The most brutal, bloody and ruthless of all in-ring wrestling styles, some would say that hardcore is an acquired taste. Indeed, it may have started as a niche in Japan during the 1980s, but it has grown into one of the most appreciated varieties of professional wrestling in both foreign and domestic promotions. While it may have just came to prominence in the last 30 years, spearheaded by promotions such as FMW and ECW, the seeds of hardcore were planted since the regional days of professional wrestling. Ever since, weapons and extreme violence have been used as a tool to enhance certain matches, and the use of them has garnered many fans along the way.
Despite a few isolated exceptions, most of these wrestlers didn't need to wrestle in elite, technical mat classics to get over with the fans. They did so with their personalities, and willingness to sacrifice their bodies, taking bumps in (and outside of) the ring that few other performers would. Most of them remained nearly exclusive to the hardcore style, cementing their reputations as the toughest and most ruthless figures to ever step inside the squared circle. They all hold such a designation to this day.
Ranked below are the 15 best hardcore wrestlers of all time.
21 Tommy Dreamer
A roster staple of the original ECW, Dreamer is truly one of the names that made hardcore wrestling recognized in the United States. His feud with the Sandman in the mid-1990s was one of the angles that made people start taking notice of ECW, and he was active within the promotion until the doors closed in 2001. Dreamer eventually crossed over to WWE on both the main roster, and as a major part of bringing back the ECW brand on WWE TV, beginning in 2005. He currently has his own promotion, HOH, which tours the country, and overall has been one of the most significant ambassadors for hardcore wrestling over the past 25 years or so. He's not the absolute best in the ring when it comes to the hardcore style, but his entire body of work makes him one of the genre's most important figures.
20 The Sandman
Another ECW original, holding one of the most distinct ring entrances in history of wrestling, The Sandman was another important figure that helped set the stage for the notoriety that hardcore wrestling received in the 1990s. A five-time ECW champion, The Sandman's beer-swilling, cane-wielding, cigarette-smoking ring entrance is one of the most identifiable in history. The rabid ECW fanbase of the 1990s took to his unique and violent style, and is one of the most entertaining characters in the industry. He found some time on WCW and WWE through the years, but his biggest supporters are always found in the Tri-State area, mainly at Indy shows. It would be a stretch to say that he was great in the ring, even for the hardcore style, but his matches were always fun, hard-hitting and put a unique twist on the style.
19 Nick Gage
An original and a staple performer in CZW, Gage is one of the names that put the ultraviolent hardcore style on the map in the United States. He was the first CZW Heavyweight Champion, and helped usher in a new era of hardcore wrestling after the demise of ECW in 2001. In addition to a plethora of titles won in CZW, he's also captured the BJPW tag belts on one occasion, and the Strong Style title in IWA-Mid South. With his crossover success to other promotions, he's an easy choice for one of the faces of hardcore wrestling after the buyout in 2001. Gage has proven himself as one of the best that the hardcore genre has to offer over the past 15 years, and continues to perform to this day.
18 The Sheik
Making his debut in 1949, and continuing to wrestle up until 1998, The Sheik is one of wrestling's most overlooked and under-recognized performers. He was a pioneer of the hardcore style, and his matches could turn bloody and violent quickly, in an era where it wasn't the norm. He performed all over the world, from the WWWF, overseas in AJPW and FMW, even making a late-career appearance in ECW. Even though his matches were always ruthless and violent, when hardcore started becoming an actual genre of wrestling, he adapted, and wrestled in matches using fire, barbed wire, and other extreme components. In all, The Sheik was a certified all-timer in the business, and really deserves more credit for his contributions in normalizing more extreme styles of wrestling.
17 Mad Man Pondo
Pondo came onto the hardcore scene just about the same time as Gage, and has traveled all around the world and made an impact on numerous promotions. He's had the most success in IWA-Mid South, but was equally popular in Japan, wrestling for BJPW. Factor in the titles he's won in many hardcore-based U.S. Indy promotions, and he's one of the most recognizable names in the genre today. He's been a staple participant in Deathmatch tournaments just about everywhere he's gone, and has definitely made his mark on the style. His workload has decreased somewhat in recent years, but he's still noteworthy enough to make it on here. Another purveyor of the ultraviolent style that is so prevalent today.
16 New Jack
There are few wrestlers to ever step inside the squared circle who took bumps more painful than New Jack. One half of the Gangstas tag team in ECW with Mustafa Saed, he also made his mark on other hardcore-based American Indys such as XPW. New Jack is probably most notable for falling off a 15-foot scaffold in a botched spot at an ECW event, along with his opponent Vic Grimes. The bump, now knows as "The Danbury Fall", can be seen on numerous highlight videos, and is one of the hallmark individual moments in ECW. He never had much in the way of title success, but New Jack to this day will receive a pop from hardcore fans, and definitely was a driving force when the genre was in its formative days in the 1990s.
12 WING Kanemura
One of Japan's biggest hardcore stars, Kanemura never quite got the recognition he deserved. A staple in BJPW, FMW and IWA Japan, Kanemura made his mark with barbed wire, fire, and C4 explosions, capitalizing on the deathmatch style that was running rampant in Japan during the 1990s. Finding most of his title-success in FMW, he never was able to crossover successfully to the States, but many American wrestlers who ventured over the to the hardcore scene in Japan, have faced off with him over the years. His retirement match is set for December of this year, and such a long career in the hardcore style deserves to be commended, and Kanemura is surely one of the best Japanese talents the genre has ever seen.
11 Terry Funk
Like Onita, Funk started out as a traditional wrestler, and once held the NWA Heavyweight Title in the mid-70s. However, his matches always a rough, brawling characteristic to them, and during the early-1990s, Funk made the transition to a hardcore competitor almost exclusively. He lent his legendary name to ECW, beginning in 1993, and participated in IWA Japan's King Of The Deathmatch Tournament in 1995. From this time onward, Funk was known throughout the world as one of the best, most ruthless, and extreme hardcore competitors. He changed the game, and for such a renowned name to make the shift to hardcore wrestling, gave the genre the clout it needed to succeed at the time. In all, Funk is one of the greatest of all-time, whether employing the hardcore style or not.
9 John Zandig
The founder of CZW in 1999, Zandig is probably the most important figure in U.S. hardcore wrestling that has no ties to the original ECW. By opening CZW, it gave hardcore fans in the States another avenue to watch the product after ECW died off. He's won the promotion's Heavyweight Title on six occasions. Additionally, he's crossed over to BJPW during his career as well, becoming a hit with Japanese audiences, and winning a combined four titles. Zandig is a kind of "love or hate" figure in professional wrestling. For those who detest the ultraviolent style, he's seen as one of the main reasons that wrestling is seen as a joke by some people. For fans of the hardcore style however, he's one of the important figures in the industry over the past 20 years. There is no right or wrong necessarily, but Zandig and the CZW promotion has certainly made their mark.
8 Necro Butcher
Recently retired at the age of 43, Necro Butcher is one of the best hardcore wrestlers of the past 20 years, and has actually had success crossing over with fans of more traditional wrestling. He's participated in plenty of deathmatches over the years in promotions such as IWA Mid-South and CZW, but also has gained recognition as a great brawler, without the use of weapons, in promotions such as ROH. Still, his contributions to hardcore wrestling are second to none, and he was willing to take just as many bumps as anybody else in the hardcore realm. His young retirement age is a testament to this fact, and so is the respect he's received from hardcore audiences just about everywhere. For my money, the best American hardcore wrestler of the last 20 years.
Sabu has been recognized the world over as one of the most violent and innovative hardcore wrestlers ever. He made his mark in Japan for FMW, going on tour with his uncle, who just happens to be The Sheik. After wrestling overseas for the early portion of his career, he became one of the wrestlers most associated with ECW during the 1990s, and from there has gone on to wrestle in seemingly every Indy promotion in existence. He's talented in the ring, and not beholden to the hardcore style, but it's definitely what gets him the bulk of his notoriety. Sabu was influential in that he would combine weapons and traditional wrestling moves together, rather than just hitting an opponent with a steel chair. He's spent limited time in mainstream promotions, but is definitely one of the most popular Indy and foreign circuit performers ever, and a household name in hardcore wrestling.
6 Ryuji Ito
No one has been as much of a staple in BJPW as Ito has since 2000, and he's still one of the promotion's most viable stars. So much so, that he's rarely competed for any other promotion, but did have brief stops in Chikara and IWA East Coast, as an entrant in several hardcore tournaments. Even considering this, he's still one of the guys that has carried Japanese hardcore wrestling in the 21st century, and has seen his share of light tubes and fire within the squared circle. He may only fit within a niche, but he's one of the best in recent years of doing so, and has show little sign of slowing down. He's still one of the best going today in BJPW. It would be nice to see him make some more stateside appearances in the near future.
5 Atsushi Onita
Originally a traditional, "straight" wrestler in AJPW during the 1970s and early 80s, Onita turned to deathmatch wrestling in the late 1980s, and essentially spearheaded the hardcore movement in Japan for the 1990s. He is the founder of the FMW promotion, which was one of, if not the very first Japanese promotion to use hardcore and ultraviolent styles on a consistent, long term scale. He's wrestled in plenty of classic deathmatches in Japan, against both American and foreign talent, and made his stamp on the industry with his willingness to push the hardcore style. Probably the most important figure in Japanese hardcore wrestling, and a big reason why the style is so popular with a segment of the wrestling audience today.
3 Mick Foley
Well-known to both hardcore and mainstream wrestling fans alike, Foley is one of the most identifiable character in the industry. Whether he was portraying the Cactus Jack or Mankind characters, or merely playing himself, Foley quickly gained a reputation as the guy who could take the bumps that no one else would. The heights that he's fallen off of, and the severity of the matches that he's been in, has been absolutely amazing. He's worked everywhere from Japan, to ECW, and helped normalize a violent style in both WCW and WWE during the 1990s. There's no other way to put it, Foley is an all-time great, and arguably has done the most for hardcore wrestling on a wide scale, because he's probably the wrestler that the most people have seen performing it.
1 Abdullah The Butcher
Before hardcore was an identifiable style, there was Abdullah The Butcher wrestling in it. He debuted in 1958, and in his career has truly been an international presence, wrestling in seemingly every promotion around. Abdullah, with his trademark fork, and slicing up of opponents during the match, was years ahead of his time. It was difficult for him to stick with any one promotion for too long simply because the fans didn't know what to make of his actions during the matches. But to hardcore wrestling fans, he was the originator. The violence that occurred in his matches just didn't happen in his heyday, and he normalized the hardcore style everywhere he went. There are some who believe that he was merely a one-trick attraction who couldn't wrestle, but his importance really does override that point of view. You probably wouldn't want every wrestler to be like Abdullah, but an isolated example of just how violent pro wrestling can be, he stands the test of time, and certainly made a great impact on the sport.