Thundering in at #78 is A’s and Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire. Depending on what statistics we focus on, we can say Big Mac is—without hyperbole—the most prolific home run hitter in baseball history. McGwire’s at-bat per home run ratio of 10.6 is by far the best of all time. He owns the records for most home runs over a two-year, three-year, and four-year period. He is the only player in history with a 70 and a 60-home run season. He’s tied with Babe Ruth and Sammy Sosa for most 50-home run seasons. McGwire and Sosa are the only players in history with four consecutive 50-home run seasons. McGwire joins Ruth as the only two players with five seasons of at least 49 home runs. McGwire is 7th all-time in slugging percentage and his .588 mark is the second-best since 1960. His adjusted OPS+ of 163 is 11th all-time and 4th since 1960. McGwire led the league in home runs, slugging %, and OPS+ four times and walks and on-base percentage twice each. His 162-walk total in 1998 is the 5th highest single-season mark in history. Big Mac finished among the top-7 in MVP voting five times, including a runner-up finish in 1998 after breaking Roger Maris’s single-season home run record.
Coming in at #79 on our list is Giants slugger Willie McCovey. To get an idea of how feared McCovey’s bat was, consider that he was intentionally walked 260 times in his career which is the 5th highest total in history behind only Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols, Stan Musial, and Hank Aaron. That’s some stellar company. Before Bonds rewrote the history books on intentional walks from 2002-2004, McCovey held the single-season intentional walks record (45). In fact, McCovey still has the highest non-Bonds single-season mark and he’s the only non-Bonds player to reach 40+ intentional walks in a season twice. McCovey led the National League in slugging % and OPS+ for three consecutive seasons. He led the league in home runs three times and finished in the top-5 seven times. He took home the National League MVP in 1969 and was 8th on the all time home run list when he retired in 1980.
Hitting the list at #80 is Padres legend Tony Gwynn. Gwynn is arguably the most skilled batsman in baseball history, using his keen eye and amazing contact skills to reach 3,000 hits in just 2,284 games which is the 3rd fastest to 3,000 in history and the fastest in more than 100 years. Gwynn led the league in batting average eight times and hits seven times, both ranking second in history behind Ty Cobb. He also led the league in at-bats/K a remarkable 10 times. His .338 career batting average is the highest since 1960 and the 18th best mark in history. Gwynn is one of only four players to hit at least .350 in four consecutive seasons and the only to do so since 1930. He’s one of only three players in history with at least 3,100 career hits, 300 stolen bases, and fewer than 450 strikeouts and the only player to do it since 1930. Gwynn hit over .300 in an incredible 19-straight seasons and hit .394 in 1994 which is the best single-season mark since 1941.
At #81 on our countdown is 18-time all-star and Twins legend Rod Carew. Carew led the league in batting average seven times which is the 4th most in history behind only Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, and Tony Gwynn. Carew joins Rogers Hornsby and Stan Musial as the only three players ever to lead the league in runs, hits, triples, batting average, on-base percentage, OPS, and OPS+ in the same season. He is the only player in history to have at least 235 hits, 125 runs, 35 doubles, 15 triples, 20 stolen bases, 65 walks, an OPS+ of 175, and a batting average of .388 in a single season. He was the 1977 American League MVP and finished in the top-10 six times. Carew has the 3rd highest career batting average since 1960, trailing only Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs.
Next up at #82 is Sammy Sosa. Slammin’ Sammy’s 10-year stretch with the Cubs from 1995 to 2004 produced the greatest home run barrage Major League Baseball has ever seen, literally. Sosa’s 479 home runs over that period are the most ever over 10 years. In fact, Sosa also holds the records for most home runs over a 5-year, 6-year, 7-year, 8-year, and 9-year stretch. Sosa is the only player in history with three seasons of 60+ home runs. He also shares the record for the most 50-home run seasons with four. He’s the only player in history with more than 60 home runs and 140 runs in a single season. He’s the only player to have more than 65 home runs, 150 RBIs, and 130 runs in a single season. He’s the only player in history with a season of at least 64 home runs and 155 RBIs and he did it twice. Sosa, Alex Rodriguez, and Rafael Palmeiro are the only three players in history with nine consecutive seasons of 35 home runs and 100 RBIs. He was the NL MVP in 1998 and the runner-up in 2001. Remarkably, Sosa led the league in home runs twice, but not in any of his 60-home run seasons.
Rifling in at #83 is Cleveland great Bob Feller. Like many of the elite players of the 1940s, Bullet Bob’s career was interrupted by service in WWII. Feller missed three-and-a-half seasons just as he was establishing himself as the best pitcher in the world. It’s not hard to imagine Feller leading the league in wins for what would’ve been an unbreakable record of nine consecutive seasons had he been stateside for his entire career. In fact, he’d likely hold the records for most consecutive seasons leading the league in strikeouts and innings as well. Despite his lengthy absence from the majors, Feller put together one of the most impressive pitching careers MLB baseball has ever seen. He was the best pitcher in the American League the three years before left for the war and arguably in his first two full seasons after returning from the war. Feller is one of only 10 pitchers to throw at least 3,800 innings with an ERA+ of at least 122. He also led the league in strikeouts seven times, wins six times and innings pitched and games started five times each.
Popping in at #84 on our list is Phillies great Robin Roberts. No pitcher in MLB history had a six-season run quite like the one Roberts went on from 1950-1955. During this stretch, Roberts became the only pitcher ever to lead the league in games started for six consecutive seasons. He also became the first pitcher in history to have separate streaks of leading the league in wins four consecutive seasons and innings pitched five consecutive seasons. Roberts was the best pitcher in baseball in 1952 and 1955, finishing highest among pitchers in NL MVP voting, and he was the second-best pitcher in 1953 and 1954. He is the only pitcher in MLB history to lead the league in wins, innings, games started, and complete games for four consecutive seasons. Roberts is the only pitcher since the dead-ball era with a season of at least 28 wins and a BB/9 of 1.3 or less. Roberts also led the league in WAR for Pitchers and strikeout-to-walk ratio five times and BB/9 four times.
Landing at #85 on our list is Ferguson Jenkins. Fergie used his pinpoint control and tireless arm to become one of only six pitchers in MLB history (and only the second in the last 100 years) to throw 4,500 career innings with a WHIP less than 1.15 and a BB/9 of two or less. Fergie led the league in wins twice and finished in the top-3 seven times. He led the league in strikeout-to-walk ratio and BB/9 five times, complete games four times, and finished in the top-10 in WHIP an astounding 13 times. He won the 1971 NL Cy Young Award and nearly won it four more times finishing 2nd in 1967 and 1974 and 3rd in 1970 and 1972. Jenkins is the only player in MLB history to have at least 24 wins and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of at least 7.0 in the same season. He’s the only player in the last 100 years with at least 265 career complete games and a WHIP under 1.15. He’s the only player in the last 100 years with a season of at least 30 complete games and a BB/9 of 1.0 or less. He’s one of only three players in the last 100 years to lead the American League and the National League in wins. He’s the only player in the last 80 years with a season of 25 wins and a BB/9 of 1.2 or less, and he’s one of only four players in the last 100 years to win at least 115 games in both leagues.
At #86 on the list is The Hebrew Hammer Hank Greenberg. Like his fellow masher Johnny Mize, Greenberg missed a huge chunk of his peak serving in WWII. For Greenberg the cost was even more substantial as he would miss 4.5 seasons, limiting his career to just 1,394 career games, or the equivalent of 8.5 seasons worth of games. All Greenberg did during his short time in the league was put together one of the most extraordinary stretches in MLB history. Greenberg led the league in HRs, RBIs, and extra-base hits four times, total bases and walks twice, and slugging %, OPS, and runs one time each. He’s 6th all-time in slugging %. His 184 RBIs in 1937 are the 3rd highest single-season total in history and his 63 doubles in 1934 are the fourth most in history. He won the American League MVP in 1935 and 1940 and finished third in 1937 and 1938. Greenberg is one of only five players in history with three seasons of at least 150 RBIs. He’s the only player in history with a 50 home run season and a 60 double season. He’s also the only player in history with a 180 RBI season and a season of at least 58 home runs. It’s wild to think what Greenberg’s career would’ve looked like with the 2,200 at-bats he lost to the war.
Prowling into the list at #87 is the original Big Cat Johnny Mize. Mize had one of the longest peaks in history as he led the league in home runs, slugging % and extra-base hits four times, RBIs, OPS, and total bases 3 times, OPS+ twice, and batting average, runs, and doubles once. When he wasn’t leading the league, he was coming awfully close as he consistently finished near the top of every major statistical category for nearly a decade. He finished in the top-3 in slugging % and OPS+ a remarkable nine times. He finished in the top-3 in extra-base hits and offensive WAR eight times and home runs, total bases, and RBIs seven times. Indicative of his immense power, Mize is 14th all-time in slugging % and 17th all-time in OPS+. He finished in the top-10 of the MVP voting six times including back-to-back runner-up finishes in 1939 and 1940 in which he was unquestionably the best hitter in the American League. Mize joins Mark McGwire as the only two players to lead the league in home runs twice in the American League and the National League. He was also a part of five World Series titles with the Yankees where he had a robust .584 slugging % and a .909 OPS. It’s hard to believe that Mize put together such a stellar career despite missing three full seasons of his prime serving in WWII.
When Major League Baseball formed in 1903, there were three players who could stake a claim as the greatest player of all time. That list included Cy Young, Honus Wagner, and #88 on our list, Nap Lajoie. Close to 120 years later, Lajoie is still arguably the greatest second baseman in American League history. He led the league in batting average and doubles five times, becoming one of three players in history along with Honus Wagner and Stan Musial to do so. He led the league in slugging %, and total bases four times, RBIs, OPS and OPS+ three times, OBP twice, and home runs and runs once each. In terms of all-time standing among second basemen, Lajoie is the all-time leader in RBIs, second in doubles and hits, third in batting average, and fourth in triples. After 12 decades of Major League Baseball baseball, Lajoie remains the only player in history with 3,000 career hits, 600 doubles, and fewer than 350 strikeouts.
Coming in at #89 on the list is third baseman Adrian Beltre. While somehow managing to play two decades in relative anonymity, Beltre’s credentials are no less worthy of a spot in the top 100. Beltre’s standing among third basemen as both an offensive and defensive contributor is second to none. Among third basemen who played at least half their career at the hot corner, he is the all-time leader in hits, RBIs, games played, and plate appearances. He’s second in doubles, third in home runs and WAR, and fourth in runs. His 1,151 career extra-base hits are the most all-time for a third baseman and the 14th most in Major League Baseball history regardless of position. He’s second all-time in dWAR among third basemen, and he has the 13th highest dWAR total in history regardless of position. He’s the only player in history in the top-15 in both extra-base hits and dWAR. Beltre is also the only player in history with 3,000 hits, 450 home runs, and 27 dWAR, and he’s the only third baseman in history with 3,100 hits, 600 doubles, and 400 home runs.
Cleaning up the list at #90 is “The Human Vacuum Cleaner” Brooks Robinson. It’s hard to argue that Robinson isn’t just the greatest defensive third baseman of all time, but the greatest defensive player of all time regardless of position. Playing the hot corner, Robinson amassed an astounding 39.1 defensive WAR. He finished among the top-8 in dWAR a remarkable 14 seasons. Among third basemen, he’s the all-time leader in games, assists, putouts, double plays turned, total zone runs, and range factor per game. He led the league in fielding percentage at third base 11 times which is three more than any player from any other position in history. His 16 gold gloves are also the most for any position player in history. There’s no question that Robinson was superior with the glove, but the fact that he’s 13th all-time in sacrifice flies and produced a minuscule 8.4 career strikeout percentage shows he was skilled with the bat as well. Although he led the American League in RBIs in 1964 and finished in the top 10 in RBIs eight times, Robinson was at his best in the postseason. When merely equaling regular season rates is considered impressive, Robinson elevated his batting average 36 points and his OPS 62 points in the playoffs on his way to helping the Orioles win two World Series titles in four World Series appearances. After winning the World Series MVP in 1970, he joined teammate Frank Robinson as the only two players in history to win a regular-season MVP, a World Series MVP, and an All-Star game MVP.
Hitting the list at #91 is Mr. 38, Rafael Palmeiro. Palmeiro was the American League’s premier extra-base hit machine during the 1990s. His 1,192 career extra-base hits are the 11th most in MLB history. Palmeiro’s 9-consecutive seasons with at least 38 home runs is the all-time record and two more than any other player in history. Over that 9-year stretch, he averaged a surreal 41 home runs and 121 RBIs. He joins Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, and Eddie Murray as one of only six players with 3,000 career hits and 500 career home runs. Palmeiro used an impressive 11.2 strikeout rate to reel in the elusive career positive walk-to-strikeout ratio as he tallied 1,353 walks to just 1, 348 strikeouts.
Coming in at #92 is Eddie Murray. Murray earned the nickname Steady Eddie for being one of the most consistent hitters in baseball history. Murray’s career is notable in that he didn’t have a peak. It was steady production for 20 straight seasons. Murray is the only player in history with 20 consecutive seasons of at least 70 RBIs and 20 doubles. He’s 11th all-time in total bases and RBIs, and 13th all-time in hits. He joins Hank Aaron, Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, and Willie Mays as the only five players in history with at least 3,000 hits, 500 home runs, and 1900 RBIs. Ever the tradesman with the bat in his hands, Murray produced an excellent 11.8 strikeout percentage and is the all-time leader in sacrifice flies. Murray led the American League in OPS+ in 1984 and finished in the top-10 nine times, including three second-place finishes. He led the American League in RBIs in 1981 and finished in the top-10 11 times. He finished in the top-5 in MVP voting six times including back-to-back runner-up finishes in 1982 and 1983. He produced a .825 career postseason OPS in 186 career plate appearances while leading the Orioles to a World Series title in 1981.
Entering the list at #93 is Paul Molitor, one of the premier run/hit threats in Major League Baseball history. All “Molly” did was rack up 3,319 hits, 1,782 runs, 605 doubles, and 504 stolen bases. If those numbers sound unique, it’s because they are. Only three players in MLB history have at least 3,300 career hits, 600 doubles, and 500 stolen bases, and Molitor is the only player to do it since 1920. Over his 21-year career, Molitor led the American League in hits and runs three times, and finished in the top 10 in batting average 11 times. As good as Molitor was in the regular season, he was even better in the playoffs. In 132 postseason plate appearances, he hit a robust .368 with a .435 on-base percentage and a .615 slugging percentage. He led the Brewers to the 7th game of the World Series in 1982 and then put the Blue Jays over the top in 1993 on his way to being named World Series MVP.
Entering the list at #94 is Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez. It would be hard to argue that Pudge isn’t the greatest defensive catcher of all time. His 13 gold gloves are the most by a catcher in MLB history. He’s first all-time in defensive games played at catcher with 2, 427 which is over 200 games ahead of second place. He’s the all-time leader in defensive WAR among catchers and 8th overall regardless of position. Pudge led the league in caught stealing % a remarkable nine times. No other catcher has done it even 7 times and nobody has done it more than four times in more than 70 years. As great as Pudge was defensively, a combination of defensive and offensive brilliance won him the American League MVP in 1999 as he became the first catcher in either league to take home the award in 23 years. While Pudge’s calling card was his defense, he was no slouch with the bat. He is the all-time hits leader among catchers with 350 more than the next highest mark. He’s also the all-time leader at catcher in doubles and runs, and his 127 career stolen bases are the 3rd highest total by a catcher in more than 90 years. In 2004, Pudge led the Marlins to one of the biggest upsets in World Series history over the heavily favored New York Yankees. He also helped revitalize a dormant Tigers franchise, leading Detroit to its first World Series appearance in 22 years.
Slamming the door shut at #95 is legendary Oakland closer Dennis Eckersley. While Eck was an accomplished starting pitcher for the first half of his career—he was a 20-game winner for Boston in 1978, led the AL in ERA+ in 1979, and was selected to two All-Star games—he was a “light’s out, don’t let the door hit you on the way out” closer for the second half. He would redefine what an elite season looked like for a closer when he made the move to the bullpen for Oakland in 1987. After a successful first season as a full-time closer, Eck would catch fire in 1988, leading the American League in saves and finishing 2nd in the Cy Young voting. Eck’s two most dominant seasons and the two most dominant back-to-back seasons by a closer in major league baseball history came in 1989 and 1990 when he posted microscopic whips of .607 and .614. His 1990 ERA of .61 is almost hard to believe and translates to an out-of-this-world ERA+ of 603. Eck’s late-inning dominance helped lead Oakland to the 1990 World Series title and three consecutive World Series appearances. Eck would put a stamp on his Hall of Fame career by winning the Cy Young and AL MVP in 1992, becoming only the 4th reliever in history to do so. Eck is the only pitcher in baseball history with at least 390 saves and 190 wins, and no player in Major League Baseball history has more 45-save seasons.
Joining the list at #96 is on-base machine Joey Votto. Although hitting home runs is the most important skill in baseball, getting on base isn’t far behind and few have been better than Votto at doing just that. Votto has led the National League in on-base percentage seven times. Only Ted Williams, Barry Bonds, Babe Ruth, and Rogers Hornsby have led the league more often, and they just happen to be four of the top-20 players ever. Votto is the active leader in on-base percentage and is second among active players in career walks trailing only Albert Pujols. Votto won the NL MVP in 2010 while also finishing 2nd in 2017 and 3rd in 2015. Votto will not end up reaching the celebrated statistical milestones that have become synonymous with Hall-of-Fame resumes, but it is hard to imagine a player leading the league in on-base percentage seven times and not being one of the 100 greatest players. Hopefully, Hall of Fame voters will show more respect to Votto than they did to Johan Santana’s similarly underappreciated profile.
Coming in at #97, is Ichiro Suzuki, or simply Ichiro. The sweet-swinging savant from Japan got a late start to his Major League career after spending nine seasons tearing up the Japan Pacific League. His career in the U.S. started in earnest in 2001 at the age of 27 when he signed with the Seattle Mariners. Ichiro hit the ground running, literally, as he tallied 242 hits and 56 stolen bases in his rookie season on his way to winning the AL MVP. In only his first season Ichiro became the first player to reach 240 hits and 55 stolen bases in a single season since Ty Cobb in 1911. Three years later in 2004, Ichiro tallied 262 hits breaking George Sisler’s single season hits record that had stood for 84 years. That was just the beginning of Ichiro’s assault on the record books. He holds the record for most consecutive seasons leading the league in hits. He also holds the record for most 200 hit seasons, most consecutive 200 hit seasons, and most 200 hit seasons to start a career. Ichiro was also a standout right fielder as he holds the 3rd highest fielding percentage of any right fielder in Major league baseball history. Had he started his career in the states, it’s not hard to imagine Ichiro as the Hit King in place of Pete Rose. In addition to his 3089 hits in MLB, he also had 1,278 hits in Japan. His combined total of 4,367 professional hits, puts him 111 ahead of Pete Rose’s historic mark.
Coming in at #98 on the list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players of All-Time is Hall of Fame Catcher Gary Carter. Carter was an 11-time All-Star who starred for the Montreal Expos and New York Mets over a 19-year career. Nicknamed “The Kid,” Carter helped lead the ’86 Mets to 108 wins—tied for the 3rd highest total since 1969—and a World Series Championship. Carter is 2nd All-Time in WAR among catchers behind only the great Johnny Bench. No catcher in MLB history has finished in the top-10 in WAR more than Carter (8). Among catchers, Carter is in the top ten all-time in runs, hits, home runs, and RBIs. He finished in the top-6 of the MVP voting four times including a 2nd place finish for Montreal in 1980 and a 3rd place finish for the Mets in 1986.
While Carter is unquestionably one of the greatest offensive catchers in MLB history, he was an even better defensive catcher. He led the NL in games played among catchers six times, putouts among catchers eight times, assists among catchers five times, double plays turned as a catcher five times, and thrown out baserunners three times. It is that last fact that summons the old adage that “a picture is worth a thousand words.”
Yep, that’s Gary Carter with 23 dapper fellas born in the 1800s. Carter threw out 810 stolen base attempts during his career which is by far the highest total for a catcher since the dead-ball era. Few catchers in the history of the game have matched Carter’s offensive/defensive mix, durability, and longevity.
Hitting the list at #99 is Edgar Martinez. In order for a player who spent most of his career NOT playing defense to rate among the top 100 baseball players of all-time, the hitting tool must be something special and Martinez’s was just that. Since 1960, few hitters have been as productive. Over that time frame, he has the 5th highest on-base percentage, 10th highest OPS+, and 11th highest batting average. Martinez was truly a jack of all trades with the bat. You name the statistic, he led the league in it including runs, RBIs, doubles, batting average, on-base percentage, OPS, OPS+, times on base, Offensive WAR, and runs created. He led the league in on-base percentage three times along with a remarkable 10 top-five finishes. He also picked up two batting crowns and finished among the top 10 in batting average seven times. Martinez is the only player in MLB history to have back-to-back seasons of 100 RBIs, 100 Runs, 100 BBs, and 50 doubles. He also accomplished the elusive positive career BB-to-K ratio, becoming only the 19th player in MLB history to have 1,200 RBIs, 1,200 Runs, and 1,200 Walks with a positive BB-to-K strikeout ratio.
Starting us off at #100 is Hells Bells Trevor Hoffman. Hoffman is the greatest closer in National League history and the second greatest closer of all time. If it weren’t for Mariano Rivera, Hoffman would be the gold standard by which all closers are measured. His 601 career saves are second all-time and a remarkable 123 saves ahead of Lee Smith for 3rd place. For perspective, the gap between Hoffman and Smith is greater than the gap between Smith and the 11th spot. Hoffman led the National League in saves twice and finished runner-up five times. Even more impressive is the fact that Hoffman finished in the top 10 in saves in the National League 15 times. Hoffman twice finished runner-up in Cy Young voting including in 1998 when he lost out to Tom Glavine in one of the closest results in Cy Young voting history. In fact, Hoffman actually got more first-place votes than Glavine. History repeated itself as Hoffman again just missed out in 2006 nearly equaling Brandon Webb’s first-place vote total. Hoffman’s Adjusted ERA+ of 141 is the 15th best mark by a pitcher in Major League Baseball history.
It would be easy to look at the offensive explosion in the NBA over the last five years and call into question player attitudes towards defense. Since defending is equal parts technique and effort, it stands to reason that a significant increase in scoring would be a reflection of defensive effort. Interestingly, this is one of the few times where logic lets us down. While it is technically true that defenses are performing worse (i.e., allowing more points), it turns out that defensive effort is either an insignificant factor or not a factor at all. A fancy tool we have at our disposal to help illuminate this is shot distribution by distance. The offensive uptick in the NBA has paradoxically coincided with NBA players attempting more difficult shots instead of fewer. We can hardly blame NBA defenses for this unexpected development. To get a better idea of the root cause(s) of the NBA’s pinball point totals, let’s take a look at some surprising trends.
Up first on our to-do list is to separate the signal from the noise. Scoring is up in the NBA, and it’s up big-time. In the 2011-2012 NBA season, teams averaged 96.3 points per game. That number has skyrocketed to over 112 points per game today. It’s important to note that pace—or the number of possessions per game—has also increased significantly, which would naturally lead to an increase in scoring even if the league-average field goal percentage remained steady. More possessions=more points.
NBA teams are averaging 8.2 more possessions per game in 2021 than in 2012. Assuming a conservative 1.08 points per possession, that gives us 8.64 more points per game from the increase in pace alone. The 8.64-point increase only represents 55% of the 15.7-point overall points per game increase since 2012. Where is the rest coming from?
Those of us who have spent hours (or thousands of hours) playing 3-on-3 at the local gym know that layups and 3s keep you on the court. The mid-range game is your ticket to a 45-minute wait in the crowded queue of gym rats and weekend warriors. That has been a way of life in pick-up basketball long before Allen Iverson made it cool to clank the iron. The layups or 3s approach is pretty easy to explain using some nifty 6th-grade math. The league average shooting percentage in the NBA for a long-two (beyond 16 feet) is around 40%, or .8 points per possession (40% x 2 possible points). The league average shooting percentage in the NBA for 3-pointers and layups is 38% and 67%, respectively, resulting in 1.14 (38% x 3 possible points) and 1.34 (67% x 2 possible points) points per possession. The math confirms that three-pointers and layups are the way to go.
Curiously, the NBA seemed oblivious to this remedial math lesson for more than 60 years, instead opting to canonize the mid-range jumper. Many seasons and many inefficient players later, the layups or 3s philosophy finally hit the NBA within the last decade, spreading like wildfire. In just 10-seasons, three-point attempts have gone up an unbelievable 74%. Over the same period, long-twos have gone down 64%, currently representing only 7% of total shot attempts as the league has started to view them as the reckless gambles they are.
While the increase in 3-point shot attempts alone would be enough to increase points per possession, something unexpected happened along the way that has accelerated the increase even more. NBA players didn’t just start taking more 3-point shots, they started making them more often. In 2011-12, when 22.6% of total shot attempts were 3-pointers, the leaguewide 3-point shooting percentage was 34.9%. In 2020-21, 3-pointers are accounting for 39.4% of shot attempts, while the league average 3-point shooting percentage has increased to an astounding 36.8%. The upticks in both three-point attempts and three-point shooting percentage have combined to produce the five highest league average Points Per Possession seasons of all-time in just the last five years, culminating in 2021’s bonkers mark of 1.12.
With all due respect to the Showtime 80s, this quicker-paced, more efficient style of play has arguably produced the most exciting brand of basketball the NBA has ever seen. The byproduct of that development is that playing defense in the NBA—and accumulating defensive stats—has never been more challenging. The layups or 3s offensive approach has had a massive trickle-down effect on several counting statistics that we’ve historically leaned on to measure defensive impact. Here are some examples:
- With more attempts coming from behind the arc, fewer shots are closely-contested, causing block shots to plummet. The five fewest Block Shots Per 100 possessions seasons in NBA history have come in the last five years.
- With more attempts coming from behind the arc and coming sooner in the shot clock, the number of overall passes and the number of “risky” passes (passes made in traffic inside the arc) are down, causing steals to drop significantly. The three fewest Steals Per 100 Possessions seasons in NBA history have come in the last three years.
- With more attempts coming from behind the arc and three-point shooting percentage rising, defensive eFG% allowed has skyrocketed. The seven highest eFG% seasons have all come in the last seven years.
- The increase in pace and opponent eFG% has caused teams to emphasize getting back on defense as quickly as possible to avoid giving up transition opportunities, abandoning the pursuit of offensive rebounds in the process. The four lowest Offensive Rebounding % seasons have all come in the last four years.
- NBA defenders have historically benefited from having the option to foul an opponent before allowing a high-percentage attempt close to the basket, artificially limiting points per possession. That option simply doesn’t exist when defending a 3-point shooter. With more shot attempts coming from behind the arc, fewer attempts are coming near the basket where most fouls occur, causing fouls to drop. The five fewest Fouls Per 100 Possessions seasons in NBA history have all come in the last five years.
As increases in offensive efficiency and pace have put more pressure on defenses, we’ve seen steals, blocks, offensive rebounding, and fouls per 100 possessions plunge. Since raw inter-era per-game and per-possession comparisons of these statistics offer little value, we need to find a better way to compare present-day defenders to their predecessors. Any inter-era player comparison needs to consider two factors: 1) degree of difficulty (or strength of the league) and 2) performance relative to peers. Since modern defenders face the highest degree of difficulty in NBA history, we can use performance relative to peers without limitation. Let’s look at how an elite modern defender compares to elite defenders from different eras using performance relative to the league average.
Rudy Gobert is the premier defensive center in the NBA today. He is a two-time Defensive Player of the Year winner, a four-time 1st Team All-Defensive selection, the active leader in Block % and is on pace to become the active leader in Defensive Rating. Unsurprisingly, Gobert’s per game marks are underwhelming compared to centers from eras with more action inside the three-point line. Fortunately, we can lean on performance relative to peers to provide a more fair comparison.
The only player in NBA history who has performed better relative to the league average than Gobert is David Robinson. Skyrocketing field goal percentages, an increased pace, and globalization that has produced superstars like Giannis, Nikola Jokic, and Luka Doncic, make Gobert’s NBA competition significantly more challenging than what Robinson faced. Gobert is only 28 and currently having his best defensive season yet relative to the league average, so it’s not hyperbole to suggest that Gobert is on his way to becoming one of the greatest—if not the greatest—defensive centers of all-time. Longevity matters, of course, but after eight seasons, Gobert couldn’t be off to a better start. If we merely focused on raw Defensive Rating in our comparison, then Robinson would win in a landslide. Robinson’s ten best seasons according to Defensive Rating are better than any season Gobert has ever had. It’s only when we remove pace from the equation and make the comparison using performance relative to the league average that we get a true measure of Gobert’s contributions.
While the NBA may have been slow to adapt, the focus on points per possession is not a recent phenomenon. Dean Smith incorporated it into his offensive philosophy as early as the 1960s, while another Dean—Dean Oliver—brought the terminology into our everyday vernacular with his focus on points per 100 possessions or, as he calls it, Offensive Rating (ORtg). As players, coaches, and front offices have adopted points per possession as a crucial metric, the efficiency—or inefficiency—of shot selection has never been more scrutinized. In turn, we need to make sure we’re understanding the defensive ramifications of this philosophical shift, or we are destined to underrate modern defenders and potentially miss out on historical greatness right in front of our eyes.
A decade ago, if we squinted hard enough and tilted our heads far enough, we could see a scenario where a talented 25-year-old Alexander Ovechkin already averaging 50-goals per year challenges Wayne Gretzky’s silly career goals record. With each passing season, our squint steadily relented to the point that entering the 2019 NHL season, the buzz had changed from if Ovi would do it to when. Then COVID-19 hit.
Although the pandemic has produced far worse effects than impacting athletic achievement, our little insignificant world of sports was turned upside down, nonetheless. Many of the impacts have been well-documented including the never-to-be March Madness 2020, the delayed Tokyo Olympics, two-thirds of the MLB season, and home-field advantage in every spectator sport. The macro impact has received most of our attention, but the micro impact is real, and it could be more punitive than we imagined.
While LeBron got the fully intact NBA playoff season he badly needed for his legacy, it is the truncated 2020 and 2021 NHL regular seasons that could prove troublesome for Ovechkin. When Rudy Gobert’s test heard round the world brought social life to a screeching halt, Ovechkin was 188 goals shy of The Great One’s record. The NHL was forced to cancel the last 13 games of Washington’s 2020 regular season and then implemented a 56-game regular season for 2020, resulting in 39 total games that Ovechkin will not get back. That might not sound too problematic, but, at 35, time is Ovi’s nemesis.
On March 12, 2020—the day the outbreak went viral (in the pop-culture sense)—Ovechkin was on pace to eclipse Gretzky by the 50th game of the 2024 regular season. When we add in the 39 deleted 2020 games, the post-Covid projection date moves to the 7th game of the 2025 season.
The impact of those 39 games can’t be understated. They are the difference between Ovechkin needing to play 19 and 20 seasons for glory. We are being a little generous with our projection since it assumes Ovechkin continues to score at his career .61 career goals per game rate. That’s probably too optimistic as he approaches 40. As it turns out, we have two pretty good careers to model what we can reasonably expect from Ovi moving forward. Gordie Howe and Brett Hull—#2 and #4 on the all-time goals list—both saw a 20% reduction in their goals per game rates after age 35. If we apply this to our projections, the clock starts ticking even faster.
With the more reasonable goals per game rate, our pre-COVID-19 projection would’ve given us the 45th game of the 2025 regular season. That jumps to the 2nd game of the 2026 regular season after factoring in the missed 39 games. Ovechkin has already missed four games in 2021 due to COVID-19 protocols, pushing our projection date to the 6th game of the 2026 regular season.
Regardless of the goals per game rate we use, we see the pandemic moving the projection date to the next regular season. With a 20% reduction in scoring rate, Ovi would need to play until he’s 41. Whether he chooses to play until he’s 41 is one thing; whether he’s capable of playing that long is another story. Hull was cruising at a respectable .39 goals per game at age 39 and seemed poised to make a run at Howe for 2nd all-time. When he returned after the 2004 lockout, he lasted five scoreless games before abruptly retiring. No matter how much we’re convinced that this party is different than all the others, it always ends, and it always ends the same: quickly and unforgivingly.
Fortunately, modern advancements in technology and training may save us yet. Tom Brady just won his 7th Super Bowl and 5th Super Bowl MVP at the infantile age of 43, with no sign of slowing down. It also doesn’t hurt that Ovi’s size and skill set should help stem the effects of aging—at least for a little while. Ultimately, this could end up becoming a case of motivation. When a player reaches the point of diminishing returns, one more season might as well be 10. We only need to listen to the words of Dirk Nowitzki and David Ortiz to understand this. Both willingly retired despite productive final seasons. If Ovi is content with waging a battle of attrition against time, we can start making DC hotel reservations for the second week of October 2026. Otherwise, Gretzky’s mark will end up being the rare thing actually preserved by COVID.
- Players aren’t eligible until they’ve played five seasons.
- PEDs are NOT factored in. Here’s why.
- Baseball100 is limited to MLB. Here’s why.
- Hockey100 is limited to the NHL. Here’s why.
- Wrestling100 has a U.S. and Canada promotion emphasis. Here’s why.
- Rankings for active players are where they’d stand if their careers ended today.
- Updates for active athletes in baseball, basketball, football, and hockey will occur at the end of each season.
- Updates for active mixed martial artists and professional wrestlers will occur on a rolling basis as events dictate.
- Updates for ALL retired athletes will occur when new perspectives emerge.
- Honorable mention length is based on the total number of athletes who have participated in the sport.
- The timeline for lineal GOATS begins the years that MLB, NBA, NFL, NHL, and UFC were founded.
- If you want to suggest an adjustment in the rankings, comment on the post, hit me up on Twitter: https://twitter.com/The100Greatest, or email me at Jake.The100Greatest@gmail.com
- The persuasiveness of your suggestion goes up by a factor of a billion if you still feel good about it after reading the content in the “About” section and “Making the Cut” for that specific sport.
- These lists will never be “right,” but the aim is to keep getting closer to right.
The Next 100
|Adrian Adonis||John Morrison|
|Ole Anderson||Ricky Morton|
|Tony Atlas||Don Muraco|
|The Big Boss Man||Dick Murdoch|
|Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake||The Great Muta|
|Jerry Blackwell||Shinsuke Nakamura|
|Freddie Blassie||One Man Gang|
|Dino Bravo||Bob Orton|
|Bobo Brazil||Kevin Owens|
|King Kong Bundy||Ken Patera|
|Edouard Carpentier||Pat Patterson|
|Carlos Colon||Ivan Putski|
|Shane Douglas||Baron von Raschke|
|Bubba Ray Dudley||Raven|
|“Hacksaw” Jim Duggan||William Regal|
|Bill Eadie||Alberto Del Rio|
|David Von Erich||Road Dogg|
|Mr. Fuji||Road Warrior Animal|
|Ronnie Garvin||Billy Robinson|
|Robert Gibson||Antonino Rocca|
|Eddie Gilbert||Mike Rotunda|
|Eddie Graham||Tito Santana|
|Juventud Guerrera||Ken Shamrock|
|Chavo Guerrero Jr.||Sheamus|
|Haku||George “The Animal” Steele|
|Matt Hardy||Chief Jay Strongbow|
|Larry Hennig||Braun Strowman|
|Mark Henry||Big John Studd|
|Gino Hernandez||Kevin Sullivan|
|The Honky Tonk Man||Taz|
|The Iron Sheik||Ultimo Dragon|
|Jeff Jarrett||Mad Dog Vachon|
|Rocky Johnson||Greg “the Hammer” Valentine|
|Steve Keirn||Jesse “The Body” Ventura|
|Ivan Koloff||Nikolai Volkoff|
|Ernie Ladd||Whipper Billy Watson|
|Stan Lane||Dr. Death Steve Williams|
|Blackjack Lanza||Barry Windham|
|Jushin Liger||X Pac|
|Dean Malenko||Sami Zayn|
|The Great Malenko||Dolph Ziggler|
|Mil Mascaras||Larry Zybysko|
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.