At the risk of starting this article on an ageist note, it’s been said that anyone over the age of 30 who wants to be a wrestler and hasn’t done anything to do so might be better off giving up that dream entirely. It’s not like athletes instantly lose their talent on their 30th birthday, but the company isn’t that interested in wrestlers they can’t mold themselves from the ground up. There’s also the unavoidable issue that, whether its fair or not, most wrestlers are more naturally talented when they’re younger, with the ravages of time gradually breaking down their bodies and taking away their skills and abilities.
On the other hand, there have been a large number of WWE superstars who didn’t even come into their own until they were well over 30, perhaps even over the hill. Against all odds and expectations, certain wrestlers just seem to get better as they go on, aging like a fine wine. In exceptionally rare cases, relatively weak or uninteresting performers suddenly became massive stars at an age most other athletes start thinking about retirement. To further explore both sides of the debate on if age really matters in the WWE Universe, keep reading and learn about 8 wrestlers who peaked before they hit 30 and 7 who got better after turning 40.
15 PEAKED BEFORE 30: Test
Some WWE superstars simply can’t withstand the test of time. Naming puns aside, Andrew “Test” Martin was one of the wrestlers simply not long for this world, not to mention the WWE Universe. Due to his large size, some fans may not have even realized Test made his debut at the young age of 23. Arguably the peak of his career came the very next year, when he was in a high-profile onscreen relationship with Stephanie McMahon. It was the dissolution of that partnership that momentarily turned Test into a massive star, worthy of main events and potential WWE Championship matches. Unfortunately for him, WWE failed to capitalize on this potential, turning Test heel and sticking him in a low card tag team with Albert only months after his fame peaked. It was all downhill from there, and Test was never able to rise above the midcard again.
14 BETTER AFTER 40: Bob Backlund
Before we go and try to argue Bob Backlund was a better wrestler once he passed middle age, let’s first admit that this doesn’t mean he was a more successful wrestler at this point in his life. Mr. Backlund’s popularity as a performer was on a gradual downside by the time he hit 30, less than halfway through his first run as WWE Champion. He was gone from the company entirely by 35, only to make an unexpected comeback at 42 that suddenly and briefly turned his prospects around. Still a master technician in the ring, Backlund also finally figured out the key to cutting a great interview (read: going completely mental), adding an extra layer to his expertise at sports entertainment. While Vince McMahon didn’t feel like utilizing these talents for long, Backlund at least earned one last run as WWE Champion, and got a chance to reinvent himself as one of the best heels in wrestling.
13 PEAKED BEFORE 30: D’Lo Brown
For the self-professed real deal, D’Lo Brown fell from greatness into nothingness exceptionally fast. The first several years of his career went pretty much the way one would expect, with D’Lo gradually building his way up the WWE ladder and becoming a fairly popular superstar for his charisma and technical skills. By late-1999, D’Lo was one of the most popular superstars in WWE, though few fans remember this today with how quickly his fame disappeared. Although D’Lo was a big enough deal to become the first wrestler to unify the Intercontinental and European Championships, his slide down the card started immediately after he lost them. A few weeks later, he found himself in the match where fellow superstar Droz was accidentally paralyzed, and D’Lo’s mental status was never the same. Any potential of a push was gone, along with D’Lo’s potential to find success in WWE past the age of 30.
12 BETTER AFTER 40: Mark Henry
Almost until the day he turned 40, despite his legitimate claim to being the World’s Strongest Man, Mark Henry looked like one of the most expensive mistakes of Vince McMahon’s career. Henry was hired in 1996 at the age of 24, at a time he was wholly unprepared to be a professional wrestler. McMahon misjudged the situation and offered Mark a giant contract giving him $1 million a year over 10 years, which Henry naturally wasted no time in signing. Once Vince realized Henry wasn’t as good in the ring as he hoped, he gave the poor guy some of the worst gimmicks in WWE history, and a storyline where he somehow impregnated Mae Young with a human hand. Henry never gave up, though, and always did his best to improve, finally finding a character that worked around 2011, introducing opponents to the Hall of Pain only a few short months after he turned 40.
11 PEAKED BEFORE 30: Muhammad Hassan
In all fairness to Marc Copani, better known to WWE fans as Muhammad Hassan, the issue isn’t so much that he peaked at a young age, or even that his career prospects gradually diminished over time. The unfortunate truth for Hassan was that WWE more or less controlled his fate from beginning to end, up to and including his exit from the business. It started with Hassan’s gimmick getting devised before WWE execs met with him. He somehow used the pre-made character to turn himself into a star, albeit one he had no personal connection to. Of course, he was only a star insofar as WWE fans at the time were openly racist against Muslims, and his character was supposed to practice Islam. Days after a real life terrorist attack in London, the entire Hassan gimmick was hitting too close to home, and Copani was basically forced out of wrestling because of it, no one wanted to touch the controversy he would bring.
10 BETTER AFTER 40: “Diamond” Dallas Page
Not only did “Diamond” Dallas Page turn into a better wrestler after he turned 40, but in fact, DDP barely even stepped foot inside a wrestling ring until his late 30s. He had been in the industry for a while at that point, albeit solely as a manager, and the decision to become a full-time wrestler as well didn’t come until later in life. WCW announcers even referred to DDP as the “oldest rookie in wrestling” as he slowly made his way up the card, a rise capped off by winning the WCW Championship for the first time the same month as his 43rd birthday. DDP’s remained on of the top stars in WCW from there, and though his status almost immediately dissipated once that company went out of business, his short time on top far outweighed anything to happen in his prior to hitting middle age.
9 PEAKED BEFORE 30: Buff Bagwell
He may have been Buff, and he might have even had the stuff, but the wrestling world most certainly had already got more than enough of Marcus Alexander Bagwell by the time he wrestled his sole match for WWE. Bagwell had just turned 31 when WCW went out of business, and little did he know his career prospects would disappear along with that company. Working for Ted Turner, Bagwell was a star pretty much from day one, winning the Tag Team Championships during his first year in the business and going on to reclaim them four more times after that. This all happened while Bagwell was in his early 20s, and though he slowly climbed up the card during this time, all that hard work was irrelevant in WWE. To Vince McMahon, nothing Bagwell accomplished in WCW mattered, and he was judged entirely by the one crummy match in his 30s, causing Vince to fire him almost right away.
8 BETTER AFTER 40: The Undertaker
Such is the nature of The Undertaker that he was a main event talent pretty much immediately upon his arrival. In the span of a single year, Undertaker went from a complete unknown to WWE Champion, and although he didn’t hold the belt for long the first time, he would also never quite lose his main event status. Given how long The Undertaker was on top, it could be said his career was as good in his 20s as it was in his 40s, though from an in-ring perspective, most fans would agree he improved immensely after a few decades of experience. While it may be hard to compare 25-year-old Undertaker with 45-year-old Undertaker, it’s easier to say that both of these versions of the Dead Man beat the hell out of 35-year-old Undertaker, who was a lazy shadow of his former self. That he recovered from that period whatsoever is worthy of some praise.
7 PEAKED BEFORE 30: Blitzkrieg
Not everyone is cut out for the wrestling business, and that can even apply to people who portray an incredible natural aptitude for the sport. One of the most exemplary tales of this sort is that of the Fabulous Blitzkrieg, later shortened to simply Blitzkrieg during his few months in the spotlight. After spending a few short years in Japan, Blitzkrieg made his mainstream debut for WCW in 1998, at which point he was only 22 years old. In less than a year, he grew into one of the most exciting cruiserweights on the roster, with his peak moment being a match against Juventud Guerrera at Spring Stampede 1999. It was considered one of the best opening contests in wrestling Pay-Per-View history, and Guerrera was rewarded with a continued push and numerous Cruiserweight Champions. Blitzkrieg, however, was almost entirely forgotten, because he retired from wrestling months later at the age 24.
6 BETTER AFTER 40: Shawn Michaels
As with The Undertaker, it’s a little harder to compare and contrasts the first and second half of Shawn Michaels’s career than it is with the average wrestler. In his youth, HBK was easily the flashiest and most exciting WWE superstar around, and he proved such with each and every match. His greatest runs as WWE Champion definitely came earlier in life, as he would actually never win the top gold in wrestling after his comeback. Had HBK’s career ended in 1998 like he expected, he may have even found himself on the other half of this list, or at least close to it. Unexpectedly, however, HBK made his return from a back injury after four years better than ever before, and he only improved from there. By the time he was 40, HBK had resumed the practice of always wrestling the best match on the card and stealing the show each year at WrestleMania, and this didn’t stop until he went out with an all-time classic in his retirement match.
5 PEAKED BEFORE 30: Tommy Rich
Having never worked for WWE, “Wildfire” Tommy Rich is probably one of the most obscure wrestlers on this list. Back in the early ‘80s, however, he was arguably more popular than anyone working for Vince McMahon at the time. During this era, Rich was working for various territories in the NWA, with his fame so great he became the at the time youngest-ever NWA Champion, aged 24. Though Rich would only hold the title for a mere four days, his popularity continued from there, including a legendary feud against Buzz Sawyer ending with the Last Battle of Atlanta, a match that later inspired WWE to create the Hell in a Cell structure. For whatever reason, Rich’s prospects as a wrestler suddenly plummeted from there, and by the time he was in his early 30s, he was lucky to get a job working for WCW as an opening match jobber. Ten years later, ECW treated him like a joke, and it only got worse from there.
4 BETTER AFTER 40: Ric Flair
Even more so than with The Undertaker or Shawn Michaels, long time wrestling fans might question how “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair wound up on this half of the list. Sure, his 40s were better than his 20s, but how could anyone compare those to his legendary 30s? Well, look at the hard data about when Flair wrestled the best matches in his career, and it may surprise some to find out the best year of his life was almost certainly 1989, the same year he turned 40. This is the year Flair wrestled his three iconic matches against Ricky Steamboat over the NWA Championship, plus the I Quit match against Terry Funk, and a couple minor classics that have been forgotten by time in between them. Flair continued having great matches up until his late 40s, and he even wrestled a few near-classics into his 50s. Is it better than his youth? Maybe not. But the Nature Boy still deserves some credit for remaining the greatest wrestler in the world far longer than anyone else ever has.
3 PEAKED BEFORE 30: Kerry Von Erich
If nothing else, Kerry Von Erich at least fared slightly better than most of his brothers, three of whom died very early on in their wrestling careers. (A fourth brother, Jack Jr., died in childhood.) Along with David, Chris, Mike, and Kevin, Kerry was forced into wrestling by their father Fritz Von Erich (b. Jack Adkisson), who never accepted the fact his sons weren’t as into the sport as he was. Despite a relative apathy to the squared circle, Kerry was naturally talented enough he became NWA Champion at the young age of 24, defeating none other than Ric Flair for the honor. Though Kerry’s title reign didn’t last long, his popularity remained extremely high, making him a top star in WCCW for the rest of his 20s. Shortly after turning 30, Kerry jumped to the WWE Universe, only to immediately reveal his talents were already leaving him, and at a rapid rate.
2 BETTER AFTER 40: Nick Bockwinkel
The most amazing thing about the career of AWA legend Nick Bockwinkel is that his career barely began until he was already in his 40s. For all we know, Bockwinkel was already a great talent before then, but his fame was limited to small territories throughout much of his life, and most footage and/or record of this era has been lost to time. Luckily, the work Bockwinkel went on to create from age 40 onward is the stuff of legend, made all the more impressive by his advanced age. His first AWA World Championship reign began at age 40 and lasted five full years, with three more reigns on top following from there, all obviously as he grew older. Bock’s last run as World Champion didn’t end until he was 52, and the matches he competed over the title remained some of the best in the business at the time.
1 PEAKED BEFORE 30: The 1-2-3 Kid
Looking barely out of high school upon his arrival in WWE, the 1-2-3 Kid was already succeeding beyond his age by his debut match. At only 22 years old when he shocked the world by upsetting Razor Ramon, the Kid was a rookie sensation like no other, and that he was outperforming wrestlers with twice his experience was only icing on the cake. Unfortunately, the Kid would also find himself heavily embroiled in the world of drugs as he climbed up the wrestling ladder, in part due to the company he kept. The Kid was only 24 by the time he jumped to WCW, and already his talents were starting to fade, overtaken by a laziness in the ring that would follow him wherever he went from there. By the time he returned to WWE as X-Pac, the Kid was already a mere shell of his former self, a fact solidified when he left the company before even turning 30.