By the time this column comes out, it will be a week before WrestleMania 39 in Los Angeles. Hype for the event is in full swing, including the annual Hall of Fame Ceremony, which will air live at 10 pm Eastern Time on Peacock in the United States and the WWE Network internationally following SmackDown.
Three inductees have been named so far: current competitor Rey Mysterio, recently retired Japanese legend The Great Muta and the only celebrity who matters to old-school wrestling fans, Andy Kaufman. Batista is still owed his induction from 2020, but it looks like he’s busy. I can’t blame him, although pushing his induction back so many times feels like a running joke worthy of Kane choke-slamming Pete Rose. Stacy Keibler has been floated as a potential inductee, along with a yet-to-be-named referee (if it’s not Dangerous Danny Davis we riot). Fans have rallied around the usual suspects like Bam Bam Bigelow, Demolition and the Midnight Express.
Earlier this month Slam Wrestling’s own Jon Waldman offered his picks for this year’s ceremony, including Rick Martel (male), Victoria, the Rockers (tag team), Bam Bam Bigelow (posthumous), Muta (international), and Lilian Garcia (non-wrestler).
From a completist’s point of view, I like Mr. Waldman’s list: it addresses a few key oversights going back to the 1980s (Martel and Bigelow). Shawn Michaels adds star power to a low-key field and would become the first three-time inductee. I’ve never been a big fan of Michaels but since WWE has convinced itself that he’s the best ever this seems like a good way to give him his due while he still somewhat looks the part. It won’t happen though (foreshadowing!)
Without someone like Michaels or Batista, it feels like this class is bound to suffer following Undertaker’s spotlight-hogging induction last year. Mysterio is a solid choice, especially in his home state of California before an audience that appreciates his Lucha Libre bona fides, but 1) he is an active competitor and 2) his induction is transparently being used to advance the angle with his son Dominik, likely leading to a ‘Mania match. Maybe this is intended to make the Hall of Fame more relevant, but it feels like watering down the concept of the Hall of Fame.
I was initially going to argue that it seems wrong to induct an active member of the roster. I think most major sports Halls of Fame have rules requiring members to be retired for a certain number of years before admission, rules which are occasionally broken to allow early entry, then broken again when said player attempts a comeback. For all I know, Mysterio could announce his retirement at the ceremony, or after beating/losing to his son; and at this point, there are several WWE Hall of Famers who retired only to come back later, including the likes of Goldberg, Edge and Beth Phoenix (or, in the case of wrestlers from Ric Flair to Billy Gunn to Greg Valentine to Terry Funk, who just never stopped). WWE’s Hall of Fame is most like the Rock & Roll version in Cleveland, where acts like KISS and the Rolling Stones and Guns ‘n’ Roses continue to perform and make new music that most of us ignore in favour of their established hits.
The WWE Hall of Fame broadcast has gone through several incarnations. At one point it was a standalone ticketed event. Now it’s an adjunct to WWE’s B show, presented to a bunch of rubes who don’t even dress up for the occasion. The live audience factor has made it less predictable; most negatively in 2019 when Bret ‘Hitman’ Hart was attacked by a fan before his induction as part of the Hart Foundation tag team. Assaults aside, long-time WWE and wrestling fans in general have taken up a litany of complaints about how WWE purports to honor its history-itself a weird thing since WWE’s formula largely ignores wrestlers’ histories outside their bounds.
Perhaps the biggest objection is that as nice as the ceremony is, there is no physical Hall of Fame. In 1998 WWE was going to build a themed hotel-casino in Las Vegas; they even purchased the old Debbie Reynolds property with the intent of redeveloping it and perhaps showcasing their treasure trove of props and costumes. But this idea went by the boards. WWE would sell the property to Clarion group where it remained in operation until 2015. It’s now a parking lot. Some WWE memorabilia made its way into attractions like the WWE New York restaurant and WWE Niagara Falls Tourist Trap, but those concerns also shuttered (ditto for WCW’s Nitro Grill in the Excalibur Hotel, which I once visited but walked on by since I was not yet a Broadcast Journalist and balked at choking down a Crippler Crossface Cheesesteak).
I have to admit I’m unmoved by the lack of a bricks and mortar Hall dedicated to the likes of Koko B. Ware and the Bushwhackers.
Halls of Fame can be big business. In 2010 the Pro Football Hall of Fame welcomed about 190,000 visitors. Baseball’s Hall in Cooperstown averages 300,000 visitors. Almost 200,000 attend the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame while the Government of Ontario’s website claims that Toronto’s Hockey Hall of Fame receives the most visitors with “almost 300,000” per year. It’s worth noting that of the four major sports only Hockey’s is located in a large urban centre. For the record, I’ve visited the Hockey Hall of Fame. It’s a fun place to go as a kid, once…and if you’re into merch it’s great.
I do think that as “Sports Entertainment” there are better comparisons out there…Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame entertains about 500,000 visitors per year (although it faces its own share of criticism with each class of inductees). The Hollywood Walk of Fame eclipses all of the actual Halls, welcoming an estimated 10 million people per year…although it is an open-air, unticketed attraction and this figure could easily count people just out for a stroll. Still, WWE’s audience feels niche compared to all of the above. A serious examination of WWE artifacts shows how much of it is make-believe. Props from the likes of Mick Foley and Paul Bearer have surfaced on shows like “Pawn Stars.” Admittedly part of the voyeuristic appeal of those shows rests in Chumlee’s dissection of these ‘treasures’ as worthless, but I think the real value of the WWE’s storage facility lies in web series and occasional A&E specials where you have a wide-eyed curator helping to maintain the illusion. More later, but it feels funny singling out performers for title runs and undefeated streaks when those are entirely fabricated. Especially since the internet has long convinced itself that in a shoot fight, Haku would have his own wing.
My personal issue with the WWE’s Hall of Fame lies in its treatment of stables or factions. As long as I’ve been a fan, wrestling angles have involved individual performers coming together to form something bigger than themselves. Whether it’s as a tag team, a faction of like-minded heels or a full-on stable under the leadership of a single diabolical force (whether it’s a manager like Paul Heyman or a crypto-Satanist like Kevin Sullivan), these groups are the agents of chaos that create the odds our heroes must overcome. The problem is that with time and territories and changes in booking philosophies, the makeup of these groups changes, which to me means that deserving individuals may be left out and pretenders allowed in.
I could go on about WWE’s cherry-picking Sean (X Pac/Syxx) Waltman to join the nWo onstage ahead of Paul ‘The Giant/Big Show’ Wight or Ted DiBiase (or the huge swath of the roster that followed), or WWE narrowing it’s Hart Foundation induction to the original tag team, which excluded Davey Boy Smith, Brian Pillman and Owen Hart-but the reasons for that are self-evident, or even the inclusion of Jimmy “Jam” Garvin as a member of the Fabulous Freebirds.
Consider instead how JCP/WCW’s Four Horsemen stable was inducted in 2012. The version WWE chose to induct is arguably the most proficient in-ring: Ric Flair, Arn Anderson, Tully Blanchard and Barry Windham with JJ Dillon managing. That’s fair, but not the original group, where Arn teamed with his ‘uncle’ Ole while Blanchard chased the US and TV titles. This is the group that was formed by near-accident, when four gifted athletes and great promo men were unified when Arn dropped a Revelation fuelled speech a decade before Steve Austin, with similar coolness. Ole’s out because he doesn’t get along with anyone, especially Vince McMahon. I would argue that the next version, which saw Ole replaced by Lex Luger deserved consideration-Luger had a record run with the US title as a Horseman and brought youth and power to a decidedly old-school faction. As of writing Luger remains excluded, likely because of his past legal and substance abuse issues, the death of his then-girlfriend Elizabeth Hullette under his watch, and an aesthetic bias that makes a now frail, wheelchair-using Luger appear as a cautionary tale. The Horsemen would reform several times, with members as varied as Sid Vicious, Sting, Steve McMichael, Brian Pillman, Dean Malenko and Chris Benoit. Curt Hennig and Jeff Jarrett, both solo inductees, would also have cups of coffee with the Horsemen. I’d say most if not all of them could have been inducted, but age, death, medical issues and employment with rival companies make that unlikely.
Of course, most wrestlers would graciously accept their inductions and move on, grateful for the payday. Compare this to the rock band KISS. KISS was never known for militant artistic integrity-founder Gene Simmons has spoken more than once of the merits of “selling out”. The band was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2014 but refused to play. Paul Stanley claims that they were only ‘begrudgingly’ let in despite being eligible since 1999, and objected to their induction being limited to Stanley, Simmons, Ace Frehley and Peter Criss. KISS has had 10 different line-ups since Frehley and Criss left the band (or were kicked out, depending on who you believe), but later, more proficient and longer-tenured members like Tommy Thayer, Eric Singer and Eric Carr were ignored. This is despite the fact that other bands like the Grateful Dead have seen all members inducted.
Perhaps this will spur a write-in campaign on Paul Roma’s behalf.
The predetermined nature of pro wrestling is a further issue. It feels disingenuous to induct “winners” without paying deference to the “losers” who make them superstars. Playboy Buddy Rose, who was himself inducted posthumously as part of the fictional Legends wing of the fictional Hall, argued that every wrestler on the roster should be a Hall of Famer given the collaborative nature of the enterprise. Randy Savage notoriously refused to be inducted while he was alive, arguing that he should go in alongside his father Angelo and brother Lanny, much like the Funks, Von Erichs or Harts.
Much as one might feel for Randy, the fact that Lanny was portrayed as enhancement talent for most of his WWE run seemed to undermine his point (mind you, the Hall of Fame includes many wrestlers who seldom won, including S.D. Jones, Baron Mikel Scicluna and Johnny Rodz, in addition to the aforementioned Mssrs. Ware, Miller and Williams). Some fans have argued for a more inclusive Hall. The Ultimate Warrior himself proposed an award for long-tenured behind-the-scenes staff who help keep the WWF/E juggernaut running or who provide service to the wrestling community This idea was eventually eclipsed by the Warrior Award as it came to be, which mostly spotlights charitable contributions from celebrities inside and outside WWE-it’s noble but not quite the same thing.
If you compare WWE to ‘legitimate’ sports Halls of Fame, they all set some standard for performance, and while most don’t necessarily count championships as essential, wins and losses matter. It’s a tough row to hoe for the likes of Dusty Wolfe and Barry Horowitz and Mario Mancini and Iron Mike Sharpe, at least some of whom have openly campaigned for induction, but who were employed on the understanding that each match needs a winner and a loser. The closest analogies I can think of reflect the uniqueness of pro wrestling. Sports Halls of Fame have long struggled with how to treat niche players: relief pitchers and designated hitters in baseball; kickers and punters in football; or defensive specialists like Dennis Rodman in basketball-though excellence tends to win out, however defined. In 2000, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame launched a “Sideman” category which would have included session musicians. They quickly folded them into a “Musical Excellence” category which does not require musical talent.
To some credit, in 2016 WWE tried to address some of the systemic biases inherent in their choice of inductees by creating an equally ephemeral ‘legacy wing’. To me, the legacy wing is meant to correct the kind of oversight that led to Gil Hodge’s decades-long exclusion from Baseball’s Hall of Fame. Hodges was a dominant first baseman offensively and defensively for the then-Brooklyn Dodgers (and an original New York Met at the end of his career). From 1950-54, he never hit less than 31 home runs in a season, with a career-high of 42 in 1954. He averaged 29 home runs and 100 RBI over a 162-game season even though the baseball season was only 154 games for most of his career. He was also seen as being of good character, which is a requirement for Baseball’s Hall of Fame but not for WWE’s-also the reason that Baseball’s Hall of Fame still excludes WWE Hall of Famer Pete Rose, among others *cough* *Trump* *cough*. Hodges would finally be inducted in 2022, 50 years after his death.
Legacy inductees do not receive full inductions. They are recognized with a video package at the ceremony, which has led the likes of Dave Meltzer to criticize the wing as “…the category they (WWE) use to honor people who, for whatever reason, they don’t feel are marketable names to the modern audience to put in their actual Hall of Fame”. Recognizable names from past (Jim Londos, El Santo) and more recently (Luna Vachon, Ray Stevens, Dr. Death Steve Williams, Bruiser Brody) are in thus WWE Hall of Famers, but you’d hardly know it. Legacy inductees are not announced before the ceremonies, which has hurt the likes of Shawn Stasiak who would have loved to induct or be present for or given notice of the induction of his father, former Champion Stan ‘The Man’ Stasiak. WWE skipped the legacy wing last year, and they have yet to announce any inductees this year either. With all due respect to older fans who want their heroes to have a moment in the sun, I think this is a shame. Even if these legends deserve more the night of their induction they are still listed alongside the ‘regular inductees’ on WWE’s website, which is their Hall of Fame. I think this is preferrable to the ‘What?’ chants that would likely ensue when two wrestlers with limited knowledge of their inductee try to sell a live audience on their greatness.
A permanent Hall of Fame is further complicated by the fact that so many superstars eventually fall out of favour with WWE or otherwise meet bad ends. It’s better now but for years WWE’s Hall of Fame was known for wrestlers who boycotted it. Bruno Sammartino, Bob Backlund, Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, Ultimate Warrior and Bret Hart were all standard-bearing champions. They also held out on being inducted, in some cases for decades-over differences in the product’s direction, business disputes, or reckless endangerment resulting in the loss of family and friends. The biggest WWE champion holdout right now is probably Triple H (assuming The Rock just has scheduling issues and CM Punk is, well, CM Punk), who seems reluctant to join his colleagues while he’s perceived to be steering the ship. Vince McMahon has also refused to be inducted, whether he’s in charge or not this week.
Jimmy ‘Superfly’ Snuka was an early honoree. He appears to have been scrubbed from the Hall after being charged with murder (he was never convicted and was found incompetent to stand trial before passing away in 2017). Hulk Hogan is currently part of the Hall. He had been removed for several years following a sex tape scandal aggravated by separately recorded racist remarks. Some wrestlers treat their Hall of Fame appearances as quick paydays and then rush like Abdullah the Butcher or Superstar Billy Graham to sell their rings and other memorabilia on eBay. Some wrestler’s estates like Paul Bearer and Yokozuna, have done the same. Chyna is rumored to have been excluded from even a posthumous induction because of her involvement in adult films, while Tammy (Sunny) Sytch made a momentarily triumphant appearance at her own induction, only to follow the same path a few years later. In some respects, a permanent Hall of Fame would become a memorial to the huge price paid by these people for our entertainment. For a while, it seemed like each class would have a ‘redemption’ story-like Jake Roberts or Scott Hall. The battles these performers fought and in some cases lost following their in-ring careers are a reality that the business has never wanted to face any more than the NFL wished to acknowledge how many of its hall of famers died young from CTE-related injuries and addiction, before being dragged to court.
Optics remain a challenge: every year around this time protests pick up that legends such as former WWWF Champion Ivan Koloff or long-reigning tag champs Demolition have yet to be inducted. These inductions pose two main problems: first, while wrestling history is clear to us as fans it’s often murky within the business. With apologies to Austin Theory modern pro wrestling is grounded in the ‘now’ and fans have short memories. Go back further than the 2000s and as far as the core demographic is concerned, Dinosaurs ruled the earth. Functionally, it becomes a challenge to induct an act outside the consciousness of an arena of fans who see John Cena as old; and a bigger challenge to find someone alive and lucid enough to do a good job of inducting them and to accept on their behalf.
Pro wrestling has been a highly visual medium since the 1950s, and it’s tougher to make the case for historic talents’ induction when most people don’t know who they are. WWE presents its wrestlers as superheroes. While age is inevitable, it is understandable that they would balk at the visuals of our heroes walking on stage with crutches like Butch Miller or in a wheelchair like Mr. Fuji or just unrecognizable like Jimmy Garvin. One may argue this is ageist and ableist, and one would probably be right…but until recently (or maybe still) WWE was headed by a man who relentlessly pursued his own brand of quirky physical perfection, complete with dyed pompadour haircut, pocketless pants and a workout regime that may or may not have been enhanced in any number of ways. More recently fans could see when Vince McMahon opted for youthful cosmetic treatments for his face…and as their efficacy waned Vince would take himself off TV entirely…unless there is a super paycheque to be gained from it as at last year’s WrestleMania.
One would have to think this is an even tougher case where the persona used by those wrestlers would be unacceptable to modern sensibilities. Tony Atlas made it into the Hall of Fame. Saba Simba would not. The Wild Samoans were inducted several years ago-I’d argue due to their ongoing family connections with WWE more than their problematic gimmick. Kamala played a similar part, and it’s tough to see him being inducted.
Many of those who remain excluded were at one point part of a failed class action suit against WWE, alleging that the ‘E’ was responsible for damages resulting from concussions. In my view, the lawsuit was horribly ill-advised since most of the would-be plaintiffs had long careers in-ring before and after their WWE stints and often participated in other high-risk activities and contact sports long before they started wrestling. Even in the case of a representative plaintiff, it would be difficult to prove one company responsible for damages affecting an itinerant wrestler. More than 60 former wrestlers were involved in the lawsuit, mainly from the 1980s and 1990s. The first plaintiff was Billy Jack Haynes, who was very popular during his short WWE run but has since turned into a toothless raving conspiracy theorist whose condition is occasionally exploited on YouTube. Vito LoGrasso, the estates of Nelson (Viscera) Frazier and Matt (Doink) Borne were also early entrants. The first lawsuits to directly address CTE with evidence were filed by the estates of Balls Mahoney and Axl Rotten-which is ironic since both men were renowned for taking unprotected chair shots to the head throughout their careers-only a fraction of which were spent in WWE. A cursory review of the list of plaintiffs discloses many would-be Hall of Famers: King Kong Bundy, Ken Patera, Sabu, Demolition Ax and Smash, Angelo Mosca, Butch Reed, Jazz, Don Leo Jonathan (a personal favorite), Shane Douglas, the Powers of Pain (who should be in just for having the best tag team name ever), 2 Cold Scorpio, One Man Gang and others all merit consideration, especially given the sliding scale of inductees. Beyond individual claimants, including the likes of Chavo Guerrero, Jr. (who was recently active in AEW) and Sr. or Dave and Earl Hebner would make the inclusion of those families less likely. Ditto for Judy Martin’s inclusion rendering the Glamour Girls’ tag team with Leilani Kai irrelevant.
To be fair, there are plenty of WWE Hall of Famers in the list of plaintiffs, including Paul Orndorff, Jimmy Snuka and Road Warrior Animal-but they had the good fortune of being inducted before trying to sue WWE out of business (mind you, Jesse Ventura sued WWE and won before his induction, but those were much smaller stakes over unpaid royalties). Marty Jannetty is listed as a plaintiff, which in my view makes the Rockers’ induction unlikely (sorry, Jon).
I suspect WWE attracts as much criticism for its Hall of Fame because it is the most heavily promoted Hall. For the last 40 years or so WWE has largely framed the narrative of pro wrestling history. That said, they’re far from the only game in town. WWE aside, there are three competing pro wrestling Halls of Fame: The George Tragos/Lou Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame, which emphasizes amateur credentials within pro wrestling; the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame in Wichita Falls Texas, which has had a complicated history and is currently shuttered after a flood damaged many of its exhibits; and the International Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame in Albany, New York which was established in 2019. Smart fans will probably recognize the Cauliflower Alley Club Hall of Fame, based in New York City although ceremonies seem centered around Las Vegas. Plus a host of purported national and regional Halls, many of which are tied to a specific promotion (and which may or may not have an actual footprint). Territories as varied as Memphis, St. Louis and Quebec have their own versions, which give prominence to longstanding local talent as well as bigger names who started there, or who breezed by to give the promotions’ shows more credibility. Dave Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer maintains its own Hall of Fame, voting for which is almost always controversial given the preferences of Mr. Meltzer’s fan base, and mainstream recognition of his extensive knowledge. Most importantly we have a Hall of Fame here at Slamwrestling.net, maintained by our own Greg Oliver and paying homage to a broadly defined historical sweep of Canadian wrestling.
All of which is to say, while WWE’s Hall of Fame may be flawed, from a historian’s perspective it is valuable. But anyone who is truly interested in wrestling history would do well to seek out alternative and complementary sources and do a bit of a deeper dive.
TOP PHOTO: The WWE Hall of Fame ceremony on Friday, April 1, 2022, at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. WWE Photo