The fourth part in our 10-part series looking at 150 Canadian names in pro wrestling, in honour of Canada’s 150th birthday. Part 4 of the Canada 150, an alphabetical listing of Canadians’ impact on pro wrestling from the 1920’s to today.
THE GREAT ANTONIO
A Croatian who came to Canada (Halifax, Nova Scotia) as a refugee following the Second World War, the man who became The Great Antonio began wrestling in the Montreal circuit in the late 1940’s following his emigration to Canada. A legitimate strongman, he was listed in the 1952 Guinness Book of World Records as pulling a 433-tonne train nearly 20 metres. He worked all over the world, particularly Stampede Wrestling and NJPW, where he infamously took part in a match against NJPW legend Antonio Inoki. During the match, Antonio no-selled Inoki and worked the Japanese icon stiff, resulting in Inoki mercilessly beating Antonio to end the match.
BRET ‘HITMAN’ HART
The Best There Is, The Best There Was, The Best There Ever Will Be. While his latter years saltiness has rubbed off on some, there’s no denying the influence Bret Hart has had on Canadian and pro wrestling history as a whole. A 5x WWE World Champion and 2-time WCW World Champion, the Hitman was one of the men who helped carry the WWE through some dark days following the fallout of the 1980’s Rock N’ Wrestling Era and steroid scandal, and his heel work at the end of his WWF run laid the foundation for the Attitude Era. Of WWE’s only five 5-star matches determined by Dave Meltzer in it’s history, Bret has two of them – his SummerSlam ’94 match vs his brother Owen Hart and his WrestleMania XIII match versus “Stone Cold” Steve Austin (although he is credited with a third 5-star match vs Shawn Michaels from a 1992 WWF House Show). He was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2006.
In many instances, he was the most underrated of the Hart boys, simply because his comedic tendencies often times overshadowed the masterful subtleties of his ring work. He began in 1983, working for his family’s Stampede Wrestling as well as in the UK on World of Sport. In 1987, he went to Japan to work for NJPW, where he became the first non-Japanese wrestler to win the IWGP Junior Heavyweight title in 1988. He briefly went to the WWF in 1988, but after a stutter start as an enhancement talent, left the company. He would return in 1991, teaming with his brother’s former tag partner (and his own real life brother in law) Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart in the New Foundation, before embarking on a feud with Bret that cemented Owen’s place on the grand stage – his 1994 SummerSlam match and their prior WrestleMania X opening match effectively put Owen on the North American wrestling map. He found great success as one of the top stars of the WWF’s mid-card division, as a 2x Intercontinental Champion, European Champion, 4x Tag Team Champion and King of the Ring. His career (and life) were cut short when he died during a ring mishap in 1999 at the young age of 34 (to put that in perspective, he was younger when he died than Finn Balor is right now).
Arguably the most important Canadian in pro wrestling history (and one of the most influential men in ALL of professional wrestling), Stu Hart led a long and productive life in the industry. From his work with the seminal Stampede Wrestling from 1948 to the late 1980’s, he provided work for Canadians, Americans and wrestlers abroad. His family has created a legacy of wrestling that continues to this day, and the sheer breadth of legends and Hall of Famers that were trained at his Dungeon is awe inspiring. Several future wrestlers were born in Calgary simply because their fathers got their wrestling start (or worked for) Stu Hart. Tully Blanchard (Four Horsemen) and “Leaping” Lanny Poffo were both born in Calgary while their dads (Joe Blanchard and Angelo Poffo) were training and/or working for Stampede Wrestling. If Bret Hart is Canadian wrestling’s Wayne Gretzky, then Stu is it’s Gordie Howe.
THE HART BROTHERS
Although Bret and Owen were the most successful sons of Stu Hart in the world of professional wrestling, they were merely a drop in the bucket. Stu and Helen Hart had 12 kids (8 boys, 4 girls) and nearly all were involved with pro wrestling. Smith Hart, the oldest, regularly performed with Stampede, WWC and NWA territories – sadly, as this very piece was being completed, word broke that Smith passed away at the age of 68; Bruce Hart was another standout in NJPW, and when Stampede re-opened in 1989, he was the one behind it; the others, Keith, Ross, and Dean (plus all the others like Bret, Owen, Smith and Bruce) were mainstays in the family’s Stampede Wrestling. Another brother, Wayne, was a referee. In the late 1970’s, there was no family more popular in Canadian wrestling than the Hart brothers and to this day, the Harts are considered one of the most prestigious families in all of professional wrestling history.
His uncle, Bret Hart, called Teddy Hart “the greatest wrestler to never make it”. As a 16-year old, he debuted in the WWF in a dark match in Calgary, wrestling with his 11-year old cousin Harry Smith (Davey Boy Smith Jr.) against an equally young Tyson Kidd and another relative. At 18, he was the youngest wrestler ever signed by the WWE. He was sent for further training with Dory Funk Jr. after practically growing up in the Hart Dungeon, but shortly before his television debut he was released for bad behaviour – he was already acting like a rockstar. Throughout the next 20 years, Teddy Hart would stun the world with his performances and shock the industry behind the scenes – he’s been fired and/or burned bridges in most of the big companies in the world, including Ring of Honor and AAA. He was tentatively re-signed by the WWE in 2007 to form the New Hart Foundation alongside his cousins Smith and Natalya Neidhart, plus family friend Kidd, but was fired before the stable hit TV…again. He’s been making a comeback the past year, working more dates on the indie circuits (even getting a third chance with AAA) in hopes to rejuvenate what was once one of the most promising wrestling careers in the world.
Chatham, Ontario’s Stan Holek got into pro wrestling via nearby Detroit, Michigan, where he trained with The Sheik and debuted with his NWA promotion in 1951 at the age of 18. He rarely worked under his real name, but had two very different and famous alter egos. He originally began as Stan Lisowski, the kayfabe brother of Reggie Lisowski, and the two paired up as the Lisowski Brothers, winning tag team gold in several NWA territories, including twice in Maple Leaf Wrestling in Toronto, 3x in NWA Chicago, and once in the Minneapolis area with the AWA (both prior to when AWA left the NWA). Once his partnership dissolved with Lisowski, Holek miraculously changed his genetics and once again become another established star’s “brother”, this time pairing with Art Neilson as his brother Stan. In the Neilsons, he collected more tag team gold, in the AWA and twice in Stampede Wrestling. During the 1960’s, Holek often travelled to Japan to compete.
Canada is well known for it’s outstanding trainers – Stu Hart and Scott D’Amore are routinely mentioned as some of the best of all time. But Toronto’s Ron Hutchison has had a huge impact in Ontario helping discover and/or train some huge stars from the area. He began training as a wrestler at the age of 17 with Sweet Daddy Siki in 1981. He debuted in 1983, finding work as enhancement for the WWF during their Canadian stops, most prominently on the WWF’s Maple Leaf Wrestling show. Also a regular with Atlantic Grand Prix Wrestling in the Maritimes, his wrestling career would wind down in 1990 after less than a decade. But he opened up his own wrestling school (alongside Siki) and over the course of the next decade, would be the man responsible for such stars as Edge, Christian, Trish Stratus, Gail Kim, Traci Brooks and Johnny Swinger.
Although he was born in New York City while his dad, NHL player Ted Irvine was with the Rangers, he grew up in “Winnipeg, you idiot”, which seems to be the genetic hot bed for a lot of Canada’s top wrestlers. Chris Jericho needs no introduction – he’s still one of the WWE’s top Superstars to this day, after trailblazing from Winnipeg’s WFWA to Japan’s WAR, he moved to CMLL in Mexico. He returned to North America and Smokey Mountain Wrestling in 1994, before signing with upstart ECW in 1995. After a year in the Land of the Extreme, he joined WCW and became a top star in their Cruiserweight Division, before defecting to WWE in 1999 during the Monday Night Wars. A nearly 20 year career in the WWE has seen Jericho amass a legendary trophy room – a 6x World Champion, record-setting 9x Intercontinental Champion, 5x Tag Team Champion, 2x US Champion, plus European and Hardcore. Between WWE, WCW and ECW, he has amassed 32 championships. But perhaps his biggest moment was the unification of the WWE and WCW World Championships in 2001 to become the first Undisputed Heavyweight title. A Canadian icon and wrestling legend without a doubt.
ROCKY “SOULMAN” JOHNSON
Born in Nova Scotia, Canada, Rocky Johnson moved to Toronto in 1960 to become a professional wrestler, finally debuting in 1964. He moved from regional promotions to the NWA territories, and in the 1970’s he became a main event challenger to such NWA World Champions as Terry Funk and Harley Race, as well as an arch-rival to Jerry “The King” Lawler in Memphis. In the early 80’s, with his career winding down, he joined the WWF, where he was paired with Tony Atlas in a tag team called The Soul Patrol. In 1983, they defeated the Wild Samoans to win the WWF Tag Team titles, becoming the first all black tag team to hold the belts. Following his retirement in 1991, he began to train to his son to become a professional wrestler, who himself would become a bigger Superstar than even his dad dreamt of – Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. ‘The Soulman’ was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2008.
DON LEO JONATHAN
Originally born in Utah, Don Leo Jonathan moved to Canada to pursue his wrestling career and has been a resident of British Columbia since 1963. Debuting in 1949, he found his greatest success in the Canadian territories, primarily Montreal at first, then Toronto’s Maple Leaf Wrestling. Jonathan was a mountain of a man, especially for the time he started. He stood 6’6″ and 300 lbs., which towered over most of the performers in the early 1950’s. A standout within the NWA territories and the AWA, he was a consistent challenger for top NWA stars including Heavyweight Champions Jack Brisco, Dory Funk Jr. and Gene Kiniski (whom he feuded with in Vancouver’s ASW as well), even challenging WWWF Champion Pedro Morales for the belt in 1973. He retired from the industry in 1980 and still lives in Langley, BC.
THE KENTUCKY BUTCHER
Hamilton’s John Quinn (cousin of former NHL player/coach and Hall of Famer Pat Quinn) is best remembered as the bruiser known as The Kentucky Butcher. He began wrestling in 1961 and soon after his debut he was one of the top heels in the upstart WWWF (pre-cursor to the WWF and WWE). From 1967 to 1969, he was a routine challenger to champion Bruno Sammartino, but each time, the “Kentucky” madman came up short. Following his WWWF stint, he moved on to the NWA territories, making stops in WCCW in Texas, Georgia Championship Wrestling and many other promotions until his retirement in 1988. He always remained a top worker for the champions – in 1977 he had an NWA World title match against Harley Race.
Calgary’s Tyson Kidd was a childhood friend of many of the Hart kids and his love of pro wrestling was an easy way to get into the Hart Dungeon. One of the Dungeon’s final graduates, the high flying Kidd debuted with Stampede Wrestling in the 2000’s as The Stampede Kid. Like many Stampede performers before him, he also did many early tours with NJPW as well. By 2007, he was signed by the WWE and sent to developmental, alongside his real life girlfriend Natalya and her cousin Harry Smith. Kidd had an up and down career in his eight years with WWE, but he was a 3x Tag Team Champion, and his work in NXT during his WWE stint was a huge reason for NXT’s emergence. His tag team with Cesaro was just building huge momentum when an unfortunate injury ended his career in 2015. It’s been recently reported that Tyson Kidd is now working backstage as a producer/road agent on Smackdown Live.
Toronto’s Gail Kim will go down as one of the most important women in wrestling history when her book is finished and done. She was one of the few to stand up to the WWE machine and walk away from big money in order to actually wrestle than become a Diva, and in doing so helped TNA establish a Knockouts division that showed that women’s wrestling could legitimately be taken seriously if you could show that they could seriously wrestle. And boy, could she wrestle. She’s a TNA Hall of Famer, a record 6x Knockouts Champion, WWE Women’s Champion and in 2012 she was ranked the #1 women’s wrestler in the world for the PWI Female 50. She’s stuck true to Impact’s success and while she’s currently a free agent, don’t be surprised if she returns to the company when all’s said and done. If Gail Kim’s insistence on standing up for her craft over her paycheque hadn’t happened, and Kim didn’t become the focal point of a revolutionary new focus in Impact Wrestling, the surge in women’s wrestling – at least on a national television coverage level – may never have happened at all.
Edmonton’s Gene Kiniski entered pro wrestling after he retired from playing pro football with the Edmonton Eskimos of the CFL. Trained by Dory Funk Sr. in the early 50’s, he debuted in the NWA territories in 1952, starting in Arizona. By the late 1950’s, he was back wrestling in his home and native land, mostly Montreal and Toronto’s Maple Leaf Wrestling. He was becoming an emerging superstar, often facing such legends and World Champions as Lou Thesz and Canada’s own Whipper Billy Watson. In 1960, he jumped to the AWA and in 1961, beat Verne Gagne for the AWA World Championship. He returned to the NWA territories shortly after that and in 1966, defeated Lou Thesz for the NWA World title. He began working with ASW in Vancouver, a promotion he would take over late in the 1960’s and work for almost a decade. He even challenged WWWF World Champion Bruno Sammartino at Madison Square Garden in 1964. One of the best heel champions of that era, Kiniski is a true wrestling icon.