Defining greatness with absolute certainty is difficult. When it comes to professional sports, the word “great” is tossed around often and rather loosely. While it is clear as spectators what good looks like, can we really recognize great?
Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player who ever lived. This we agree upon – or at least should agree upon. (everyone has that buddy who has to disagree). Wayne Gretzky is the greatest hockey player who ever lived – no argument should be made to the contrary.
However, MJ and The Great One are two isolated cases. They took over their respective sports and changed the game completely. That definitely qualifies as greatness. Of course, the comparisons are always there but let’s be real: LeBron James and Sidney Crosby are just bottles of beer compared to the bourbon that is Jordan and Gretzky.
This leads us to our list and our attempt at ranking greatness in professional wrestling. The sport is staged and choreographed and to many people, wrestling is not even considered a legitimize sport. However, the pain is very real as bodies do break just like any other professional sport.
Many of the men you will see on our list have endured countless injuries over the years – taking years off of their lives for the sake of entertainment. While we understand how those who don’t understand professional wrestling can be critical, these men should be respected.
The following list will include who we feel truly deserve the recognition. In the process of complying these names, certain others have been left behind but still we give a shout out to those who came close but didn’t quite making the grade: Roddy Piper, Pedro Morales, Andre The Giant, Booker T, The Ultimate Warrior, Randy Orton.
These are the top 25 greatest wrestlers of all time:
25. CM Punk
The WWE Championship was once held in the tattooed hands of CM Punk for 434 days. One of the most unconventional looking champions WWE has ever had, Punk was not only excellent at cutting promos, but his in-ring work was top level.
CM Punk considered himself to be a wrestler and not a “superstar,” which has become the word to use in WWE when referring to their talent. We may never seen Punk in a wrestling ring again but his time spent between the ropes will certainly be remembered.
24. Mick Foley
Mick Foley and his famous faces include: Mankind, Cactus Jack, and Dude Love. The personality-riddled Mick Foley has made a career out of taking hard bumps. Sure, the hardcore legend doesn’t look like the chiseled wrestler that we normally expect but the body of Mick Foley has perhaps taken more abuse than anybody else on this list.
Mick Foley has sacrificed an ear, teeth, brain cells, and overall mobility for the wrestling business. To not call him a wrestler would be wrong. Foley is a wrestler all his own – a unique type of in-ring talent who defied many doubters and became a three-time WWE Champion.
23. Eddie Guerrero
The late Latino legend, Eddie Guerrero, battled his share of demons during his lifetime but ultimately overcame and survived the darkest hours. When his life was suddenly cut short from a heart attack, the wrestling world lost one of its finest.
Guerrero wrestled all over the world – showcasing his talents from country to country – before finally winning the WWE Championship in 2004. The journey was rough but watching Eddie perform his signature shake while holding the title belt was truly an incredible moment.
22. Rey Mysterio
The biggest underdog in the business is the same man who became the smallest World Champion in the business. The masked marvel known as Rey Mysterio has been entertaining crowds with his innovative offense for the past two decades.
To watch a Rey Mysterio match and find yourself bored is damn near impossible – especially in his younger days. However, even as Mysterio aged and his style was toned down, he was still more captivating than a lot of the other guys in the locker room.
21. Ricky Steamboat
Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat was a major player in the AWA, NWA, and WCW. While in WWE, Steamboat took part in one of the greatest wrestling matches of all time with Randy Savage at WrestleMania III.
Steamboat has won numerous championship throughout his lengthy career but was never the WWE or WCW Champion. However, that does not diminish any of his talents as Steamboat is a well respected and well accomplished professional wrestler.
20. Bob Backlund
Bob Backlund may be the one person on the planet who knows what it feels like to be between Bruno Sammartino and Hulk Hogan. Backlund holds the second longest WWE Championship reign – ahead of Hogan and behind Sammartino.
Bob Backlund has been considered both bland and ballistic – a man who wrestled and wore his bow-tie with just as much pride. Regardless of his critics, one thing is for sure: he knew how to wrestle and wrestle well.
19. John Cena
Love him or hate him, John Cena is the man in WWE. The 15-time WWE Champion is second only to Ric Flair in overall championship reigns. Cena has been the driving force of the WWE for the past decade and it appears as though he will continue to be as the company moves forward.
The criticism of John Cena is vast – at least from the male demographic – yet week after week, there he is with his big old smile, ready to compete. Is John Cena the best technical wrestler around? Not at all. Does he deserve recognition? Absolutely.
18. Lou Thesz
You have probably heard of, and have witnessed, the Lou Thesz Press: where a wrestler jumps towards his opponent, knocking him down to his back and sitting on his chest. This was a signature move in the arsenal of Steve Austin, where he would pummel his opponent with punches following the press.
The man who the maneuver was named after, Lou Thesz, is an all time wrestling great having held the NWA World Heavyweight Championship for longer than any other man in history.
17. Chris Jericho
The wrestling business sure has been good to Chris Jericho, at least from a WWE standpoint. Jericho made his debut with the company in 1999 after being mistreated by Eric Bischoff in WCW. What Bischoff failed to notice in Chris Jericho was his true star power.
The first ever WWE Undisputed Champion and a master at his craft, Chris Jericho has been one of the best faces, along with being one of the best heels in WWE. The Y2J problem showed up in our living rooms over fifteen years ago and with open arms, we welcomed its arrival.
16. Dusty Rhodes
The sly-talking “American Dream” Dusty Rhodes made his name in the wrestling territories. Along the way becoming a three-time NWA World Heavyweight Champion.
When Rhodes finally made his way over to the WWE, he was placed in polka-dots and made to dance. Many viewed this as intentional ridicule of Rhodes, who had long worked for rival promotions. Nevertheless, his WWE run could never take away from what he accomplished elsewhere in other promotions.
Fans of the “Rated-R Superstar” were disappointed to learn that Edge would be forced to retire early due to longstanding neck problems. Edge was an 11-time World Champion at the time of his retirement and had he been able to continue on with his career, may have taken a run at Ric Flair’s title record.
Edge broke onto the scene as a tag team wrestler but eventually found his stride in singles competition, becoming a controversial and calculating character in the process. It is a true shame that the career of Edge was ended prematurely.
14. Harley Race
The great Harley Race is a former eight-time NWA World Heavyweight Champion, as well as the very first NWA United States Heavyweight Champion.
Race has been an influential figure in the wrestling world for decades, with many young talent looking to him for guidance. The high-knee used by Triple H during matches is a tribute to Race and has been affectionately called the “Harley Race High-Knee.” While working for every major promotion, Race managed to build an impressive legacy.
13. The Rock
When the electricity is flowing and the charge is being felt throughout the crowd, you know that The Rock is in the building (which is sadly not often these days).
The Rock is by far one of the most charismatic performers of all time. From the catchphrases to the eyebrow, the people adore The Rock. After all, he is The People’s Champions, right? When The Rock vanished from wrestling, it was not without vigor. The Rock left a lasting impression on the business as one of the most entertaining men to even enter a wrestling ring.
12. Kurt Angle
Kurt Angle was an Olympic wrestler long before he was ever a professional wrestler – winning a gold medal at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. When he transitioned over to pro wrestling, Angle made an immediate impact.
While the fans chant “You Suck,” there is still admiration for Angle who is one of the most naturally gifted wrestlers in the world. Whether his gimmick called for him to be a goofy, milk-drinking, Vince McMahon brown-noser or an unstoppable wrestling machine, Kurt Angle always delivered.
11. Triple H
Triple H haters are everywhere – from fans to ex-wrestlers – but all that hate toward The Game does not change the fact that he is a great wrestler.
Triple H was great in the ring before he ever married Stephanie McMahon and sure, he may have had some pull when it came to who he’d lose to, but Triple H still deserves to be the 13-time World Champion. Triple H knows the business well and now that he sits on the business side of things in WWE, anything can happen.
10. Buddy Rogers
Buddy Rogers was not only the original “Nature Boy,” but the very first WWE Champion, making him a significant part of wrestling history.
Rogers came along at the beginning of the television era, making him the first major wrestling star to be cheered throughout households far and wide. Buddy Rogers was a true pioneer who helped paved the path taken by many young men who aspired to be the next “Nature Boy” (one of whom would actually adopt the name). Buddy Rogers: an important and great wrestler.
9. Bruno Sammartino
Bruno Sammartino may forever be known as the longest reigning WWE Champion with an unprecedented reign of 2,803 days. The All-American boy was immensely popular during his wrestling career, having been loved by wrestling fans nationwide.
Sammartino was a rough and tough performer who won over crowds with his powerhouse in-ring style. Bruno Sammartino helped make the WWE Championship the prestigious title that it is today. The champion who may never lose his spot atop the mountain.
When you’re the franchise of a certain promotion, you don’t abandon ship, even when everyone else is jumping into the water and swimming for dear life. In WCW, Sting was there until the very end – when all else failed and it was time to pull the plug.
Sting has built a reputation based on honor and principal. Whether his face was multi-colored or black and white, the paint Sting shed was for the fans of WCW. The promotion where Sting proved to the world that he was a great wrestler.
7. Bret Hart
Wearing pink to the ring and being taken seriously as a wrestler must have seemed like a far stretch to those who first watched Bret Hart walk down the aisle. However, the man behind the pink was one of the best technical wrestlers ever.
There was a reason why Bret Hart was called the “Excellence of Execution” and that’s because he was able to execute consistently throughout his career. Every wrestling fan knows about his circumstances with the WWE, but regardless of all that, Bret Hart is a wrestling legend.
6. “Macho Man” Randy Savage
“Macho Man” Randy Savage was not just a unique character, he was the unique character. Nobody could pull off the flamboyant madman quite like Randy Savage. The way he spoke and presented himself was stellar.
Of course, behind that great character was a great wrestler. Randy Savage knew how to keep your attention both in and out of the ring – a lesson that could be beneficial to many of today’s young talent. You hear it said all of the time but Randy Savage truly was one-of-a-kind.
5. The Undertaker
If there is a heart somewhere to be found within the WWE, then that heart is The Undertaker – it may be a black heart but a heart just the same. Since he first debuted in WWE, The Undertaker has been downright dominant in the ring.
With the greatest WrestleMania streak to call his own, The Undertaker has carved out a career that will likely never be duplicated. While standing close to seven-feet tall, The Undertaker was always agile in the ring, proving that he was not just a gimmick but great wrestler.
4. Shawn Michaels
Personality wise, Attitude Era Shawn Michaels was so much better than born-again Christian Shawn Michaels, but the man changed his life around and distanced himself from the evils of his past. Good on HBK.
Now, personality aside, the wrestling ability of Shawn Michaels has never changed. “The Show Stopper” could bring down the house while running with DX or God. Shawn Michaels knows exactly what he is doing out in the ring and even though he has since retired, HBK has left a lasting legacy on the WWE.
3. Hulk Hogan
You know you cheered for Hulk Hogan when you were a child, which kid didn’t? Yet, as we all grew older, our love for Hulkamania began to fade but deep down inside, it was always there. And even when Hulkmania died and the nWo was born (the greatest stable in wrestling history), we were still glued to the screen.
The Hogan stories are endless – everybody has something to tell in regards to The Hulkster – and we know that placing him in a high spot on a greatest wrestlers list will draw some questions but think about it: Hogan may not have sprung off the ropes or applied pretzel-like submission holds but he always engaged the crowd in every single match and isn’t that half the battle?
2. “Stone Cold” Steve Austin
There have been many wrestlers who have come along and altered the state of the business, but nobody has changed the definition of being a wrestler in the same manner that “Stone Cold” Steve Austin did. Who would have thought ten years prior to Austin 3:16 that the fans would enjoy a beer drinking, foul mouthed wrestler?
Stone Cold helped change the way we look at heels and faces. The Rattlesnake didn’t pave any trails, he threw on his boots and tramped through the dirt and mud, taking out anybody who got in his way. Oh yeah, he was also one hell of a wrestler.
1. Ric Flair
Ric Flair was always a wrestler first and foremost. While Flair had his stints in WWE, he is not what you would call a “WWE guy.” Flair took the NWA and WCW by storm the only way he knew how: with style.
The man with all the charm would be the first to tell you just how good he really was in all facets of life. Ric Flair has been emulated by many of the men here on our list, which will happen when you are “The Man.” Ric Flair is not a “sports entertainer,” but the greatest wrestler of all time.
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