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Magic, Memories, and Mania
VALENTINO'S MAGIC, MEMORIES & MANIA: The Top Ten Coolest Wrestling Stars of the WrestleMania Era

Feb 15, 2013 - 3:57:37 PM
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By Shawn Valentino, PWTorch specialist

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The question of what is cool is theoretically a subjective one, and unfortunately, in wrestling, a descriptive term that rarely applies. When I was live at the Royal Rumble in Phoenix, possibly my favorite part of the entire show was the throwback to the early Rumble day backstage promos. As much as I loved the segment, it also illustrated much of what is wrong with the current landscape.

As I watched the cast of characters proclaim their quest for victory, I was reminded how goofy and bland most of the current stars are. I’m sorry, but though Sheamus and John Cena may have their following, they are embarrassingly dorky. When Randy Orton showed up on screen, he completely stood out as possibly the one guy on the current wrestling universe that has some sense of a cool factor. Hopefully, he turns back into a badass heel because his bland babyface act is just awkward to watch.

Unfortunately, as much as I love wrestling, the propensity for campiness has seriously hampered the coolness that could propel it into a more accepted form of mainstream entertainment. I watched the 20th anniversary episode of Raw a few weeks ago with some non-wrestling fans, and it was cringe-worthy when Cena and Miz showed up on screen, and I struggled to explain that the shows are not always this bad.

There is a reason why The Shield has made such an immediate impact, and it is because the unit has an aura of danger and unpredictability that the show has sorely lacked. Can WWE keep the faction strong because they have injected a dose of cool that the company badly needs in this era of generic characters. In recent weeks, I have looked back on my years as a wrestling fan and compiled a list of the ten coolest characters in my quarter-century as a wrestling fan.

(10) Ricky “the Dragon” Steamboat and "Gorgeous" Gino Hernandez (TIE)

I was a young child in the Hulkamania era and was precisely the pre-teen demographic that WWF was aiming the red and yellow at. However, even back then, I saw Hulk Hogan’s act as corny and formulaic. There was another good guy act at the time that was just as popular with my elementary school peers and that was Ricky Steamboat. From the movie-star looks to the Bruce Lee persona, the Dragon had a cool aura without the corniness. Keep in mind that this was before he brought the lizard into the ring as well as the atrocious “Family Man” theme song. I could imagine an alternate late '80s WWF with Steamboat as the central character, and while I do not believe it would draw the same box office as Hogan, it could have been a cooler, financially profitable promotion.

I cheated a bit here because the 11th character on this list was one I never saw live, but after watching the "Triumph and Tragedy of World Class Championship Wrestling" DVD, I was blown away at the smug screen presence of Gino Hernandez. The Handsome Halfbreed had an aura about him that showcased why WCCW was a promotion ahead of its time. He, along with the Fabulous Freebirds, foreshadowed the cool heels that would become all the rage in the Attitude Era a decade later.

(9) Randy Orton

Ironically, my first glimpse of Orton was as a dweeby guy with a cast on his arm and an awful mini-mullet delivering the RNN Injury Updates. For those who do not remember those segments, check them out on YouTube as many are comedy gold. When Orton joined Evolution and became the Legend Killer, it was common consensus that he was the future of the wrestling industry. Bob Orton’s son had all the tools, from the male model looks to the swagger and screen presence to the prodigal wrestling talents.

Unfortunately, while he has had a great career, there has always been something missing about Orton that has not allowed him to reach his full potential. First of all there is an apparent soullessness behind his eyes that has prevented him from truly connecting to the audience. As a face, he is awkward and miscast, and as a solo heel, he has never recaptured that early magic of his Evolution days. The Viper is still extremely young in wrestling years and his character has never really digressed to lame campiness. I believe his next heel turn may finally bring out the predatory magnetism that made so many of us believe that he would be the star of his generation.

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(8) Batista

In early 2005, WWE was focused on propelling two stars into the stratosphere, Cena and Batista. Of the two, it was Batista that appeared to be primed to be the face of the company in the ensuing years. If he was not so injury-prone and WWE had decided to focus on a more adult audience, I believe that he would have been a tremendous centerpiece for a cooler, edgier product. The Animal is one of those rare Superstars who projects coolness as both a face and a heel. His designer threads, calm demeanor, and dangerous charisma make him unique amongst wrestlers of his immense physique. There was something sophisticated about him and his strong acting skills, by wrestling standards, separated him from the Psycho Sids and Ultimate Warriors of the world.

In my opinion, Evolution is the best wrestling stable of all-time, and the fact that it created two of the premiere stars that defined a generation is evidence of that. Unfortunately, it seemed as if Batista was just entering the prime of his career as an arrogant heel when he decided to step away from the ring. Perhaps he will decide to return because I believe the current wrestling scene could use an injection of cool factor that Batista exudes in abundance.

(7) “Stone Cold” Steve Austin

To be honest, when I first saw Stone Cold in 1997, I knew he had monster marketability, but his redneck image was not the type of character that appealed to me. I was drawn into the product because of Rock and Shawn Michaels, but I could tell that it would be Austin that would carry the company forward. In retrospect, my stance on him has changed, as I realize the rebellious outlaw he portrayed was the archetype of great wrestling characters.

Austin's badass persona and the marketing of it were second to none, and the Texas Rattlesnake’s don’t-trust-anyone attitude was the epitome of cool. It was because of Austin and Rock, along with DX and others that the WWF was at the center of mainstream more than it had been since Hulk Hogan. Austin’s leadership in steering the Attitude Era made wrestling the coolest thing in pop culture in the late nineties.

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(6) “The Rated-R Superstar” Edge

His motto was “sex and violence,” and Edge exuded the aura of a sleazy rock star. When I first saw him come out of the audience in 1998, I knew just from looking at him that he would be a huge star. It took him a few years to find the right character, but when he transformed himself into the Rated-R Superstar in the mid-2000’s, everything about him radiated coolness. From his look, to his costuming, to his entrance, it was the classic arrogant wrestling heel packaged perfectly.

Edge was the best act in the company in an era loaded with great heels like JBL, Orton, Angle, etc. He never seemed to catch on as a face, as anybody that remembers the failed attempts to get over the “spear” chant may recollect, but nobody made being bad look as good as Edge.

(5) “The Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels

“I was attitude in this place before it was a catchphrase,” Michaels proclaimed when he returned to the ring after a four-year absence due to injury. While it is true that HBK missed most of the Attitude Era, his brash persona in and out of the ring was one of the main influences that triggered the movement. I had stopped watching wrestling for five years before being lured back by the Hogan heel turn. The NWO may have been the spark that reignited my interest in the sport I loved as a child, but it was the arrogant combo of Michaels and an upstart named Hunter Hearst Helmsley that brought me back to the company I grew up with.

Looking back at what turned the tide in the Monday Night Wars, a key factor that often gets overlooked is the original DX faction of Michaels, Triple H, and Chyna. They were younger and cooler than the NWO, and had an edginess that made their segments can’t-miss television. It was this renegade band with Michaels at the helm that helped make Raw the show to watch on Monday nights. The smug ladies’s man with the cocky smirk and the unparalleled wrestling skill was tailor made for the Attitude Era.

Although he disappeared for a few years, and was no longer the same conceited outlaw when he returned, Michaels retained an aura of coolness throughout the rest of his career. While most of the show derailed to mind-numbing programming geared towards youth, the Heartbreak Kid’s feuds were more intelligently constructed and satisfied the adults. In my opinion, the Showstopper was the greatest all-around performer in wrestling history, and he was a catalyst in bringing a hipper edge to the wrestling business.

(4) Razor Ramon/ Scott Hall

He called himself the Bad Guy, and from the moment he swaggered onto the WWF scene as Razor Ramon, Hall exuded an image of coolness rarely seen in the wrestling industry. Although he had journeyed through the territories for years, his transition to the swarthy Latin anti-hero helped ease the company’s transition into the New Generation Era, and he was one of the sole cool acts in a period of loony cartoon gimmicks. Inspired by the Scarface film, Razor was one of the essential elements in propelling the wrestling industry into a daring new direction. Hall could transform between face and heel without losing his machismo, and when he was signed by WCW and showed up on Nitro as the Outsider, a wrestling revolution had begun.

You cannot underestimate the impact that the invasion angle and Hall’s vital participation had in bringing wrestling back into the forefront of mainstream pop culture. If it were not for his effortlessly cool image, the NWO angle and Hogan’s heel turn would never have worked. Along with Kevin Nash, the Outsiders boosted the business into an era where being bad was cool and characters were coated in shades of gray. It was a counterculture movement that wrestling has unsuccessfully tried to recreate ever since. It is sad that his personal life has fallen into shambles because I believe that Hall is probably the most underrated Superstar in wrestling history.

(3) “Macho Man” Randy Savage

While Hulk Hogan may have been the WWF’s biggest star of his generation, there was another iconic figure that had a tremendous following and mainstream recognition all on his own. From the moment this flashy, dynamic force of nature burst onto the WWF, the Macho Man was an immediate star. His captivating look, blinding charisma, flamboyant persona, and unforgettable promo style made him one of the most immediately recognizable characters in wrestling history. While Hogan was the cheesy goody two-shoes, Randy Savage was considered the baddest and most dangerous man in the business. Unlike Hulk, he could back up his bravado with phenomenal athleticism and spectacular matches.

Macho Madness was a perfect antithesis to Hulkamania, and his towering personality gave him a following all on his own. Savage’s unique appeal made him a pop culture icon that starred in commercials and made cameos in major motion pictures like Spiderman. His chemistry with his manager and real-life wife Elizabeth created a unique dynamic that has not been replicated since. The gorgeous, tentative Liz and the bullying Savage made a dynamite couple that participated in some of the most memorable storylines of all time. Even when he switched to WCW and joined the New World Order, Savage kept his loner outlaw image. From the first time we saw him to his final run with Team Madness, the Macho Man was the definition of cool.

(2) “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair

What boy does not grow up with dreams of becoming a wealthy playboy that gets all the ladies? Ric Flair has lived that dream both in and out of the ring. He is the Hugh Hefner of the wrestling business, and I believe that he has created the greatest character in the history of the sport. From the fancy suits to the flashy robes, Flair epitomized cool to the hilt. While the WWF was geared towards children, Nature Boy appealed to the adult demographic. He was a brilliant performer in the ring, but it was his braggadocios promos and his party-boy image that really stood out.

Flair was instrumental in making the Four Horsemen one of the first cool heel wrestling factions, and years later, he was the elder statesman of another hip stable in Evolution. Even as he ages, there is a timeless quality about Flair, and he has an aura about him that makes one think if he spent a week in his shoes (and in and out of his robe) that he would have more fun than any guy could possibly imagine.

(1) The Rock

Hulk Hogan would argue this, but no Superstar in modern wrestling has achieved more mainstream recognition and success than Dwayne Johnson, better known to all of us as The Rock. The funny thing is that when he got started he could not have possibly had a lamer persona, but when the goofily smiling Rocky Maivia transformed into The Great One, an icon was born. His looks, fashion style, promo skills, and unmatched charisma made him a mainstream pop culture icon even before he became a movie star. Along with Austin and others, he helped make WWF over-take WCW and made Raw the most popular show on cable television.

Equally appealing to both men and women and kids and adults, Rock has redefined the boundaries of superstardom for all professional wrestlers. Now one of the biggest action movie stars in the world, his very presence on a wrestling program makes it an acceptable part of mainstream culture, and he can instantly transform a stale product into a cool viewing experience. Wrestling fans should appreciate him while he is here because when The Rock is on television, they are watching the coolest Superstar in modern wrestling.

Please send questions, comments, and feedback to valentino.torch@gmail.com and check out my book, "The Showstopper Lifestyle," on Amazon. Feel free to add Shawn Valentino on Facebook.


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