Definitively ranking the greatest professional wrestlers throughout all history serves to be an almost impossible task. First of all, there’s a solid 50+ years of the industry almost entirely undocumented due to the lack of television. All historians have prior to the so-called Golden Age of Wrestling is newspaper clippings and memories, neither of which are entirely reliable when gauging the whole of a superstar’s talents.
Starting in the 1950s, however, it becomes reasonably easy to study wrestling history and start compiling who the actual greatest wrestlers of all time truly were. Obviously, there’s no full science to this, so personal bias plays a role no matter how we try to slice it. That said, we’re considering in-ring talent, ability on the microphone, popularity, influence, and let’s not forget, kayfabe success.
To keep things simple, instead of ranking every grappler who ever hit the ring, our list is simply going to anoint the best and worst wrestler of each decade. There’s bound to be plenty of disagreement amongst readers, but hopefully our history lessons will prove there’s at least a method to our madness. Keep reading to discover our picks for the best and worst pro wrestler of each decade starting with the 1950s.
15 BEST WRESTLER OF THE 1950s: Lou Thesz
Honorable Mentions: Gorgeous George, Rikidōzan
To this day, there’s a large contingent of wrestling historians who would allege Lou Thesz is the greatest wrestler of all time, regardless of the time period. He’s almost certainly the most talented “hooker” of his era, a term used to designate pro wrestlers who could legitimately hold their own in a fight should some newcomer want to test how real pro wrestling was back when kayfabe was still a relative secret. Thesz won his first National Wrestling Association Championship in the late 1930s, regaining the belt in the late 1940s and unifying it with the National Wrestling Alliance Championship in 1949. Thesz went on to hold the belt over seven years, one of the longest World Championship reigns in history, absorbing dozens of regional champions along the way and becoming one of the few true Undisputed World Champions wrestling has ever seen. Gorgeous George earns an honorable mention for revolutionizing the art of the gimmick and Rikidōzan holds a similar position to Thesz in Japan.
14 WORST WRESTLER OF THE 1950s: Ricki Starr
To be entirely fair, of all the entries on our list, we’re the least confident with naming Ricki Starr the worst wrestler of the 1950s. This is the only section where we’re not naming any dishonorable mentions, because while the greatest periods of this era have been heavily documented, for the most part, the worst has understandably been lost. Tapes and memories of Ricki Starr persist thanks to his unique early gimmick, arguably the first duel-sports superstar, a wrestler/ballet dancer. Starr became highly popular due to his antics, which mostly consisted of literally doing ballet around the ring, dumbfounding his opponents into falling down and hurting themselves. Starr is sometimes credited for innovating a high flying style, plus his status as one of the first true gimmicks, and he might deserve it had he actually implemented wrestling into the character. Unfortunately, because he merely pranced around the ring, it made the industry look especially silly and fake in an era where realness was still important, and Starr’s legacy greatly suffers for it.
13 BEST WRESTLER OF THE 1960s: "The Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers
Honorable Mentions: Gene Kiniski, Lou Thesz
While a WWE specific list would have to give the 1960s to “The Living Legend” Bruno Sammartino, a more total view of wrestling history inspires us to name “The Original Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers as the best of the decade. Rogers was a rising star throughout the advent of television, feuding legends like Lou Thesz and Pat O’Connor. In 1961, Rogers defeated O’Connor for the NWA World Championship in front of the largest ever pro wrestling crowd at that point. He held the title for slightly under two years, at which point NWA officials wanted to give the belt back to Lou Thesz. Vince McMahon, Sr. thought there was still money to be made with Rogers and so he branched off and crowned Rogers the first WWE Championship. Although Rogers soon lost the belt to Sammartino, his reign set the tone for all WWE Champions to come and his heel character inspired generations. In addition to Bruno and the still dominant Lou Thesz, Verne Gagne also deserves mention this decade for creating and dominating the AWA.
12 WORST WRESTLER OF THE 1960s: Haystacks Calhoun
Dishonorable Mentions: Happy Humphrey, Ricki Starr
Much like with the 1950s, wrestling historians haven’t felt the need to seek out the worst wrestling of the 1960s and much of it has been lost. However, the rise of gimmicks allowed certain wrestlers to becoming extremely popular despite an almost complete lack of talent. Ricki Starr was still kicking around, even more popular in England than he was in the US, but we’re not talking about him. Much worse than Starr’s theatrics was the sheer immobility of the immense, and immensely popular, Haystacks Calhoun. Weighing somewhere in the neighborhood of 663 pounds, Calhoun not only couldn’t do much in the ring, but there was virtually no way for him to do so whatsoever. Arguably even worse was the 800 pound Happy Humphrey (also pictured above), who main evented Madison Square Garden against Calhoun in what was billed as the largest match of all time. Although Humphrey might have been worse in the ring, we’re calling Calhoun the worst overall for his influence, inspiring decades of immobile wrestlers who earned their keep by glorifying incredibly dangerous lifestyles.
11 BEST WRESTLER OF THE 1970s: Nick Bockwinkel
Honorable Mentions: Antonio Inoki, Harley Race
Wrestling was slowly growing in popular since the advent of television in the 1950s and by the ‘70s, just about every local NWA affiliate had their own local TV show. Given this explosion and the volume of territories in existence at the time, it’s a little hard to choose who the most successful was in kayfabe terms. Nonetheless, we feel confident in declaring Nick Bockwinkel as the best for his total domination of the AWA, plus his brief excursions throughout the NWA. Bock even wrestled a champion versus champion match against WWE’s Bob Backlund, though it ended in a draw as matches of that nature often did. Prior to his time as a solo star, Bockwinkel started to gain fame by teaming with Ray Stevens and Bobby Heenan, sticking with The Brain to create some of the most literate and influential heel promos in history. In the ring, he was an absolute master, schooling newcomers with his amateur based style well into his 50s. Outside of Bockwinkel, Harley Race gets a mention for starting to write his legend in the NWA and Antonio Inoki deserves the same for founding New Japan Pro Wrestling.
10 WORST WRESTLER OF THE 1970s: George Gulas
Dishonorable Mentions: Giant Haystacks, Lee Wong
As with the best of the ‘70s, chances are every individual territory had their resident worst wrestler of the decade. George Gulas still gets the dubious honor for how heavily he was pushed, made significantly worse given the reasoning why. His father, Nick Gulas, had been one of the most successful promoters in the Southern United States for many years and, despite all evidence to the contrary, he decided his son was going to be the biggest star in wrestling almost instantly upon his debut. George was instantly thrown into 6-man tag team matches with Memphis legends Jackie Fargo and Tojo Yamamoto, neither of whom particularly liked George behind the scenes. George was so bad he started to kill his father’s business, causing Fargo, Yamamoto, and dozens of other wrestlers to flee and join a new company created by Gulas’s former business partner, Jerry Jarrett. Dishonorable mentions belong to Giant Haystacks, a British imitator of Haystacks Calhoun with an equally abysmal talent level, and Lee Wong from Hong Kong, a WWE jobber who earned fame when PWI founder Stu Saks dubbed Wong the worst wrestler he’d ever seen.
9 BEST WRESTLER OF THE 1980s: "The Nature Boy" Ric Flair
Honorable Mentions: Hulk Hogan, “Macho Man” Randy Savage
WWE might have expanded to a mainstream phenomenon in the 1980s and there’s no denying that Hulk Hogan was a bigger superstar than Ric Flair. However, it would also be hard to argue that “The Nature Boy” was the significantly better wrestler of the two. In Flair’s own words, when Thunderlips was out making movies, he was busy winning World titles, doing so for the first time in 1981. Flair won the gold six more times throughout the decade, typically holding on to it for the better part of a year each time and only losing it for a manner of weeks in between. Flair took everything Buddy Rogers created with The Nature Boy persona and amped it up to an unmatchable level, turning a familiar character into something even greater than the originator could have imagined. Hogan deserves an honorable mention for helping put WWE on the global map, and “Macho Man” Randy Savage gets a nod for his unparalleled charisma and innovative in-ring ability.
8 WORST WRESTLER OF THE 1980s: The Fabulous Moolah
Dishonorable Mentions: David Sammartino, Brutus Beefcake
Though we expect a little bit of controversy for saying it, picking The Fabulous Moolah as the worst wrestler of the 1980s was actually an extremely simple decision. Moolah is remembered as one of the most influential female wrestlers in history, allegedly winning her first WWE Women’s Championship in 1956. She had the charisma to be champion for sure, but especially by the 1980s, when she was in her 60s, her in-ring talent simply wasn’t there anymore. For every negative story wrestling fans have heard about Hulk Hogan or Ric Flair refusing to give up the spotlight later in their lives, Moolah was infinitely worse, and at an even older age, essentially controlling women’s wrestling through her influence over the McMahon’s and ensuring no new star would ever be made. As though her horrible matches weren’t enough, Moolah was a lock for this spot due to genuinely destroying the wrestling industry for an entire gender, with it only recently having been able to recover. David Sammartino, son of Bruno, makes a dishonorable mention for standing as a sterling example of nepotism and Brutus Beefcake basically does the same as Hulk Hogan’s BFF.
7 BEST WRESTLER OF THE 1990s: "Stone Cold" Steve Austin
Honorable Mentions: The Undertaker, Mick Foley
Certain critics try to downplay the success of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin by pointing out his time on the top was relatively short in comparison to previous decade defining stars like Ric Flair or Lou Thesz, but that fails to miss an important point. Austin made more money in less time than any other wrestler in history, a fact only made more impressive by how quickly he did it. Also, to act as though he doesn’t deserve to be named the best of the decade simply because he didn’t explode in popularity until late 1996 ignores his incredible tenures in both WCW and ECW. Austin may have grown dissatisfied with Eric Bischoff, but he was pushed as TV Champion upon arrival and also won the WCW US and Tag Team titles. Add the four WWE Championships he won at the end of the decade and that’s all we’ve got to say about that. The Undertaker and Mick Foley are tandem honorable mentions for refining character work and gimmickry in the Attitude Era, and influencing the hardcore style with their matches between themselves and with many other superstars.
6 WORST WRESTLER OF THE 1990s: Giant González
Dishonorable Mentions: The Ultimate Solution, Erik Watts
Now that we’ve reached an era where countless hours of content are still available for fans to view, it can be just as hard to distill the worst of a decade down to two or three names as it has been to name the best. Giant González has been dubbed one of the worst wrestlers to enter the ring by no less than his own manager and good friend Harvey Wippleman, so even if he isn’t the absolute nadir of the industry, he doesn’t have many fans to say the least. It isn’t entirely González’s own fault, as a big part of the problem is he received almost no training prior to becoming a wrestler. Even if he had, it might not have helped, because standing at a legitimate 7 foot 7 inches tall, there wasn’t much he could do in the ring against normal sized opponents. González was rushed into the industry after having been discovered by Ted Turner himself, appearing in WCW as El Gigante. The experiment failed and a run in WWE as Giant González was even worse. Dishonorable mention Erik Watts is another case of nepotism gone wrong and the less said about The Ultimate Solution, the better.
5 BEST WRESTLER OF THE 2000s: Kurt Angle
Honorable Mentions: John Cena, Chris Jericho
The only Olympic Gold Medalist in WWE or TNA history, Kurt Angle is so good he managed to remain the best of the decade even after leaving WWE in an era where Vince McMahon is unlikely ever to be dethroned as the top businessman in the industry. He started the decade by becoming the Euro-Continental Champion and then the WWE Champion, a title he would go on to hold five more times. Angle also held the WCW Championship, and once he jumped to TNA, he earned another four reigns as World Champion that decade. He also ventured to Japan to earn a lengthy run as IWGP Champion. His personal troubles during his stay in TNA make Kurt a somewhat controversial figure, but the in-ring performances never faltered in anyway, regardless of the audience he gives them in front of. It would be easy to name John Cena the top star of the decade for breaking out as the face of WWE, and Chris Jericho also deserves a nod for constantly reinventing himself and remaining relevant as the top heel whenever he graced fans with his presence.
4 4.WORST WRESTLER OF THE 2000s: The Great Khali
Dishonorable Mentions: Triple H, Vladimir Kozlov
It was tempting to name Triple H as the worst performer of the 2000s thanks to his reign of terror as World Heavyweight Champion completely tanking Raw, and his later sophomoric turns reviving D-Generation X making a mockery of everything edgy the group once stood for. However, we have to admit Hunter had his fair share of good matches in this era, something that has entirely alluded The Great Khali. Dalip Rana first signed with WCW in 2000, never actually making it to the ring until scouted by NJPW after that promotion went out of business. He learned the very, very basics of wrestling and debuted in the WWE Universe circa 2006, winning his first and only World Heavyweight Championship less than one year later. Fans harshly rejected Khali in the role, with his inexperience and immobility dragging every main event he competed into a boring halt whenever he was in control. Vladimir Kozlov was an equally over-pushed lost cause, but at least he never won any major championships.
3 BEST WRESTLER OF THE 2010s: Shinsuke Nakamura
Honorable Mentions: Daniel Bryan, A.J. Styles
Thanks to the shocking ineptitude of Dixie Carter and the gradually descent into madness exhibited by Vince McMahon, the current decade is the first time our list has needed to venture outside of North America to name the best wrestler. Granted, Shinsuke Nakamura did eventually wind up in WWE, but we’re already confident in calling him the preeminent sports entertainer of his era, largely due to his efforts as the top face of New Japan Pro Wrestling. Nakamura won his first IWGP Championship in 2003 and recaptured the belt in 2008, but it was his third win in 2009 that truly started to write his legacy thanks to his new persona as The King of Strong Style. In 2012, he won his first of five IWGP Intercontinental Championships, fast elevating that belt to becoming almost equal to the promotion’s main title by his association. Now that Nakamura is dominating NXT, there’s no limit to the heights he could reach, unless of course Vince and company decide to limit him. Said limitations are what prevented honorable mention Daniel Bryan from earning this spot because it was too late, while A.J. Styles pitfalls are related to the aforementioned issues with Dixie Carter.
2 WORST WRESTLER OF THE 2000s: Roman Reigns
Dishonorable Mentions: Eva Marie, Kane
Fully accepting that it might come off as reactionary, we’re steadfast in the choice of Roman Reigns as the worst wrestler of the modern era. Sure, The Guy has proven capable of a decent performance in the ring with the right opponent, but he nonetheless represents everything wrong with WWE as it heads towards the future. Fans have almost uniformly rejected Roman from the day he turned babyface, and capable of hitting a Spear or not, Reigns’s inability to play anything other than a smarmy jerk plays a big role in this failure. The harder Reigns gets pushed, the worse history will view him and Vince McMahon’s decision to promote him in the future, especially considering most fans no longer believe there’s any hope for Roman’s fortunes ever turning around. As for our dishonorable mentions, Kane is a relic of the past that WWE seriously needs to let go of at this point, and Eva Marie is a classic example of a person pushed too soon due to her look, with none of the proper training to back it up.
1 WRESTLER OF THE FUTURE: ???
Let’s face it - January of 2017 is a little too soon to call the best or worst wrestler of this decade, not to mention the future. Shinsuke Nakamura and Roman Reigns already made enough of an impact that we aren’t reneging those choices, but the fact remains there’s no way to state definitively that someone better—or worse—won’t come along and change the business entirely before 2020 rolls around. For that same reason, it’s downright impossible for us to start guessing who will lead WWE, TNA, Lucha Underground, NJPW, wherever, into the future. Rumors are indicating Vince McMahon has a soft spot for Braun Strowman, an example we only bring up to prove how uncertain the future is, given that Braun is untested enough that he may well fall into either category. On top of that, there might be someone out there who doesn’t even know they’re going to be a wrestler yet and come 2024, they could be the face of the business. In all possibilities, if you’re reading this and you happen to be a wrestler, hey, good luck - maybe it’ll be you.