Growing up in the 80s and 90s probably meant you watched your fair share of pro wrestling – whether you wanted to or not. Without fail, millions of kids, and some adults, across America were glued to their televisions on Monday nights and Saturday mornings. Yes, there was a time in this country when pro wrestling was must-watch TV. However, this also sparks the question, who belongs in the group of the best pro wrestlers of all time?
For most fans of pro wrestling, the best pro wrestlers of all time are those performers who were the most flamboyant, entertaining, and loved by the crowd. Whether it’s a ladder match or a title match, pro wrestling has a tendency to get people out of their seats and emotionally invested in the outcomes of matches. And, according to a recent study, that’s a good thing.
A recent study found that sports fans enjoy a self-esteem boost after seeing their favorite team win a big game. Although wrestling is an individual sport, fans love to see their favorite “babyface” defeat a rival “heel” in a big match. Likewise, fans of pro wrestling despise seeing their favorite wrestlers lose, in which case the self-esteem boost goes the opposite way. For anyone questioning the validity of wrestling as a competitive sport, just watch the crowd’s reaction when one of their favorites wins a big match.
Watching your favorite wrestler win the gold and defeat their most hated rival is a great feeling, but is it better than hearing the words “I love you” from a loved one or spouse? A recent study says yes. According to a poll of 2,000 adults, seeing your favorite sports team win creates a longer-lasting feeling of joy than hearing the words “I love you.” The study polled people on the length of time they’re happy after a ‘life event’ and found that a sports team winning lasts longer than hearing those sweet adulations. Seeing their favorite sports team win a big game creates a joy that lasts for 4 hours and 9 minutes while hearing “I love you” from a spouse or loved one lasts only 4 hours. Talk about some serious fandom.
For the biggest pro wrestling fanatics, watching the amazing careers of these true superheroes certainly brought years of joy to them — and now continued joy through nostalgia. Who are the sports entertainers considered the best to ever do it? Study Finds did the digging, consulting 10 sports reviews and pop culture websites in an effort to find the best pro wrestlers of all time. As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts on the best pro wrestlers of all time in the comments section below!
The List: Top 5 Best Pro Wrestlers of All Time, According to Sports and Entertainment Reviews
1. Stone Cold Steve Austin
There was one name that routinely came up in the top spot across lists of the best pro wrestlers of all time – Stone Cold Steve Austin. Stone Cold took the top spot on nearly half of the lists we consulted and for great reasons. Without a doubt, Stone Cold Steve Austin is one of the most entertaining wrestlers of all time.
“Austin coined one of the most successful catchphrases in wrestling history in terms of merchandise sales. Austin 3:16 was a catalyst in elevating him to main event status and eventually superstardom. He would excel on the mic for the rest of his career,” explains Bleacher Report.
Stone Cold was a household name in the late 90s and early 2000s for his in-ring antics and stellar work on the microphone. For anyone not alive during the time, it’s hard to explain just how popular Stone Cold’s catchphrase “Austin 3:16” was in its heyday.
“Stone Cold Steve Austin is the greatest wrestler of all time. Although it’s difficult to compare between The Rock and Stone Cold, considering that both men are outstanding in their own unique ways, Stone Cold tops this list mainly because of the crucial role in saving the company and also for laying the foundation for many wrestlers who would later come into the company,” writes Sportlister.
Stone Cold saved the company during the infamous Monday night wars of the late 90s. The Monday night wars between the “WWF” and “WCW” (Now combined to form WWE) pitted two wrestling companies’ premiere TV shows against one another during the same time slot – 8 p.m. Monday. Fans often found themselves switching between the two programs in an effort to keep up with the storylines and their favorite wrestlers.
“‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin almost singlehandedly turned WWE from a niche entertainment format into one of the coolest things on television during the second half of the 90s. His iconic anti-hero character and intensity helped build a TV ratings machine for WWE on Monday nights and transitioned the company from a million-dollar company to a billion-dollar corporation,” explains Sportsnaut.
2. Ric Flair
Next up on the list of the best pro wrestlers of all time is Ric Flair. Flair was one of the premiere names in pro wrestling during the 80s and 90s. Not many wrestlers can top the attitude and brash antics of Stone Cold but Ric Flair sure makes the argument.
“One of the very best wrestlers, he had a feud with literally every big name. Try and narrow down his best matches to 5. Good luck. He was the main attraction for the NWA, WWF, and WCW. He probably has grossed the most gate money for the industry, mostly due to longevity,” writes Midrange.
Ric Flair was the definition of flamboyant. Flair’s catchphrase featured a ton of smack talking about his money, cars, and jewelry followed by a loud “Woooo.” Fans loved to hate Ric Flair.
“The Nature Boy was over the top, yet real; boasting about his wealth and style and superior athleticism in the ring,” explains The Wrestling Estate.
“His promos are still watched and emulated by not only younger generations of wrestlers, but also younger generations of athletes in any sport. A 16-time heavyweight champion, Flair could follow any act and elevate any performer to his elite level,” furthers The Wrestling Estate.
Perhaps Flair’s greatest in-ring ability was his acting. Ric Flair made you believe every second of what you were watching.
“Ric Flair was the “Man” in professional wrestling with 16 World championship reigns and over 40 years of television exposure. Flair has been a main event draw with whichever company he has worked for,” writes Bleacher Report.
3. Shawn Michaels
Also known as the Heartbreak Kid, Shawn Michaels was one of the top names in wrestling for over a decade during the 90s and early 2000s. Shawn Michaels was one of the best in-ring performers in the history of professional wrestling, and dubbed himself “The Show Stopper.”
“He is the “Showstopper” and the 5-star matches that he had are too many to list. The fact that his last two matches with the Undertaker can stand up with the best matches of all time are a tribute to Shawn’s workmanship even when he was physically past his prime,” writes Bleacher Report.
Shawn Michaels and his pal Triple H helped form the wrestling group Degeneration X, or DX as it’s known.
“Shawn Michaels is the most relatable wrestler I’ve ever seen. Beyond his goofy stuff with DX or the (great) diva heel run before his first retirement, I don’t think I’ve ever met a wrestler who showed me his pain, his sorrow, his joy and his anger quite like HBK. He is the most fearless and natural talent to ever step in the squared circle,” writes Sports Illustrated.
True, Shawn Michaels was the one wrestler every fan could rely on for a great match. Perhaps his defining moment came during Wrestlemania 10 when he participated in the first-ever ladder match.
“Michaels was the most athletic, inspired and daring storyteller in the business; raising the bar for the entire industry with each match. We don’t have to look much farther than the descriptors “The Showstopper,” “The Headliner” and “Mr. WrestleMania” to know that HBK was someone who has performed above and beyond,” writes IGN.
4. The Undertaker
Next up on the list is The Undertaker. The Undertaker is the one name that we saw the most consistently in the top five across lists of the best pro wrestlers of all time. The Undertaker’s career was full of ups and downs, but he was always one of the top names in the wrestling business.
“No other WWE wrestler has ever had the main event-level longevity of The Undertaker. It is safe to say he helped make the company a billion dollars from his success as a performer and the legion of fans he cultivated over 30 years in the promotion. He turned an oddball character into one of the most iconic personalities in WWE history,” writes Sportsnaut.
Part of The Undertaker’s personality is his ring entrance. Anyone who’s ever watched wrestling can identify The Undertaker by his entrance.
“The fan reaction when the gong hits is still unrivaled and “Taker” always has been and will remain a huge attraction,” writes Bleacher Report.
“But over 25 years, Taker has morphed into the single-most respected person in the wrestling industry. He owns dozens of classic matches, a legendary entrance and the single-most hallowed feat in fake fighting (21 straight wins at WrestleMania.) It’s the ultimate story of someone taking a dead-end gimmick and turning it gold,” adds Sports Illustrated.
5. Hulk Hogan
The list of the best pro wrestlers of all time is not complete without Hulk Hogan. Hulk Hogan appeared in the top ten across nearly every list we referenced. Anyone who grew up in the 80s knows the name Hulk Hogan.
“‘Hulkamania’ was a real presence in the 1980s, as millions of children bought into the real-life superhero-like persona of the ‘Hulkster.’ He has drawn more money than anyone in the wrestling business and he is the biggest star this industry will ever know,” writes Bleacher Report.
Hulk Hogan’s character was truly larger than life, and he’s compared to some of the greatest sports legends of all time, not just wrestlers.
“We would not have WWE as we know it today, if not for the game-changing success that happened in the 1980s because of Hulk Hogan. He helped build the WWE brand nationally, made professional wrestling worthy of primetime television slots, and turned it into an early money-maker on pay-per-view. Hogan truly is the Babe Ruth of WWE,” writes Sportsnaut.
Hogan was the first wrestler to make the transition from wrestling to movies, appearing in blockbuster hits such as Rocky 3 and starring alongside Christopher Lloyd in Suburban Commando.
“The popularity generated by Hulkamania proved to be more than just a passing fad and took WWE hurtling in to the ‘90s. In all, Hogan won the WWE championship on six occasions and wrestled in the closing match of eight WrestleMania events,” adds Muscle and Fitness.
- Bleacher Report
- Sports Illustrated
- The Wrestling Estate
- Muscle and Fitness
- New Vision Theaters
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