Sometimes, Size Does Matter
If I were to make a short list of my favourite wrestlers of the last 10 years, it would be fairly predictable considering I write and discuss the sport on the internet. Daniel Bryan, Eddie Guerrero, CM Punk, Christopher Daniels, Chris Jericho, Elijah Burke (you read correctly). Favourite of all time? Dean Malenko. Going back further, I loved Bret Hart as a child. This is a list of wrestlers who would have been described at one time or another as small, undersized or any other adjective that can translate as 'not big enough.' Indeed, if there is one spectre that looms large over the history of WWE, it is the spectre of Hoss.
Professional wrestling, especially at the very top (read: WWF/E), is historically dominated by big men. Dominated isn't the correct term, but you can't argue that wrestlers of an imposing and intimidating size have been spotlighted and highlighted for decades. The long standing assumption and joke is that Vince McMahon has a complete hard on for big men, be they muscle bound or not. There is a reason a guy like Test got the multiple pushes he did. Christ, look at the WWF in the early to mid 90s and the majority of guys were, as my brother would say, henched. As a child, wrestlers were larger than life, even supposed smaller figures like Bret and Owen Hart. As an adult, most of these guys are physically larger than life. This week, I'm going to look at these giants, the good and the great. And I don't mean the Khali kind.
What is a hoss anyway? A cursory google search leads me to the same idea. Some say it comes from the beast known as the Horse, and basically means big and strong. Others say it comes from a yee olde term to describe a large yet respected gentleman. Either way, a hoss is a big guy. In professional wrestling it has come to mean something similar, yet different. Legend has it that it was first used in wrestling by Jim Ross (shock horror), to build up an individual as being huge and unstoppable. Professional wrestling is full of these guys.
I'm too young to remember Andre the Giant, the inaugural Hall of Fame entrant, at his peak. I only caught him at the end of his career, which was spent mostly tagging with Haku or some other kind of middle of the card humdrum and little movement. In terms of name value and drawing ability however, Andre was second to none during his time. It is important to remember that when he was in his prime, championship belts were the be all and end all, yet Andre was always the main event and star attraction despite barely winning anything. He was quite possibly the first professional wrestler to transcend championships. (I just read that Andre was too big to fit on the school bus, and thus had to be driven to school by his neighbour. Who happened to be Samuel Beckett. Holy Moly.)
As mentioned, when I first started watching the WWF the thing was full of these hosses. Earthquake, The Barbarian, The Warlord, The Berzerker, Tugboat/Typhoon, Akeem, Big Boss Man, Nikolai Volkoff and others. The Undertaker made his début in 1990, and he was undoubtedly a proto-hoss upon arrival. Around this time, there were two professional wrestlers that stood out amongst these big men. Two guys who, when you look at them, just scream 'hoss.' Upon closer inspection however, there was so much more about both of them. I'd go one further to say they were two of the least utilised wrestlers in the history of WWF/E. These two men were Big Van Vader and Bam Bam Bigelow.
If you only know Vader from his time in WWF, then you don't really know Vader. As the 90s came around, there was one wrecking ball big man who inspired more than just trepidation in the hearts of crowds worldwide. Vader was downright scary. He ran roughshod over WCW in the early 90s, treating names such as Sting, Cactus Jack and Ric Flair as his personal playthings. It was indeed during a match with Vader that Mick Foley famously lost part of his ear, in Munich (Germany.)
There was something different about Vader. Unlike Earthquake, One Man Gang, King Kong Bundy and the like, he wasn't merely a large overweight guy with no agility. Vader could move, and could move well. Here was a 400 pound guy who could do a damn fine moonsault. Vader is also regarded as one of the toughest men to ever lace up the boots. There is a very famous story of a match he had with Stan Hansen in Japan. The match began with Hansen breaking the nose of Vader with his bull whip, before the two began to land blows. They were both known for being particularly stiff, and one of Hanson's strikes managed to dislodge Vader's eye from its socket. Unperturbed, Vader merely removed his mask, and pushed the thing back into place. It might have swollen hugely, but the big man cared not. Toughness personified.
It was his legitimacy that made him the beast that he was. He threw punches as real as anything, and literally manhandled his opponents as if they were rag dolls. Understandably, this led to some being reluctant to work with him, but can you really blame them? He was as strong as anyone, not needing assisting to perform some of his big power moves. Dude could flat out toss grown men around. For a viewer, especially as a child, he was the perfect big man. Agility and toughness, plus the guy was flat out scary looking.
Another big man who was agile, tough and flat out scary looking, was Bam Bam Bigelow. I'd go so far as to say he was as underrated as any grappler to enter the squared circle in the last twenty years. Much like Vader, his WWF career never really took off, as he always seemed to be playing the role of the enforcer. Bigelow was seen as something of a go to man by Mr McMahon, but anyone who was familiar with his work in ECW knows what he was capable of. His most famous moment would come against Tazz, at the ECW pay-per-view 'Living Dangerously' in 1998. As Tazz had Bigelow in the Tazmission, Bigelow would drop backwards, and through the ring they would go.
Well, that is if you don't count main eventing a WrestleMania as a most famous moment. Bam Bam would do this at WrestleMania XI, going up against Laurence Taylor. I'll be honest, I had no idea who Taylor was at the time, and know even less now, but it was certainly built up to be a big deal. It turns out he was an American Football (not real football) player, and it is a measure of Bigelow's quality in the ring that he was trusted with going up against the non-wrestler in the biggest match at the biggest show of the year. Now, the match certainly wasn't a classic, but it was much better than it had any right to be.
Much like Vader, Bam Bam carried a certain legitimacy that made him stand out from other big men at the time. He looked and carried himself like a man who you wouldn't want to fight for your life against. I've never had a tattoo so can't fully vouch for how much they hurt, but I'm pretty sure having your the top and back of your entire head tattooed would be smart a little. He looked tough, he was tough. He could wrestle any style, at any time, with any performer.
What is the landscape for big men in the WWE of today? In terms of classic style big men, you can't speak of their modern equivalents without mentioning The Big Show. In many ways he seems to have been treading water for a few years, but there aren't many with his longevity. In fact, the only others I can think of are also big men, The Undertaker and Kane. (Side note: Enough has been written about both men on this site, so I shan't mention them.)
Mark Henry has really come into his own in the last few years as well, since he was released from his leash. The man who supposedly came up with the 'Hall of Pain' gimmick, Brodus Clay, is now in comedy undercard purgatory, but is just one serious turn away from being an old fashioned hoss. His partner, Sweet T, is more of a modern day hoss. In fact, you can see a huge difference in quality between the big men who have worked in Japan, such as Vader and Bam Bam, and those who haven't.
The days of the roster being choc full of purely big guys are long gone, but the future is still very exciting. In Luke Harper you have quite possibly the best big man of the last few years on the independent circuit. Sure, he hasn't shown much of this so far, but portraying the gimmick of a brainwashed cult leader doesn't give you much in the way of freedom. YouTube can show you the quality of this man. Eric Rowan is another, whilst not in the same top end league as Harper, is as imposing a big man as you can imagine. The one man who sticks out for me however, is one of Sylvester LeFort's Fighting Legionnaires, the Bulgarian Brute, Alexander Rusev. Lord, this man is imposing. He's big, he's physical, he's agile, he's god damn terrifying. He has all the tools to become a Bam Bam of the modern age, the complete big man wrestler. I can't wait to see how he evolves.
That'll do for now. Who are your favourite big men of the past? Who will be the big men of the future? I'm really struggling with stable internet here at the moment, so apologies for inconsistency. Drop a comment in the lonely comment box below, or find me on the interwebs via twitter (@pingvinorkestra) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org). Have a wonderful evening.