The fact pro wrestling is scripted hasn’t prevented some genuinely tough fighters from entering the sport. It does, however, mean that said toughness isn’t necessarily related to success, as many verifiably badass competitors have proven with less than stellar careers in WWE, WCW, ECW, NWA, and elsewhere around the wrestling world. In fact, quite a few of the toughest wrestlers in history weren’t that great in the ring and they spent the majority of their careers stuck in the midcard or lower because of it.
The nature of sports entertainment means all wrestlers need to look tough and it can be difficult to tell which superstars actually could hold their own in a fight. There have been more than enough shoot interviews to give fans an idea of who the strongest are, though, with wild and exciting stories about bar fights creating powerful reputations for some and legitimate track records in contact sports like boxing, MMA, or amateur wrestling speaking for themselves to certify the prestige of others.
In the same way it can be difficult to tell which wrestlers are really tough, measuring a pro wrestlers success can often lead to controversy and mixed opinions. While a few of these wrestlers won championships for major companies and participated in various main events, none built legacies that brought them to the Hall of Fame, at least not on their in-ring prowess alone. Keep reading to learn about 15 legitimately tough pro wrestlers who sucked in the ring.
15 Chris Masters
Heralding himself as “The Masterpiece,” Chris Masters always boasted an impressive physique if nothing else. He made his WWE debut in early 2005, challenging hapless opponents to his Master Lock Challenge, slowly transitioning into a high profile feud with Shawn Michaels. Masters achieved another early career highlight in challenging John Cena for the WWE Championship, though he came up empty handed. Before long, Masters started a long descent down the card, marred with a violation of the WWE Wellness Policy that resulted in him being relegated to a comedic role as punishment. Masters was released in 2011, never again to appear for the company. Despite his lack of success, his toughness was never in question, as John Cena would later refer to Masters as the strongest person he faced in his career. Masters again demonstrated his tenacity in 2013, uprooting a tree in his mother’s front yard and using it to break a window in her burning home, saving her from a fiery death.
14 Dick Slater
Had Vince McMahon not destroyed territorial wrestling in America, the legacy of Dick Slater may have gone a lot differently. Slater was a regional star in Mid-South, Mid-Atlantic and Georgia territories of the NWA throughout the 1970s and early 80s, only for his career to take a nosedive during a short stint in WWE, followed by a continued downfall while the NWA became WCW. Slater’s downfall lasted longer than his period of success, though he did achieve minor victories in the tag division, winning the WCW World Tag Team titles with Bunkhouse Buck and the United States Tag Team titles with The Barbarian. Outside of his moderate success, Slater was better known for his violent antics in his personal life, which presented him as a dangerous and indestructible badass. Slater regularly got into fights with NFL players and his fellow wrestlers, easily winning them all and becoming one of the most feared men in the business. In one altercation, Slater was accidentally shot in the leg, only to brush it off and return to the ring mere weeks later.
13 Hardcore Holly
Shakespeare once asked “what’s in a name?” and over a century later Thurman Sparky Plug found the answer. The real Bob Howard had achieved his life long dream of working for WWE and yet he did so with the dumbest name Vince McMahon ever invented. Thurman kept his head down for a few months and eventually asked for a name change, settling on Bob Holly, and though Vince acquiesced, it would be another three or four years before people started caring about him. To earn the WWE Universe’s respect, Holly proved his toughness onscreen by innovating the garbage brawling style the WWE hardcore division would become famous for. Holly also earned three brief reigns as WWE Tag Team Champion, with Crash Holly, Cody Rhodes, and The 1-2-3 Kid, plus a few shots at the Intercontinental and World Championships, though he always came up short without a partner to guide him. He kept exhibiting his toughness in the ring and out, though, once suffering repeat severe lacerations to his back during a match with Rob Van Dam, continuing to the end as though nothing were wrong.
12 Scott Norton
Thanks to movies like Over The Top, the idea of professional arm wrestling has turned into a complete joke in American culture. That said, one look at a guy the size of Scott “Flash” Norton should be enough to legitimize the industry (a fact that remains true even though Norton actually had a cameo role in that very film). Norton’s pre-wrestling career may in fact be more entertaining than his time in the ring, as he also served as a bodyguard for Prince during the 1999 and Purple Rain tours. With those credentials, Norton entered pro wrestling in the late ‘80s, soon turning into a decent star in Japan. He was never able to bring his success stateside, though, with a lengthy run in WCW leaving him merely the eighth or ninth most imposing member of the nWo. Both Ric Flair and Chris Jericho took time in their books to mention Norton’s credentials as a badass, but for whatever reason, they may have been the only two people in WCW who believed his success in Japan could translate to the US.
11 Wade Barrett
This article is being written at a time when Wade Barrett is on the outs with WWE and is thus based on his mediocre career prior to his departure, though we acknowledge he could make a comeback and have us eating our words. Though Barrett achieved a decently high profile while in the company, he didn’t work for WWE long, only spending 2010 to 2016 on the company’s main roster. Barrett impressively won the Intercontinental Championship five times in this span, in addition to becoming the 2015 King of the Ring, and yet his inability to stand out as a top star and his consistent status as the weak link in every top stable he gets involved with make him a lock for this list. One way WWE could’ve made Barrett actually appear like a main eventer could have been to rely on his legitimately badass past as a bare-knuckle boxer which they virtually never mentioned, even with Barrett sporting several scars related to that point in his life.
10 Steve Blackman
There’s no way to tell how big a star Steve Blackman could have been if disease didn’t strike him down in his prime, although at the same time, he may not have become the man he did had his illness not inspired him to fight back in the defiant manner he did. Blackman technically made his WWE debut in 1988, spending roughly a year on the house show circuit being considered for a full-time contract. Before he could accept any official deal, Blackman contracted malaria in South Africa, nearly dying and winding up bedridden for two full years. Blackman lost most of his muscle mass and needed to spend four years in physical therapy recovering, which consisted of learning eskrima and tae kwon do. This therapy also turned Blackman into a bona fidekilling machine, which he melded into his martial arts based wrestling persona. While fans bought Blackman as a legit tough guy, he never became particularly popular, only achieving success in the hardcore division and as the straight man in a number of comedic tag teams.
9 Steve Williams
Things don’t always work out the way wrestling bookers plan them, which is the whole reason wrestling isn’t a legitimate competition in the first place. “Dr. Death” Steve Williams had such a powerful reputation as a legitimate badass that when he made his WWE debut in 1998, the company created the Brawl For All tournament, with the thought Williams would win assumed to be the foregone conclusion. The tournament contained shoot fights between WWE wrestlers and, contrary to expectation, Williams was knocked out in the second round. This doesn’t change the fact he was a total badass up until that point and he would prove he still had a great deal of toughness left in him when he began battling throat cancer in 2004. Dr. Death was thought to have beaten his cancer and returned to the ring the next year, only to ultimately succumb to the disease in 2009. In fairness to Williams, he did achieve great success in Japan, though none of it showed in his American work.
8 Tank Abbott
If Steve Williams can still wind up on this list after losing to Bart Gunn, then Tank Abbott still deserves a mention despite the horrifically embarrassing second half of his career. Abbott’s career in professional fighting started during the early days of UFC, though he had been a self-described street fighter practically his entire life. Though Abbott never won any UFC tournaments, as he typically advanced at least past the first round and most of his early losses only came after hard fought battles much longer than the typical shoot fight. Abbott’s time in WCW was significantly less noteworthy, as he only ever feuded with minor names like Jerry Flynn or the mysterious Big Al, never coming anywhere near any major championships. The only real success Abbott was able to find in wrestling came when he eschewed his hardened character altogether to act as a booster for 3 Count, a funny role more in line with the losing streak he would suffer when he returned to UFC after his time in pro wrestling was over.
7 Dan Severn
Generally speaking, anyone who so much as participates in a single MMA fight has got to be a pretty tough customer. As someone who won more than 100 such fights, Dan “The Beast” Severn might have the scientific evidence to back him up should he want to call himself one of the greatest fighters ever to live. Severn also lost 19 fights in his day, though this hardly compares to his near record number of victories, the most impressive of which date back to the very first UFC Pay-Per-Views. During the same period Severn was dominating the UFC, he started his pro wrestling career, winning the NWA World Championship and holding it concurrently with the UFC Superfight Championship. Granted, this came at a time the NWA didn’t mean much and his appearances in WWE with the belt where often tossed aside and treated as far less important than they would have been only a few years earlier (or later). The irrelevant NWA title aside, Severn would never capture any championships during his time in the wrestling spotlight, essentially turning into a mere footnote to the industry.
6 Daniel Puder
Prospective pro wrestlers can fall apart for a number of reasons and a lack of toughness is high atop the list. Daniel Puder certainly didn’t have this problem, although he did have the exact opposite issue, which was that he apparently believed his actual fighting ability was going to mean something when he made his WWE debut. Instead, all he managed to do was embarrass himself and the company on live television, later earning himself a lesson that some of these wrestlers were tougher than they looked. Puder came to fame in late 2004 when he nearly broke Kurt Angle’s arm on an episode of SmackDown. Puder wrestled Angle in a short shoot contest that ended with Puder locking in a kimura lock, only for Angle to get saved by quick thinking on the part of referee Jimmy Korderas. Puder received his receipt at the next Royal Rumble, where several wrestlers legitimately gave him a beating. Puder never complained about the beating, instead leaving wrestling altogether for MMA, where he went on to experience an 8-0 record. Though he didn’t earn any major championships, retiring undefeated speaks for itself.
5 Bart Gunn
There aren’t many stories backing up the legitimate toughness of Bart Gunn, probably because Bart Gunn only experienced a few short months with his reputation as a badass before it was taken away from him in the most public and embarrassing fashion imaginable. Gunn unexpectedly proved he was stronger than anyone could have imagined by knocking out Steve Williams during the Brawl For All tournament, shattering WWE’s plans and going on to take Williams assumed role as the actual winner of the tournament. Previously, Gunn had only been viewed as a minor tag team performer, winning the WWE and NWA Tag Team Championships with Billy Gunn and Bob Holly respectively, but never even competing for any solo titles. Suddenly, Gunn was a serious contender on his own, though he lost it all mere months later at WrestleMania by getting knocked out by Butterbean in a matter of mere seconds.
4 Rick Steiner
While Big Poppa Pump generally gets the rub whenever The Steiner Brothers particular brand of madness is brought up, he at least manages to save himself from the list this time by achieving a great deal of success in WCW as a solo act. Rick Steiner, on the other hand, could only wrestle when his brother Scott was reining him in and doing all the work, with the results typically being downright disastrous whenever he was left alone. Rick wasn’t exactly hopeless in the ring, but he might have been something worse, in that he legitimately hurt almost everyone he worked with. No one could stop him, though, due to The Steiners legit reputations as tough guys who wouldn’t let people tell them what to do. Rick did earn a few solo titles, including the WCW United States and Television Championships, but he was only in the spotlight when he won most of them thanks to his brother being an even bigger star. Without Scott, Rick Steiner probably would’ve been forgotten in the ‘80s or sooner, toughness be damned.
3 Big Dick Dudley
Despite the occasional complaints from ECW diehards, most fans don’t need to think too hard about why the extended Dudley family never joined WWE along with Spike, Bubba, and D-Von. The truth was, the rest of the expansive clan, including Dances With Dudley, Dudley Dudley, Chubby Dudley, Snot Dudley, and Sign Guy Dudley, simply didn’t have much to offer. Big Dick Dudley at least had his imposing appearance, coupled with his reputation as a street fighter, with Dick heralded by Bubba Ray for his ability to have beaten up five violent attackers at once. For much of his time in ECW, Dick was on crutches, though this actually added to his status, considering he injured himself in an accident where his leg was ran over a massive truck and he came out relatively unscathed, all things considered. Still, even after he recovered, Big Dick was pretty hopeless in the ring, and could never achieve anything without the other Dudleys doing most of the work for him.
2 The Barbarian
The various wrestlers on this list all have one feat of toughness or another to bolster their reputation, and The Barbarian is no different. He’s a little special, though, because his act of badass bravery comes straight out of a movie cliché: according to Bobby Heenan, he once witnessed The Barbarian get sprayed with pepper sprayed, only for Barbarian to wipe it out of his eyes, lick it off his hands, and go back to beating up the cops who sprayed him. Incredible stories like that notwithstanding, Barbarian rarely exceled beyond an opening match tag team worker and the results were spotty at best when he did. Barbarian had a greater agility than the average power wrestler, but it wasn’t enough to make him a true star, though he was always decent in the roles he was given. Decent though he was, it still doesn’t track that a man unphased by pepper spray would regularly lose matches to cruiserweights and yet that was his legacy in wrestling.
To paraphrase Arn Anderson, there are tough men, there are wrestler-tough men, and then there’s Meng. It would be impossible to sum up the various tales about Meng being an absolute badass in a mere paragraph, so we’ll put it bluntly and say the man is an absolute killer. Half the other people on this list have openly admitted Meng could kill them and Jake Roberts once put it best by saying if he were in a tank with a gun and Meng was by himself, charging the tank, Roberts would shoot himself rather than face that war. In stark contrast to this prestige, Meng never managed to turn himself into a long term main event star. While never a major player in wrestling, Meng did have a few brushes with stardom, once winning the WWE Tag Team Championships with Andre The Giant, earning an unofficial run as King Of The Ring, and engaging in a series of high profile matches against Goldberg. His true legacy will always be his toughness, though, and for scaring the hell out of even the most legitimately badass men in the illegitimate world or pro wrestling.