This is a list that’s sure to cause some major discussion. Anyone who attempts to rank the greatest in professional wrestling faces that reaction. The challenge in trying to tackle such a list in the first place puts you in a position of having to judge things carefully, often trying to put your personal feelings and bias aside. It’s been done in various places with varying results; as Larry Matysik nicely put it in a book on this very topic, “common sense is not easy to come by in a venture like this.” You can poll fifty wrestling fans and each of their lists will vary a lot, which makes this topic all the more intriguing.
The key challenge is the criteria. It’s not just in-ring skill that matters; as Sam Muchnick, one of the most respected and revered promoters ever, summed up, a guy can be fantastic in the ring but can’t draw a dime. It’s trickier nowadays as many “best of” lists will act like wrestling only came to be in the 1980s, ignoring the great stars of the past. At the same time, you can’t overload it too much as, while those guys were great, they lacked the same flash and power that have made superstars out of today’s crop. Yes, some guys will always have gotten over but others belonged more in their time so you have to reflect that when picking out the top guys.
There’s also the international aspect. One major beef people have with Larry Matysik’s book is that he makes a huge deal about it being the 50 best ever but then completely omits anyone from Japan or Mexico, which instantly weakens the entire concept.
It’s still a huge challenge and this was a list constantly edited and worked upon. There will no doubt be arguments and outrage over those left off or the rankings but let’s face it, ending up listed among the “top 50” of thousands of men over history is just proof of how talented these guys are. So here we go with a ranking of the best the business has known and how each has helped shape wrestling into what we know today.
50. Rey Mysterio
The ineptitude of WCW can best be summarized by how, in 1998, they demanded Rey Mysterio unmask himself. For two years, Mysterio had gotten over with crowds with his fantastic work, helping put the Cruiserweight division on the map with feuds with Dean Malenko and his classic battles with Eddie Guerrero, showing off his flashy outfits to boot.
The unmasking hurt him badly but thankfully, WWE gave him a second chance by coming back with the mask in 2002. From there, Rey has become one of the biggest Latino stars in wrestling history as Cruiserweight, Tag Team and even World champion. Fans love cheering him on, with his masks being huge sellers. Rey feeds off the fan energy to spark up his battles, hitting the 619 as an impressive finisher.
He’s left WWE but still has stuff to show, as he’s one of the best high-flyers of his time, proving how size doesn’t always matter. “The biggest little man” becoming a winner is one of the best bits of stardom wrestling has ever seen.
49. Randy Orton
The rare case of the third generation being the best, Randy Orton showed from the start of his career that he had something special in him. That good skill in the ring was married to an arrogant persona that carried him well as a heel and paid off by becoming the youngest World champion ever. He was then hampered by a bad face turn and some poor storylines but his talent would end up getting him back on top as champion.
His ring work is great as he can carry a crowd along as the heel, living up to his “Viper” nickname with quick moves and sneak attacks (even as a face he gets over well with such tactics). Then there’s the RKO, one of the best finishers around, which would end up inspiring its own meme to take the Internet by storm.
Orton has tempered his infamous backstage behavior in recent years and proven himself as a main eventer and champion able to handle the biggest stars of the company today while still getting great reactions from fans. He’s paid his dues and now stands among the best. You can never predict where the Viper will hit next.
48. “Mr. Perfect” Curt Hennig
Always a good worker in the AWA, it took turning heel and becoming AWA champion for Curt Hennig to find his inner killer instinct. A brilliant wrestler, he mixed it up with sensational bumping to make himself look just vulnerable enough to seem ready to lose but then pull out the win.
He truly was the best choice for the “Mr. Perfect” gimmick, living up to it all with two good reigns as Intercontinental champion, highlighted by his battle against Bret Hart at SummerSlam ’91 – a true classic.
Hampered by injuries, he would make returns in WCW to show he still had it, winning over the fans with promos boasting of his greatness. His early death was a rough capper to his life of pranks and beefs but we remember Hennig as a man who truly did his best to make any bout he was in… perfect.
47. Dynamite Kid
Bret Hart aptly described the Dynamite Kid as the “Ty Cobb of wrestling”: absolutely brilliant inside the ring but a total jerk out of it. The Kid was infamous for his temper, “pranks” that bordered on criminal (like drugging a guy’s drink before he would go on a drive in Canada’s infamously icy roads) and a stiff worker who legitimately hurt several guys.
All that ignores the impact Dynamite had as he basically single-handedly saved Stampede Wrestling, wowing crowds with his abilities as a high-flying technician who could get down and dirty. His size made him an underdog, which paid off with him beating down bigger guys. His feud with Bret Hart was a highlight of the company and would carry him to great fame as he and Davey Boy Smith formed the British Bulldogs and quickly became the best tag team around.
Sadly, Dynamite’s severe back injury hampered him big-time as he was never the same afterward and would eventually end up living in a wheelchair. In his time, though, the man was a worker who rocked the wrestling world and truly lived up to his name.
46. Samoa Joe
Samoa Joe showed his stuff in his early ROH run with his classic battles against CM Punk that helped elevate both men. In TNA, he was pushed as an unbeatable monster, mostly silent but did his talking in the ring. A big man, he was a technical marvel who could be much faster and even take off the ropes if he had to, which fans responded to.
His feud with Kurt Angle wasn’t the dream battle hoped for but it still paid off in some terrific matches that proved Joe’s worth. He was hampered by some bad pushes at times but he can still show his talents from crushing guys to outwrestling them, a package few are able to handle.
Now in NXT, Joe is ready to prove himself in the big time and few can bet against him showing WWE just how great a wrestler he is, a monster technician with power and skill, a combination that easily places him among so many of the business’ best.
45. Bruiser Brody
A fantastic monster, Brody pushed himself as a wild man in wrestling but was actually a smart and articulate fellow outside it. He made no secret that he was in it for himself and understood wrestling was a business and he did it to his best. He would travel to just about every territory around and did huge in Japan.
A wild brawler who could stand up to almost anyone, Bruiser Brody was also a great promo man who drew crowds no matter where he wrestled. Stories are still told of his unique mannerisms, like carrying tins of food with him to eat from and while he didn’t do as much partying as others, he got into wild antics on the road.
Sadly, he was killed in a locker room fight in 1988, cutting short a fantastic career but just adding to his legend as one of the greatest acts wrestling has known, a brawler with heart who always fired up a territory by his very presence.
44. Gorgeous George
George Wagner was truly an innovator of wrestling, known as the man who basically helped push “sports entertainment.” He was the first to understand how television was going to change the business and adapted to it. Thus, he came out in robes with a butler holding the ropes for him, a gorgeous valet spraying perfume and pins in his golden locks: a star was born.
While not the best in-ring worker, his sheer presence and an act decades ahead of its time won him huge fame as well as being one of the first guys to blossom in promos (“win if you can, lose if you must but always cheat!”) and made him a true star of television’s Golden Age.
His fall was a bit sad but that should not at all take away from how George helped transform the entire wrestling world with his character, and that is a key reason he stands among the greats to rank among the best the business has known.
43. Daniel Bryan
He might have ranked higher if he hadn’t been held back by injuries, but Daniel Bryan has certainly showed his amazing prowess as a worker from ROH to NXT and caught on with fans. Even when WWE has tried to hold him back, Bryan’s talent pushes him on, inspiring everything from the wild tag team with Kane to the “YES” movement that would become a huge cultural event.
Bryan is fantastic in the ring, capable of working great battles with just about anybody, with the crowd reactions being among the biggest in WWE. Sadly, injuries have cut his presence down and may be ending his career much earlier than it should be. But Bryan should still be proud of how he became the classic case of a guy never meant for the main event who ended up walking out of Wrestlemania as champion to a huge ovation and popularity few can touch today.
42. Arn Anderson
“Double A” may be the most perfect mid-card performer of all time. That is not an insult in any way but rather a compliment to his skills. Maybe not the main event type, Anderson nonetheless fits in perfectly whether as TV champion or tag team champion with a variety of partners. He’s rugged and strong but able to hang with anyone, no matter the fight.
His time in the Four Horsemen helped push them to great success and his promos are among the absolute best in the business as he would matter-of-factly talk of how he could beat almost anyone. Anderson proved that with his ring work, performing one of the best Spinebusters in the entire business. His long years of success, mostly in WCW, made him one of the most dependable guys around and a key reason WCW was worth watching even in the darkest times.
41. Stan Hansen
He’s known off camera as basically a true raving lunatic but that shouldn’t take away from Stan Hansen’s amazing skills as a wrestler. In the U.S., he’s faced the likes of Bruno Sammartino in a wild feud and would have a reign as AWA World Champion as well. In Japan, he’s a living legend, embarking on some of the most brutal fights that nation has seen, bleeding buckets over the years and always killer on his promos (such as his infamous “I’ve got a big fat wife and nine kids to feed!” talk).
Indeed, in the 1980s, Hansen was making more money in Japan than most pro athletes of the time. He did things his own way, such as walking out on the AWA as champion and mailing them back the title belt after running it over with his truck. That wild attitude may not have made him many friends but his brutal style had won plenty of fans to put Hansen among the best.
40. A.J. Styles
If ever a man is properly nicknamed, it’s “The Phenomenal One.” After a brief run in WCW and then some time in ROH, A.J. Styles helped put TNA on the map with its X Division, pulling out sensational moves that wowed fans. Stronger than he looks, Styles can put on a technical show mixed with fantastic high flying, from his Spiral Tap to the Styles Clash. He was a key reason to tune in to TNA.
He’s held just about every belt in the company with a record number of X Division title runs, as well as having participated in some of the greatest bouts in TNA’s history. Even with some poor angles (the time he was pushed as a moron), Styles manages to succeed, connecting to the fans and always giving them a good show. Styles is currently doing great in New Japan, showing a hard-fighting style that truly makes him nothing less than phenomenal.
39. “Superstar” Billy Graham
In the 1960s and ‘70s, champion wrestlers resembled one another with just bland tights and mediocre promos. The “Superstar” changed all of that with his fantastic physique, coming out in tie-dyed clothing and headbands. His promos were like nothing seen before, mixing wild talk and rhyming to push himself hard (“I’m the man of the hour, the man of the power, too sweet to be sour!”) and fans were captivated.
Graham could back that up in the ring with power moves and good conditioning that allowed him to hang around with much better wrestlers. His heel tactics alone made him a guy fans paid to hope see lose.
His run as WWF champion was quite long, selling out Madison Square Garden numerous times. While he would falter afterward, his persona has been borrowed by many others, including Hulk Hogan. In terms of being a trailblazer, few can touch the “Superstar” for his contributions to wrestling.
38. Verne Gagne
Critics will say his long success as AWA champion (10 reigns in all with one lasting almost six years) was because he owned the company. But that overlooks how great a worker Verne Gagne was; the man was truly capable of delivering a long and engaging battle that could keep a crowd enthralled. He had one of the best drop-kicks in the business at the time, always making sure a match flowed well and had good charisma to connect to the crowds.
He may get blamed for being too old-school and letting the AWA slowly die out but in his prime, Gagne truly was a huge moneymaker that boosted the AWA to much success and helped train such legends as Ric Flair, Ricky Steamboat and many more. That alone makes him an entry on this list even without such long reigns as champion.
37. Jim Londos
“The Golden Greek” was one of the biggest stars of the early pro wrestling era thanks in no small part to his stunning physique. While he may not have been a great worker, Londos’ looks won crowds over, making him truly the first “super-hero” wrestler who would overcome all odds against him and specialized in facing “ugly” wrestlers to put himself over more.
He was a huge box office star, selling out arenas in the days of the Great Depression and winning slews of female fans to wrestling in the process. He would hold the NWA championship but his real success is how he introduced a lot more flash to wrestling with the ability to sell himself as a true mega-star that would set a new tone for the business. In his time, he truly was the Hogan of his day and lived the part to its fullest.
36. Eddie Guerrero
He had wrestling in his blood; Eddie proved himself arguably the best of the entire Guerrero clan. His work with Art Barr in Mexico had them so hated by crowds that they literally needed police escorts to get out of arenas. ECW showed his technical stuff and then he moved to WCW to showcase it more with classic feuds against Dean Malenko and Rey Mysterio among others.
He was marred by his personal demons driving him away and those popped up again in WWE. But he made a stunning comeback, better than ever and delighting crowds with his “lie, cheat, steal” persona to go along with his high flying and technical work. It paid off with his run as WWE champion, a truly heartwarming moment that Eddie sold perfectly.
Sadly, his life would be cut far too short but it only highlights how amazing it was, a man who lived it to its fullest and a career packed with classic moments.
35. CM Punk
He’s always been a contrast: A man with a rough look, wild hair and tattoos but promoting a clean-living lifestyle. A brawler who can be a technical wizard, stronger than he looks and great on the mic.
CM Punk cut his teeth in ROH with fantastic style and proved himself one of the best independent wrestlers around. It took a while to take off in WWE but once it did, he was one of the most popular guys on the roster, winning over fans with his ring work and great promos. But it was when he openly began trashing his own company that Punk truly emerged as one of the biggest stars of his time, willing to not play the political games but be true to the business and fans responded in droves to help him succeed. Even WWE had to acknowledge that with his year-long reign as champion.
In keeping to his persona, Punk left the company at the height of his popularity to head to UFC and makes no bones about his feelings towards WWE today. That attitude is the key reason behind Punk’s entire success and his standing tall among so many greats.
34. Mick Foley
By his own admission, Mick Foley has never been what you would call the most skilled worker. But he’s also far more than just a brawler or hardcore guy, able to handle long battles and against a variety of foes. He showed that in his early days with WCW, including losing an ear to Vader.
Saddled with the rough Mankind character in WWE, he was given the chance to go over the Undertaker right from the get-go, proving himself as a star. He soon caught on with the fans through his transformations into Dude Love and Cactus Jack. That famous fall off the Cell is what launched him to true stardom and made him an unlikely but popular WWF champion. Adding to it was his great sense of humor, giving classic skits and promos that had fans howling. He was always willing to pull off a wild and bloody battle like the 2004 match that really made Randy Orton for fans.
His TNA run was forgettable but whether wrestling, on the mic or writing a best-selling book, Foley has established himself as one of the best stars around and a guy fans would love to hang with.
33. Mitsuharu Misawa
Japanese dojos are infamous for their brutal treatment of rookies, putting them through hazing rituals that would make a Marine beg for mercy. Misawa not only refused to back down from that but asked for more, proving his toughness. The second man to take on the role of Tiger Mask, he embarked on a classic feud with Chris Benoit that put both men on the map.
Soon, his star rose with such battles as a 60-minute draw against Bret Hart in Toyko and was soon one of All Japan’s biggest stars, winning five Triple Crown Heavyweight Championships, with his first reign lasting nearly two years. He battled not just the best of Japan but abroad like Stan Hansen and Steve Williams before going on to form Pro Wrestling Noah where his battles against Samoa Joe are still talked about.
Sadly, he died in a tragic in-ring accident in 2009 but it seemed fitting as this was a man born for wrestling and thus leaving this life doing what he loved is a fine tribute to one of the best workers Japan has ever seen and thus one of the best ever.
32. Jack Brisco
One of the most talented grapplers of his time, Brisco helped the Florida promotion shine with reigns as singles and tag team champion as he and brother Jerry faced the Funks in sensational tag team battles.
In 1973, he won the NWA World title and would hold it for nearly a year and a half, losing it but regaining it four days later for another year-long reign. Brisco traveled to all territories, getting himself over; he was one of the better promo men of the time, being boastful but still sure of himself and backing it up in the ring.
In 1983, he and Jerry reunited as a heel tag team for several runs as champions, including their classic feud with Ricky Steamboat and Jay Youngblood that culminated at Starrcade. Brisco would soon retire as one of the best NWA champions of the era and one of the best in-ring performers of all time even amid the heavy competition.
31. Nick Bockwinkel
A skilled worker in the ring, Nick Bockwinkel would prove himself in the AWA, first as a tag team champion with Ray Stevens but then with several long reigns as World champion. While great at technical wrestling, Bockwinkel truly shined on the mic as his promos were full of intelligent words, the man often consulting a dictionary first to make himself sound smarter and pushed the idea of himself as a “fashion plate” heel in fine suits long before Ric Flair came along.
He was one of the biggest stars in the company, holding his own in great battles against everyone from Hulk Hogan to Larry Hennig, all in fine style. A later face turn didn’t quite suit him but by that point it didn’t matter. A true class act in every way, Bockwinkel set the bar for the cocky heel champion for many to emulate.
30. The Crusher
Milwaukee born and bred, Reginald Lisowski was the beer drinking tough guy long before Stone Cold or the Sandman ever entered a ring. A true strongman, he would push himself as a rough and tumble type, the kind of guy fans loved to see, doing his best to entertain them with feats of strength, including dragging large beer barrels on his body.
In the ring, he was a hard brawler who held the AWA title three times. He was also over in his promos, snarling out threats, with his catchphrase “how bout dat?” being a major hit with fans. Able to absorb massive amounts of punishment before his big comeback, the Crusher knew just how to work a crowd and did it with amazing skill, a true one of a kind wrestler who’s still a legend in Milwaukee, having inspired slews of tough guys to follow.
29. Chris Jericho
Wrestler, writer and rock star, Y2J has always given his best, refusing to be held back by his smaller size and determined to get himself over on his own pure talents. He cut his teeth in Canada and Smokey Mountain with a brief ECW run before WCW beckoned.
At first a classic babyface, Jericho finally turned heel which allowed fans to see not just his amazing high-flying talents but also his genius on the mic, mixing hysterical comedy with biting promos. It led to success as Cruiserweight champion but the politics of the company held him back, preventing him from taking off as he could. He didn’t have that issue with WWE, pushed right from the start with a great entrance and soon winning just about every title in the company.
He was able to play both heel or face with the same intensity in the ring matched by a priceless series of promos. He was smart to change the act up in 2008, his more serious persona a welcome break that showcased how terrific a worker he truly was. He may not make many appearances today but Jericho has proven his doubters wrong as a guy who can be a true main event talent, putting the “entertainment” in sports entertainment but never forgetting that wrestling matters.
28. Brock Lesnar
Brock Lesnar always had the look of a great worker but rather than just a muscle-bound strong man, he provided true and amazing technical wrestling as well as being able to take off the top rope. Pushed as a true monster figure, Brock was able to capture the WWE title in short fashion in 2002, going over Hogan, The Rock and The Undertaker and instantly winning over fans.
His 2003 feud with Kurt Angle was epic and pushed him further so you can understand the fan anger when he left the company suddenly in 2004. Brock used the fame from his MMA run that just made his return to the company all the more exciting and soon taking on the bigger stars with another run as champion.
Brock just has the real-life skills of an ass-kicker combined with a presence few could match, a man who truly terrifies you; that entire package created one of the most notable stars of recent years and a guy who still gains monster reactions on RAW today.
27. Terry Funk
It’s remarkable to look back at a clean-cut Terry Funk in the 1970s, more a technical worker and even reigning as NWA champion. His brother Dory (also NWA champ) may have been better in the ring but Funk had the fans more on his side, able to go in feuds against Dusty Rhodes and so many more.
He would transform himself into the rough and tumble Texan willing to do anything to win, a crazy fighter that was totally unpredictable. What really made Funk special was his longevity as in 1989, he and Ric Flair embarked on a feud that stunned with its brutality and proved Funk still had it. He helped put ECW on the map with great battles and never giving up despite his advancing age.
A multiple champion who truly introduced the wrestling world to hardcore battles, the Funker is established as one of the craziest guys ever but also as a terrific worker in his own right.
Adam “Edge” Copeland is the classic example of a fan who got to live out his dream big time. In attendance at Wrestlemania VI, he was pushed from the start in WWE as a face but soon got over more as the cocky heel as he and Christian formed a hit tag team that would have multiple reigns as champions while engaging in the stunning TLC battles.
As a singles star, he rose fast as IC champ although hampered by injuries but it took the real-life heat of his affair with Lita to launch him to the main event scene. A fantastic worker who could work any type of match, he succeeded in just about everything in the company, from winning the Royal Rumble to headlining WrestleMania.
It was sad that he had to retire when he clearly had so much more to give but Edge still attained the dream of so many: to be a true wrestling star and one of the best of his time.
25. Edouard Carpentier
“The Flying Frenchman” was the man who introduced wrestling to a high-flying style with his sensational dropkicks and spinning backdrop; it was amazing for fans to watch who were used to hard mat grappling.
A controversial match with Lou Thesz led to Carpentier being recognized as NWA World Champion in Los Angeles which turned into the WWA title that he held for four years. As America’s champion, he engaged in a great feud with a young Greg Valentine as well as Killer Kowalski, set up as the underdog fans responded to in droves.
From small territories to bigger ones on either coast, Carpentier was box office gold and provided fans with a wild show they could never get enough of.
24. Bob Backlund
Modern fans dismiss him as too “white bread” and rather bland but that ignores how great Backlund truly was in his prime. A great worker, he carried WWE crowds quite well during his six-year reign as champion, taking on various challengers and knowing how to tell a story.
He could look weak enough to be beaten but make the big comeback without the need for flashy stuff; his promos were matter of fact about his skills, humble but proud. He vanished from the scene for years after Hogan took over but in 1994 made an unlikely comeback as a main event star, going crazy and getting over as a lunatic tangling with Bret Hart and even getting another title reign out of the deal.
Whatever the case, Backlund’s mix of in-ring work and good old values was a winner in his time and helped push WWE even more in the pre-Hogan era.
23. Ricky Steamboat
In terms of pure wrestling ability, Ricky Steamboat could rank higher but frankly wasn’t as cut out to carry a company like others. But the man was truly amazing, his technical style brilliant, his high-flying beautiful to watch and one of the absolute best sellers the business has ever known. When Steamboat took a hit, he made you feel it, staggering around and blowing out his cheeks, captivating a crowd like no one else.
From his tag team championships with Jay Youngblood to the WrestleMania III masterpiece against Randy Savage to his classic 1989 battles with Flair all the way to his last matches against a young Steve Austin, Steamboat gave his all and deserved the adulation of fans. “The Dragon” also deserves props as one of the very few guys to never be a heel during his entire career and another reason he’s so widely respected as one of the best workers of all time. Perhaps not as good on the mic as others but in the ring, Steamboat had few equals to wow the fans as much as he did.
22. Kurt Angle
As an Olympic gold medalist, Kurt Angle had the right criteria to become a great wrestler and he showed that with his technical style that also worked in some good power moves. What no one expected was how well the guy would take to promos, setting himself as an arrogant doofus who assumed the fans loved him which naturally meant some great heel heat. He played off the “You Suck” chants wonderfully but also could handle being a face at times as well. Carrying multiple main events and epic matches and holding every title in the company, he was one of the best acts the WWE ever had.
Angle loves wrestling; this is obvious from the way he’s come back from numerous injuries, always ready to give his all and turning in a fantastic battle whenever the occasion calls for it. He’s continued that in TNA and while he’s been marred by issues such as arrests and such, Angle still ranks as that rare mix of a star as genius on the mic as he is in the ring and a champion on so many levels.
21. “Rowdy” Roddy Piper
His recent passing only illustrates how huge Roddy Piper was for so many wrestling fans. It was in his early years in Portland and later the Mid-Atlantic region where he took on Flair and Greg Valentine in the classic dog collar battle at Starrcade ’83.
In WWE, he just exploded with wild promos and the “Piper’s Pit” segments while engaging with into a feud with Hogan that would launch the company, and the entire business, to insane heights.
Piper always played his own way from promos to commentary to wild stuff like painting half his body black to face Bad News Brown at WrestleMania, and that was a key reason for his appeal. He never needed a title as he was so massively over but it was great to see him as IC champion in 1992 and the great battle with Bret Hart that ensued.
His later WCW run had some bright spots to it. That’s not to mention his fame with movies like They Live and various other acting appearances that put him more into the mainstream. He was truly one of a kind in every way imaginable, the mark of a true icon for the entire business.
20. John Cena
Some may feel this too high a ranking, particularly the “he can’t wrestle” crowd. However, John Cena has shown that he can wrestle – and damn well! He is much more skilled than his critics give him credit for, able to handle either brawling or technical work and always elevating a main event match.
Much more importantly, Cena has proven he can handle the daunting pressure of carrying the company as champion in addition to the publicity grind, all with stunning promos. He openly addresses the hate and can feed off a crowd reaction, good or bad, like few others.
He’s also given credit for his hundreds of hours of charity work, especially for Make-A-Wish, which shows just how popular he can be. There’s also Cena’s conditioning, as he can go for half an hour or more and still look fresh as hell. He has his share of haters but Cena has proven himself a true star of the business and ranks among the best in wrestling history.
19. Triple H
Those who say Hunter only got ahead due to his relationship with Stephanie McMahon are dead wrong. Even from the start, he showed something special, the skill but also the drive and hunger to be the best in the business; that pushed him on through terrible gimmicks in WCW and WWE.
His rise in DX let him unleash his true skill, but his heel turn finally unlocked the main event potential in him. He may have hogged the spotlight but he was emulating his idol, Ric Flair, in many ways. He could back it up by bringing his A-game to major PPV matches.
He has backed away from wrestling now and moved towards the “evil boss” role, but to say that Triple H is only a star because of who he’s married to is a huge disservice to a guy who always had the potential to be the top guy around and more than proved it over the years.
18. Dusty Rhodes
Ric Flair has always said that Dusty Rhodes never got the credit he deserves for his actual in-ring skill. “You think I carried 300 60-minute matches all by myself?” Dusty may have been on the thicker side but carried it well, with a great style of brawling and surprising technical work, even able to take off the ropes now and then.
As great as a wrestler as he was, it was his mic work that made him achieve such great fame; the man was just so alive when talking with a wild jive style, mixing Texas roots with funny lines, and fans responded in droves. He sold himself well as a “common man” so fans felt that he was wrestling for them and it allowed his rise in fame.
He may be criticized for his booking, making himself the center of attention and the infamous “Dusty Finish”, but make no mistake, “The American Dream” could back it all up with both ring work and promos that made him something special for so long. Truly, he was one of the best stars this business has ever known.
17. “Macho Man” Randy Savage
The sheer presence of the Macho Man was amazing; the guy was a fantastic worker from the very beginning but also one of the few guys who, from the start, had his act down cold. The arrogance was terrific, meshing well with a style of wrestling that mixed brawling and ruthless attacks, highlighted by that stunning flying elbow that remains one of the best finishers of all time.
While he did well in Memphis and Portland, Savage was made for the 1980s WWE and once there, he took off huge as Intercontinental champion while delivering some of the most riveting promos ever. Throw in the gorgeous Elizabeth as his manager and the way he would berate her yet also be possessive of her, and you had an act that meant instant box office.
Savage made sure his matches were well planned out and thus almost never turned in a bad one. His battle with Ricky Steamboat at Wrestlemania III remains a masterpiece. His run as WWE champion ended with a fantastic feud with Hogan. Savage even made the goofy “Macho King” gimmick work wonderfully.
His WCW run included a few more titles, more battles with Hogan and Flair and more wildness to add to his legacy. While his last few years were marred by some insane antics in his personal life, the fact remains that Savage is still one of the best of all time.
16. Harley Race
In the 1970s, long before Flair, Harley Race was the workhorse NWA champion, a man who proved his toughness by overcoming polio as a child who was kicked out of school after punching his principal. He soon rose high, willing to take hard shots and nasty bumps long before brutal matches were the norm, coming back from a car accident that nearly cost him his leg but returning tougher than ever before.
With his grizzled beard and raspy voice, he was a natural heel but able to back it up with fantastic ring work, holding the NWA title a then-record seven times, traveling to defend it in every territory and engaging in fantastic feuds with Dusty Rhodes, the Funks, the Briscos and many more. He and Ric Flair were the main event of the first Starrcade and while his later WWF run was mostly forgettable, it seemed proper to have him boasting being “The King of Wrestling.”
He’s still widely respected as a worker who put his body on the line. No one ever complained about a bad match with Race, making him one of the last of the “real” wrestlers of the business.
15. The Undertaker
On paper, it’s as dumb as a gimmick can get: a giant undead zombie led around by a guy carrying an urn. But somehow, someway, it not only worked but gave us one of the biggest stars WWE has known over the last quarter-century.
An excellent worker, The Undertaker used his persona well in battles against other giants but was also able to go over the likes of Hulk Hogan and others. His championship reigns were great but it’s really his character that got him over. He’s given us classic matches and carried epic feuds, able to shift up the act like the “American Badass” biker for a time before going back to “the Dead Man”, being great as either heel or face.
He’s also proven his loyalty, never tempted to leave WWE; it’s why he’s widely respected as a locker room leader. His WrestleMania streak will never be duplicated and to this day, that bell sounding brings a pop bigger than anyone else. The Dead Man still has life to him and stands as proof that even the craziest of ideas can work with the right guy behind it.
At first just part of a Road Warriors rip-off alongside the future Ultimate Warrior, Steve Borden was just bursting with so much talent and charisma that promoters could barely handle him. After cutting his teeth in the UWF, he moved to WCW and in no time became one of the hottest talents around.
From Ric Flair to Lex Luger to Vader, Sting faced every major star of the company and was their biggest home-grown talent. Fans would love to spike their hair and paint their faces to look like their hero as Sting fed off their adulation to achieve greatness, holding just about every belt in the company for several runs.
That he’s pretty much the one major star of his time to never compete for WWE up until recently just adds to his legacy; he was a true WCW man, though and through. He was smart to change the act up to take on the “Crow” persona that would lead to even bigger success for him. It’s fitting that the final true WCW match was Sting vs Flair.
His TNA run pushed him as an “Icon” that could still pull off good matches, adding to his stardom. While his recent debut in WWE wasn’t as good as hoped, Sting remains possibly the biggest star of WCW’s history and a guy who can still fire up crowds like few others.
13. Bret Hart
Maybe he’s not the best there is, was and ever will be but the Hitman is still damn terrific among wrestling stars. True, a lot of Bret’s stuff could be repetitive, but from his Stampede days, he showed his amazing skill. He could hang with most anyone and tell a great story, wrestling classics against Shawn Michaels and Steve Austin among many others, proving himself with reigns as IC and WWE champion.
His life has been overshadowed by the events of Montreal and his poor WCW run but despite all that, Hart still retains his status as one of the greats of wrestling, a man so skilled and gifted who carried WWE in a tough time and remains “The Excellence of Execution” to so many of his fans.
12. Buddy Rogers
Buddy Rogers was really the first modern heel, the guy to really get crowds going off his persona more than just bad-mouthing them. That smirk, his strut, his lines (“to a nicer guy, this could never happen!”), Rogers was the original “Nature Boy” and always did great with crowds.
He backed it up with amazing ring work from his figure-four to bear hugs, a power guy with his technical prowess that could pull a crowd along in his work. His reigns as NWA champion were good business as was his push as the first ever WWWF champion.
While some criticized him for being in business for himself, Rogers never lost any of his heat, even in his twilight years battling with Ric Flair for the “Nature Boy” label. He set the standard for nearly every heel that would follow him to the present day and that’s a legacy few wrestlers can ever hope to touch.
11. Andre the Giant
When it comes to the “biggest,” they don’t come much bigger in size. Standing at seven feet tall and often weighing over 500 pounds, Andre was a sight to behold, a massive man who was almost impossible to move unless he went along with you.
He was renowned for stories from hijacking a horse carriage to using a bathtub as a toilet and was often difficult to work with. But the “Gentle Giant” was box office gold; fans flocked to see him no matter where he went, from the U.S. to Japan, as he battled just about anyone in his way and used his strength and size well.
He was hampered by his body in later years but still hung together to face Hogan at WrestleMania III, with their conflict creating one of the biggest gates of all time. That’s not to mention his fame as Fezzik in The Princess Bride winning plenty of fans. His last years were rough but just showed the incredible power of Andre’s fame and how his death in 1993 hurt so many fans but a left a legacy as giant as the man himself.
10. Shawn Michaels
That incredible talent was there from the very beginning as he and Marty Jannetty were pulling off moves as the Rockers that blew away fans and co-workers alike. When Shawn Michaels got into singles work, he got better, taking good bumps, amazingly skilled in flying and technical work, stealing the show with great promos as the egotistical heel.
Whether as face or heel, he got massive heat and his backstage power just added to it. What really amazes with HBK is how he came back in 2002 after serious back surgery; he wasn’t just good but better than ever before. His attitude had changed, owning up to his rough past and more willing to put other guys over, leading to true classics against The Undertaker, Triple H and so many more.
He retired still on top and while he can no doubt turn in another great match if he had to, Shawn seems willing to let his legacy stand as it is, which means a career of amazing championships, masterful battles and winning the respect as one the best performers ever, truly embodying his “Showstopper” label.
9. The Rock
WWE tried to push Dwayne Johnson as a bright, classic babyface but it just led to him being loathed by fans. It took an injury and a heel turn to allow him to unleash his inner stardom to become The Rock.
His ring work was good but what truly set him apart was a magic touch on the mic like no one else around. He could rip a guy to shreds with a few words; it was hysterical to see him play with his catchphrases that fans chanted along with in joy. His reigns as champion meant big business as his 2011 return showed just how badly WWE missed his energy.
He’s also proven himself as a true box office star with several hit movies and his own TV show on HBO. However, a Rock appearance always makes fans happy and gets them talking. It’s the touch of a true superstar and why he ranks so high on such a major list.
8. El Santo
The first major lucha libre star, Rodolfo Huerta began wrestling in the 1930s and would remain one of the country’s biggest stars for the next five decades. He truly kicked off the tradition of using masks for Mexican wrestlers and was famous for never taking his off, even in public, and that added to his status as a hero for the thousands of fans who’d pay to watch him.
He was also a huge star in movies, portrayed as a true super-hero and that just made him even more of an icon for his legions of fans. He retired in 1984, unmasking at last in a televised interview just a week before his death and was buried with his mask still on.
The fact is, Huerta himself meant little but Santo, with his strength and flying, was one of the biggest stars in Mexican wrestling history and helped pushed the masked culture that would give us so many more amazing athletes to follow, yet “the Saint” still ranks above them all.
7. Bruno Sammartino
Without Bruno, there’s wouldn’t be a WWE today. Even Vince McMahon has to acknowledge that. When Sammartino beat Buddy Rogers for the WWWF title in 1963, it kicked off a fantastic seven-year reign that sold out Madison Square Garden numerous times and basically put the entire promotion on the map.
While not a technical guy, Sammartino could work amazingly well with his power moves, holding the crowd in the palm of his hand and taking on every single challenger that came his way. His popularity was so high that when he finally dropped the belt to Ivan Koloff, the entire MSG crowd was stunned silent.
Bruno would regain the title a couple of years later for another big reign, paving the way for the success of others. He and Vince McMahon had a long break in friendship but Bruno would return in 2013 to pay tribute to his past and allow modern fans to see the star that made the company what it is today.
6. Antonio Inoki
Antonio Inoki is not just a star; he is a living icon in Japan. The founder of New Japan Pro Wrestling, he studied “hooking” under Karl Gotch and brought a rough but real style to Japanese wrestling that has influenced countless workers since. He didn’t just do pure wrestling but faced guys from various feels, basically doing MMA-style fights long before UFC existed.
He became world famous thanks to his fight with Muhammad Ali and while it was bad, the fact Ali chose Inoki for a fight speaks volumes to his power among wrestlers. Inoki was revered by fans with constant sellouts of 150,000-seat stadiums in a time when packing just a few thousand was considered a big deal.
He’s retired now but Inoki’s long career helped shape Japan’s wrestling scene as we know it today and that alone would put him high on this list, even without being a terrific star in his own right.
5. Hulk Hogan
Yes, he’s in some major personal trouble right now. And yes, even at his height, he was far more hype than true wrestling ability. But you cannot do a list of the biggest wrestling stars and not have Hulk Hogan in the top 5.
In the 1980s, he was pro wrestling for the mainstream fan; bigger than life, sensational in battles and carrying a crowd like few before or since. Hogan was able to hold the company high in the ‘80s and was the reason for constant sellouts in MSG and at WrestleMania.
At first, his WCW tenure wasn’t as successful with his ego out of control and pushing his superhero act too much. However, his heel turn boosted the company to its greatest success ever: Hogan was fantastic in his role as the hated champion and reveling in it.
The recent media frenzy proves that Hogan is still a fantastic presence for the wrestling business and we all pay attention to what he does. That’s the mark of a true mega-star and elevates him higher than his actual ring work ever could.
4. “Stone Cold” Steve Austin
From the very start, this was a guy who had “superstar” written all over him. Fans forget how skilled in the ring Austin was before his neck injury, a great worker who could go long battles and hang with almost anyone. His tenure in WCW had success in championships but he was shoved aside by politics, with ECW opening his way to great promos.
He was hampered in WWE at first as “the Ringmaster” but the Austin 3:16 promo instantly elevated him. He truly transformed the business with his in-your-face attitude, fantastic promos, the Stunner finisher and of course the epic feud with Vince McMahon that catapulted WWE to unparalleled success.
He was wild and amazing, capable of pulling off some terrific battles with the biggest stars of the era and carrying the company on his back quite well. To this day, the glass shattering equals a pop unlike any other as Austin remains a superstar thanks to how much of his real persona he brings to the ring and why he has to rank among the best ever.
3. Jumbo Tsuruta
Inoki may have boosted Japanese wrestling majorly but Tsuruta was probably his superior in most regards. Over the course of 26 years, he wrestled over 3300 matches and took on all comers. He was a fantastic puro star while also working in the U.S., including a run as AWA World Champion in 1984.
What made his career remarkable was that not only did his work never decline but most fans feel that the last few years of his full-time career were the best. He was the first ever Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion who waged epic feuds with Stan Hansen, Misawa and others. Despite being diagnosed with Hepatitis B in 1992, he carried on, albeit in more comedic matches but also had smarts with a bachelor’s degree in political science.
He died in 2000, just months after his retirement. He’s still revered in Japan as a true star of the business, with many citing him as the best wrestler in Japan in the 1980s, the highest compliment a worker can be paid.
2. Lou Thesz
Lou Thesz’ reigns as NWA champion combine to over 10 years, longer than anyone else in history. He is credited with inventing the German suplex, the powerbomb and the move that carries his name, the Thesz press. He helped put wrestling on the public spotlight in the 1930s. He boosted any guy he faced into a fantastic worker as well.
Thesz set the standard for so many to follow; he was terrific in long fights, a technical genius with good power moves as well and capable of putting on a great match with just about anybody. He was a box office star and widely respected by all inside the business.
Thesz carried himself with dignity and did the NWA proud, helping to really establish the championship as meaning something and putting the NWA as a whole on the map. For those reasons alone, he ranks high on this list as a true legend of the business that helped build it to what it is today.
1. Ric Flair
In his prime, Ric Flair was the total package. A brilliant ring worker, he was able to pull off 60 minute matches several times a week, handling the rigors of being NWA champion in a time when the champ truly traveled around and worked all the territories equally. He could make anyone look good, even a low-level card worker or tag wrestler, giving fans the idea this guy really could upset the champion, but of course, Flair always left with the title around his waist.
On the mic, few were his equal; Flair could cut loose with fantastic lines, cutting an opponent down before going on wild tirades. And then there was his style; always in custom made suits, gold watches, fur coats and the best shows (“My shoes cost more than your house!”), riding in limos and private jets.
From his height in the NWA and WCW to even runs in WWE and TNA, Flair proved himself capable of holding a crowd like few others, still able to go on well in his later years and with a style all to his own.
The loud “WHOO” that echoes in arenas whenever a guy is chopped is recognition of Flair’s style along with the figure-four and other great bits. Practically every “playboy heel” since has modeled themselves after Flair on one level or another but no one will ever be like him.
He still pops up now and then and always to a huge ovation as the Nature Boy has established himself as an icon of the business, a worker and mega-star like no other and that is why he tops this list.