Canada has a rich history in professional wrestling and a legacy of producing such standout wrestlers and talent. Here are 13 individuals and families from The Great White North who have made its country proud.
13 Standout Professional Wrestling Talent From Canada
Quick, who was the first Canadian world champion in WWE history?
If your answer was Bret Hart, you wouldn’t even qualify for a cup of coffee from Tim Horton’s. What about Stan “the Man” Stasiak, who defeated Pedro Morales for the WWWF championship in 1973, eh? Close, but you couldn’t work for the RCMP, because you didn’t get your man. But if you guessed the Russian Bear, Ivan Koloff … crack open a Molson and eat all the poutine and back bacon you want!
The first World Champion in WWE from Canada
Born in Montreal and raised on a dairy farm in Ontario, Ivan Koloff — whose real name was Oreal Donald Perras — stood 5’10” and weighed a legitimate 270 during his early years working the Toronto area as Red McNulty. He eventually toured the Northwest Territories and Japan before transitioning to the Ivan Koloff character and running roughshod over the then-WWWF. He met perennial champion, Bruno Sammartino, in front of a packed house at Madison Square Garden on January 18, 1971, winning the championship after a knee drop from the top rope. The crowd was stunned into silence, a scene so eerie that Sammartino later said that he thought he’d gone deaf.
#1 – Ivan Koloff
Ivan Koloff only held the title for 21 days. Behind the scenes, Sammartino had tired of the requirements of the championship, and Pedro Morales — an exciting Puerto Rican superstar who had drawn huge houses in Los Angeles before heading to New York — was waiting in the wings. Koloff did the honors for Morales on February 8, 1971. Morales would go on to hold the title for nearly three years. By that time, Sammartino was ready to headline again, but the promotion didn’t want to have Morales drop the title to Bruno. Instead, they used another Canadian — this time, Stasiak — to transition the title back to the Italian strongman. Stasiak held the title for all of nine days, and in fact, never expected to be champion.
Stan Stasiak had been feuding with Morales for a couple of months, putting the champion over in major cities around the East Coast. But on December 1, 1973, in Philadelphia, things would be different. A road agent approached Stasiak at the venue shortly before the match and gave him the finish: Morales would hit a belly-to-back suplex, and both men’s shoulders would be down. Stasiak would roll his shoulder off the mat after the count of two, but Morales’ shoulders would stay down.
While Koloff and Stasiak’s runs with the WWWF title were short, a look back a little further into wrestling history shows an industry littered with standout Canadians whose contributions to-and influence in — the business can’t be overstated.
Lou Thesz was one of the most gifted — and tough — professional wrestlers around. He wasn’t just a shooter. He was also a “hooker:” a wrestler trained in holds and maneuvers that would not only hurt an opponent, but that could leave them crippled or maimed. He was the NWA world’s champion and had been the man to unify multiple world’s championships into the collective that was the NWA. But after six grueling years with the title, Thesz needed a break. The problem was that he cared about the dignity of the title. He wanted a real wrestler to hold the championship after him, to continue building its prestige.
Enter Ontario native “Whipper” Billy Watson.
#2 – “Whipper” Billy Watson
“Whipper” Billy Watson — born William John Potts — was a terrific grappler. He’d been a main-event performer since 1941, toured extensively in England and Ireland, and Thesz saw Watson as a “real” enough wrestler that he could believably lose the title to him. Watson had already held the National Wrestling Association version of the world title, winning it from “Wild” Bill Longson. It also helped that Watson was a board member for the National Wrestling Alliance. When Thesz wanted the title back, Watson wouldn’t try a doublecross.
Thesz had defeated Watson for the Association title while he was in the process of unifying various world titles to the Alliance version of the championship, so the two already knew and trusted one another. So Thesz did the favor for the Canadian grappler. After a fashion, at least. Watson won the title on a count-out — yes, you read that right — on March 15, 1956, in front of 15,000 people in Toronto. Former world heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey was the special referee for the bout.
Lou Thesz won the title back from Watson in November of that same year. But the next Canadian Thesz faced would be a game-changer for the wrestling industry as a whole.
#3 – “The Flying Frenchman” Edouard Carpentier – One of the Top Babyfaces From Montreal, Canada
Edouard Carpentier was a top babyface in Montreal. The son of a Russian father and a Polish mother, Carpentier — he was born Edouard Ignacz Weiczorkiewicz — emigrated to Canada following World War II and became a Canadian citizen in 1956. “The Flying Frenchman” popularized a high-flying, acrobatic style that few other wrestlers were attempting in the 1950s. He challenged Thesz for the world championship in Chicago on June 14, 1957, winning a disputed contest. Thesz and Carpentier split the first two falls of the title match, with Thesz being unable to continue in the third due to a worked “injury.”
Trivia: Edouard Carpentier fought for the French Resistance in World War II, and was awarded the Croix de Guerre and Croix du Combattant (Combatant’s Cross) by the French government following the war.
The NWA planned to present Thesz and Carpentier as rival champions, a stunt that had worked well at the box office when Thesz and Leo Nomellini had done a similar stunt in San Francisco a couple of years prior. Nomellini was never formally recognized as a world champion by the NWA. However, Carpentier’s manager, wrestling promoter Eddie Quinn, threw a monkey wrench into this plan. He withdrew from the NWA and made Carpentier unavailable for bookings. Instead, he marketed Carpentier as the world champion to organizations who were chafing under the NWA’s rules.
Verne Gagne had been a top babyface in the midwest, selling out arenas in Minnesota and Omaha. But he was never seen as a world champion. Gagne had even gone so far as to start the American Wrestling Association and name former NWA world titleholder Pat O’Connor as the AWA champion — a designation O’Connor never accepted. The AWA gave O’Connor 90 days to defend the championship against Gagne. The match never happened, and Gagne claimed the AWA title. Since Carpentier had a claim on the world championship — however tenuous — Gagne recognized him as the American Wrestling Association (Omaha) world champion. But Carpentier’s purpose was largely to do the job and establish the former Olympian as a legitimate world titlist, and Gagne unified both versions of the AWA world title in short order.
The legendary Killer Kowalski brought Carpentier into Boston to essentially do the same thing. Kowalski defeated Carpentier in Boston to claim the ACC/Big Time Wrestling world championship. And Mike LeBell did it in Los Angeles, having “Classy” Freddie Blassie defeat Carpentier for the first-ever WWA world title.
The NWA retroactively refused to recognize Carpentier’s victory as a title change, but his disputed victory spawned three different world titles, and — more importantly — showed Capitol Sports Corporation (the forerunner to WWE) that the NWA was vulnerable. Promoter Vincent J. McMahon would later use a similar angle to break from the NWA when Thesz won the title from “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers in a one-fall contest in January of 1963. McMahon’s organization seceded from the NWA and named Rogers the first-ever WWWF champion.
In an interesting twist, Carpentier had main-evented for McMahon in Madison Square Garden at least three times a year prior to the schism between the NWA and Capitol Sports, teaming with Bobo Brazil against the teams of Rogers and “Handsome” Johnny Barend and, later, Rogers and Kowalski.
As for Thesz, he continued to be the dominant force in NWA rings until another Canadian came along. When Gene Kiniski defeated Thesz for the world title in 1966, it marked the end of Thesz’s sixth — and final — run as world champion.
#4 – Gene Kiniski – “Canada’s Greatest Athlete”
Gene Kiniski, who billed himself as “Canada’s Greatest Athlete,” was born in Edmonton, Alberta. A former professional football player, Kiniski found he could make more money on the pro grappling circuit, and at 6’4” and 270 lbs, he was a huge man for the time. He defeated Thesz in front of a crowd of 11,612 fans at the Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis, holding the world title for three years before losing it via submission to Dory Funk, Jr.
Trivia: Kiniski later told a WWE interviewer that the reason he submitted so quickly to Funk’s spinning toe hold during their championship bout was that he thought the contest was supposed to have another fall.
The win against Thesz put Kiniski in rarified air. It was his second world championship reign, becoming one of only two men at the time to hold world titles in two organizations. On July 11, 1961, Kiniski defeated Verne Gagne to win the AWA world title. He held the title for only 28 days, but it gave him main-event credibility. He defeated Dick the Bruiser in 1965 to hold the WWA (Indianapolis) version of the world title, holding the belt for four months. And then less than a year later, Kiniski dethroned Thesz.
But Canadian roots may run deepest in the AWA, where Mad Dog Vachon made a name for himself.
#5 – Mad Dog Vachon – One of the Most Successful Grapplers from Canada
Joseph Maurice Regis Vachon grew up a wrestling fan, idolizing Montreal legend Yvon “the Lion” Robert. He wrestled amateur, and by the time he was 14 years old, he was already regarded as one of the country’s best wrestlers. He represented Canada in the 1948 Olympics, finishing seventh in the 174-lb. division. He was 18 years old. After winning gold at the British Empire Games, he turned pro. But Montreal promoter Eddie Quinn was hesitant to use him, fearing that Vachon’s fame as an amateur grappler could damage Robert, who was still the territory’s top draw.
Recommended read: Mad Dog Vachon: From Bloodying Up Catholic School Boys to the Ring
With no professional prospects at home, Vachon toured the United States, winning titles and putting on weight. He was short, billed at 5’7” but likely a couple of inches less than that, so he needed the extra size to look believable in the ring against larger competitors. Looking for a gimmick that would push him into the main event, Vachon shaved his head and grew a goatee. He relied less on his grappling and took on a vicious, brawling style. Suddenly, Mad Dog Vachon was born.
And then he did what successful people everywhere do: He networked. Vachon had first met Verne Gagne at the Olympics, where Gagne was representing the United States in Greco-Roman wrestling. When Vachon was looking for bookings for his new Mad Dog character, Gagne took him on. The two built a strong friendship behind the scenes and a storied rivalry in front of the cameras.
Mad Dog Vachon would hold the AWA world title five times between 1964 and 1967 (some sources count it six reigns), trading the title back and forth between himself, Gagne, Mr. Wrestling (Tim Woods), Dick the Bruiser, and the Crusher. His matches set the tone for the AWA as one of the dominant organizations in professional wrestling at the time, secondary only to the NWA. Vachon was part of a wrestling family, forming a tag team with his brother, Paul “Butcher” Vachon. He was the adoptive uncle of former WWE superstar Luna Vachon, and his legacy for brutality is still well-respected in the industry, and he’s a member of the WWE Hall of Fame.
#6 – Referee Jimmy Korderas
It seems like Canadians come out of the woodwork when it comes to wrestling. Every wrestling fan knows the Hart family and its lineage. But there are always more: Edge and Christian, Lance Storm, Chris Jericho, Chris Benoit, Petey Williams, and a host of others who have continued the legacy of great Canadian wrestlers. But what is it about Canada that produces such standout wrestlers? Former WWE referee Jimmy Korderas, himself a Canadian, tried to put it in perspective during an interview with Marc Madison of Pro Wrestling Post:
“I wish I could put my finger on it, but I guess it is similar to why Canadians are so proficient at hockey. They just gravitated to it. It is something that is easily digestible. However, it is something, from an athletics standpoint, I really don’t know. If I had a good answer for that I would give it to you. But it is amazing that when you look at the quality of talent from the past, such as former world champions like ‘Whipper’ Billy Watson and Gene Kiniski or you go back to the Tolos Brothers in Hamilton; Hamilton was a real hotbed for producing professional wrestlers for a while, like Calgary with the Harts.”
Korderas continued, “It goes even further beyond the Harts in Calgary because you have great talents such as Archie ‘The Stomper’ Gouldie and people like that coming out of Calgary. Lance Storm, we can’t forget about him as well. Quebec has a rich history of professional wrestling, and if you ever get the chance to speak to Quebec wrestling historian Pat LaPrade he could tell you some amazing things, and I had the pleasure of working with and meeting some of those legends. I wish I had the secret formula as to why Canada has produced so many quality talents, I don’t know what it is, but I’m proud to be part of a group of Canadians that were successful. It is really cool that I had the chance to become friends with them and associate myself with a lot of those guys.”
#7 – “The Mongolian Stomper” Archie Gouldie
Canadian grapplers made a name for themselves no matter where they went, and the Southern territories were no exception. In Calgary, Archie Gouldie was a Canadian cowboy who had multiple runs at the top of the cards for Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling. But in the States, Gouldie was known as a madman from the East. He was the Mongolian Stomper, and he headlined in Southeastern, in Memphis, in Georgia, and in Florida. He took shots in Houston and Dallas, facing off against foes like Bruiser Brody. Often managed by Don Carson or Gorgeous George Jr., Gouldie would terrify Southern audiences with his shaved head, his expressionless, shark-like eyes, and his bloody, wild brawls.
#8 – Jos LeDuc – Arguably the Greatest Monster Heel of all Time
Canadians like Jos LeDuc headlined in those same areas. He was a take-no-shit babyface in Florida before turning heel and running roughshod through multiple territories, always working in top angles. The rugged Canadian gimmick had worked well for the Vachons, and fans could see variations of it in multiple territories.
#9 – Eddie Auger
Jos LeDuc was also tight with a wrestler named Eddie Auger, the founder of a famous French Canadian wrestling family. The Rougeaus have a long history in Montreal, and their story starts with Auger, who first began competing in the 1940s. His nephews followed Auger into the business a decade later. Jacques and Johnny Rougeau wrestled predominantly in Canada, more specifically in Quebec. Eddie competed under various aliases throughout his career, such as Pierre LaSalle and Ed Auger, but his own success was just laying the foundation for the next generation of Rougeaus: Raymond, Armand and Jacques Jr.
When the Rougeau family wanted to send youngster Jacques on an excursion to the states in 1982 to get some seasoning, they sent him to feud with LeDuc in Southeastern. As a young babyface, Rougeau brought in the female demographic, and he was pushed into the main event, challenging for the Southeastern title against LeDuc. The pair had a hot feud that seemed to reach a boiling point when LeDuc shaved Rougeau’s head on live TV after knocking him out with an ether-soaked rag. Rougeau went from a rookie pretty boy to a rugged take-no-prisoners babyface in his pursuit of revenge, which culminated in a series of steel cage matches around the territory. When that feud was done, Rougeau went back to Montreal. By 1986, he was in the WWE — first as part of the Fabulous Rougeau Brothers with his brother, Ray, and then later as the Mountie. He even came back as part of the Quebecers tag team with Pierre Ouellet, another Canadian who remains one of the most underrated wrestlers in WWE history.
#10 – The Fabulous Rougeau Brothers, Jacque and Raymond Rougeau
“In a lot of ways, I loved working with guys like him [Ouellet]. He was a guy, that when he threw you in the ropes, he really threw you in the ropes…. everything he did was power, and at the same time, he was a very safe guy… He took a lot of pride in his work, he really wanted to have a great match with me…. And so we worked really hard, and it was a really good match,” Bret Hart told WWE Home Video in a 2013 interview.
The Rougeau legacy is pretty secure. In addition to a successful in-ring career, Jacques trained current WWE superstar Kevin Owens and gave Owens and Sami Zayn some of their first bookings. He keeps a hand in Montreal Wrestling by running his own wrestling school as well as promoting shows through Lutte International. Raymond worked as a broadcaster for the WWE from 1992 to 2002, and in 2017 he rejoined the company as an announcer for the French broadcasts of WWE events.
#11 – The Hart Family – Wrestling Royalty in Canada
And what about the Harts? They’re wrestling royalty in Canada, and the family’s legacy lives on in WWE superstar Natalya. Bret Hart is, of course, one of the best-known world champions of his generation, holding both the WWE and WCW versions of the world championship at different points in his career, as well as being part of the legendary Hart Foundation tag team with Jim Neidhart. Stu Hart was the patriarch of the family, a man who carved out a wrestling territory that is legendary for the harsh conditions in the winter, but also well-known as a type of “finishing school” for wrestlers to learn how to be main eventers. Wrestlers as diverse as Sylvester Ritter (the Junkyard Dog), Bad News Brown (Allen Coage), “Dr. D” David Shultz, the Honkytonk Man, The Grappler (Len Denton) and others have all talked about how important Stampede wrestling was for them as a way to get them ready for main event pushes.
#12 and 13 – Chris Jericho and Lance Storm
Wrestlers like Chris Jericho and Lance Storm grew up loving Stampede and wanting to work for the promotion.
“In 1986, Winnipeg started getting broadcasts of Stampede Wrestling out of Calgary,” Jericho wrote in his first book, A Lion’s Tale: Around the World in Spandex. “The new company looked cheap and was broadcast out of a livestock field house but the wrestling was off the charts. It was fast, hard-hitting, action-packed, and completely ahead of its time. It was a melting pot of styles, exciting to watch, and I realized that the WWF wasn’t the only game in town.”
Jericho was so enamored with the company that he went to the Hart Brothers Wrestling Camp to train. This is where his path would cross with Lance Storm for the very first time.
Veteran wrestler Jesse “the Body” Ventura gave Jericho some sage advice: “Don’t let Stu get ahold of you!”
“Watch out for Stu Hart, he’s crazy,” Ventura said. “I’ve heard the tapes from the Dungeon where he literally tortures guys. But the toughest wrestlers in the world come from Calgary and if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.”
That’s been true for a lot of the talent in the Great White North: if they can make it there, they really can make it anywhere.
With so many exceptional Canadian wrestlers over the years, some unfortunate omissions had to be made. Watch this space as we plan to do a part two of this series down the road where we will dive into the stories of Rick Martel, Iron Mike Sharpe, The Cormier brothers, Edge, Christian, Kenny Omega, and more. Until then, be sure not to miss these other great articles on wrestlers from Canada:
- Bret “Hitman” Hart and his Often Overlooked First WWF Title Reign
- Dino Bravo | His Shocking Death and Why He Was Murdered by the Mob
- Michel Martel | The Tragic In-Ring Death of the Forgotten Martel Brother
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