Jim: What I like most in a wrestler is in-ring performance, and what I like most in a wrestler’s in-ring performance is, generally speaking, violent and realistic-looking offence (pardon the “C”: I’m Canadian). To me the ultimate offensive moves look abjectly vicious, but on analysis cannot possibly be so: think of Jerry Lawler’s punches, or of Edge’s Downward Spiral. At first glance you’re thinking “holy shit that guy’s DEAD”, and after a sober second look you’re even more impressed as a fan because clearly the receiver is going to be just fine fifteen minutes from now. As he or she ought to be.
So it will come as no surprise that my “top five” professional wrestlers have or had an offensive move set that made them look, in one way or another, crisp, rugged, violent … dangerous as hell. And that includes my number one choice, who to the uninitiated might appear, in the words of Eddie Ellner (both a real person and a big fan of my number one, btw), “a little soft”.
5. Dynamite Kansai
Aja Kong is generally considered to be the nastiest of the AJPW classic era Big Six, and that’s not hard to understand. Bull Nakano is generally considered the scariest, and that’s not hard to understand. But watch Kansai throw a simple front kick. Or a Stu Hart uppercut. Or the “Burst of Dynamite” running knee thrust. Then shudder remotely from the pain through the screen. Then watch it again. Kyoko Inoue’s going to be okay. Maybe she’ll need a little ice, but she’ll be fine. As I said, collectively those two joint and beautiful realities are the sign of a true artist.
4. Bruiser Brody
The “Intelligent Monster” made the fans run in the opposite direction. I still contend that “Immigrant Song” is the best entrance theme ever that wasn’t designed as an entrance theme, because when Plant wailed, you knew Brody’s hapless opponent was about to do a little wailing, too. Only Barry Darsow had a more painful-looking bodyslam. Only Curt Hennig and maybe Jumbo Tsuruta threw dropkicks that high, tight, crisp, dangerous. Only Jake Roberts could flash you as believeable a “you’d best stay back” look. Brody loved his wife. Brody loved his kids. God help you if Brody didn’t like you. And the only people Brody hurt were promoters – which is sad, because one of them got hurt so badly he killed him.
3. Chris Jericho
Jericho may be the only member of the Observer Hall of Fame to have never put an opponent in the hospital for anything other than observations. Think about that: you’d need some kind of harmonic convergence of skill, trustworthiness and plain dumb luck to perform that well for that long at such an elite level without a single hospital trip to your discredit. And damn does Y2J rock the whole game hard. He looks good in and out of the ring. If there’s ever been a wrestling “genius”, it’s probably Jericho. And he probably spells “offence” with a “C”, too, which is also pretty cool.
2. Dick Togo/Bobby Eaton (tie)
Kaientai Deluxe were the shiznit. The best member of Kaientai was MENS Teioh’s full-length fur coat, The most exciting member (yeah, on offence) was TAKA Michinoku, but “Handsome” Dick was just the plain best wrestler. He did everything right. Ric Flair often explained Dusty Rhodes’ in-ring success as “he didn’t do much of anything, but what he did looked good”. Dick Togo was like Dusty, only he could wrestle: he did lots of stuff, and what he did looked very, very good. That matters.
For Bobby, I say largely “ditto”. Bobby Eaton was the best overall in-ring performer in North America for at least five straight years. Couldn’t talk a lick, or he would have been Randy Savage. Look at his drop toehold. Look at his Boston crab. Look at his Russian leg sweep. Perfect. Like he drew them on a computer first. A legend.
1. Ricky Steamboat
There is Ricky Steamboat, and then there is everyone else. Ricky Steamboat made Ric Flair. Ricky Steamboat made Ted DiBiase. Ricky Steamboat made Sergeant Slaughter. Ricky Steamboat made Bob Orton Jr. Ricky Steamboat made Randy Savage. Ricky Steamboat made me a fan.
“The Dragon” was a babyface in every televised match of his career. Dude, it’s hard to be a babyface. A babyface seldom gets to call a match; hell, seldom gets to call multiple spots, even. A babyface has to walk the line between hero and sucker without pandering (well, without pandering much, anyway). A babyface must let you KNOW that he’s the best wrestler in the ring, even when he’s losing in a five-minute tv semi-squash. A babyface has to channel your hopes and dreams into a little square containing a big mean son-of-a-gun who wants to crush those dreams along with the babyface.
Ricky Steamboat wasn’t a babyface. Ricky Steamboat was THE babyface. Thanks, man. You’ll always be my middle-school hero. Hope the throat’s okay.
Justin: For me what constitutes an all-time great wrestler is a mixture of a few different aspects. Obviously the ability to consistently wrestle a great match against a wide variety of opponents (and they'd have to rank high on the If You Could Only Watch This Guy's Matches list) is a huge part of it, but also promo ability, presence, and lasting influence are significant factors. Finally, as our friend Travis put it, when you look at a guy's best matches and ask, "is he a better wrestler than this particular opponent," most of the time the answer to that question should be yes. These five men, in different combinations, embody these traits spectacularly.
Note: For the purposes of this countdown I've only included wrestlers whose careers are either complete or near-complete. It's no secret that my favorite current wrestler is Daniel Bryan, but we won't know for some time where his career falls in the grand scheme of things.
5. Ric Flair
I know, I know. Many of you will consider it blasphemy that Flair only ranks fifth. Flair is undoubtedly one of the most influential, celebrated performers of all-time. His promos were absolute gold, he carried himself like a megastar, and he had the stamina of a workhorse. Where Flair falls a bit short of his peers for me is that he didn't quite have the athletic coordination or the crispness of the others. Don't get me wrong, his matches were a treat to watch and he mostly stole the show every night, but his style wasn't quite as believable as it could've been. For me Flair is one of those guys who was much greater than the sum of his parts. He wasn't super fit-looking, his kneepads were always around his shins for some reason, and he usually wrestled the same type of match every night. But goddamn could he tell a story between those ropes. And he made every opponent look like a star, often spending the majority of the match being physically dominated and eking out a win at the last minute. Flair was never my favorite guy, but during his prime years he was the backbone of the NWA, and one of the top draws in the business for an entire decade.
4. Randy Savage
Was there ever a more entertaining promo man in the business than the Macho Man? The Rock and Steve Austin come close, but Savage's promos still hold up as some of the most quotable absurdist speeches ever uttered. In a two-minute monologue Savage could make you laugh, yell, love him, hate him, what have you, sometimes without saying anything intelligible. And in the ring the man moved with the grace and swiftness of a cat. Everything he did looked effortless. Savage was a notorious perfectionist, insisting on rehearsing every match move for move until it was just right. His style was simplistic but incredibly athletic, crisp, and theatrical. The flying elbowsmash is one of the most beautiful-looking moves ever performed in a ring. For a second Savage would seem weightless until he came crashing down on his opponent. In the 80s this was one of the two or three most spectacular finishes you'd ever see. Savage was the complete package - great look, amazing in-ring ability, fantastic promos. No one in the 80s did it better than the Macho Man.
3. Kurt Angle
Angle may be the best overall athlete to ever set foot in a 20x20 ring. To accomplish what he did within his first year in the business is nothing short of miraculous. I'm not sure any other wrestler had the ability to gut through injuries and still deliver on a massive scale quite like Angle (see 1996 Olympics; WrestleMania XIX). Angle's promo ability was clearly evident from the start, as his smarmy, almost nerdy persona immediately connected with the Attitude-era audience and garnered that perfect love-to-hate-you heat. I didn't quite warm up to Angle until early 2001, as I thought at the time they had pushed him too hard too soon. My admiration for him was solidified over that spring/summer as he battled Chris Benoit, Shane McMahon and Steve Austin in absolute classics. He had the perfect mix of legitimate mat wrestling ability, explosive speed, and a penchant for death-defying high spots that made every match epic. From then on Angle had the best or second best match of the year, every year of his WWE run. Add to that his magnificent TNA run and I'd name Kurt Angle the wrestler of the decade 2000-2009.
2. Bret Hart
The #2 guy on my list is probably the greatest in-ring mechanic of all time. Everything Bret did looked totally credible, from a simple punch to a stomp, to that whiplash-inducing Side Russian Legsweep. Bret turned staged fighting into an artform, at a time when most wrestlers played to the cheap seats by overexaggerating every move. Bret prided himself on making every second of the match look as realistic as possible, without ever injuring a fellow wrestler. He also had a film director's vision of how a match should play out and what would garner the best audience reaction. One famous example was his first-ever match against his brother Owen at WrestleMania X. Originally the match they put together was full of high spots that showcased Owen's agility and acumen for flying moves. Bret realized at the eleventh hour that if Owen wanted to get over as a heel he'd have to work a much more grounded, aggressive style, or else the crowd would cheer everything he did. The resulting bout was a near-perfect technical mat classic.
Bret is one of the few who excelled at every level of the card. As a tag team specialist in the 80s he and partner Jim Neidhart became one of the greatest tag teams in the world. Bret brought the technical credibility and Jim brought the power and larger-than-life persona. As a midcard singles star Bret furthered the role of the Intercontinental Title as the "workhorse" belt. And as a main eventer, Bret helped redefine the WWF's main event style, taking it from a showcase for over-the-top power brokers to a serious athletic display. The only downside for Bret is that he was never a great talker. He was competent and comfortable, but he never had a truly great promo. He's one of the few who really got over just by being a great wrestler. Bret's career was unfortunately cut slightly short by a concussion but make no mistake, this is a man who did it all in the wrestling business, and did it better than almost anyone.
1. Shawn Michaels
Simply the greatest in-ring performer of all-time. When it comes to putting on incredible show-stealing matches, Shawn Michaels is unparalleled. What's so strange about Shawn is if you look at all the different qualities that make up a great wrestler, he was never the absolute best at any of them. He wasn't the best technical wrestler (Bret Hart/Kurt Angle), he wasn't the best brawler (Mick Foley), he wasn't the best high flyer (Rey Mysterio), he certainly wasn't the best power wrestler (Brock Lesnar), and he wasn't even the best talker of all. Nor did he have the best gimmick/ring persona (Steve Austin and The Undertaker share that honor IMO). But Shawn was so good at every aspect of the business that when you add up all those skills, plus his natural athleticism, innate charisma, and unbelievable knack for improvisation, there's no one on this earth who put on more memorable matches with a wider variety of opponents in more diverse match types with that level of long-term consistency.
Shawn's tag team career as one half of The Rockers demonstrated his exciting in-ring style, and he could've had a long and fruitful career with that team. But Shawn knew he was destined for bigger things and once he went heel he discovered the Heartbreak Kid character and perfect mix of aerial and mat skills that would catapult him to legend status. His first two years as a singles star were very successful, but it wasn't until WrestleMania X when Shawn fully arrived. The Ladder Match with Razor Ramon illustrated just how good Shawn Michaels could be, and from 1994-1998 there wasn't a more exciting wrestler in the world. Then a back injury seemingly cut short an absolutely stellar body of work. Had Shawn's run ended there he still would've been a surefire Hall of Famer.
But amazingly he made a comeback in 2002 and somehow hadn't missed a beat. He went right on tearing the house down nearly every time he went out there, creating legendary matches with Chris Jericho, Triple H, Kurt Angle, Chris Benoit, John Cena, and perhaps most significantly The Undertaker. Shawn's 2002-2010 comeback run was arguably even better than the first half of his career, which is truly astonishing. Upon his retirement he left behind a body of work that will never be matched. Just consider this: Shawn has won the Pro Wrestling Illustrated Match of the Year award a staggering ELEVEN times (1993-1996, 2004-2010); an accomplishment that I don't think will ever be duplicated. When it comes to stealing the show, The Heartbreak Kid is in a league of his own.