The 1990s was without doubt the best period ever for professional wrestling. It was one of the few periods where there was strong competition that encouraged promotions to put on the best wrestling product possible. At its peak, you had four or five promotions that put on regular wrestling programming, and each one of them offered something different.
First, you had WWF/E, which transitioned from the cheesy cartoon-like gimmicks to the Attitude Era, which birthed several bona fide wrestling legends and brought pro wrestling to the mainstream in a major way. Then, you had WCW, the Ted Turner-financed promotion that fought tooth-and-nail with WWE for ratings supremacy and had its own share of memorable feuds, wrestlers and matches. Then there was also ECW, an upstart hardcore promotion that emphasized realism and boundary pushing in wrestling like no one before it.
Across the ocean, wrestling was alive and well in Japan, with a bitter ratings war going on between New Japan Pro Wrestling and All Japan Pro Wrestling. New Japan was your top pick if you liked fast-paced cruiserweight wrestling and excellent submission wrestlers. All Japan, meanwhile, was host to some of the best wrestling in history, with many 5-star classics taking place in Giant Baba’s ring. All in all, it was a fantastic time to be a wrestling fan.
Fast forward to 2016, and A LOT has happened. The landscape of pro wrestling has changed significantly, with both WCW and ECW having gone out of business. AJPW has endured two massive talent exoduses and NJPW underwent a dark period following the failed ‘Inokism’ experiment.
While a lot has happened to the wrestling promotions that dominated in the 1990s, even more has happened to the wrestlers themselves that main-evented during this period.Here’s a look at where 20 top wrestlers of the 1990s are now.
20. Manami Toyota
During the first half of the 1990s, All Japan Women’s Pro Wrestling hosted some of the most outstanding matches in the world. At the helm of this fantastic wrestling promotion was Manami Toyota, the greatest women’s wrestler of all time.
Toyota could literally do anything and everything in the ring. She could hit hard, execute pretty much any kind of maneuver, fly like a cruiserweight, lift like a heavyweight, and execute submissions like a true amateur wrestler. She was the female Shawn Michaels in almost every way.
Where is she now: Joshi wrestling in Japan took a hit in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as the sport seemed to have lost its luster. Many wrestlers, including Toyota, didn’t have much to do during the 2000s, so her appearances have been sparse.
Her most recent high-profile appearances were one at Chikara, where she wrestled in a tag team match with and fought against male wrestlers; and one in 2012, where she wrestled all five matches on a show dedicated to the 25th anniversary of her debut.
19. Toshiaki Kawada
Kawada was the most dangerous striker in Japan in his prime. There was a very real sense of danger when he wrestled, because he hit his opponents with such force that you’d think he was actually trying to injure his opponents legitimately.
Like his perpetual rival Misawa, Kawada has won numerous awards and championships throughout his stellar career, including taking part in two of the best matches in AJPW history: his singles match against Misawa on June 3rd, 1994, and a tag team match involving himself and Akira Taue against Misawa and Kenta Kobashi on June 6th, 1995.
Where he is now: Although he hasn’t announced a formal retirement, Kawada has not wrestled a match since August 2010. He has mentioned that the death of his friend Misawa has changed his feelings for wrestling, to a point where he refuses to enter a ring for any of his former colleagues’ retirement matches.
Outside of wrestling, Kawada now owns a noodle shop in Setagaya, Tokyo, which is where he spends most of his time these days. A far cry from the man who was once the most feared striker in all of Japan.
18. Triple H
Though he wasn’t as big a star as others on this list, Triple H played an important role in shaping the wrestling landscape in the 1990s. After his Connecticut Blueblood gimmick flopped, he became an anti-authority degenerate alongside Shawn Michaels.
Backstage, HHH was one of the voices that pushed for edgier programming and stories, and played a critical role in weakening kayfabe with the Curtain Call incident. As a wrestler, HHH wouldn’t reach his peak until late 1999/early 2000, as he was very much an upper-midcard guy.
Where he is now: over the past few years, Triple H has undergone a massive transformation. He has gone from having a reputation for burying other wrestlers he has perceived as a threat to his top spot on RAW (such as Rob Van Dam, Kane and Chris Jericho) to being the godfather of a new NXT.
He has embraced a new attitude towards WWE’s future while running a developmental brand that, in many respects, is what WWE ought to be.This is where he spends most of his time these days. That said, he does make sporadic appearances on the main shows, most recently in a match for the vacated WWE Universal Championship.
17. Jim Ross
Jim Ross was the voice of pro wrestling for over a decade. This southern commentator infused a degree of realism and emotion into each match, which further made each contest feel important. He was capable of really convincing fans to invest in the matches he was watching, while using diplomatic language to describe less-than-stellar matches (read: “bowling shoe ugly”).
Ross’s WWE tenure hasn’t always been positive, though. He was often a target of mockery and bullying from WWE higher-ups, especially regarding his Bell’s Palsy. But no matter how much he was tormented, he stayed loyal to WWE, holding his head up high and taking the abuse.
Where is he now: His WWE tenure came to an end in 2014, after Ross decided to spend more time with his family and to pursue other ventures. He still runs his own blog, JR’s BBQ, on which he discussed wrestling-related topics, and also promotes his line of BBQ sauce. His most recent commentating role was at NJPW’s Wrestle Kingdom 9, where he did a spectacular job of bringing the Japanese product to an audience that was hindered previously by a major language barrier.
16. Jim Cornette
Jim Cornette has been an interesting figure in pro wrestling. He was a well-known manager throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and served as a booking figure in WWE during the 1990s. Some might not consider him to be that big of a ‘star’ in the 1990s, but his presence on the internet has made him something of a cult figure in the online wrestling fandom.
Where is he now: Cornette spent over a decade in WWE working various positions until he was released from their OVW developmental territory. He has since become an internet sensation of sorts with his hysterical shoot promos, which eventually led to many other ex-WWE employees following suit.
Cornette has become one of the best and most entertaining of these ‘shooters’, discussing nonsensical storylines and creative ideas in wrestling through colorful language. He also has his own website, where you can buy T-shirts with his famous ‘Cornette Face’ on them, allowing many fans to use their clothing to express their perplexity at the nonsense that can be found in today’s wrestling.
15. Hulk Hogan
Although he had reached his peak in popularity in the 1980s with WWE’s first Golden Era, Hogan still enjoyed incredible success during the 1990s. Hogan wrestled in both WWE and WCW, and was world champion in both promotions. He also played a critical role in turning the tides of the Monday Night Wars with the New World Order, as he had turned heel for the first time in almost a decade.
Where is he now: Hogan hasn’t been mentioned by WWE since last summer, but has been in the public eye nonetheless. He has been in an ongoing lawsuit against Gawker for them publishing a sex tape of his, as well as revealing a conversation in which he used multiple racial slurs. WWE blacklisted him in response to these revelations, and he has been all but ignored in many ways by the company.
Recently, he has won his lawsuit against Gawker and has obtained $31 million from that company. With the heat of his comments dying down, WWE has used his voice and image in some of their commercials and network programming. Maybe seeing him again in WWE might not be so unlikely in the near future.
14. Kenta Kobashi
As the youngest of All Japan’s fabled ‘Four Pillars of Heaven’, Kobashi had a lot to learn when working with fellow legends Misawa, Kawada and Taue. But his inexperience was counterbalanced with an impressive versatility and storytelling ability, which was combined with an undying fighting spirit.
Indeed, Kobashi was appropriately dubbed ‘the perfect wrestler’ by Tokyo Sports in 2000, after putting on almost twenty 5-Star matches between 1990 and 1999.
Where he is now: Kobashi retired in 2013 after a 25-year career. He spent many of his later years on the shelf with serious injuries, some of which have damaged the long-term function of his body parts. He wrestled his last match at a special event dedicated to his retirement, titled Final Burning in Bukodan. That event sold out in hours and was the largest crowd NOAH in years.
Kobashi has enjoyed retirement from in-ring competition, but has made sporadic appearances here and there for the promotion. He has also enjoyed married life to his girlfriend of many years, and discusses some wrestling issues on his Twitter on occasion.
13. ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage
The Macho Man was, and still is, one of the most revered wrestlers of all time. He was a fantastic wrestler that oozed charisma. He took part in many fantastic moments and stories, including his excellent match with Ricky ‘the Dragon’ Steamboat at WrestleMania III. He exemplified 1980s wrestling with his look and voice, but didn’t really personify the profession’s negative qualities.
Where is he now: Randy Savage didn’t end the 20th century on much of a high note. He left WWE under very adverse circumstances, with the biggest rumor that’s still swirling suggesting an inappropriate relationship between Savage and Stephanie McMahon. He didn’t do much wrestling for many years and kept a low profile.
Then, tragedy struck on May 20, 2011, when the Macho Man was killed in a car accident. It was a major loss for WWE and for wrestling fans everywhere, but he was still immortalized by finally getting inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, Class of 2015.
12. Big Van Vader
Vader was one of the most agile big men to ever wrestle. Weighing over 400lbs., Vader was amazingly quick on his feet. This was a super-heavyweight that was capable of executing a Moonsault off the top rope, and doing splashes like someone half his size. He was also known for being notoriously stiff and tough, owing to his work in Japan. Vader became famous for having his eye torn from his socket during a match with Stan Hansen and continuing the match as if nothing happened.
Unfortunately, Vader wasn’t used correctly in WWE. He was a victim to backstage politics at the time, which crippled his main event push. After a few years in WWE, Vader returned to Japan, this time to All Japan, where he enjoyed a great run as Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion.
Where is he now: Vader hasn’t stayed too far away from wrestling. Despite being more than 60 years old, Vader still wrestles on occasion, with his most recent match being with XWA Wrestling on August 14th, 2016. Vader was also the person to induct Stan Hansen into the WWE Hall of Fame, Class of 2016.
It was during his introductory speech for Hansen that he ‘illustrated’ just how Hansen nearly tore his eye out. It was a funny, albeit somewhat morbid, description of the kinds of things Vader put his body through during his career.
11. Ric Flair
Often cited as the greatest wrestler of all time, Flair didn’t let something like age stop him from continuing to wrestle. He wrestled for both WWE and WCW, winning the world title in both promotions and remaining a top guy even when he wasn’t champion. He took part in many big matches against the likes of Bret Hart, the NWO, and even wrestled against Antonio Inoki at Collision in Korea in front of 190,000 North Koreans.
Where is he now: Flair has had a major attachment to wrestling and some have argued that he is reluctant to let go of it. He had a major retirement in 2008, and shortly thereafter, appeared in TNA and acted as both a manager and as a wrestler, even though he was long past his prime for the latter.
After that stint came to an end, he returned to WWE for a second Hall of Fame induction, becoming the first and only double inductee thus far. Most recently, he has played the role of his daughter Charlotte’s manager, while joining a host of other wrestlers by starting his own podcast.
10. Mick Foley
Mick Foley was the best brawler of the 2000s. Whether he was wrestling as Cactus Jack, Mankind or Dude Love, Foley was a fantastic brawler and storyteller that told spectacular stories. He became more famous for his seeming indestructibility. The amount of injuries he suffered in that Hell in a Cell match at KORT 1998 alone certified him as ‘the Hardcore Legend’, and served as a catalyst for his main event ascension.
Where is he now: Foley has never been too far away from wrestling. He spent a few years away from WWE during the mid-2000s, before becoming a regular in TNA for a few years. He has since become a regular character on WWE programming, both as the on-screen Commissioner of Monday Night RAW and as a character on his own WWE Network show, Holy Foley, which covers his life as a father and husband.
During the latter half of the 1990s, WCW decided to take one guy they had on their roster and strapped a rocket to his ass. That guy was Bill Goldberg, an ex-football player that looked badass and backed up his soft-spoken nature with a simple-yet-savage move-set.
He demonstrated incredible strength on several occasions, including delivering a Jackhammer on the Giant. He plowed through his opponents with the most devastating version of the Spear ever executed. He threw his opponents around like rag dolls, which led to fans adoring his simple squash matches and growing undefeated streak.
Where is he now: Goldberg wasn’t signed by WWE until 2003, and worked there for 1 year. After that run ended in disappointment, Goldberg stayed away from wrestling for over a decade. Speculation rose that Goldberg would sign with WWE on several occasions, especially when his likeness was used in promotional videos for WWE video games.
Now, after months of speculation, Goldberg made his return to WWE after 12 years and accepted Brock Lesnar’s challenge for a match at Survivor Series. Whether Goldberg will stay with WWE in any capacity after the match takes place remains to be seen.
8. Mitsuharu Misawa
From 1990 until well into the year 2000, All Japan Pro Wrestling hosted the best wrestling matches ever seen, period. And leading the charge of these fantastic matches was none other than the Emerald Emperor himself, Mitsuharu Misawa.
Misawa was an outstanding wrestler in his prime. He had all the tools of a top guy: excellent technical skill, strength, unbelievable toughness, and perfect timing. He was a superhero to AJPW’s fans, and to many viewers from around the world, some kind of unearthly wrestling god that could take inhuman amounts of punishment.
His list of accomplishments is further proof of how good of a wrestler he was: 5-time AJPW Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion, 9-time tag team champion, and 25 of his 26 5-Star wrestling matches took place during the 1990s.
Where is he now: Misawa was such a big star primarily due to his toughness. He took sickening bumps over the years, which took their toll on his body, especially on his neck. Due to NOAH’s financial problems in the latter half of the 2000s, he was unable to retire and had to wrestle a full schedule, even though he needed to retire desperately.
That reluctance to retire cost him his life, as he died in the ring on June 13th, 2009, after taking a Back Suplex from Akitoshi Saito. This was a devastating loss to both Pro Wrestling NOAH and Japanese pro wrestling in general, as Misawa was the embodiment of Puroresu in many ways to many people.
7. Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger
Jushin Liger is to cruiserweight wrestling what Hulk Hogan was to wrestling in general in the 1980s: a beloved superhero that broke boundaries and brought his craft to the mainstream. Liger was the first cruiserweight wrestler to become a top draw in Japan without being a heavyweight star.
Given his accomplishments, title history, and reputation among top wrestlers that followed in his footsteps, he’s likely to be remembered for decades to come.
Where is he now: Although a lot has been said about Liger’s technical skill and experience, less has been mentioned of his toughness. Liger still wrestles despite being over 50-years-old and having spent over thirty years in a wrestling ring.
He has claimed in interviews that he plans on wrestling until he reaches a point where he feels that he can no longer work a good match with someone. These days, Liger spends most of his time wrestling in tag team matches, either with lower-card comedy characters (like ROH’s Cheeseburger), or with other NJPW veterans.
His most high-profile appearance recently was a one-time match in NXT against Tyler Breeze. In the lead-up to that match, many wrestlers that had performed in Japan spoke of Liger as if he was some kind of wrestling deity. Given what he has done and how he seems to keep going without end, that might not be as farfetched as you might think.
6. The Great Muta
Those who remember the Great Muta remember him as one of the greatest wrestlers to never step into a WWE ring. He was a NJPW mainstay that made frequent trips to WCW over the years, putting on fantastic matches with top American wrestlers like Sting, Vader and Steve Austin.
Where is he now: Muta’s post WCW career was very interesting. Instead of retiring, as most people expected him to, Keiji Mutoh reinvented himself and invented the Shining Wizard.
He went on to enjoy another great decade of wrestling, and became president of All Japan Pro Wrestling in 2002. He then launched the Pro Wrestling Love Era, which led to some never-before-seen dream matches between Japan’s big three promotions: All Japan, New Japan and Pro Wrestling NOAH.
5. Bret Hart
Bret Hart spent the 1990s experiencing the highest of highs and lowest of lows. He was a 5-time WWE Champion, main-evented WrestleMania, was a major draw for WWE around the world, and was widely praised as one of, if not the best wrestler alive at that point.
He also had to deal with major family disasters (especially regarding his brother Owen), numerous backstage conflicts with Shawn Michaels and Vince McMahon (which culminated in the Montreal Screwjob) and three years of working with WCW that barely amounted to anything. It truly was a seesaw decade for the Hitman.
Where is he now: Bret stayed away from WWE in a major way for many years after his career ended in 2000. He was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2006, and has made sporadic appearances since, with his most recent being with his niece Natalya at Payback 2016.
He has become a vocal critic of both Triple H and Seth Rollins, the former for his perceived lack of skill and the latter for his alleged danger in the ring. Hart is also a cancer survivor, having been diagnosed with prostate cancer in early 2016.
Throughout the 1990s, Sting defined WCW. He was a solid worker and a certified crowd favorite. Whether he was the surfer or the crow, the fans loved him for his charisma, work ethic, and fantastic matches.
In 2001, WCW closed, leaving Sting’s wrestling future uncertain. He popped up in World Wrestling All-Stars for a while, before spending about a decade in TNA. It seemed like he was doing whatever he could to avoid signing with WWE, out of fear that his reputation would be tarnished like that of Diamond Dallas Page.
Where is he now: Sting actually did sign with WWE in 2014, and entered into a major feud with Triple H. The two of them wrestled in a glorified nostalgia match at WrestleMania 31, which ended with HHH winning.
Sting then wrestled in a World Title match against then-champion Seth Rollins at Night of Champions, which ended up being his final match. He took Rollins’ Buckle Bomb badly, leading to spinal stenosis. He has since retired from pro wrestling, but in all likelihood enjoys the huge royalty checks he must get from WWE for using his likeness in their videos and special programs.
3. The Rock
In 1996, Rocky Maivia was a white-meat babyface that smiled a lot and was pushed to the moon. He was booed vociferously by the crowd and rejected at every turn. Twenty years later, WWE have attempted to replicate this babyface run with Roman Reigns, yet they are surprised that Reigns isn’t getting the same reactions that Rocky did.
The big difference here is that Rocky reacted to the boos by making a complete 180 and turning heel. He started speaking to himself in the 3rd person and mocked every single person in WWE. This turned him into a beloved babyface star, the likes of which has yet to be seen again in WWE.
Where is he now: The Rock was a top WWE star for 3-4 years at most, before he began flirting with Hollywood. From his debut film The Scorpion King, Hollywood knew they had something special in Dwayne Johnson, and lured him away from the wrestling ring with fantastic offers.
Since the early 2000s, Rocky has been acting in various films, and despite the absurdity of a few of them (The Tooth Fairy, really?), Dwayne Johnson is the highest-paid actor in Hollywood. His most recent films tend to receive huge numbers when released, even by Hollywood standards.
2. ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin
Stone Cold reached his peak in the latter half of the 1990s, following a meteoric rise to superstardom. His rebellious anti-authority character resonated with people around the world, bringing WWE to a new level of pop culture relevance. Many people consider him to be the biggest wrestling superstar ever, or least the most financially-successful one.
Austin was at the top of the entire wrestling industry between 1996 and 2001 or so, and closed the 1990s as WWE’s #1 superstar. Although he was sidelined by surgery to repair his neck following a major injury, he returned in 2000 and retook his rightful spot in short order.
Where is he now: Austin retired from full-time wrestling in 2003, following the cumulative damage of years on the road and numerous injuries. He has appeared in a few films here and there since retiring from active competition, and has also made occasional in-ring appearances for WWE as well.
These days, Austin spends most of his time enjoying retirement, while also hosting the wildly popular ‘Stone Cold Podcast’ on a regular basis. Austin pulls no punches when asking tough questions, and many of his shows have been very illuminating. Definitely worth a watch/listen for those who haven’t done so already.
1. The Undertaker
The Undertaker debuted in WWE in 1990 and has become the most revered WWE superstar ever. He embarked on a legendary undefeated streak at WrestleMania and became a destructive force in WWE for many years. He has won numerous championships, took part in many memorable feuds, and despite significant injuries and massive wear and tear on his body, he kept going long after people were thinking he’d retire.
Where he is now: Amazingly, the Undertaker still wrestles at least once a year, despite being 50-years-old and having debuted in 1984. The Undertaker is a special attraction that WWE beings out every year, mainly for WrestleMania.
Outside of wrestling, Undertaker gets involved in different charities and spends more time with his family, all while maintaining kayfabe and rarely appearing in public out of character. His commitment to his character and to old school wrestling traditions is unmatched, which is a rarity in this age of breaking kayfabe and shoot promos.