In traditional competitive sports, the question of what makes a hall of famer, while fodder for heated arguments, is relatively straightforward. While there is always context that can be added, who the best players are is a largely statistical matter. In professional wrestling, it’s completely different. What are the criteria? Exciting matches? Box office success? Historical significance? Influence? Something else entirely? How do you measure all of this in a business with lousy recordkeeping and which was built on a lie for most of its existence? Hell, who manages this hall of fame?
Complicating all these questions is that there isn’t one wrestling hall of fame, but several. The most well-known is WWE’s, with a ceremony taking place every year on the weekend of WrestleMania. Criteria are nonexistent, with a number of puzzling inductees and omissions and a nebulous selection process. There are physical halls of fame in Waterloo, Iowa (as part of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame) and Wichita Falls, Texas (which used to be in Amsterdam, New York), but both have notably political and quota-based inductions similar to WWE’s hall, even if there’s more transparency to the process. The annual Cauliflower Alley Club banquet features awards, but not a hall of fame per se.
Last Wednesday, voting for the 2017 balloting in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame finished up after a few weeks of discussion and voting. Every year, an ever-growing selection of wrestlers of all ages, reporters, and historians—including me—vote on a ballot patterned after the Baseball Hall of Fame. It nets the most discussion of any non-WWE hall, though that has slowed in the last few years as the ballot has stagnated. There’s no physical hall, and no ceremony, but both on merit and by default, it’s probably the most legitimate of the lot.
The Observer’s hall of fame was launched by founder/editor/usually sole author Dave Meltzer on a 1996 plane ride to see a slew of wrestling events in Japan. He and his seat mate, then-newsletter columnist John D. Williams, went over a Japanese magazine listing the alleged best 1,000 wrestlers of all time. After consulting with other historians, including wrestler-turned-WWE talent scout William Regal, the first class was inducted by fiat, with some gaps filled in the same way the following year before balloting commenced in 1998. (If you want to see who has been enshrined, the easiest way to browse the list of inductees is via the hall’s Wikipedia page.) The official criteria, as outlined on the 2017 ballot, read as follows:
“The criteria for the Hall of Fame is a combination of drawing power, being a great in-ring performer or excelling in ones [sic] field in pro wrestling, as well as having historical significance in a positive manner. A candidate should either have something to offer in all three categories, or be someone so outstanding in one or two of those categories that they deserve inclusion.”
At first, one could be inducted at 35 years of age or 15 years as a full-time/major league wrestler, whichever came first. That was changed to 15 years as full-time/major league wrestler or 35 years old with at least 10 years of full-time/major league experience after Kurt Angle’s 2004 induction. Overlooked historical figures may also be inducted by a historical committee that usually deals with pre-television figures or candidates from countries not otherwise on the wrestling radar. While the gigantic 1996 class covered a lot of bases, some curious omissions have been noted in recent years. Legendary manager Jimmy Hart (more for his work in and around Tennessee than his WWF and WCW stints) was one such candidate, as was “Wild” Bull Curry, for decades a headliner in Boston, the Midwest, and Texas, among other locales. Nobody would have batted an eye at either going in back in 1996, with Hart having been a hardcore fan favorite and Curry having had such a long tenure as a top star. Voting them in two decades later is where the uphill battle comes in.
Like the BBHOF, a voter can pick 10 candidates, though they are given the ability to pick five non-wrestlers as well. However, the WON HOF field is more than twice the size of the one veteran baseball writers vote on, with a ballot divided into multiple regions: U.S./Canada Historical (last a key star more than 30 years ago), U.S./Canada Modern (a key star within the last 30 years), Japan, Mexico, Australasia/Pacific Islands/Africa (just think of it as “Other”), and Europe. To be inducted, you need to get 60% or more of the votes in your region. Under 10% takes you off the ballot, as does under 50% if you’ve been on the ballot for 15 years or more. For each candidate, their whole career must be considered regardless of region, the categorization factoring in the region where they had their greatest success. For example, Vampiro, a Canadian, is of course grouped in with Mexico, where he spent most of his career, while the “other” region is heavy on Americans who arguably peaked in Australia.
Of the various regions, Mexico has the biggest logjam, as there are very strong cases to be made for almost everyone on the lucha libre ballot. The vast majority made their cases before 1996, and some were added to the ballot much later than they should have been. This is thanks in large part to advances in historical research and match footage availability, as well as the dissemination thereof on the internet. Los Misioneros de la Muerte—the trio of El Signo, El Texano, Negro Navarro—are, for example, as much of a slam-dunk act as there is on the ballot. Trios bouts (called six-man tag team matches in the U.S.) became a dominant match type in Mexico on their back, something that never really let up. With the electorate not unified behind a particular set of candidates, though, few luchadores are being voted in. Also, since voters also self-select which regions they want to vote in, a lower-information voter may throw their hat in to pick someone they know from American exposure, like Vampiro, and nobody else, skewing the denominator in area-based voting.
All of this is complicated by the difficulty in finding definitive records on the numbers-based criteria, like attendance and gate figures. Numerous promoters cooked the books, and only a few kept records that have found their way to historians, like pay ledgers from St. Louis. Some newspapers would publish attendance numbers, and they would routinely skip shows. Even if there are concrete figures, context becomes tricky. How strong a draw does one need to be once a month in New York to be more impressive than someone drawing weekly in smaller markets? Plus, obviously, there’s subjectivity when it comes to in-ring performance, an element of the criteria. What exactly qualifies as “having historical significance in a positive manner” and how strongly does it have to factor in so as to overwhelm weaknesses in the other two areas?
Voter discussions tend to occur primarily on a handful of message boards, Facebook groups, and podcasts, most of which focus on older wrestling. Since so much of the criteria can be whittled down to matters of opinion or based on data that don’t exist in complete form, voting comes down to instinct in ways that regular sports halls generally try to skirt. That’s especially true for “historical influence,” and even more so with 2017 being the first year that southern wrestler Sputnik Monroe is on the ballot. His in-ring performance is a question mark since there’s little to no video of his matches, and his overall drawing record is questionable since he spent most of his career as a journeyman. What gets him on the ballot is his role in the integration of sporting events and public accommodations in Memphis.
In 1957, Monroe, a white heel, hung out in the black-owned business on Beale Street. As a result, the black fans fell in love with him, but they quickly filled the “colored” section of the Ellis Auditorium, presenting a problem for the promoters. These days it’s commonly accepted that promoters Nick Gulas and Roy Welch—eyeing the money above all else—were in on it, but Monroe threatened to sit out his matches until “my black friends” could sit where they wanted in the auditorium. It worked. So the question becomes whether the real-world accomplishment, one that some historians, including Meltzer himself, discount due to the promoters’ involvement, is enough to elevate what was otherwise a marginal career.
With the criteria being relatively nebulous for some regions and candidates due to the lack of concrete information, what the point of the hall even is definitely needs clarificationm and perhaps even less reliance on subjective assessments of in-ring wrestling. After all, if the model is (perhaps wrongly) a sports hall of fame and not, say, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, shouldn’t the criteria be rooted more in facts, or at least perceived facts? In-ring output is so subjective that the only factual way to measure it is to point to a consensus, but even that isn’t ironclad. Wrestler and fan opinions can diverge, as the former are more likely to cite things like safety and ring positioning while the latter are primarily concerned with exciting matches. Throw in the large gaps in record-keeping—something that perhaps disproportionately affects Mexican wrestlers—and voting can often be an exercise of feeling more than fact.
With no physical hall and no ceremony, the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame really exists for two purposes: Getting Meltzer to write cool bios for the inductees, and inciting arguments among the voters. The former is becoming less and less important in the modern news cycle, as he’s a one-man shop who’s constantly interrupted by huge breaking news stories. If the inductees aren’t being lavishly honored in some form, what exactly is the point of this exercise in the first place? No wrestling hall of fame is close to perfect, sure, but without the bios, the Observer hall’s positives are just the large, varied electorate and its worldwide coverage. Those don’t mean as much to even the most hardcore fans as cool speeches and memorabilia do.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.