The 1990s were a golden era for professional wrestling. The WCW and WWF both had deep stables of great wrestlers pushing the sport to new heights. This competition eventually created a ratings war between the two promotions that spanned nearly the entire decade. Every Monday night the WWF’s Monday Night Raw went head to head with the WCW’s Monday Nitro. Given that there was no DVR, wrestling fans were obligated to pledge their allegiance and dedicate their time to one or the other.
During this period, the personalities drove increasingly intricate, character-based story lines that created great anticipation for the matches. Some of the greatest wrestlers of all time thrived during this period. As the cable war between the WWF and WCW raged on, both promotions continued to push the sport’s limits with more hardcore matches and more entertaining athletes. The attitude era subverted a lot of wrestling’s former cheesiness by being crass, current and extreme.
This, in effect, attracted a demographic of ravenous, young men (myself included) who followed the sport with great zeal and attention. Great rivalries, like Stone Cold vs. Vince McMahon, positioned anti-heroes as the most successful and popular wrestlers of the era. Although the action was great, it was the detailed storytelling that really kept fans interested. Never before had the storylines been so personal and bizarre as both promotions battled to command the attention of wrestling fans.
Ultimately, the WWF became the WWE and absorbed WCW after the promotion’s ratings began to suffer. Nonetheless, this was one of the great eras in the history of professional wrestling.
Here are some of the most electrifying wrestlers that grappled during the 90s.
10. Rob Van Dam
Rob Van Dam spent the better part of the 1990s in Extreme Championship Wrestling. RVD is considered to be one of the most innovative pro wrestlers of his era. In fact, the WWE recently named Van Dam the greatest wrestler in ECW history. A natural high-flyer, RVD always seemed to push the limits with his amazing five-star “Frog Splash” finisher. After a successful career with ECW, Van Dam moved on to the WWF and later to TNA Wrestling. He is the only wrestler to have held all three (ECW, WWE, TNA) heavyweight championships. Watch Van Dam win the ECW tag team championship alongside Sabu.
9. The Rock
Of this group, The Rock, or Dwayne Johnson as he’s now known, has definitely found the most mainstream success outside of wrestling. During the 90s, The Rock was known as “the most electrifying man in sports entertainment.” This is no exaggeration, Johnson was a magnificent wrestler and an even better performer. He was great as a heel (bad guy) and a face (good guy). It’s no wonder The Rock has went on to become such a talented and successful Hollywood actor. Johnson entered the WWF in 1996 as Rocky Maivia (a nod to his father’s and grandfather’s wrestling personas). Although he wasn’t initially embraced by WWF fans when he joined the company in 1996, The Rock quickly found success winning the Intercontinental Title. The Rock is considered one of the WWF/WWE’s all-time greats, having held the World Championship belt 10 times. Watch the Rock call out Triple H and Chyna in this classic promo.
8. The Undertaker
The Undertaker is one of the most prolific and celebrated professional wrestlers in the sports’ history. His career has spanned three decades and countless accolades. He has been able to morph and adapt his gimmick over the years, going from the horrific and demonic to the “American Badass” who rode a motorcycle to the ring. At one point, The Undertaker teamed with his brother, Kane, to create one of the most diabolical tag teams in pro wrestling history. He has held the WWF/WWE Championship on four occasions and the World Heavyweight Championship on three. His signature maneuvers, the Chokeslam and Tombstone Piledriver, are two of the sport’s most recognizable finishers. In a 2013 poll conducted by Digital Spy, The Undertaker was voted the greatest wrestler in WWF/WWE history.
7. Mick Foley
Mick Foley, also known as “The Hardcore Legend,” is perhaps the most interesting wrestler of his era. Foley has wrestled primarily under three different monikers and personas: Dude Love, Cactus Jack and Mankind. Dude Love is Foley’s hippy persona, Cactus Jack is an outlaw wrestler (who’s “Wanted Dead”), and Mankind is a masked freak who lives in the boiler room. During Foley’s career, he has been a four-time world champ and an 11-time tag-team champ. He embraced the no-holds-barred nature of “hardcore” wrestling and dedicated the prime of his career to punishing his body for the sake of entertainment. Many of his matches have become legendary, namely his first battle in the so-called Hell in a Cell with The Undertaker. Foley is a tried and true veteran of the sport who has wrestled for nearly every promotion.
Vader, or Big Van Vader, was a hugely-successful wrestler during the 1990s. He has wrestled in the WWF and WCW as well as various Japanese promotions. Vader has held the WCW World Heavyweight Championship title three times and the WCW United States Title once. Vader is a large wrestler known for incorporating death-defying, high-flying maneuvers into his repertoire. His signature moves are the Moonsault and the Vader Bomb. Vader was a key figure in the wrestling world during the 90s, feuding with greats like Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker. Vader’s celebrity was apparently so big during the 90s that he was able to make cameos on two wildly popular television shows, Boy Meets World and Baywatch.
Sean Waltman, better known to WWF fans as X-Pac, was one of the most entertaining and electrifying wrestlers of the company’s “Attitude Era.” X-Pac was a high-flyer with great finishing moves like the X-Factor and the Bronco Buster (a move that no wrestling fan will soon forget). In the mid-90s, Pac was an important member of The Kliq. The Kliq also consisted of Scott Hall, Kevin Nash, Shawn Michaels and Triple H. After The Kliq splintered, Hall and Nash moved to WCW and started the nWo. At the same time, Triple H and Michaels created D-Generation-X and X-Pac quickly joined. Although Pac has never been a world champion, he still deserves to be on this list. He was easily one of the most entertaining and interesting wrestlers of his time, an impressive wrestler and, perhaps, an even better showman.
Sting was an integral part of the WCW’s impressive roster during the 90s. He is widely considered to be one of the best wrestlers in the history of the sport as well as the best wrestler in WCW history. Sting has held the heavyweight championship in a variety of promotions (WCW, WWA) and has held the WCW World Heavyweight Championship on six separate occasions. He was voted Pro Wrestling Illustrated’s “Most Popular Wrestler of the Year” a whopping four times during the 90s. His finishers are the Scorpion Death Drop (which is an interesting variation on the DDT) and the Scorpion Leglock (which is a submission maneuver not unlike Bret Hart’s Sharpshooter). Sting continues to wrestle, but for the WWE. He is now fittingly referred to as “The Icon.”
3. Bret Hart
Bret “The Hitman” Hart was destined to become a wrestler. He was trained by his father, the great Stu Hart, alongside his brother Owen, in the family’s basement. He has held both the WCW and WWF World Heavyweight championships and is considered to be a true legend of the sport. His Sharpshooter submission hold is one of the most imitated submission holds of all time. Throughout his career, Hart was mostly a face. During his wrestling days, Bret Hart was adored by fans and admired by his peers.
This isn’t to say that Hart’s professional career was devoid of tumult. Aside from losing his brother Owen as a result of a rare production mistake during the taping of a WWF pay-per-view event, Hart was also involved in an imbroglio that has come to be known as “The Montreal Screw Job.” Check out the match with Shawn Michaels.
2. Shawn Michaels
Shawn Michaels was one of the most exciting wrestlers of the 90s. His skills were top shelf and his personality was second-to-none. Wrestling fans knew that when they heard that “Sexy Boy” theme song, they could expect something absolutely electrifying. Michaels almost always delivered, winning Pro Wrestling Illustrated’s “Match of the Year” a record-setting 11 times. Michaels also held the WWF Championship on three separate occasions. Shawn’s signature move, Sweet Chin Music, is a swift sidekick to an opponent’s neck and chin. Michaels co-founded D-Generation-X with Triple H and helped to usher in the WWF’s “Attitude” era. He has been inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame and still returns to the ring from time to time. Watch Michaels take on Razor Ramon in an epic ladder match.
1. Stone Cold
Stone Cold Steve Austin was the most important wrestler during the WWF’s “Attitude” days. It makes sense, the “Texas Rattlesnake” embodied attitude; he swilled beer in the ring, cursed freely and flipped the bird to anyone he didn’t like. He literally battled the company’s boss (Vince McMahon) and his personal team of wrestlers part of the group known as “The Corporation”.
The Stone Cold Stunner, Austin’s signature move, is easily one of the greatest wrestling maneuvers in the sport’s history. Austin is a six-time WWF Champion, two-time intercontinental champion and the winner of the 1996 King of the Ring. Stone Cold had a great following in the WWF, ushering in an era of anti-heroes that audiences grew to love. As a wrestler, Austin was extremely technical and old school. He was an exceptional physical specimen and an even more impressive entertainer. Watch Austin give The Rock and The McMahons a beer bath.