Yes, the decision will be hotly debated as it is year after year. As a former writer for PWI, I believe that nothing will top the rancorous discussions and outright controversy than the number one wrestler from the 1997 rankings.
As I moved up the ranks of senior scribes, I became responsible for writing the Top 10 copy for the PWI 500. It was a high-profile gig and I enjoyed doing it, along with writing the various pieces for the famed year-end awards.
Dave Lenker, editor-in chief of PWI at the time, called me with the Top Ten. The usual suspects of Steve Austin and The Undertaker occupied spots in that upper echelon. However, it would be the top pick that would cause controversy. Personally, I thought it was a bold and solid pick, no matter how it was interpreted.
No, he wasnâ<80><99>t a world champion that year. He wasnâ<80><99>t even involved in a particularly high-profile storyline. Nor was he even in the upper echelon of (at that time) WCW wrestlers. However, pound-for-pound, few could match Malenkoâ<80><99>s skill in the ring. Yeah, he wasnâ<80><99>t flashy or flamboyant. He wasnâ<80><99>t a clown, plumber or hockey player.
He was simply Dean Malenko, professional wrestler.
PWI was classified as a â<80><9c>markâ<80> magazine back then, portraying the events we saw on television as real life. The â<80><9c>smartsâ<80> were reading the inside stuff, such as the Wrestling Observer and The Torch. Malenko was their boy. Their favorite. Let the â<80><9c>marksâ<80> have Hogan, Luger, et all.
I saw the Malenko pick as an olive branch to those who didnâ<80><99>t pick up PWI. A way of showing that this longtime magazine could recognize a wrester who was still beneath the glass ceiling. As I wrote before, I liked the pick. I was enthusiastic about it. So much so that I decided (with approval from the publisher) to introduce 1997â<80><99>s PWI 500 Top Ten in an AOL chatroom.
So there I was, behind the keyboard, ready to make the stunning and shocking announcement. The â<80><9c>roomâ<80> was packed, so to speak. I started at number 10 (Chris Benoit). Other names that wouldnâ<80><99>t be expected at the time appeared in the list as well, including Jushin Liger (9), Shinya Hashimoto (7), and Mitsuharu Misawa (2).
The time came. I should have blocked my AOL IM access.
I announced Malenko as the top pick. If a chat room could become quiet, it did. Suddenly, as a bad wannabe sportscaster once saidâ<80>¦
Boom goes the dynamite!
The â<80><9c>marksâ<80><99>â<80> reactions did not surprise me. They were not happy. They wanted â<80><9c>Stone Coldâ<80> or the â<80>~Taker. A mid-card WCW grappler would not do. They wanted their fan favorites that they saw on television every week.
The â<80><9c>smartsâ<80> shocked me. They were outright indignant, if not angry. It is as if the designation from a â<80><9c>mark magazineâ<80> soiled Malenkoâ<80><99>s stellar reputation. They felt that PWI was just kissing their ass and the pick simply lacked sincerity. They felt conned. After years and years of hyping Hulk Hogan and the like, PWI took a left, not a right turn at Albuquerque.
In other words, they hated it.
My IMs were off the charts. Window after window popped up with angry â<80><9c>smarts.â<80> I finally had to bail. Run away. Sign off.
It would be the last time that PWI took such a risk in picking the best of 500 wrestlers. In 1997, the business was starting to change. Wrestling was becoming edgier with more â<80><9c>attitude.â<80> Vince McMahon was using the term â<80><9c>sports entertainmentâ<80> for the first time. PWIâ<80><99>s editorial style would need to change.
Perhaps picking Dean Malenko was the first step. Dare I say that over 10 years ago, PWI was on the cutting edge.