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“Big! Meaty! Men!”: A Brief History of Hosses in the WWE

With Drew McIntyre and Roman Reigns set to tear the house down during WWE’s ‘Clash at the Castle,’ we (along with Big E) take a look at the evolution of the hoss in the WWE

WWE/Ringer illustration

With “Drew McIntyre vs Roman Reigns | Undisputed WWE Universal Heavyweight Championship” on the marquee for Saturday’s Clash at the Castle at Principality Stadium in Cardiff, Wales, WWE continues its proudest tradition: having two or more brick shithouses beat on one another in an attempt to obtain or retain a world’s championship.

Hoss fights (which McIntyre vs. Reigns may be the Platonic ideal of) are fun as hell, and this year has provided a wonderful bounty in regard to this kind of battle. Brock Lesnar drove a tractor to the ring in a cowboy hat, then jumped off the tractor into Reigns, and that was the second-hossiest thing he did that night. Hoss fights are often not technical masterpieces, but I’ll damned if watching the most brolic among us hurl themselves at their opponents isn’t a blast to watch with a group of friends on a Saturday night. (Which, as I understand it, has been cleared as “Alright For Fighting” in the UK ahead of this weekend.)

This is probably why, since the dawn of time—for our purposes, let’s count that as the first WrestleMania—WWE has sold these kinds of matches with these kinds of performers to the masses, filling stadiums and arenas around the world doing so. Our numbers reflect this, as the top four singles competitors on the Power Board—Bianca Belair, Reigns, McIntyre, and Bobby Lashley—are all quintessential hosses booked accordingly by the promotion.

Folks love spectacle, and WWE’s emphasis on the largest of larger-than-life performers has paid massive literal dividends for the company. For many years, this success came with a somewhat unsurprising critical consensus that the product WWE presented (and, in particular, the burlier aspects of it) was schlocky entertainment made for marks who didn’t necessarily “get” what wrestling was supposed to be (as opposed to, and this is an important distinction, what it could be). Through the osmosis of content curation, a kind of singular understanding permeated, in which the kind of action that WWE specialized in—but was by no means the only purveyor of—was simply the cost of doing business and the real art was being produced by high-workrate, high-risk performers that were almost always significantly smaller than the kind of beefy headliners that worked WrestleMania main events.

When coupled with barriers to entry like the VHS compilations of matches and pay-per-views and time to record shows happening on television, there was really no way to watch wrestling matches repeatedly. This meant that nearly many experiences with professional wrestling were mediated by a third party. Making things worse is that the really obscure gems—your Joshi bouts, exploding barbed-wire death matches, and international shows—required tape trading or, eventually, torrent downloading. (Which, we should note, is both illegal and like playing Russian roulette with your computer, except instead of bullets, the gun is loaded with computer viruses so virulent they make your parents/spouse think you downloaded all of the porn on the internet simultaneously.)

Unless you were too dumb to care what other people who liked wrestling also liked, or so self-possessed that you didn’t concern yourself with what other people thought in general, there was a strong likelihood that you had a very particular palate for what kind of wrestling you thought was tasteful. But even for the dumb ones who didn’t know enough to care what other people thought (like yours truly), it was fundamentally impossible to critically reevaluate both matches we had seen ourselves and those that we’d been tipped off to the “greatness” of by others.

Not to get too personal here, but it took me years to realize that WrestleMania VII’s match between Warlord and British Bulldog is a perfect match. A tragedy that happened in large part because I couldn’t just watch WrestleMania VII any time I wanted.

More seriously, this created a state of nature for wrestling fans where—for many years, even as the scene evolved and shifted in development—performers who would have once been told to work as stiffs began to spread their wings and (sometimes literally) fly around the ring, and there was no one speaking for us. No voice calling out to represent the fans who love dense dudes (and dudettes) dropping bombs.

Until one day, that voice came from Tampa and spoke to us, saying:

I don’t wanna hear y’all talking about this “workrate” and moonsaults. I don’t care about any of that! Ya heard? Y’all want a great match? Nah, bump that! I want to see two men with big chests and big muscles bumping meat. That’s why I’m here! That’s why I watched wrestling as a kid! You want your five-star matches. You want your 30-minute classics? Not me! BIG! MEATY! MEN! SLAPPING MEAT!

That voice was, of course, Big E. And because of the unique job that I have, the man himself took some time out of his busy schedule to talk to me about just exactly where those feelings came from and how coming into the world of wrestling required him to find his own brand of hossness.

First, though, I had to ask: Where on earth did the phrase “big meaty men slapping meat” come from?

“Never used that before, it was just kind of something that came to me, big meaty men slapping meat,” explained E. “Whenever we work in Japan, every time without fail, we would do the big-man tackle spot where we both take off and smash into each other and the reaction gets better and better. And that spot does not work anywhere else. But I think that’s kind of what I was visualizing.”

E continued, “I love that style of just two brutes, two big men—and I imagined the sweat flying off, just pec on pec, four bulbous pecs slapping together as they run into each other. That is the visual I had in my head. And so I just expressed that and it came out ‘slapping meat’ because that is what I want to hear. Whether it’s the clothesline no-bumps spot or the tackle no-bumps spot, I want to hear the thud of two men who spent way too much time in the weight room. In the moment, that was me just expressing my love for that kind of nonsense.”

It’s a kind of nonsense that E (or as it now says when I scroll through my caller ID, Ettore Ewen) says got him interested in wrestling as a young man watching WCW in Tampa. “I don’t even remember when, but I gravitated towards the big, muscular, larger-than-life athletes from the beginning. I always wanted to be jacked. I don’t know if I saw myself in them, but from early on I just kind of wanted to be like that and I always just adored the guys who were tossing guys around.”

(And before we go on, I realized in speaking to him that one of the key differences between someone like Big E and me is that when he saw Vader, he said, “I’m going to work hard to be that big and strong someday,” and when I saw Vader, I thought, “If I played dead, do you think he would stop chasing me?” One’s not necessarily better than the other, but it’s at least partially the reason Big E is a world champion professional wrestler and I’m the guy who got the entire Hofstra student section to chant “Nick Bond sucks” during a nationally televised basketball game. We all have our gifts.)

This is why, despite never truly aspiring to become a pro wrestler—because as Big E puts it, “For some reason, I never had this dream as a kid. Mostly, I guess it just seemed … it’s comic books on TV. Like, I didn’t even know how to start that process”—E knew exactly what to do when the opportunity to start that process arrived after injuries set him on a different path from football stardom. After a lifetime of more traditional competition preparation (i.e., in situations where your opponent’s goal is to win and not to make sure everyone “gets their shit in”), he did what came naturally: ate tape to fine-tune his performance.

“For me,” E explains, “it was just really a matter of trying to determine, ‘OK, this is what I look like and this is what I think I can do athletically. Let me try to find the guys that I really enjoyed watching. Let me watch their stuff.’” Seminal modern hosses like Scott Steiner and Ron Simmons helped influence the intangible qualities of E’s work in the ring.

His world-class footwork allowed him to have the nimbleness of nearly supernatural athletes while still working somewhat like a Steiner, who did significantly more throws but helped show E the importance for workers of their ilk to be deliberate about getting into and out of the finer points of a hoss match. “In FCW, I watched a match with Seth Rollins, and his entire offense was based around a European uppercut, he would find different ways to hit it. Steiner was doing that with the belly to belly, hitting them creatively and out of different transitions.”

Then came the incorporation of styles and techniques from E’s contemporaries but in a way that wouldn’t be gimmick infringement. Take Lashley, WWE’s current U.S. champion, who had been out of the company for over three years by the time Big E began working regularly in December 2010. “He was an athlete and not a plodder,” E remembers. “I wanted to separate myself, so I tried to find other guys like that who were bigger but not quite the Vader-style powerhouse weighing in at 350 pounds.”

Billed at 5’11”, 285 pounds, E is, well, Big, but he’s not Show-size. Neither is Belair or Chad Gable (whom E specifically mentioned as potentially being able to pull off a Steiner-esque suplex repertoire), though both are unequivocal hosses, using speed, leverage (for Gable), and size (for Belair) to create power and powerful moments that get butts in seats and then compel those same butts to jump out of those seats nearly every time they’re out there. Which is part of what makes hosses magical: Anyone, in the right situation or with the right dance partner, can be a hoss.

Against Lesnar—perhaps the densest hoss in history, a black hole of hossiness, if you will—Eddie Guerrero was Glass Joe outwitting Mike Tyson; but when he faced someone like Rey Mysterio (Jr.), Guerrero was Stan Hansen. It’s always been this way, but because of the roles performers were expected to play, it was very rare you’d see it in the ring, at least usually not on WWE TV through the early ’90s.

That changed, however, as the company moved away from squashes into more evenly distributed matchups that required performers to become more versatile as smaller wrestlers began making their way up the card en masse. Instead of having half the roster face a permanent underclass of also-rans, the competition posed by WCW meant WWF (at the time) needed matches that featured stars competing against stars (or at least performers people had opinions on) and they needed those matches to not actively suck.

Which isn’t to say they were good, but they were dynamic and that opened the door for mega-hosses like the Undertaker to finally receive the critical recognition they’d deserved while making chicken salad out of Kamala casket matches. It’s not a coincidence that the Undertaker’s first five-star match happened in 1997 (in his legendary Hell in a Cell match against Shawn Michaels), as the work he was given the freedom to do in the ring finally matched his ambitions and abilities as a performer.

It was the Undertaker who then spent the next 25 years as a hoss standard-bearer, bestowing hossdom on every worthy candidate that crossed his path after spending the previous eight trying to help find opponents for him to, uh, slap meat (yeah, that felt wrong, sorry everyone) with and finding only (the Palace of Wisdom’s King Hoss) Yokozuna a positive use of his time or energy. Diesel and Sycho Sid were sent packing by Taker (at consecutive WrestleManias, no less) before he was finally able to give a platform to performers like Kane, Batista, Mark Henry, Big Show, Lesnar, Reigns, and even McIntyre. Those who were able to get the rub as the big beefy bois of wrestling’s future benefited, as all of them are currently or will be Hall of Famers and perfect hosses in their own way.

But perhaps no two performers in Taker’s lineage better exemplify the role he helped modernize than McIntyre and Reigns. Flourishes like McIntyre’s kip-up or finishing holds like Reigns’s guillotine choke would simply not exist for performers in their roles and at their size without the Undertaker doing the Deadman’s lift from day one or introducing the gogoplata into his arsenal in the mid-aughts.

The Scottish Warrior’s ascension may be the greatest testament to this, as McIntyre’s entire appeal is an evolution of what Mark Calaway—a massive star with a preternatural athleticism bolstered by a work ethic that allows him to do things that no one else can at their size—did for years. McIntyre’s status as a workhorse is something we’ve spoken about before, and it’s perhaps the most underrated benefit of building the entire airplane out of hosses, as people with a lot of padding have a tendency to last a lot longer than those who choose to go without.

As Head of the Table, Reigns has taken on Taker’s former role as the gatekeeper for immortality. If McIntyre wins tonight, he’ll take his place as a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer and a conquering hero among his countrymen. And if Reigns wins, it will all but guarantee that he is able to finally put his name up along with (and perhaps even above) nearly all the hosses and Final Bosses who came before him.

But regardless of whatever happens at the end of their match, I’ll likely be thinking about how Taker walked like a zombie so that Big E could run and dive through the ropes with a spear, and how this match carried on Taker’s legacy of larger-than-life characters doing their best to beat each other worse than they’ve ever been beat before. And while some may have called them stiffs a generation or two ago, we call them hosses now, and we’ll know what they are, and shall always be, in our hearts: Big. Meaty. Men. Slapping Meat.

Nick Bond (@TheN1ckster) is the cofounder of the Institute of Kayfabermetrics and provides weekly updates to The Ringer’s WWE Power Board.