Thanks to the legendary Hart Family, no serious book about professional wrestling will ever be written that doesn’t mention at least one Albertan-born wrestler. At the height of his fame in the WWE (then WWF) Bret “The Hitman” Hart was so popular that it was suggested he was the most famous Canadian in the entire world. The impact of his father Stu’s Stampede Wrestling touched many of the biggest wrestling names of the 80s and 90s, while continuing on to legacy wrestlers who still hit the mat today.
The story of wrestling Albertans doesn’t begin and end with one family. Here’s a look at five other homegrown wrestlers* who’ve managed to make a name for themselves in the world of sports entertainment.
You might have to ask your grandparents about Alberta’s first major wrestling world champion, since “Big Thunder” Kiniski made his debut all the way back in 1953. Like The Rock before him, the Edmonton-born Kiniski got his professional athletic start in Canadian football, where he played for the Eskimos back when the team was in the Western Interprovincial Football Union. Permanently sidelined by a knee injury, he moved on to wrestling, where he was trained by Dory Funk Sr. After a decade and a half of traveling around the various territories Kiniski hit his peak in 1966 when he beat Lou Thesz (considered by many to be the greatest wrestler of all time) for the NWA Heavyweight Championship. Working as a “heel” (wrestling lingo for bad guy) he held the title for three years before he finally lost the title to the son of the man who trained him, Dory Funk Jr. Before Bret Hart, Gene Kiniski was easily the most famous wrestler to have come from Alberta. He spent his golden years occasionally showing up at wrestling events and even appeared in Sylvester Stallone’s directorial debut, Paradise Alley. He passed away in 2010 from cancer.
A 2012 inductee into the WWE Hall of Fame, Tully Blanchard only wrestled for a short time for Vince McMahon’s company, but he and his partner, Arn Anderson (wrestling together as “The Brain Busters”), made up for their brief reign by being what many consider to be one of wrestling’s best tag teams. Born in Calgary, Blanchard earned his permanent spot in sports entertainment history when he joined up with Ric Flair and Ole & Arn Anderson to form the legendary NWA “Four Horsemen” stable.
While this is a list of non-Hart wrestlers, it’s hard not to include folks who are connected to the family. TJ Wilson literally grew up around the Harts in Calgary and trained in their infamous “Dungeon” before making his debut in Stampede Wrestling at the age of 15. By 2009 he made it to the WWE, where he was managed by his real-life girlfriend, Natalie Neidhart (who is a member of the Hart family, through her mom, Ellie). Together they became the “The Hart Dynasty” along with fellow Hart legacy Harry Smith (son of “British Bulldog” Davey Boy Smith and Diana Hart). Tyson’s exciting WWE career was cut short in 2015, when a serious neck injury took him out of the ring, but his continuing relationship with Neidhart (who he married in 2013) has kept him in the spotlight on the popular reality TV show, Total Divas.
Despite being billed as hailing from “Punjab, India,” Yuvraj Raj Dhesi was actually born in Calgary and trained with Bad News Allen, one of Stampede Wrestling’s biggest stars. After wrestling as Tiger Raj Singh, he debuted in the WWE in 2010 as Jinder Mahal. He was released from the company four years later, but returned to the RAW roster last year. His uncle, Gama Singh, was also a local wrestler in the 70s and 80s.
Since their WWE debut in 2013, The Ascension has continued in the tag team tradition made memorable by Demolition and The Legion of Doom by bringing a distinctly apocalyptic sensibility to the ring. It’s a theme Calgary’s Eric Thompson has embraced right from the beginning of his career, when he graduated from the Hart Dungeon and wrestled as APOC in various regional territories. Then APOC became Apocalypse, before finally settling on Viktor, which has served him well in the WWE. Together with his partner Konnor, Viktor held the NXT Tag Team Championship Belt for 364 days, a record which still stands today.
There’s no doubt that Alberta plays a major role in the history of professional wrestling, which is why it’s always exciting when the WWE comes to Northlands Coliseum, as it will this Saturday, February 18. Don’t miss your chance to see current favourites put on a show fans will be sure to love!
*Lance Storm didn’t make this list because, despite his famed association with Calgary, he was actually born in Sarnia, Ontario.