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Dr. Strangeloss, Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love GWE


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"Vows are spoken

To be broken

Feelings are intense

Words are trivial"


-- Depeche Mode, "Enjoy The Silence"


When the idea of revisiting the Greatest Wrestler Ever project was initially presented to me, I loved the thought of it. I was nearing the end of a 1990s yearbook project, which had rekindled a spark that been gone since Chris Benoit killed himself and his family, and this would give the wrestling fan in me new and fairly organized purpose. I was also interested in the historiography of the collective tastes of hardcore wrestling fans. What had changed about our opinions since the initial poll from the now-dormant Smarkschoice.com in 2006? Perhaps more interestingly, what about our tastes had stayed the same? If I had stayed on that course, the project certainly would have produced far less headaches for me than it ultimately did, and it would have been an incredibly fun experience from beginning to end. But I had to take a detour.


The yearbook project that I was finishing served two purposes from my perspective -- to see all of the most acclaimed matches of the time period, and to see a decent amount of the potentially great matches that were overlooked in the moment. It was a deep dive and took half a decade for me to complete. So I entered the GWE project with that same mindset -- the desire to watch it all, review it all and form opinions on it all. That was my first mistake.


Realizing the investment such a venture would require of me, it was about 18 months ago that I started a thread asking how others would feel about extending the deadline -- not just by a few days or weeks, or even by a few months. I wanted to extend it by a few years! That request got the types of "What's wrong with you?" responses you might expect, but it came from a realization of all the footage that I hadn't seen. When I was neck deep in the yearbook project, I made a conscious choice to forsake all other wrestling watching, not only as a practical matter so I could finish in this lifetime but also because I wanted to fully immerse myself in the time period and not be distracted by other contexts or projects du jour. Time, however, did not pause while I was stuck in the era of Newt Gingrich, America Online and Crystal Pepsi. So I hadn't seen so much of the heralded great wrestling of this decade, and I hadn't had a chance to immerse myself in the 1970s, 1980s and 2000s the way I had the 1990s. I felt like I shouldn't be thinking about the Greatest Wrestler Ever until I had a chance to do a full plunge on wrestling's recorded footage history.


As I later said in a way intended to make fun of myself, but as something lost on me at the time, my goal was to make a list that was both soulless and factually correct. If I could see it all, I could not only turn in a ballot, but I could turn in an omniscient ballot -- one that was truly considered from all eras. When other voters rejected the idea of an extended timetable, I took my interest in the project and left, vowing not to submit a ballot. I even got hotheaded about it and took my complaints to Twitter, which led to a brief falling out with my friend Dylan Hales after he gave me a dose of truth in a response that I did not want to hear, but needed to hear all the same. Perfection was in a violent war against good, and I was a soldier for flawlessness.


For months, I told myself I would say nothing bad about the project publicly so I wouldn't rain on the parade of others, but privately, I thought the idea of the project was ridiculous and egotistical. "Who do these people think they are, that they are truly able to figure out the greatest wrestler ever without watching everything they can get their hands on?" I asked myself. Over time, I realized that my purity protest was a form of paralysis, as while I was lamenting that people were going to make ballots without aiming to watch at the least the praised highlights of every nominated wrestler's matchography, other voters were in the trenches doing the real work. Longtime U.S.-only fans gave international wrestling they had never seen a try, and aimed to understand it with an open mind. Younger fans looked into older wrestling. Older fans even looked into newer wrestling. The more I saw this, the more I came to terms with the idea that I was actually the one being egotistical. While they were exploring wrestling from all countries and time periods, I was more preoccupied with what everyone had not seen -- so sure only I had the answer to approaching this project correctly that I could not even leave the starting gate. It was my loss, no pun intended.


It was here I realized that what project leader Steven Graham said on day one was absolutely correct-- this is a snapshot in time. That the question "Who is the greatest wrestler ever?" cannot be definitively answered is not reason to give up on trying to answer it. The weight, scope and seeming impossibility of the question is actually cause for celebration, because it encourages an incredibly rewarding expedition, one where we get to watch, enjoy and evaluate great wrestling of all kinds. Of course no one of us can definitively answer the question, but taken together, maybe we can take a damn good stab at it, which is what the countdown that will come in the month of April aims to ultimately represent. All of us are smarter than any of us.


I did not have these same qualms a decade ago when I participated in the original poll. It was during this time that I really started watching wrestling I had only heard about, wrestling that had previously been inaccessible to me. If the 2016 poll represents the end to the bootleg-driven "Footage Explosion" era, as some have aptly called it, the Smarkschoice poll was the denouement of VHS. Nearly five times as many voters participated this time around and it's not because the community is larger, but rather because footage has been democratized through YouTube, torrents and more economically feasible bootlegging. Because of that, accepted fan narratives have become more splintered than ever. In the era of the videotape, a fan may spend up to $20 for a single video, and if he was on a budget, he needed to ensure the most bang for his buck. So he largely relied on the opinions of the vocal few to make educated guesses on what to purchase. This practice led to most hardcore wrestling fans seeing the same footage and forming similar opinions. Perhaps in some cases, those who invested so much money in the footage also felt the need, even subconsciously, to justify their purchase through praise.


The story of 2016 is a different one. There is still some footage that is easier to find than other footage, and that will likely always be the case, but with less risk in watching different forms of wrestling comes less stakes in criticism. A fan who found a match for free on YouTube may have an easier time panning it if he doesn't particularly enjoy it than a fan who paid $12.00 for a video of the same match based on reputation. That is not to attack the character or motives of wrestling fans of yesteryear as much as it is to demonstrate the difference in the hardcore fan economy between then and now, and how that might influence conventional wisdom.


The differences do not stop there. While Smarkschoice had a forum to nominate and discuss wrestlers, there were no guidelines beyond that. Voters were allowed to name anyone on their final ballot, nominated or not, and there was no minimum threshold for nominating a wrestler. We modified our approach in 2016, requiring at least three match reviews to nominate anyone. We then limited voting to only nominated wrestlers.


While these factors represent major change in approach from 2006, perhaps no singular event is cause for greater difference in the two polls than the Benoit family tragedy in 2007. Different fans had different levels of response to it, but almost everyone was affected in some way. It was not so much that our opinions on Chris Benoit changed, although he was one of only two wrestlers on every ballot in 2006, the other being the late Eddy Guerrero. It was more that Benoit was the posterboy of a meritocratic, maximalist approach to wrestling that fans like us really appreciated. Just as it did within wrestling itself, Benoit's actions forced many of us to re-think our values.


Were we part of the problem? Were we rewarding and endorsing a philosophy on wrestling that required a level of sacrifice that resulted in personal destruction? It was by no means a self evaluation in which everyone partook, but it did have an impact on a significant portion of our community. Some fans chose to focus less on the physical components of being a great wrestler and more on the mental ones. Discussions of wrestling psychology became more prevalent, as did a proverbial line in the sand between those who enjoyed more "basic" wrestling and those who still preferred big spots and matches primarily fueled by daredevil action. Nothing was settled, nor did anything aim to be settled, but far more than in 2006, the final poll results demonstrate that struggle between competing philosophies, a struggle which ultimately led to a beautifully decentralized form of wrestling canon.


Who is the greatest wrestler ever? I have my opinion on the matter, just as we all do, but hell if any of us really know. However, I do suspect the voters of 2016 have advantages that allow us to approach the question and get closer to the ever-evasive truth -- inasmuch as truth can exist -- than the voters of 2006, just as the voters of 2026 will seek to answer the question from a better place than we are now. In the meantime, we can be fully assured that the wrestlers who do well in this poll have been thoroughly vetted, debated, argued, criticized and defended.

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  • 2 weeks later...



You hate them, Will? I can't understand what makes a man hate another man. Help me understand.


Charles, that post was outstanding. One of the best wrestling related essays I have read online in a very, very long time. If not ever.

It's a competitive world.

Will, you have a sense of humor so dry, it reminds me of the region of Denmark I was born in. I love it!


I also love Depeche Mode and this amazing post by Loss!

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