Beloved, despised, respected and mocked are all words that could be used to describe the world of professional wrestling. Its polarizing nature notwithstanding, wrestling is a popular and extremely lucrative form of sports entertainment. As part of storylines, matches are choreographed and all outcomes are predetermined. Although scripted, the tremendous majority of wrestlers are world-class athletes who come from diverse backgrounds and decided to enter the squared circle for a wide range of reasons.
Some of Vince McMahon’s employees formerly excelled at baseball, basketball, football or mixed martial arts. Nevertheless, for whatever cause, these athletes needed to change their occupation and they chose wrestling as a new career. On the flipside, becoming a professional wrestler was a lifelong goal for many of McMahon’s performers. However McMahon found his talent, WWE’s roster has long been stocked with an abundance of impressive physical specimens. On athleticism, strength and coordination alone, an average wrestler is far tougher than almost any everyday person. Still, when removed from the public and strictly pitted versus their colleagues, some wrestlers are legitimately fearsome while others are simply acting rugged.
For every genuine badass like Brock Lesnar, Kurt Angle and Haku, there are phony bruisers like Shawn Michaels, Hulk Hogan and The Ultimate Warrior. This list will name eight WWE superstars who are (or, in the case of André the Giant, was) tough in real life. Conversely, this article will also reveal seven performers who are (or, in the case of The Ultimate Warrior, was) strictly tough in character.
20 Real Life: SCOTT STEINER
Scott Steiner was a standout amateur wrestler for the University of Michigan. Almost immediately after leaving Ann Arbor, the 6-foot-1, 275-pound Steiner began training with Dr. Jerry Graham Jr. to become a wrestler. Steiner, a three-time titleholder who headlined multiple pay-per-view specials, made his professional wrestling debut in 1986. “The Big Bad Booty Daddy” initially seemed somewhat “sane” when he teamed with his older brother, Rick, as The Steiner Brothers. However, fueled by enough synthetic testosterone to cripple a stable of racehorses, Steiner’s behavior became increasingly erratic.
Steiner got into a backstage verbal altercation with the now ex-wife of Diamond Dallas Page, Kimberly Page. DDP tried to defend Kimberly’s honor and he confronted Steiner. Steiner proceeded to hammer the 6-foot-5, 248-pound Page. Thankfully, other wrestlers intervened when Steiner tried to rip Page’s eye out.
19 On Screen: TRIPLE H
Born Paul Michael Levesque in Nashua, New Hampshire, Triple H began bodybuilding as a teenager in an effort to resemble professional wrestlers. The 6-foot-4, 255-pound muscleman managed a Gold’s Gym in Nashua and in 1988 won Mr. Teenage New Hampshire as a 19-year-old bodybuilder. Levesque’s herculean build paid dividends and, after training with Killer Kowalski, he debuted as a professional wrestler in March 1992. Since debuting in the squared circle, Mr. Stephanie McMahon has won 25 championship belts.
Now 47 years of age, Levesque is employed as the chief operating officer of his father-in-law’s organization. Granted, Levesque played some baseball and basketball in high school. Still, the lumbering Levesque doesn’t exactly ooze athleticism. He also doesn't strike you as one of the toughest guys off-screen when compared to the likes of others on this list.
18 Real Life: PAUL ORNDORFF
Paul Orndorff is a WWE Hall of Famer who was taken by the New Orleans Saints as a running back in the 12th round of the 1973 NFL Draft. The 6-foot, 253-pound Orndorff, who feuded with Hulk Hogan in the mid-1980s, had a flawless physique. “Mr. Wonderful” also had a volatile temper that got him into plenty of donnybrooks. Orndorff gained a tremendous amount of credibility after he thrashed Big Van Vader in 1995. Following a dispute over tardiness, the 6-foot-5, 450-pound Vader pushed a shoeless Orndorff onto the concrete floor backstage. Orndorff regained his footing and cracked Vader with a punch that grounded the behemoth.
Orndorff then kicked Vader in the face until other wrestlers stopped the fracas. While acknowledging that “Paul's a big, tough guy,” Vader claims he didn’t retaliate because he was worried about getting fired.
17 On-Screen: HULK HOGAN
Hulk Hogan is simply not a tough man. The 6-foot-8, 300-pound Hogan was slow, uncoordinated and gawky in the ring. Hogan, a 2005 WWE Hall of Fame inductee, compensated for his lack of skill with ample charisma and boundless energy on the microphone. Hogan, an egomaniac who used backstage politics to rule the entire industry and become its foremost icon, was untouchable because he was such a profitable figure for Vince McMahon. Hogan’s famous catchphrase ("Train, say your prayers, take your vitamins") and good-guy persona made him a hero to countless kids across the globe.
Somewhat sadly, as a rampant steroid abuser, Hogan’s entire character was a fraud. Hogan amassed a total of 12 titles performing for McMahon’s promotion and the now-defunct WCW. If wrestling was unscripted, Hogan would have never even been a contender.
16 Real Life: HARLEY RACE
Harley Race is a fabled tough who defeated polio and cancer and survived a horrific car crash. The 6-foot-1, 245-pound Race reportedly possesses fists that mirror cinder blocks. A championship wrestler for multiple promotions, Race once levelled Hulk Hogan in the locker room at the Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City. Unhappy that the WWR was hosting an event in NWA territory, the quick dustup occurred when Race struck Hogan in the ribs with a blow.
"Harley, I thought the first time I saw you in Kansas City, you'd have a great, big gun,” said Hogan, who was sprawled on the ground and clearly trying to diffuse the situation.
In response to Hogan, Race said “I don’t have a great, big one.” Race proceeded to brandish, and then aim, a .38-caliber revolver at Hogan. Hogan bolted from the dressing area and rarely discusses the incident.
15 On-screen: THE ULTIMATE WARRIOR
The Ultimate Warrior, born James Hellwig in Crawfordsville, Indiana, was a breathing superhero to wrestling fans in the late 1980s and periodically throughout the 1990s. At 6-foot-2 and 280 pounds, The Ultimate Warrior was a perfectly chiseled force who masked his face with war paint. Written as unstoppable, The Ultimate Warrior manhandled competitors and even cleanly pinned Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania VI in April 1990. However, outside of the squared circle, The Ultimate Warrior was anything but unbeatable.
On one occasion, the WWE Hall of Famer wrestled too aggressively versus legitimate badass Rick Rude. The 6-foot-3, 250-pound Rude subsequently confronted The Ultimate Warrior in the locker room. The Ultimate Warrior completely dismissed Rude’s comments and continued preparing to leave the arena. Rude took umbrage with The Ultimate Warrior’s attitude and knocked him unconscious with one punch.
14 Real Life: ANDRE THE GIANT
André the Giant was a 7-foot-4, 520-pound human skyscraper from France. Born André René Roussimoff, the inaugural inductee into the WWE Hall of Fame premiered as a professional grappler in 1963. Roughly 13 years later in June 1976, André battled professional boxer Chuck Wepner in an unscripted match at Shea Stadium. After the 6-foot-5, 225-pound Wepner landed a few blows, André finished the bout by launching “The Real Rocky” over the ropes and into the audience.
For as legendary as André was inside the squared circle, his drinking exploits outside the ring are possibly more storied. Although kindhearted, André was routinely challenged to fight by barflies during his binges. Rather than maiming drunkards, André would just toss aside boozers like ragdolls. André, who suffered from a disorder called acromegaly, died at the age of 46 in January 1993.
13 On-screen: RIC FLAIR
Ric Flair survived a plane crash in October 1975 and he attended the University of Minnesota on a football scholarship. Hence, for the average person, the 6-foot, 243-pound Flair is an exceedingly tough man. However, the two-time WWE Hall of Fame inductee is not a bruiser like many of his colleagues. Flair, who held an amazing 31 titles over the course of a 40-year career, was badly bloodied by his daughter's 22-year-old boyfriend in September 2008. Flair was 59 years old when the incident occurred and Father Time is undefeated.
Regardless, if "The Nature Boy” was a genuine handful, he would have been able to better defend himself. Plus, Flair’s feuded with countless wrestlers backstage and not a single report has emerged that ended with him battering one of his foes.
12 Real Life: HAKU
A native of the Kingdom of Tonga, Haku was one of the most intimidating and menacing men to ever compete as a professional wrestler. Among noteworthy incidents, the 6-foot-1, 275-pound Haku brutalized five men at an airport in Baltimore and he attempted to gouge out Jimmy Jack Funk’s eye in 1987. Hall of Famer Jake “The Snake” Roberts best explained the terrifying powerhouse that is Haku.
“If I had a gun and was sitting inside a tank with one shell left and Meng is 300 yards away,” said Roberts, “he's mine, right? Well the first thing I'm going to do is jump out of the tank and shoot myself because I don't want to wound that son of a bitch and have him pissed off at me.”
11 On-screen: JOHN BRADSHAW LAYFIELD
John Bradshaw Layfield is a wannabe tough guy who is nothing short of a bully. Often referred to as JBL, the 6-foot-6, 297-pound Layfield is a notorious, and self admitted, bully. Mark Henry, Matt Hardy, René Duprée, Daivari, Mauro Ranallo, Justin Roberts and The Miz have all publicly outed Layfield for his frequent harassment, bullying and hazing. Incredibly, because the mammoth Texan is such a vile degenerate, JBL even tormented former female grappler Ivory. Justifiably, a trash-talking JBL was lambasted by famed mixed martial artist Steve Blackman in a lopsided scuffle at a Kansas City airport.
Even more satisfying, JBL spent weeks badgering commentator Joey Styles. Finally, the 5-foot-7, 180-pound Styles snapped and floored Layfield with a single haymaker. Styles’ punch swelled, blackened and sliced open Layfield’s right eye. Speculation remains strong that the 50-year-old Layfield will soon receive a pink slip from WWE’s suits.
10 Real Life: KEN SHAMROCK
Ken Shamrock was deemed “The World's Most Dangerous Man” for a reason. The 6-foot, 200-pound Shamrock is a UFC Hall of Famer and pioneer in the world of mixed martial arts. During the prime of his combat sports career, Shamrock used his phenomenal strength, quickness, agility and grappling skills to trump legends Bas Rutten and Dan Severn in the cage. Shamrock joined the WWF in February 1997 at the age of 33 and quickly captured the Intercontinental belt and won the 1998 King of the Ring. Shamrock’s record as a mixed martial artist has been devalued because he’s continued fighting into his 50s. Despite his refusal to retire, the 53-year-old Shamrock is a bona fide tough guy and certainly one of the baddest men in the annals of professional wrestling.
9 On-screen: THE NASTY BOYS
The Nasty Boys, a team that consisted of Brian Knobbs and Jerry Sags, groped a woman at a nightclub in October 1990. Unfortunately for the drunken duo, the victim was friendly with Ken Shamrock. The 6-foot, 200-pound Shamrock, a UFC Hall of Famer, heard about the incident and went searching for the two in their hotel room. Although reports vary, The Nasty Boys overpowered Shamrock and bludgeoned the MMA legend with a lamp. Years later, Shamrock spotted the 6-foot-1, 295-pound Knobbs and 6-foot-3, 290-pound Sags at an airport.
"Knobbs ran when he saw me,” said Shamrock, 53.
“The other one (Sags) thought he'd be funny and walked up next to me at the counter. I was with Billy Gunn and everyone knew the story because they bragged about how they beat me up. I looked at Sags and said, 'I'm going to kill you.'”
According to eyewitnesses, Gunn restrained Shamrock and Sags quickly scurried away.
8 Real Life: BROCK LESNAR
Brock Lesnar is a freakish sportsman and one of the most physically imposing people on Earth. The 6-foot-3, 280-pound Lesnar, a past defensive tackle for the Minnesota Vikings’ practice squad, defeated MMA superstar Randy Couture to win the UFC heavyweight championship in only his third scrap for the promotion in November 2008. Astoundingly, Lesnar was suffering from a dire case of diverticulitis when he became UFC’s king that autumn evening at the age of 30. "The Beast Incarnate" was a two-time NCAA All-American grappler at the University of Minnesota and he is the current WWE Universal Champion. Accordingly, Lesnar was called by ESPN "the most accomplished athlete in professional wrestling history." If not for Lesnar’s critical digestive system condition, the immense South Dakotan may still be atop the UFC.
7 On-screen: SHAWN MICHAELS
Shawn Michaels is a WWE Hall of Famer who many insiders consider to be history’s premier in-ring competitor. However, outside of Vince McMahon’s soap opera, the 6-foot-1, 225-pound Michaels is a pushover. Michaels, a four-time world champion who won the Royal Rumble in 1995 and 1996, was petrified of The Undertaker and avoided fist-fighting his longtime nemesis, Bret Hart, for years. Most infamously, “The Heartbreak Kid” flirted with an uninterested woman at a bar in Syracuse, New York. After getting rejected, Michaels made lewd comments about the woman. Regrettably for Michaels, the woman was the girlfriend of a Marine who was also drinking at the establishment. The Marine, and his fellow comrades in arms, proceeded to utterly pulverize Michaels. Apparently, it took weeks for Michaels to again resemble a “Sexy Boy.”
1 Real Life: KURT ANGLE
Although limited by a severe neck injury, Kurt Angle still managed to earn a gold medal as a freestyle wrestler at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. Approximately two years following his triumph in Hotlanta, the 6-foot, 220-pound Angle debuted as a professional wrestler. Angle thrived in Vince McMahon’s company and was named the "Wrestler of the Decade" for the 2000s by the Wrestling Observer Newsletter. However, Angle’s most unforgettable WWE moment may have transpired in 2003 when the cameras were off. After getting coaxed by fellow grapplers, Angle challenged former UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar to wrestle. According to Angle, and multiple witnesses, he defeated the 6-foot-3, 280-pound Lesnar.
“I knew a lot of techniques and I always knew how to wrestle big guys, especially guys like Brock. It wasn’t really an issue for me,” said Angle, 48. “Brock never really came close to taking me down that day.”