It doesn’t matter if it’s Throwback Thursday or Flashback Friday, every day of the week, people are taking the opportunity to look back and reminisce about the glory days. Whether it’s pictures of dudes from high school with mullets or that girl you went out with showing off her fourth grade bowl cut, it seems there’s no limits when it comes to posting about the past.
Blood, barrel chests and mutton chops. Welcome to professional wrestling in the 1970s, where anything goes and grapplers weren’t participating in sports entertainment. For most, there were no high spots; the German suplex and a bodyslam were finishers, and nobody knew what a hurricanrana, five star frog splash, swanton bomb and outside dive were.
Most of the wrestlers didn’t have the physiques or follow the diet and workout regimen that many athletes follow today, but make no mistake, that didn’t mean the action wasn’t good. These guys could keep crowds engaged for 30, 45 or 60 minutes with ease, as that was the length of their matches on a regular basis. Good luck trying to get that out of some of today’s professional wrestlers. In the 70s, kayfabe was alive and well and crowds believed what they were seeing. Remember, this is before professional wrestling was called sports entertainment. Many of the guys on this list were legit tough guys and gave the sport credibility that it is lacking in a sense today.
So let’s jump in to the time machine and look at the top professional wrestlers of the 1970s.
15 Superstar Billy Graham
Born Wayne Coleman, the bodybuilder with the 22-inch biceps spoke as well as the Christian preacher whose name he used as his own. Superstar held the WWWF Heavyweight Championship one time after beating the legendary Bruno Sammartino in 1977, hailed as the Pro Wrestling Illustrated Match of the Year. He dropped it nearly a year later to Bob Backlund, PWI’s 1978 Match of the Year. Superstar spawned a number of imitators that include Hulk Hogan, Jesse the Body Ventura and Scott Steiner.
14 Pedro Morales
Pedro Morales was the perfect champion for Vince McMahon Sr.'s New York territory in the 70s. He spent his later childhood years growing up in Brooklyn and became a fan favorite for New York City’s large Puerto Rican population, the home base of the WWE. In 1971 he became a dual title holder when he won the WWWF World Heavyweight Title from Ivan Koloff while holding the United States Heavyweight Title. Morales also became the first Triple Crown Champion in company history after winning the World Tag Team and Intercontinental Championships.
13 Mil Mascaras
Mascaras is one of the best-known luchadores in Mexico and spent a bulk of his time amazing crowds in the U.S. and Japan during the 1970s. During his run in the land of the rising sun, Mascaras wrestled Giant Baba, Jumbo Tsuruta and other legends, while performing acrobatic moves that would become a staple of the Japanese style. He later went to the WWE where he would become the first masked wrestler to appear at Madison Square Garden while working alongside legends like Superstar Billy Graham, Andre the Giant and Dusty Rhodes. Mascaras has been inducted in the WWE, NWA and Professional Wrestling Halls of Fame.
12 Billy Robinson
If you look up the word “wrestler” in the dictionary, you might come upon Robinson’s name. Born in England, Robinson is one of the godfathers of strong style and is considered one of the best ever by Japanese fans. During the 70s, he spent time in the AWA, All-Japan Pro Wrestling, Stampede Wrestling and New Japan Pro Wrestling where catch wrestling was emphasized. He won a variety of regional titles including the Stampede North American Title, the AWA British Empire Heavyweight Championship and the PWF Heavyweight Championship. In 1974, Pro Wrestling Illustrated named Robinson their Most Popular Wrestler of the Year.
11 The Sheik
A hardcore wrestling pioneer, the Sheik was vicious in the ring, attacking with whatever weapons he could get his hands on. Ed Farhat, uncle and trainer of Sabu and trainer of Rob Van Dam, held a number of regional titles across the Midwest in the 70s. In the latter half of the decade, the Sheik teamed with Abdullah the Butcher in a string of matches against the Funk’s in what can be described as complete insanity. The Sheik was PWI’s Most Hated Wrestler of 1972, the first year of the award and has been inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.
10 Nick Bockwinkel
Owner/booker Verne Gagne may have been the face of the AWA, but Nick Bockwinkel wasn’t far behind, holding the promotion’s heavyweight strap four times over his career. His first run lasted more than 1,700 days from 1975-1980. Bockwinkel was also an AWA World Tag Team champ three times with Ray Stevens from 1972-75 with the pair being named the PWI Tag Team of the Year in 1973. All of this when the AWA sported one of the deepest rosters in territorial wrestling.
9 Ernie Ladd
The Big Cat was an AFL All-Pro before he had a Hall of Fame career as a professional wrestler. At 6-foot-9, he was one of the few men who could almost measure up to Andre the Giant. Ladd won a number of regional titles and was a master heel during the 70s wrestling WWWF champions Bruno Sammartino, Pedro Morales and Bob Backlund, NWA champion Harley Race and the AWA’s top title holder Nick Bockwinkel. But Ladd never won a major promotions top belt.
8 Fabulous Moolah
Moolah was the first woman to be inducted into the WWF/E Hall of Fame and for good reason. She won the NWA World Women’s Championship in 1956 and held onto the strap for the next 28 years, although that claim by the WWE isn’t entirely true as Moolah did drop and reclaim the title a few times during that run. But outside of a handful of days during the 70s, Moolah was the title holder for the entire decade. It wasn’t until 1984’s Brawl to End It All that Moolah finally lost the title to Wendi Richter.
7 Jack Brisco
Jack and his brother Jerry were the original Brisco brothers, not to be confused with the ROH pair. Of the two, Jack proved to be the star. Aside from a week in December 1974, Brisco held the NWA World Heavyweight Championship from July 1973 to December 1975. During that span, he notched victories over Lou Thesz, Dory Funk Jr., Gene Kiniski, Terry Funk, Dusty Rhodes, Harley Race, all of whom held the same title at least once during their careers. He’s a member of the WWE and Professional Wrestling Halls of Fame, has been honored multiple times by the Cauliflower Alley Club and was the 1973 PWI Wrestler of the Year.
6 Terry Funk
Terry Funk had memorable matches in the 1980s and 90s, but the 70s might have been his golden age. The Funker won the NWA World Heavyweight title in 1975 from Jack Brisco and held it for more than a year defending it against the likes of Harley Race, Dusty Rhodes and Jumbo Tsuruta. He was the PWI Wrestler of the Year in 1976 and won the inaugural AJPW Real World Tag League tournament in 1977 and won it again in 79.
5 Dory Funk Jr
Terry’s big brother Dory held the NWA strap as well, winning it in 1969 and holding it for more than four years before dropping it to Harley Race in 1973. The Funks held the NWA International Tag Team titles three times during the decade and were mainstays in All-Japan Pro Wrestling. Jr was a master technician, innovating the Cloverleaf hold. His matches against legends Harley Race and Jack Brisco were named Pro Wrestling Illustrated Match of the Year in 1973 and '74 respectively.
4 Giant Baba
When it comes to professional wrestling in Japan, Giant Baba is one of the legends. He was the first Asian wrestler to win the NWA World Heavyweight Title when he defeated Jack Brisco in 1974. He won the title again in 1979 and 1980. He also held the PWF Heavyweight title, part of the Japanese Triple Crown, from 1973-78. Baba founded All-Japan Pro Wrestling in 1972, the dominant promotion of his era, where legends like the Funk Brothers, Stan Hansen and Bruiser Brody made their mark.
3 Harley Race
Race’s eight NWA World Heavyweight Championship reigns (although WWE only recognizes seven) is second to only Ric Flair’s record nine. Race won the championship four times between 1973 and 1980 holding the strap for more than 1,000 days in total. In 1975, Race won a tournament to become the first NWA United States Heavyweight Champion. He was the 1979 PWI Wrestler of the Year and had the publication’s Match of the Year in 1973 and '79.
2 Antonio Inoki
The founder of New Japan Pro Wrestling, Antonio Inoki was one of the major forces of professional wrestling during the 1970s. Inoki beat the best of the best during the decade including Bruno Sammartino, Jack Brisco, The Funks, Andre the Giant, Karl Gotch, Pat Patterson and so many others. While his reign isn’t recognized, Inoki defeated Bob Backlund for the WWE Heavyweight Championship in 1979. In 1976, Inoki faced Heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali in what many consider an early mixed martial arts contest.
1 Bruno Sammartino
Was Bruno Sammartino a technician like Bret Hart? Did he break attendance records like Hulk Hogan or sell as much merch as Stone Cold? Probably not, but he is the longest reigning Heavyweight champion in WWE/F history. He was also the headliner for Madison Square Garden for essentially the entire decade.
His first reign lasted nearly eight years and his second, from 1973-77, is the fifth longest in the promotion’s history. Sammartino was the 1974 PWI Wrestler of the Year and had the Match of the Year in 72, '75, '76 and '77. The latter vs. Superstar Billy Graham for the title is must-see and his '76 cage match against Stan Hansen is phenomenal. You can’t understate how over Sammartino was with the WWWF crowd during the decade.