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The 30 Greatest Pro Wrestlers of All Time, Ranked

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Chris Ryan/Corbis via Getty Images

Despite what oldheads claim, pro-wrestling is probably the best it’s ever been: the current generation of talent has improved on the history of the sport with explosive innovation, and the diverse athletes that are suddenly being welcomed into the scene are offering new stories to tell in this older medium. But to what extent can today’s grapplers compare to the legendary fighters of yore? 

 

For the sake of argument, we’ve collected an idiosyncratic list of the 30 greatest pro-wrestlers of all time. The rubric used for this ranking weights the following six categories relatively evenly: technical ability, championship wins, drawing power, impact on pro-wrestling culture, impact on pop culture writ-large, and best-reviewed matches. The list is not limited by gender, sexuality, nationality, race, or religion — and we’re hoping to be more inclusive than the more typical evaluations of the subject by including entrants from various scenes, countries, and eras. Excluded from this list are wrestlers whose reputations have since been irrevocably tarnished (this includes, for example, Hulk Hogan and The Undertaker).

 

However, we recognize that there’s no real way to create such a list with complete impartiality and a true statistical analysis is purely impossible. To paraphrase The Boulet Brothers: Wrestling is art, and art is subjective. The truth of the matter is that ranking wrestlers is like ranking painters or poets: a lot of it comes down to personal taste.

 

With that in mind, here’s what we got!

1. Chris Jericho

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WWE

Perhaps no one in the history of wrestling has a better understanding of character work than Chris Jericho, who can be funny, frightening, and absolutely endearing in equal measure at any given moment. Having traversed through several epochs of pro-wrestling history, Jericho has absorbed the wisdom of his colleagues to become not only one of the best — but also most accomplished — performers in the medium. Combining agility, strength, menace, psychology, and comedy, Jericho is equally adept at playing a heel and a face in any circumstance. He’s scored championship wins across the globe and inaugurated AEW’s biggest belt as the first titleholder for the new brand. Now, he’s helping to usher in the rising stars of the business by graciously lending his esteem to whoever he faces — all while chugging champagne.

2. Eddie Guerrero

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YouTube

Of all of wrestling’s tragic martyrs, Eddie Guerrero remains one of the most beloved. As a scion of the legendary Guerroro family, he embodied the obnoxious rudo with such perfection — he became, ironically, impossible to hate. His magnetism as a performer was matched only by his skill as a ring psychologist and irrepressible brawler. It’s astonishing just how many wrestlers cite him as a major inspiration — so much so that it’s almost impossible to imagine the landscape of wrestling today without taking into account his influence. Although he captured only one World Championship before his death, his enduring legacy goes so far beyond title wins.

3. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson

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WWE

Although he’s now better known as the highest-grossing box office star of all time, The Rock was selling out stadiums long before he arrived in Hollywood. It was The Rock’s effortless charm and hyperbolically inflated confidence that quickly skyrocketed him to absurd levels of superstardom, leading many to consider him the best-drawing wrestler to have ever lived. Most millennials — even the ones with no interest in wrestling at all — grew up with Johnson’s visage being entirely unavoidable. No surprise that he’s been listed as one of Time’s most influential people in the world — twice — once in 2016 and again in 2019. As a wrestler, The Rock had headlined the most-bought pay-per-view of all time, Wrestlemania XXVIII.

4. Andre The Giant

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WWE

There’s a certain irony to putting Andre the Giant so high on this list considering his in-ring skills weren’t exactly worthy of praise. But Andre’s immense spirit — and immense size — had him regarded as an incarnation of the over-the-topness of pro-wrestling culture. He was more than that too, though — he was a movie star, a gentleman, a prankster, and an anomaly. Who knows if pro-wrestling would have become a cultural phenomenon at all had not Andre battled Hogan in 1987. There was something truly magical about him — he was literally a giant as if plucked out of a fairytale — no wonder wrestling felt larger than life when he was its star.

5. Triple H AKA Paul Levesque

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YouTube

The full story of Hunter Hearst Hemsley is far from over: as the current Executive Vice President of Global Talent Strategy & Development for WWE and the senior producer of NXT, Triple H’s influence over the biggest wrestling brand in history might wind up being greater than that of Vince McMahon’s — someday. As an executive, he’s been making progressive strides within WWE — both hiring and elevating diverse talent and returning prestige to the brand through NXT’s more sophisticated content. But before that, Triple H was a very decorated performer in his own right (he’s both a Grand Slam Champion and a Triple Crown Champion), associated with the Attitude Era aesthetic almost as much as Stone Cold. Although his character wasn’t exactly consistent (sometimes he was a snobby Connecticut aristocrat, other times he was a motorbike riding punk), he was probably the most prolific heel in wrestling for at least a decade.

6. Chigusa Nagayo

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Wikipedia

In the stunningly violent documentary Gaea Girls, the cruel lessons of trainer Chigusa Nagayo are depicted quite plainly. With an almost religious devotion to pro-wrestling, Nagayo turns the artistic medium into a holy act of devotion. But before she was a coach, Nagayo was winning singles championships and tag belts alongside her partner, Lioness Asuka, as The Crush Gals. Meltzer once described Nagayo as “the most popular woman wrestler of all-time,” — although she might be relatively obscure to American audiences, the insanity of her following at the height of her career is sort of hard to fathom from afar. Although she’s retired, she’s left her mark on the sport through her own achievements and as a trainer to a new era of joshi stars.

7. Stone Cold Steve Austin

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WWE

Pro-wrestling had truly achieved cultural ubiquity in the late ’90s and early ’00s, and it was Stone Cold’s charisma that helped propel the artistic medium back into the zeitgeist. Steve Austin became the embodiment of a certain kind of a blue-collar resentment, and his anti-authoritarian war against Vince McMahon became a real cultural phenomenon, debatably bigger than what had developed around Hogan. He racked up fewer championship wins than many others on this list — only 19 — but as a symbol of the Attitude Era, he’s left an indelible mark on the entire industry and all of pop culture. 

8. Rey Mysterio

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WWE

ESPN described Mysterio as the “greatest cruiserweight in pro-wrestling history" in 2017 — but he’s more than just that to so many fans. It’s easy to form transferences to smaller guys in pro-wrestling, but Mysterio is in reality a giant slayer, having taken on competitors more than twice his size his whole life. His mask is nearly ubiquitous throughout Mexico, cementing him as an extraordinary exemplar of the culture. Despite jobbing him out to Brock Lesnar more recently, even the official WWE website describes him as “one of the most well-known and beloved competitors of all time.”

9. Manami Toyota

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Wikipedia

There’s really no explanation for why Manami Toyota is often left out of discussions of the greatest wrestlers of all time other than sexism — plain and simple. Toyota is clearly one of the most skilled grapplers to have ever lived — the suspense she creates in each fight simply can’t be achieved by anyone else in the history of the sport. The flashy acrobatics that first garnered her a considerable fanbase are an interesting juxtaposition to her dead seriousness and unquestionable toughness. Even Dave Meltzer, who isn’t always the best when it comes to sexism, described Toyota as "one of the greatest wrestlers of all-time, regardless of gender” in 2017. She retired from wrestling that same year, capping off a 33-year career with an honorable loss to Tsukasa Fujimoto.

10. Bret Hart

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WWE

With 37 title wins spanning five decades, Hart is a national hero in his homeland of Canada. As a two-time inductee in the WWE Hall of Fame, Hart now acts as a kind of wrestling ambassador, more recently bestowing his glory upon the debuting AEW Championship. He was the first wrestler to win both the WWF and WCW Triple Crown Championships — his straightforward (albeit sometimes predictable) “Five moves of doom” have come to exemplify the aesthetic of an entire decade of pro-wrestling. His finisher, “The Sharpshooter,” is now used as a symbol of Canadian pride.

11. Jushin “Thunder” Liger

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WWE

The longest-tenured member of NJPW’s roster has been a major influence on both Western and Eastern wrestling: with an eye-catching costume and a mysterious, supernatural backstory, Liger’s strangeness is only matched by his technical prowess. Liger is usually recognized as the best junior heavyweight of all time; he wrestled around the world from 1984 until just last year. His determination and intrepid spirit finally landed him a spot in the WWE Hall of Fame, as announced only a month ago.

12. El Santo

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WWE

Easily recognized as the most iconic figure in the pantheon of lucha libre, El Santo’s decade-spanning career elevated him to the level of a national treasure — he became a folk symbol of justice as much as an actual real-life fighter. He garnered title wins across Mexican wrestling federations as artists flocked to depict him as some kind of celestial hero sent from the Heavens. He starred in 52 films throughout his career, in which he fought vampires, zombies, and other assorted undead enemies. El Santo finally lifted his mask to reveal his face only a week before his death, a graceful goodbye to the fans who loved him like — well, a saint.

13. Chyna

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Twitter/WWE

Although Chyna’s wrestling career was rather short compared to most on this list, she’s now being reclaimed as a symbol of feminist power. In Chyna’s run in WWF she broke countless records, snatched titles previously only held by men (long before “intergender” wrestling was debated on Twitter), defied patriarchal authority, and inspired a generation of women (and men!) who looked to her for strength. Her indomitable presence in WWF was rather unique considering how badly the company tends to treat female combatants: she was simultaneously feared, desired, and reviled. Posing for Playboy twice, she became an international girl power-era icon of resilience and courage.


“I have Big Jessica Rabbit Beauty covering a heart that won't stop longing for the little things … Half feminine, half power bomb,” she wrote of herself in her New York Times best-selling book If They Only Knew.

14. Mitsuharu Misawa

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YouTube

As the record-holder for the most 5-star matches of all time, Misawa stands here as the representative of a highly regarded era in Japanese wrestling history. Misawa literally sacrificed his life for pro-wrestling: he died in the ring in 2009, just days before his 47th birthday. Misawa possessed unparalleled in-ring savagery, a previously unheard-of drawing power (he sold out 53 of 69 events he headlined at the Nippon Budokan), and had racked up an astounding amount of title wins before his death. Japanese fans felt he represented the average working man, thus cherishing his wins and ignoring his losses. By combining the more hard-hitting, “stiffer” style of the increasingly popular MMA leagues, he forever changed Japanese wrestling into a far more brutal art form.

15. Kazuchika Okada

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YouTube

The general consensus — although it obviously remains hotly debated — is that Kazuchika Okada is one of the best currently active wrestlers alive, and by the time his career is over he’ll likely be even more reputable. While WWE continues to dip in popularity due to incoherent booking and outdated storylines, Okada is working towards uplifting the esteem of New Japan Pro Wrestling by consistently putting on stunning title defenses and breathtakingly tense fights — his title reigns have helped convert American fans into puroresu die-hards. His move set isn’t exactly flashy but his timing is beyond precise. He also is one of the only wrestlers whose matches have consistently been rated greater than 5 stars by Meltzer: his match with Kenny Omega at the “Dominion” event in 2018 is the only bout to have been awarded 7 stars in the history of pro-wrestling. And at only 32 years old, he’ll likely achieve so much more in the future.

16. Gorgeous George

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WWE

An early example of the inherent flamboyance of pro-wrestling, Gorgeous George was a pop culture icon in the 1940s and ‘50s. The homoerotic overtones of his “Human Orchid” persona were somehow permissible — probably because he was a villain — even in those more conservative decades, marking him as a deeply original and semi-mythical being. "Win if you can, lose if you must, but always cheat,” he frequently proclaimed to infuriated crowds. Gorgeous George was seen as a celebrity on the level of Bob Hope and Lucille Ball, transforming wrestling from a worked athletic competition into a glitzy and garish spectacle.

17. Mil Mascaras

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WWE

Widely considered one of the greatest luchadors in history, Mil Mascaras was more than a pro-wrestler — he was closer to a superhero. Starring in over 20 films throughout his career and never unmasking in public, Mil Mascaras’s success is what allowed for the rise of so many masked characters that came after him. “If it weren't for Mil Máscaras, there would be no Jushin Liger, no Último Dragón, or the Great Sasuke today," said Satoru Sayama (the original Tiger Mask).

18. Kofi Kingston

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WWE

Employed by the WWE since 2006, Kofi has survived nearly two decades of the industry’s overt racism to ultimately become the first African-born WWE Heavyweight Champion. Now both a Grand Slam Champion and a Triple Crown Champion, Kofi was always one of the most entertaining wrestlers on WWE’s roster, but he seemed destined to be stuck in the company’s mid-card until a series of bizarre events in 2019 allowed for his rightful ascension to a more powerful position. His crafty Royal Rumble performances alone could have landed him a place on this list.

19. Aja Kong

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YouTube

To the uninitiated, it’s hard to explain just how huge of a cultural phenomenon Japanese women’s wrestling truly was in the 1980s and 90’s — and Aja was one of it’s biggest stars. As the highly-skilled hoss of All Japan Women’s Pro-Wrestling, Aja spinning-back fisted innumerable opponents into oblivion before she made her way to the WWF in the mid-’90s. Aja was the archetypal dominator and even being able to get her off her feet was considered quite the achievement. Although she doesn’t quite move as well as she once could, she’ll still slap the young fighters of AEW silly from time to time.

20. Macho Man Randy Savage

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WWE

Randy Savage’s cocaine-fueled charms are almost synonymous with pro-wrestling as an artistic medium. People outside the industry often see Savage as a living embodiment of wrestling itself: the neon fringe, the outrageous prints, the bizarre raspy voice, the inexplicable yelling, the overside personality, the Slim Jims. Macho Man’s in-ring achievements — of which there are simply too many to count — are almost beside the point considering he’s just as much of a pop culture icon as he was an actual athlete.

21. Charlotte Flair

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WWE

We concur with Bleacher Report writer Dave Schilling in the assertion that Ric Flair’s greatest legacy is his daughter — so she’ll hold down his place on this list in his stead. Indeed, it’s hard to deny the influence of the Flair family on several eons of pro-wrestling — but it’s Charlotte who is the real revolutionary. It’s undeniable that Charlotte has been the face of gender parity in WWE, legitimizing women’s wrestling along with her horsewomen counterparts. Her fight against Ronda Rousey and Becky Lynch was the first women’s main event in Wrestlemania history — and her list of title reigns continues to grow. Having become a symbol of empowerment, Charlotte has changed the future of pro-wrestling for the better by showing that fighting like a girl isn’t something to be ashamed of. Charlotte brings an ineffable regality to every match.

22. The Von Erich Family

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YouTube

There’s a certain Shakespearean quality to pro-wrestling that often goes under-appreciated — in that wrestling has always had significant families with long histories, rivalries, and deep-seated idiosyncrasies. Unfortunately, the story of the Von Erich family had been one of tragedy, not comedy. The legend goes that the eldest Von Erich had been cursed by the ghost of a Holocaust survivor as revenge for his post-WWII Nazi gimmick, leading to the unfathomable deaths of many of his children. Nonetheless, before they met with demise, the Von Erichs had reached unprecedented levels of celebrity, selling out stadiums and enchanting young women with their striking good looks. Despite all the sadness, the latest generation of Von Erichs remain in the business and are poised to become huge stars.

23. Dusty Rhodes

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WWE

Known romantically as “The Dream,” Dusty Rhodes was a charismatic everyman who constantly overcame overwhelming odds with stunning victories that despite his massive bulk were often shockingly graceful. He had won several singles and tag championships in the National Wrestling Alliance and World Championship Wrestling long before he became the booker and an honorary sensei at NXT, meaning that an entire crop of TV wrestlers have benefited from his wise tutelage. Amongst his greatest achievements is the wild success of his two sons: Dustin Rhodes AKA Goldust and Cody Rhodes, the latter of whom has since gone on to found All Elite Wrestling, thus generating a new epoch in the history of pro-wrestling. 

24. John Cena

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WWE

Somehow younger and older wrestling fans agree that Cena represents for them a lot of what they hate about wrestling: he’s a kind of living embodiment of style over substance — which is an odd thing to say about a man who wears wide-legged jorts in the year 2020. It’s beyond doubt that Cena was pushed too hard on audiences during his various reigns throughout his career, but his appeal as a merch and ticket seller is also impossible to deny. Despite his unsophisticated moveset and predictable fighting style — as far as title wins go, he’s one of the most prolific champions to have ever graced WWE. Nowadays, he’s more of a movie star — and that’s totally fine, as far as we’re concerned.

25. Asuka

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WWE

Although Asuka was somewhat of a Japanese wrestling demi-god before she signed with NXT, she’ll likely be remembered for her unprecedented undefeated streak which smashed Goldberg’s ridiculous record. Her absolute domination led her to vacate the NXT title, as she had no one left to beat — marking her as a unique kind of prima donna. Asuka’s runaway popularity possibly forced Vince McMahon’s hand on matters of representation, thus paving the way for Japanese women in WWE in the future. Her fighting ability is perhaps unmatched, and in kayfabe she’s probably considered one of the biggest threats on the current WWE roster — regardless of gender, she’s feared by all.

26. Cassandro

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Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images

Cassandro may not have the same name recognition as many others on this list — and that’s likely due to rampant discrimination within the industry. As an openly gay performer, Cassandro has brought dignity to sexual minorities in pro-wrestling, who had before him been seen as jokes and clowns. Now, an entire cabal of upcoming and openly queer athletes affectionately refer to him as “Mother” — a title he earned through his legendary battles with athletes like Hijo do Santo in the early ’90s. Cassandro is a living, breathing wrestling angel, divinely beatified through the hateful violence he endured. But he will survive — and still wrestles to this day!

27. Johnny Gargano

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YouTube

Gargano was seen as the sprightly spirit of indie wrestling long before he became NXT’s first Triple Crown Champion, known for his quick thinking offense and sensational escapes and counterattacks. Of the current superstars, Gargano is snatching 5-star matches at an alarming pace and is on track to become one of the most legendary athletes of this current moment. His rivalries with his former partner Tomasso Ciampa and his nemesis Adam Cole are likely to change the course of contemporary pro-wrestling, even if we’re getting a bit sick of seeing the same stories continue to be told. Despite or because of his diminutive stature, he’s got undeniable star quality and may single-handedly set the standard for the future for younger WWE fighters.

28. Harley Race

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Twitter

Race’s esteem in the world of pro-wrestling is incontestable: he’s one of six men to have been inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, the NWA Hall of Fame, the WCW Hall of Fame, the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame and the Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame. Race won Pro-Wrestling Illustrated’s “Match of the Year” in 1973, 1979, and 1983 — and prominent critic Dave Meltzer’s esteemed “Match of the Year” award in 1983. He was widely regarded as the toughest wrestler alive throughout the 1970s and was the pre-Flair benchmark for the NWA. No surprise he garnered the nickname “The King of Wrestling” when he went to the WWF in the 1980s.

29. Mike Quackenbush

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Wikimedia Commons

The “Master of 1000 Holds” Mike Quackenbush is one of the greatest trailblazers in this current era of pro-wrestling. As the founder and leader of CHIKARA, Quackenbush has trained countless TV and indie stars while also innovating the storytelling aspects of pro-wrestling with avant-garde narratology rarely seen in the medium. Quack was ahead of the intergender wrestling movement by several years and has worked tirelessly to import under-appreciated international stars to America. He’s also got savant-level in-ring skills, as per his nickname — he has a complete mastery over the language of pro-wrestling, incomparable to perhaps anyone else on this list.

30. Shawn Michaels

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WWE

Pro-wrestling’s “Sexy Boy” was quite the provocateur when he debuted in the late 80’s as a not-so-subtly queer-coded and overly arrogant upstart. Michaels became a household name through his rugged sex appeal, going as far as to pose in Playgirl in 1996. His in-ring career also courted controversy, with the “Montreal Screwjob” incident continuing to amass conspiracy theories and endless speculation to this day. Michaels has the unique honor of being the first grand slam champion in WWF.

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