A Case for Bockwinkel:
(I feel like it's a shame that people have already started voting. We just had a case for Michaels go up a couple of days ago and a case for Funk go up yesterday or the day before. We're in the final argument stage of things and parts of the jury are voting already. I'm going to try to rush this out then. I wish I could do try to match that great Satanico post, but no can do. It's a busy week, but here goes:)
There are so many things that Nick Bockwinkel did so well that it's hard to even know where to start. What I'd like to do, to begin, is list out his range, a number of roles that he was effective in playing, and that he was able to wrestle good to great matches (some all-timers) while achieving. This is in no order:
1. Bumping, stooging heel for aging legend (Vs Verne, Mad Dog, Crusher, Baron)
2. Bumping, stooging vulnerable champion for up and and coming Ace babyface (Vs Hogan)
3. Reluctantly cheered champion holding the line vs a foreign threat (Vs Al-Kassie)
4. Comedy kingpin with a bunch of goons vs Super-babyfaces (with Heenan family Vs. Andre and Hogan)
5. Heel champion Ace vs technical up and coming babyfaces (vs Rheingans)
6. Tag role of the same (With Stevens vs High Flyers)
7. Southern tag heel (w/Saito vs Gagnes or Hennigs, or High-flyers)
8. Confident heel champ vs established technical opponent (vs Martel)
9. Same as a heel challenger establishing said new babyface champ.
10. Vulnerable but dangerous heel champion against deadly brawler (vs Wahoo)
11. Travelling champ who underestimates local hero (vs Chavo)
12. Snobby outsider champ who DOESN'T underestimate local hero but has to have a number of varied matches with him without losing the title (vs Lawler)
13. Fiery babyface wanting revenge (crazy sprint vs Zbyszko)
14. John Wayne (vs Hansen)
15. Super technical in front of a Japanese audience (vs Funk and vs Robinson)
16. Aging, cagey veteran trying to survive against a young babyface slowly surpassing him (vs Hennig)
17. US Supermatch that has to end in a draw (vs. Flair)
18. Travelling heel champ stooging big for the local hero while staying credible (vs JYD)
19. Desperate heel up against monsters (the clips we have vs Andre or Ladd)
20. Very strong shorter match TV worker during the Showboat era (vs. Debeers)
And that's what we have from maybe 76-86, when he around 40 to just over 50. He spent decades of his career as a babyface. And there are more. I just picked twenty different in-ring functions that he had to do and had to do well, many of them calling upon different skills and talents, that involve someone actively wrestling differently. I could have given more examples of matches for almost every category too, with almost all of them being very good to great. That, to me is amazing. The only other people who would come close to this are #1 contenders, and almost all of those benefit from us having much more of their physical prime on tape or from working more broadly in multiple territories (though Bock, of course did. We just don't have a ton of that on tape; most of what we do is great).
He was able to accomplish this through deeply and thoroughly understanding pro wrestling and storytelling, through engaging the crowd, through knowing when to give and when to take, knowing how to maximize moments and momentum, to fully committing to his role at all times. He was incredible at portraying emotion in matches, jubilant when causing punishment and terrified when getting overwhelmed. He refused to let the crowd dictate what he was doing, but instead forced them into line with what was best for them and the match, adapting but never surrendering ("You're boring them Martel!" being my favorite single wrestling moment I've seen in the last five years, maybe?).
Everything had purpose. There are wrestlers, great wrestlers, who can string more-or-less unrelated chapters together so that their matches are better than the sum of their parts, so that they make a symbolic, thematic, more or less satisfying whole, but Bockwinkel was able to relate the chapters to one another so that he never had to do that. There wasn't that need for symbolism because the text stood on its own. It was finding the perfect moment to turn the babyface's offensive rush into a King of the Mountain heat segment, or how to start countering one bit of bodypart work with the opposite equivalent, and so on. There's no sixty minute match I've ever seen which tells so involved a story as Hennig vs Bockwinkel. I've never been satisfied with the idea that wrestling isn't a good medium for storytelling, because I've seen it. That match shows that it's possible, and not just over ten minutes but over sixty, and that it can be the most compelling thing in the world. He created stories that mattered to people, that resonated, that moved them, and he made it seem so flawless and so natural. There was so much variation, too. I can barely wrap my head around how he managed it.
And of course the fundamentals were there. He bumps around the ring like a pinball for Verne Gagne. His long-term limb selling is exceptional, and he had a way of selling fatigue from a long match in the finishing stretch like almost no one else. I believe that selling is the key to creating meaning in wrestling and it's hard not to watch his performances and think that he'd been through a war and that maybe, just maybe, he was going to lose that title (and if he did, the babyface would have EARNED it). His matwork was wonderful, holds and counters, perfect timing, great facial expressions and trash talk, and screaming in pain when he was on the wrong end of it. His strikes were snug. His offense was varied. He moved in and out of holds so well in the opening segment of a match; there was such flow to it. He cheated extremely well (and man was he a great southern tag heel), and as a babyface, he could both garner sympathy and swallow the heel alive with righteous fury. That's the thing. he's not just a smart worker. He's a total package. At age 45, he could still outFunk prime Funk, outFlair prime Flair and even, at times, outHansen prime Hansen. But, almost always, he only goes to that level when it makes sense to go there, when the value is there, when the needs of the match calls for it.
I don't think it's a big spoiler. He's my #1. There are amazing wrestlers on my list in the #2-9 spots, some of the most talented, skilled, brilliant, sound, varied people imaginable, with hundreds of great matches to prove their worth. I just can't imagine any of them in that #1 slot instead of Bockwinkel.