Professional wrestling would begin to evolve in the 1960s. As with the popularity of television sets, promoters embraced the idea of showmanship. The days of “shooters” (real fighting tough guys) began to fade. The classic shooter until the 1960s was Lou Thesz, a 3-time N.W.A. World heavyweight champion whose combined reigns lasted over 10 years. In 1963, Thesz would defeat Nature Boy Buddy Rogers in a one-fall championship match. Until that time, most championships were decided in a 2-fall matchup. This controversy would allow Vince McMahon Sr. and the WWWF to crown Buddy Rogers as their first WWE Full Weight Champion. McMahon saw the success of wrestlers like Buddy Rogers and Gorgeous George and realized that business was heading towards more gimmicks and less “shooting”.
The 1960s would be a decade where kayfabe was still going strong. However, the stage presence, story, and gimmick that would later define professional wrestling began in the 1960s. The 1960s would debut some of the most famous professional wrestling personalities from around the world.
10 cat bear wright
Bearcat Wright would beat Classy Freddie Blassie to win the WWA World Heavyweight Championship in 1963. Wright would refuse to give up the title and eventually had the title taken from him by WWA officials. However, the 6’6, 260-pound man would remain a famous gimmick of the 1960s, Wright being billed as the “brown bomber.”
His gimmick included being promoted as the best “black” professional wrestler. Due to his size and strength, Wright would tear up phone books before games to impress the crowd and intimidate opponents. WWE would use the legendary Bearcat moniker in an attempt to take out Keith Lee in his final days in WWE.
9 Kowalski Killer
Killer Kowalski would be another famous opponent of the aforementioned Bearcat Wright. Kowalski was a famous Polish-Canadian wrestler who would be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 1996. The 6’7, 280-pound monster would go on to go by the nickname Killer because of how strong and rigid his matches would be. In a 1950s fight with Yukon Eric, Kowalski would send his opponent to the hospital.
Kowalski was visiting his opponent in the hospital and was reported in the newspapers laughing at the injured Yukon Eric. This would lead Kowalski to be one of the most despised villains of the 1960s. Kowalski would challenge WWE legend Bruno Sammartino in the 1960s. While Kowalski would never win the title from Sammartino, his heel actions would became one of the best tricks of the era.
8 the sheikh
Speaking of heels, The Sheik would also go on to be one of the most reviled antagonists of the 1960s. He is sometimes referred to as the original Sheik to distinguish him from the Iron Sheik, who would debut in 1972. The Sheik is considered the innovator of wrestling. unconditional. In 1968, The Sheik would earn a countout victory over WWE World Champion Bruno Sammartino at Madison Square Garden.
The evil heel character used fireballs, pencils, and other strange objects in his matches. The sheikh rarely spoke on camera, and kayfabe lived the life of a wealthy wild savage from Syria. Sheikh was born in Lansing, Michigan.
7 the batter
WWWF preliminary wrestler Tony Marino would debut his The Battman gimmick in 1966. This was during the time when the superhero Batman was becoming one of the most popular comic book characters in the world. He would be a huge star in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania at Studio Wrestling (owned by Bruno Sammartino).
During his debut in Buffalo, New York, The Battman would team up with a smaller wrestler named Robin. Marino’s custom Battman suits would end at the turn of the century. Marino would continue to wrestle as himself throughout the ’70s and ’80s.
6 ethel johnson
Ethel Johnson was named to the WWE Hall of Fame in 2021. The honor was well deserved for the former NWA World Women’s Tag Team Champion. Johnson would star in the 1960s as the first African-American women’s champion. Johnson would wear athleticism not known in the 1960s for a woman.
His moveset included a standing dropkick and a flying head scissors. Johnson would be billed as “the biggest attraction to hit women’s wrestling since women’s wrestling began.” While Johnson’s stunt may not be as wild as others on this list, the fact that she was billed and treated as a star before and during the Civil Rights Movement is incredible.
5 amazing juice
The Surprising Zuma is also known as the Argentine Zuma. The Amazing Zuma, a baby-faced light heavyweight wrestler, who entered the ring barefoot and known for his high-flying style, would rock the 1960s. Zuma would have a very popular feud with legendary Argentinian babyface Antonio Rocca in the decade from 1960.
Many of their fights would be the main event of Madison Square Garden, including as a babyface vs. babyface match. In the late 1960s, the Argentine showman would move on to Jim Crockett Promotions and compete in the tag team division.
4 Chief Big Heart
Chief Big Heart was a mainstay in the late 1950s and early 1960s in the NWA. Big Heart would come to the ring in full Native American regalia. He was a very popular wrestler of his time and used the bow and arrow submission as his wrestling finisher. The 6’3, 242-pound Native American would team with Chief Little Eagle to win the NWA Texas Tag Team Championship in 1963.
Big Heart would go on to become one of the most popular Native American wrestlers of his day. His bloody feuds with the infamous badass Dr. Jerry Graham were ahead of his time.
3 The Destroyer/Dr. X
Ironically, Dick Beyer was Life magazine’s 1955 Rookie of the Year, but he would change his gimmick in 1962. He would wear a mask and become the heel wrestler The Destroyer. As the Destroyer, Beyer would win matches with his dreaded four-legged lock. Legend has it that Beyer’s Destroyer mask was made from a woman’s girdle.
The Destroyer would have legendary matches with Giant Baba and Rikidozan. In 1966, Beyer would become Dr. X in the AWA. Here he would fight Crippler Ray Stevens.
2 crazy luke graham
Luke Graham would make his wrestling debut in 1961 and quickly join his kayfabe brother and WWE legend Dr. Jerry Graham. The two “brothers” would be called Golden Grahams. Luke would start the crazy stunt of it in the mid-’60s by performing on the WWWF. Luke Graham would also be the kayfabe brothers of Eddie Graham and superstar Billy Graham. Graham would use the “gold tip” thumb spike in his matches. He would bleach his hair and goatee and, based on his trick, would be considered crazy by fans. When fans taunted that Graham was crazy, he would cover his ears and claim his sanity. Teaming with Tarzan Tyler, Graham would become one half of the inaugural WWWF Tag Team Champion.
1 big malenko
In 1962, due to the Cold War raging between the United States and Russia, the Great Malenko would become a heel in professional wrestling. The pun is that ‘Malenko’ in Russian means small. The Great Malenko was 5’10 and 220 pounds. Before he became the Great Malenko, he was Otto Von Krupp, a hated German who sported a swastika on his back to cheer up the crowd at the AWA.
While playing two different foreign heels, the wrestler behind the stunts was born in New Jersey. The Great Malenko is the father of modern wrestling legend Dean Malenko.