Initially only taking up professional wrestling as a part-time job while trying out for a football team, Stan Hansen made his debut in 1973. Within two years, his football dreams were over and wrestling offered a full-time career. And it was an offer that he grabbed with both hands.
Debuting for the World Wide Wrestling Federation in 1976, Hansen took only two months to find himself in a rivalry with then-WWWF champion Bruno Sammartino. It was during a title match between the two that Hansen reputedly broke Sammartino’s neck with his powerful Lariat (a clothesline). In reality, a misjudged powerslam is what led to the injury, but as all wrestling promoters past, present and undoubtedly future will prove, when there is a chance to make a good situation from something bad, it will invariably be taken. Hansen’s Lariat became one of most feared moves in the company, and the promotion did a good job of making fans believed that one mighty swing of the arm from Hansen had the potential to not only win matches, but also injure opponents as it had done Sammartino.
After the champion recovered, the two resumed their rivalry, leading to one final championship match. Inevitably Bruno retained, after which Hansen left the company. Moving on to Japan, Hansen quickly found a new – albeit temporary – home in New Japan Pro Wrestling, mainly doing one-off shows which usually saw him teaming with and battling Bob Backlund. He went from there onto All Japan Pro Wrestling, where he gained notoriety for becoming the only man to gain pinfall wins over Antonio Inoki and Giant Baba, and anyone that knows Japanese wrestling will understand the enormity of that.
Taking a break from AJPW, Hansen returned to America for the AWA in 1985, soon becoming the AWA World champion and leading to an intensely controversial situation. Booked to lose the belt to Nick Bockwinkel, Hansen contacted All Japan president Giant Baba, who had already booked Hansen in several AJPW matches defending the AWA championship, and therefore would not allow Hansen to lose to Bockwinkel as scheduled. AWA promoter Verne Gagne ultimately stripped Hansen of the title and awarded it to Bockwinkel, who was then forced to carry around one of the AWA Tag-Team championship belts as Hansen refused to return the original AWA championship. He returned to All Japan and continued to defend the AWA World title, despite being stripped of it in America. Eventually, AWA threatened legal action against Hansen if he continued to refer to and promote himself as the AWA World championship. In response, Hansen drove over then belt with a truck and sent it back to Gagne. Hansen would much later express regret over his handling of the situation.
Back in Japan, it wasn’t just in championship matches that Hansen excelled. During a NJPW Super Fight show held at the Tokyo Dome in February 1990, Hansen would find himself involved in a rather infamous – and gruesome – match with Big Van Vader. The two were no strangers to the more physical style of wrestling, with both renowned for being stiff in the ring. It was during one of these physical moments in the match that saw Hansen inadvertently poke Vader in the eye, with so much force that it actually caused Vader’s eye to pop out of its socket. After pushing his eye back in (did you recoil reading that as much as I did writing it?), Vader was able to continue the match until it was stopped, with a no-contest being the official result.
With Vader out of action, and getting a metal plate surgically placed under his eye, Hansen would keep himself busy with an unsuccessful attempt at Hulk Hogan’s WWF Title on a WWF/AJPW supershow, as well as winning his first Triple Crown Heavyweight championship. He would resume hostilities with Vader, before heading back to America to join World Championship Wrestling.
Setting his sights on more championship gold, Hansen targeted – and won – Lex Luger’s United States championship and ending his 523-day record reign. He would drop the belt back to Luger, before heading back to All Japan. When he was due to return to WCW, he disagreed with the creative direction planned for his character and left the company. A permanent return to AJPW was inevitable, and further Triple Crown Championships were added to his resume during a back-and-forth rivalry with Mitsuharu Misawa. The rivalry between the two would end up continuing behind the scenes, with Misawa being promoted to position of booker following the death of All Japan president Giant Baba, and subsequent depushing of Hansen and other overseas talent.
Hansen would remain with AJPW during the mass exodus of talent that would lead to the formation of Pro Wrestling Noah, however a combination of age and injury soon began to take its toll and he would go on to wrestle only two more matches, a loss to Genichiro Tenryu in the semi-final of a tournament to crown a new Triple Crown champion, and a six man tag-team match.
That was to be his final bout; Stan Hansen announced his retirement from wrestling in January 2001.
While his career did include notable stops in the AWA, WCW and the WWF, it was in Japan that Stan Hansen truly forged and cemented his legacy. A four-time AJPW Triple Crown winner, he did what no other American wrestler had achieved up to that point, and his retirement was met with sadness and a celebration of the career he had.
Recognised as a legend in Japanese wrestling, his contributions will always be respected and admired. And for that, Stan Hansen will take his rightful place in the WWE Hall of Fame.