I will admit rather quickly and under very little duress that my taste in professional wrestling (or a lot of things) isn't necessarily the same as that of the general population. Not to say that I have far-out beliefs that make little to no sense to the average Joe, but rather that I see things from a different point of view.
A question that is often posed to me is "Who do you think is the greatest wrestler of all-time?", or something along those lines, where I am asked to make a decision on who I think is the "best", or even the "worst".
Recently I gave my opinion on a wrestler (who, and what the opinion was is not relative to the story), and another of my wrestling brethren took exception to my statement, and offered a different opinion. My opinion on the matter was that, although this was a WWE main event superstar, he was actually not a very well-rounded wrestler. My former tag team partner Ed Gonzales stated that he thought he was a great wrestler, because he was a main event wrestler in the WWE, and thus getting paid to wrestle that way. While we debated the merits of the "WWE Main Event Style" for a bit, it actually got me thinking about something else.
What makes a wrestler "good"?
There are some people out there that will argue that the best wrestler is the guy that got paid the most. At first it might seem silly to consider how much an athlete is paid as a criteria for greatness. Would anyone argue that Rashard Lewis is a better basketball player than Tim Duncan, simply because Lewis gets paid more? Probably not. However, in wrestling, the ability to draw paying fans is very important. In fact, most of the time the amount of money a wrestler makes is a direct result of where they are on the card, and the attendance of the card. So, no matter how well attended a Yankees game may be, Alex Rodriguez is still getting paid his contract. In wrestling, what the wrestler gets paid is almost always tied to how many people actually pay to see them wrestle.
Because he was a main event star in the WWF during the wrestling boom of the 1980's, people will often point to Hulk Hogan as the "best" wrestler of all time. Hogan was the first professional to become a nationwide star, because he was the first wrestler to be a main eventer for a nationwide wrestling promotion. As the WWF grew and began doing big business, Hogan was pushed as the all-American hero in main events, and thus became a drawing card for the company. Later, during the 1990's wrestling boom period known as the "Monday Night Wars", the equity Hogan built up in the '80s was liquidated, and he became a main event star again as a villain. Because he was a highly paid main event star during two of wrestling's biggest money-making periods, many people will point to Hogan as the greatest of all time.
However, almost as many people will point out that Hogan was terrible from an "in-ring" or "workrate" perspective. Hogan was a guy that did the bare minimum physically, actually had a poor understanding of psychology, and was often carried thru matches by a rogues gallery of skilled opponents that made him look good in the ring.
The people that argue the point of view that money is the biggest factor in gauging a wrestler will actually point to this as an argument in their favor. The argument generally is that if a wrestler can make top dollar and do very little physically, then their body will be able to make that top dollar for a longer period of time, and thus perpetuate their drawing power. Often the argument will turn to the idea that Hogan had a unique look and charisma that made him connect with people, and that he had the ability to use that charisma in interviews to draw fans to the arena to see his matches.
The contrasting opinion to this point of view is that the "best" wrestlers are the ones that are the best when it comes to "workrate", or pure wrestling skill. Often this point of view actually breaks down to different criteria as well. Some people will say that the best wrestler is the one that can have the best matches with the widest variety of opponents - a "ring general", if you will. Others might argue that a wrestler that wrestles matches that are the most realistic is the best. Or, some believe that the wrestlers that tell the most complete and compelling story in the ring are the best.
Regardless of what the exact criteria is, this group defines who is best based on the physical abilities of the wrestler. This group judges the skill of a wrestler based on what happens on the mat, and between the ropes. However, the more physical style, the shorter a career will last.
So, what exactly is my opinion on what makes a wrestler the "best"? I do not have a good answer for that exactly. I lean towards the workrate side of the argument, but I cannot discount drawing power either.
In a way, working for a major promotion that is able to merchandise and market a wrestler as a star is more important than the individual wrestler being a drawing-card "star", as the promotion provides that essential team that a star needs to be successful. The WWF/WWE has used their position as the national wrestling promotion to create stars within their brand. With over a decade of being the only major promotion in the nation, the WWE has been able to market itself as the sole place to see wrestling stars.
So, while I might enjoy watching a wrestler such as Christopher Daniels, he is obviously not the type of draw that John Cena is. However, if John Cena were not in the WWE, would he be the same kind of draw for other companies? If Daniels were the main focus of the WWE's promotional empire, would he be a draw like Cena is?
That is where my issue with an argument such as Gonzales' begins; In many ways the WWE has taken the ability to "draw" out of the equation in gauging the ability of a "wrestler". The WWE has a machine in place where they take a wrestler that has the physical and charismatic qualities they desire, and will invest an almost endless stream of cash into them to make them a draw, no matter how the crowd connects with them, or their in-ring abilities. A wrestler just needs to be able to fit within the WWE's "mold" of what they will market as a star.
In other words, gauging how well a wrestler "draws" is a very difficult skill to quantify. In the old days, if a guy came to town, cut promos hyping his matches and was in a solid angle, you could gauge his drawing power based on ticket sales. Period. More ticket sales equated to drawing power, and if an individual could duplicate that success in multiple places, then they were a legitimate star.
I think that it is the duty of a wrestler to become as well rounded as possible. I would agree that a wrestler that is highly skilled in workrate but that has no charisma wouldn't be rated as high as a wrestler that may be above average in workrate, but excels in charisma. For example, maybe I rate John Cena as a 3 in the ring, but as a 10 in charisma. Maybe a guy like CM Punk is a 7 in the ring, and a 7 in charisma. Would I rate Punk as a better wrestler than Cena, even though Cena has made a significantly larger amount of money in his career?
In a way, basing the "greatness" of a wrestler solely on the amount of money that have drawn is akin to rating the attractiveness of a woman by how many men she has slept with.
I want a wrestler that can go out into the ring, tell a good solid story, have a realistic match, and get the crowd into the show. I also want them to be able to draw fans to the events. I want a mixture of all of it. I know along the way that there will be some wrestlers that excel in one area more than another. Maybe some guys that I enjoy watching can't always have a good workrate match with everyone they step in the ring with, but maybe they are an above average interview, or has some kind of innovative offense.
To me, it is about balance. Sure, I may enjoy watching a handheld video of a Negro Navarro vs. Solar match from some Mexican independent promotion more than I would watching Cena vs. Rock from Wrestlemania. Conversely, some people may enjoy Cena vs. Orton - fair enough. I think it is ridiculous though to say that Cena is a better worker than Navarro, or vice-versa, as both are deficient in major areas that are important. One just has a promotional monster behind them that makes them rich.
When all is said and done though, I do not think the most important factor in how good a wrestler is is how much money they make. Is Mike Meyers a better actor than Tom Hanks, just because he his movies have grossed more money? Just because things are popular, doesn't necessarily mean they are good. Just because things are good, doesn't mean that they will be popular.