Why do we love pro wrestling so much? We know it's scripted, yet it is an amazing form of escapism. We may put it on the shelf for weeks, months, even years at a time, but we always come back. One man's Bruno Sammartino is another's Hulk Hogan.
Pro wrestling is now as much a part of our pop culture and regular viewing habits as texting and satellite television. How did it become so mainstream, how has it maintained its place in the global village? Those questions alone would require a semester of study, so let me make it much simpler.
Pro wrestling's longstanding hold on our fantasy psyches can be attributed in large part to some extremely talented — in one way or another — individuals who made the sport what it is (or in some minds, what it isn't).
In reverse order, here are my picks for the five most important pro wrestlers of the modern era and a few honorable mentions:
HONORABLE MENTION I: Randy "Macho Man" Savage was always in the shadow of Hogan or Ric Flair, depending on which acronymn he was wrestling with at the time. He had an amazing presence about him and I would guess every wrestling fan who ever watched him smiled when he cut loose with an "Ohhhhh yehhhhhhhhhhh." Oh, and Miss Elizabeth was pretty sweet, too.
HONORABLE MENTION II: Bobby "The Brain" Heenan was the finest manager of the modern era. His biting wit later led him to the announcer's table where he deserved an Emmy. For what it's worth, I saw him wrestle in the early 1980s in Lorain, Ohio, and he was … well, a much better manager and announcer.
HONORABLE MENTION III: Andre the Giant. The big man could not wrestle a lick and always seemed to be a suplex away from a heart attack, but the fans loved him. He remains one of wrestling's most popular figures ever.
HONORABLE MENTION IV: Gordon Solie, the longtime announcer for the old Ted Turner in-studio broadcasts. If there is pro wrestling in heaven, Gordon Solie will be calling the action.
5. STEVE AUSTIN
In-ring wrestling ability: 3. "Stone Cold" Steve Austin's role was a brute, a bully that Joe the Plumber would love. Long gone were his days as a Hollywood Blond tag teamer by the time he became a WWF/E superstar.
Microphone prowess: 9. Austin was Everyman at the mic, spewing venom — and Budweiser — at whoever got in his way. And he was mighty good at it.
Durability: 5. Injuries robbed him of some vital time while at the apex of his WWF/E career, which is a shame. He had the potential to be Hogan-esque in a dark way.
Popularity: 10. He was boffo box office. That can never be questioned.
Intangible: 4. While incredibly popular overall, Austin never seemed to quite have the degree of connection with the fans as Hogan or The Rock.
Total score: 31
4. THE ROAD WARRIORS
In-ring wrestling ability: 2. The Legion of Doom — Hawk and Animal — had no real wrestling talent. They simply beat people up under the leadership of manager Precious Paul Ellering, and that's why we loved them. They were among the first "heels" to command the same kind of following as the guys who wore white.
Microphone prowess: 5. Neither Hawk or Animal was exceptional when it came to speaking roles, but who cared! They were scary just standing there.
Durability: 7. The Road Warriors are arguably the finest tag team of all-time. There would be no question if they had managed to stay at the top of their game just a few years longer.
Popularity: 10. The Road Warriors, the Ultimate Warrior and Sting probably did more for the sale of face paint than Gene Simmons and KISS.
Intangible: 8. How popular were the Road Warriors? The son of Animal (Joe Laurinitis) is a linebacker at Ohio State, and at each home game, a section of the student body dons Road Warrior gear. Long live the Warriors. (And rest in peace, Hawk.)
Total score: 32
3. THE ROCK
In-ring wrestling ability: 7. The Rock "looked" better than he really was when it came to in-ring talent, but what he had more than anything else was the "It" factor. People loved him, just like Hogan.
Microphone prowess: 10. The man was amazing when the cameras were rolling. I can still smell what The Rock was cooking.
Durability: 3. His career was brief, but he was the perfect man at the perfect time. He took wrestling to a higher level, not to mention his own (out-of-ring) career. He was good for wrestling, wrestling was good for him.
Popularity: 8. When The Rock went on hiatus to make his first movie, it was the beginning of the end, as far as his wrestling career was concerned. If he had opted for the canvas and ropes instead of the silver screen, I truly believe his status would have been legendary by now.
Intangible: 9. The Rock, in many ways, was the Sandy Koufax of pro wrestling. His short-lived time in the spotlight was dynamic and memorable.
Total score: 37.
2. RIC FLAIR
In-ring wrestling ability: 8. "The Nature Boy" often showcased his best moves outside the squared circle, most notably The Strut. Since he was more of a rulebreaker during his career, he rarely offered any flashy finishing moves. His trademark in-ring thing was being tossed head-over-heels into the corner, where he would invariably wind up with his legs clinging to the top ropes and his head buried in the corner.
Microphone prowess: 9. Flair's legendary "Whoooooooo" was his signature statement. A slight speech impediment never got in his way of being a premier showman.
Durability: 10. If it seems like Slick Ric has been around forever, it's because he has.
Popularity: 8. For most of his career he was like pre-Jeff Gordon NASCAR, a fixture in the southeast but not that well-known to most of the country. When Flair became a true national figure, it could be argued his best days were behind him, but he still carved out his piece of the lucrative pro wrestling boom that started with the nationwide push of Hulk Hogan.
Intangible: 6. Flair has been a poster boy for pro wrestling much longer than Hogan, although not quite reaching the same level of superstardom. The only difference in the two was Hogan had the WWF/WWE promotion machine behind him. Flair was never that fortunate.
Total score: 41.
1. HULK HOGAN
In-ring wrestling ability: 4. The Hulkster was never mistaken for Chris Jericho, The Heartbreak Kid or Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka," but did we really mind? Nah. Hogan's schtick outside the ring and in front of microphone was gold.
Microphone prowess: 10. I always felt Hogan would have been a tremendous used car salesman. After he was done pleading with the TV audience — of which I was often apart — I was ready to take my vitamins and say my prayers, just like all the millions of little Hulksters watching along with me.
Durability: 9. The man stood the test of time far better than most of his contemporaries. Hogan has re-invented himself more times than Madonna.
Popularity: 10. No wrestler before or him or after ever worked a crowd the way Hogan could, and no wrestler before him or since has ever come close to the amount of merchandise his name sold. Steve Austin was on par with Hogan in this area, but for a far shorter period of time.
Intangible: 10. Let's face facts. The Hulkster was bald, had a limited in-ring repertoire and was not especially liked by many of his peers, but for more than 20 years, he has remained a powerful force in pro wrestling, either in the ring or behind the scenes.
Total score: 43.