It is with great anticipation that I am looking forward to see what WWE does with the Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn feud. Owens is the best pure heel the company has had in years, bringing back memories of Roddy Piper, while Zayn is pound for pound one of the best wrestlers in the WWE. It was as I was watching their exchange last week on RAW it made me think of not only how good these guys are, but how great it is to see two of WWE’s top younger stars being Canadian born. It had seemed, for a while, that we didn’t have as strong of a Canadian presence in wrestling these days. In the WWE, Chris Jericho has been basically a part time wrestler and Tyson Kidd has been battling injuries. Bobby Roode has been living in the wrestling purgatory known as TNA and Michael Elgin had seemed to be wrestling in obscurity in ROH being in the shadows of Davey Richards, Adam Cole, Roderick Strong and Jay Lethal, and is finally starting to reap the rewards of his hard work in Ring of Honor and New Japan. Meanwhile, Thunder Bay’s Ian Hodgkinson (aka Vampiro) is the color commentator for Lucha Underground, who is experiencing a huge amount of popularity in its second season.
The Great White North has produced some of the greatest wrestlers in the history of the business. It has also given us some of the greatest wrestling families of all time and not just with the last name of Hart. Canada also was the home to some of the strongest territories in the world which included, All-Star Wrestling based in Vancouver, Stampede out of Calgary and Grand Prix Wrestling which spanned from Montreal to Halifax. I thought it might be time to reflect on some of the greatest wrestlers to hail from north of the border and the impact they left behind.
As far as wrestling families is concerned, the Hart family may go down as the greatest wrestling family of all time. Stu Hart’s Stampede promotion help launched the careers of some of the biggest names in wrestling including Dynamite Kid, Davey Boy Smith, Jake Roberts, Junkyard Dog, Jim Neidhart, and later Brian Pillman. It was Stu’s sons though, who would become the main attraction in Calgary. Not unlike Fritz Von Erich’s boys, Stu Hart’s sons could wrestle. Keith, Smith and Bruce Hart all achieved moderate success beyond the Stampede promotion, while Bret and Owen Hart went on to achieve worldwide fame. Bret was WWF champion 5 times, when 5 times meant something. He also had two memorable runs as the Intercontinental Champion, and held the tag titles twice as one half of the Hart Foundation. Owen, who we lost way too early, was one the best all-around workers in the business. His initial work in the WWF as the Blue Blazer showcased his high flying aerial abilities. Many may not know that in 1988 Owen won the prestigious IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship. Owen also won the WWF Tag Titles four times, and the IC belt twice. His 1994 run as King of The Ring was amazing.
Another famous Canadian wrestling family that left a strong mark on the industry is the Vachon family. Mad Dog and Butcher Vachon reeked havoc in the Wrestling World from the early 1960’s through the 1970’s. The duo captured 12 tag team titles across the country. Mad Dog was AWA Heavyweight Champion 5 times battling the likes of Verne Gagne and Nick Bockwinkel. It didn’t just stop at Mad Dog and Butcher either, their sister Vivian was considered by many as one of the top female wrestlers in the world during the decade of the 70’s . The Vachon name continued to be prominent in the 1990’s as Luna Vachon was one of the most dominant female wrestlers in the business. Another prominent Canadian family was the Rougeau’s. Jacque Jr. and Raymond went on to win the WWF Tag Team title once. Jacques would later go on to change his name to The Mountie and win the Intercontinental Championship once, and the WWF Tag Team titles three more times as part of the Quebecers with Pierre Ouellet.
Speaking of tag team wrestling Canada has produced some of the strongest, most successful teams of all time. In addition to the aforementioned Hart’s, Vachons and Rougeau’s, Canada was also the home for the most decorated tag team in WWF/WWE history, Edge and Christian. The WWF tag team division had basically hit rock bottom until Edge and Christian, along with the Hardy’s and Dudley’s, changed the way tag team wrestling would be viewed moving forward. It showed that Edge and Christian could hang effectively with any team no matter how big or fast. Their vignettes were hysterical and even though both went on to successful solo careers, I always preferred their tag team days. Another team that had tag team prominence was The Golden Greek John Tolos and his brother Chris. After winning the WWWF United States Tag Team Championship, John went on to a solo career where he toured from coast to coast as one of the top heels in the industry. Hailing from Montreal was the kayfabe brother team of Jos and Paul LeDuc. The duo went on to win several titles in the Montreal and Florida territories. In the mid 1970’s Gino Brito and Dino Bravo were one of the top teams of the old IWA. Dino, went on to have a memorable run in the WWF in the mid 1980’s, and was one of the biggest stars in the Montreal territory at it’s peak.
When looking through the annals of wrestling history the list of NWA, AWA and WWF Heavyweight Champions who were born in Canada is quite amazing. The man who was originally known as “Canada’s Greatest Athlete”, Gene Kiniski, would have the distinction of beating two of the greatest wrestlers in the history of the squared circle. In 1961 Big Thunder would defeat Verne Gagne for the AWA title and then on January 7, 1966 Kiniski defeated Lou Thesz starting a reign as NWA World Heavyweight Champion that would last 1,131 days. Other Canadians that captured the NWA Heavyweight Championship include; Whipper Billy Watson, Édouard Carpentier (considered by many to be the greatest Canadian wrestler of all time), Killer Kowalski, Ronnie Garvin and Christian Cage (under the TNA banner). Legendary NFL Hall of Famer, Bronco Nagurski, won the NWA Pacific Coast Heavyweight Championship (San Francisco version).
As far as the AWA was concerned, besides Kiniski, Mad Dog Vachon and Rick Martel also held the title. Martel was the company’s choice to be their main guy when wrestling was at its peak in the mid 1980’s. Martel was coming off of a successful tag team career in the WWWF, where he was co-holder of the tag team straps with Tony Garea on two occasions. Martel replaced Hulk Hogan as the company’s top face after the Hulkster went to the WWF. Rick would hold the AWA championship for 595 days, before losing it to Stan Hansen. Martel would then go back to the WWF where he was one half of two of the companies top tag teams, the Can-Am Connection and Strike Force, before he turned heel and started his run as the Model.
Bruno Sammartino was WWWF Heavyweight Champion for the first time for a record 2,803 days. The man that Bruno dropped the title to was The Russian Bear, Ivan Koloff, who was billed from Moscow, however Ivan, whose real name is Oreal Perras, was born in Montreal. It has always puzzled me that Ivan has yet to be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame. I’ll get to that topic a bit more at the end of the column. Surprisingly though, only four other Canadian born wrestlers have held the WWF/WWE Heavyweight Championship: Stan Stasiak, Bret Hart, Chris Jericho and Edge. Stasiak and Koloff’s lone title reigns were short with Koloff holding the championship for 21 days while Stasiak was champ for only 9 days. Also interesting to note is there was a 19 year stretch where no Canadians won the WWF title.
The WWF Intercontinental title though was a different story. From the first WWF Intercontinental Champion to its current, Kevin Owens, who both hail from Canada, there have a been a great many Canadians to hold the championship including; Bret Hart, The Mountie, Owen Hart, Roddy Piper, Val Venis, Edge, Chris Benoit, Lance Storm, Christian, Test and Santino Marella. Hart and Jericho’s reigns have been considered by many to be some of the greatest in company history. As far as the watered down version of the World Heavyweight Championship that WWE used during the dual brands era, Edge, Christian and Chris Benoit all held the title at one time or another.
Besides the names already mentioned there have been so many other great workers whose roots are in Canada. Abdullah The Butcher was one of the greatest heels ever. His feud with Carlos Colon over the years has been considered one of the greatest in wrestling history. Rocky Johnson made history when he and Tony Atlas were the first black duo to win the WWF Tag Team Championship. The Mongolian Stomper Archie Gouldie, who Bret Hart considers the greatest Canadian wrestler ever, held the Stampede North American Heavyweight Championship 14 times, while also winning the NWA Southeast Heavyweight Championship 7 times. The brother of Macho Man Randy Savage, Leaping Lanny Poffo was born in Calgary, John Tenta (aka Earthquake) was born in Surrey, British Columbia, while the man who terrorized World Class Championship Wrestling in its heyday, The Missing Link is a native of Hamilton, Ontario. Another wrestler who wreaked havoc in the southern states, was Moncton, New Brunswick’s own, The Spoiler, Don Jardine. Jardine worked as one of the NWA’s top heels in Florida, Georgia and Dallas, Texas capturing numerous titles along the way.
In a time in which we see thrown together stables, which seem to be a forced attempt to find something to do with 3 or 4 guys, without a doubt my favorite stable over the past 15 years was TNA’s Team Canada. The team consisted of Canadian natives. Bobby Roode, A-1, Johnny Devine, Eric Young and in my opinion one of the most underrated wrestlers over the past decade, Petey Williams. The group was under the watchful eye of their manager, Scott D’Amore. The group was a classic pairing of strength, speed and agility. Williams’ matches with the likes of AJ Styles, Christopher Daniels, Chris Sabin and Alex Shelley are a thing of beauty to watch. He also had maybe the greatest finisher I had seen in years, the Canadian Destroyer.
Two other categories of wrestlers have also represented Canada well. The man considered by many as the greatest midget wrestler ever, Sky Low Low hailed from Montreal, while one of King Kong Bundy’s victims at WrestleMania 3, Little Beaver, was born in Saint-Jerome, Quebec. Not to be outdone, the ladies have represented Canada with pride as well. First and foremost WWE Hall of Famer Trish Stratus was one of the best all around female wrestlers of all time. With all due respect to Lex Luger, Trish was truly the total package. Beauty, charisma and boy was she tough in the ring. Her battles with Victoria in the WWE were better than some of the men’s matches on the card. Also coming down from Canada and leaving an indelible impression on the business was Traci Brooks, Angelina Love, Velvet McIntyre, Jimmy Garvin’s wife Precious and two of the best female wrestlers over the past decade, Gail Kim and Natalya Neidhart.
I hope that one day WrestleMania will make a return to Toronto as it will give the WWE a chance to induct the likes of Owen Hart, Rick Martel and Ivan Koloff into the WWE Hall of Fame. For now though, as we look back at the glorious history of Canadian wrestling, one can only hope we will continue to see an influx of talent in the business that will rival the names of those mentioned in this column. The outlook is bright as New Japan’s current IWGP Intercontinental Champion, Kenny Omega (Transcona, Manitoba), has become the heir apparent to AJ Styles as company’s top North American star. Kevin Owens has run roughshod through the WWE in capturing the WWE Intercontinental Championship and is leaving his imprint on the business as a throw back heel. While Sami Zayn is about to take the WWE main roster by storm, but not before he gives us a match that has potential “Match of Year” written all over it next Friday night against Shinsuke Nakamura at NXT Takeover Dallas.