On the Phenomenology of the Legit Tough Guy

It’s a question wrestling fans ask themselves with a regularity that’s surprising, given the nature of the industry:

Which of these people could win a fight for real?

The Legit Tough Guy is the answer, a folkloric figure whose assured existence and debated identity is perhaps unique to wrestling, which straddles the line between sport and drama. It’s hard to imagine ballet-goers, for instance, debating which ballerina is a swan in real life, and there’s no need for NFL fans to argue about who could, if push came to shove, perform with genuine skill in a football game, since the stat line from each contest already contains that information.

Wrestling, though, is a drama about combat rather than combat itself, and so the question for wrestling fans is eternal: who, among the ranks of wrestlers, is pretending to do something he or she could be doing for real?

The question is perennial partly because of the insecurity of the wrestling fan, who has endured the taunts of those who invariably dismiss her passion with some variation of the simple, infuriating verdict: “You know it’s fake, right?”

To this reductive and misleading criticism, the Legit Tough Guy is an emotionally satisfying (if similarly misleading) rejoinder: You wouldn’t say that if Billy Robinson were standing here with us, the wrestling fan thinks.

As part of this rhetorical defense, a vast and rich folklore has sprung up around various Legit Tough Guys, replete with tales of disrespectful hotel clerks being stomped to mush or rednecks in barfights having parts of their anatomy removed with clinical precision. Depending on your age and location, as a wrestling fan you’ve heard or related such tales about Don Jardine, Danny Hodge, the aforementioned Robinson, Harley Race, Paul Orndorff, Steve Williams, Bruiser Brody, and, looming above them all, the Tongan wrestler who worked in WCW as Meng, and in the WWF/E as Haku (“There are three kinds of men,” Arn Anderson reportedly said on the subject. “Normal men; tough men; and Meng”).

This kind of folklore, naturally, has found a home on the Internet, where message board discussions on the topic are endless. I’ve even seen one NCAA tournament-style set of brackets for hypothetical matchups between various Legit Tough Guys until finally the toughest of them all was determined: the Barbarian, one half of 1980s ersatz Road Warriors team the Powers of Pain who, interestingly, is also a native of Tonga.

This isn’t merely a preoccupation confined to fans, though. Wrestlers are the primary origin for the folklore that surrounds Legit Tough Guys, a body of tales that serves both to “protect the business” (telling fans that, yes, there really are tough sons of guns in this line of work) and to reassure each other of the seriousness of their work; you and I may spend vast amounts of time on tanning and meal prep and social media, one wrestler says to the other, but the Legit Tough Guy would just as soon kill someone as look at them.

In the wrestler’s retelling of the legends, there’s an unspoken insistence that the lore validates the reality of the business: Lou Thesz pointedly titled his autobiography Hooker, the insider term for a wrestler with genuine grappling skills, to distinguish himself from “gimmick wrestlers” like his contemporaries Buddy Rogers and Gorgeous George (ironically, the latter was himself a skilled “hooker,” having come up through the carnival circuit, working a mixture of fake and genuine bouts before developing his Human Orchid character). But for fans, the fixation on the Legit Tough Guy is more than just a desire to refute the familiar “You know it’s fake, right?”: it’s a subverted act of fantasy identification.

Children might dream of becoming Hulk Hogan or John Cena, but after a certain point the total implausibility of that fantasy makes it difficult for some adult wrestling fans to identify with the biggest stars (particularly after reaching a point where the biggest stars are younger than the fans in question). I’m convinced a similar dynamic is at work with the near-deification of football coaches over the last two decades: most football fans after a certain age cannot imagine themselves as quarterbacks or wideouts or linebackers, but can easily imagine themselves playing the role of head coach, which is, essentially, that of a blandly competent middle manager.

One of the keys to the Legit Tough Guy is the almost fairy tale nature of his secret identity: he is the prince who pretends to be poor. On nearly every list of Legit Tough Guys, you’ll see names that mean a great deal to hardcore wrestling fans, but who were never main event stars or major draws (with the exception of those wrestlers, like Brock Lesnar and Kurt Angle, who achieved distinction in combat sports outside of wrestling; but Lesnar and Angle are almost never included on lists of Legit Tough Guys, because there’s no body of folklore about their winning fights in locker rooms or bars). Meng, the Barbarian, Bad News Brown: some of these people aren’t even really known for having good matches, let alone being top draws. The special glamour of the Legit Tough Guy is that he is humble, hardworking, and ordinary-seeming, but in a moment of danger (rednecks ambush the main eventer in a saloon!), he reveals himself as the true hero, the real wrestler, the one overlooked by the fans but revered by the Boys. When you reach the point in life where you realize you’ll never hear the roar of the crowd, the admiration of your peers is a good enough substitute, and these are the laurels that rest lightly on the brow of the Legit Tough Guy.

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