Professional wrestling, due to its once secretive nature, was at one time a difficult sport for an aspiring star to find an opportunity to enter. Similar to the mafia, it has been suggested by some of the wrestlers who were active in the Golden Age that to get your break in the sport almost required being endorsed by someone who had paid their dues and opened the door for you. It seems difficult to believe now, with the widespread proliferation of wrestling schools across the country, but at one point, there were only a handful of trainers that could grant access to the sport of professional wrestling.
One of the most reputed trainers of his era was Calgary’s Stu Hart. A former professional football player and amateur wrestler himself with aspirations to compete in the Olympics, Hart was a well-known sportsman in western Canada and upon his completion of service in World War II had launched his own wrestling career in the American northeast in 1946. It wasn’t long after his return to western Canada that he began to mold athletes and strongmen from other disciplines into wrestlers, many of whom have gone on to Hall of Fame wrestling careers.
While two generation of Harts would follow Stu into the ring and earn their own acclaim, there are dozens of wrestlers aside from the family themselves who owe their wrestling career to the introduction they got to the sport in Stu Hart’s basement, infamously dubbed “The Dungeon."
20 Angelo Mosca
“King Kong” Mosca first arrived in Canada to play professional football in the Canadian Football League. However, it wasn’t uncommon for newspapers of the day to carry stories about altercations involving Mosca outside of the ring, which made him an attention-grabbing villain right from the start. As early as 1960, Mosca declared his interest to become a wrestler and sought out opportunities with Montreal promoter Eddie Quinn to secure his earliest matches. He appeared in about a dozen matches in the off-season before he arrived in Calgary to train under Stu Hart in 1968. As his career on the gridiron wound down, Mosca’s training in the Hart dungeon launched his career as a wrestling bad guy.
Interestingly, Mosca’s orientation to the sport under Hart included a tag team partnership with another footballer-turned-wrestler who would go on to the WWE World title and a WWE Hall of Fame induction, and appears later on this list.
19 Billy Jack Haynes
Billy Jack Haynes’ greatest success in professional wrestling was arguably during the biggest year in the WWE’s national expansion in the 1980s, feuding with Hercules Hernandez in a series which culminated in a showdown at WrestleMania III in front of a disputed 93,000 fans. However, just five years earlier, Haynes left his native Oregon, along with friend Scott Ferris, to travel to Calgary to train under Stu Hart. The 6’3”, 245 pounder was an early attention grabber and while his rookie year in Calgary was largely forgettable, as he was simply dubbed as Bill Haynes during his Stampede run, he found himself featured on television prior to his debut, allowing him to showcase his physique and build hype for his upcoming appearances. Haynes saw early success upon his return to Oregon and later in Championship Wrestling from Florida before being signed to the WWE in 1986. While his WWE run was limited to only three years, Haynes was among the earliest wrestlers in North America to see an action figure fashioned in his likeness.
18 Gama Singh
One of Stampede Wrestling’s most enduring characters has to be the Great Gama. After competing as an amateur, Gadowar Sahota was tutored by Bill Persack at the Vancouver YMCA before it was recommended that he venture to Calgary to finish off his training and launch a professional career. After his training was complete, Gama was soon on the road, making stops in Oregon, British Columbia, Texas, California, Texas, Kansas and Puerto Rico. Though Gama was among the first wrestlers to be picked up from Stampede Wrestling at the time of their national expansion, specifically to appear on international tours, Gama elected not to jump into a full-time WWE career as he had a young family at home. Internationally, Gama is still revered as one of the greatest foreign stars to ever appear in South Africa and his body of work has influenced generations of wrestlers who have followed after him.
17 Reggie Parks
If the name Reggie Parks seems familiar to younger fans, it is because the name Parks has been well associated with championship belts. Parks, dubbed by the sport of wrestling as “The King of Belts,” earned that reputation by crafting some of the finest championship hardware in the history of the sport. However, before his reputation as a belt-maker was made, the Edmonton, Alberta-born Reggie Parks was turning heads between the ropes as a wrestler himself. He was introduced to the sport by Stu Hart in 1951 and traveled around the globe. During his ring career, Parks was known for his incredible abdominal strength and would often engage in contests to demonstrate his cast iron stomach. This included a stunt where a car was driven over his stomach.
Reggie’s talent prompted Owen Hart, notorious as one of wrestling’s great practical jokers, to rib his own father by impersonating Reggie on the phone and challenging Stu to a no-holds-barred match on the amateur mat to find out who was the best.
16 Luther Lindsay
There were few wrestlers in the history of professional wrestling with the style and grace of Luther Lindsay, who also possessed pure wrestling ability. Migrating to professional wrestling after playing two years in the Canadian Football League, Lindsay holds a unique distinction among the students to train under Stu Hart. Luther became so good at grappling that he is noted to be one of the few wrestlers who could best Stu on the mat and is reported to have one time placed Stu in a headlock and run his head through the drywall in the Hart family basement that served as the training facility. Whenever Luther would return to Calgary, he would challenge Stu to get on the mat with him and though Stu would understandably decline. Still, Hart so respected Luther Lindsay that he carried a photo of him around in his wallet right up until the time of his death.
15 Phil Lafon
Phil Lafon was originally from Nipigon, Ontario, but had moved west to Calgary, where he was heavily involved in weightlifting. He was discovered by Davey Boy Smith in a gym and encouraged to give wrestling a try. Phil discovered that he had an aptitude for it and after training in the Dungeon, debuted for Stampede as Phil Lafleur. His career included stops in Montreal, the Canadian Maritimes and Oregon, but his greatest success came in Japan. Wrestling for All Japan Pro Wrestling, Phil was partnered with Doug Furnas and the team became one of the most successful gaijin (foreign) teams in the history of the company. The team did enjoy a short run in the WWE, but it paled in comparison to their success across the Pacific. Lafon remained active for several years on the Canadian independents and is now a part-time trainer in Edmonton, helping to develop the next generation of stars.
14 Johnny Devine
The former TNA X Division champion is one of the last survivors of the Hart family dungeon. Though that distinction was afforded to Chris Jericho during his WCW run, Jericho and Lance Storm in fact trained in the Hart Brothers wrestling school, which was housed on Okotoks, Alberta and headed by someone other than the Harts. In fact, Chris Jericho identifies in his book that aside from a first day appearance by Keith Hart, there was little interaction with the Hart family during their training camp. Interestingly, Devine, who would train in the Dungeon under Bruce and Ross Hart, would make some of his earliest appearances on the Canadian independent scene as Sean Jericho. Devine, however, has carved his own path in professional wrestling internationally and is regarded as one of the finest wrestlers of his generation. Currently, he is one of the lead trainers for the Border City Wrestling training school in Windsor, Ontario.
13 Dan Kroffat
A former Vancouver lifeguard, Dan Kroffat traveled to Calgary on the recommendation of B.C. wrestling promoter Sandor Kovacs to learn the ropes from Stu Hart. Kroffat would go on to see great success throughout the 1970s as one of the mainstay fan favorites in the Stampede territory, winning the tag team titles and North American championship at different times. Kroffat’s claim to fame is as the originator of the ladder match – starting with a series of matches against Tor Kamata in the early 1970s. It took years before this exciting stipulation match arrived in the WWE, brought to national audiences by another Calgary alumnus, Bret Hart, for the first matches of their kind we can remember, against none other than Shawn Michaels. In addition to his career in western Canada, Kroffat also spent time in Los Angeles, where he wrestled by the name King Krow. Kroffat’s final appearances took place in the mid-80s, when he came out of retirement for a short series against Honky Tonk Wayne.
12 Mongolian Stomper
Few wrestlers in history will ever boast the athletic discipline of the late Archie Gouldie. Originally from Carbon, Alberta, Gouldie was on the road after his initial orientation to the sport and enjoyed a lengthy career with tours around the world. Gouldie, like Luther Lindsay, holds a unique distinction as one of the few wrestlers that Stu Hart was unable to get in his clutches to cry uncle. As the Mongolian Stomper, Gouldie saw his greatest successes in the southern United States and he eventually settled in the Knoxville, Tennessee area. Following his retirement from the ring, he was involved as a physical trainer for prison guards and was known to stay in shape by riding his bicycle from town to town, which kept him in tip-top condition. Gouldie’s feud with Abdullah the Butcher in Stampede Wrestling was one of the company’s biggest drawing matches in the entire run of the circuit.
11 Jos Leduc
The fearsome Jos Leduc was born Marcel Pigeon in Quebec and was enticed to try his hand at professional wrestling by established up-and-comer Paul Leduc in the 1960s. Pigeon traveled to Calgary, where, after being given his orientation to the sport under Stu Hart, debuted by the name Jos Leduc as a tag team act alongside his fictional brother Paul. Billed as French lumberjacks, the duo saw moderate success as a team out west and returned to Quebec where they became major stars. Jos would go on to great success in the United States, finding himself frequently billed in main event matches against the likes of Dusty Rhodes, Jerry Lawler, Terry Funk and other top stars of the day. Though the tag team partnership with Paul Leduc was short-lived, Pigeon would retain the Leduc name throughout his entire career, probably bringing it greater fame than his “brother” achieved between the ropes.
10 Tyson Kidd
T.J. Wilson has been associated with the Hart family for so long that many may have believed that he was one of the many children whose family tree winds back to Stu Hart himself. Wilson was a childhood friend to the Hart family’s third generation and found himself in the ring at a young age, training alongside Harry Smith, Teddy Hart and Natalya Neidhart. In his young career, he would even go on to hold the Stampede Wrestling tag team titles alongside his trainer, Bruce Hart. Re-named Tyson Kidd, Wilson was signed by the WWE and formed a championship winning tag team with Harry Smith as the “Hart Dynasty” and he repeated his championship success on a short-lived team with Antonio Cesaro a few years later.
Kidd is now officially a member of the Hart family, having married Natalya a few years ago. Though his ring future seems uncertain due to a neck injury, he has enjoyed a brilliant career to date.
9 Hiroshi Hase
There was a strong relationship with Stampede Wrestling and New Japan Pro Wrestling in thew 1980s, which saw talent traded frequently on both sides. Many Stampede stars would campaign on repeated tours in the far east, while Stampede Wrestling became a developmental territory for Japanese wrestlers to spend a year abroad and learn the North American style of wrestling. One of the most successful to benefit from this relationship was Hiroshi Hase. Though he started out in Japan with Riki Choshu, Hase arrived in Calgary after a short stay in Puerto Rico and trained in the Hart Dungeon. Debuting under a mask as a member of the Viet Cong Express, Hase reached greater heights on the circuit after shucking the mask and wrestling by his own name. Hase returned to Japan, where he went on to become one of New Japan’s biggest stars. Others who would follow in Hase’s footsteps included Kensuke Sasake and Keiichi Yamada (Jushin “Thunder” Liger).
8 Chris Benoit
As always when mentioning Chris Benoit, his inclusion on this list is strictly for informative purposes, regarding the theme of the article.
As soon as a young Chris Benoit saw the in-ring performances of the Dynamite Kid, he began planning to follow in his idol’s footsteps. Interestingly, there were a lot of parallels between the careers of both wrestlers. Benoit began training for the sport shortly after the WWE bought Stampede Wrestling as part of their international expansion in 1984, and trained under Bruce Hart in the Hart family home. When Stampede relaunched in the fall of 1985, Benoit was among the up-and-comers in line to help re-energize the brand. However, with another young Hart upstart in the mix, Benoit recognized that he would need to spread his wings internationally and ventured to Japan to train at the New Japan dojo. The career that followed was almost unparalleled. Mexico, Japan, Germany, WCW, WCW and WWE were all places where he would earn his reputation and see success. Despite being only 5’9”, Benoit lays claim to both the WCW World championship and the WWE World championship during his 20-year career.
7 Brian Pillman
Brian Pillman had enjoyed time in the National Football League with the Cincinnati Bengals before his football career landed him in Calgary to play for the CFL’s Stampeders franchise. As wrestling lore holds it, the coaching staff was having trouble containing the enthusiastic Ohio native and suggested that he might be a better fit for professional wrestling. Pillman was introduced to the Hart family and the rest, as they say, is history. Pillman’s dynamic aerial style immediately caught the attention of Stampede Wrestling fans and it was no surprise when Pillman was signed to World Championship Wrestling and became a major star there. He broke out as a cruiserweight in a series of matches for the short-lived light heavyweight championship against another Stampede alumnus Jushin Liger, but rose to even greater success in tag team competition, first with Tom Zenk and later with Steve Austin. Let’s not forget Pillman’s run as a member of the Four Horsemen and later the Hart Foundation as well.
6 Jim Neidhart
Known affectionately by Stu Hart as "that big bastard," Jim Neidhart fit the mold of what Stu Hart looked for in a wrestler when he arrived on his doorstep in 1979. Neidhart was a former football player with the Oakland Raiders and was a barrel-chested brute to boot. Jim was not only adopted by the wrestling brethren, but would find himself even more closely connected to Stu through his marriage to daughter Ellie Hart. Jim ventured out into the wrestling territories with key stops in Florida and Louisiana, but his greatest success came when he partnered with Bret Hart in the WWE for the Hart Foundation in 1985 and went on to enjoy two reigns as a WWE tag team champion.
Neidhart has enjoyed a lengthy and celebrated career and his legacy lives on in the sport through his daughter Natalya who is one of the current generation’s top women wrestlers.
5 Nikolai Volkoff
The name Nikolai Volkoff is synonymous with the WWE as an inducted Hall of Famer who still makes occasional television appearances. However, Volkoff’s start in the sport came about under very unusual circumstances. Born Josip Peruzovic in Croatia, Volkoff arrived in North America in 1968 to compete as a weightlifter in the Olympic games in Montreal. After the games closed, Peruzovic simply went AWOL and defected to Canada. He made his way to Calgary, where he was schooled in the art of pro wrestling by Stu Hart, and after crossing paths with Newton Tattrie, his Hall of Fame career was launched. With Tattrie, Volkoff formed the Mongols, which introduced him to the United States. After the partnership ended, Volkoff spent time in the AWA as Boris Breznikoff, but when he adopted the name Volkoff, his legacy was cemented. Headline matches against world champions, and even title success of his own in tag team action, are just a part of this ring legend’s story, which began in a basement in Calgary, Alberta.
4 Fritz Von Erich
The name Von Erich is a familiar one to wrestling fans, though it is most associated with World Class Championship Wrestling and the state of Texas. Similar to many on this list, the Texas-born Jack Adkisson had dabbled in professional football with a year in the NFL and a year in the CFL when he met Stu Hart and was encouraged to try professional wrestling. The 6’4”, 260 pounder cut an imposing figure and soon found himself cast as a villain under the name Fritz Von Erich. Capitalizing on anti-German sentiment after the second World War, Von Erich became a big star in the 1950s and 1960s, eventually parlaying that success into owning his own wrestling circuit in Texas. Von Erich’s five sons would all follow him into the sport, with Kerry seeing the greatest success, winning the NWA World title, a championship that Fritz himself had battled for on many occasions.
3 Greg Valentine
It may come as a surprise to many that Greg Valentine -- son of one of the legends of the Golden Era of wrestling, Johnny Valentine -- was not trained in the sport by his father. The senior Valentine was still actively touring as a wrestler himself when his son decided that he wanted to enter into the family business and Johnny elected to send Greg to Calgary for a proper introduction to the sport. Under Stu Hart, Greg paid his dues, making appearances as a referee while preparing for his in-ring debut. Greg would wrestle his earliest matches under the name Johnny Valentine, Jr. before moving on to a few other names, but would eventually return to Valentine.
When he was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, Greg gave credit where credit was due and did not hesitate to attribute his initiation to the sport of wrestling to Stu Hart and Calgary, Alberta.
2 Billy Graham
Wayne Coleman was trying to find his defining path in life when the Arizona native found himself in Calgary and introduced to Stu Hart. The thought of professional wrestling had not initially crossed his mind, but upon the suggestion, he realized it seemed like a business with endless potential, so Coleman signed up to train and was partnered with fellow footballer Angelo Mosca upon his debut. After six months in Calgary, Coleman returned home to Arizona, where a chance to wrestle on a handful of shows with Dr. Jerry Graham created an opportunity to latch onto the Graham ring name, and “Superstar” Billy Graham became one of the biggest sensations in wrestling in the 1970’s, unseating Bruno Sammartino for the WWE World championship and enjoying a lengthy reign. Coleman’s unique look and ring style was emulated by many great wrestlers to follow, including Hulk Hogan, Jesse Ventura, and Scott Steiner.
1 Bret Hart
The five time WWE World champion is the only Hart-born wrestler to make the list as his introduction to the sport is somewhat different from his brothers Smith, Bruce, and Keith who proceeded him, and Ross, Wayne and Owen that followed. While there was some pressure among his brothers and from his father to progress from his amateur wrestling career to the pros, Bret’s mother Helen had hoped to steer him another direction. When he was lured to the basement of the Hart family mansion, it wasn’t Stu that would orient him to the sport, but instead Kazuo Sakurada and Mr. Hito.
The two Japanese wrestlers wanted to thank Stu for the opportunities that they had given them and conveyed that by breaking Bret into the sport. Bret, who was declared by Western Report magazine as “the most famous Albertan in the world” during his WWE career, may well be the greatest success story to emerge from the Dungeon.