‘Who is the greatest wrestler ever?’
That is the most popular question in the entire wrestling fandom. Everyone has their favorite wrestler, and there are entire websites and publications devoted to determining which wrestler is the greatest. Of course, since there can never really be anything resembling true objectivity in professional wrestling, this is still an opinion-based question that’s meant to bring about discussion.
If you’re a WWE fan, chances are you’ve watched mostly WWE’s products, along with some WCW and maybe some ECW. If you’re a regular consumer of WWE’s programming, it’s also highly likely that you’ve heard something along the lines of ‘welcome to the big leagues, kid’ (in reference to an outsider debuting in WWE), or some line admonishing other promotions, or some phrase saying that WWE’s superstars are the best in the world at what they do.
But what about wrestlers from other promotions? What about those wrestlers who have never stepped in a WWE ring?
If you look at WWE’s roster over the years, pretty much every top star has performed for WWE at one point or another, to a point where them joining Vince’s promotion might have at one point seemed impossible. Yet look at who’s on their roster now: Nakamura, Samoa Joe, A.J. Styles, Finn Balor, Austin Aries, and, up until a few weeks ago, Daniel Bryan. All of these names were fantastic wrestlers who you’d never expect to work for WWE, yet signed with them anyway. Yet for every one of these big names that do sign with WWE, there are three that make a big name for themselves in wrestling, but never get signed by Vince.
Here are 30 of those big names.
30 Bob Sapp
Yes, you read that right. Bob Sapp, the enormous MMA fighter who played a dimwitted character in ‘The Longest Yard’, is not only a professional wrestler, but a successful one at that. Though he was initially trained by WCW, he spent most of his career in Japan wrestling for various promotions, including K-1/PRIDE and NJPW. During that time, Sapp won the IWGP Heavyweight Championship (becoming the first-ever black champion in the process), and became an enormous draw in Japan.
29 Megumi Kudo
Megumi Kudo is, in essence, a female Mick Foley. She made a career out of wrestling in ultra-dangerous and high-risk hardcore matches filled with ridiculous stipulations that would make even the bravest soul cringe. It was commonplace to see the ring ropes replaced with barbed wire when she wrestled, and the ring would often be filled with objects and substances that truly made her look like an indestructible badass. Explosives, crushed glass, high-voltage electric cables; none of these things scared off the ‘Evil Princess’ during her seven-year run with Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling.
28 Jay Lethal
Jay Lethal is one of those rare wrestlers who can make even the silliest gimmick work in his favor. Although he has proven to be a great in-ring grappler, it’s his charisma and character work that makes him a true standout. His ‘Black Machismo’ impression of ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage was simply outstanding, as was his one-time-yet-spot-on impression of Ric Flair (which was completely ad-libbed).
27 Sara Del Rey
Fans might recognize this name, as Sara Del Rey is now the head women’s trainer in NXT, and her expertise is now being put to good use in helping train the Divas of tomorrow. But as good as she is as a trainer, she was an even better wrestler when she was active. Del Rey was simply outstanding in the ring, putting on the kind of exciting technical matches not seen since the glory years of the AJW joshis in the 1990's.
26 Satoshi Kojima
25 Kyoko Inoue
With the notable exception of Kharma/Awesome Kong, the overwhelming majority of top women in (North American) wrestling have all had similar body types: thin, model-like, and in some cases, having artificial body parts. These women never met Kyoko Inoue, arguably the first ‘plus-sized’ female wrestler to really kick ass. Weighing more than most cruiserweights, Inoue was a beast in the ring; she used the same kinds of sick power moves you’d often associate with a super-heavyweight male wrestler.
24 Kenny Omega
You would think that a guy that looks like that wouldn't be taken seriously as a wrestler, and you'd be wrong. Not only is Kenny Omega one of the best natural heels active today, but he also has a natural charisma that allows him to play both a serious and a wacky character and still be well-received by the audience.
23 Yoshihiro Takayama
22 Zack Sabre, Jr.
What do you get when you take Daniel Bryan, cut off his beard and turn him British? You get Zack Sabre, Jr., arguably the most naturally-skilled technical wrestler since Bryan himself. Though slightly taller and a bit more muscular, Sabre still possesses incredible technical skill and an uncanny ability to reverse out of any situation. Moreover, he, like Bryan before him, has a strong preference for stiff kicks and submission holds, making him a very popular draw on the independent scene and in Japan, where realism in wrestling is still held with high regard.
21 Super Dragon
When people think about ‘indy wrestling’, there are a few names that keep coming up more than others, and Super Dragon is one of them. This soft-spoken masked wrestler performed using an interesting style that combined high-flying athleticism, vicious strikes, and a lot of ‘dangerous’ moves that you’d never find in a WWE ring. This is a wrestler who’d execute a version of a piledriver from the top rope, and who’d drive his opponents head-first into the mat (or onto foreign objects) without any hesitation.
20 Naomichi Marufuji
19 Dragon Kid
Many wrestling commentators, especially in WWE, have a knack of using the term ‘gravity-defying’ to describe cruiserweight wrestlers. Of course, this term doesn’t apply to anyone more ideally than Dragon Kid. A major draw on the independent scene, Dragon Kid is a wrestler that absolutely must be seen to be believed.
This is a wrestler whose regular matches featured him perform multiple-rotation hurricanranas, execute crazy corkscrew and spinning moves (including his patented Dragonrana), and even saw him running along the top rope as if gravity itself were nonexistent. He was very much what Rey Mysterio would’ve looked like if Rey didn’t have any limitations whatsoever on what he could do in the ring.
18 Shinya Hashimoto
Hashimoto might not look like much, but he was one of the biggest standout wrestlers in New Japan during the 1980's and 1990's. As one of the 'Three Musketeers' of NJPW, Hashimoto defended the promotion's honor against outsiders and other dastardly villains, which he did very well thanks to his stiff kicks, considerable toughness, and always-reliable vertical-drop brainbuster. These traits made him a widely respected wrestler whose opinion and input were valued greatly wherever he went.
17 Roderick Strong
The running joke going around these days is that WWE’s new hiring policy is ‘steal guys from Ring of Honor’. While that joke might look like it’s actually happening given the company’s talent acquisitions over the years, there’s one big name in ROH that they’ve overlooked: Roderick Strong, one of the most talented and technically-gifted wrestlers to ever enter that promotion (which is saying a lot, given ROH’s talent pool).
16 Masahiro Chono
As one of the ‘Three Musketeers’ of New Japan, Chono has long been associated with greatness in wrestling. Entering the arena dressed like a total boss (complete with black coat and shades), Chono backed his intimidating appearance with painful-looking submission holds and kicks, with his patented ‘Shining Black’ kick-straight-to-the-face being one of the most impressive looking strike attacks in wrestling today.
15 Kensuke Sasaki
Kensuke Sasaki is one of only two men to hold the AJPW Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship, the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, and NOAH’s GHC Heavyweight Championship. Surely one would have to be an excellent wrestler to capture Japan’s three biggest world championships, and that’s exactly what Sasaki is: an excellent wrestler. Though he’s just below 6 feet tall, Sasaki made up for his short stature by cultivating one of the most impressive physiques in Japan, to the point where he was invited to join the Road Warriors as their on-again-off-again third teammate.
14 Jun Akiyama
Considered one of the best Japanese amateur wrestlers to ever cross into the professional variant, Akiyama was, and still is, a force to be reckoned with. He’s a notoriously-stiff striker with a penchant for coming up with impressive wrestling maneuvers (he created the popular Blue Thunder Bomb and the Wrist-Clutch Exploder Suplex).
Hayabusa was one of the most innovative and exciting wrestlers to ever enter a wrestling ring. Wrestling under a mask and with a name that roughly translates into ‘falcon’, Hayabusa flew through the skies with unbelievable grace and skill. He was the one who created the always-impressive Phoenix Splash as well as the widely-used Falcon Arrow.
12 Kota Ibushi
Kota Ibushi is an amazing cruiserweight wrestler. Possessing perfect balance, excellent timing, and tremendous psychology, Ibushi has managed to accomplish something few cruiserweight wrestlers actually could: become a great high-flyer without becoming a 'spot monkey' (someone who relies on those crazy spots to get a reaction from the audience).
11 Minoru Suzuki
Suzuki is one of those rare wrestlers who offers something for every fan. He’s a brutal and realistic fighter, which stems from his vast MMA experience. He’s adaptable to almost any situation, as seen with his outstanding matches with people like Tanahashi and A.J. Styles. If that’s not enough for you, he has such a despicable persona that he always receives a major reaction.
10 Ricochet/Prince Puma
Trevor Mann may only be 27 years old, but he has one of the most impressive resumes of any wrestler around today. For 12 years and across various promotions and ring names, he has mesmerized audiences with his breath-taking high-flying style. From Dragon Gate to New Japan to Lucha Underground, Mann has shocked the world with the seemingly-impossible maneuvers he has executed in, above, and into a wrestling ring.
9 Yuji Nagata
Imagine if you put Daniel Bryan, Chris Benoit, William Regal and Kurt Angle and rolled them into one person. You’d end up with Yuji Nagata, arguably the best submission wrestler still active today. Even though he’s in his late 40's, Nagata still wrestles as if he were twenty years younger. He still kicks, stretches, and suplexes his opponents with the vigor of someone much younger, and adapts to any situation better than arguably any other wrestler. He really is Mr. Versatile, which is shown through his vast collection of accolades in NJPW, NOAH, AJPW and elsewhere.
8 Kazuchika Okada
Okada was once the laughingstock of New Japan: he was bland, boring and got lost in the shuffle very easily. Then, in 2012, he completely transformed himself into a whole new character in the Rainmaker. NJPW’s bookers took a huge gamble with him and it paid off a thousandfold. Okada has been having one outstanding match after another against virtually every opponent he’s had. Everything he does just screams ‘main event draw’. He executes a picture-perfect dropkick. He understands psychology perfectly. He has a gimmick that’s both easy to hate and has an image that makes people envious. He also has one of the most simplistic yet effective finishers today, making his matches very fun to watch.
7 Hiroshi Tanahashi
Tanahashi’s two most popular nicknames say a lot about his skill. He’s known as both ‘the Ace of the Universe’ and ‘One-In-A-Century talent’, both of which are highly accurate descriptions of him. It’s not hard to see why: Tanahashi is basically a Japanese Eddie Guerrero in terms of pure wrestling skill and charisma combined with the chiseled physique of John Cena. In other words, he provides something for everyone: whether you like actual technical wrestling, the storytelling element, or simply the aesthetic appeal, Tanahashi will give you what you want.
6 El Santo
There may not be a single wrestler in history who has had as much of an impact on popular culture as El Santo. As undoubtedly the biggest wrestler in Mexican history, El Santo transcended pro wrestling and became a symbol of justice for the common person through his great wrestling matches and later, his comic books and films. His impact was almost identical to the one Rikidozan had in Japan or the one Hulk Hogan had in North America. People from all corners of Mexico flocked to see their hero overcome the odds and win, giving them someone to truly love and believe in.
5 Toshiaki Kawada
WWE recently gave a nod to some of the greatest wrestlers in Japanese wrestling history, as JBL mentioned the name ‘Kawada’ during his commentary. It makes perfect sense, since Toshiaki Kawada was one of the exciting wrestlers during the peak years of AJPW. Over the decades, Kawada earned a reputation for being one of the stiffest and most dangerous strikers in wrestling history. Every single one of his chops, forearms, elbows and kicks (especially his kicks) were insanely stiff, and looked like he was legitimately trying to kick his opponent’s head off.
4 Manami Toyota
During her Hall of Fame induction speech, Lita mentioned someone named Manami Toyota, and stated that she was awesome. But who was Lita talking about?
The greatest women’s wrestler ever.
Toyota could do things that few wrestlers could do. Because of her smaller frame, she could do anything in the ring. From suicide dives to complicated submission holds, to amazing suplex variations to impressive flipping moves - there was nothing that Toyota couldn’t do.
3 Kenta Kobashi
If there was ever someone who could fit the bill of ‘The Perfect Wrestler’, it would be Kobashi. He had every tool needed to be a top star in any promotion: a chiseled physique, incredibly toughness, a thorough understanding of ring psychology and wrestling-as-storytelling, an internationally-recognized reputation as a total badass, and a large collection of awesome wrestling moves under his belt. These things have made him an enormous draw in Japan, and his match tapes have been traded around the world for decades.
2 The Great Muta/Keiji Mutoh
Fans of WCW will remember the painted face and blue tongue of one of the most interesting and eye-catching wrestlers of all time, The Great Muta. A master of ring psychology, Muta knew how to get under his opponent’s skin with his strange body movements and clever tactics. This led to many exciting matches over the years in both WCW and his native Japan, against opponents as small as Jushin Liger and as large as Vader. This versatility of his made him a beloved figure in Japan, a legend comparable to the Undertaker in WWE.
1 Mitsuharu Misawa
Misawa was the biggest star in Japanese wrestling of the past three decades. He carried two promotions (AJPW and NOAH) on his back for a combined twenty years, and has been widely praised as one of, if not the greatest wrestlers of all time.
His collection of accolades includes: five reigns as AJPW Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion (including one that was 705-days long), 5 Match of the Year awards from both Tokyo Sports and the Wrestling Observer, and an astonishing 24 5-Star matches – more than Flair, Bret Hart, Benoit, Mutoh, Hashimoto, Inoki, and Jushin Liger combined. Misawa was probably the closest thing to an actual wrestling god in Japan - so much so that there were rumors that WWE wanted to hire him in the late 1990's.
Sadly, the world will never see any Misawa appearances anywhere, as he died in the ring on June 13th, 2009. Misawa never took time off despite his injuries, and NOAH’s financial troubles required him to make appearances. This, coupled with an allegedly-undiagnosed neck injury and a mentality to not complain about pain, led to him taking one too many ‘head drops’, leading to severe spinal fracture, cardiac arrest, and ultimately death.
On that day, one of the truly greatest wrestlers passed away, and with him, as some say, Japan’s love for puroresu.
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