The 1990s were an amazing evolution for wrestling. As they started, WWE and WCW (then still under the NWA label) dominated but some indies around like USWA. Also, companies were stuck in cartoonish angles and characters and prime-time TV was limited. Things shifted with WCW signing Hulk Hogan and boosting things up with “Nitro.” Meanwhile, ECW introduced a violent new element to wrestling to spark up interest. Soon, WCW and WWE were blurring the lines and changing things majorly for a “smart” audience to bring an exciting new period of wrestling while Japan kept producing the best pure work on the planet.
Thus, each year provided fantastic workers and matches to make wrestling great. It also produced some angles and characters fan with they’d never seen. That’s especially true for the early half of the decade with companies continuing to provide stupid characters and stuff. Even the latter half had some bad workers who marred the otherwise hot period of wrestling and it’s daunting to figure out who was the best or worst of each year, both in ring work and star power. But some picks are more obvious than others to highlight how much this decade changed things. Here is the best and worst wrestler of each year of the 1990s and show how this decade evolved so amazingly.
20 1990 BEST: Curt Hennig
Curt Hennig had always been a great worker on many levels. He rose up well as AWA Champion and only held back by how badly the company was in terms of a good roster at the time. Moving to WWE, Hennig took on the role of “Mr. Perfect” and lived up to it with amazing technical work and good promos. 1990 was the year Perfect took off as he won the Intercontinental title and added Bobby Heenan as his manager. He lost the belt to Kerry Von Erich at SummerSlam but still did great, always pulling off a fantastic match, taking bumps like few others and regained the belt after a few months. Hennig gave his all in every battle, taking on most comers and even in a loss, he pushed himself well. He would have to hang it up for a while the next year after injury but this year was when Hennig truly became the perfect worker in WWE.
19 1990 WORST: Junkyard Dog
Even at the height of his fame, Junkyard Dog was a terrible worker. He covered for it with his charisma and Bill Watts’ booking to be a star in the Mid-South area and really elevate himself up. But by 1990, the man’s addictions to drugs and food had led to him being a bloated shell of himself. However, Ole Anderson was in charge of things in WCW and decided it would be genius to cut costs by having JYD as a face with “The Dudes With Attitudes.” Dog was soon put up against Ric Flair in a horrible Clash of the Champions match and their program was voted Worst Feud of the year. Out of shape and unmotivated, Dog was gone soon and sad that his last gasp at the big time had to be a reminder of his fame long gone by.
18 1991 BEST: Jumbo Tsuruta
One of the greatest legends of Japanese wrestling, Tsuruta hit new heights in 1991. He had sensational battles with Stan Hansen and others that boosted him to major success. He kicked off the year winning All-Japan’s Triple Crown and held it for the entire year. The man managed to pull off four and five star matches constantly through the year and his battles with Mitsuharu Misawa are still talked of in Japanese wrestling circles. Good on the mic and blossoming amazingly well, Tsuruta’s fame went beyond Japan, winning over American fans when videos of his work hit the U.S. The man sadly passed on in 2000 but the fact he was named Wrestler of the Year by several newsletters for 1991 should speak volumes on how well regarded he was and fantastic in how he helped elevate Japanese wrestling to a great new level.
17 1991 WORST: The Desperados
There was a lot of bad stuff in WCW in 1991. Kevin Nash as Oz, PN News, Archnaman and more. But the worst of the worst had to be the Desperados. Long-time journeymen Black Bart, Dutch Mantel and Deadeye Dick were put together as a batch of cowboys. This led to a very long series of dumb skits of the trio going to “Wild West towns” looking for Stan Hansen, who they were convinced would lead them to glory. According to reports, when Hansen caught the skits, not only did he refuse to take part but left for an extended trip to Japan. Thus, the trio just bumbled around and their ring work was utterly atrocious. They showed little teamwork, little skill, terrible on promos and just stunk up an already lousy joint badly. Thankfully, they rode off into the sunset fast but still made their mark as among the worst elements of a bad year.
16 1992 BEST: Ric Flair
When the 1990s began, most thought Ric Flair was done, his heyday over and not able to handle things. Instead, Flair kicked off 1991 winning the WCW title once more before his famous walk-out. This led to his going to WWE and the dream matches with Hulk Hogan. 1992 began with Flair silencing his critics by going nearly an hour in the Royal Rumble to win the vacant WWE title in a fantastic performance. He and Hogan were to face off at Mania but backstage politics interfered and so Flair had to face off with Randy Savage in a great match. They had a top feud before Flair regained the belt then shocked everyone dropping it to Bret Hart a month later. Flair kept it going, he and Hart having an hour-long battle and still amazing. Flair proved he could still go out there and even in WWE be a mega-star and why he’s still considered among the greatest ever.
15 1992 WORST: Erik Watts
Bill Watts did do some good in WCW with his booking but his cost-cutting measures and strict rules hurt him with the guys backstage. His old-styled mentality was a bit out of place in the 1990s as well. But what really hurt Watts was his belief that his son, Erik, could be the next star of wrestling. He thus took the kid out of training after just a month and immediately pushed him into the upper mid-card. While Watts had promise, his total lack of experience was obvious and he was bland on the mic but still pushed big because of his dad. It was completely clear that his dad was pushing him on and veterans grousing over having to job to this kid. His being named “Rookie of the Year” by PWI shows how much a joke those awards were at times as he made almost no impact. As soon as Watts was gone, Erik took a nose dive and owes his crappy run to his dad thinking him a star when nowhere near ready for that.
14 1993 BEST: Vader
Except for just a few days turning a tour of the UK, Vader held the WCW World Title for nearly the entire year. That should get respect but he backed it up with his great ring work. In his prime, Vader was a very impressive sight, a man nearly 400 pounds who could take off with moonsaults and very quick. His dreaded power bomb was a terrific sight that could showcase some amazing crushing of jobbers. Vader had a great year of feuds with Sting, Cactus Jack (including the famed power bomb on concrete), Davey Boy Smith and more. That he could adapt to all these different workers was a testament to his skills and how well he could hang with the best in the business. He ended the year losing the belt to Flair at Starrcade but for the previous 12 months, Vader dominated WCW like few others and the fans responded to his work well to show that he was, truly, “The Man.”
13 1993 WORST: Giant Gonzalez
Originally, Jorge Gonzalez was signed up by Turner for the Atlanta Falcons. Then, it was discovered how totally uncoordinated he was but they were determined to do something with him. So they had him as El Gigante for terrible matches. For some reason, WWE decided to hire him and give him a disgusting muscle body suit. He threw the Undertaker out of the Royal Rumble and proceeded to have a horrific feud with him. That included a terrible match at WrestleMania and led to long series of bouts culminating at SummerSlam. Gonzalez stuck around for a bit later before finally being cut and long remembered today as one of the worst wrestlers of all time and easily the worst of 1993.
12 1994 BEST: Bret Hart
Throughout 1993, Bret Hart had been pushed to the sidelines despite his great work as champion. Vince McMahon wanted Hulk Hogan back, then Lex Luger but both failed and Yokozuna dominated as champion. But in 1994, Bret was finally given his shot to rise up again. He and Luger won the Rumble together and at WrestleMania, Bret opened the show in a classic battle with brother Owen, then ended it regaining the title. From there, Bret and Owen had a fantastic feud, both giving it their all in one fantastic match after another. Bret also worked in fine battles with 1-2-3 Kid and others before his wild feud with Bob Backlund, the fans backing Bret totally with his great work and for essentially being the anti-Hogan.
Owen cost Bret the title as Backlund then lost to Diesel but Bret remained in the running. This was a year where Bret did indeed prove himself the best there was and helped WWE in a rough time.
11 1994 WORST: Dave Sullivan
You think WWE comes up with some dark and disturbing stuff? Check this out. In 1994, Dave Sullivan was introduced as the dyslexic brother of long-time heel Kevin Sullivan. The idea was him calling himself “Evad” as he couldn’t tell his real name due to his condition. Yes, it’s as bad as it sounds. Dave soon started calling himself “the world’s biggest Hulkamaniac” and following Hogan around. He would even dress up like Hogan and do his moves and poses. That was a lot better than his regular ring work, sloppy and uninspired with really no good work on his own. He was put in terrible matches with Kevin that included Mr. T as a ref and palling around with Hogan a lot. Dave would have even worse feuds with DDP and Big Bubba Rogers but the fact WCW was pushing a mentally disabled guy as a fan favorite shows even they had their own set of dumb ideas.
10 1995 BEST: Dean Malenko
Ric Flair summed it up best once: Dean Malenko was arguably the best technical wrestler of his time but because of his size, could never be world champion. The son of Boris Malenko, Dean had been building up a resume abroad and in the indies before coming to ECW. There, he really took off, joining Shane Douglas and Chris Benoit as the Triple Threat. As 1995 began, Malenko and Benoit won the tag titles and Malenko was already TV champion. The two were already terrific on their own but then Malenko entered into his feud with Eddie Guerrero. The two traded the TV title in a series of thrilling battles soon hailed as the best matched the U.S. had seen in years. Their final match for the company ended in a draw and the ECW faithful chanting “Please don’t go!” with a massive ovation.
Malenko then headed to WCW where his amazing skills were shown off as he helped the Cruiserweight division steal the show constantly on “Nitro.” Soon “The Man of a Thousand Holds” would be one of WCW’s most dependable workers as his 1995 bouts helped push him up as a master in the ring.
9 1995 WORST: Mabel
WWE made so many mistakes in 1995, an absolutely disastrous year for business. But the biggest (in every sense of the word) was the elevation of Mabel. Long a goofy rapper guy for Men on a Mission, Mabel had little impact and no real heat with fans. Yet Vince was convinced the man could be the future major heel needed to face off with champion Diesel. He not only turned Mabel heel but had him win King Of the Ring to loud boos. Mabel and Diesel proceeded to have a terrible main event at SummerSlam that drove viewership down big time. The man was so slow and plodding he couldn’t provide a decent match. Worse was how sloppy he was as he broke The Undertaker’s face and led to him pushed down. So many mistakes made by WWE yet having Mabel on top was horrific.
8 1996 BEST: Shawn Michaels
HBK had been rising for a while, winning the IC title and stunning fans with his classic ladder matches with Razor Ramon. True, he was a huge jerk at the time and his run with “the Kliq” didn’t make him a lot of friends backstage. But Michaels was still hotter than anyone with the fans and amazing in the ring. Thus, winning the title made sense as he and Bret Hart put on a brilliant exhibition in their Iron Man match for the title. Michaels followed it up with amazing battles with Diesel, Vader, Mankind and more, even getting a good title bout out of Sid. Bret himself has stated Shawn shouldn’t be blamed for WWE having bad business that year (WCW would always have been winning with the NWO) as he always respected the man’s ring work. That was on full display in this terrific year that boosted his rep a bit more and helped Shawn lay claim to the title of “Showstopper.”
7 1996 WORST: Fake Razor
To their credit, WWE today cite this as one of the worst ideas they’ve ever come up with. The company was rocked hard when Scott Hall and Kevin Nash jumped to WCW and played up still being Razor Ramon and Diesel (Hall using the same “Cuban” accent). This led to a bevy of lawsuits as WWE argued they owned the characters. So, in a move he now regrets, Vince began hinting that Diesel and Razor were returning. This led to a wild bit of Jim Ross going heel on a tirade over Vince and bringing out “Razor.” Out came a guy clearly not Scott Hall and looking like a truly bad imitator. The fans turned on it instantly and poor Rick Bognar had to put up with their hate. His work was just a pale imitation of Hall’s and his promos…ugh.
The whole thing was killed off after a few months to the relief of fans. While the fake Diesel went on to become Kane, Bognar faded to show there was only one Razor fans wanted.
6 1997 BEST: Bret Hart
Say what you will but 1997 was the year Bret Hart was the talk of wrestling. He started off losing the Royal Rumble and a tirade over “being screwed” that led to attention. He briefly won the WWE title only to lost it the next night to Sid and then a further tirade pushing Vince down and cursing on air. That led to the now masterpiece match against Austin at Mania that elevated both and made Bret a heel. Reuniting with Owen and Davey Boy, Bret was rising up fast, a heel in the U.S. but a hero in Canada and used it for some brilliant matches. This led to him regaining the title and then the wild conflict with Shawn to set up Montreal.
That match is famous today and for it to become so controversial proves how huge a deal Bret was. While it ended badly with him in WCW, 1997 was a year Bret reminded everyone how huge a star and worker he was to be the best in the business.
5 1997 WORST: Disco Inferno
It’s said that by 1997, both WWE and WCW were letting go of “cartoon character” wrestlers for more believable guys. Disco Inferno proves that’s not quite true. This goofball was just what he sounds like, a guy dressed up like “Saturday Night Fever” and doing nutty disco dances to and from the ring. He was amazingly given a push in WCW with his antics, including winning the TV title despite fans not being sold on him. This led to him and dancing Alex Wright engaging in one of the absolute worst feuds imaginable. The two spent more time dancing than actually wrestling and fans hated it when there were so many guys more deserving of attention. Amazingly, WCW kept Disco around but folks wish in 1997 Disco was truly dead.
4 1998 BEST: Steve Austin
There can be no denying that 1998 was the year WWE finally took over in the Monday Night War. And Steve Austin was the reason. After nearly having his career ended by a neck injury, Austin returned to wow fans with a brawling style and his fantastic mic work. Winning the Royal Rumble, Austin beat Shawn Michaels to finally win the WWE title. This led to the utterly genius feud with Vince McMahon where fans adored watching Austin humiliate the arrogant owner on a weekly basis. Austin followed it up with great matches with the likes of Mick Foley, Undertaker and more, keeping it up despite injuries and always keeping fans going. Maybe guys were better in the ring but in terms of sheer power, no one could touch Austin as the best in the business as he helped make this wrestling’s hottest year to that point.
3 1998 WORST: Warrior
Granted, The Ultimate Warrior was never great in the ring. But in 1998, he sadly tarnished what legacy he had. He was signed on to WCW with a huge contract in the hopes of finally repeating the dream match with Hogan. But Warrior had bizarre stuff like kidnapping Ed Leslie and the infamous “mirror” bit that made the build look ridiculous. He and Hogan had a fight at Fall Brawl where Warrior managed to tear a bicep and twist an ankle just brawling. This led to the absolute disaster of their Halloween Havoc match where they put on a “fight” that had fans laughing rather than cheering with Hogan blowing a fireball attempt.
Even Hogan has acknowledged screwing this up but the fact was Warrior was just out of shape and unable to properly do his job. He left WCW right after that, meaning they had blown tons of money on one horrible appearance, the Warrior’s last in wrestling until just before his death.
2 1999 BEST: Mitsuharu Misawa
Misawa will be remembered for his ending, dying in the ring in 2009. But he is also revered as one of the single greatest workers in Japanese wrestling history. Throughout the 1990s, Misawa had been putting on one great match after another and hailed for his work. But 1999 may well be the crowning moment of his career. He defeated Vader for the Triple Crown and held it for several months before losing it back in a great rematch. He and Kenta Kobashi engaged in a feud with several four and five star matches that to this day are shown to rookies in Japan as an example of what wrestling should be. Their June 11th battle was a near universal pick for “Match of the Year” by most wrestling sites and magazines as Misawa packed in thousands for his bouts. His career would continue but not quite the same heights but for 1999, if you wanted to know what great wrestling was, Misawa exemplified it.
1 1999 WORST: Big Boss Man
Ray Traylor was a good guy and not too bad a worker in his prime as Big Bubba Rogers. By 1999, he was in a rough spot, showing the weight of years on the road and some drug use. His run in WWE had him as an enforcer for Vince McMahon but his in-ring work pretty bad, slow and plodding a lot. This year had him and the Undertaker battle in a Hell in the Cell match ending with Boss Man “hanged” from the cage. Then came the infamous feud with Al Snow where Boss Man kidnapped Snow’s dog and fed it to him. That was followed by the “Kennel From Hell” match that most in WWE agree was one of the worst bouts of all time. Then, Boss Man was positioned to feud with Big Show for the WWE title with the absolutely ridiculous segment of him crashing the “funeral” for Show’s dad and dragging the coffin off his truck. To be involved in so many bad moments has to put you among the worst workers around and Boss Man should have been locked up for all that.