Well, it’s that time of year again. No I’m not talking about the record breaking temperatures, the new school year, or the return of Sons of Anarchy. I’m referring to something much more important, it’s Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame season! For those who don’t know the WON HOF (who doesn’t like an acronym?) is a Hall of Fame whose membership is voted on yearly by a large group of wrestlers, historians and reporters. As a practical matter the Hall of Fame does not exist in the tangible world. There is no location, no induction ceremony, no plaques sent to inductees. But it is a great tool for discussion and debate, and a wonderful excuse to analyze and research the careers of wrestlers who might otherwise be forgotten or remembered for all the wrong reasons.
This will be the first of a few pieces I hope to write on the Hall of Fame for this site this year. In this first piece I will focus on five individual candidates who I believe deserve more careful consideration from voters than they have received in recent years. The wrestlers will be ranked in descending order based upon the percentage of the vote they received in their respective regions last year (the HOF ballot is split into several regions, with 60% of the vote in a region being the requirement for induction – less than 10% gets you booted off the ballot). This ranking is done based entirely on that metric and is not indicative of anything else.
It should also be noted that when I wrote the bulk of this piece I was writing as someone who had never had a ballot in the past, and was unsure whether or not I would get one this year. As it happens I did receive a ballot, requiring me to amend a few things in this introduction. What this also means is that the piece reflects the position of an interested party who was not an actual voter at the time it was written. Either way, this piece should not be read as an indicator of what a perspective Dylan Hales ballot will look like. Some of these names are near shoe-ins for my ballot, others I am fairly sure will fall short. But every name mentioned here is someone I could see a reasonable case for, and most importantly all of them deserve to be studied more carefully than they have been in the past. This is especially true for two of the candidates covered who are in danger of being dropped from the ballot because of a new rule which purges candidates who are on the ballot for fifteen years, and fail to make a 50% threshold.
One final note. In part because I have written a ton about him elsewhere and in part because I may write a ton about him again in a separate piece this year, I have left Ken Patera off of the list even though I think it’s arguable that he fits the theme of this article more than anyone else.
Now without further ado, here are five WON HOF candidates worth more thought than they may have been given up to this point.
Han is a bit different than the other names I will cover for two reasons:
1. He is much closer to induction than anyone else that will be discussed. This is not to say Han is well on his way to getting in. He’s been stuck at 42% for the last two years, and he doesn’t strike me as the sort of person who will get a big spike in support as a result of two candidates from his category being inducted last year (Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kensuke Sasaki). Still the only people who received more votes than him last year were the aforementioned inductees from the region and Kiyoshi Tamura, whose candidacy in many ways is wedded to Han’s.
2. He has a unique negative working against him, namely the fact that he had fewer than a hundred professional wrestling matches in his entire career. For some this makes comparing Han to people who have had three times as many matches in individual years nearly impossible. Still Han is an interesting candidate, who is worth careful consideration.
Among those who support Han as a candidate, it is his status as arguably the greatest shootstyle worker of all time that makes him a Hall of Famer. This should not be cavalierly dismissed, even if one is not a fan of that style of wrestling. The skill, technique and grappling ability it takes to do the things Han was able to make look easy is every bit as impressive as the skill, technique and dexterity it takes for an all-time great high flyer to perform at that level. Both hardcore and casual fans of shootstyle, generally view Han as no worse than the second or third best performer of that sort, and I would venture to guess that a plurality – if not an outright majority – view him as the absolute best.
The follow up criticism to this point is usually that the significance of shootstyle has dramatically diminished in Japan over the years, and the long term relevance of being the best within a niche style that’s popularity has waned is questioned. But this criticism ignores the success of shootstyle promotions during the era when Han was a star, the number of strong shootstyle workers at Han’s peak, and the influence shootstyle had on the Japanese product – an influence that cannot be seriously questioned for those who are familiar with the history of Pride, “Inokism” in New Japan Pro Wrestling, or even the continued relevance of shootstyle wrestlers and holds in modern Japanese wrestling today.
Still even if one rejects Han’s status as an all-time great performer as enough to build an HOF resume on, a review of the history of the RINGS promotion, where Han was the top gajin star for at least a half dozen years, suggests that he has more than just work going for him. While it is true that Han was never truly the top star in the promotion (no non-native ever was), Han was positioned as a star of note almost immediately. In fact he debuted with the promotion in December of 1991 in the main event against the companies’ top star Akira Maeda in a match that drew over 10,000 people. From that point forward Han would be one of Maeda’s best drawing opponents, and Han himself main evented or semi-main evented regularly for the promotion during a period where it was regularly selling out halls and drawing large houses across Japan. In both 1995 and 1997 he won the Battle Dimension tournament, with finals wins against Maeda and Tamura respectively (notably Maeda is the only other person to win the tournament twice). Both shows were held at Budokan Hall and drew two of the seven biggest houses in the promotions history. Expanding on that point Han appeared in a higher percentage of 10,000 plus paid attendance shows than any other Rings star excluding Maeda, and was able to draw sellouts and major houses as the promotions place holder on top when Maeda was injured in 1993 (note that I am not including figures from 2000 forward when Rings became a more of a pure shoot promotion).
While Han is far from a shoe in, and a case can be made against his inclusion, the surface level analysis that sees him as a strong worker in an isolated enclave of the pro wrestling universe is shortsighted. Han deserves a much closer look than he often gets.
What is most amazing about Jimmy Hart is that prior to last year he had never once been on the Hall of Fame ballot. Not only is this strange because of the fact that Hart is considered by many to be one of the greatest managers in the history of professional wrestling, but also because the Observer Hall of Fame is something that sees great debate every year, with people pouring over minute details of the careers of wrestlers both off and on the ballot in an effort to marshal support for their favorites, or shoot down the hopes of those they believe don’t belong. Somehow, Hart slipped through the cracks, and if I hadn’t noticed this odd omission and made note of it a few places, it is entirely possibly that Jimmy would still be the forgotten man.
The other amazing thing about Jimmy Hart is that he is an easily recognizable wrestling figure, who has been part of the national consciousness of pro wrestling to varying degrees for the last thirty years — and yet in some respects this works against him as a candidate. No, it is not a negative per se that Hart was only a mid-card manager in the WWF, or even that his association with acts like the Dungeon of Doom and Hulk Hogan later in his career saw him cast as an irrelevant figure with little impact on major storylines and angles. But neither of those things is a major positive either, and yet it is Hart’s time managing in the WWF and WCW that people remember when they think about his impact on the wrestling business.
But whatever you think of Jimmy’s stint managing The Honky Tonk Man and The Hart Foundation, his Hall of Fame case was made working in Memphis, where he was the ultimate heel manager. It was there that Hart was not only a main event level manager, but asked to do what very few managers in wrestling history have ever been asked to do — carry a wrestling promotion. Yes, it is true that business suffered when Jerry Lawler broke his leg in early 1980 and Jimmy Hart turned against his former “partner” on television. But the mere fact that Hart was put in a position to stand out as the centerpiece of the promotion while Lawler was gone is amazing, especially when one considers that Hart was a tiny man who’s time on the mic when he was paired with Lawler had been limited.
More importantly, by building Hart as the promotions top heel, the return of Lawler put in place a system that led to several years of incredible artistic and business success for the Memphis promotion. The formula was simple. Hart would find an opponent for Lawler, talk him up as only Jimmy could, and Lawler would inevitably put him down. Often times, Lawler would end up in a situation where he got to get his hand on Jimmy as part of the deal, but the overall effect was high television ratings, huge weekly crowds at the Mid-South Coliseum, and the emergence of Hart as a superstar manager who would be imitated by many, including Jim Cornette — a man who was inducted into the Observer Hall of Fame by fiat with the original class of 1996.
One can point to other facets of Hart’s career that pad his resume. He is a recognizable figure and star. The first couple of years of his WWF run saw him manage several well regarded heel acts who were often asked to main event house shows that drew good houses, with Hart as a key part of their acts. He is often regarded as one of the key links in the Rock’n’Wrestling connection for his involvement with the production of wrestling theme songs and his association with some of the more infamous early wrestling videos that became a staple of Memphis wrestling. He might even score some incredibly minor points for his role in creative during dying days WCW, when he was able to make WCW Saturday Night an entertaining show despite its irrelevance.
But make no mistake. Jimmy Hart’s case is what he was able to do in Memphis, where he was as important a player as anyone not named Jerry Lawler. If Lou Albano is a Hall of Famer for being one of three figures used as a mouthpiece for rotating challengers to the WW(W)F champions, surely there is a place for the bigger bumper and more dynamic talker who played a similar role in a solo capacity.
If one looks solely at the Japanese wrestling career of Gran Hamada, it is easy to come to the conclusion that he had an interesting, historically underrated career, but one that may fall short of being worth serious consideration for the Observer Hall of Fame. Few who have studied his career deny that he was a very good-to-great worker for over twenty years, who was widely praised by his peers as among the best talents in the industry. In particular, Hamada was an innovative high flyer, who was capable of doing much of what made Tiger Mask famous before Sayama ever put on a hood, and with fewer flubs to boot. Even as late as the mid-90’s the speed, precision, fluidity and basing skills Hamada brought to Minchinoku Pro tag team bouts often made him stand out from the pack, despite the fact that he was decades older than the men he was working with.
Perhaps most importantly his dynamic working style was stylistically revolutionary. Hamada was the first performer to take a stab at both performing and promoting the lucha-libre/junior heavyweight hybrid style that some folks refer to as “lucharesu.” While one can debate how much Hamada had to do with sustaining and spreading this form of wrestling throughout Japan, there is no serious debate that he was the first to run with it as something that one could build a promotion around, and the first to perform it consistently in Japanese rings. Given the lasting impact this style has had, the continued presence of federations promoted around that niche today (including Dragon Gate, the second biggest promotion in Japan) and the strong following the style had developed internationally, at bare minimum it seems fair to say that Hamada’s status as an influential figure is dramatically understated.
Still all of the above may not be enough in the eyes of many to make him a strong Hall of Fame candidate. After all, Hamada’s promotional efforts failed, and while he was a great worker in New Japan, Minchinoku Pro and elsewhere, he was never a top guy and doesn’t have any real record as a draw right?
Wrong. While one has to be careful about assigning too much value to statistics devoid of context or analysis, according to research undertaken by wrestling historian Matt Farmer, Gran Hamada was in the main event of at least 28 shows that drew more than 10,000 people paid. I say “at least” because all of these shows took place in Mexico where access to these sorts of records is much harder to come by. The point here is not so much the number, but the fact that Hamada didn’t just bring aspects of lucha libre to Japan because it was a style he enjoyed — he brought it there because it was a style of wrestling he had flourished in as a meaningful star and drawing card. In Mexico he won singles titles and feuded with some of the biggest names in lucha history, including Perro Aguayo. He main evented for the UWA at the point where they were the hottest promotion in Mexico, had hair matches at El Toreo and carried value as a guy who could fit into a strong spot on the card in three different decades
No he was never the top guy there, or even close, but it is important to remember that candidates in the Japanese category tend to be strongly rewarded for even moderate levels of international success (Ultimo Dragon and Masa Saito). Hamada was not only a strong success in Mexico, he built on that success to create an entirely new style of wrestling and brought it back to Japan, all the while being a top tier worker.
Is Gran Hamada a Hall of Famer? I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that he is one of the few candidates on the ballot who has clear plusses in every major category (influence, working ability and drawing power), with those positives being maintained or built upon over a period of nearly thirty years.
Nearly a decade ago the SmarksChoice message board ran a Greatest Wrestler of All Time poll. At some point during the lengthy period before ballots were due the discussion turned toward Jim Breaks. I had no clue who he was. “You don’t know who Jim Breaks is? He’s a bloody legend!” was the precise reply my confused inquiry received. I immediately wanted to learn more about Breaks and over the course of the next few years I watched all the Jim Breaks I could find. Breaks it turned out is indeed a “bloody legend,” and despite being one of the names on the Observer Hall of Fame ballot least familiar to the average fan, he is at the very least a candidate worth looking at closely.
I am far from an expert on wrestling in the United Kingdom, but it is important to understand that the concept of drawing cards and television stars we have in the United States is wildly at odds with the prevailing Joint Promotions business model which was based on running a massive number of small shows all over the country that could be headlined by a variety of acts. In this context what is notable about Breaks is not how many cards he main evented, or trying to sift through the few available records that exist to determine how many major shows he performed on, but rather how often he appeared on television and how many titles he had. While these accomplishments are not perfect indicators, the fact that Jim Breaks appeared on television more than any wrestler of his era illustrates that he was a star of magnitude. On the title front, Breaks won his first major championship in 1963 at one of the biggest wrestling shows of the year, and ended up holding the lightweight and welterweight belts a combined seventeen times over a two decade span. In a scene where TV time was at a premium and title holders were often expected to main event or play major roles on the hundreds of locally promoted shows, these two facts point to Breaks as one of the most substantial stars of the period.
Speaking of which Breaks had quite the lengthy run as a major player, starting with the 1963 title win at Royal Albert Hall, and running through to around 1984. While it is impossible to know for sure how strong of a hand Beaks was in the 60’s, by the early 70’s he was clearly one of the best workers in the country. In fact the available footage from the 70’s and early 80’s points to Breaks as one of the unheralded great workers in the World from that time, capable of carrying green as grass performers like a teenage Davey Boy Smith to strong matches, or having outright classics with other excellent workers like Steve Grey. While the babyface Johnny Saint was promoted as the stronger star in some respects, Breaks act was arguably more durable, and it is very easy to envision a universe where Breaks takes his heeling, “crybaby” act to the United States and does very well with it in a promotion like Memphis or Continental.
In many ways Breaks is a tough candidate to evaluate because the nature of the model he worked and thrived under doesn’t lend itself to the sort of “checklist” approach to marking off the criteria that we often take in Hall of Fame debates. But when one looks at Breaks and sees his resume as a worker, his status as one the most prolific television performers of his era, his career as a perennial champion and his common placement on the few major cards Joint Promotions ran (four Cup Final Day appearances for example), it seems reasonable to conclude that Breaks has been historically underrated and unappreciated.
Hailing from the Historical Candidates “region” of the Hall of Fame ballot is Kinji Shibuya. Like many of the wrestlers in this category, Shibuya is easy to dismiss as just a name on paper that may have popped up when combing through results, reading an old Apter magazine, or glancing at a message board post online. In truth, Shibuya is probably among the most obscure names on the ballot to modern eyes, as his entire career was over by the time cable television changed the business, and the remaining national entities were not controlled by figures that had any reason to reference him. But that Shibuya has faded from the collective memory of even the most hardcore fans does not change the facts of his career which are impressive enough to rate him among the upper tier of candidates in his region, if not on the ballot as a whole.
In many respects Shibuya was the prototypical post-war Japanese heel. While he was technically not the first to play the role, if you look at the list of territories he worked and headlined in it is easy to come to the conclusion that he was the most successful. His biggest success came in California, where Shibuya was among the top handful of stars in the history of Roy Shire’s San Francisco office, while also emerging as a major player in Los Angeles during one of the hottest runs in the history of that territory. Consider the following statistic documented by Dave Meltzer in his excellent obituary of Shibuya from May of 2010: Starting with his Cow Palace debut in late 1961 and stretching until the spring of 1966 Shibuya was in the main event or semi-main event of 42 of the 45 shows that took place in the building. Meltzer goes on to note that Shibuya’s total number of appearances in that capacity in the Cow Palace reached nearly 100. Often (but not always) working in tag team bouts with partners Mitsu Arakawa and later Mr. Saito, Shibuya headlined or co-headlined in major tag matches, as both champions and challengers, a surprisingly substantial number of times in heel versus heel bouts that drew large crowds.
Prior to this Shibuya was a major star in Minnesota in the late 50’s feuding in both singles matches and tag team bouts with top names like Hard Boiled Haggerty, the Kalmikoffs and of course Verne Gagne. Reading George Schire’s Minnesota’s Golden Age of Wrestling, Shibuya stands out as perhaps the most important heel star in the region from 1955-1960, indicating that his prime as a drawing card and star was probably close to two decades in length.
Though critics of Shibuya’s resume might hone in on the fact that his most acclaimed runs were as a tag team worker, a survey of NWA title matches undertaken several years ago illustrates the flaw in this thinking. While he was certainly one of the top tag team drawing cards of his era, this research showed that Shibuya challenged for the title in eight different territories spanning from Buffalo to Vancouver. Only 22 wrestlers in the history of the NWA challenged for the belt in more territories than Shibuya and of those 22, 18 are Hall of Famers, with two others currently on the ballot and considered strong candidates in their own right (Wilbur Snyder and Enrique Torres). The conclusion to draw here is that Shibuya was a major star as both a tag and singles worker.
While one could argue that Shibuya is not the top candidate in his category, it is hard to see why he should be in danger of falling off of the ballot. An often imitated heel act, with roughly twenty years as a top star in major money drawing territories as both a tag team and singles worker should not be pulling 15% of the vote, even in a strong region.