The 25 Greatest Wrestlers of All Time
The Best Wrestlers of All Time
Professional wrestling is one of America’s truly remarkable creations, alongside Westerns, baseball, and Taco Bell. It is an inherently bizarre form of entertainment, perhaps best described as live stunt choreography mixed with storytelling. Some of its greatest stars have crossed over into mainstream culture, while others have kept their careers inside the squared circle. Former pro wrestling participants include the highest paid actor in the world, a former U.S. president, and Dennis Rodman. Among all this talent are some historic standouts worthy of being remembered and celebrated. To that end, the following list aims to profile the greatest wrestlers of all time. In order to sift the wheat from chaff, the four following factors were considered most important: mic/promo skills, in-ring abilities, character, and overall cultural impact.
Mic/promo skills is pretty self-explanatory. This is a demonstration of how compelling and entertaining wrestlers are when delivering promos. In-ring abilities refers to a wrestler’s history of giving fans many great matches. Character is the persona created by the wrestler that, ideally, should be memorable, if not iconic. And finally, overall cultural impact refers to the ability of a wrestler to be so great that their character, catchphrases, and matches become known to the public at large. Thus, this list of the 25 greatest wrestlers of all time takes into account all the skills that make up the ideal pro wrestler. Without further ado, let’s start with a bang.
25. Maxwell Jacob Friedman
This is probably the most controversial pick on this list but it’s one that’s easy to defend. MJF is the single most compelling heel in the wrestling business today. He’s the biggest star at AEW, other than the wrestlers who were already well-known before they joined the promotion. His character is insufferable in the best possible sense of the word. His mic skills are off the charts. He has created a heel character that is so profoundly revolting that some people legitimately dislike the actual man behind the character. It’s extraordinary work that will be remembered for years to come. As those years approach, the biggest problem with having MJF at #25 on this list will not be that he’s on the list, but rather that he’s not ranked high enough.
24. Rey Mysterio
It’s truly unbelievable that someone who began their wrestling career in 1989 is still one of the most athletic and entertaining people in the business. Just when some might’ve thought there wasn’t much left for Mysterio to do, he bolsters his son Dominik’s career with an incredible father-son rivalry that culminated with a great match at WrestleMania 39. Rey has found success in so many different promotions that it’s hard to keep track of them all. Aside from being a legend in Mexico, he’s done incredible work with ECW, WCW, WWE, and NJPW. Despite his short stature, Rey has been cemented in wrestling history as one of the all-time greats; the ultimate short king.
Say whatever you want about Goldberg but his tenure in WCW is among the most consequential runs in all of wrestling. Nobody (other than perhaps the Ultimate Warrior) did the snarling beast character better than Bill. Although most of his matches were short-lived, when booked well, they felt epic. Goldberg probably wasn’t as big of a deal during the Monday Night Wars as NWO or Stone Cold, but he was undeniably one of the biggest stars of his day. His WWE return in 2016 was surprisingly good, proving that Godlberg has enough talent to keep crowds entertained decades after his prime years.
22. Dusty Rhodes
The American Dream’s “hard times” promo is easily one of the greatest in wrestling history. He changed the business both through his charisma and his ability to prove that a champion doesn’t need to look like Adonis. His sons Dustin and Cody excelling in the business have only cemented his legacy. In an era of titans like Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair, Dusty managed to stand apart from the crowd and influence generations of wrestlers to come.
21. Mick Foley
Mick is the star of one of the biggest bumps in wrestling history and created no fewer than three great characters (Mankind, Cactus Jack, and the underrated Dude Love). His body’s ability to absorb pain is pretty much unparalleled. His willingness to constantly up the ante and thrill audiences with increasingly dangerous stunts is a unique skill that may never be replicated again.
20. Owen Hart
A tragic death and some awful booking towards the end of his life aren’t enough to overshadow the brilliant career of Owen Hart. He might be the most underrated heel of all time, with his whiny bratty younger brother routine providing some of the greatest rivalries in the pre-Attitude Era. Watch virtually any match he did with his brother Bret or Shawn Michaels or the British Bulldog and you’ll find they’re almost universally exceptional. One of the best in-ring performers of his time, Owen deserves even greater recognition than he’s already received.
19. Triple H
This might be the best summation of why Triple H is such a great character. His trajectory from spoiled rich kid to degenerate rebel to a corporate-backed king is one of the all-time great character arcs in wrestling. It doesn’t hurt that Triple H is (almost) single-handedly responsible for some of WWE’s best material in years when he took over as head of creative. Like many of the top dogs in WWE, Hunter isn’t necessarily the best in-ring performer but his mic skills, character, and creative talents have made him one of the most influential performers in the history of the business.
18. John Cena
I’m sure many people would rank Cena higher than 18, so rather than expound upon his virtues, here’s a case for why he can’t crack the top 15 of this list. For one thing, the man wears jorts. Like, come on. For another, his character continues to be a big bowl of nothing. He’s a former rapper dude who likes to work out and wear denim? What is the John Cena character exactly? How would one describe him? He has an iconic catchphrase and, unlike some of the big brutes in the early days of WWE, is actually a pretty decent in-ring performer. But it’s hard to escape the glaringly obvious fact that he’s just sort of playing a PG-rated nice guy who appeals to small children and nobody else. That said, one cannot deny his superb mic skills and mainstream appeal. Cena has been a massive asset for wrestling over the last couple decades…even if you can’t see him.
17. Brock Lesnar
Prior to Roman Reigns’ epic run as champ, Brock was the single most fearsome competitor in WWE. It certainly didn’t hurt that he could legitimately beat the crap out of almost anyone in the locker room thanks to his MMA background. Lesnar made history as a UFC-turned-WWE superstar and though some have tried to replicate his success, none have yet to come even close. Lesnar isn’t a great talker per se but his persona is so intimidating that he doesn’t need to be. (Plus, with Paul Heyman at your side, the mic stuff takes care of itself). Brock has worn many titles around his waist but his biggest accomplishment is probably breaking the Undertaker’s streak in 2014.
16. Bret Hart
Along with Shawn Michaels, The Hitman changed what a WWE champion could and should look like. He wasn’t the biggest, strongest, or most charismatic talent in the company but he was a near-flawless performer who put on almost too many classic matches to count. His time in WCW was a dud, preventing him from having as long of a career as he deserved but his impact on the business is virtually incalculable.
15. AJ Styles
When it comes to the greatest in-ring performers in wrestling history, AJ Styles is unquestionably part of the conversation. He can put on a great match with virtually anyone and has found success everywhere he’s gone, from TNA to NJPW to WWE. Styles is one of the few wrestlers in history who can claim to have made wrestling an artform. His athleticism, creativity, and charisma are wonders to behold.
14. Kazuchika Okada
Just because NJPW doesn’t have the same exposure in America as WWE or AEW doesn’t mean it isn’t putting on stellar matches or crafting great stories. Of all the many wonderful performers in NJPW, Okada emerges as probably the best of the best. His epic 720-day reign as IWGP Heavyweight Champ remains unbeaten. His match with Kenny Omega at Dominion 6.9 in Osaka-jo Hall is probably the greatest in wrestling history. Perhaps Okada will have his time to shine in the States but even if he remains in Japan, he still deserves to be enshrined as one of the all-time greats.
13. CM Punk
If Punk was able to maintain relatively normal relationships with his co-workers, he’d likely be even higher on this list. Alas, the rebelliousness and ingenuity that make him so great in the ring and on the mic have held back his career. Currently, rumors persist that Punk will return to AEW but even if he does, his reputation may be irreparably damaged. Despite his disagreeableness, Punk has electrified the wrestling world on multiple occasions. His “pipe bomb” promo is arguably the best ever and other than Stone Cold Steve Austin, no performer has done the hell raising rebel character better than him.
12. Bryan Danielson
Yes, Bryan Danielson/Daniel Bryan deserves to be on this list. Yes! Yes! Yes! Danielson rocked the WWE universe with his incredible matches and “yes” chants, then went to AEW to expand his legacy. Danielson, much like Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels before him, changed the standards of what a champion could be. Perhaps most impressive of all, Danielson found a way to have a comedic, almost silly character, while also being dead-serious about his in-ring capabilities. Few wrestlers have been as technically proficient as Danielson and practically none have inspired the kind of ecstasy he gave to the wrestling world at WrestleMania 30.
11. Roman Reigns
Some people aren’t gonna love the Big Dawg being up this high on the list but Roman’s current reign as WWE champ is one of the most dominant in wrestling history, echoing Okada in Japan and Bruno Sammartino in the days of yore. This puts him in mighty company. Much like Dwayne Johnson, Roman began his career with a bit of a “Rocky” start (see what I did there?) but once he finally turned heel, he became untouchable in terms of drawing power. Nearly everything Roman does feels epic and historic, much like Hulk Hogan or The Rock. His career is far from over but he’s already cemented his place among the all-time greats.
10. Eddie Guerrero
When people like Chris Jericho speak about you in awe-inspiring terms, you’ve certainly done something exceptional. Eddie made the most of every opportunity he was given despite not being given enough opportunities. He could make an almost throwaway cruiserweight match in WCW a masterpiece. Pretty much any time he stepped into a ring with Rey Mysterio or Kurt Angle or Chris Benoit, you knew you were about to behold something special. Lest we forget, Eddie was also hilarious and knew how to spark joy in the hearts of wrestling fans even while he made it look like he was murdering his opponents.
9. Chris Jericho
Jericho’s career spans across all three of the biggest promotions in wrestling. He’s bounced around from nasty heel to hilarious heel to egotistical face to lovable face. No matter the assignment, storyline, or opponent, Jericho always delivers. Perhaps his most underrated ability is spotting and assessing talent. Jericho always seems to know who the best grapplers are and ensures he ends up in a ring with them. Whether it was WCW’s cruiserweight division or a main event in the Attitude Era or, most recently, helping to launch AEW by being its first world champion, Jericho has always been in the right place at the right time. While many legendary performers have popularized professional wrestling, few have been as devoted to its excellence as Chris Jericho.
8. Shawn Michaels
When Shawn Michaels tossed Marty Jannetty through a barbershop window, wrestling was changed forever. The Heartbreak Kid first made up half of one the greatest tag teams ever, then rose to the top of the singles game, then formed one of wrestling’s greatest stables with D-X. For most of this time, his character was basically a male stripper. But that didn’t stop him from being utterly despised, then completely beloved by fans. Shawn found ways to reinvent himself and stay relevant for decades. Now, as the head of creative for NXT, he is furthering the talents of wrestling’s next generation.
7. Kenny Omega
Omega still has plenty of matches left in him but regardless of how the rest of his career goes, this much is already true: he is the greatest in-ring performer of all time. Kenny’s match with Okada at Dominion 6.9 in Osaka-jo Hall is probably the best ever. His match with a small child is better than roughly 98% of WWE matches. When he came to AEW, Omega attracted some of the greatest talent in the world simply because they all wanted to get into a ring with him. Watching a Kenny Omega match for the first time is practically a religious experience. On top of all that, he is endlessly entertaining as a character, understanding (as all the greats do) that humor can be just as compelling as drama.
6. The Undertaker
Remarkably agile for someone so huge, Taker’s career has spanned many decades and eras, from the time of Hulk Hogan to the rise of Roman Reigns. His character, while relatively simple, is nonetheless remarkably awe-inspiring. Few entrances send chills down the spines of fans quite like the moment the lights go out and the first church bell dongs. Some of his final matches were uncomfortable to watch but they can’t erase years upon years of excellence. Behind the scenes, the Undertaker is widely regarded as one of WWE’s ultimate wise men, mentoring countless superstars. Even his American Badass persona, typically considered the worst iteration of his character, was cool as hell.
5. Ric Flair
If there was a wrestling Mount Rushmore, the Nature Boy would surely be on it. Still kicking at 74, Flair’s influence can be felt not just in wrestling but across popular culture at large. His signature “Wooo!” and countless memorable one-liners have endured longer even than the best mic work from Hulk Hogan or The Rock. His daughter Charlotte, who will likely join her father as one of the all-time greats, has only helped to keep his legacy going. There’s a lot more to be said about Flair but instead of repeating the obvious, just watch this promo instead.
4. The Rock
Currently the biggest movie star in the world, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has brought wrestling to the masses like no one before him. With his production company, he is telling wrestling stories on primetime cable television. As one of the new owners of the XFL, he is extending upon and celebrating Vince McMahon’s legacy. And before he did all of that, he created the second-greatest character in wrestling history. The Rock is the living embodiment of professional wrestling, from his childhood spent with wrestling greats to his adulthood spent celebrating them before an audience of millions. Despite all his success outside the ring, The Rock will always be, first and foremost, a wrestler. Few would likely be prouder of that designation than him.
3. Stone Cold Steve Austin
There’s an argument to be made, and it’s a convincing one, that at the height of his popularity, Stone Cold was the single most popular wrestler to have ever lived. His Texas rattlesnake persona revolutionized the industry. “Austin 3:16” has to be wrestling’s best-known catchphrase. The stunner remains wrestling’s most exhilarating finisher. His never-ending feud with Vince McMahon was pure gold. Despite all the talk of NWO changing the game during the Monday Night Wars, it was Austin who really reshaped wrestling into something ballsier, more unpredictable, and more breathtaking than before.
2. Hulk Hogan
A series of controversies has tarnished the Hulkster’s legacy to some extent but they can’t erase what he meant to sports entertainment. Before The Rock was the biggest movie star in the world, the Hulkster headlined major motion pictures. Before Stone Cold Steve Austin sold more than 10 million “Austin 3:16” shirts, there were the iconic red and yellow “Hulkamania” threads. Before John Cena served as a nice role model for kids, Hogan was telling them to brush their teeth and eat their vitamins. Hulk didn’t put on the most impressive matches ever but his incredible charisma and persona made the matches great anyway. Without Hulk Hogan, professional wrestling would simply not be what it is today.
1. Randy Savage
No wrestling persona has ever been as captivating, bizarre, unpredictable, and memorable as the Macho Man Randy Savage. To put it in movie terms, he was like the Stanley Kubrick of wrestling. His signature voice is unlike anything heard before or since. His promos barely make sense, yet are some of the greatest ever delivered: “cream of the crop,” “cup of coffee in the big time,” and “Hulkamania is dead.” Savage created catchphrases that were about as close to poetry as any wrestler has gotten. His story arc with Miss Elizabeth might’ve been alternately horrifying and endearing, but it was always entertaining. His match with Ricky Steamboat at WrestleMania 3 forever changed the business. While most wrestlers have some precedent for their characters, The Macho Man was entirely his own creation. There will never be another like him.
May 24, 2023 at 9:37 am
What a joke of a list!