In looking at the biggest drawing cards in pro wrestling history, we decided to look at things on a decade-by-decade level. In the past we've done this looking at total shows drawing more than 10,000 on top during a decade (or added points for each multiple of 10,000). And while every system has flaws, this one can reward someone who may have had one great feud, or was a huge draw but not over a long period of time, over someone who was more consistently drawing.
In addition, a lot changes in society over a ten year period and that affects wrestling. There are ups and downs, based on economy, technology and other factors. By awarding ten points for the leading draw during a year, nine for second, etc., it rewards consistency at the top level. It takes out mitigating factors in the sense whoever was the big draw of a year where things weren't as good due to economic patterns, or over the last 60 years, based on how television has changed things, will somewhat be evened out.
The big flaw in this system is it rewards people whose prime years fit better within the framework of a decade. For example, if you were a big star from 1970 to 1979, you'll do well in that decade. But if you were a big star who hit your stride in 1976, through 1983, you'll not fare as well in either decade. But this system isn't looking at negating people who don't perfectly fit in as much as noting where people stood who did. We've already compiled all-time lists for wrestling history. When it comes to consistently drawing over a long period of time, the all-time top ten are Jim Londos, Bruno Sammartino, Lou Thesz, Wild Bill Longson, Hulk Hogan, Ed Strangler Lewis, Argentina Rocca, Ric Flair, Buddy Rogers and Joe Stecher. While Steve Austin at his peak was the biggest drawing card in pro wrestling history, his number of years at that peak were far shorter than those ranked above him.
1900 - 1909: 1. Frank Gotch; 2. George Hackenschmidt
1910 - 1919: 1. Joe Stecher; 2. Ed "Strangler" Lewis; 3. Frank Gotch; 4. Wladek Zbyszko; 5. Stanislaus Zbyszko; 6. Jim Londos; 7. Great Gama, George Hackenschmidt, George Lurich, Charlie Cutler
1920 -1929: 1. Ed "Strangler" Lewis; 2. Jim Londos; 3. John Pesek; 4. Joe Stecher and Stanislaus Zbyszko; 6. Earl Caddock; 7. Gus Sonnenberg; 8. Ray Steele; 9. Dick Shikat; 10. Wayne Munn
1930 - 1939: 1. Jim Londos; 2. Everett Marshall; 3. Dick Shikat and Ed Don George; 5. Ed "Strangler" Lewis and Vincent Lopez; 7. Gus Sonnenberg; 8. Man Mountain Dean; 9. Danno O'Mahoney; 10. Ray Steele
1940 - 1949: 1. Bill Longson; 2. Lou Thesz; 3. Whipper Billy Watson; 4. Yvon Robert; 5. Gorgeous George; 6. Sandor Szabo and Wlasislow Talum; 8. Buddy Rogers; 9. Maurice "French Angel" Tillet; 10. Frank Sexton
1950 - 1959: 1. Argentina Rocca; 2. Lou Thesz; 3. Killer Kowalski; 4. Buddy Rogers; 5. Whipper Billy Watson; 6. Rikidozan; 7. El Santo; 8. Verne Gagne and Edouard Carpentier; 10. Wilbur Snyder
1960 - 1969: 1. Bruno Sammartino; 2. Gene Kiniski; 3. Dick the Bruiser; 4. Johnny Valentine; 5. Lou Thesz; 6. Buddy Rogers; 7. Giant Baba; 8. Ray Stevens; 9. Bobo Brazil; 10. Fritz Von Erich
1970 - 1979: 1. Bruno Sammartino; 2. The Sheik; 3. Superstar Billy Graham; 4. Andre the Giant; 5. Pedro Morales; 6. Harley Race; 7. The Crusher; 8. Dory Funk Jr. and Ernie Ladd; 10. Dick the Bruiser
1980 - 1989: 1. Hulk Hogan; 2. Ric Flair; 3. Andre the Giant; 4. Bob Backlund; 5. Randy Savage; 6. Road Warriors; 7. Antonio Inoki; 8. Roddy Piper; 9. Harley Race, Sgt. Slaughter, Paul Orndorff
1990 - 1999: 1. Konnan; 2. Shinya Hashimoto; 3. Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair; 5. Perro Aguayo; 6. Keiji Muto; 7. Undertaker; 8. Bret Hart; 9. Steve Austin; 10. Nobuhiko Takada
2000 - 2009: 1. HHH; 2. Mistico; 3. John Cena; 4. The Rock; 5. Perro Aguayo Jr.; 6. Kurt Angle; 7. Ultimo Guerrero; 8. Randy Orton; 9. Kenta Kobashi and Chris Benoit
In looking at this list, when it comes to the Hall of Fame, some names pop out, most notably The Great Gama, Gus Sonnenberg, Dick Shikat, Wlasislow Talum, Danno O'Mahoney, Man Mountain Dean (the first Haystacks Calhoun- like fat man attraction) and Vincent Lopez in the pre-television era who are not in. Sonnenberg was a big drawing card in the late 20s and early 30s, a college and pro football star recruited into pro wrestling and while he was not the first big football star recruited (Wayne Munn was), he was far more successful and was quickly given the world title and pushed as wrestling's biggest star.
O'Mahoney really was the 1930s equivalent of a Bill Goldberg or Ultimate Warrior, a short-term flash in the pan, other than he was more dominant in his era than they were as he was drawing baseball stadium crowds at a time when nobody else was. He was a track star from Ireland who turned Boston into pro wrestling's hottest city.
From the 1950s, the only name not already in is Wilbur Snyder, who is a borderline pick, as almost every metric and comparison from that era shows Snyder as someone in the hunt, but not with blow away credentials to where there is no question. In the 60s and 70s, everyone is in. From the 80s, Sgt. Slaughter and Paul Orndorff are not in, but like Snyder, they are at the bottom of the list although both of them should also be considered viable candidates. Both were very good workers who had successful careers. In both cases, you can argue that they were Hall of Fame caliber but the tenure is a question. Slaughter was a top level star for about six or seven years. Orndorff was excellent but his nerve issues took him from the top. Slaughter had a number of strong runs in different territories and Orndorff did headline some territories as a top star, but he wasn't a big draw, but had the great run with Hogan that put him on the list.
For the 90s, everyone is in.
What is notable is this decade. John Cena, Mistico and Randy Orton aren't eligible and all would be considered strong candidates. I wonder if Mistico not doing well in WWE will negate him in the eyes of voters after what he did in Mexico. Cena will have to overcome two things, one is it is far more difficult to get in because you don't have the benefit of nostalgia, and the other is he's not considered by some to be a great worker and while being the clear-cut biggest star in the game, some will hold the fact that it's the WWE machine that draws, even against the biggest star. Orton won't be eligible for several more years and while he is a candidate, and a better worker than Batista, I see the lack of support of people like Batista and even Edge to again show how difficult it's going to be for current wrestlers unless they have a breakthrough period like Chris Jericho had over two years as a talker.
Perro Aguayo Jr. is eligible and has not done well, nor has Ultimo Guerrero. This era is different from any other since it is the company drawing and not the individual, although Mistico is very much an exception to the rule. But Ultimo Guerrero and Randy Orton are not, in the sense I'm not sure how great drawing cards either is really, but they've been on top with the strongest drawing companies for many years and Orton has been used as the top star on the touring Smackdown brand (which, admittedly, has not drawn all that well domestically). Guerrero is a longer-length version of the Hogan opponents of the 80s, who fare well because Hogan was such a big draw, since Guerrero was Mistico's favorite opponent.
Even Cena is more the guy on top in WWE, and WWE as a novelty touring product draws well internationally and for Raw tapings and big PPV shows, and Cena more often than not is on top. You can't take away from the fact Cena is the top guy in the business and has been for a number of years, and by that standard ranks in the pack of the biggest drawing cards in history.
But as far as notable difference maker, he's not at the top level. HHH is like that as well, simply being a top guy in WWF/E during the Austin and Rock years, through the 90s when at times he was the big star of the promotion, and then still right there during the Cena/Batista years. Benoit and Angle to me were never top draws. Business was strong enough when they were headliners and they had enough years as headliners to break through. If you compare Benoit as a drawing card with previous No. 10s like Takada, Bruiser, Von Erich, etc. it's not there at all. Similarly, Angle at No. 6 would be in the same spot as Muto, who sold out the Tokyo Dome numerous times, the Road Warriors, Race, Buddy Rogers, and Rikidozan.
The obvious notes here is how this favors people who spent a lot of years on top during the decade ahead of those who actually drew more over a short period of time. The Rock and Steve Austin were obviously the two biggest draws of the past 20 years. Austin set the all-time record for most major shows drawing 10,000 on top in 1998, and Rock broke that record in 1999 and again in 2000, largely because Austin was injured for some of 1999 and almost all of 2000. Austin came back in 2001 for the top spot over Rock, but house show business fell from the peak in 2000 (PPV business actually peaked in 2001, although that was the year of the ratings fall).
But unlike people like Sammartino, Thesz, Londos, Hogan, Flair, Lewis, etc. who were top draws for 15 years, Austin's big years of drawing consisted of 1997 to 2002, and he was out most of 2000, so it was only five years. Rock broke through in 1998, was either No. 1 or No. 2 in 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002, also a five-year run, which was the last year he worked a full-time schedule.
Another thing to note regards who was world champion. Of the top decade draws, the ones who did so without a world title would be Rocca in the 50s, and to an extent Konnan in the 90s. Konnan held titles, but by that time titles in Mexico, particularly whatever heavyweight title he may have had at certain points), didn't mean a ton. I think in every era being part of a strong promotion that ran major cities made a big difference. When it comes to true elite draws of the past 30 years, Hogan, Austin, Rock and really Antonio Inoki to me come across as the top class, with Andre right underneath them and guys like Canek, Perro Aguayo, Carlos Colon and to an extent Konnan right under. Ric Flair was definitely there at times in a big way and had an incredibly long run as a major star. Ultimate Warrior (1989-1991) and Bill Goldberg (1998) had their flash in the pan runs, as did Vampiro (1992).
The longest tenure as a major drawing card, which would be the first year as being top ten to the last, were Londos (1917 to 1946), Thesz (1938 to 1968), Sammartino (1960 to 1980), Lewis (1916 to 1935), Flair (1976 to 2004), Hogan (1980 to 2003), Kowalski (1952 to 1974), The Sheik (1958 to 1977), Aguayo (1975 to 1995), Inoki (1976 to 1995) and The Crusher (1956 to 1975). In charting the ascension of records, as far as what would likely be most money/attendance drawn at house shows in a year, the first guy to really have a monster year was Londos in 1931. Keep in mind that the number of 10,000 seat arenas in the country at that time were few, and it wasn't really until the 70s where every major city had one, and the 90s where every city of any decent size had one. Londos broke his record in 1934. What is amazing is that Londos, coming before television, held the record until Buddy Rogers in 1961.
Rogers had the advantage of being both NWA world champion (the top worldwide title) and being the top star at Madison Square Garden top star (the biggest arena in the biggest city).
While Sammartino had his big years, he was WWWF champion which covered less territory, even though he was the biggest draw in wrestling for a long time. The Rogers record held until 1982 with Bob Backlund, who was WWF champion, but by that point more cities had larger arenas.
When WWF went national in 1984, Hulk Hogan, as the world champion, broke the record. The game changed because he was working most nights in big arenas. Hogan and the WWF drew well in 1985 and 1986, setting records both years. The Hogan record held until Austin in 1998, and then Rock broke it in 1999 and 2000, the latter year where he headlined more than 100 shows that drew in excess of 10,000 people. It would take the business catching fire to that extent to threaten that record.
It would be easy to say it's unapproachable, but in 1996, you would have thought Hogan's records would never be beaten.
Although stars from Mexico and Japan are on the list, records from Mexico are incomplete, although from 1990 on they are very complete. Japanese records are more complete, but in the heyday of people like Baba, Inoki and Rikidozan, and even later with Misawa, Hashimoto and Muto, when business was strong, the number of 10,000-seat arenas in Japan were still few. Plus, until the late 90s, ticket prices in Japan were much higher than anywhere else in the world. That limited the appeal of live events to a more higher class fan base. While U.S. tickets today are in the same ballpark as those in Japan, when you figure based on average wage, and frequency of coming, it's a different game. Japanese companies hit Tokyo dozens of times per year, and still do today, whereas New York or Los Angeles get nowhere near the number of big shows. Within their culture, Baba, Inoki, Rikidozan and El Santo are in a class above when it comes to significance and name recognition of anyone in the U.S. Santo is probably one of the five most famous cultural figures in Mexico. Baba, Inoki and Rikidozan are not at that level, but even that recent poll of the most popular athletes of the Showa era (1925 to 1989) saw the three wrestlers in the top seven.
In the U.S., I'd still have to say when it comes to pure mainstream fame, Hogan would be the biggest and would fall just under those guys. If you had a poll of the biggest figures in American pop culture history, it's possible Hogan would be top 100 but no way top 5 and I doubt top 50. If you had a poll of the most popular pro athletes from 1925 to 1989, Hogan isn't going to finish top 50. Hogan has the edge on the three Japanese in the sense his fame was worldwide while there's was limited to their country (and with Rikidozan, perhaps Korea as well). Santo would have the edge on all since his fame spread throughout the world as well and even 28 years after his death is a cultural icon in many parts of the world, which Hogan won't be 28 years after his death. Comparing eras is difficult. Certainly Gotch was among the biggest sports figures of his era. Lewis was ranked with the top sports stars of the 20s, but he was not at the top of the list. Londos, a bigger draw, was famous, but media was different. Gorgeous George, who as a drawing card fits more into the Warrior, Goldberg, O'Mahoney flash in the pan category than the Hogan, Rogers, Sammartino, Londos category, was a household name maybe more than anyone in the U.S. except Hogan and Rock.
The Rock is today, more than Steve Austin, but that's because of movies. Jesse Ventura is actually as far as being famous mainstream, more than all but a few wrestlers, but that's like Rock, because of non-wrestling activities. Andre the Giant, Randy Savage and Roddy Piper were also very big names because of both wrestling and Savage due to the Slim Jim commercials and Piper due to being Hogan's rival at a time when wrestling got a lot of mainstream coverage.
But the nature of the regional era is that from the 50s until 1984, there are some gigantic local stars. Certainly everyone in Memphis knows Jerry Lawler, and more so in the 70s and 80s, and due to being big stars on television, you could say the same for Sammartino and Rocca in the Northeast, Verne Gagne and Crusher in the Midwest, Bruiser in Indiana and Missouri, Ric Flair in the Carolinas, The Von Erichs in Dallas, Bill Watts in Oklahoma, Whipper Watson in Ontario, Bret Hart throughout Canada, Yvon Robert, Mad Dog Vachon and Edouard Carpentier in Quebec, and Dusty Rhodes and Eddie Graham in Florida. Thesz for his era was big, because he was a star on national TV in the U.S., and even bigger in Japan because of the Rikidozan matches.
Based on records available, largely the research work of Matt Farmer, the drawing power champion each year was: 1908 - Frank Gotch and George Hackenschmidt; 1909 - Frank Gotch (2); 1910 - Great Gama and Stanislaus Zbyszko; 1911 - Frank Gotch (3) and George Hackenschmidt (2); 1912 - Frank Gotch (4); 1913 - George Lurich and Stanislaus Zbyszko (2); 1914 - Unavailable; 1915 - Charley Cutler; 1916 - Joe Stecher; 1917 - Joe Stecher (2); 1918 - Joe Stecher (3), Ed "Strangler" Lewis and Wladek Zbyszko; 1919 - Ed "Strangler" Lewis (2); 1920 - Joe Stecher (4); 1921 - Ed "Strangler" Lewis (3); 1922 - Stanislaus Zbyszko (3); 1923 - Ed "Strangler" Lewis (4); 1924 - Ed "Stranger" Lewis (5) and Jim Londos; 1925 - Ed "Strangler" Lewis (6), Joe Stecher (5), Wayne Munn and Stanislaus Zbyszko (4); 1926 - Jim Londos (2); 1927 - Jim Londos (3) and John Pesek; 1928 - Jim Londos (4); 1929 - Gus Sonnenberg; 1930 - Jim Londos (5) and Dick Shikat; 1931 - Jim Londos (6); 1932 - Jim Londos (7); 1933 - Jim Londos (8); 1934 - Jim Londos (9); 1935 - Danno O'Mahoney; 1936 - Danno O'Mahoney (2); 1937 - Jim Londos (10); 1938 - Jim Londos (11) and Steve Casey; 1939 - Jim Londos (12), Vincent Lopez and Dave Levin; 1940 - Jim Londos (13); 1941 - Wild Bill Longson; 1942 - Wild Bill Longson (2); 1943 - Wild Bill Longson (3); 1944 - Wild Bill Longson (4); 1945 - Wild Bill Longson (5); 1946 - Wild Bill Longson (6); 1947 - Wild Bill Longson (7); 1948 - Gorgeous George; 1949 - Gorgeous George (2) and Whipper Billy Watson; 1950 - Lou Thesz and Argentina Rocca; 1951 - Lou Thesz (2); 1952 - Lou Thesz (3); 1953 - Lou Thesz (4) and Blue Demon; 1954 - Argentina Rocca (2); 1955 - Lou Thesz (5); 1956 - Argentina Rocca (3) and Whipper Billy Watson (2); 1957 - Lou Thesz (6); 1958 - Argentina Rocca (4) & Miguel Perez (tag team); 1959 - Argentina Rocca (5) & Miguel Perez (tag team); 1960 - Buddy Rogers; 1961 - Buddy Rogers (2); 1962 - Buddy Rogers (3); 1963 - Bruno Sammartino; 1964 - Bruno Sammartino (2); 1965 - Bruno Sammartino (3); 1966 - Lou Thesz (7); 1967 - Bruno Sammartino (4); 1968 - Bruno Sammartino (5); 1969 - The Sheik; 1970 - The Sheik (2); 1971 - The Sheik (3); 1972 - The Sheik (4); 1973 - The Sheik (5); 1974 - Bruno Sammartino (6); 1975 - Bruno Sammartino (7); 1976 - Bruno Sammartino (8); 1977 - Superstar Billy Graham; 1978 - Superstar Billy Graham (2); 1979 - Bob Backlund; 1980 - Bob Backlund (2); 1981 - Bob Backlund (3); 1982 - Bob Backlund (4); 1983 - Ric Flair; 1984 - Hulk Hogan; 1985 - Hulk Hogan (2); 1986 - Hulk Hogan (3); 1987 - Hulk Hogan (4); 1988 - Hulk Hogan (5); 1989 - Hulk Hogan (6); 1990 - Hulk Hogan (7); 1991 - Hulk Hogan (8); 1992 - Ric Flair (2); 1993 - Konnan; 1994 - Konnan (2); 1995 - Shinya Hashimoto; 1996 - Nobuhiko Takada; 1997 - Shinya Hashimoto (2); 1998 - Steve Austin; 1999 - The Rock; 2000 - The Rock (2); 2001 - Steve Austin (2); 2002 - The Rock (3); 2003 - Brock Lesnar; 2004 - HHH; 2005 - Kenta Kobashi; 2006 - Mistico; 2007 - John Cena; 2008 - Mistico (2); 2009 - John Cena (2); 2010 - John Cena (3); 2011 - John Cena (4)
MULTIPLE TIME LEADING BOX OFFICE CHAMPIONS:
13 - Jim Londos
8 - Bruno Sammartino, Hulk Hogan
7 - Wild Bill Longson, Lou Thesz
6 - Ed "Strangler" Lewis
5 - Joe Stecher, Argentina Rocca, The Sheik
4 - Frank Gotch, Stanislaus Zbyszko, Bob Backlund, John Cena
3 - Buddy Rogers, The Rock
2 - George Hackenschmidt, Danno O'Mahoney, Gorgeous George, Superstar Billy Graham, Ric Flair, Konnan, Shinya Hashimoto, Steve Austin, Mistico