The Attitude Era was a special time to be a professional wrestling fan. Sure, much of the era's programming can easily be classified as trash television, but there was something special about the way that you could never be quite sure what WWE was going to do to top what they did the week before. Put aside the violence, the skin, and the crazy storylines, though, and what you’re left with is the realization that the Attitude Era worked because WWE had more...well...attitude than they had before. This led to many of the wrestlers of that era being associated with the classic idea of tough guy wrestlers. They were counter-culture stars who would surely wipe the floor with modern competitors.
That’s true in some cases, but it’s far from a hard and fast rule. Just like today and in every other era of wrestling, there were many wrestlers in the attitude era who were legitimately tough and many who were just hired to just go out there and convince the viewers that they are as tough as the legitimate tough guys. Whatever you may think of them, these are the 10 Attitude Era stars who were tough guys in real life and the 10 who were only tough on-screen.
20 Real Life: The Undertaker
The Undertaker ranks a little lower on this list simply because there are Attitude Era tough guys that have far better tough guy credentials. The Undertaker’s tough guy exploits aren’t quite as notable as some of his counterparts. Still, there’s never really been any doubt that Undertaker is a legit tough guy.
Whenever you hear about wrestlers who worked with him talked about him, they refer to him as the leader of the locker room.
You can’t overstate what that means. The average WWE locker room throughout time has been filled with some pretty rough people. All of them knew that The Undertaker was the line you didn’t cross and that you had better be prepared for trouble even if you try. We’d say that makes him pretty tough.
19 On-Screen: Stone Cold Steve Austin
This one is no doubt going to catch people off-guard. First off, we’re not saying that Stone Cold Steve Austin probably couldn’t beat some guy up at the bar - that guy most certainly including myself - if he wanted to. He was a 6’2”, 250 lb. guy who chose a physical career. You wouldn't want to provoke him. However, there’s a certain bar you have to clear when you want to be ranked among the true wrestling tough guys. Austin wasn’t an especially crazy performer, he wasn’t a guy that inspired fear wherever he went, and he wasn’t known for his accolades in combat sports. Actually, most people say that Austin was very reserved and typically non-confrontational in his personal life. He definitely played up his toughness for the Stone Cold character.
18 Real Life: Hardcore Holly
Hardcore Holly wasn’t the best wrestler in the world. Not even close. In fact, if you’re only familiar with what he did as a wrestler, you probably don’t have many fond memories of Hardcore Holly if you remember him at all. However, those people who know about Hardcore Holly’s out of ring exploits know that his “hardcore” persona was more than a gimmick.
Holly was a guy who loved to work stiff matches with wrestlers because he was relatively certain that he was going to give more than he got.
He was especially hard on people like the Tough Enough trainees who he felt may not have been serious about being wrestlers. He was one of those guys that Vince liked to keep around because he knew that he was going to keep the rest of the guys in check.
17 On-Screen: Kane
We move from The Undertaker to his kayfabe brother, Kane. Not to backtrack on all our “not really a tough guy” accusations, but this is another case where we’re not talking about Kane’s physical size. Yeah, if you pick a fight against a dude who is fairly well-built and over seven feet tall, you’re probably going to wake up with a doctor standing over you. However, Kane is another one of those performers who aren’t necessarily renowned for his real-life toughness. Instead, you hear more about how Kane is a really soft-spoken guy who is far more intelligent than you might initially think he would be. That might not sound that exciting, but in some ways, that’s even cooler than being just another big tough dude.
16 Real Life: Kurt Angle
Do we really have to run Kurt Angle's credentials by you again? Besides winning an Olympic gold medal with a broken freakin' neck, Angle often proved himself to be as tough as any wrestler who ever set foot between the ropes. Angle battled neck problems through much of his career, and on the rare occasions that Angle got into backstage altercations, he came out on top. While it didn't take place in the Attitude Era, Angle handled Eddie Guerrero pretty easily in a 2004 backstage encounter. When Brock Lesnar came into WWE, he and Angle had a legitimate grappling exhibition in front of the entire locker room, and despite Lesnar being a lot bigger, Angle managed to defeat him, proving himself yet again to not only being a legit tough guy, but a legit athlete.
15 On-Screen: Tazz
Unfortunately for Tazz, he got to WWE a little too late, as his neck had already suffered quite a bit of damage from his ECW days. As a result, his amazing Royal Rumble 2000 debut led to very few opportunities after that, as he was relegated to the lower mid-card by mid 2000 and spent the rest of his wrestling career in the lower card before transitioning to an announcing role. As far as his credentials, Tazz was once in a backstage confrontation with Rob Van Dam, and backed down when RVD slapped Tazz backstage and Tazz backed down. Hardcore Holly also shot on Tazz and said WWE removed him from the Tough Enough show because they were worried one of the contestants would be able to handle Tazz. Either way, Tazz's backstage rep has taken quite a hit.
14 Real Life: Bubba Ray Dudley
There’s some room for debate here. Technically, you could say that Bubba Ray Dudley was more of a bully than he was a tough guy. He’s someone who will harass other wrestlers in the ring and has even been accused of intentionally injuring his other performers. That doesn’t make you tough in and of itself, but the more you hear about Bubba Ray, the more you think that he might actually be a very tough dude.
Based on what we understand about the guy, it sounds like Bubba Ray figured out early on that he wasn’t going to make it as a wrestler based purely on his in-ring ability.
Instead, he decided to distinguish himself by being someone who was absolutely fearless in the ring, out of the ring, and on the microphone.
13 On-Screen: Triple H
Early in the year 2000, WWE ran an angle in which Triple H started to provoke Mick Foley. The feud was partially based on Foley not feeling that Triple H was worthy and Triple H felt that Foley was a joke. The reason it worked so well is that there was an element of truth to it.
Many fans at that time felt that Triple H hadn’t paid his dues and really was a coddled performer who used his relationship with Stephanie in order to avoid hard work.
While that’s an exaggeration, there isn’t really much information out there that suggests that Triple H was a legit tough guy. He was a great wrestler, a better politician/corporate executive, and a big dude, but Triple H still hasn’t gotten over as a tough guy to this day.
12 Real Life: William Regal
You don't really think of William Regal when you think of the Attitude Era, as Regal spent much of that time with WCW, as well. He came in to WWE with the ridiculous gimmick of a "real man" Steven Regal, who represented all the most masculine features of being a man. After an unsuccessful stint in WCW, Regal eventually returned to WWE as an "ambassador" for England, who would act gentlemanly, but then have to cheat his way into winning every match. While he wasn't a major star, he played his role very well. However, what fans didn't know was that Regal actually was a legitimate fighter, as he was a bare knuckle brawler back in Europe in the 80s. The guy was even capable of outwrestling Goldberg in WCW, when their match became an awkward battle, resembling an actual fight.
11 On-Screen: Vader
Is Vader the type of guy you'd want to pick a fight with? Absolutely not. Vader was over 400 pounds in his prime and was known for working an extremely stiff style in the ring, to the point that many didn't like working with him because they didn't want to suffer an actual injury. However, there are instances in which Vader could be had when it came to blows backstage, particularly in WCW when he got into an altercation with a much older (and lighter) Paul Orndorff, only to be handled quite easily. There were also stories about how Vader's bark being worse than his bite backstage, as he could be very sensitive. It's also bizarre that The Kliq was able to sabotage Vader's career in WWE, while they wouldn't dare try the same with other competition.
10 Real Life: Dan Severn
Dan Severn is probably the most obscure wrestler of the era on this list. Well...at least if you’re only familiar with the guy based on his couple of years in WWE. Most people, however, probably know the name Dan Severn because of his time in the UFC. Severn was considered to be the first truly gifted wrestler to join the UFC.
He absolutely destroyed some UFC competitors who were just not on his level.
In fact, Severn has over 100 wins during his mixed martial arts career. In WWE, everyone in the locker room addressed Dan as “Mr. Severn.” At first, Severn thought that the whole thing was a joke. However, some of the boys told him that it was no joke and that everyone was legitimately afraid of him.
9 On-Screen: The Big Show
Again, we’re not suggesting that you pick a fight with The Big Show. Please, please, please, do not pick a fight with The Big Show. We’ve seen footage of him just laying people out on accident because his sheer size makes it hard to not seriously hurt someone if he’s forced to do so. However, Big Show still feels like he’s well within the ranges of “gentle giant” status. We know that he was very, very shy and very green during his early days in WCW, which seem to be the source of some claims that he’s kind of soft. We’d never go that far, but for a dude that was often booked as an absolute monster, Big Show just never really came across that way in real-life.
8 Real Life: The APA
We can’t really separate these two even though we’d say that one of them is probably tougher than the other (or at least far more likeable). John Layfield and Ron Simmons didn’t come up through the ranks together, but they shared some similar upbringings. Both played college football (although Simmons was more of a standout), both learned the wrestling business the hard way, and both earned a reputation for being pretty tough individuals.
WWE booked them as the resident blue-collar tough dudes in the back, which is pretty close to what they actually are.
You may not like Layfield, but it’s hard to deny that the guy has been pretty fearless and has never backed down from a stiff fight in the ring. Combined, these two lived up to their gimmicks.
7 On-Screen: Jeff Jarrett
Jeff Jarrett was a great WWE heel in that you really did hate him. Even before Jarrett adopted his despicable woman abuser gimmick, he was the kind of performer who legitimately didn’t care whether or not the fans “enjoyed” his presence. That’s a rare quality in a wrestler. WWE also tried to make Jarrett come across as kind of an old-school, southern wrestling tough guy. That effort was less successful. Jarrett came across as kind of an entitled personality who maybe felt that he deserved more than he was getting. The fact that he held WWE for ransom before leaving the company seemed to reaffirm that suspicion. Jarrett may have risen through the NWA, but the dude is most certainly not an example of NWA tough.
6 Real Life: Ken Shamrock
Ken Shamrock is sometimes criminally overlooked when people talk about the rise of the Attitude Era. No, he wasn’t as big of a name as Stone Cold Steve Austin or The Rock. He arguably was never as over as someone like Sable. However, Shamrock was instrumental to the Attitude Era because he lent the whole idea of wrestlers gone tough an air of legitimacy.
Shamrock was respected as one of the absolute toughest MMA fighters in the world before he joined WWE.
He wasn’t necessarily the best, but he was a guy that was either going to destroy his opponent or fail trying. He carried himself with a kind of staggering presence that sent the same kind of warning that bright marks on poisonous animals send.
5 On-Screen: The New Age Outlaws
The New Age Outlaws weren’t presented as the toughest wrestlers on the WWE roster, but they were made to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the toughest guys on the roster. The Outlaws would often go “hardcore” and mix it up in typical Attitude Era brawls.
The funny thing about that is that there’s never really been any evidence that either guy is legitimately tough in any real way.
That’s especially true of Billy Gunn who, if we’re being honest here, has always come across as kind of a wimp. He’s been called out a couple of times for trying to act tough to legitimately tough people. Even though he’s made a name for himself for calling out other companies and picking fights, we’re not sure Billy Gunn - or Road Dogg for that matter - have actually been in a fight.
4 Real Life: Mick Foley
At this point, you probably don’t need us to rundown Mick Foley’s tough guy resume. However, for simply the purposes of discussion, let us do our due diligence. In order to make a name for himself in the wrestling business, Foley spent his early career travelling the world and participating in the kind of matches that most other wrestlers wouldn’t dare go through. Foley shed blood and lost body parts everywhere from America to Japan. Even though he looked strange and wasn’t a great technical wrestler, fans everywhere fell in love with Foley because he really felt like what would happen if you let a real tough guy join a professional wrestling organization. He was authentic, he was different, and he was fearless in every way.
3 On-Screen: The Rock
The Rock’s early wrestling persona was a stroke of absolute creative genius. Even though wrestling is an athletic form of creative entertainment, there hasn’t ever really been a great jock heel before The Rock.
His entire character was like how you imagine a particularly entitled NFL star might act.
When WWE tried to present The Rock as a kind of competitive gatekeeper, though, that’s when The Rock’s character fell apart a bit. Anyone who has ever seen The Rock’s workout and diet will tell you he’s an incredibly dedicated individual, but The Rock has always struggled to come across as a convincing legitimate tough guy. While we’d actually rather have a Rock whose just a muscular nice guy, it must be said that we don’t really buy into him as a tough guy.
2 Real Life: Steve Blackman
Maybe you remember Steve Blackman as that kind of strange martial artist type character who never really seemed to fit into the WWE. Maybe you think that Blackman’s entry on this list has to do with his actual martial arts skills and general training. That’s certainly a part of it, but it’s not the real reason that Blackman is on this list. That has much more to do with the circumstances of his WWE career. See, Blackman was actually in WWE way back in 1988. However, he had to quit in 1989 when he contracted malaria. After being bedridden and on the verge of death for two years, Blackman underwent four years of physical rehab in order to reacquire much of the muscle mass that he lost. That’s insane.
1 On-Screen: Shawn Michaels
Shawn Michaels’ push as WWE’s best babyface came at a time when WWE was trying to get the fans to buy into the idea of smaller stars.
In order to make up for Michaels’ lack of muscles, WWE’s creative team presented Michaels as a guy who was never going to give up no matter how big and tough his opponent was.
That led to many young fans growing up believing that Michaels wasn’t scared of anyone. That wasn’t quite the truth.
Actually, there’s an infamous story about how The Undertaker had to threaten to beat Michaels up in order to ensure that he lost his WrestleMania match against Stone Cold Steve Austin. Meanwhile, stories of Michaels getting in real-life fights never really end well for him.