The modern wrestling fan known as the ‘smart mark’ will not be surprised by many on this list. Wrestling knowledge and appreciation for the little things is at an all-time high. Technical performers like Daniel Bryan are worshipped while obvious pushes to those deemed ‘not ready’ are met with cynical boos. You’ve heard of arm-chair GMs, well these fans are arm-chair bookers.
So who makes this list? All of the top 20 can bring it in the ring, if they couldn’t entertain me in a believable way I didn’t want to include them. This led to the exclusion of some wrestlers that have it on other Most Underrated lists. Mike Awesome is considered underrated by many, but didn’t make the cut here. I felt he was far too limited. He has decent agility for such a big man, but I felt he relied on wrestling a specific type of match. I also didn’t think he sold well enough, which is a skill that’s being forgotten about in the modern era. Terry Taylor is another that many consider a great wrestler buried by his horrible Red Rooster gimmick. While reviewing his matches on the WWE Network I found him to be deserving of the level he reached. He was serviceable yet clunky. Again, weak selling was a big turnoff. The Red Rooster gimmick was obviously awful, but history has shown that true talent can rise above the worst gimmicks.
Only one wrestler on this list won a WWE heavyweight championship, but several of them had all of the tools for a successful run of their own. Timing and politics can play a big role in keeping a wrestler out of the main event. These are the wrestlers that don’t get to wear the biggest belt, but regularly win the unofficial title of best match on the card. WCW in their heyday had a logjam of ex-WWE stars at the top, and an even bigger logjam of pure wrestlers below. WCW didn’t do a whole lot right, but their willingness to showcase Mexican and Japanese wrestlers, along with purists like Dean Malenko went a long way with the hardcore fans.
Vince’s buyout of WCW/ECW may have hurt the product with a lack of serious competition, but it did rescue some fantastic talent from potentially fading into obscurity, giving them new contracts in the WWE and more recently immortalizing their best matches on the WWE Network.
It is my honour to celebrate the most underrated talent with this list.
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18 Dean Malenko
Dean Malenko was a top technical wrestler, with an unnerving intensity that matched his “iceman” nickname. He consistently put on wrestling clinics in WCW but lacked the big-time mic skills and size to reach the biggest heights in the WWE.
He put on consistently fantastic bouts in WCW with Rey Mysterio and other cruiserweights. His feud was particularly enjoyable, Jericho's sarcastic snarky humor matching well with the ultra serious Malenko.
Fans of ‘real’ wrestling will always have a soft spot for the man of a thousand holds.
The WWE gave him the stereotypical Asian gimmick of course, but he was so much more. He played a great heel with his brutal looking moves, expressive face and little touches like slithering around the ring. He had a relentless attack that incorporated an incredible variety of unorthodox and acrobatic maneuvers.
The language barrier limited his success but Tajiri always did his best talking where it counted the most, in the ring.
18. Arn Anderson
Best known as Ric Flair’s henchman and enforcer of the Four Horsemen, Anderson combined power and precision with a remarkable grace. He played a heel exceptionally well with his menacing look and cool aggression. He could have easily brawled his way through matches but he could wrestle technically with the best of them. Besides the Horsemen, Arn is probably best known for his tag work with Tully Blanchard. They only spent a year with the WWE, winning the tag titles, but quickly returned to WCW for financial reasons.
Arn was a true pro, who used his retirement angle to put over WCW’s newest acquisition Curt Hennig (underrated himself) rather than hog the glory for himself. Perhaps because of Anderson’s selflessness, he never really got the recognition he deserved.
16 Billy Kidman
Billy Kidman was a great high flyer with a great overall skillset as well. His character work was underrated as he could play the innocent looking baby face just as well as the dirty looking scumbag you pray your daughter never dates. In WCW’s peak years Kidman consistently put on great matches with the stacked mid card. He went down with the ship and transitioned over to the WWE after the purchase, where he currently works behind the scenes.
A solid and sometimes spectacular worker who was a great tool for a promoter to have on the roster.
15 Shane McMahon
Usually the non-wrestlers put on cringeworthy performances and have to be carried by an experienced veteran. While Vince enjoys the thrill of being in the ring, it’s hardly thrilling (but it damn sure is funny) for anyone watching. Shane on the other hand was full of excitement. He made up for his lack of wrestling training with a willingness to sacrifice his body for death-defying stunts. His post-to-post leap to the trash can is a WrestleMania moment for the ages.
Shane has moved on from the ring to become a successful businessman of his own outside of wrestling, but his extreme stunts will always be remembered fondly.
14 Doink (Matt Osborne)
The clown gimmick was so overpowering there was never any hope for him to be taken seriously, but Matt Osborne, (the first Doink) was a respectable worker and played the evil clown very well. At first glance, the gimmick seemed like throwaway comedy, but Osborne understood to be most effective he needed to become very dark while in the ring. The evil violence underneath is what really sold it. When given a chance, Osborne could mount a compelling comeback as well. His belly-to-belly suplex was especially vicious, his Whoopee Cushion finish off the top was inventive, and he even used a throwback Rude Awakening neckbreaker.
An incredibly versatile performer accurately nicknamed the innovator of offense. He had the size and strength to pull of his unique blend of power moves (e.g. firemans carry into a falling neckbreaker), yet had the agility of a much smaller man. His Flatliner signature was also very creative, with the speed and impact a great finisher needs He had great heel look and facial expressions, yet he had an open charm that endeared him to the fans.
While he never received more than a few tag titles and a single US Championship, Kanyon quietly put together an impressive body of in-ring work that will hold up for a long time to come.
12 Ultimo Dragon
The Dragon has won titles all over the world as a high flyer with fantastic technical ability and more power than your average masked man. Perhaps he blazed a trail for the younger Rey Mysterio to eventually win the World Title in the WWE. Ultimo never won the big gold for himself in the North American promotions, but consistently provided outstanding mid-card matches in the WCW against Dean Malenko, Psychosis, Rey Mysterio and others.
11 Ricky Steamboat
His match with Randy Savage at WrestleMania III is not only one of the greatest ‘Mania bouts, but is credited with pushing wrestling forward. The psychology, drama, and pure ability displayed by the pair had never been seen before on such a grand stage. Before that match Steamboat was having classic after classic with Flair in the NWA as well. No babyface sold pain and evoked pity from the crowd like Ricky. His movie star looks and chiseled physique combined for a terrific package.
Unfortunately, his potential was absolutely squandered by Vince McMahon and a clash of egos. Vince had previously told Steamboat he planned to keep the IC title on him for a year. But after Steamboat asked for a paltry two weeks off to witness the birth of his son, McMahon punished him by having him drop the title to the Honky Tonk Man just two months later. Steamboat decided to get back at McMahon by taking six months off instead. Steamboat was never able to get his WWE momentum back after that.
10 Rick Rude
Rude had an incredibly chiseled body (named greatest in company history by WWE.com in 2012), tough guy charisma, a sweet finisher (basically a reverse stunner), great mic skills and the man could flat out work. He was born to play the heel, hitting on the ladies in the house, letting them see “what a real man looks like”. He covered an incredibly wide spectrum of wrestling eras as well. He won the NWA heavyweight championship, held the Intercontinental title in the WWF while feuding with the Ultimate Warrior,, was a member of D-Generation X,, and was a player in the Monday Night Wars when he appeared on both WWF Raw and WCW Nitro on the same day.
His back injuries prevented him from reaching greater heights as unfortunately most fans in the later generations didn’t get to see him wrestle. However, those who got the chance, never forgot it.
Dustin Runnels broke into the WCW at an extremely young age (probably before he was ready) and went on to have a long and solid career. Always a solid technician, he upped the ante with his excellent psychological work as Goldust. Still competing today, Rhodes has quietly become one of the longest tenured active wrestlers in the WWE, while maintaining remarkably consistent in-ring work. Who would have thought that weird guy sending love letters to Razor Ramon 19 years ago would still be going today?
8 Dynamite Kid
Arguably the greatest pure wrestler to come out of Stu Hart’s Stampede promotion. The Dynamite Kid was brutally realistic yet always safe, inspiring many others. Before a debilitating injury and substance abuse caught up to him, Dynamite was always a few steps ahead of the legendary Bret Hart. Bret himself has said Dynamite was perhaps the best wrestler he ever saw. Vince McMahon loved his look and would have ridden him hard and far if he could have remained healthy. He peaked just a few years too soon.
Dynamite’s poor attitude and choices prematurely halted what could have been a truly impressive career.
7 Shelton Benjamin
The Wrestling Observer named him Most Underrated Star a whopping three times, and it’s easy to see why. Benjamin’s background in amatuer wrestling and realistic ring work is a great throwback to the territory days. He combined fantastic athleticism with agility and power to create an interesting arsenal.
While Benjamin won the Intercontinental and Tag titles in the WWE, his tenure with the company feels far too short. He went on to wrestle with ROH and currently in Japan, but without the mainstream exposure of the WWE, he remains criminally underrated.
6 Lance Storm
Lance Storm was a fantastic all-around performer who pulled off moves with a beautiful precision. He had an amazing heel vibe with his sometimes dorky ‘marine-gone-crazy’ look. He just never seemed to be in the right place at the right time to properly receive a mainstream push. However he almost always delivered in the ring, and will go down as an incredibly solid performer that could have been more.
5 Bam Bam Bigelow
One of the most agile big men of wrestling, not many 300 pounders fly off the top rope, and none do it as smoothly as Bigelow did. Bigelow failed to capture any WWE titles but he did manage to go on last at WrestleMania XI, wrestling pro football player Lawrence Taylor. In perhaps his greatest WWE moment, he led LT through an entertaining bout and managed to avoid the disaster it could have easily been.
Bigelow won a wide variety of titles in the NWA, WCW, ECW, and New Japan, but the only title he won in the WWE was a Slammy for “Best Head”. As stated in an interview, Bigelow used the good head on his shoulders to leave the WWE before the Clique could bring him down.
Before you react, just try to erase the image of Kane in a suit and/or wrestling in dress pants. And... GO!
After suffering through too many awful gimmicks like the Christmas Creature and Isaac Yankem D.S., Glenn Jacobs finally broke out in a big way as Kane. His feud with the Undertaker as well as his Royal Rumble 2001 showing provided some fantastic moments.
The WWE’s recent decision to package him as Corporate Kane as well as the overuse of him and the Big Show as veteran heels has put a damper on what has been a solid WWE career.
Years later, when Corporate Kane has faded from memory, fans will always look back fondly at the fire and brimstone that burned so fierce. He has been a reliable soldier for the WWE, and doesn’t get enough credit.
4. Mike Rotunda
It’s easy to see how Bray Wyatt and Bo Dallas ended up in the business with a father like Mike Rotunda and grandfather Blackjack Mulligan. Rotunda won several Florida NWA titles on his own and multiple WWE tag belts with DiBiase, but would never find much singles success in the WWE. Best known as IRS, his excellent ring work and apparent joy with the character saved it from descending into a cheese fest. He would feud with Razor Ramon and The Undertaker but never managed to win a WWE singles title; he would have made a great Intercontinental Champion.
The WWE wisely brought Rotunda’s ring IQ back as a road agent. It’s great to see the company utilize their past in building their present and future.
3 Brian Pillman
The wildman was perpetually ahead of his time. He laid the foundation for the cruiserweight division in WCW in the early 90’s before pushing the evolution of promos forward with his ‘worked shoots’, a precursor to the Monday Night Wars. By the time Pillman got to the WWE, substance abuse, a horrible ankle injury and a heart condition had caught up to him. He lasted only one year, but his light burned incredibly bright. In what was considered one of the Attitude Era’s first moments, he took part in a groundbreaking angle in which he aimed a gun at Austin. This incident apparently got the WWE in hot water with the USA Network and signaled the start of wrestling’s most popular era.
2 William Regal
While those in the know would never underrate him, he definitely lacks the mainstream notoriety he deserves. Regal quietly won a whopping 16 singles championships in the WCW and WWE yet manages to stay outside the conversations of the best. He was outstanding in the ring, great with psychology and his promos were cinema quality.
To see an interesting display of Regal’s wrestling skill, check out his match with Bill Goldberg. Miscommunication was common in the WCW and Regal was under the impression he was to have a ‘competitive’ match. Goldberg’s star was rising faster than his skills could develop and his grappling left much to be desired. Regal did everything possible to guide the awkward big man through a semblance of a match. Since Goldberg had been squashing everyone up to this point, many fans describe this match as Regal going off script, a passed-over veteran ‘shooting’ with the hot shot ex-football player.
Regal’s skills have transitioned nicely into the on-screen role as NXT commissioner, and the real fans are glad to have him.
1 Jake Roberts
Probably the only time in history Vince told a wrestler to get smaller. Jake Roberts was meeting with Vince before his big run in the WWE and at the time was at his most muscular. Vince wanted Jake to slim down and adopt the snake gimmick, which would end up defining Roberts's career. At his peak in the late 80’s/early 90’s, Jake became one of the WWE’s first tweener characters. He absolutely oozed a sinister evil but his unique charisma was so powerful the fans couldn’t help but cheer. Not just gimmick and charisma, Roberts was an incredible worker in the ring. His psychology and brute force mixed seamlessly with top-notch mat skills. But with Roberts it was always the little things. You couldn’t take your eyes off of him. The way he lingered on the mat after tossing an opponent must have inspired Scott Hall to do the same with his patented fallaway slams. Roberts could also walk the line of extravagant selling that always avoided Flair-like silliness.
Roberts gained a high level of fame of course but his talent still ran so much deeper. If not for his personal demons he could have carved out a much larger legacy for himself, but perhaps the demons were what we were watching all along.
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