Professional wrestling might eschew sophistication with a bloody, toothless grin on its face, but it is hard to argue that it’s not the most unforgiving performance art we have. Fickle audiences wait at the ready to show disapproval with jeers, chants of “boring!” or, worst of all, silence. Approval rarely comes immediately, even for the characters that do end up resonating. No amount of preparation guarantees success. Getting over with the crowd requires constant refinement through trial-and-error, night after night. It is the cruelest game of survival of the fittest with the audience, like nature to Darwin’s theory of evolution, capriciously deciding what works and what doesn’t. The only thing that’s true about the recipe for success in professional wrestling is that there is no recipe. The crowd only knows what it likes when it sees it.
While there have been a few “can’t miss” concepts over the years—The Undertaker, for one—most are initially met with skepticism. This is true even for wrestling’s biggest stars. “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and the Rock were unceremoniously rejected when they debuted as the Ringmaster and Rocky Maivia, respectively. Neither abandoned their character completely, instead opting to cater to the audience’s growing preference for characters with an edge. The results speak for themselves as their respective evolutions gave way to the Attitude Era—the most successful in the history of the business.
Although some gimmicks are better than others—clucking and strutting like a rooster are not the hallmarks of creative gold—the pathway to stardom starts and ends with giving the audience what it wants. Those who succeed reap the rewards of a cult-like following that explodes to the sound of broken glass and blissfully recites favorite catchphrases in unison. Like the most revered ballet dancers, professional wrestlers who tame this treacherous landscape deserve to be celebrated and recognized as accomplished performance artists.
While putting together a comprehensive list of the greatest performers in any sport has its challenges, pro wrestling presents a unique one: how do we measure success in a scripted environment? Hulk Hogan is arguably the most popular and accomplished pro wrestler in history. Yet, “the Babe Ruth of professional wrestling” wasn’t particularly skilled at the actual wrestling part. Bret Hart, on the other hand, is arguably the most technically-gifted pro wrestler in history. Yet, the “Excellence of Execution” spent most of his career delivering underwhelming promos. Both achieved massive audience acceptance, but they did it in two very different ways, underscoring that beauty in pro wrestling is in the eye of the beholder. Although who we gravitate towards comes down to personal preference, the most accomplished performers share defining characteristics. We can lean on these characteristics to color a representative picture of the 100 greatest performers/characters in wrestling history. They include:
- Merchandise sales/ratings impact
- Versatility (ability to make multiple characters work or evolve an existing character)
- Industry impact
- Win/loss record, championships
- Memorable angles/matches
- Technical/in-ring work
- Peak longevity
- Body composition/presentation
- Psychology (in-ring and out)
- Cultural significance
- Signature move
- Degree-of-difficulty (risking taking, Mick Foley, etc.)
- Wardrobe/Ring attire
- Ring entrance/music
- Crowd Reaction
Professional wrestling’s Mt. Rushmore features a quartet of icons who can all stake a claim as the greatest of all-time. Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, and the Undertaker have resumes that stand out even among the all-time greats. Hogan is the linchpin who forever changed the wrestling industry by making it a pop culture phenomenon while fueling Vince McMahon’s takeover of the territories. Flair is the greatest heel in history, driven by his boastful, industry-changing promos. Austin saved the WWF in its darkest hour when he led the company to victory over WCW in the Monday Night Wars. The Undertaker persona is the greatest gimmick sports entertainment has ever seen, and nobody was more relevant for longer. These four industry giants separate themselves from the rest of the pack by having very few weaknesses. While there is a worthy list of contenders who also made their marks, each has just enough of a flaw to sink their candidacy.
The most notable omission is, without question, the Rock. If only we had decided on Fab Five as our preferred grouping of greatness instead of Mt. Rushmore, we could have serenity, and we could have it now! The Rock is much closer to our Rushmore quartet than he is the rest of the contenders. His combination of Flair’s flamboyance and Austin’s abrasiveness mesmerized WWE audiences as he blurred the lines of what it means to be a heel or a face. The only missing ingredient is longevity. He blasted off to superstardom in the summer of 1997, and by 2001 he was already looking to parachute into Hollywood. While he never abandoned his wrestling roots, making sporadic appearances over the years and headlining Wrestlemania 28 and 29, his brief run as a full-time wrestler is what inevitably gives The Undertaker claim to the 4th spot.
Speaking of Wrestlemania 28 and 29, it’s not a coincidence that John Cena was handpicked as the Rock’s opponent for a two-year program that produced the only immediate main event rematch in Wrestlemania history. Cena was the only performer at the time capable of matching the Rock’s star power. Given the love/hate relationship we have with Cena (“Let’s go Cena!/Cena sucks!”), he will likely never get the full recognition he deserves. Some of that ambivalence can be attributed to the sterile environment he was forced to perform in as McMahon transitioned to a PG product. Cena might not rate the highest in any one category, but he rates consistently high in all of them. He was the face of the WWE for 13 years, which is longer than Austin and the Rock’s reigns at the top combined. Time will likely be kinder to his legacy.
Shawn Michaels might very well be in the 4th spot on Rushmore if not for the back injury he suffered in his casket match with The Undertaker at the Royal Rumble in 1998. Michaels was forced to retire after dropping the belt to Austin at Wrestlemania 14. Two weeks later, Monday Night Raw beat Monday Nitro in the ratings for the first time in 84 weeks. In one of the cruelest examples of misfortune the industry has ever seen, Austin’s reign ushered in the most lucrative era in history, producing some of the greatest angles and matches of all-time. Michaels would miss all of it. After a four-year hiatus, the Heartbreak Kid would return for a successful second act that would last another eight years. It says a lot about Shawn’s career that despite missing four pivotal years in the middle of his prime, he’s still universally considered one of the all-time greats.
Nobody delivered a better promo than “Macho Man” Randy Savage. He is quite possibly the most imitated pro wrestler of all-time. Everyone has a “Macho Man” impersonation (some even have a matching shirt and socks they like to wear while doing it 😎). In an era when Hulk Hogan’s larger-than-life persona overshadowed every other performer in the industry, Savage became a pop culture icon in his own right, carving out one of the most unique characters sports entertainment has ever seen. He falls just short of Rushmore status for two reasons: he was never the face of the company—the closest he ever got was when Hogan left to film No Holds Barred—and the twilight of his career was interrupted both by inactivity and misuse by WWF and WCW.
Like Shawn, Bret Hart’s candidacy for Rushmore is plagued by misfortune. His departure from the WWF to the WCW was the epitome of sell low, buy high. It immediately preceded the WWF’s stratospheric rise under Austin and coincided with WCW’s death spiral. Even worse, WCW creative proved to be too incompetent to incorporate Bret into its dysfunctional organization, instead opting to waste him as a bit player. To add insult to injury, any chance he had of adding to his Hall-of-Fame legacy was lost after receiving a career-ending kick to the head from Goldberg. Whereas Shawn was able to add a second chapter to his career, Bret had no such luxury.
Lou Thesz and Bruno Sammartino are old-school legends who were no doubt etched on wrestling’s Rushmore at one time. They were kings of a bygone era when the pace was slower than molasses, promo skills were optional, and the territorial set-up regularly produced new sets of eyeballs. Most importantly, spectators thought what they were seeing was a legitimate competition. While both hold a lofty place in wrestling history, it would be a disservice to those who have had to perform in a much less forgiving arena to place either on wrestling’s Rushmore.
The Total Package > The Partial Package
We could create a separate top-100 list for each of the 16 factors listed above, which would be a pretty fun exercise. Some performers rate inordinately high in one or two categories, but not necessarily overall. “The Total Package” Lex Luger had the body of Adonis and would rank very highly on a list that only factored physique. It turns it would have been more appropriate for Luger to be named “The Partial Package” as he was weak on the mic, didn’t move merchandise, had little-to-no character versatility, and was far from a technician in the ring. His physical stature, peak longevity, and participation in memorable angles certainly get him on the list, but nowhere near the top-25.
Dynamite Kid was an exceptional in-ring performer—maybe-top five in the history of wrestling. However, his cultural significance (in North America), promo work, longevity, and merchandise sales rate much lower than his in-ring work, leaving him outside of the top-50 overall. While Luger and Dynamite’s resumes are strong enough to overcome their limitations, others come up short.
The Honky Tonk Man was white-hot as a heel in 1987 and 1988. His 454-day reign as the Intercontinental Champion is still the longest in history. His feud with Macho Man sparked some of the highest-rated wrestling shows to ever air on network television. If we’re talking peak crowd reaction, Honky rates near the top-5 heels of all-time. In terms of his historical significance, there are just too many great performers for his two-year run at the top to be enough to crack the top-100.
U.S. and Canada
When it comes to pro wrestling, comparing success in Japan to the U.S. and Canada is a losing proposition not because one is better than the other but because we have little overlap to form a basis for comparison. The audiences and cultures are very different from each other. In Japan, in-ring technical work has historically been the most emphasized element, which is supported by the fact that 125 of the 160 5-star matches awarded by Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter have taken place within Japanese promotions. In the U.S. and Canada, physique, the ability to deliver memorable promos, moving merchandise, and driving ratings have all played more important roles in defining legacies.
These two distinct wrestling cultures have had very few lasting collaborations and crossover stars, although Japan has been much kinder to its visitors. The list of U.S. wrestlers who have been embraced by Japanese audiences is long and varied. It includes Big Van Vader, Stan Hansen, Scott Norton, “Dr. Death” Steve Williams, and Prince Albert, all of whom were more popular in Japan than in the U.S. The list of Japanese stars who have been embraced by American audiences stands at Shinsuke Nakamura. In all seriousness, while the Great Muta, the Great Kabuki, Ultimo Dragon, and Jushin “Thunder” Liger did achieve modest success in the States, they weren’t exactly featured in their respective promotions.
To fairly compare North American wrestlers to Japanese wrestlers, we would need to see them in the same universe with the same opportunities, and that just hasn’t happened. Instead of randomly splicing Japanese legends throughout the list, we’re better off settling on a U.S. and Canada-centric list and deferring the Japanese list to those immersed in the Japanese culture. Although Rikidozan, Antonio Inoki, and Giant Baba might be household names even among American wrestling fans, there’s a difference between being aware they existed and understanding their impact.
We certainly wouldn’t expect a Japanese wrestling fan to accurately rank, say, The Ultimate Warrior without a deep understanding of American wrestling culture. The Ultimate Warrior was a pop culture icon. At Wrestlemania 7, he became the first person to cleanly pin Hulk Hogan in nine years. He would send Macho Man into retirement the following year in the first and only career vs. career match in Wrestlemania history. He starred in Slim Jim commercials, appeared on Regis & Kathy Lee and the Arsenio Hall Show, and was adorned to Wrestling Buddies and Hasbro figures alike. His popularity would eclipse even that of the Immortal Hulk Hogan. So, it would make sense if his legacy was mistaken for more than what it was.
The reality is that Warrior had a reputation for working stiff (unintentionally hurting his opponent). His skill-set was limited to a few basic moves. He gassed himself out sprinting to the ring, leading to short matches. He delivered rambling promos that did nothing to further storylines. Worse yet, he was notoriously unreliable. Without this additional context, it would be easy to overrate his legacy. Without having intimate knowledge of Japanese wrestling culture to avoid making similar miscalculations, we’re better off outsourcing to experts. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a top-100 Japanese list. Hopefully, that changes at some point. In the meantime, here is an informative rundown of 50 of the greatest Japanese wrestlers of all-time.
Latino wrestlers have had more success in the U.S. than their Japanese counterparts, although even that door has only been open for 25 years. Lucha libre in the states didn’t take off in earnest until WCW began to promote its cruiserweight division in 1996. Wrestling fans would immediately marvel at the pace and athleticism of Rey Mysterio Jr., Eddie Guerrero, Juventud Guerrera, Chavo Guerrero Jr., Psicosis, La Parka, and Super Calo. Since Latino stars who predated this lucha explosion rarely got the opportunity to apply their craft in the U.S., it also makes sense to recognize them separately rather than force them onto a list without having proper cultural context. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a top-100 Latino list, either. Hopefully, that changes, too. In the meantime, here is an informative rundown of 15 of the greatest luchadores of all-time.
Full Body of Work
Despite Japan and Mexico’s rich history of professional wrestling, their stars have historically not found success in U.S. wrestling promotions. For this reason, we lack the proper cultural context to make comparative evaluations. Although we should leave these evaluations to those immersed in each respective culture, pro wrestlers who have thrived in multiple cultures have shown a unique ability to assimilate their skills and will have their entire body-of-work considered.
Dynamite Kid achieved success in North America, first in Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling, and then later in the WWF as a member of the British Bulldogs. He also achieved massive acclaim in Japan, most notably in his matches against Japanese legend Tiger Mask, proving his ability to excel in any environment. Other wrestlers whose legacies are enhanced by overseas work include Terry Funk, Stan Hansen, Terry Gordy, Road Warrior Hawk, Road Warrior Animal, Vader, Owen Hart, Sabu, Eddie Guerrero, Brock Lesnar, AJ Styles, and Kenny Omega.
Additionally, because character development has no expiration date, we should acknowledge all contributions made by performers, including influential roles after in-ring careers have slowed or stopped entirely. Jesse “the Body” Ventura, Gorilla Monsoon, and Mr. Fuji are examples of accomplished pro wrestlers who evolved their characters to stay relevant on-camera even after their in-ring careers ended. It’s important to note that this is very different than factoring in Charles Barkley’s work as an NBA analyst for TNT when evaluating his professional basketball career. Professional wrestling is performance art; every character on the screen—regardless of whether an in-ring career has ended—is part of the performance.
Moving Merch Matters
No serious person would factor in Tom Brady’s jersey sales when contemplating his place in football history. His legacy is tied solely to on-field performance. He could have zero dollars in career jersey sales, and his seven Super Bowls and five Super Bowl MVPs would still leave him as the greatest professional football player of all-time. In football, “winning the game” means scoring more points than the other team. In professional wrestling, it means winning the audience’s approval, no more, no less. For proof, consider that “Mr. Wrestlemania” himself Shawn Michaels has a career record of 6-11 at… Wrestlemania. Shawn’s job was not to win but entertain, and he did it as well as any performer in wrestling history.
We can measure a performer’s ability to entertain intangibly by listening to live-crowd reactions. We can measure it tangibly by merchandise sales and individual segment ratings. Although WWE doesn’t publish historical merchandise sales, it’s not a stretch to suggest that “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Hulk Hogan, and John Cena are the three greatest merchandise-movers of all-time. It’s also not a stretch to suggest the Rock and The Undertaker round out the top-five. It’s not a coincidence that all five are well within the top-10 on our list. While there are many other factors we can use to evaluate a pro wrestler’s legacy, we can’t forget that selling merchandise and driving ratings is tantamount to winning.
It’s also important to note that merchandising as we know it today didn’t exist until Hulkamania started putting an end to the territories in 1984. Performers who debuted well before this boon—like Ric Flair, Harley Race, and Dusty Rhodes—didn’t have the benefit of WWF’s national promotional machine driving merchandise sales. We need to evaluate these performers based on the conditions that existed at the time, and not what the landscape looks like today.
The Last Superstar
The wrestler known as Ryback stated on his eponymous podcast that HHH had once told him that John Cena would be the last marquee superstar the WWE ever has. HHH’s comments weren’t as much a slam on the current crop of talent as they were an acknowledgment that the WWE might be looking to do business differently moving forward.
Without WWE strapping a rocket to its next chosen star, even the top performers will find it challenging to make their mark in the industry. Hulk Hogan, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, The Rock, and John Cena were all given plenty of airtime and creative liberties to make their characters work because the WWE had already decided they wanted them to work. We’ve already seen the WWE repeatedly pump the brakes on elevating Bray Wyatt and Braun Strowman, which could simply be poor creative or another indication that they are being mindful of not letting talent get too over.
Looking at the WWE today, it’s not hard to find truth in HHH’s reported comments. Cena has transitioned to part-time status, and there does not seem to be an implied heir apparent. In the absence of WWE’s penchant for creating a “face of the company,” previously useful metrics for ranking a wrestler’s place in history like merchandise sales, ratings impact, and cultural impact might dry-up even for top-level performers. If that ends up being the case, then technical-ability will likely become more important than ever, which would be a welcome development for the purists.