Throughout history, professional wrestling has been following a very simple logic: stars should win as much as possible. This has been such a must that, during the first days of the sport in America, the champions were also known to be legitimate athletes, in case someone tried to be funny and go against the planned finish.
Frank Gotch, during his carnival days, was known for issuing open challenges all across America. Although, most of the times, the people answering those challenges were either too soft or too drunk to beat the champion, sometimes a legitimate tough guy would give Gotch something to wrestle with. The champion, though, had everything planned, and would take the guy behind a curtain where one of his “associates” would hit the bold opponent in the head with a “foreign object” so good old Frank could beat him with no problems.
By winning multiple matches, Gotch became the greatest American champion of his day, giving him the right to challenge the “world” champion George Hackenschmidt in the first supermatch in professional wrestling history. Hack himself was no stranger to winning, beating everyone on the European side and establishing himself as an icon of the old world.
The years passed by, and the same logic was followed by other great world champions such as Ed “Strangler” Lewis and Jim Londos. To no one’s surprise, the gates at the time were the greatest ever seen in pro wrestling. A lot different from today, where even major companies are having a hard time filling small arenas.
It is clear for most people who understand a little bit about the history that the stars should win, but the mindset seems to have changed in the last couple of decades or so. Often, we will find people in online forums arguing that wins don’t matter in pro wrestling. “It’s all about promos and character work”, they say. And I think it’s very clear where that mindset comes from.
For twenty years, WWE has been a monopoly in the world of pro wrestling. Even though they do not even use the term anymore, wrestling is what WWE says it is. Catchphrases, rehearsed entrances, annoying camera cuts during matches, all of this seems to have become a standard. The same happened with wins and losses. They made us believe that all of that is pro wrestling, even though, for more than 100 years, things have been the exact opposite.
However, is it WWE the only one to blame?
I have gathered some data regarding numbers that might show us what to think about that. First, we will take a look at how stars were presented throughout the ages in professional wrestling. Then, we will look at how WWE has presented their stars during the last decade, and, finally, we will look at how the 10s were shaped in terms of wins/loss record.
In the following table, we can check the wrestlers with the best win/loss record from every decade since the 30s. I have chosen this specific decade to start, since it is the one where professional wrestling saw the first form of a, somewhat, organization. The start of the National Wrestling Association (precursor to the Alliance) and the formation of the Second Trust (a monopoly created by the most powerful promoters at the time, including Paul Bowser, Toots Mondt and Ed White) changed, forever, the direction of professional wrestling. Wins mattered more than ever, not only because you had a champion to protect, but because you also had a business to do the same.
Left out of this New Trust, Jack Pfefer, another famous promoter, broke kayfabe and revealed, to the world, the scripted nature of this beloved sport. However, although fascinating, history is not our focus here. The numbers are.
|Decade||Wrestler||Total Matches||Wins||Defeats||Draws||Wins (%)|
As we can see, during the 1930s, Jim Londos held an incredible record, with a 96% rate for wins (the highest of our list). This is even more impressive if we take into consideration that the other records in the list include tag team and multi-men matches, while, during Londos’ era, these types of matches were almost nonexistent. Londos is a real contender for greatest draw in professional wrestling history. Popular all over the globe, the “Golden Greek” probably made the promoters more money than any other wrestler in history. The highest attendance I could find for him was a 35,265 from a show in Chicago in 1934 where he defended his NWA World Heavyweight belt (Association version) against Ed “Strangler” Lewis.
We move on to the next decade where Bill Longson presents himself with the best record. Although a considerable drop from Londos’ 96%, Longson’s 73% are still impressive for a man that history practically forgot about. A World champion on his own, “Wild” Bill’s best performance was a 17,621 in St. Louis, 1946 where he headlined against Buddy Rogers, also defending his NWA belt.
We can continue looking at the numbers with Rocca (23,227 in New York, 1956 against Édouard Carpentier), Sammartino (19,706 in New York, 1963 against Gorilla Monsoon), Inoki (16,500 in Tokyo, 1974 against Strong Kobayashi), Rhodes (27,000 in Charlotte, 1985 against Tully Blanchard), Hart (78,927 in London, 1992 against Davey Boy Smith) and Cena (74,867 in Detroit, 2007 against Shawn Michaels, and 72,000 in East Rutherford, 2013 against The Rock).
Those numbers might be the proof we need, but they are an inconsistent one. Wrestling attendances throughout history have varied greatly and, when taking into consideration the ticket prices, the economy and the wrestling industry at the time, everything becomes even more complicated to analyze.
Therefore, maybe we should not look just at the numbers, but at the perception they provide to the viewer. Personally, I see wrestling as a language. From the moment the wrestlers show up in front of the audience to the moment they leave the arena, a story is told through the movement of the bodies. The way a wrestler presents himself or herself and the perception the crowd has of them is a big part of the game. But how the numbers add to or take from it? Maybe, more numbers can show us that.
|Hulk Hogan||1984||76%||The Iron Sheik|
|Steve Austin||1998||88%||Shawn Michaels|
Here, we are looking at the wins/losses record from three of the greatest stars in wrestling history. Just based on crowd reaction only, it is safe to say that the presentation of these three men was well done. These numbers point to the year they won their first WWF World Championship, and while Hogan and Austin are within the aforementioned pattern of a good wins/losses record, Rocky seems to be the exception to the rule here. Does it mean that numbers really don’t matter or is it proof of Dwayne Johnson being so charismatic that he got over despite the poor booking?
Maybe we should look a little bit further in that case taking into consideration Japan and its greatest stars in the inaugural decades of their respective promotions.
With Japan, and specifically with Inoki, we can see that wins and losses seem to matter even more when it comes to establishing stars. But the question stands, is it enough?
What if we try a different game? What if we check the opposite? Is the reason for not having stars the fact that they do not win enough matches? I want to take a look at WWE’s record in this decade for WWE/Universal champions and check that. It’s important to point out that these numbers also include NXT records since it is basically the same promotion.
|Wrestler||First Championship Win of the decade (Year)||Wins (%)|
|John Cena||WWE (2010)||82%|
|Randy Orton||WWE (2010)||63%|
|The Miz||WWE (2010)||31%|
|CM Punk||WWE (2011)||52%|
|Rey Mysterio||WWE (2011)||72%|
|Alberto Del Rio||WWE (2011)||41%|
|The Rock||WWE (2013)||83%|
|Daniel Bryan||WWE (2013)||64%|
|Brock Lesnar||WWE (2014)||78%|
|Seth Rollins||WWE (2015)||52%|
|Roman Reigns||WWE (2015)||74%|
|Triple H||WWE (2016)||65%|
|Dean Ambrose||WWE (2016)||62%|
|Finn Balor||Universal (2016)||78%|
|Kevin Owens||Universal (2016)||31%|
|AJ Styles||WWE (2016)||67%|
|Bray Wyatt||WWE (2017)||32%|
|Jinder Mahal||WWE (2017)||23%|
|Kofi Kingston||WWE (2019)||56%|
I think at this point, we can all agree that the key number is 60%, and that can show us why WWE has so many problems with the star-creating machine. Even guys like Rollins appear here with a very underwhelming record (52%), and this is real proof to the 50/50 WWE booking we’ve all been complaining about.
I am no specialist when it comes to numbers, but I think this is some nice data that someone better prepared can look at and provide a better conclusion. Still, I think it’s very clear that it’s a lot easier to create stars when they win.
It seems to me that the reason behind the current lack of stars within WWE are related to other aspects as well. Balor, for example, has an amazing record (78%), but it only took one injury for the company to give up on him. Besides that, we have a huge amount of silly gimmicks, a ridiculous number of rematches and the lack of payoff to storylines. At the end of the day, no one could really get over within the current environment. However, it’s not fair to say they’re doing everything they can.
It’s more than clear that larger than life personas are the reason why people watch professional wrestling. However, in order to build such a perception, they need to look like stars. That perception is not inherent to the physical appearance of the wrestlers, though. By simulating a competitive sport, professional wrestling offers the belief that those men and women in the ring are indeed competing for some kind of price (may it be a belt, a trophy or their honor), and there is only one way to get it: by beating their opponents.
That’s simple logic.
If someone always win, we perceive them as stars. If someone always loses they are nothing but jobbers. And, I believe that gets into the language of professional wrestling (something that I intend to work with in the future since it’s closer to my area of expertise).
Finally, we can say that putting people on TV and expect them to get over with no sense of direction is an extreme fault of today’s product (especially when it comes to WWE).
Next time you want to create some stars, what about trying to give them the big W?