Welcome to the fifth installment of our recurring feature, where we will attempt to identify the very best professional wrestler ever to come out of every state in the union. (And the District of Columbia as well; why the hell not?) As you’ll soon see, some of these decisions will be clear no-brainers, while others will be much more difficult. By the time we get to the end of the road, you’ll be seeing just how difficult it is to declare one pro wrestler the ultimate representative for a given birth state.
There’s a lot of criteria, as you can imagine, that goes into determining what constitutes the “best” wrestler from each state. It’s about popularity, notoriety, the performer’s place in wrestling history, and of course, all of the intangibles. Ultimately, “best” is a subjective opinion in most cases, but we attempted to look at every wrestler’s career as a whole.
And now, let’s get down with one of those monster states where we write nearly 3000 words but still had enough leftover to do a whole second article after we waded through all the Governors, Promoters and All-Timers in the North Star State.
34. MINNESOTA – Jesse “The Body” Ventura
You could make the argument that, save for The Rock, Jesse Ventura has had the most successful post-wrestling career of anyone ever. Movie star. Author. Pundit. How am I supposed to put anyone else in here but the former Governor of Minnesota, you know?
Would you have ever believed growing up that Arnold Schwarzenegger would be the second guy from Predator to hold a governorship? Only in America could a guy go from wearing feather boas while roasting a Gorilla in a tuxedo to being the top executive of one of the continental United States. Keep in mind this is the same state that claims a governor who is the namesake for the Pillsbury Dough Boy. When The Rock muses about running for President, he is thinking about trail blazed by The Body.
There are a thousand links I could put in this spot, but I thought I’d share what would have been the crowning achievement of Ventura’s career if we were not so cruelly denied it.
Honorable Mentions: Apparently Everyone
Look, this article could easily be twice as long, and if I left out a particular favorite of yours, trust me, I get it. I hear you. Going into this series, I knew there were a few states that were just going to absolutely suffer from the reality that no one has the time to read a 20,000 word article in the 21st century. Bill Simmons doesn’t even have the balls to do that any more. Just know that when we get to my home state of North Carolina, I’ll be sobbing and screaming “It’s not fair!” into my JYD Wrestling Buddy.
Let’s show a little love to some folks and try to keep in mind that respect is super due to everyone from The Land of 10,000 Wrestlers.
The Ravishing One is a WWE Hall of Famer as well as a World Heavyweight Champion, an Intercontinental Champion, a United States Champion, a member of the Heenan Family, a co-founder of D-Generation X, and the only man in professional wrestling history to appear on Monday Night Raw and Monday Nitro on the same night. No less of an expert than Bret Hart himself claimed that Rude (and one of the other folks on this list) was among the greatest technical wrestlers of his generation.
Pro Wrestling Illustrated had him listed as No. 4 on the Top 500 Wrestlers and The Most Hated Wrestler Of The Year in 1992. That is an incredible feat. That means Rick Rude was killing it in just about every category a wrestler can. That respect also translated behind the scenes, as His Rudeness was one of the toughest and legitimately feared guys around. No less than Hulk Hogan himself refused to work with Rick’s stiff ass and the at-the-time WWF Champion Macho Man Randy Savage recruited Rick Rude to be his bodyguard in a bar known to be a notorious hangout for NWA wrestlers. Nobody even breathed on Randy that night, lest they be in for a true Rude awakening.
His career was tragically cut short by injury in 1994, and I know no one was more devastated by this than my Big Yellow Taxi teammate Jessica Young, who has dreamed her whole life about being picked for a Rude Awakening the way some girls dream about getting a pony for their birthday.
Sorry, Jess. You’ll never receive the thrill of a lifetime.
The Russian heel from Moscow via Minneapolis was so important that he somehow managed to be in the main event with both Ric Flair and Dusty Rhodes, which is a list so short it pretty much just involves those two guys against each other.
But for me, there is simply no way I would ever leave my boy Nikita off of this list. Magnum TA is my favorite wrestler of all time. My father is my hero. They both have incredible moustaches. They both were in car accidents that took away their incredible athletic gifts. They both fought back against all odds and every doctor’s prediction because they are goddamn badasses that life couldn’t keep down if you gave life Triple H’s sledgehammer.
I watched the following three videotaped events either live or the first time they aired, and subsequently more times than I can count. Then, and even as I write this now, I have cried myself dry and screamed myself hoarse every. Single. Time. Nikita Koloff taught me at a tender young age that nothing was more important than honor and respect for your fellow man and that friendship could be formed between even the most unlikely of rivals. Nikita Koloff turned to the camera, looked directly at me, and told me my father was a champion.
Over three decades later, I still have trouble describing it to people. This is what professional wrestling can do that nothing else in the world can do. It is literally the reason I am a professional wrestling fan to this day.
I love you, Dad. (checks to see how many more of these he has to go through) Crap. I need a drink.
The Minnesota Wrecking Crew
In those previous videos, you may have recognized Ole Anderson, one half of the legendary Minnesota Wrecking Crew.
Gene Anderson isn’t as well-known or well regarded as Arn Anderson, but Gene was still great, as he and Ole won Tag Team of The Year in 1975 and 1977. He also talked as if his mouth was filled with gravel marbles that chain-smoked cigars filled with dirt.
Seeing as Gene originally replaced Lars with Ole, I’d say that he can’t be too salty about Arn taking over his spot a little while later. Or maybe Gene was just tired of gargling industrial strength razor blades and got bored, as indicated by this minute-long promo where he twitches his head to keep from nodding off.
Ole was also a founding member of The Four Horsemen, which would put him on this list even if he did nothing else with his career. Luckily for us, Ole was also an extremely accomplished booker. At one point he was simultaneously booking Georgia Championship Wrestling and Jim Crockett Productions, which led to some incredible super cards for appreciative fans.
A gruff curmudgeon to the bitter end, Ole has engaged in feuds in his retirement with everyone from Vince McMahon to Paul Heyman and even with his former stablemates Tully Blanchard and Ric Flair. Here is Ole turning on Dusty Rhodes in 1980, and then thirty years later talking mad shit about The American Dream and everyone else on the planet like Tupac laying into Bad Boy Records. Because true heels never die.
Mr. Perfect and Curtis Axel
Forget championship gold. Forget title reigns. Forget workrate and PPV buys. I could fill this entire article with Curt Hennig five-star matches, throw up the double birds and walk away with my head held high, but I shit thee nay: there is no more beloved father and son combination in all of professional wrestling history than these two.
That’s not even including patriarch Larry “The Axe” Hennig! That’s not even fair how adorable that is! Axel is named after his dad and grandfather! After that Nikita Koloff section up there, how the hell did you think I wasn’t going to mark out for this, brother?
Curt Hennig’s legacy is completely secure. He’s the other guy Bret Hart was talking about up there along with Rick Rude as being a technical dynamo along with his pitch perfect gimmick (pun 100 percent intended).
Curtis Axel debuted with The Nexus, survived a terrible reboot, a wasted Heyman Guy rub and a brutal Triple H burial to land on his feet playing fake blues harmonica and making Stroud doing his best Sailor Moon Montage impression. How do you look at this guy and not think of how proud his dad would be for sticking it out? Tell me you wouldn’t love to see Axel do a Big Lebowski style reboot of this vignette? Do I have to do everything WWE Studios?
Hall of Famer Bob Backlund has the second-longest WWF World Heavyweight Championship reign of all time, worked with everyone under the sun and was instantly over from Day One due to his clean cut good looks and technical proficiency. I could probably write a “Top Wrestler From Every State That Bob Backlund Has Wrestled” series and not even break a sweat.
Backlund is mostly associated with Connecticut and even unsuccessfully ran for Congress there, but he gets the mention here just to illustrate even further how there has got to be something in the water in Minnesota that just makes wrestlers. It’s like Rhode Island for NBA referees, or rock stars from Surrey. Did you know that Eric Clapton, Paul Weller, Roger Waters and Mike Rutherford are all from the same small county outside London? Oh, it’s true. It’s damn true.
Here is Ultimate White Meat Babyface Bob Backlund taking on his spiritual opposite in Soul Brother Number One Superstar Billy Graham for the world title all the way back in 1978. For some perspective on how old school Backlund comes across in this clip, the song at the top of the charts the day this match happened was “Stayin’ Alive” by The Bee Gees.
I love that Bob here looks like Rick Astley took workout advice from Carrot Top, and the foot on the rope finish seems like the prototype for Rick Rolling.
Personally, what I love most about Backlund is that it’s clear he has never lost the joy of professional wrestling. Unlike Ole Anderson, Bob is more than willing to get silly and stupid which is how most wrestling fans know him anyway. “Beloved” is not a bad place to find yourself, 30 years into your pro graps career.
The kids might love the “suspenders and bow tie” version of Bob Backlund, but I’ll take this Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace-level promo from 1994 every day and twice on Sunday. For perspective, the song at the top of the charts on the day he references in this promo (July 3rd, 1994) was “I Swear” by All-4-One.
Verne Gagne is the American Wrestling Association. That makes Verne Gagne the most important wrestler to ever come out of Minnesota. He was a 16-time AWA World Heavyweight champion, one of the highest-paid wrestlers of the 1950s (more than a million dollars a year in today’s money), and was a wire-to-wire babyface, feuding with a Batman-worthy rogue’s gallery including Gene Kiniski, Dr. Bill Miller, Fritz Von Erich, The Crusher, Ray Stevens, Mad Dog Vachon, Larry Hennig and Nick Bockwinkel.
Here is Gagne going up against Bockwinkel for the AWA World Heavyweight championship three decades after Gagne made his debut which is a sentence I just wrote that seems completely crazy.
The sheer breadth of talent and influence that the AWA possessed over its 30 years of existence is only rivaled by Verne’s failure to adapt to the changing tides of professional wrestling in the 1980s. When you lose Hulk Hogan because he didn’t fit your ideal of a great technical wrestler (and you offered him an extremely shitty deal and/or allegedly conspired to injure him out the door. Yikes.), you leave yourself open to innovators putting your company out of business.
I always try and imagine an insane alternative universe where that AWA logo is still plastered on the back wall in the 1990’s and beyond. I mean, just look at that incredible promo with Mean Gene, a surprisingly spry Andre The Giant and a pre-shithead Human Wheaties Box Hulk Hogan. Look how fired up and yet under control The Hulkster is here! Why, it almost looks like he’s having, you know, fun!
Man, I’m a sucker for straight-talking redneck tag teams. Scott Irwin gets a mention in this article for what could have been. It just doesn’t seem right to have a talent like his cut short by tragedy when your debut match was against a rookie Ricky Steamboat. It just feels wrong; like the final reel of a movie disappearing from the projection booth with no explanation. I bet Scott Irwin would have made an amazing road agent. Sigh.
One of those wrestlers whose career you have to know if you want to prove your “true fandom” to other fans, Jerry Lynn is the Internet Wrestling Community in human form. A former AWA, USWA, WWF, WCW, ECW, TNA and Ring of Honor performer, Jerry Lynn is like a wrestling Trivial Pursuit Card all by himself.
This person was the last challenger for the AWA World Heavyweight Championship against Larry Zybszko? Jerry Lynn. Over a two year period, this person wrestled in Michinoku Pro Wrestling, CMLL and Smoky Mountain Wrestling? Jerry Lynn. This person competed in the legendary mid-90’s WCW Cruiserweight division against Chris Benoit, Dean Malenko, Eddie Guerrero and Chris Jericho? Jerry Lynn. Dude was EVERYWHERE. I mean, let’s just keep doing this bit.
This person debuted on ECW in a match with the similarly-debuting Justin Credible? Jerry Lynn. This person won the ECW World Television title in a feud with Rob Van Dam that featured dueling broken ankles? Jerry Lynn. This person won the ECW World Heavyweight Championship and then lost it to Steve Corino? Jerry Lynn. Good lord, if this was Wrestling Jeopardy, my Billyhawk buddy Jeff Hawkins would have run the table on the board and then put Alex Trebek through a table on the floor.
The Model Rick Martell. Akeem. Big Boss Man. The Heavenly Bodies. Crash Holly. Jeff Hardy. AJ Styles. Juventud Guerrera. Sabu, Bobby Roode. Chris Sabin. Christopher Daniels.Tiger Mask. James Storm. R-Truth. Nigel McGuinness. Roderick Strong. Austin Aries. Chris Hero. Kenny King and on and on and on. Jerry Lynn shits on Kevin Bacon and steals his dog. He was in the inaugural match for Ring of Honor on HDNet, so it is fitting that he’s still with them as a producer, because Jerry Lynn is the Minnesota Forrest Gump of wrestling. And if you don’t believe me, just know he once was in a tag team with Bob Backlund, because of course he was.
Just to make sure Jerry touches every single promotion in the history of forever, here he is training NXT hopefuls, putting over Tommaso Ciampa and comparing himself to Randy The Ram, because Jerry Lynn is a space/time-traveling wizard, apparently.
1. Murder Incorporated as a tag team name is the goddamn best.
2. He set the Pennsylvania attendance record with Bruno Sammartino, which is pretty cool.
3. He won tag team belts in a promotion named 50th State Big Time Wrestling, which I am furious I am only finding out about now and that this entire series isn’t named after.
Here is Kowalski summoning the patience of Job on a 1997 Minneapolis cable access show with the K-Mart Blue Light Special version of The Higgins Boys and Gruber.
X-Pac Heat. ‘Nuff said.
I’m especially proud of the Raleigh, North Carolina crowd in the above video, who completely yawn their way through Sean’s Titantron entrance, barely wake up enough to half-heartedly boo the heel in the right places, and then absolutely give zero shits when he gets the pin.
The choice to cut to the guy in the unbuttoned floral shortsleeve shirt and the “X-Pac Rules” sign is magnificent. The subtle subtext of “Don’t Be Cable TV Rob Lowe” full frame in the middle of an arena where even the crickets are asleep is like the professional wrestling version of an Eugene O’Neill play. I want to bottle it and sell it. We’ll call it “aXe Pac Body Spray.”
In fairness, the real reason he’s on this list is because Sean Waltman can f’ing go, and was always able to, since his days as a surprisingly talented teen in PWA and GWF.
The 1-2-3 Kid (and the Lightning Kid) is and always will be incredible. By the time Chris Jericho came to WWF, Sean Waltman was Vince McMahon’s hand-picked guy to put new people with to show them how to adapt to WWF/E style and work “the right way.” But “X-Pac Heat” is wrestling shorthand now; it is part of wrestling history, regardless of the fact that it doesn’t actually exist. I want to write a giant coffee table book filled with nothing but X-Pac lore. There’s an abundance of it.
Feel free to slide into the comments and let’s talk about how I agonized over whether or not I could justify putting Lacey on this list just so I could get away with putting a dozen The Age Of The Fall matches in the article.