Despite sharing the same job description, there’s a big difference between professional wrestlers and sports entertainers. In order to become a mega superstar in wrestling you don’t have to be a great worker. You don’t even have to be a good one! All the while, some of the best pound-for-pound wrestlers in the world have struggled to make their mark on the big stage despite having more than capable skills between the ropes.
Sports entertainment became the new term to use in the late '90s when talking about pro wrestling, but make no mistake, it had been the norm for decades prior. Few of the main event talent pushed in the '80s, especially in the WWE, were as gifted in the ring as they were over with the fans. They were pushed due to their popularity, size, look, merchandising or for other various entertainment reasons, but not for how good they were in the ring.
We compared in-ring ability on both sides of the spectrum against overall entertainment value in order to make our list. Some of the best wrestlers in the world, like Kurt Angle, clearly don’t make the cut because they were as entertaining as they were good. Likewise, some of the worst workers of all time didn’t make it because they were not fun to watch on top of being terrible wrestlers. I’m looking at you, Great Khali!
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20 Sports Entertainer: John Cena
John Cena may have changed some minds after SummerSlam the other week when he and AJ Styles certainly had the match of the night. The Face That Runs The Place pulled off moves he hasn’t shown in years and some I don’t think I’ve ever seen him do, but one good match doesn’t make up for over a decade of dullness. Cena may be one of the biggest draws of all time, but his wrestling prowess is predictable, repetitive and downright lazy. I don’t doubt Cena can wrestle; I think he chooses not to.
Ever since he became a main eventer, Cena’s gotten away with a combination of power moves where he lazily just drops or tosses opponents before and after series after series of punches. His signature shoulder tackle and spin-out power bomb are sloppy and his STF is so bad that every time he applies it, somewhere Masahiro Chono sheds a tear and doesn’t understand why.
19 Wrestler: Lance Storm
Maybe there’s something in the water up in Calgary. It seems like every star the city’s produced over the years has always been a wrestler first and showman second. Lance Storm is a technical marvel who was so awkward at being a sports entertainer that it actually became his gimmick. From ECW to WCW, and finally to WWE, Storm played the role of the ever so serious wrestler’s wrestler.
It’s probably why most of Storm’s more successful campaigns in the big three came in tag teams. Pairing Storm up with guys like Justin Credible, Chris Candido, Christian and Y2J gave him the entertainment factor he needed that he wasn’t able to achieve on his own. Kudos though to WCW (go figure) on being the promotion who gave Storm his most entertaining time. Storm’s altering WCW championships to better represent Canada, such as the 100kg and Under Title and Saskatchewan Hardcore International Title, were classic and hysterical.
18 Sports Entertainer: Goldberg
Goldberg became an absolute phenom in wrestling during the late '90s and early '00s in WCW and did it without being a very good wrestler at all. What’s more impressive, nobody really noticed. Goldberg had less moves in his repertoire than I have fingers, yet like many of the big man brawlers before him, he was able to pull off one of the most successful careers in history.
Unlike others who were more entertaining than they were good at wrestling, Goldberg also didn’t have the mic skills to balance it out. He barely said more than “Who’s Next!?!” before he had the WCW World Championship around his waist, but like his wrestling ability, he didn’t need the mic. Goldberg was a show. He needlessly came to the ring with security, stood in his own pyro and breathed out smoke like a dragon before every quick squash on Nitro. The fans ate up every bit, regardless of his limited abilities.
17 Wrestler: Jack Swagger
Poor Jack Swagger seems to be nothing more than a glorified jobber these days after a breakout run that saw him win the World Heavyweight Championship and Money in the Bank early on. The former collegiate All-American translated an amateur skill set into what many assumed would be a long and successful career, but his days in the spotlight appear to be a thing of the past.
Swagger has had some entertaining moments since his 2008 debut, but he lacks the full package between wrestling and entertainment that have allowed him to maintain a constant push. WWE has tried to put him there more than once, but when push comes to shove, Swagger plummets back down to the bottom of the card. He has all the skills in the world and can certainly put on an great match, but since his time with Zeb Colter and subsequent wonky face turn, crickets seem louder during his matches than the WWE Universe.
16 Sports Entertainer: “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan
Not many guys were as loved by fans quite like good old Hacksaw during his day. Though he never held a WWE title and got one of his two WCW belts by literally digging it out of the trash, Duggan was as over as any guy the business has ever seen. He did it all while having one of the worst wrestling techniques of all time. Duggan was a brawler who punched, kicked and shoulder tackled his way to fame and that pretty much sums up his entire move set.
A guy like Duggan wouldn’t be over in today’s WWE in a million years. Not all the 2x4s, “HOOOOOOOO”s and American pride in the world could do the trick. However, having a technical skill set not only wouldn’t have helped him get over more, it maybe even would’ve hurt him. Duggan was the blue collar "every-man" through in through, and despite his lack of wrestling skills, it made him a star.
15 Wrestler: Shane Douglas
ECW was a promotion in which, despite all the barbed wire and flaming tables that were commonplace, good wrestling was just as much rewarded. That’s why Shane Douglas was the man in The Land of Extreme. The Franchise was as technically sound as just about any grappler in the big two during his ECW days and he put on some absolute clinics in Philly during his run. On the bigger WWE and WCW stages, however, he just never seemed to be able to find his footing.
The maligned Dean Douglas gimmick and backstage politics from The Kliq aside, Douglas’ natural talents were not enough to excite WWE fans. When he was in WCW after establishing himself as a premiere athlete in ECW, they at least tried to capitalize by letting The Franchise be himself. But even in WCW during their darkest days when good wrestling was hard to find, the fans just weren’t captivated. It’s a sad circumstance because Shane Douglas was truly one of the best.
14 Sports Entertainer: George “The Animal” Steele
George “The Animal” Steele was, to be fair, one of the worst actual wrestlers the business has ever seen. His matches were slow, having next to no technical aspects no matter who he worked, and in any other time or place, he would’ve been booed out of arenas. But despite not knowing the difference between a wristlock and a wristwatch, The Animal was as entertaining as any man who ever graced the squared circle.
With his signature green tongue and enough body hair to make even Albert squeamish, Steele would tear the roof off the Garden while brawling with opponents and doing things like tearing the turnbuckle pad to shreds like a rabid dog with his teeth. There’s a reason Steele is a legend and in the WWE Hall of Fame. He was one of the first true sports entertainment pioneers who knew how to put the spectacle of pro wrestling ahead of all else.
13 Wrestler: Haku
As a fantastic, recent exclusive from right here on TheSportster can testify, Haku was as entertaining as anybody. Unfortunately, most of the reasons that made him so entertaining happened outside of the squared circle. As far as in-ring competitors go, looking back on old Haku matches and even his time in WCW as Meng, the most feared man in wrestling history was as technically sound as he was brutal.
Haku merged martial arts and grappling into a style all of his own, but lacked the pizzazz and mic skills to be as entertaining to fans as he should have been during his prime in the '80s and '90s. Unfortunately Haku never got the push he should have. He is remembered by fans in general as just one of the mid-card heels from the Hogan Era when he should have been one of the guys who got a main event feud against Hogan. It’s a shame really because not too many guys were as technically sound at the time.
12 Sports Entertainer: Kamala
The Ugandan Giant was always an entertaining gimmick first and a wrestler second. It’s not that Kamala was necessarily all that bad of a wrestler, but he also wasn’t a good one. Those who are bigger in stature get more of a pass from fans for not being great wrestlers but they shouldn’t. Look at the likes of Yokozuna and Bam Bam Bigelow, big men who could put on a clinic any day of the week, while still being dominant due to their size.
Kamala’s repertoire was mostly striking and a whole lot of rest spots. Few of his matches were fun to see from a wrestling standpoint outside of his squashes on Superstars of local jobbers. Still, he was fun to watch, especially during his WWE resurgence in the '90s when he was feuding with The Undertaker. Seeing the big guy cower at The Dead Man and run in fear at the site of the casket was always good entertainment.
11 Wrestler: Jerry Lynn
Like Shane Douglas, Jerry Lynn got his due while in ECW but didn’t get the deserved credit for his skills anywhere else. Lynn was in fact an amazing in-ring talent who could work with just about anybody and make them look like a million bucks. His mat skills mixed with high flying capabilities put him up there with some of the best. Unfortunately, many in the big leagues weren’t appreciative of his efforts.
Despite holding the WWE Light Heavyweight title, Lynn wasn’t a big draw on the roster and he wasn’t able to make much of an impact in WCW despite being around at the height of the Cruiserweight Division. Aside from ECW, it was surprisingly in TNA that Jerry Lynn was utilized to the best of his abilities. It makes you wonder whether he didn’t have the skills to be as entertaining as he was good at wrestling or if the brass didn’t see enough in him to give him a shot.
10 Sports Entertainer: Shane McMahon
Shane McMahon is a bit of an easy target here because he’s not an actual wrestler and never was, but despite that, it hasn’t kept him out of the ring. While McMahon might not be a wrestler, he is without question a sports entertainer. In fact, based on his countless PPV stealing high spots, Shane O’Mac finds himself near the top of the pack as one of the better sports entertainers of all time.
Shane’s free falls off the titantron sets, his glass shattering King of the Ring classic against Kurt Angle and recent plummet from the Hell in a Cell at WrestleMania create a highlight reel of moments few wrestlers could dream to have. While his in-ring abilities leave something to be desired, it’s never been a big deal. When you see Shane’s name on the card, it makes even the most dedicated wrestling purists eager to see what The Boy Wonder has in store.
9 Wrestler: Steve Williams
Steve Williams made a decent splash in the pre-WCW NWA days during the '80s before heading to wrestle full-time in Japan for nearly a decade as a headliner in AJPW. Williams was another All-American who brought his amateur style with him into the pros, and few men were as technically gifted in the ring and feared by opponents than Dr. Death.
When Williams arrived in WWE in 1998, he was meant to win the maligned Brawl For All tournament and feud for the WWE Championship with Stone Cold Steve Austin. As fate would have it, Williams got KO’d by Bart Gunn, instantly knocking out any heat he had in WWE along with it. Additionally, Williams never really clicked with fans the way he had in Japan. We’ll sadly never know if he would’ve made a strong enough transition to the crazy realm of the Attitude Era or not, if only he had been given the right nudge.
8 Sports Entertainer: The Sandman
The Sandman was gushing blood and crushing beers in the squared circle long before Stone Cold was ever a thing. If sports entertainer had a picture next to it in the dictionary, it perhaps might be of this hardcore legend slamming a beer can into his head or having a smoke on his way to the ring. While Sandman was one of the more entertaining performers of his era, he just might’ve been the worst wrestler the industry has ever seen.
I’m honestly right now trying to think of an actual wrestling move outside of punches that Sandman had in his arsenal, but all that seems to come to mind is him bashing people over the skull with his trusty kendo stick. After paving a bloody path of destruction through ECW, the always out of shape Sandman was able to nab jobs at both WCW and the WWE. It’s proof positive that you don’t need to have amazing wrestling skill set in order to make it in the business.
7 Wrestler: Tyson Kidd
It’s common knowledge WWE holds back what their mid-card stars can do so nobody outshines the top roster. Out of all the great stars who fell victim to this over the years, Tyson Kidd might not seem like the obvious choice, but he should be near the top of anyone’s list. Kidd literally grew up alongside the Hart family and was practically raised in a wrestling ring. Ask anyone who remembers the later years of Stampede Wrestling and they’ll tell you Tyson Kidd was one of the best in-ring talents the world over.
What WWE fans saw during his run before a career threatening injury in 2015 barely scratches the surface of what Kidd was capable of doing. He could hold his own with the best grapplers on the mat or in the air with the best high flyers. It’s so very unfortunate that so many people’s first thought of him is as Natalya’s guy from Total Divas and not for being the in-ring phenom he truly was.
6 Sports Entertainer: Andre the Giant
Nobody can argue the legacy of the late, great Eighth Wonder of the World or his place in wrestling history, but it’s safe to say Andre the Giant, while an absolute legend, was by no means a great wrestler. Not that it mattered. Andre was the definition of sports entertainment long before the term was ever coined. People didn’t pay to see Andre The Giant wrestle as much as they simply paid to see Andre The Giant, period.
An arsenal of striking, headbutts, chokeholds and rest spots is about all one got out of Andre’s matches. While I would be more critical about this being the move set for any other wrestler, big man or otherwise, for Andre, it’s different. He was literally a giant and it’s all he physically could do without literally killing somebody. Andre’s physical presence alone was all the flash one needed in order to love seeing him perform.
5 Wrestler: Greg “The Hammer” Valentine
Few wrestlers in history could tell a story with a match quite like Greg Valentine. He was nothing pretty, nothing flashy, just a guy in basic tights and boots who could go out there and have the match of the night any day of the week. Valentine could have a 60 minute mat classic of chain wrestling one day and then a striking, chop infested brawl the next, all the while making whoever he stepped in the ring to oppose look like a champion.
Valentine was as good in the ring as guys like Harley Race and Ric Flair ever were, but was never able to hit their heights and become a World Champion. For The Hammer, the show wasn’t about promos and gimmicks, but would he could produce in the ring. Though he never reached the height he deserved, it doesn’t change the fact that as unexciting as he was perhaps perceived seen by fans, few guys were as good as The Hammer.
4 Sports Entertainer: Hulk Hogan
No professional wrestler in history, not Savage, not Flair, not Austin, not The Rock, were as popular as Hulk Hogan, which makes it all the more ironic that all four of those men could wrestle and Hogan could not. Yep, truth be told, old Hulk was a pretty terrible wrestler. It’s funny to say when you really think about it. It’s like saying, sure, Michael Jordan was “the best” basketball player, but he wasn’t actually good at it. It’s one of the things that sets wrestling apart from the rest.
What Hogan lacked in actual in-ring talent, he more than made up for as an entertainer. That’s what he always truly was. People remember him for things like slamming Andre and his promos, the pose down or Hulking up, not for the fact that he had a limited set of moves or that nearly the entire roster could out-wrestle him in a heartbeat. The Immortal One was the Superman of pro wrestling, and while he didn’t always dazzle us from a wrestling standpoint, he always entertained.
3 Wrestler: Dean Malenko
For those of you who are enthralled by in-ring product and execution rather than glitz and glamour, look no further than Dean Malenko. The Man of 1,000 Holds gained traction in ECW before becoming one of the main faces of WCW’s Cruiserweight Division. His work with Chris Jericho, Eddie Guerrero and especially Rey Mysterio produced some of the greatest matches in the company’s history and WCW, to their credit, billed Malenko properly as the no-nonsense Iceman.
WWE, on the other hand, tried to fit Malenko into silly gimmicks like a ladies man and a secret agent, to no avail. While Malenko was as good in the ring, if not better, than the other Radicalz who jumped ship, he was barely a blip on the radar compared to the likes of Benoit or Guerrero. Despite this, few guys who ever laced up a pair of boots were more talented in the ring. An entertaining guy? Absolutely, just not quite the sports entertainer WWE promotes.
2 Sports Entertainer: The Ultimate Warrior
Ultimate Warrior was blessed with all the qualities an entertainer who can’t wrestle needs to have. He had an amazing physique, was larger than life, had a crazy gimmick, cut wild promos and, most importantly, was just awful at wrestling. Warrior quite literally ran rampant in WWE during the late '80s and well into the '90s and hit heights few other babyfaces were allowed to reach during the Hulk Hogan era. Despite not displaying anything close to things like ring awareness and technical ability, he made a career by not having them, and it made him a legend.
Some may argue Hulk Hogan should be the top name on this side of the list because he was a bigger entertainer than Warrior. While I don’t disagree, The Ultimate Warrior finds himself on top of the entertainment echelon over Hogan, not because he was more entertaining, but because he was a way worse wrestler. Compared to The Hulkster, that’s saying something, brother!
1 Wrestler: Dan “The Beast” Severn
Dan Severn is an MMA legend who made a name for himself during the early years of UFC. A seasoned grappler, trained in Judo and Jujitsu, Severn has a sparkling all-time MMA record of 101-19-7. In a legitimate contest, few pro wrestlers could last more than a couple of minutes against The Beast. Due to his popularity in the octagon, Severn followed in the footsteps of fellow MMA star Ken Shamrock by transitioning into pro wrestling. He should have been a star. He was not. All the legit wrestling talent in the world does not make you a good sports entertainer.
Severn may have had success on the indy circuit, but not in the big leagues. He lasted in the WWE for less than a year, making next to no impact while there. He, more than anybody, was an expert in the world of “real” wrestling. He is perhaps the best proof that it’s a difficult to master both wrestling and sports entertainment.
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