Joe Babinsack looks at Larry Matysik's 50 greatest of all-time book

The Greatest Professional Wrestlers of All Time
(The Definitive Shoot)
By Larry Matysik
ECW Press
$19.95 (CDN/US)
Reviewed by Joe Babinsack
I had another enjoyable conversation with Larry last week, more of a discussion than interview, but the topic of this book was central, plus some sidetracks into discussing Bruno Sammartino, discussing the current state of the industry, and the history of this great sport.
(One thing I failed to discuss was my thanks for the “thanks” received at the end of the book. Of course I only got named, not a full paragraph like Dave Meltzer, but the names I came in front of were quite impressive!)
There’s no way Larry did that “thanks” for a good review, nor shared an hour long phone call, but the discussion gave a lot of fodder for reviewing the book, and with any such list, the controversies, the discussion and the spurring of debate is vastly more important than a good review.
One thing you won’t get from me is a quick listing of Larry’s top 50 Wrestlers – THE GREATEST PROFESSIONAL WRESTLERS OF ALL TIME – because that would spoil the fun. If you’re a cheapskate, go to your local bookstore and look through the 464 pages, and you’ll find that list somewhere to the front.
(Just read closely or you’ll get Dave Meltzer/Matt Farmer’s published list or another list or two that add to the debate… just please don’t confuse the WWE list with the book’s Table of Contents).
And debate is the main point of this book, in many ways.
No matter who makes the list, how, what criteria or for what purpose – any such listing of greatness is equally suspect, interesting and maddening. Larry himself looks as the debate as fun, I look at it as interesting, but I’ve been around the Internet, Wrestling Fans, Mutants, fanatics, mainstream fans, casual fans, fan boys and every type and level of professional wrestling aficionado imaginable, and … well, fun isn’t always the best description, even if it is the intent.
Larry’s approach is to be respectful, to provide the facts, and to spur discussion.
Respectful discussion, but we all know how that goes in many circles!
Larry Matysik trumps most other lists, because Larry is focused on several criteria, attempting to make enough objective judgments on a purely subjective sport. Yeah, I said it. Larry does reference those other lists, from the WWE’s crazed revisionist history (already being revised, I must add), to the almost decidedly subjective list based on drawing power, by Matt Farmer (and most famously published by Meltzer).
Of course, and without intending to slight anyone, any list brings up the notion of “lies, damned lies and statistics”!!!
In an industry where Wins and Losses are laughable in the modern era, professionally driven by various forces along the history of professional wrestling, and often spottily available, if those things matter, there’s no true basis of greatness – no ability to count touchdowns scored, home runs hit or points scored in hoops.
Then again, every such sport has some sort of asterisk (*), from changes in scoring itself to changes in various fundamentals of the game to that ugly and dangerous and controversial issue called steroids.
The biggest point of contention in Greatest lists is comparing stars from different eras.
A strong point of the book’s list is that it is definitely not heavily weighted to modern era names. It’s always easy to stock up on the mainstream references to get more attention… but no chance here.
Matysik credits Paul Fontaine (a wrestling historian) for providing a strong base of criteria: Working Ability, Charisma, Mic Work, Drawing Ability and Legacy.
He then adds “Real” or “Believability” as a rather controversial and subjective and vastly important criteria.
What causes confusion is a lack of scoring or a more subjective correlation between the criteria and the placement on the list. I know that there is a ton more effort in this listing than the typical ones, and I don’t want to make it the negative, but I come from a gaming background and scores are always more subjective, especially with a strong set of criteria.
To me, looking at that criteria is vital to any further debate.
Any serious wrestling fan argues their favorites and the reasons why they are great. I know spurring that debate is a definite intent of the book, but without a shared set of standards, the dialog rapidly disintegrates into “Because I said so”, and that’s definitely not part of the book.
Working Ability
To be great, a wrestler has to be able to perform. To me, a great wrestler has to master a style, know other styles, be very good if not great in most if not all of those styles, and be able to interact with the crowd.
Performance is a very objective word, though, and from Randy Savage to Killer Kowalski, there’s a world of differences in what working means.
Important aspects of working should include psychology, selling and effort.
I do have some differences in opinion with Larry on some of his choices – one example is the low placement of Ray Stevens, who from my understanding was an utter work horse and deserved better, especially when Larry cites the change in the industry to muscle heads in that write-up, which I think is unfair in and of itself.
In modern parlance, this probably fits the “It Factor” best, but in many genres and many references, this is all about the ability to stir up the crowd, to get the crowd behind (or against) the wrestler, to get a “pop” or to get “heat”, and all based on sheer physical presence and personality.
Of the Criteria, this one is the most overlapping – a great worker can influence the crowd, and mic work can trump personality in many ways.
But without the fundamental attribute of Charisma, there’s nothing to build upon.
In that regard, it is the most important part of Greatness, and to that end, I reluctantly do acknowledge the placement of some guys I’d rather sneer at.
And yet, the question of Popularity is entirely debatable – Greatness because of being popular? Name recognition because of being at the right place at the right time with the right promotion going national?
Mic Work
Wow, this is a hard one. Hard, because of all the attributes of Greatness, this favors the modern wrestler in many ways.
For one, the Mic Work of generations gone by are very much lost to history. Even the snippets and interviews that remain may not reflect a sense of Greatness. And Mic Work that grabbed attention in the early to mid 20th Century may not seem great today, but how can today’s fan judge?
Especially in an age where scripts and other people put words in wrestler’s mouths?
Drawing Ability
Another debatable attribute is the ability to make money.
There’s really no way to compare apples and oranges, TV ratings and box office receipts, PPV buys and monthly attendance at big Arenas. We also must consider the structure of Championship defenses, building up to big shows and frequency of those huge events, and the ongoing ability to attract attendance, not one shot here, one shot there, and not having to pull the same people to the same venue.
The modern fan also is skewed by million dollar contracts of sports figures other than professional wrestlers, and comparisons between the top salaries.
Of course one of the biggest problems is that the modern product has shifted from focus on single talents to a more Company based attraction, which to be fair, diminishes most modern names from being truly labeled as a “draw”.
There’s no real way to diminish the concept of historical impact on the sport. Ironically, however, the changes in the product over the past twenty years means that so many historical figures have very little resonance with the angles, actions and matchups that made them famous, simply because so many dynamics are no longer in play.
And then consider a guy like Terry Funk, who evolved his style over the years, and created a lasting legacy of effort that cannot be denied.
But what of the guys who, because of modern TV sensibilities, have been afforded the opportunity to overstay their welcome?
This is one attribute I have a lot of admiration for, but what is being “real”?
Fans may point to Kurt Angle, or Andre the Giant, or any one of the wrestlers with legit backgrounds.
But Larry focuses more on the “shoot” ability, at times (to me) overlooking the connection between the talent and the audience. Believability, like the other attributes, should be an aspect of recognition by the majority of the fans, not just some mythical and/or insider belief among fellow workers.
(Because there’s really no way to measure opinions of peers on who was really tough, and who just played the role the best).
How do you judge the believability of Bruno against the believability of Lou Thesz?
One thing I discussed with Larry was the Context of making decisions on Greatness, and that’s an important aspect that cannot be overlooked. Larry’s early book discussion about how to judge the Greatest quickly points out that Historians, Journalists (and Fans must be added) have their own preferences and bias.
Beyond an inability to look beyond your childhood hero or most favorite talent, there’s a must involved about having an understanding of different eras, different approaches and different styles. There’s an understanding necessary of regional realities, of promotional tactics and of the different ways to build matches, establish Championships and the vastly different booking patterns.
But in the end, it’s all about looking at a list, arguing for and against each name, and having fun trying to figure out your own list.
What I find most enjoyable is the ability this book provides to prove that professional wrestling isn’t just some simplistic performance art geared to the simple-minded.
What I hope for fans is that the can have a serious debate, but one thing I do know is that this is an awesome book to begin that serious study of the history of the sport we all pretend to know, and often love despite being overly critical of it.