SI Now: John Cena's wrestling Mt. Rushmore
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SI Now: John Cena's wrestling Mt. Rushmore
Luke Winkie
Tuesday July 26th, 2016

Ranking the top 101 wrestlers of all time is a tall task. After all, how does one compare a star of the '50s (Lou Thesz) to a star of the '80s (Ric Flair) to a star of today (John Cena)? We poured through old YouTube videos, wrestling mags and the WWE Network (just $9.99!) to come up with our final list. We hope you agree with the choices. If not, let us know at On to the list. 

101. The Miz

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You might snort at this, but I actually think The Miz has become a truly idiosyncratic part of the WWE. Yeah he’s never going to be great in the ring, but Miz is a fantastic heel who has reinvented himself a number of times over his 12 years in the WWE. Is he an all-timer? No, that’s why he’s up here at 101, but I feel like someday we’ll look back on Miz the same way we look back on Ted DiBiase.

100. Frank Gotch

We have to include one guy from the carnival era, and that guy is Frank Gotch. To give you some perspective, Gotch died in 1917, so his version of wrestling is sort of like Naismith’s version of basketball, but it was still important! Someone had to invent the idea of fixed fights, okay?

99. Wild Bill Longson

We have to give it up to Wild Bill. He came up in the Vaudeville days, back when wrestling was trying to be as realistic as possible, and invented the Piledriver, which might be the least realistic looking wrestling move ever. It’s also super iconic, which is why he’s on the list.

98. Christopher Daniels

Daniel Bryan, Samoa Joe and A.J. Styles eventually made it to WWE, but Christopher Daniels is one of the few remaining standouts of his generation yet to make it to the main event. It’s a shame because he’s great in the ring and capable of a solid promo. At 46, we hope he has one last renaissance left in him.

97. JBL

JBL was a great character. I know we forget that when he was being a blight on commentary, but the exaggerated stock-market billionaire gimmick made him immensely hateable, and a great foil for a kid in jean shorts named John Cena. Hopefully as time goes on, we give JBL the Lawler treatment, where we forgive his sins in the announcer’s booth for his talent in the ring.

96. Big Show

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Big Show is underrated. Underrated on the mic, in the ring, athletically, technically and emotionally. He has had a bona fide Hall of Fame career, and even when he’s given nothing—like that Roman Reigns match from last year—he still puts a unique spin on things.

95. Ron Simmons


94. Christian

This might be one of the few times that a wrestler gets on this list for his work in TNA, but after a solid single’s career and a great tag-team run in WWE, Christian proved he could be a title holder in a place careers usually go to die. We’re still a little sore about the Randy Orton feud, but hey, no big deal I guess.

93. Lita

While she was never an elite wrestler, Lita showed young girls around the world that one doesn't need to be a blonde fitness model to succeed in the business. Instead, one really could grow up loving wrestling and make it their life. This video of a young A.J. Lee meeting her idol says it all.

92. Batista

His latest return has soured us (and that’s both his and WWE’s fault) but Batista was a really good wrestler who had a lot of great matches. His streak match with Undertaker is enough to be on this list alone. Sure he was never as popular as Vince McMahon probably wanted him to be, but Big Dave absolutely made an impact, and I hope he makes it back to the company to end things in a proper way.

91. Kevin Nash

I know, it’s Kevin Nash. But I love the weird little niche he’s carved out in wrestling. He’s always been kinda self-deprecating and acutely aware of his limitations. He once tossed an arm-drag in TNA to this hilariously shocked pop. I know it’s weird to put someone on a list of the greatest wrestlers because he’s a good shoot interview, but whatever, I just like Kevin Nash. Okay? I genuinely think he’s underrated.

90. Shinsuke Nakamura

Maybe this is another one we’re jumping the gun on, but whatever. Shinsuke Nakamura has created so much wrestling joy over the last few years, and even if tomorrow he explodes or goes back to MMA or something, his peak will be remembered forever. He was the single best thing about New Japan Pro Wrestling, and now he’s the single best thing about NXT.

89. Johnny Valentine

Johnny Valentine loved to work stiff. His motto was “Make every punch and kick count.” You can do a lot of tricks to make your brawling look real, or you could just… punch someone for real. Valentine was a top-star through the ‘70s, mostly because he was willing to put his body on the line.

88. Michael Hayes

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One of the industry’s best talkers, he's the motor that stoked the Freebirds feuds. It’s hard to say if Michael Hayes would’ve been as successful as a single’s competitor, but either way he’s left an indelible mark on the business.

87. Pedro Morales

Pedro Morales had plenty of time with the WWE championship, but he also was responsible for elevating the Intercontinental Title after his legendary 600-day reign. That strap has been through a lot over the decades, but Morales proved there’s no ceiling to the significance of a secondary title.

86. The Iron Sheik

The greatest foreign heel ever, mostly because he was actually foreign. The Iron Sheik was born in Tehran, and eventually fell in the business under Verne Gagne. Somebody had to beat Bob Backlund to get the belt on Hulk Hogan, right? I love the Iron Sheik because in a weird, twisted way he does kind of represent the American dream.

85. Davey Boy Smith

Davey Boy Smith, or The British Bulldog, was one of the great technical wizards of the ‘80s and ‘90s, wrestling great matches all across the world. He is best remembered for the SummerSlam main event in London, where he beat Bret Hart in front of about 80,000 countrymen. It was another life claimed too early by steroids, and you get the feeling that Smith had a lot more to give the business.

84. Blue Demon

A hero in Mexico, a patriarch of a wrestling lineage, and the master of the chop, Blue Demon is immediately iconic. He is also one of the guys who put the hair vs. mask trope on the map, which continues to be the greatest stipulation in wrestling history.

83. Jimmy Snuka

Ignore for a minute the whole “he allegedly murdered his girlfriend thing,” because unfortunately, Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka does have to be on this list. He was one of the first guys to ever go top rope, which was obviously a pretty huge innovation. Real shame we can’t talk about him without shaking our heads and feeling weird though.

82. Ed Lewis

Some of these older guys deserve to be on this list simply for a few core innovations. Like Ed Lewis! Ed Lewis invented the sleeper hold. That alone is enough. If you create one of the four basic moves in wrestling, welcome to immortality.

81. Kane

Kane won’t ever achieve the singular fame as The Undertaker, but there’s no question that Glenn Jacobs has proved to be a super useful asset to the WWE. Whether he’s an emasculated corporate shill or tagging with Daniel Bryan, he’s always serving a role.

80. Seth Rollins

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Consider this an upside pick. Yes Seth Rollins has only been in the WWE for a few years, but he has a bunch of great work in PWG and Ring of Honor, and his matches with Dean Ambrose, John Cena, and Brock Lesnar already speak for themselves. Also, he’s only 29. In 10 years I expect to see Seth in the top 20, maybe the top 10.

79. Chyna

The WWE has always had some questionable politics when it comes to how its female talent could look, but in the late ’90s it had Chyna, a woman who was proudly muscular and androgynous. She could also wrestle like crazy, (ask Chris Jericho.) Unfortunately, Chyna died too young to be welcomed back in the WWE fold, and that remains one of the greatest tragedies in the company’s history.

78. Mike Quackenbush

The quintessential vanilla midget, Mike Quackenbush had maybe the most unmarketable look ever. Short, pallid, ordinary, but still capable of some of the most thrilling offense one will ever see. I don’t think anyone will ever capture the egalitarian spirit of the indies quite like Quack. Currently he’s running Chikara, which takes pro wrestling to its comic-book extremes, which makes me love him even more.

77. Akira Maeda

Japanese pro wrestling in the ‘80s was really something. Like Inoki, Akira Maeda had a background in MMA, and worked hard to protect puroresu as a legitimate sport. That meant a lot of hard strikes, which made him really fun to watch. He’s also responsible for one of the more noteworthy shoot fights in the industry, after he refused to job to an aging Andre The Giant.

76. Rick Steiner

If I’m ranking Scott, I have to rank Rick, too, because they’re both responsible for their great tag matches (you know, before Scott lost his mind.) Rick’s legacy got lost in the shuffle once the mid-’90s came around, but the Frankensteiner lives forever.

75. Scott Steiner

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I get that ranking Scott Steiner ahead of people like Christopher Daniels might seem like heresy to a certain type of wrestling fan, but you’re wrong. For one, Scott Steiner was a legitimately great wrestler before his body ate his brain, and two, latter-day Steiner is hilarious. I don’t care if it’s intentional or not, Steiner Math is one of the most memorable moments this industry has ever seen, and he deserves his spot on the list.

74. El Hijo del Santo

While his father was more famous, El Hijo del Santo is kind of like the Sting of Mexican wrestling. He’s been a top draw as a babyface, a heel and as a tag-team, and ruled the roost through the ‘80s and ‘90s south of the border. Next to Randy Orton, nobody has filled his father’s shoes better.

73. Kevin Von Erich

Part of me thinks we should put the whole Von Erich family here, but unfortunately it doesn’t work that way. Kevin Von Erich was the oldest brother (and one of the best wrestlers) out of the talented and tragic Von Erich family, and their legendary feud with the Fabulous Freebirds has a rightful place in the lore.

72. Abdullah The Butcher

My vote for the scariest guy in the industry. Abdullah was this huge, bloodthirsty monster who’d go from territory to territory and cut massive gashes in the heads of your favorite wrestlers. It’s not the tidiest way to make money in the business, but it certainly drew, and the death matches of today owe him back tax.

71. Gene Kiniski

What a workhorse Gene Kiniski was. He was a big, burly heel who spent over 1,000 days as NWA Champion. He spent a ton of time in AWA, NWA and the fledgling WWE. It’s hard to think of a guy who witnessed more history in more places than Kiniski.

70. William Regal

When you get to NXT, you’re instructed to watch this match between Regal and Benoit. It’s only 13 minutes, but it’s a technical masterclass. Two men trying to win a match, with no grand storyline motivations or blood feuds. Regal could make anything magic, and he did so for decades.

69. Fabulous Moolah

Like you, I’ve heard the horror stories about how the Fabulous Moolah treated other, younger female wrestlers, but she did hold a belt for 30 years. If I’m going to include Sammartino, I have to give her credit too. I don’t feel great about it, but I can’t not, right?

68. Ultimate Warrior

No, he couldn’t really wrestle. Yes, he has like, exactly one match worth watching. Yes, he turned out to be a raging homophobe and alienated everyone in the industry. But still, the Ultimate Warrior is iconic, and pro wrestling is about icons. Sometimes all you need is a cool entrance and a couple insane promos.

67. Dean Malenko

He had neither the underdog fighting spirit of Chris Benoit nor the undeniable charisma of Eddie Guerrero, which means that Malenko was always left on the outside looking in when it came to big pushes. Not that it matters though, because Malenko could wrestle circles around 95 percent of the people on this list, and for a certain type of fan, that’s all that mattered.

66. Trish Stratus

Sometimes I wonder if things hadn’t worked out for Trish Stratus, and she had turned out to be just another fitness model brought in for easy dollars. Instead, she took to the business naturally, and a decade since her retirement it’s hard to think of any female superstars in WWE who’ve eclipsed her. If it wasn’t for Trish, people wouldn’t take talent like Alexa Bliss or Carmella seriously. That can’t be understated.

65. Scott Hall

Scott Hall, or Razor Ramon, was ahead of his time. While the rest of WWE was still playing in the kiddy pool with silly gimmicks and over-the-top matches, Hall embraced a slight edginess that’d predict the Attitude Era and go on to make him an even bigger star in nWo. Personal issues sunk his in-ring career before it should have, but there’s no question that the Razor Ramon character was groundbreaking.

64. Ultimo Dragon

Everyone loves Ultimo Dragon. From his high-flying offense to ridiculous ring gear, the guy truly defined what it meant to be a cruiserweight. Nobody in a major company would ever put the title on him, but when one is as talented as he was, it’s difficult to care.

63. Larry Zbyszko

Larry Zbyszko put together a pretty groundbreaking storyline with Bruno Sammartino. For years Zbyszko was Sammartino’s protege—a spunky kid tagging along and taking notes. When they finally had a match in 1980, Zbyszko blindsided his mentor with a wooden chair, turning him into a humongous heel. It flirted with some more complicated tones than just “he’s the Russian guy,” which was hard to find in the WWE during that era. These days you probably remember Zbyszko for his commentary in WCW, but it’s important to consider his golden era too.

62. Chris Benoit

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Look, he was a great wrestler and was adored by his friends. I don’t like how people have turned Benoit’s murder-suicide into a sympathetic tragedy just because of how messed up his brain was after all those concussions. It just comes off like an easy way to deflect blame. But there were never any questions about his ability, and a list like this wouldn’t be complete without him. Sigh.

61. Ivan Koloff

The first megaheel. When Ivan Koloff beat Bruno Sammartino for the WWWF title 1971, the referee waited until he was back in the locker room before awarding him the title. The risk of a riot was too great. Every monster foreign heel that’s come along since, from The Iron Sheik to Rusev, were are following in this Quebecois’ footsteps.

60. Goldberg

He counts. I know there were a lot of things wrong with Goldberg’s streak, but there’s no denying that the guy was white-hot for a while, and in pro wrestling, ephemeral success is plenty legitimate. If we’re going to include Ultimate Warrior, we have to give Goldberg a nod. All it takes is a couple power moves to conquer the world.

59. Jeff Hardy

Jeff Hardy recently told the world what his dream retirement match would be, and it involved Swanton Bombing Undertaker from the top of a Hell in a Cell, climbing back on top of the cage, Swanton Bombing Taker again and missing, and then getting pinned after a Tombstone. Jeff Hardy is crazy. He has absolutely no regard for his body, and that’s what made us love watching him. This industry is dangerous, but if you embrace that, it can make you pretty undeniable.

58. Owen Hart

Still one of the biggest tragedies in wrestling, Owen Hart died far too young and left an incomprehensible amount of potential left on the table. It’s hard not to imagine that if things went differently, Owen could’ve been one of the biggest stars of the Attitude Era and beyond.

57. "Ravishing" Rick Rude​

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Rick Rude was a dependable worker, but he deserves most of his credit for being an absolutely amazing character. It’s weird to think that nobody in the industry has ever captured the “handsome prick” mystique since–and sorry, no, Batista doesn’t count. Sure he was never a stalwart main eventer, but Rick Rude brought color, and that’s all we’re looking for sometimes.

56. Tatsumi Fujinami

When people wax poetic about the older, realer days, they’re talking about stuff like Tatsumi Fujinami beating Ric Flair, and holding the IWGP title and NWA title at the same time. Fujinami was one of the Japanese greats, and one of the first torchbearers to unite both sides of the Pacific.

55. Rob Van Dam

I love Rob Van Dam because he’s an outsider. A semi-chubby stoner bro who brings tight strikes, superfluous high spots and great selling into his legend. He also seems amazingly chilled out about everything in a near-Daniel Bryan way. Yeah he hasn’t innovated much since 2002, but his ECW work stands tall.

54. Nick Bockwinkel

Bockwinkel had a great gimmick. He cut these quick, articulate promos that dug down into the minutia of kayfabe, and people hated him for it. In pro wrestling you can create a heel persona out of being a smart, informed, confident jerk, and I wish more people took inspiration from his posture.

53. Mil Mascaras

People like Rey Mysterio might be more famous in the long run, but when Mil Mascaras went to work for Vince McMahon Sr. in the ‘70s, he introduced the world at large to a fertile lucha style. If nothing else, it proved to American audiences that this business really did stretch all over the world.

52. Verne Gagne

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Verne was one of wrestling’s first stars in the burgeoning TV boom back in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and he perfected a style of wholesome mat-wrestling that’d be super influential for a number of internet darlings today. Of course, Gagne is best remembered for running the legendary AWA–but his in-ring career was just as important.

51. Terry Funk

Terry Funk is still wrestling. He’s 72 and has had dozens of retirement matches–the latest coming last year against Jerry Lawler. In the ‘70s he wrestled title matches around the NWA, in the ‘80s he made it to WWE, and by the ‘90s he was laying the groundwork in ECW. That’s a super-varied career, and I don’t think we’ll ever see anything like it again.

50. Samoa Joe

People at Samoa Joe’s matches chant “Joe is gonna kill you” because next to Brock Lesnar, there’s frankly never been a more devastating striker in the fake stuff. Joe has put on a number of great matches in TNA, but like a lot of former stars of that company, he’s currently enjoying a renaissance carrying the NXT title. We’re hoping he gets a couple shots against the John Cenas and Randy Ortons of the world before he hangs up his boots for good.

49. Goldust

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Dusty Rhodes’ eldest son trades in his one-in-a-million pedigree for a ballgag and facepaint and accidentally invents the Attitude era. Dustin Runnels could’ve had it a lot easier, but instead he got over as an androgynous, non-binary sex robot thing. This came at a time when The Goon was still in the company. What a crazy risk, and somehow it worked.

48. Gorgeous George

Gorgeous George came to the ring in a flamboyant, renaissance era robe, and then he’d relentlessly cheat until he was chased out of the arena. George got his start in the ‘50s, when pro wrestling was trying to look as close to the real thing as possible, and he was one of the first guys to push the industry towards the “sports entertainment” end of the spectrum.

47. The Great Muta

If you’re a wrestling fan you probably already know The Great Muta for his great matches in WCW and his continued success in New Japan Pro Wrestling. If we were just going by matches, Muta wouldn’t have any trouble landing on this list. But what makes Keiji Mutoh special is how much of a pioneer he was for other Japanese workers. He was the first guy from his country to gain significant success in North America, and when Shinsuke Nakamura inevitably gets his NXT title shot, we’ll all know where that tradition started.

46. A.J. Styles

The former face of TNA has made an excellent case for his place as an all-timer over the past few years. I mean, sure, he’s had plenty of good moments in the company that made him famous, but after leaving that sinking ship he joined New Japan Pro Wrestling and had a crazy run of great matches with people like Okada, Nakamura and Tanahashi. Apparently that wasn’t satisfying enough, because this year he joined WWE and is on another string of fantastic programs with Chris Jericho, Roman Reigns, and now, John Cena. Honestly, in a couple years it wouldn’t surprise me if A.J. belongs in the top 20.

45. The Sheik

No, not The Iron Sheik, though they certainly were cut out of the same cloth. We can talk up Abdullah The Butcher and Bruiser Brody, but the original Sheik was where hardcore wrestling began. He bit, carved and bled—happily and viciously—to a legion of shocked Americans. Hats off.

44. Arn Anderson

Anderson was the most physically gifted of the Four Horsemen, but unfortunately his in-ring career was cut short after a number of injuries in 1997. He still has the greatest spinebuster in wrestling, and his imposing presence as Ric Flair’s enforcer is relevant and influential to this day.

43. Jake "The Snake" Roberts

Jake wasn’t a great wrestler, but he’s been responsible for some of the fundamental beats in wrestling. The DDT. That was him. He came up with that move. When he was asked what it meant, Jake, in his usual terse snarl, replied, “the end.” He was a master salesman with an expansive vocabulary, and we’re all happy he seems to be dealing with his demons.

42. Rikidozan

Rikidozan was the first great hero in Japanese wrestling. He came to prominence in the ‘50s, fresh after World War II, when national morale was at an all-time low. He was their superhero, the guy who could beat all those American wrestlers. Puroresu has thrived over the past few decades, but that all goes back to Rikidozan.

41. Lou Thesz

Lou Thesz was one of those guys who came up during pro wrestling’s carnival/vaudeville era. He’s sort of hard to gauge because his greatest matches happened in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s. But he certainly has cast a long shadow. Whenever you see "Stone Cold" Steve Austin jump onto his opponent and push him into the mat, you’re watching a Lou Thesz Press. That counts for something.

40. Eddie Guerrero

Eddie was one of the most likable people to ever enter the business, and he’s perhaps the only guy who could cheat to win and get a huge babyface pop. There are a lot of tragic deaths in wrestling, but this one still hurts every day.

39. Mr. Perfect

Extra Mustard
Thirteen years after his death, Curt Hennig remains ‘Perfect’

There’s a running joke about how Mr. Perfect’s Wikipedia picture has him working as a guest referee, because it really does feel like Curt Hennig spent more time injured than in the ring. But when he was healthy, he was outstanding. Athletic, fearless, strong, all wrapped up in astonishing body control. I often wish Hennig were still alive just so he could be around the NXT Kids.

38. Dory Funk Jr.

Not only was Dory Funk Jr. an NWA legend and responsible for inventing the cloverleaf, but also he runs the Funking Conservatory, which has produced talent like The Hardys, Rhyno, William Regal as well as Edge and Christian. Dory Funk Jr.’s philosophy has trickled down into a generation of talent.

37. El Santo

El Santo was more than a wrestler, he was a folk hero. He turned a legendary run in the ‘60s to a prodigious film career, and entwined his soul around Mexican pro wrestling. Everything about him was poetic. He removed his mask exactly once, about a week before he died. Pro wrestling is a place of imagination and fantasy, but sometimes it’s at it’s best when the art imitates life.

36. Big Van Vader

Vader’s legacy was cut short after he went to WWE and Vince McMahon bungled his booking—turning one of the most prominent monster heels ever into Shawn Michaels’ perch. But he was really great in Japan and WCW, and that shouldn’t be forgotten.

35. Rey Mysterio

It’s amazing it took so long for Rey Mysterio to get real main event chances. Yes he was tiny, but you’re talking about a guy who could propel himself 360 degrees in the space between the ropes. Whether Mysterio was working in AAA, or underground ECW shows, or jobbing around WCW, or during his late-career championship reigns in WWE, he’s always been a joy to watch.

34. KENTA/Hideo Itami

Kenta is currently Hideo Itami, and clocking time in WWE’s NXT, but as KENTA he’s had some of the best matches with your favorite wrestlers. Seriously, go check out his stiff kicks on Daniel Bryan. You won’t be disappointed.

33. Bruiser Brody

He was a big hairy dude who punched and kicked his way across the country. It was messy, but it was awesome, and all the great brawlers in the world, from Dean Ambrose to Stone Cold Steve Austin, owe something to Brody’s unruliness.

32. "Million Dollar Man" Ted DiBiase

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Ted DiBiase might have my favorite gimmick ever. He was a rich, conceited coward who was capable of some of the most damnable heel moves ever—like buying his own championship belt or straight-up humiliating a 10-year old kid. It’s the sort of stuff WWE would be squeamish about today, which is something we rarely say when looking back to the late ‘80s. DiBiase was also great in the ring and had a lot of respect for the business, but it’s his top-notch character work that keeps him timeless.

31. CM Punk

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CM Punk made wrestling cool. That feeling is few and far between in this industry, but between his groundbreaking promos, erudite wit, excellent ring psychology and, yeah, a great sense of style, Punk is responsible for one of the most unique runs in the history of WWE.

30. Bruno Sammartino

Welcome to the dumbest entry on this list. I mean, seriously, where are you supposed to rank Bruno Sammartino? The guy held the gold for longer than anyone else on earth (4,040 days) and obviously laid the foundation for future generational faces like Hulk Hogan and John Cena. But still, nobody is exactly exploring his back catalog. Wrestling hipsters aren’t tipping you to great Sammartino matches the way they’ll tout Tully Blanchard or Barry Windham. So we’re slotting him here. Close to the top! But below, like, Daniel Bryan. Maybe that’s disrespectful, or maybe it’s just honest.

29. Mitsuharu Misawa

Twenty-four five-star matches as ranked by Dave Meltzer, a three time Wrestler of the Year according to the Wrestling Observer, and owner of more ugly bumps than anyone on this list not named Mick Foley. There’s a small part of me that believes you need to succeed on the grandest stage of them all to be enshrined on Mount Rushmore, and unfortunately Misawa never really made it to American TV, but you shouldn’t care. Rest in peace Misawa, we hope you’re still throwing stiff forearms.

28. Stan "The Lariat" Hansen

Stan Hansen might be the greatest cowboy character ever. That’s saying something, considering “cowboy” rivals “evil Russian” as the most consistent character trope in sports entertainment. He was big and mean, and brandished a bullwhip and a mouthful of tobacco. Hansen might be more revered in Japan than he ever was in America, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s one of the greatest of all time.

27. Brock Lesnar

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Brock Lesnar has probably worked fewer wrestling matches than anyone else on this list, but there’s something to be said for stakes. Lesnar elevates everything. Kayfabe might be dead and buried, but because of Lesnar's UFC credentials, vicious offense and, yeah, a lot of protection from the writer’s room, it’s hard to think of another wrestler with a more mythic aura. Lesnar turned a Roman Reigns match into one of the best WrestleMania main events ever. Just… think about that for a second.

26. Jushin “Thunder” Liger

If most of your wrestling intake is WWE, and you haven’t ever dabbled in the indie stuff or Japanese stuff, I recommend watching NXT Takeover: Brooklyn from last year. The opening match is Tyler Breeze vs. special guest Jushin “Thunder” Liger. Liger works his usual high-flying style, and at one point my then-girlfriend asked “so when is this guy getting called up?”

I told her that Jushin Liger is 50.

A 50-year old man is working convincing matches with the best young talent in the world. And honestly, after watching Liger for three decades, none of us are all that surprised.

25. Bob Backlund

I love Bob Backlund. He’s a crazy person, but he also happens to have the second longest WWF title reign ever. He’s 6”1 in suspenders and a bow-tie, who is both responsible for some technical masterpieces and jobbing out to Diesel in eight seconds. The guy threw himself into anything he was involved with, which is what’s kept him around for so long.

24. Edge

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Edge is the sort of guy we’ve learned to appreciate more after he retired. He wasn’t like The Rock, but after great programs with John Cena, a fantastic Undertaker streak match and some of the most pure evil heel moves ever, I can’t think of many people who had a better career. Also, he gave us The Brood, and The Brood was awesome.

23. Buddy Rogers

Outside of the really old stuff, like George Hackenschmidt, Buddy Rogers was kind of the first guy. He broke into the industry in the ‘60s, bringing a then-unique set of offensive moves, like body slams and piledrivers. Combine that with a great physique and you had a star. In the late ‘70s, he’d put over Ric Flair, making him the new “nature boy.” Yeah, the most legendary wrestler of all time got his start from a Buddy Rogers rub. That’s all you need to say.

22. Triple H

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What a weird career Triple H has had. From a jobber with a terrible gimmick to rising up the card towards a back-from-injury instant babyface, to a decade of incensed smarks tearing down his ring-work and ego while he goes over misused talent like CM Punk and Booker T, to now, where he’s one of the hippest guys in the industry. I don’t think there’s a single person in the history of WWE who’s had a more contentious journey up the ranks. Regardless, he's still making it work. Triple H was never truly great, but through three decades of his very good matches and very good promos, we have to give credit where credit is due.


21. Daniel Bryan

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If we’re only talking about his WWE work, Daniel Bryan burned twice as bright for half as long—giving us one truly memorable WrestleMania campaign and a few years defined by the near-misses in the mid-card. Thankfully, Bryan’s legendary indie career deservedly shoots him up this list. He may not have been on TV long enough to join the pantheon, but he was about as close as one can possibly get.


20. Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat

If I had to pick one wrestler to go 30 minutes in a serious, no-chicanery main event, I’d take The Dragon every time. He was never great on the mic, and his character didn’t deviate from fiery, sorta naive babyface, but my god, the wars he had with Ric Flair might be the best wrestling has ever looked. It’s often hard to defend the artistry of pro wrestling while Ultimate Warrior is trying to make a splash look dangerous, but the precise, violent grace of Steamboat put all those chortles to bed.


19. Antonio Inoki

Inoki has worked with practically every legend of wrestling, and he’s responsible for maybe the greatest Hulk Hogan match of all time. But beyond his prodigious in-ring career, this is also the man who founded New Japan Pro Wrestling—providing a mecca for talent all over the world. Basically, imagine if Vince McMahon was a fantastic grappler, that’s kind of who Antonio Inoki is.

18. Kurt Angle

Kurt Angle wasn’t the first guy to enter the wrestling business green and take to it naturally. He’s not even the one who did it best, (that designation probably belongs to Brock Lesnar.) But Angle also was hilarious, hateable and implicitly watchable. He was the Wrestling Machine, but he could also inject a career’s worth of emotion into a single ankle lock. Let’s pour one out for the man who turned a gold medal into a sniveling heel icon.

17. Randy Orton

Someone once said that Randy Orton reminds them of a guy who’s been working at the same place long enough to not really care anymore. That might be true, but even when he’s sleepwalking, Orton does his job better than anyone. I will never get tired of watching him stalk around the ring and hit clutch RKOs. Yeah, he’ll always be the Macho Man to Cena’s Hogan, but honestly, I kinda prefer it that way.

16. Bret "Hitman" Hart

Out of all the retired legends in wrestling, I think Bret Hart is the guy I wonder about the most. What would a Bret Hart/Daniel Bryan match be like? Or Hart/Rollins, or Hart/Lesnar, or even Hart/Cena? Hitman proved he could work with anyone, and in a perfect world he’d be wrestling hour-long barnburners for the rest of time.


15. Mick Foley

Mick Foley was the ultimate everyman. Far, far from an elite athlete, Foley got over with heart and a ridiculously high tolerance for pain. Years of frightening back bumps and unprotected chair shots have left him semi-crippled, but his legacy is untouchable.


14. Harley Race

When people talk about the golden era of NWA, they’re talking about the 35-minute cage matches between Harley Race and Ric Flair. WWE was goofy and cartoonish, and that worked well for them, but the southern stuff carried a stronger, gorier edge. These days Harley Race matches are a transformative experience. The closest pro wrestling ever got to being real.


13. Chris Jericho

Jed Jacobsohn for Sports Illustrated

Chris Jericho was the original “vanilla midget the internet loves,” going as far back to WCW, when he was a weird, absurdist heel trying to thrive in a company in which people like Goldberg were getting a push. But since entering the WWE, he’s been a perennial world champion and capable of putting on good matches with anyone in front of him. CM Punk, Triple H, A.J. Styles, it never mattered–at 45 he’s still the kid with whom we fell in love.


12. "Rowdy" Roddy Piper

You know the basics. He was the best promo ever, and a core influence on guys like Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, Dean Ambrose, Chris Jericho, etc. He was a major part of one of the most important WrestleMania matches ever, and his charisma transitioned neatly into a couple cult action movies. But more than anything, I’ve never seen someone have as much fun with his or her character as Rowdy Roddy Piper. He was a brilliant heel, a brilliant man, and this business is a sadder place without his mind.


11. "Macho Man" Randy Savage

Courtesy of WWE

For my money, I don’t think there was a more complete package than Macho Man. He was a brilliant promo, a great character and capable of working big hammy main events with Hulk Hogan and technical masterpieces with Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat. Things fell off quickly after Savage went to WCW, but his golden age stands tall over nearly everyone.


10. Andre The Giant

Andre The Giant defined an entire business model in the wrestling business. He was, and forever will be, the ultimate attraction. Big Show, The Undertaker and even Brock Lesnar all walk the path The Giant paved. And yeah, it certainly doesn’t hurt that everybody in the business has an amazing drunk Andre story.


9. Sting

People like to talk up Hulk Hogan’s transition from megaface to dastardly PG-13 heel, but I’ve always thought Sting showed more range. He was a white meat surfer bro, an insanely profitable Crow rip-off, and survived a series of bad TNA ideas, like, say “Joker Sting.” Through it all, Steve Borden showed us how loyal and humble he was to the cause. If you’re going to build a company around one character trait, it’s probably that.


8. Hulk Hogan


For better or worse, this is the face of wrestling. Hulk Hogan will always be synonymous with the industry that made him famous. His ring-work was suspect, his politicking was contemptible, but that doesn’t change the fact that Hulk Hogan captured imaginations more than any other wrestler before or since.

7. John Cena

At this point it should be clear that John Cena is amazing at his job. Over the past year he’s dug out his worker boots and had excellent matches with people like Seth Rollins, Cesaro, A.J. Styles, and Kevin Owens, and before that he was working bloated, mass-marketed epics with The Rock. Cena is still better on the mic than anyone in the company, and capable of turning into a parody of himself in Trainwreck, and a genuinely surreal character on Total Divas. He’s a monster heel and a white-meat babyface at the same time. If you don’t think John Cena is in the Pantheon, you’ve been wrong for a long, long time.


6. Dusty Rhodes

Dusty Rhodes was simply the best pure babyface in the history of pro wrestling. Yeah, his ring-work might look a little dated compared to the modern product, but nobody was able to get a room on his side quite like Dusty. His wars with Ric Flair were legendary, and the legacy he passed down through his advocacy and unjadedness in NXT will never be forgotten. Wrestling is full of underdog stories, but there will only be one Dusty Rhodes story.


5. The Undertaker

Once upon a time, The Undertaker was a stiff. One of those 7-foot tall projects brought in for refinement and maybe a monster heel run. But over 25 years, Taker has morphed into the single-most respected person in the wrestling industry. He owns dozens of classic matches, a legendary entrance and the single-most hallowed feat in fake fighting (21 straight wins at WrestleMania.) It’s the ultimate story of someone taking a dead-end gimmick and turning it gold.


4. The Rock

Will there be a time when The Rock’s wrestling career is a minor footnote? Maybe, but there’s no question who is the biggest success story in wrestling history. The Rock was never a technical mastermind (and might be responsible for the worst Sharpshooter in television history,) but when you watch the build and culmination to, like, WrestleMania X-7, that hardly matters. The Rock was effortlessly fun-to-watch. He understands audience dynamics better than anyone on earth, and obviously that quickly translated across all mediums. It was lightning in a bottle, and WWE was lucky to have him as long as it did.


3. "Stone Cold" Steve Austin

"Stone Cold" Steve Austin is responsible for the greatest run in the history of pro wrestling. There is absolutely no doubt about it. A bald-headed everyman with a chip on his shoulder and a whole lot of contempt for limp-wristed authority. (In anyone else’s hands it would’ve felt false, hackneyed, and played out.) But Austin was fundamentally believable. He was fired from WCW for not fitting the mold, and he remembered that rejection with every step he took in the ring. The Rock is more famous, John Cena is more palatable and Hulk Hogan might be more iconic, but when we talk about zeitgeist, nobody comes close to Stone Cold.


2. Shawn Michaels

Shawn Michaels is the most relatable wrestler I’ve ever seen. Beyond his goofy stuff with DX or the (great) diva heel run before his first retirement, I don’t think I’ve ever met a wrestler who showed me his pain, his sorrow, his joy and his anger quite like HBK. He is the most fearless and natural talent to ever step in the squared circle, and he’d be number one if not for the guy who taught him everything.


1. Ric Flair

There have been bigger draws, bigger shows and bigger moments, but nobody has embodied pro wrestling more than Ric Flair and the stories he’d tell in the squared circle. From his early wars with Dusty Rhodes to his retirement match against Shawn Michaels, Flair has always been the guy. Every upstart worker in the world is trying to be the next Nature Boy, and frankly, they should be.

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