a natural antagonist. Piper lived his character and he was compelling to audiences because he truly believed in what he was doing and the product to which he attached his name. Piper in today’s WWE, cut loose from the writers would eclipse the "lunatic fringe" in a matter of weeks.
It is unlikely, given her post-WWE career choices, that we may ever see Chyna take her rightful place in the company’s Hall of Fame. However, the impact that she created for women in the sport during her short run in the WWE may never be emulated. Not only did she shatter the myth that muscular ladies cannot also present as feminine, she also helped to balance the perception of the sexes in the sport. She worked just as hard as the men in the weight room as she did in the ring and she earned her spot. How Chyna would fit in today’s women’s division is difficult to predict, but one thing is for sure – whether in her day or in the present, Chyna would still be every bit the dominant commodity as we experienced during the height of her career. Something tells us that Chyna vs. Stephanie McMahon would sell some tickets.
8 Bam Bam Bigelow
In the 1970s, there was an inside joke among folks in the wrestling business that when you arrived in the WWE, you had to learn to work “New York style.” The territory had been traditionally a place where the biggest wrestlers of the day held stead and they had conditioned fans to respond to a punch, stomp, kick style of wrestling which was much different than what fans were seeing in arenas further south. Enter Bam Bam Bigelow. The wrestling business wouldn’t have known what to do with Scott Bigelow in the 1970;, a 350-pounder that could do cartwheels and fly about the ring with the ease of a cruiserweight. However, imagine what a Bam Bam Bigelow showdown with the likes of Kevin Owens or Samoa Joe would look like today? Bam Bam was one of the timeless gems of the sport of wrestling who would slide right into today’s wrestling scene with ease.
7 Antonino Rocca
In the 1950s and 60s, few wrestlers carried the marquee appeal of Antonino Rocca. His image even appeared in popular super hero comics of the day. Rocca possessed the physique of a wrestler and the acrobatic ability of a gymnast and his aerial talents remind us of the high risk lucha libre style that we see today. Among all of the aerial experts that have ever graced rings in North America, Rocca’s name is still discussed by long time fans and historians as being a star that was ahead of his time. Install Rocca to a mix of influences from Mexico, Japan and even some of the domestic daredevils that seem to defy the traditions of wrestling and we’d soon see that some of the modern day renegades are merely an extension of the innovative style that Rocca introduced two generations ago.
6 Andre the Giant
Their paths never crossed and there will always be debate about who was the best giant in the sport of wrestling – Andre the Giant or “Big Show” Paul Wight. It has been 23 years since we lost Andre and his legend only continues to grow. His feats between the ropes are eclipsed only by the tall tales of his exploits from those who had the opportunity to travel and spend time with him on the road. Andre was an agile monster when he launched his career, similar to Big Show who was delivering acrobatic maneuvers in Japan that he was not allowed to perform in the U.S. Andre vs. Big Show would be a showdown that WrestleMania lore could be built on. It would certainly give Big Show a much more valuable pay per view moment than he was afforded with Akebono or Floyd Mayweather, right?
5 Chris Benoit
It’s difficult to forget that forevermore, the name “Benoit” will be somewhat taboo to speak in wrestling circles. However, his rise to the World title from humble beginnings in the Hart dungeon is one of the great success stories of the ages. Similar to the underdog story that fans have witnessed in more recent years with Daniel Bryan, Benoit’s ascent in a sport dominated by heavyweights to reach the pinnacle is one that his most ardent fans lived vicariously for two decades. Based on his body of work in the ring, we suspect that there would be a line up around the block from both WWE brands of rising stars looking to share some ring time with a true ring general and master of the game. Benoit, during his ascent in wrestling, broke barriers. Given the wide scope of talent in the WWE on not only RAW, Smackdown and NXT, Benoit continues to be an influence ten years after his death – he would have an even greater impact if he was in the mix of today’s roster.
4 Owen Hart
Owen Hart may never truly be appreciated for the master of his art that he was. Though he laid claim to most every championship in the WWE short of the Heavyweight title, Owen’s passion wasn’t for wrestling – he wanted to migrate to work as a firefighter and be home with his wife and kids every night. Perhaps his lack of ambition, preferring to own the reputation as the class clown among his peers held him back from a run that would have put him on equal footing with his five-time champion brother, Bret Hart. Still, Owen was recognized as a sincere colleague in the back who was willing to help those on their way up, and a trusted friend among his peers. This, combined with his international scope of experience and his track record from bell to bell, Owen Hart would be as big a star in today’s wrestling climate as he was during his career.
3 Eddie Guerrero
While Eddie Guerrero missed the territory days of professional wrestling and the opportunities to travel with his older brothers around the country, one could argue that his separation from the rest of his siblings is what created the opportunity for him to carve his own legacy in the sport. From his tag team work in AAA in Mexico to his rise through the Cruiserweight division in WCW and ultimately to championship success at WrestleMania in 2004, Guerrero proved to be one of the most adaptable performers of all time. Insert Eddie Guerrero into the championship picture today and there is no doubt that he would continue to lead by example – delivering stellar performances that reflect his passion for the sport and for the roar of a wrestling crowd.
2 Bruiser Brody
What professional wrestling lacks in the modern era of sports entertainment are those villains that genuinely give us chills. The closest we’ve seen in the past decade may be the Wyatt Family. But with Bruiser Brody, you had a college-educated athlete who worked as a journalist before finding his fame and fortune in the world of pro wrestling. He was a shrewd businessman with a reputation that preceded him wherever he appeared and still hadn’t reached his full potential when his life was unexpectedly cut short in 1988. Brody carried with him a mystique and an aura of unpredictability that would make a WrestleMania showdown with the Undertaker (and his incredible streak) the topic of much heated debate. Bruiser Brody may one day find himself inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, though sadly the fans in the company will have never seen him at his notorious best.
1 Curt Hennig
When you consider what stars we would like to see have the opportunity for a re-boot, there is no doubt that the list often starts with those stars that as fans we believe deserved to have a world title run that eluded them. While Curt Hennig did enjoy a reign as AWA World champion, many believe that he had the charisma and talent to rise to the same laurels in the WWE or WCW. The monicker “Mr. Perfect” was well-suited for Hennig, a multi-sport athlete with an infectious smile and an in-ring delivery that was second to none. He grew up as a second generation star in the sport and understood the business of wrestling. In Hennig, we saw a talent that could draw out the best in each opponent – and we suspect that he would be the PERFECT choice to even get fans to rally behind Roman Reigns and make him a believable headliner.