Wrestling is built on the perception of tough guys. That’s been the way since the very beginning. Muscle men abound, especially in WWE and TNA and on the indies. The rise of ECW pushed guys insanely tough for their battles and fans couldn’t get enough. The advent of MMA has only added to it as wrestling wants to get that success and producing more “shoot fighting” types. Some guys truly are tough as John Cena has proven his training and slews of others likewise good. Yet often, a guy is presented as a tough bad-ass but not really able to back it up. Wrestling is about looks and perception as more than one guy has been presented as top notch and able to tear down a bar in a brawl but in reality, doesn’t measure up.
For years, Goldberg was cited as a classic case of someone “tough in the ring but not out of it” and he’s not alone. Indeed, a lot of the “giant monsters” really aren’t that good as tough guys out of the ring. Often, it’s a case of a guy being much nicer in real life. Kane, for example, is known as one of the nicest guys you could possibly meet inside the ring and Kevin Owens is likewise a sweetheart. In other cases, it’s less attitude and more just being a wimp when the time comes. It’s notable how often WWE has presented some guys as tough but really aren’t while guys you might think were pushovers were truly hard cases. Here are 10 former WWE guys who were tough in real life and 10 only on screen to show once more how wrestling is about perception.
20 REAL LIFE: Bad News Brown
A judo champion who won bronze in the Olympics and gold at the Pan-Am Games, Allen Coage already had some great drive and skill. In Stampede, he was pushed as Bad New Allen and took off majorly as a fantastic heel. Allen was known as a true bad-ass, never backing down and more than once could clean out a bar on the road in a fight. His persona could be big business but also backfire. A famous angle had him beating down the “son” of Stomper Gouldie in such a bloodbath that it got the TV show yanked off the air, Stu Hart had his promoter’s license suspended and it almost killed the entire territory.
In WWE, he was known as Bad News Brown, still tough and notable for his hostile demeanor. Perhaps the most famous story is Allen taking offense to a racist joke Andre the Giant told and fighting Andre who actually backed down. He was marred by bad booking in WWE and perhaps just too tough for the time. However, any man who can get the Giant to back down from a fight deserves to be known as a tough guy.
19 ON SCREEN: Vader
This can be argued as Vader is known for toughness. There’s the famous story of getting his eye taken out and putting it back in and his incredibly stiff offense. Yet when it came to actually taking punishment and blows, Vader was surprisingly lower on the ranks. There are reports of how Vader really is a decent guy outside the ring. To many, the proof of Vader not being that tough was in 1995 when Vader had a clash in WCW with Paul Orndorff. It led to a brawl where Orndorff, almost two decades Vader’s senior and far smaller, beat Vader into a pulp…while wearing flip-flops. That devastated his rep and his tenure in WWE was notable for bad booking that hurt his drive and problems backstage. So, yes, in his prime, Vader had toughness but his later years exposed him as far more talk than action.
18 REAL LIFE: Brian Pillman
For a guy so small, Pillman was incredibly tough. He showed that early on, surviving numerous throat surgeries that created his trademark rasp and there was his football background. A famous story is in Canada where some workers tricked PIllman into a room with a football player, thinking he’d be pounded as a hazing. Instead, Pillman came out, having beaten the guy into a pulp. Stories abound of Pillman’s drug use and carrying on yet he excelled in a fight, far tougher and once easily pounded down Sid in an encounter.
Sadly, that toughness played a part in his too-soon demise as he insisted on coming back from severe injuries, including a nearly fatal car crash, way before he was fully healed. Yet Pillman never backed down from anyone, a scrappy attitude that added to his stardom. So don’t be fooled by his size, Pillman could trash nearly anyone in his path and is still regarded as one of the toughest guys to step foot in WWE.
17 ON SCREEN: Lex Luger
The problem with Lex Luger wasn’t that he didn’t have talent; he did. But he was pushed way too early out the gate by promoters wanting the next Hogan. He won a title just weeks after his debut and thus never really paid his dues. The first sign of Luger not being so tough was his final match in Florida against Bruiser Brody inside a cage. Depending on how you view it, Brody no-sold everything and Luger either ran off in fear or just quit out of annoyance. WCW and WWE both presented Luger as a physical specimen and a fantastic tough guy but behind the scenes, he really wasn’t. He came up short in some fights with guys and his attitude didn’t win him friends. Luger acted above it all a lot and that cost him goodwill in both companies and later runs with some indies.
Not helping was his drug use and involvement with Elizabeth’s death that got him in hot water. Again , Luger had a great look but couldn’t back it up despite how “The Total Package” was a big star.
16 REAL LIFE: Ken Shamrock
His run in WWE wasn’t as huge as some hoped for but there’s no denying Shamrock made an impact. One of the founding fathers of what we know as UFC, Shamrock already had a good build when he joined WWE in 1997. He was pushed hard, his amazing skills and drive shoving him on and fans taking to him well. Shamrock had runs with titles and some intense stuff but many felt he may have been just too tough for the company as several guys complained about him being too hard on them in the ring. Shamrock backed it up behind the scenes as stories abound such as when he beat both of the Nasty Boys at once among other famous cases of fighting guys.
Shamrock went back to MMA for another successful run and is still a legend there which means you have to rank him among the toughest guys to step into a WWE ring. In any cases, he more than lived up to his mantra of “The World’s Most Dangerous Man.”
15 ON SCREEN: The Ultimate Warrior
The Warrior’s reputation has seen its ups and downs over the years. For a time, he was a total joke for his looney behavior and terrible ring work. His sudden death has led fans to see him in a better light but many still trash his past stuff. The big thing is how the Warrior was pushed hard as a major tough guy in WWE complete with going over so many guys. He was a super-hero in a time of larger than life guys and WWE tried to make fans think he could beat anyone. But the Warrior wasn’t that special outside the ring. Andre the Giant famously no-sold anything the Warrior did, making him frustrated but didn’t make a deal of it.
Also, a famous story is Rick Rude taking exception to the Warrior’s attitude after a match and laying him out with a single punch in the locker room. Many contend it got worse as the years went by, especially in WCW and while the Warrior may have been a lot of things in star quality, a tough guy wasn’t one of them.
14 REAL LIFE: Lashley
Some can argue this point but really, Lashley has proven his toughness majorly. He showed it in college as a triple national wrestling champion and if not for a knee injury, would have gone to the Olympics. True, his WWE run was hampered by some injuries and suspensions despite how he showed a good push to himself. When he entered MMA, few gave him a real chance, figuring it was a publicity stunt. Instead, Lashley went on to attain a 15-1 record, incredibly impressive and held himself well against men in that sport for years.
TNA has, amazingly, treated Lashley right, pushing him as a monster that crushes guys and his runs as champion have gone well. The man is legit tough, winning the respect of co-workers and MMA fighters alike. His name as “The Dominator” really does fit him as Lashley is one guy to succeed in both wrestling and MMA to prove his legit toughness.
13 ON SCREEN: Big Daddy V
Vince McMahon has a real thing for big guys and Nelson Frazier is a fine example. He was a huge specimen pushing 500 pounds and at first, part of the fun rappers Men on a Mission. Vince changed them up to Mabel as a heel, pushed as a true monster for his size. The problem was that the man was hopelessly untalented as a worker, barely able to pull off moves right. Indeed, he badly injured The Undertaker, crushing his face with a leg drop and his battles with Diesel were a key reason business in WWE was horrible. Afterward, he was given new personas like Viscera and then Big Daddy V, still pushed as a huge worker. But he was just not that good and frankly, was a softie outside the ring. Frazier was better suited for a big meal than a big brawl, a drinker but not hard partier and the brutal truth that he was just too untalented to make his size work as a tough guy.
12 REAL LIFE: Hardcore Holly
For years, Bob Holly had to put up with some bad stuff such as “Sparkplug” and other stupid ideas. He finally changed himself to Hardcore Holly which fit his persona better. Stories abound of Holly being prone to violence and often getting himself into scrapes. He really impressed by breaking his neck from a bad move from Brock Lesnar but coming back far faster than anyone expected. He was hit by other injuries, including a bad staph infection yet kept on coming back. Holly was known for a tough demeanor but nothing prepared fans or fellow workers for his match with RVD in 2006. Taking a bump, Holly opened up a massive gash on his back that had fans screaming. Despite that, he continued wrestling for several minutes before finally seeking medical attention. That proved his toughness big time so even his greatest doubters have to admit Hardcore definitely lived up to his name.
11 ON SCREEN: Ryback
Skip Sheffield had been a forgettable player in WWE as a member of The Nexus. Sent down for more training, he got a makeover into Ryback and it was blatantly obvious how WWE meant for him to be the next Goldberg. He was pushed hard with bald head and muscles, set up as a monster, crushing guys, the works. However, fans didn’t take to it as Ryback was sloppy in the ring, injuring a few guys with his moves. CM Punk claimed Ryback “took 20 years off my career” with his hard hitting.
Despite that, the perception backstage was that Ryback was all show with rumors of how he got on the bad end of some conflicts and couldn’t back up his tough attitude. Everyone knew he was pushed off the Goldberg look and was not popular at all backstage. Finally cut, Ryback has bad-mouthed WWE constantly but few really buy what he’s selling as he wasn’t as tough as he tried to be on screen.
10 REAL LIFE: Terry Funk
Many ignore how amazingly skilled Terry Funk was in his prime. He was actually a clean-cut guy at first, a technical master and his run as NWA champion was tops for business. It was in the later days of the 1990s that Funk transformed into the frankly insane worker we all know today. Long before that, Funk was setting a reputation for amazing work in the ring, going through wild brawls but adapted to a tougher style as he went. His work in Japan is legendary as he held himself well against the best of that country and impressed by seeming to feel no pain from injuries.
As ECW grew, Funk threw himself into it with matches in barbed wire, tables, chairs, set on fire and so much more. That a man ready for Social Security could keep putting himself through such epic brawls was astounding and Funk was just as tough outside the ring with some hard partying antics. Everyone respects Funk for his age as it’s remarkable a man in his 50s was doing stuff guys 30 years younger would be afraid to try.
9 ON SCREEN: Shawn Michaels
On the one hand, Shawn has shown stunning toughness by coming back from a career-ending injury and in better shape than ever. He’s also been through a lot of wild battles and clashes. However, the fact is, HBK isn’t exactly the toughest guy on the block. Shawn is up front on how much of a prima donna he was in his ‘90s prime, a total jerk out for himself. That includes backing down from a lot of conflicts and not messing around with others.
Of course, the most famous is in 1995 when Shawn got into a fight in a bar with some Marines and had his head handed to him. Bill Watts stated that if he’d been in charge of WWE at the time, he’d have fired Shawn on the spot for losing a fight.
There’s also the tale of Shawn bragging about maybe not dropping the title to Austin in 1998 and Undertaker just wrapped up his fists to intimidate Shawn to do it. So while Shawn can be tough in dealing with injuries, he doesn’t really back it up in the outside world and be a “Showstopper” in a brawl.
8 REAL LIFE: Scott Steiner
This may be a surprise to some. But don’t forget, Scott Steiner was a fantastic athlete in his prime and a decorated star at Michigan. When he and Rick started out as a team, Scott was pulling off moves no one had ever seen before to make them stars. Yes, he got himself blown up majorly and some steroid use but Steiner could back it up by being a good worker and champion. Sure, his promos were flat out nuts but few could argue Steiner wasn’t a really tough guy in his prime and able to handle himself, including fighting with others. The man did have an amazing strength to him.
Indeed, in 2007, Steiner took a savage blow in TNA that caused a tracheal rupture. Steiner was near death and had to have his lungs drained. Yet six weeks later, he was back in the ring. That shows an amazing toughness so call him a psycho if you want but you can’t deny Steiner’s stunning toughness.
7 ON SCREEN: Sid
Sid sure looked like a guy who could trash you without trying. He was tall, built and came off as a total psycho. That counted in the ring and his promos are infamous for their sheer insanity. But Sid’s lack of skill in the ring hinted he wasn’t really that tough outside the ring. Stories seem to prove it like the one where Sid was pummeled by Brian Pillman in a bar fight and returned to face him with…a squeegee. Or when he and Arn fought with scissors and Sid got the worst of it. More stories have followed, each making Sid to sound like a total fool outside the ring and totally over his head in a fight. It’s remarkable how often a guy who looked the aggressor came up short in battles as Sid’s nutty behavior didn’t help make him many allies. All told, the only thing “psycho” about Sid was trying to rely on him in a real brawl.
6 REAL LIFE: Harley Race
From the start, Harley Race had toughness in his bones. At just 19, he was in a serious car accident that killed his wife. Race’s leg was badly mangled to the point the doctors wanted to amputate and manager Gust Karras had to stop them. Race was told he’d be lucky to ever walk on the leg again. Not only did he walk, he became one of the best workers of his time. Race could do hour long scientific matches or epic bloodbaths and a fantastic experience watching him. Race’s flying headbutt was an amazing move for its time and he wrestled nearly every night despite huge injuries to himself.
He had seven runs as NWA champion, each huge business and Race took on just about every star of his time. He was bleeding buckets with the best of them and even Terry Funk has credited Race as one of the toughest guys he’s ever faced in the ring. If that doesn’t speak volumes, nothing does and proves Race one of the toughest guys ever in the ring.
5 ON SCREEN: Batista
“The Animal” was, frankly, a total jerk. Getting into wrestling late in life, Batista was pushed well for his size and impressed many by taking to it well. His run as World champion was good and better in matches than many expected. Indeed, his feud with the Undertaker was a terrific affair. However, Batista was known for being a bit of a wimp backstage, talking a tough game but not backing it up for real. Booker T famously beat him in a fight and many complain about Batista’s harsh attitude and huge ego.
The guy had more altercations and his constant injuries pointed to a guy that wasn't that durable. His return in 2014 was badly done, the fans not liking his push and Batista soon left due to creative issues. He’s gone on to achieve major fame in Hollywood but most contend that in wrestling, Batista was just as much a fake bruiser as on the big screen.
4 REAL LIFE: Steve Williams
Some may argue against this given how Williams was supposed to be the winner of the famed “Brawl for All” but got knocked out by Bart Gunn. But that shouldn’t take away from years of Williams regarded as one of the toughest guys in the business. His hard hitting and drinking style were famous as he tore his way through the Mid-South/UWF area and regarded well for his great manner. The most famous is easily when he received a massive blow in an afternoon show that needed 138 stitches. Seeing the doctor for them, Williams made the immortal line “sew me up, Doc, I got a match tonight.” Sure enough, he wrestled a night show with those stitches in.
Williams was also regarded a fantastic figure in Japan where even vets of that country were astounded at how much damage he could take and dish out. While he passed on from cancer, Williams never stopped fighting and “Dr. Death’s” legacy is intact as one of the toughest guys to ever step in a ring.
3 ON SCREEN: Taz
When he broke out in the early ECW, he was the “Tazmaniac,” pushed as a wildman. He’d come out strapped to a gurney in chains and break out and go crazy in the ring. It was good but after an injury, Paul Heyman decided a makeover was needed. He took to the then-growing MMA world to restyle Taz as a shoot fighter type. This led to huge success with Taz one of ECW’s biggest stars and a terrific champion. However, reports are that it was really more an act as Taz was nowhere near as tough in real life as he was in the ring. He supposedly backed down in a fight against Rob Van Dam and Bob Holly claimed Taz was removed as a “Tough Enough” instructor for fears the rookies would hurt him. Taz has downplayed this but the fact his career ended softly and moved to announcing indicates a lot of his “shoot” persona was really a big act.
2 REAL LIFE: Meng
The stories of Meng’s toughness are legendary in wrestling. This was a man set up as a monster fighter, especially in WCW. If anything, they were underselling him. Some stories are stunning such as when he got into a bar brawl and when cuffed, he snapped them in half. They then tried to mace him and he just literally laughed it off. Or the time he ripped Mike Barr’s eye out of the socket and then popped it right back in. He once tossed a former NFL linebacker down with ease and knocked out five marines in a fight. One time at an airport, a fan made the mistake of calling wrestling fake and Meng replied by biting his nose off.
In the ring, he was stiff as hell and seemed to feel no pain. Even guys like Jake Roberts and others talked of how they were terrified of ticking Meng off and getting a serious beating. Goldberg chimes with many others that Meng would have been a hit in MMA as the man was an unstoppable beast more than any other wrestler in history.
1 ON SCREEN: Kevin Nash
He may have bragged about being a bouncer and bodyguard but most think Kevin Nash is pretty much all talk. His constant injuries are a source of ridicule as the man seemingly can’t even walk right without tearing a quad. He’s been criticized for a rather lazy style of wrestling that often puts people in danger. There’s also how he’s more interested in partying than training or carrying on really well. More than once, Nash appears to have lost an argument and a fight, not helped by how much smaller guys can wrestle rings around him. Sure, he may talk a big game but Nash doesn’t seem to back it up, especially with age taking its toll. It’s one thing to look intimidating at his size but Nash just wasn’t that big a deal in real life to mark himself as a major fake tough guy in wrestling.