A wrestler's shelf life in the business can be very short. Whether it's due to age catching up, injuries piling up or a wrestler simply growing stale with the crowd, careers can fade away in a hurry. Many promising wrestlers find themselves out of the business by 30, as they simply see no opportunity to move up the ladder or they've done just about everything they can expect.
The Rock was out of wrestling by 30, as Hollywood came calling. We saw The Great One at a peak athletic age, so we never got to see if his craft would ever improve into his late 30s. Plenty of wrestlers though, have saved their best stuff for late in their careers.
While it can be seen as obvious that a wrestler is bound to improve as they gather years worth of experience, some performers seem to hit a wall after a while and never get any better than they were early on. Others start to show wear and tear and end up limiting their moveset as a result. If Daniel Bryan ever competes in a WWE ring again, you know he'll have to alter his style.
Kane and Big Show are guys who have clearly regressed and that could just be a sign that they've just been around too long and there's really nothing interesting for them to do. There are plenty of guys though who didn't put their best foot forward until late in their careers, with some doing their best work and going out on top. Here are 15 wrestlers who got better and peaked towards the end of their careers.
15 Christopher Daniels
Christopher Daniels is well over 40 now, but there's no doubt his best work has come in recent years. As one half of the Bad Influence tag team with Kazarian a few years back, they were arguably the best team in all of wrestling. His ring work wasn't quite as demanding as it used to be, but Daniels became an entertaining heel and seemed like a guy who was really comfortable with his character, a common trait that seems to happen after 40.
Batista is almost on this list by default, as he had a late start in the business, making his WWE debut back in 2002 at the age of 33 as Deacon Batista. Batista was very green in the ring and stiff on the mic well into his 30s, but something clicked late in his first WWE run. Around the time he hit the big 4-0, Batista turned heel and was better than ever on the mic. He really seemed at ease playing the anti-John Cena back in their 2010 feud and left WWE on a high note. His work in his second run in 2014 wasn't quite as good, but you could chock that up to WWE mismanaging him.
At the time, I never really bought JBL as a legitimate main eventer as it was hard to forget the man had been a midcarder for so long in WWE as Bradshaw. The whole thing reeked of JBL getting a break because he had been loyal to the company. While his in-ring work was never spectacular, there's no doubt Bradshaw did amazing heel work as the New York City rich man character. The gimmick seemed to suit him, as it has been reported that JBL can be a bit of a jerk backstage.
12 Kurt Angle
This was a tough decision, because Kurt Angle was so good right away, that it was hard to measure his improvement as he aged. Still, towards the end of his WWE run, Angle was the highest paid wrestler on the roster and had truly found himself, turning into the Wrestling Machine. He wasn't the goofy character he was earlier on and everybody bought him as a top star.
Angle's career continued to thrive in TNA, where he was constantly one of the company's bright spots into his 40s. There finally came a point when he was slowed down by injuries and he announced he was taking time off from wrestling recently. Still, Angle was never at a point where fans were begging him to retire.
11 Bubba Ray Dudley
Bubba's work as Bully Ray in TNA came when he was hitting 40 and it happened to a guy no one thought would have ever been a world champion, even in TNA. Bubba was always the more vocal of the Dudley Boyz and people may have guessed that he could be a midcarder on his own, but he stood out as he was the best heel in wrestling just a couple of years ago. He'll never reach that point in WWE, but now we all know what the performer is capable of.
10 John Cena
It's hard to imagine, but John Cena is 38 years old, set to turn 39 in April. Despite that number, Cena arguably had the best year of his career in terms of his work rate. While that could be due to Cena having much more talented performers to work with, like Kevin Owens and Seth Rollins, Cena deserves a ton of credit. He stepped up his game in a big way when he had to and he has silenced (or at least should have) people who claim he can't wrestle.
9 Brock Lesnar
Brock Lesnar is the same age as John Cena and while Lesnar's moveset isn't as extensive as it was back in his first WWE run, Lesnar has gotten so great at selling and telling a great story in the ring. He just seems so comfortable with what he is. He doesn't have to do a whole lot to garner a reaction out of the crowd and he brings something nobody else in the company can. The little things he does in the ring don't go unnoticed and he's a guy you could see performing well into his 40s.
8 Bret Hart
Bret Hart's in-ring work rate was always stellar, but his storytelling in the ring got better with more experience. The biggest difference though is in Hart's work on the mic and as a character in the WWE. Approaching 40 in 1997, Hart turned heel and formed the new Hart Foundation, beginning to become an anti-American character. Hart's mic work was infinitely better and even after all those years was regularly putting on the best matches. Hart has said himself that there was no better time in his career than 1997 (minus the Screwjob of course).
7 Mark Henry
Mark Henry was signed to a long term contract back in the mid 90s and the WWE was extremely patient with him, even as he continued to struggle throughout the Attitude Era and even into the Ruthless Aggression era. Henry finally got a legitimate chance to start main eventing in the 2010s and there's no doubt it's where he did the best work of his career. His retirement angle with John Cena a few years ago was brilliant and he had a good series of matches to close out 2011. This all came with Henry pushing 40.
Sting's best work in his career came under the crow moniker and that was when Sting was nearing 40. He proved from there on that he could adapt with the times and continued to evolve and tweak his character well into his TNA run. It seems he's finally hit a wall now, being in his mid 50s, but the fact that Sting was able to have some of the best matches of his career well into his 40s gets him a spot on this list.
5 Mick Foley
While Mick Foley was essentially forced to retire by his mid 30s, his body had the wear and tear of a guy who had been wrestling 100 years. Still, Foley's best work came late in his career, both on the mic and in the ring. Foley retired from full-time competition in 2000 but came back for a few one-offs including a fantastic Hardcore match with Randy Orton in 2004 and one with Edge at WrestleMania 22. Foley's mic work had also kept growing and being that he was into his 40s, that gets him a spot here.
4 Trish Stratus
Trish Stratus had a tremendous presence and was obviously easy on the eyes right away, but she was weak in the ring to say the least. Stratus kept improving throughout her run and by the time she retired in 2006, she was the best female wrestler on the roster and putting on better matches than a lot of the men. You get the feeling Stratus could come back today even at the age of 40 and still be one of the best in the business.
3 Chris Jericho
Much of Chris Jericho's career seemed to be bouncing up and down from the upper midcard to the main event scene. For much of his career up to 2005 though, he couldn't stay on top of the card consistently. That changed once he returned in 2007 from a two-year break from wrestling. He scrapped his nostalgic Y2J character and took on a much more cold-blooded, heartless heel. From there, he proceeded to do the best work of his career, having a legendary feud with Shawn Michaels. This all happened with Jericho approaching 40. Even at 45 today, Jericho is capable of coming back and having a great match on command.
2 The Undertaker
It seems crazy to think that back in the early 2000s, many felt that 'Taker's best days were behind him and it was time for the Phenom to retire. Something amazing happened after the WWE's brand split and 'Taker was essentially picked to lead the Smackdown brand; he soon became better than ever. After a four-year run as the American Badass, he returned to the Deadman gimmick and soon began having WrestleMania classic after classic. This is when the Streak really took on a life of its own and 'Taker's legend continued to grow. Considering now most of his best matches have taken place when he was 40 or older, Taker definitely belongs here.
1 Shawn Michaels
Shawn Michaels was 44 when he retired and was the best wrestler in the company when he hung up his boots for good. That's enough to land him the top spot here, as wrestlers aren't supposed to be at their best by the time they're 40.
Michaels made his return to wrestling in 2002 at the age of 37 after a four year retirement due to a bad back. HBK came back and throughout his eight year run, constantly stole the show and grew his legacy to the point many now consider him the greatest performer of all time and it's hard to argue against it. It also helped that Michaels was in a much better state of mind in this run than he was in the 90s.
If Shawn Michaels wanted, he could probably make a comeback today at 50 and still steal the show on command.