The 2000s was one of the most exciting periods in professional wrestling history for many reasons. In North America, WCW and ECW closed their doors, leaving the now-public WWE as the unquestioned king of pro wrestling in the Western hemisphere. In Japan, both NJPW and AJPW experienced enormous changes and shocks, leading to a new promotion, Pro Wrestling NOAH, rising from the ashes and taking over the Japanese wrestling market for years. Finally, in Mexico, a slew of new stars gained international recognition, and lucha libre was given greater exposure.
Given all of these changes in the wrestling industry, it’s unsurprising that we, as fans, got to watch such an interesting blend of wrestlers perform during this decade. Old favorites, rising stars, outlandish characters, simple and one-dimensional grapplers, big monsters and tiny luchadores, we witnessed all of them during this interesting period.
But who was the best?
This article seeks to answer that question. It will rank the 30 best wrestlers from the 2000s from worst to best, based on a combination of characteristics: technical skill, charisma, drawing power, match record, longevity, and impact on the wrestling industry. To be considered for this list, wrestlers will have to have wrestled for a minimum of two years non-stop during the 2000s, and need to have wrestled in at least one major and high-profile match that garnered them international recognition.
29 Takeshi Morishima
Can be surprisingly agile when he wanted to
He rarely wanted to
So fat, in fact, that Vince McMahon likened him to a ‘fat Japanese girl’ during a WWE tryout match
Morishima was one of the few NOAH wrestlers to make a name for himself in the United States, thanks to a series of great matches in ROH against many strong opponents, including Bryan Danielson. It wasn’t hard to see why; despite being one of the most rotund wrestlers active during the 2000's, Morishima was surprisingly agile, capable of backing up his intense brawler style with impressive cartwheels and agility.
Of course, it didn’t help that he hit incredibly hard, which really made him popular whenever he went. Because he hit so hard, he was able to draw in fans who had grown tired of the overly-theatrical style that had become dominant following WWE’s takeover of the wrestling industry. Sadly, his look was his own downfall; it prevented him from being taken seriously as a wrestler when he was given a WWE tryout, and it came back to haunt him in later years as well.
28 Dragon Kid
Awesome gimmick, attire, and name
Moved so quickly in the ring that watching his videos requires slow-motion
His appearances were mostly limited to ROH and DGUSA
Stopped using the Dragonrana mid-way through the decade
Dragon Kid was basically Rey Mysterio on steroids. He moved with unbelievable speed and agility, and did things in the ring that few others could even think of doing. Some of his most impressive tricks included being able to run on the ropes before drop-kicking his opponents, multiple-rotation Hurricanranas, being able to execute pretty much any aerial maneuver conceivable, and his always-mesmerizing Dragonrana finisher.
27 Low Ki/Senshi/Kaval
Highly athletic junior heavyweight wrestler
Ridiculously stiff offense
Enjoyable to watch
Subpar promo skills
Has a reputation for starting problems with others
His voice doesn’t match his body
One of the biggest highlights of the independent scene during the 2000's was known as Senshi or Low Ki. He made waves in the smaller promotions as both one of the best all-round wrestlers and especially as one of the stiffest kickers around. It was this legitimacy and "stiffness" that drew fans to him, as they wanted to watch him inflict real punishment in a profession dominated by theatrics and illusions. His realistic approach led to some truly fantastic matches in ROH and TNA, especially in his X-Division matches and his cross-promotional matches with fellow kicking expert KENTA.
26 Keiji Mutoh
Unbelievably popular and charismatic
Had surprisingly good matches despite getting older
Invented the Shining Wizard
Didn’t always put 100% effort into his matches
Seemed to over-rely on said Shining Wizard
Has knees are now so weak that he can rarely wrestle in long matches anymore
In 2001, the man known as the Great Muta re-invented himself in a major way. Keiji Mutoh changed his look, started wrestling under his own name, and created one of the most popular wrestling moves ever in the Shining Wizard. Shortly thereafter, he jumped from NJPW to AJPW and launched the era of ‘Pro Wrestling Love’.
25 Christopher Daniels
‘King of the Indies’
Could work both as face and heel
Performed the Best Moonsault Ever
Never won a World title in a major promotion, despite deserving it
Was overlooked in TNA in favour of ‘ex-WWE guys’
Only had one 5-star match in TNA
Christopher Daniels was a fantastic wrestler from the first moment he stepped into a wrestling ring. It was unbelievably versatile, as demonstrated by his ability to adapt to any wrestling or booking situation. Whether he was working as a face or a heel, under his own name or under a different gimmick, in singles or tag team competition, Daniels rose to the occasion and delivered.
24 Claudio Castagnoli
Throws the best uppercuts in the world
Has more tag team accomplishments than singles achievements
May not cut the best promos
History as a comedy wrestler may have worked against him in some respects
Long before Cesaro was swinging people around and showing his amazing strength to the world in a WWE ring, Claudio Castagnoli was doing the same on the independent circuit. Not only that, he was able to showcase his charisma and adaptability by playing a wide variety of characters.
23 Naomichi Marufuji
One of NOAH’s most exciting junior heavyweights
Capable of working with pretty much anyone
For many years, Naomichi Marufuji’s career was linked directly to KENTA’s. Marufuji was Misawa’s protégé at the same time that KENTA was Kobashi’s, and the two of them spent many years teaming together and fighting each other. These led to some of the greatest matches in NOAH’s history which, given how impressive NOAH was during the first half of the 2000's, says a lot.
22 Rob Van Dam
Unorthodox wrestler that stood out from a crowd
Excellent hardcore & high-flying style
Suffered from backstage politicking
Made several critical mistakes during important pushes
Did little to adapt his gimmick in later years
Rob Van Dam stood out like a sore thumb in WWE. Where almost everyone followed a strict and easy-to-follow style, RVD was unorthodox and did things differently. When others were strict and passionate in their personalities, RVD was laid-back and easygoing. These things made him very popular with the WWE audience, especially since his popularity carried over from his old ECW days.
Ridiculously popular wrestler
Unmatched ratings draw and merchandise mover
Outstanding finisher and charisma
Left WWE in 2002 under controversial circumstances
Had his last match at WrestleMania XIX
Appeared sparsely thereafter
Steve Austin was the megastar that catapulted WWE into the future. From 1996 to early 2002, he was the unquestioned king of WWE, the man who could always be relied on to draw in the big crowds. He was the ideal superstar in every way, and it was hoped that he would carry the company form nay years during the 2000's.
21 Samoa Joe
Can execute jumping and diving moves despite his size
Legitimacy from martial arts background
Lacks the ‘superstar’ physique
Wildly underused in TNA
No, I mean REALLY underused in TNA
It didn’t take long for Samoa Joe to become a huge draw wherever he went. Despite being built like a large brawler, Joe quickly became a far more credible athlete by using a wide variety of submission holds and diving attacks that were quite unexpected for a man his size. He quickly made a big name for himself in Ring of Honor with his outstanding rivalry with CM Punk and his excellent match with Kenta Kobashi.
20 Jun Akiyama
Incredibly stiff offense
Impressive amateur wrestling background
Long catalog of excellent matches
Never became the huge main event draw everyone hoped he’d become
Spent over a decade in Kobashi’s shadow
Experienced booking problems while in NOAH
Known as one of the ‘Famous Five’, Jun Akiyama was one of the most outstanding wrestlers of the 1990s, and that reputation followed him into the 2000s. Akiyama was the wrestler around whom NOAH was initially built, and he proved his worth as a draw by out-wrestling virtually everyone.
19 Brock Lesnar
Unmatched combination of strength, agility and amateur wrestling experience
Capable of performing power, aerial, submission and any other kind of wrestling moves
Finished the decade as an internationally-recognized badass
Ended his first WWE run prematurely
Failed in his attempt at pro football
Caused many legal problems for both WWE and NJPW
Brock Lesnar was the ideal combination of everything that Vince loved in an athlete, and was unbelievable when he wrestled in WWE from 2002 to 2004. During that short period, Lesnar demolished the likes of Hulk Hogan to The Rock to the Undertaker to Ric Flair and even Steve Austin. As if destroying some of the biggest names in WWE history wasn’t enough, Lesnar also became the youngest WWE Champion in history, and worked several fantastic matches opposite Kurt Angle, Chris Benoit, and others.
18 Chris Benoit
Awesome technical wrestler
Was committed to helping rookies in WWE improve their in-ring skills
Was sent back to the midcard by 2005 without any explanation
Was then send to ECW, despite being a popular draw
Has become persona non grata in WWE
For many years, Chris Benoit was one of the pillars that held WWE’s locker room together. A time-tested workhorse, Benoit wasn’t just one of the most technically-skilled wrestlers in WWE; he was also very old school and respectful of WWE’s traditions, and took athleticism and keeping in shape very seriously. This made him one of the most respected figures in WWE by both his peers and by his fans.
17 The Rock
Outstanding talker with unbelievable charisma
Fantastic chemistry with many different wrestlers
Strong worker when it was required of him
Was more interested in Hollywood than wrestling by early 2000's
Caused a massive talent shortage upon departure
There wasn’t a single person more charismatic or savvy with a microphone during the 2000's more than The Rock. Even though he only lasted in WWE until 2004 (and after 2002 he was there mostly on a part-time/short-term basis), his influence on WWE cannot be ignored. He was unbelievably popular, and always got an enormous reaction from the audience, regardless of whom he was sharing the ring with.
16 CM Punk
Excellent, versatile wrestler
Natural charisma and ring presence
Very comfortable with a microphone
Has a notorious attitude problem
Also has an image problem in WWE
Must have broken many women’s hearts given his reputation as a ‘Casanova’
If there’s one wrestler who really showed passion, determination and commitment to pro wrestling, it was CM Punk. He truly started at the bottom, working in IWA-Mid South and in TNA as a mid-card wrestler. But over time, he became a wrestler worth watching. Though not as chiseled as other top stars, Punk made up for his shortcomings with his amazing promo skills, natural heel persona, and excellent technical wrestling against the top stars of the independent circuit.
Excellent kickboxing-centered wrestler
Wildly popular both domestically and internationally
Kicked people HARD
Kicked people HARD
May have p*ssed off some people for his style
KENTA was the most bad-ass rookie in the 2000's. Booked as having a little man complex, KENTA made up for his short stature by hitting people as hard as possible and executing a lot of impressive moves that many of his larger compatriots couldn’t. This made him one of the most popular draws in NOAH and abroad, but it also garnered him some controversy. KENTA hit people extremely hard almost all the time, and even by Japanese standards, that can become a liability more than an asset.
14 Randy Orton
Excellent physique and technical skill
Outstanding natural heel
Not the best at promos
Had an attitude problem backstage
WWE pushed Randy Orton to the moon early on for very good reason: he had the ideal combination of family ties, physical attributes, and personality needed to thrive in professional wrestling. He had the look that Vince wanted, he was a fantastic heel, and he seemed to make everything in the ring look easy, hence JBL’s constant repetition of those words. These assets led Orton to considerable success in WWE, including him becoming the youngest-ever World Heavyweight Champion.
13 Jeff Hardy
Awesome, unorthodox style
Impressive merchandise mover
Struggled with drug problems throughout the decade
Short World Title reigns
Over-relied on high spots and weapons at times
Jeff Hardy’s a rare case in pro wrestling: even after he makes so many mistakes (as seen by his personal choices and substance abuse problems), even after he keeps going through the same storylines, even after he fails to make any major changes to his wrestling style or persona, he stays wildly popular with the audience.
12 Eddie Guerrero
Helped change the perception of ‘small wrestlers’ in a big man’s world
Struggled with being World Champion
Sadly passed away far too early
His death was exploited for ratings
If there was one wrestler in WWE who really deserved to be at the top of the ladder, it was Eddie Guerrero. He was a tireless workhorse who worked unbelievably hard and did whatever necessary to get over with the audience. Even when he was supposed to be a heel, or when he was put against bigger stars, some fans still cheered for him because they knew how good of a wrestler he was.
11 Chris Jericho
Outstanding technical wrestler
Impressive charisma and microphone skills
Took part in many memorable moments and matches
Wasn’t taken seriously as a draw during his Undisputed Championship reign
Left WWE for two years
The Codebreaker isn’t as cool a finisher
From January 2000 to December 2009, Chris Jericho could always be relied on to put on a great match, cut a great promo, and make a good rivalry great. Whether it was his excellent feuds with Shawn Michaels in both 2003 and 2008, his many multi-man matches, or his quickly-organized yet well-executed feud with Rey Mysterio in 2009, Jericho was more than capable of excellent matches.
10 Kenta Kobashi
Still an awesome wrestler, despite spending almost two years on the shelf
Put on several outstanding matches during this decade
Had a two-year reign of excellence as NOAH’s GHC Heavyweight Champion
Basically had no more functioning knees by 2006
Became a semi-regular draw by late 2007
Experienced considerable health-related setbacks that damaged his career and NOAH’s success
Kenta Kobashi may have been the best wrestler in the world during his prime. Even though he spent over a year on the shelf with extensive knee surgery, Kobashi still managed to become arguably the biggest wrestler on the entire planet during the early 2000's.
Masterful gimmicks and character work
Evolved from ‘glorified tag team wrestler’ to ‘certified main-eventer’
Easily one of the best heels in recent WWE history
Lost his impressive physique by the end of the decade
Executed one of the least-impressive Spears
Didn’t have that many top opponents towards the end of the decade
Edge was one of the biggest success stories of the entire 2000's. He began the decade as a ‘glorified tag team wrestler’ with a cheesy comedy gimmick, and finished it as the most decorated wrestler in WWE history. 11 World Championships, a staggering 14 tag team championships and numerous other accolades are all testament to his vast skill and abilities. He really matured into a top wrestler by the mid-2000s, becoming one of the biggest and best heels in recent memory.
8 Rey Mysterio
Outstanding cruiserweight wrestler
Probably made WWE millions in merchandise sales
Suffered from extensive knee problems throughout the decade
Had an abysmal World Title run
Became repetitive towards the end of the decade
Rey Mysterio was the perfect, multi-use tool for WWE. He had an exciting and eye-catching wrestling style that drew in casual and die-hard wrestling fans alike. He was a natural underdog that people loved to gravitate towards, making him a natural babyface. He was a beloved superhero that everyone enjoyed watching, and he made WWE millions in merchandise.
7 Triple H
Masterful heel persona and ring psychology
Allegations of backstage politicking made people genuinely disinterested in him
Often put on repetitive matches
Spent way too much time in the Title picture
While some might dismiss HHH’s long time in the World Title picture to backstage politics, the fact is that Triple H was a great wrestler in many respects. He had the look of a superstar, without a doubt. He had an excellent understanding of ring psychology, owing to his training from Killer Kowalski. He had, and still possesses, great charisma and comfort with a microphone.
The only real marks against him were that his matches and feuds became highly repetitive, and the evidence that supports his allegations of corruption is too prominent to ignore. Say what you want about his flaws; HHH was a tremendous superstar for many years, and his current position as part of the Authority is proof of his commitment to, and understanding of, the wrestling business.
6 The Undertaker
Outstanding gimmick work
Started putting on better and better matches
Elevated many top stars during this decade
The American Badass gimmick is widely forgotten in WWE
Also took part in many abysmal matches
Was also paired with several failure opponents and partners
There were many reports that The Undertaker planned on retiring several times during this decade, first around 2000 and then again around 2005. Thankfully, that never came to pass, and the Undertaker continued his long-standing tradition of being one of the most entertaining and venerated wrestlers in history. Undertaker managed to re-define himself successfully as the American Badass for a few years, and provided fans with some really interesting moments.
5 Bryan Danielson
Masterful technique and mat work capabilities
Capable of eliciting a response from the audience by doing very little
Very limited character work
Not the best during interviews
Long before Daniel Bryan was main-eventing WrestleMania XXX, Danielson was considered the best technical wrestler on the entire planet. He had a natural ring presence, and was a certified master of technical wrestling. He could apply and get out of any hold, he could strike incredibly hard (hence fan chants of ‘you’re gonna get your f***in head kicked in’), and he always knew when to use certain moves in the ring. It’s because of those skills that he put on so many breathtaking matches in ROH and Dragon Gate, and why his WWE signing was such an unbelievable moment.
4 Shawn Michaels
Still a masterful wrestler and storyteller
Managed to steal the show despite becoming a part-time performer during later years
Could put on a memorable match with literally anyone
Part-time schedule hurt WWE ratings in later years
Didn’t look like he was comfortable in some DX segments
Short World title reign
Shawn Michaels returned to WWE in 2002 after a four year absence, yet it was as if he never left in the first place. HBK still possessed the same level of skill, psychology and charisma as he had before, with the only major change in his personality. Gone was the prima-donna Michaels from the 1990s. In his place was a born-again Michaels who seemed humbled by his back injury.
3 John Cena
Considerable natural charisma
Could put on excellent matches when booking demanded it
Booking rarely demanded it
Experienced some very boring rivalries during this decade
In the span of a decade, John Cena debuted against Kurt Angle, adopted an entertaining rapper gimmick, won the WWE Championship many times, and became the biggest WWE superstar in terms of drawing power and merchandising since ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin. Because WWE wanted to make a ‘new Hogan’ out of Cena, they put him in matches against true technical masters to really help him grow as a wrestler.
2 A.J. Styles
Extremely versatile wrestler
Wildly popular wherever he went
Deserved to be on a bigger stage
Sub-par promo skills at times
The Styles Clash didn’t look that powerful
For a decade, A.J. Styles was TNA. It wasn’t hard to see why; he was an outstanding technical wrestler who could do literally anything; he was an outstanding high-flyer who could also pull off impressive power moves; and he had a subtle charisma that made him both easy to connect with. It’s no wonder that TNA’s fans have long considered Styles to be the biggest name in the promotion, and arguably the biggest home-grown star in that promotion’s history.
1 Kurt Angle
Masterful amateur and professional wrestler
Unmatched skill and adaptability
Can be wacky, serious, face, heel…you name it
Multiple injuries hampered his performance
Had to deal with drug problems on several occasions
Had to deal with drug problems on several occasions
There’s no other way about this: Kurt Angle was the best wrestler during the 2000's. He put on the best matches, was the most consistent wrestler during that entire decade, and managed to put on a clinic with every single one of his opponents. It was rare to see Angle ever put on a ‘bad’ match, and even when he had to say or do something stupid, it was very hard to boo him.
Whether he was in WWE or in TNA, Angle was the most outstanding wrestler of the 2000s, and truly deserved to be called ‘Wrestler of the Decade (2000s’) by the Wrestling Observer.
Sources: wwe.com, profightdb.com, wrestlingdata.com
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