This is my 40th year of professional wrestling fandom. What began by flipping channels on our family’s freshly minted cable television box evolved into something I cannot imagine living without. This project is something I plan to work on periodically over the next several months with the goal of writing about professional wrestlers who shaped my fandom and in doing so, opened my eyes to wrestlers and styles I wasn’t familiar with or would have otherwise never known about. For the first installment, I write about the man who is responsible for the early days of my love affair with this hobby. 

The Initiation

I have written before about how I became familiar with Stan Hansen. Highlights of a wild brawl between him and ultra-babyface Rick Martel aired on a random Saturday afternoon at the Las Vegas apartment my Uncle and Aunt were living in. 

My eyes were glued to this giant man in cowboy chaps, wildly sprinting to the ring unencumbered by concern for the safety of his fellow man as he swung his cowbell attached to a huge bull rope. To my disbelief, security allowed this man to run roughshod through the crowd in any territory he traveled to. Anytime he was on my television screen I was captivated by the obnoxiousness of his chewing tobacco dribbling down his face onto his chest and signature vicious in-ring style. All told it was a pro wrestler wrapped in a package I did not see on WWF television, and the realism of his work struck a fear in me for the wellbeing of his opponents. 

The Bull in a China Shop

When I was a kid, I hated the shops my Mom would drag me into with colorful, but fragile items resting on shelves, just waiting for my young, uncoordinated hands to mishandle them. There was a pressure I felt each time she would give me her version of the Gettysburg Address concerning the “you break it, you buy it” policy these establishments somehow were allowed to have. Stan Hansen wrestled the way I imagined my Mother viewed me each time she took me to one of these stores. 

Hansen’s career is legendary due in large part to his time spent in Japan and All Japan Pro Wrestling in particular. He worked in this territory during a time when every conceivable star in the universe aligned to create a monolithic style and class of wrestling that has yet to be topped, in my opinion. The King’s Road style and the wrestlers who practiced it are all worthy of a spot on pro wrestling’s Mt. Rushmore. There have been hundreds of thousands of words written about this period and its indelible mark on professional wrestling, but the goal here is to focus on a few matches that define what Stan Hansen’s role was to that mark. 

Hansen’s wild-eyed, unpredictable, and downright dangerous presentation set him apart from his peers during his time in various Japanese promotions. Although he may not have looked the part, he was in great condition to pair off with some of the all-time greats of AJPW and NJPW. He wrestled a heelish style but was almost universally cheered by crowds across Japan. Our journey starts with a trip down memory lane where Stan challenges the holder of the prestigious Triple Crown in a divisive match featuring a great story.

Toshiaki Kawada (c) vs. Stan Hansen

All Japan Pro Wrestling’s Triple Crown Title was the pinnacle of greatness in pro wrestling for many years. Kawada finally held the title, and his first challenger was our man from Texas, Stan Hansen. This is not a prototypical AJPW match for the time. The reason I love this match has so much less to do with the work in the ring than it does with the story being told. A lot of today’s wrestling can feel very manufactured or homogenized when compared to its counterpart from the ’70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. Now wrestlers have agents who help them work through stories and lay out their matches. This creates a cookie-cutter effect on much of what we see today. Watching wrestling from other eras can be jarring because of how little planning appeared to be done prior to the matches. This match is a prime example of this. Kawada and Hansen have a classic match based on who is going to overpower their opponent first. What stands out here is the failed attempts by each wrestler to execute a piledriver. One sequence stands out and is something rarely used in just about any era of pro wrestling. Hansen lifts a stunned Kawada into position to deliver the piledriver, and instead of remaining motionless, Kawada begins to kick the shit out of Hansen’s face forcing Stan to release the hold. It is brilliant in the simplicity of it. Each man has a significant control period where they wear down their opponent. Every attempt at the Lariat by Hansen is unsuccessful until the final moment, where he damn near takes Kawada’s head off. The selling of the Lariat is part and parcel for the tremendous job each man does in selling throughout the entire match. Hansen achieves the highest honor possible in Japanese professional wrestling and wins the Triple Crown! Maybe not a five-star classic to most, but its mere existence in the pantheon of Triple Crown matches renders this a must-watch. 

Stan Hansen vs. Vader (NJPW)

The completely unhinged nature of both men is on full display before the match even begins. Hansen makes his customary entrance wildly swinging his bull rope, indiscriminately clipping multiple fans on his way to the ring. Vader makes his standard-issue entrance complete with the smoking mask. This is truly a spectacle, and we haven’t even got to the most ridiculous part. Upon entering the ring, Vader and Hansen begin throwing blows at one another. One of Hansen’s rights catches Vader a bit too cleanly detaching Vader’s right eye from its socket! It is a seminal moment in professional wrestling history and one of the worst things I have seen someone fight through. For that matter, Stan broke Bruno Sammartino’s neck in a match that resulted in one of the largest live audiences in a memorable comeback match in Shea Stadium.

Here, these two men commence to have one of the hardest-hitting matches you will ever see in a professional wrestling setting. It is not the first or last time we will see a wrestler continue fighting through intense adversity, but few on the planet could exhibit the toughness Leon White exhibited here. Joe and Rich like to talk about ‘dumb jock’ wrestlers, I like to think the two men in this match are charter members of that club. As Vader’s eye continues to swell shut, his strikes become more vicious, and Hansen becomes more determined to fuck this man up. Despite the injury, Vader wrestles one of his best matches, in my opinion. He becomes hell-bent on keeping the match on the outside of the ring where he can cause the most damage to the Texas wildman. Hansen is in full “tough old bastard” mode throughout this skirmish. I can’t help but think the injury created an entirely different match than what would have transpired otherwise. 

There is a video online of the longest bear fight ever caught on video. I will not link it here because it is the most brutal thing I have ever witnessed and anyone wanting to view it can find it relatively easily. The two beasts in question, an elder alpha and a junior upstart “wannabe” alpha tear each other apart for over 10 minutes. This match is a human personification of that scrap. If these two were covered in fur, it would have been flying all over the arena. Hansen, the older, wiser alpha out to prove his relevance, and Vader, the younger, stronger fighter ready to take his place atop the food chain. The visual of a swollen eye is impossible not to focus on, and having suffered significant vision loss recently myself, it is unbelievable to me he was able to continue to wrestle the level of match we are given. Much like the nature video referenced above, this ends without a clear winner. Both men are counted out, which would normally take away from a match of this caliber, but here it is the rightful ending. If possible, immediately follow this match with their second, more brutal match. It is great.

Stan Hansen vs. Kenta Kobashi (AJPW)

The only version of this match I have seen is a handheld, where a portion of the ring is out of sight. Although not the greatest visual, the lack of commentary almost allows for the crowd to bring you into the arena with them. I love the house show feel of this match. They have had higher-rated matches than this one, but for the atmosphere alone, I recommend seeking this out. This is peak Kenta Kobashi, a man in profound condition who wrestled with an intensity all his own. Of all the pillars, Kenta is the most captivating to me. Kobashi catches a lot of flack in hindsight for his perceived lack of selling. I must be watching him through a different prism because any lack of selling he does is not incredibly noticeable to me. Hansen is his typical late-career out-of-shape self but in incredible condition here. I am not sure how that works, but if you live long enough, I think everyone will meet that guy who is considered morbidly obese but can somehow run four miles without dying of cardiac arrest. The human body continues to confound the mind.

Stan Hansen is a great example of a performer who did more with less than almost any wrestler in history. If you study his work, he really has only a few things he does in each match. But he makes every one of them impactful. He was also a master at telling the story he wanted to tell in the ring. No one can ever accuse Stan Hansen of no selling, and in this match, he is at his best. Despite being late in his career, Stan is a very convincing tough guy. He takes a real beating in this match. From kicks to the face to leg drops on the outside of the ring, Kobashi thoroughly dominates a good portion of this match. The customary DDT to the bare arena floor is just another example of Kenta’s dominance. 

Hansen wrangles control of the match from Kobashi by use of a chair. Once he does so, his traditional hard kicks to the body keep Kenta at bay. A Kawada kick to Kobashi’s face renders him nearly unconscious. We get a heroic kickout at 2 ½ by Kobashi, resulting in more kicks and clubbing blows by a frustrated Hansen. 

Kobashi mounts a comeback effort complete with a beautiful dropkick that is highlighted by the aforementioned sell job by Hansen. An unsuccessful pinning attempt after a Kobashi sleeper hold results in five brutal leg drops to Hansen’s neck and back, but Hansen can withstand the punishment. A missed shooting star press gives Stan the opening he needs to stun Kenta with a brutal suplex that appears to cause Kenta to land directly on his neck. The closing stretch of this match is as good as anything you will ever see and is not hyperbole. Stan’s lariat reigns supreme when he catches Kobashi clean on a top rope attempt. Wrestling is the best fucking thing on the planet!

Stan Hansen is the epitome of what I prefer in my professional wrestling. He was a convincing worker who respected his craft enough to put all his effort into it. A Bull in a China Shop who wasn’t going to “buy it if he broke it”, and there wasn’t a damn thing you could do about it. These matches are prime examples of what makes him a legend. The reason I chose these is simply because I love them for what they are, PROFFESIONAL WRESTLING MATCHES.