The seventh installment of looking back at PWI 500s brings us to the year 1997. 1997 is a major year with the rise of ECW getting on pay per view and getting much more exposure, to the rise of Steve Austin in the WWF, to the year long feud between Sting and Hollywood Hogan in WCW.
However, the number one ranking in this year has been a topic of controversy and to many when looking back at the number one ranked wrestler, the wrestler sticks out as not “fitting in” with the rest. Who was ranked number one? You might be surprised.
As per usual, I don’t look at every ranking, but rather the interesting names of the year and any substantial rise or drop in ranking from years prior. You can view the complete list of rankings HERE.
The grading period this year was from August 1996 to August 1997.
Now, lets start the process of looking back at the 1997 PWI 500.
The Top Ten:
1.) Dean Malenko
2.) Mitsuharu Misawa
3.) Steve Austin
4.) Diamond Dallas Page
5.) Lex Luger
6.) The Undertaker
7.) Shinya Hashimoto
8.) The Giant
9.) Jushin Liger
10.) Chris Benoit
I think there is no denying that Dean Malenko was one of the best wrestlers during the grading period. However, the controversy here has to be his relevance in wrestling. While Malenko won the WCW Cruiserweight Championship and the WCW United States Championship, Malenko wasn’t a top wrestler for WCW. He had some great matches with Rey Mysterio and Eddie Guerrero during the grading period, as well. I personally think the best option to dethrone Malenko for the year was probably Austin and perhaps even Undertaker. Both men had a more relevant main event run, which I think should play a larger part in the grading period. However, it seems that the PWI voters were focusing more on in-ring talent rather than what was accomplished. In that regard, Malenko winning is a good idea, but guys like Eddie Guerrero, Chris Benoit and other top level in-ring performers should probably be ranked higher to make the number one ranking make more sense. Malenko being number one sticks out like a sore thumb when you look at the history of number one wrestlers in PWI 500 history.
This it he highest a Japanese wrestler has ever been ranked in the PWI 500 and probably in large part because of the focus for in-ring ability. Misawa had a great year defeating the likes of Kenta Kobashi , Toshiaki Kawada and Steve Williams. Misawa pinned Williams after losing the Triple Crown championship to Dr. Death some two and a half years ago. I’m not a huge follower of Japanese wrestling, but it would appear he was the best in Japan at the time.
Stone Cold really made an impact during the grading period. He started a rather memorable feud with Bret Hart which saw Austin lose singles matches at Survivor Series and WrestleMania XIII. Despite losing both matches, they are still highly memorable and match of the year candidates while being two completely different matches. Stone Cold won the 1997 Royal Rumble match, but didn’t get the traditional WWF World Championship match at WrestleMania. Austin became a full fledge baby face thanks to the Mania match. Austin had a lot of losses in the big matches as he also lost to WWF World Champion the Undertaker at the May In Your House event. Austin was also part of the losing team at the July In Your House event that took on the Hart Foundation where Owen Hart pinned Austin. Austin had a good note at the end of the grading period when he won the WWF Intercontinental Championship from Owen Hart at SummerSlam. Austin also had a brief WWF World Tag Team Championship reign with Dude Love. It’s interesting to see the rise of Stone Cole including several big time losses and it didn’t hurt the character at all.
Diamond Dallas Page also had a similar rise in World Championship Wrestling when he embarked in a feud with the New World Order and more specifically Randy Savage. Page would get the biggest victory of his career when he pinned Randy Savage in the middle of the ring following the diamond cutter at Spring Stampede. Two months later, Page would lose a rematch at Great American Bash. The feud with Savage would be far from over as it would continue into the next grading period as well. At the end of the grading period, Page was involved in a feud with Curt Hennig after Hennig turned on Page at Bash at the Beach in July.
“The Total Package” Lex Luger had one of the biggest years in his career. Luger’s momentum went upward following a victory over the Giant at Starrcade after using a baseball bat. Luger and Giant would team in early ’97 to challenge the Outsiders for the WCW World Tag Team Championships, which they won at Superbrawl VII, but had to vacate shortly afterward. Luger handed Hulk Hogan his first submission loss in sixteen years with the Torture Rack on the June 9th Nitro. Almost two months later, Luger would win the WCW World Championship for the first time in five years when he made Hogan submit with the Torture Rack on the August 4th edition of Nitro. The reign lasted all of a week as he lost the belt back to Hogan at the Road Wild pay per view that weekend. 1997 was the last time Luger was presented in a main event level.
The Undertaker won his feud with Mankind by defeating the deranged one at Survivor Series. Taker lost to Vader at the Royal Rumble but made up for that loss by defeating Psycho Sid at WrestleMania XIII to win the WWF World Championship for the first time in over five years. Taker would successfully defend the championship against Mankind at the April In Your House, Steve Austin in May, Faarooq at the King of the Ring, and Vader at the July In Your House. Taker’s title reign would come to an end at SummerSlam when Bret Hart pinned Taker following a chair shot from Shawn Michaels.
Shinya Hashimoto defeated the likes of Naoya Ogawa, Riki Choshu, Keiji Muto, and Kazuo Yamazaki during the grading period. Shinya also teamed with Scott Norton to win the NJPW Super Grade Tag League tournament.
After a spectacular rookie year, The Giant remains in the top ten coming in at the eight spot despite not having many top level victories. Even his top moments in the magazine didn’t include major wins or anything. He chokeslammed Eric Bischoff and allowed Lex Luger to win a number one contenders match at Spring Stampede. I’m not sure how or why Giant is ranked so hight when he virtually did nothing the entire year in-ring wise. Giant joined the NWO and would soon depart from the group in the first of many defections for Giant over the course of his career.
Jushin Liger returned to action after having a benign brain tumor removed. Liger won the NJPW J-Crown by defeating the Ultimo Dragon on January 4th. Liger retained the championship against The Great Sasuke and Koji Kanemoto. Liger made one appearance for WCW during the grading period at Starrcade defeating Rey Mysterio Jr. at the event.
“The Crippler” Chris Benoit was involved in an absolute brutal feud with Kevin Sullivan during the grading period all because of Sullivan’s wife Woman (Nancy) leaving him for Benoit. They would have a death match at Superbrawl VII and a retirement match at Bash at the Beach where Benoit won both matches. Benoit wrestled WCW United States Champion Dean Malenko to a no contest at Spring Stampede. Benoit had two death matches with Meng, splitting the two matches at Slamboree and Great American Bash. Benoit was one of the best wrestlers in the World at this point.
12.) Ultimo Dragon
16.) Owen Hart
17.) Jeff Jarrett
18.) Shawn Michaels
Taz had one of the biggest years of his career and rose to be one of the top acts in ECW history. Taz defeated the talented Rob Van Dam to close 1996 and was involved in a heated rivalry Sabu that went on for several months before they met at the first ever pay per view at Barely Legal in April. Taz would win the showdown with Sabu at Barely Legal in a memorable moment for ECW. While Taz would lose to Sabu at Wrestlepalooza in June, he would defeat Shane Douglas that same night to win the ECW Television Championship by making Douglas submit in under three minutes. He successfully defended the championship against Al Snow at Born To Be Wired and Chris Candido at Hardcore Heaven to end the grading period.
Ultimo Dragon had a very successful grading period in World Championship Wrestling. Dragon at one point held nine championships, which included the WCW Cruiserweight Championship. Dragon held the championship for a short period of time before losing the title back to Malenko. Held the J-Crown from three months before losing to Jushin Liger. Won singles matches against Psychosis at UnCensored and at the Great American Bash Lost to Rey Mysterio Jr. at Spring Stampede. Dragon won the WCW Television Championship from Prince Iaukea on April 7th, but lost the championship a month later to Lord Steven Regal at Slamboree. Lost to Chris Jericho at Bash at the Beach with the WCW Cruiserweight Championship on the line. Dragon regained the WCW Television Championship from Lord Steven Regal on July 22nd but would lose the championship to Alex Wright on August 21st. A rather busy and memorable grading period for Dragon.
Owen Hart started the grading period with a singles victory over Savio Vega at SummerSlam. Most of Owen’s success would come when he formed a tag team with the British Bulldog. Owen pinned Flex Kavana (The Rock) in a dark match on August 20th. Won the WWF World Tag Team Championships by defeating the Smoking Gunns with Bulldog at the September In Your House. Won a rematch against the Gunns on October 20th and won a feud agains the Godwinns during the span, as well. Along with Bulldog wrestled Vader and Mankind to a double count-out at WrestleMania XIII. Won his first WWF singles championship on April 28th when he pinned Rocky Maivia to win the WWF Intercontinental Championship. At the end of the grading period, Owen lost the championships to Steve Austin at SummerSlam.
Double J left the WWF for WCW and quickly became one of the more hated characters in the promotion. Jarrett didn’t suffer a pin fall loss in WCW for the first several months in the company. Jarrett pinned Chris Benoit at Starrcade in a no disqualification match. Defeated Michael Wallstreet at Souled Out. Suffered his first singles loss on February 17th when Steve McMichael cost Jarrett a match against Chris Jericho. Jarrett pinned McMichael at Superbrawl for revenge. Failed in an attempt to win the WCW United States Championship from Dean Malenko at Slamboree. Jarrett would win the championship from Malenko on the June 9th edition of Nitro. Successfully defended the WCW US Championship against Steve McMichael at Bash at the Beach. Lost the championship to McMichael on August 21st to end the grading period. During his title reign, Jarrett defeated Ric Flair on a house show.
Despite being the WWF World Champion for several months, Shawn Michaels barely stays in the top 20. Michaels successfully defended the championship against Vader, Mankind and Goldust before dropping the championship to Sid at Survivor Series. Regained the title at Royal Rumble, but lost his smile and wasn’t part of WrestleMania. Returned in the spring and wrestled Steve Austin at King of the Ring. His in-ring work in ’97 was very limited and his ranking would have likely been higher if he hadn’t lost that damn smile.
19.) Randy Savage
20.) Bret Hart
26.) Chris Jericho
29.) Rey Mysterio Jr.
The grading period was a rough start for the Macho Man as he lost to the Giant at Fall Brawl and failed to dethrone WCW World Champion Hulk Hogan at Halloween Havoc. Savage wouldn’t return to WCW until February and aligned himself with the NWO in a feud against Diamond Dallas Page. Teamed with Scott Hall to defeat DDP and Curt Hennig at Bash at the Beach. At the end of the grading period, Savage lost to the Giant at Road Wild in August.
“The Hitman” Bret Hart returned to the WWF in November after a near six month hiatus after losing at Mania XII. Hart would defeat Steve Austin at the Survivor Series but fail to defeat Psycho Sid the following month for the WWF World Championship. Bret briefly won the WWF World Championship at the February In Your House, but soon lost to Sid. Hart won a memorable submission match against Steve Austin at WrestleMania XIII. Hart lost to Austin at the April In Your House by disqualification. Along with the Hart Foundation won a ten man tag at the July In Your House. Ended the grading period by defeating WWF World Champion The Undertaker at SummerSlam to start his final reign at the top.
Formerly known as the 1-2-3 Kid, Syxx jumped ship to WCW and joined the New World Order. Quickly had issues with Eddie Guerrero and Dean Malenko over the WCW Cruiserweight and WCW United States Championships. Lost to Eddie Guerrero in a ladder match at Souled Out. Won the WCW Cruiserweight Championship at Superbrawl VII by defeating Dean Malenko. Teamed with the Outsiders in a losing effort against Ric Flair, Roddy Piper and Kevin Greene at the Great American Bash. Lost the WCW Cruiserweight Championship to Chris Jericho. Lost to Ric Flair to end the grading period at Road Wild.
Jericho made his debut for WCW in the fall of ’96 and had competitive matches with the likes of Chris Benoit, Dean Malenko and Eddie Guerrero, though he would lose those matches. Despite his lack of success, won the WCW Cruiserweight Championship defeating Syxx on June 28th. Successfully defended the championship against Ultimo Dragon at Bash at the Beach. Lost the championship to Alex Wright on July 28th. Failed in his attempt to regain the belt from Wright at Road Wild but regained the belt on 8/17 on Saturday Night. Successfully defended against Eddie Guerrero on the August Clash of the Champions to end the grading period.
Mysterio’s first full year in America for the grading period saw Rey continually impress fans and accomplished quite a bit in WCW. Mysterio started the grading period with pay per view wins over Ultimo Dragon and Super Calo as the WCW Cruiserweight Champion. Lost the belt to Dean Malenko at Halloween Havoc. Lost to Ultimo Dragon at World War III and Jushin Liger at Starrcade, but all the matches were very good bouts. Failed in his attempt to win the WCW Television Championship from Prince Iaukea losing matches at Superbrawl VII and at Uncensored. Got back on the winning side of things by defeating Ultimo Dragon at Spring Stampede. Followed that with a singles victory at Slamboree against Yuji Yasuraoka. Had an intense feud with Konnan that led to a death match at Road Wild, which Konnan won at the end of the grading period.
31.) Hunter Hearst Helmsley
32.) Rob Van Dam
After suffering many losses prior to the grading period, Helmsley won the WWF Intercontinental Championship from Marc Mero in October. Would begin a feud with Goldust which saw Helmsley defeat Goldust at Royal Rumble and WrestleMania XIII. Lost the WWF Intercontinental Championship to Rocky Maivia in February on RAW. Won the 1997 King of the Ring and started a feud with Mankind that would see the two have plenty of wild matches, including a steel cage match at SummerSlam, which Helmsley lost.
RVD started the grading period losing to Sabu in a stretcher match. Failed to defeat ECW World Champion Raven in September. Teamed with Sabu to take on the ECW World Tag Team Champions the Eliminators, but were unable to win the titles. Won a singles match against Lance Storm at Barely Legal, but wasn’t happy with his position on the show. Began to be pro-WWF at the end of the grading period and pinned Tommy Dreamer at Born To Be Wired.
Sabu enjoyed a successful first half of the grading period with wins over 2 Cold Scorpio and Rob Van Dam before entering 1997. Pinned Chris Candido at Cyberslam. Failed to win the tag titles with RVD. Lost to Taz at Barely Legal in a match that fans had been waiting a year to see on pay per view. Pinned Taz at Wrestlepalooza to even their series at one. Won the ECW World Championship by defeating Terry Funk in a barbed wire match in August. Lost the belt just two weeks later to Shane Douglas at Hardcore Heaven in a triple threat match featuring Funk, as well.
Raven continued his feuds with Tommy Dreamer and Sandman trading wins with Sandman throughout ’96. Regained the ECW World Championship from Sandman in December in a barbed wire match. Lost a tag match to Terry Funk and Tommy Dreamer in February with Brian Lee as his partner. Lost the ECW World Championship to Terry Funk at Barely Legal. Gave his notice to ECW shortly thereafter as he is heading to WCW. Lost to Tommy Dreamer at Wrestlepalooza “for the first time” before leaving ECW.
At one time, Goldust was one of the most hated men in wrestling, but that changed by the end of ’96 when he turned baby face and began a feud with Jerry Lawler and Hunter Hearst Helmsley. Failed to defeat Helmsley for the WWF Intercontinental Championship at the Rumble and lost at Mania XIII with the belt not on the line. Won several singles matches against Mankind on the house show market. Finally won on pay per view with win over Crush at King of the Ring. Had a weird angle with Brian Pillman involving Marlena, and won a singles match at SummerSlam to end the grading period.
42.) Shane Douglas
53.) Ahmed Johnson
In the last edition, Douglas dealt with a less than memorable run as Dean Douglas in the WWF and promptly returned to ECW to have much better success. Started the grading period as the ECW Television Champion and defended against Pitbull #2, Tommy Dreamer and Louie Spicolli to close out 1996. Continued his feud with Pitbull #1, which included an I Quit match. Teamed with Francine unsuccessfully against Dreamer and Beulah. Pinned Pitbull #2 at Barley Legal to retain the ECW Television Championship. Lost the ECW Television Championship to Taz at Wrestlepalooza in June, but regained the ECW World Championship at Hardcore Heaven in August by defeating Sabu and Terry Funk.
Formerly known as Ron Simmons, Faarooq arrived to the WWF and made an impact by attacking Ahmed Johnson that would start a lengthy feud between the two. Lost to Marc Mero in the finals for the WWF Intercontinental Championship. Teamed with Savio Vega and Crush in a losing effort against Ahmed Johnson and the Legion of Doom in a street fight at WrestleMania XIII. Would soon become the number one contender to the WWF World Championship, but was unable to defeat the Undertaker at King of the Ring for the championship. Along with the Nation, defeated Ahmed Johnson in May to avoid having to disband.
Vader failed to dethrone WWF World Champion Shawn Michaels at the start of the grading period and suffered losses to Psycho Sid to close out ’96. Earned a victory over the Undertaker at Royal Rumble, but would fail to defeat Taker in July when the WWF World Championship was on the line. Also lost to Ken Shamrock in a no holds barred match. Quickly went from a main event act to a mid carder for the WWF after a strong debut.
Psycho Sid returned to the WWF in July and quickly became a top act for the WWF after a less than stellar run in ’95. Defeated Vader in October and won the WWF World Championship from Shawn Michaels at Survivor Series. Successfully defended against Bret Hart in December before losing the title back to Shawn Michaels. Regained the championship in February but lost to the Undertaker in March at WrestleMania. Failed to regain the title from Taker in June on RAW. Hadn’t been on WWF television since the summer.
The ever intense Ahmed Johnson struggled with injuries after becoming the WWF Intercontinental Champion. Had to vacate the championship due to injury and mainly feuded with the Nation and Faarooq. Would actually join the Nation for a brief time before getting kicked out. Didn’t have a memorable grading period, but is still ranked fairly high.
54.) Roddy Piper
55.) Hulk Hogan
60.) Terry Funk
Piper had several pay per view appearances including two against Hollywood Hogan that saw Piper earn his first clean victory at Starrcade. Wasn’t able to win a rematch with the WCW World Championship on the line at Superbrawl VII. Was also on the losing end on pay per view main events at Uncensored and Slamboree. Teamed with Ric Flair in a losing effort to challenge the WCW World Tag Team Champions the Outsiders at Great American Bash. Won a singles match against Ric Flair at Bash at the Beach to end the grading period. I had actuality forgotten that Piper worked so much in ’97 for WCW.
Hogan wasted no time winning the WCW World Championship from the Giant at Hog Wild in August. Retained against Randy Savage at Halloween Havoc. Traded victories with Piper at Starrcade and Superbrawl VII. Walked out of Souled Out as the champion after a match with the Giant. Teamed with Dennis Rodman in a losing effort against Lex Luger and The Giant at Bash at the Beach. Suffered two loses to Lex Luger over the summer, including losing the championship in August, but won it back in five days at Road Wild to end the grading period.
Terry Funk continues his incredible career that was emotional for many fans and perhaps the final top run for Funkster. Funk teamed with Tommy Dreamer at November to Remember against Shane Douglas and Brian Lee. Won a triple threat match against Stevie Richards and The Sandman in a elimination match to earn a title shot against Raven at Barely Legal that same night. Funk would win the championship. Funk defended the belt against Sandman, Raven and Stevie Richards during the grading period. Defeated Chris Candido at Wrestlepalooza to retain the championship. Lost the ECW World Championship to Sabu in a barbed wire match at Born To Be Wired in August.
103.) Rocky Maivia
119.) Prince Iaukea
152.) Reckless Youth
Rock Maivia made his debut at Survivor Series being on the winning side of the traditional tag match at the event. Wouldn’t take long for Rocky to win the WWF Intercontinental Championship when he pinned Hunter Hearst Helmsley in February. Retained the championship against The Sultan at WrestleMania XIII. Lost the championship to Owen Hart in April. Lost to Mankind in May on pay per view. At the end of the grading period, Maivia turned heel and joined the Nation, which would be the best career move.
Iaukea didn’t win a match during the ’96 portion of the grading period, but he quickly turned that around in ’97. Shocked everyone by winning the WCW Television Championship from Lord Steven Regal on February 17th. Defeated Rey Mysterio Jr. at Uncensored and Lord Steven Regal at Spring Stampede to keep the belt. Was defeated by Ultimo Dragon the night after Stampede to end his run.
After several months of vignettes, Glacier entered WCW and had quite a bit of success against fellow mid card wrestlers in the company. Made his debut on the September 16th Nitro winning a match against Big Bubba. Would be involved in a lengthy feud with Wrath and Mortis, winning a match against Mortis at Uncensored and Slamboree. Took care of Wrath at the Great American Bash to continue his televised undefeated streak. Started to team with Ernest Miller, but they lost to Wrath and Mortis at Bash at the Beach in July. Glacier did have one of the more memorable entrances during the era.
At the time, Reckless Youth would continually get notice in the PWI magazines. Youth was the NWA North American Champion and was playing the heel role at this point in his career. Was involved in feuds with Johnny Graham and Rocco Rock on the independents as well. Far ahead of his time in terms of the ring action we’d get just a handful of years later on television.
221.) Marc Mero
254.) Sexton Hardcastle
‘Wildman’ had a good start to the grading period with wins over Goldust and Hunter Hearst Helmsley. Won the WWF Intercontinental Championship, but the reign lasted a month when he lost the belt to Helmsley thanks to Mr. Perfect. Suffered a major knee injury in February and wouldn’t compete again during the grading period. Wouldn’t be the same wrestler ever again.
Tatanka hasn’t been on national television in over a year at this point, but remained a busy competitor on the independent scene. Mainly competed for the Ultimate Championship Wrestling group and maintained his heel persona by aligning himself with the Hart contingent in the promotion.
Before becoming the superstar known as Edge, he was known as Sexton Hardcastle. Teamed with Joe E. Legend to be known as the team Sex & Violence. Along with Legend, they dominated the tag team division in both Canada and the Michigan area.
Former King of the Ring winner Mabel wasn’t making much of a splash on the independents as he wrestled on occasion in the Tennessee and Carolinas. Did win some tag team gold with partner Mo during the grading period. Mabel would return to the national wrestling scene under a new persona soon.
348.) Steve Corino
401.) CW Anderson
425.) Joey Matthews
Steve Corino gets ranked for the first time in his three year career. Was the NWA Lightweight Champion and a tag team champion with Jimmy Cicero in MEWF. While in MEWF, was involved in a lengthy feud with Adam Flash. It wouldn’t be long before Corino was working with legends and making a name for himself.
CW Anderson had a memorable moment with Steve Corino, which saw them compete in a street fight with the match ending literally on an intersection. Anderson was a top contender for several heavyweight championships in the Carolinas.
Before becoming a corporate stooge, Joey Matthews was seen as a young wrestler with tremendous upside. Matthews was involved in a year long feud with Christian York, whom he would soon become tag team partners with.
Lastly, Surge, or better known as Matt Hardy was ranked 435. He teamed with Wolverine (Jeff Hardy) and held Championship Wrestling Federation title in the Southeast. He’d become a legend of sorts with TLC matches in the 2000s.
Did any of the mentioned rankings surprise you? What were some of your memories during the grading period provided for the PWI 500? Do you agree with Dean Malenko being the number one ranked wrestler?
Thanks for reading.
31-year old currently living in Syracuse, New York. Longtime fan of the New York Mets, Chicago Bulls and Minnesota Vikings. Avid fan of professional wrestling and write reviews/articles on the product. Usually focusing on the old school wrestling.