‘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.
In fact, he once had a kickboxing match against Akebono that was watched by 60 million people in Japan alone, making him one of the biggest wrestling stars of the last decade. Though he wasn’t the most skilled wrestler, he managed to play the ‘big-guy-who-fights-for-money’ gimmick very well and at times to great comedic effect.
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.
As if that still wasn’t enough to be afraid of her (something the AJW Joshis definitely know something about), she invented the Vertebreaker, arguably the most dangerous move ever conceived.
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).
Outside of his excellent impressions, Lethal is simply a fun wrestler to watch. He can do pretty much anything asked of him, and can make even the simplest of maneuvers look devastating. Lethal’s the kind of wrestler that can make gold out of the simplest storyline ideas, as long as you let his imagination do most of the work. As the current ROH World Champion, Lethal is one of the hottest acts on the independent wrestling scene, and is likely to continue to rise as a star for years to come.
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.
She was an excellent submission expert and Suplex mistress long before any of the Four Horsewomen ever signed with NXT. She also proved just how great she was by pulling off some of the most high-risk maneuvers in wrestling, such as the Tiger Suplex and the Spike Piledriver. Though we’ll never get to see her in a WWE ring as a performer, every time you see the women of NXT do something awesome, it’s likely they’re applying the lessons learned from Sara Del Rey.
26 Satoshi Kojima
If there was one word that could be used to describe ‘Strong Arm’ Satoshi Kojima, it would be ‘vicious’. Despite his relatively average stature (6 feet tall, 247 lbs.), Kojima has made a name for himself over the past decade as an excellent and well-rounded wrestler who could fit into any role. He’s one of the most decorated tag team wrestlers in Japan, having won countless tag team championships and tournaments in NJPW, AJPW and in smaller promotions. He’s also a skilled singles wrestler, being the first person to hold the prestigious Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship and IWGP Heavyweight Championship simultaneously.
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.
It wasn’t uncommon to see her Suplex, Powerbomb, and brutalize her opponents with a terrific arsenal of deadly maneuvers. If the sight of a woman doing crazy stuff like that isn’t enough to convince you to check out this wrestler in action, consider the following: she’s the one who invented the legendary Burning Hammer, one of the most dangerous moves of all time, and used it to great effect throughout her career.
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.
For more evidence of his excellence in the ring, consider the promotions he's worked for and the titles he has acquired. He has achieved championship gold in small indie promotions like Jersey All Pro Wrestling, comedy and 'entertainment-focused promotions' like Chikara and Dramatic Dream Team, and in major promotions like All Japan and New Japan. When he first started in NJPW, everyone thought that he'd be relegated to the comedy tier alongside other veterans and gimmick characters. Instead, Omega has matured into a serious-yet-entertaining heel and the new manager of the Bullet Club, all while putting on excellent matches against the best wrestlers NJPW has to offer.
23 Yoshihiro Takayama
Takayama is one wrestler who, theoretically, would have been one of Vince McMahon’s big successes. He was very tall (at least in Japan, where he towered over everyone else) that he was booked as an intimidating monster. The wrestler had considerable legitimacy both as an actual shoot fighter from his UWFi days and as one of the legit toughest men in pro wrestling (seriously, go watch his fight with Don Frye at Pride 21 and you’ll see how much pain this man can withstand). Given those attributes, it’s actually amazing and disappointing that WWE didn’t use him as a ‘monster heel’ character they like to book so regularly.
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.
Even though most of his reputation has spread from word of mouth, he has still had many excellent matches throughout his career so far. His bouts against Shinsuke Nakamura, Prince Devitt, and Bryan Danielson were all instant classics, and have elevated him to a point where he very well might be the biggest wrestler in the UK right now.
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.
If you’re the kind of wrestling fan who enjoys seeing wrestlers perform extremely high-risk moves to the point where you ask yourself, ‘how is that guy not dead?’, then Super Dragon is someone you absolutely must watch.
20 Naomichi Marufuji
Most people know about NOAH’s cruiserweight division mainly due to the work KENTA did during the 2000's. That mentality does a grave injustice to his longtime partner and rival, Naomichi Marufuji, who became one of NOAH’s top draws. Marufuji was the protégé of Mitsuharu Misawa, which immediately presented him as a big deal to NOAH’s audience. He certainly didn’t disappoint; like his fellow cruiserweights, he flew around the ring with impressive grace that allowed him to bring in tons of fans who loved that style and didn’t see it in AJPW, NOAH’s predecessor.
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.
The things he could do are simply mesmerizing, making it an even greater pity that he never got signed by one of the larger promotions like WWE. It’s too bad; he would’ve made them a ton of money in merchandise sales.
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.
Hashimoto was so popular, in fact (it's not that surprising, given how skilled he was) that prior to his unexpected death in 2005, there was an enormous bidding war for his services between the various Japanese promotions.
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).
From the moment he entered ROH to the present, he’s been putting on one fantastic match after another against a myriad of different opponents. From Bryan Danielson to Austin Aries, to Tyler Black (Seth Rollins) and Davey Richards, Strong has put on technical masterpieces with every single one of them. If there’s one reason to watch ROH in 2016, it would be to see Roderick Strong perform.
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.
What also makes Chono such a great wrestler is that he has kept going even after suffering borderline-debilitating injuries. He suffered a serious neck injury in 1994 (at the hands of Steve Austin, of all people), but kept going through the match. He also suffered through serious knee problems throughout the early 2000's, but kept appearing in high-profile matches and managed to make his matches even better by incorporating those problems into the stories he told in his matches. If that isn’t dedication to one’s craft, I don’t know what is.
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.
That reputation has followed him around the world and has led him to achieve considerable fame internationally. Even though he retired in 2014, Sasaki’s 28-year career has featured many must-watch matches, including his legendary chop battle with Kenta Kobashi that lasted almost five grueling minutes.
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).
But what makes him a truly time-tested draw was his adaptability to different situations. It didn’t matter who his opponent was or what their psychology was; Akiyama knew how to turn the situation into his advantage. This allowed him to take part in some truly must-see matches, including an absolute epic between Akiyama and partner Misawa against ‘Dr. Death’ Steve Williams and Johnny Ace (yes, Akiyama was so good he could make ‘Mr. Excitement’ look like a credible threat).
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.
Though he wasn’t as widely popular as other cruiserweights of his era like Jushin Liger or Ultimo Dragon, he was a cult favorite nonetheless, especially since he was able to blend his high-flying style with Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling (FMW)’s hardcore style seamlessly.
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).
Even though most people know him for his excellent aerial maneuvers, Ibushi is more than that: he can go toe-to-toe with absolutely anyone, as seen in his 5-Star classic with Shinsuke Nakamura at Wrestle Kingdom 9. Ibushi truly is a must-see wrestler, and WWE's bookers would be insane to exclude him from their upcoming cruiserweight invitational.
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.
Imagine if Brock Lesnar had the outrageous personality of ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper. You’d be entertained with his wacky expressions and outlandish personality, but you’d be worried for his opponents because you’d know that he could legitimately hurt them. That reaction has been happening for over a decade now, as Suzuki has been running roughshod over AJPW, NJPW and NOAH.
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.
This is a wrestler who executes 630° flips on a regular basis seemingly without effort, and has no trouble diving from elevated platforms into a ring. He’s the walking definition of ‘death-defying’ given how difficult and potentially life-threatening some of these moves are. If there was ever a high-flyer who defined the expression ‘visual masterpiece,’ it’d be Ricochet.
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.
At only 28 years old, Okada has already won the prestigious IWGP Heavyweight Championship three times, as well as numerous awards from both Tokyo Sports and the Wrestling Observer, and has taken part in one of the most exciting, multi-layered and well-developed feuds of the past decade opposite Hiroshi Tanahashi. Speaking of which…
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.
But where Tanahashi truly separates himself from Cena (in a good way), is that Tanahashi isn’t a ‘Superman’ character, in that he’s a one-dimensional and clear-cut good guy. Yes, Tanahashi is a clear-cut babyface; but he’s human and has human flaws, which allows him to show frustration, aggression and even vengeance.
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.
Though he wasn’t a particularly technical wrestler, he was living proof that Vince McMahon’s idea of making and pushing a character above all else isn’t just limited to WWE. Imagine if, just once, El Santo faced off against one of the WWE’s biggest stars like Sammartino, Morales or Backlund. The excitement and drawing power of such a match would be so big that WWE wouldn’t need to enter the Monday Night Wars, as their status at the top of the industry would be solidified.
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.
This made him a master of storytelling and ring psychology, to the point where the audience would react to even the simplest of strikes executed by this powerful wrestler. Those elements put together had a direct impact on AJPW’s success during the 1990's.
4 Manami Toyota
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.
She was so good, in fact, that to this day she’s the only woman to ever win the Wrestling Observer’s Most Outstanding Wrestler Award, an honor bestowed upon the likes of Kurt Angle, Jushin Liger, Bryan Danielson and A.J. Styles. She also had 8.5 star matches, and won Match of the Year in 1993 and 1995 - two years that featured a lot of outstanding matches. Since those awards aren’t given lightly, it speaks volumes of just how good she was in the ring.
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.
In fact, during his first appearance for ROH, Kobashi, who was convinced that no one knew who he was, received a roaring ovation from the audience for the entirety of his 23-minute match with Samoa Joe, proving that he was indeed an international draw. For wrestling fans who’ve caught the NJPW bug in recent months, you should absolutely watch Kobashi’s work over the decades. He’s one of the most exciting, dominant and interesting wrestlers to ever step foot in a wrestling ring.
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.
In later years, Muta wrestled more under his own name and invented the popular Shining Wizard move, which has been replicated many times over around the world. Mutoh could’ve wrestled for WWE, as he had wanted to in late 2000 but a no-compete clause in his WCW contract prevented him from doing so. Imagine the excitement we would’ve had if Muta came to a WWE ring and faced off against one of any of WWE’s biggest stars. The reaction would’ve been huge.
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.