The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of WrestlingInc or its staff
Throughout 2016, I did a week-by-week unveiling of the 50 Greatest Wrestlers of the Last 50 years, which can be seen here. In that list, I considered all the factors that would be taken into account when describing a talent as "great". That included how they affected business, how long their peaks were, how charismatic they were, and also how good they were at working and having great matches. There are a lot of wrestlers who were outstanding in one category, but were unable to meet the rest of the criteria to crack the list. This week, I decided to take a look at the best pure workers of the last 30 years.
Unlike the 50 Greatest Wrestlers of the Last 50 Years, this list is going to be in alphabetical order, as opposed to ranking them 1-50. One reason for that is because while things such as charisma, business success and longevity are pretty easy to quantify and compare to one another, ranking each wrestler based purely on working ability is a bit too multifaceted to determine who is better. I think we can all agree that Rey Mysterio, The Undertaker and Kurt Angle are all great workers, but they are all so different in the ring that it is difficult to compare to the other. I decided not to make this a definitive ranking, but more of a celebration of the elite workers of the last three decades.
Here are some other FAQs:
Why does this list only take into account the last 30 years?
More than any other facet of the industry, in-ring style has evolved over the years. I think drawing the line at 1987 encompassates the "modern" era of professional wrestling and going back beyond that is a bit too taxing. Since most fans today have had their opinions shaped by wrestling over the last 30 years, guys who are considered terrific workers in their time may not be too appealing today. Dory Funk Jr., Nick Bockwinkel, Bob Backlund, Killer Kowalski and other stars were considered elite workers, but if you go back and watch their matches today, they are not necessarily blowing you away. Like any sport, the athleticism and creativity has evolved over time, creating a more entertaining product and conditioning an audience to approve of that product. Oscar Robertson was considered one of the most skilled players in NBA history when he was a star in the 1960s, but if you compare video of him to LeBron James or Michael Jordan, there really is no comparison to who was the more talented athlete. Wrestling is the same way, and while I respect the skills and contributions of the great workers pre-1987, for the sake of modernity I would like to avoid comparing Daniel Bryan and Earl Caddock.
Similar to the 50 Greatest Wrestlers of the Last 50 Years List, which had a cut-off date at 1966, I will consider any wrestler who was active before 1987, but only as long as a majority of their career or great matches took place between 1987 and today, with a couple notable exceptions. This eliminates countless great stars who deserve recognition, including Ted DiBiase, Harley Race, Antonio Inoki, Riki Choshu, Dynamite Kid, Tiger Mask, Johnny Saint, Stan Hansen, Backlund, Chigusa Nagoyo, Jumbo Tsuruta, Mil Mascaras, Gori Guerrero, Rollerball Rocco, Paul Orndorff, Terry Funk, Tatsumi Fujinami and many, many other stars.
What makes a great worker?
One of the best things about wrestling is that there are so many different ways for someone to have a great match. On this list there will be brawlers, technical and submission artists, amateur wrestling stars, high-flyers and other types of performers. I think one thing that stands out is the ability for a wrestler to get the crowd invested in their match, regardless of the stakes of the match, the star power, the opponent, or the setting. In addition, wrestlers who perfected new styles that influenced future wrestlers were also given bonus points. One thing that I don't think I can stress enough is this list isn't considering who the most popular wrestlers were, or who drew the most money, it is simply about in-ring performance only. I do have a few wrinkles; the first being that I did not consider any wrestler who was primarily known as a tag team star, because that is a different artform by its fundamental nature, so with respect to The Young Bucks, Arn Anderson and Tully Blanchard, and others, they were not eligible.
A second wrinkle is that I really only considered wrestlers who were given a platform to truly distinguish themselves. I think William Regal is a really, really great and knowledgeable worker, but his career consisted mostly of working sub-ten minute matches on RAW or Nitro. He had many lengthy matches in the U.K. and throughout Europe, but there isn't a lot of video tape of them. It is hard to compare a guy like Regal, to Shawn Michaels or Kazuchika Okada because there is just so much overwhelming video evidence to construct their case. This list isn't about drawing money, but it is naturally going to slant towards guys who were stars in larger promotions because they were given the chance to consistently have 20 minute matches on TV and PPV to stake their claims. It also favors more recent wrestlers, due to the increase in accessibility of non-mainstream wrestling. Regal may have been tearing apart Europe, but there wasn't a ton of video evidence to support it; but today if Will Ospreay has a decent match it can easily be found online, even if it only took place in front of a dozen people.
The guys who get cut-out of the picture due to those circumstances are really the great British and European wrestlers from 1987 up to only a few years ago. In the US, Canada, Japan and Mexico, wrestling has always been on TV in some form, but after World of Stop stopped broadcasting in 1985 and All Star Wrestling lost its TV deal in 1988, stars like Robbie Brookside, Regal, Johnny Kidd, Fit Finlay and others, who were recognized as being some of the finest technical stars in the world, didn't have a large broadcasting outlet to showcase their skills. Apologies to those guys, because they were certainly talented enough to potentially crack the list.
Why didn't my favorite wrestler make the list?
Because your favorite wrestler sucks and you were stupid for liking them. Just kidding; there have been so many great workers over the years that for every one wrestler that makes the list of 50, there are a dozen that have a case. I thought I have done enough research to make an accurate list of 50, but by no means is it definitive. If you really think I made an egregious error, yell at me on Twitter @JesseCollings or leave a comment below.
Honorable Mention: Masahiro Chono, Vader, Terry Gordy, Minoru Suzuki, Lance Storm, Randy Orton, Dean Malenko, Rob Van Dam, 2 Cold Scorpio, Art Barr, Mistico, CIMA, Takeshi Morishima, Samoa Joe, Austin Aries, Cesaro, Kyoko Inoue, Davey Boy Smith, KUSHIDA, Kyle O'Reilly, Io Shirai, Davey Richards, Megumi Kudo, Kensuke Sasaki, Hiroshi Hase, Asuka, Christopher Daniels, Juventud Guerrera, Mike Quackenbush, Yuji Nagata, The Great Khali, Chris Sabin and about 5,000 other wrestlers.
Wrestlers are listed in alphabetical order
Jun Akiyama: The only full-time wrestler that was a main-event star during the glory days of All-Japan Pro Wrestling, Akiyama was given the heavy task of being the heir-apparent to Mitsuharu Misawa and Kenta Kobashi, and was able to deliver inside the ring. While business was not always strong, he was one of the biggest stars when Pro Wrestling NOAH was the biggest promotion in Japan and still today is going strong in AJPW, showing remarkable durability.
Kurt Angle: Angle grasped wrestling faster than almost any other star in history, and seamlessly transitioned from being one of the best amateur wrestlers in the world, to being one of the best professional wrestlers in the world, in under five years. Known for his suplexes, Angle's trademark intensity and attitude were the perfect complements to his physical wrestling style and made any match he was in feel like a life-or-death struggle.
Steve Austin: Undervalued due to his immense popularity and charisma, Austin was a very good worker, first when he was a young star in World Championship Wrestling as a technician and later as working babyface in the World Wrestling Federation. Austin may have mostly done punches and brawled all over the arena during his peak, but that worked because he was such a great worker at selling the intensity of each and every moment he was out there for.
Chris Benoit: Easily one of the top technical wrestlers of all-time and part of a golden generation of talent that bled from WCW to WWE and became a world champion. Benoit distinguished as a junior heavyweight in Japan, but was just as adept at wrestling heavyweight talent.
Daniel Bryan: A long-time standout on the US independent scene, Bryan was able to overcome numerous hurdles in WWE to become one of the most popular stars of the new millennium, largely due to his technical brilliance on the mat and his knowledge of creative submission holds. Would have made the list due to the strength of his Ring of Honor matches alone.
Negro Casas: Regarded as one of the best Mexican workers of all-time, Casas had a legendary feud with El hijo del Santo and to this day remains a top worker, even at age 57. A favorite of opponents in Mexico, Japan and the United States, Casas was one of the best working heels of the 1990s.
Ultimo Dragon: Similar to Casas, Ultimo Dragon was a star the world over and was a favorite of wrestlers like Chris Jericho and Rey Mysterio Jr. Innovated the Asai moonsault, which bears his real name, which has been used across the globe, as well as several other high-flying moves. Founded the Toryumon promotion, which later changed its name to Dragon Gate and highlighted smaller, faster workers that had been inspired by stars like Ultimo Dragon.
Ric Flair: Flair became a legend largely due to his accomplishments pre-1987, but was still a superstar worker well into the 1990s. His feud over the NWA World Heavyweight Championship with Ricky Steamboat in 1989 became synonymous with matches of the highest quality, as well as championship bouts with Vader, Bret Hart, Randy Savage, Terry Funk and others cemented his legacy.
Eddie Guerrero: Widely viewed as one of the most talented performers ever and the best worker in the Guerrero family, Guerrero possessed tremendous agility and athleticism, but also was proficient in submission holds and performing power moves which game him a never-ending arsenal of moves to perform. Maybe the most well-rounded worker to ever step foot in the ring.
Bret Hart: The first talent Vince McMahon ever pushed as being the top guy in the World Wrestling Federation because of his technical ability, Hart's numerous world championship reigns largely changed the way WWF fans felt about appreciating quality in-ring work. Hart's best skill was arguably his thinking ability on how to craft a story in the ring, as evidenced by his matches with his brother, Shawn Michaels, Davey Boy Smith, Steve Austin and others.
Owen Hart: Brilliant worker who as every bit the technical start that his brother was, but was also an accomplished high-flyer who was a star in New Japan Pro Wrestling before coming to WWE. His matches with Bret are the most well-known, but Owen had terrific matches with nearly every performer that he crossed paths with in WWE.
Shinya Hashimoto: Massive star for NJPW during their most successful run in company history. Not a great worker in the traditional sense, but his fire and striking ability allowed him to inspire the crowd to get behind him despite his doughy physique and paved the way for future rotund brawlers like Samoa Joe and Takeshi Morishima.
Hayabusa: The daredevil of the little promotion that could, Frontier Martial Arts Wrestling, only company founder Atsushi Onita was more synonymous with the promotion. Unlike Onita, Hayabusa was regarded as a great worker and a terrific aerial wrestler, helping popularize the 450 Splash as well as inventing the Phoenix Splash and the Falcon Arrow. Along with Ultimo Dragon, Jushin Thunder Liger and Rey Mysterio Jr., Hayabusa would popularize a wrestling style that was adopted by independent wrestling promotions and has crept into WWE and NJPW as well.
Curt Hennig: "Mr. Perfect" was respected for his technical ability and athleticism and holds an enormous amount of respect from hardcore wrestling fans. Hennig's feud over the Intercontinental Championship with Bret Hart in the early 1990s was a contrast to the Ultimate Warrior/Hulk Hogan-led main event scene in the WWF and would be an indicator of a greater reliance on in-ring ability in the WWF later in the decade.
Chris Hero: A true wrestling chameleon, the 6'4" Hero was talented enough to brawl with the brawlers, fly with the flyers and exchange holds with the technicians, making him one of the most in-demand workers for promotions throughout the world. A recognized trainer, Hero is respected for his passion for the industry and his knowledge of seemingly every wrestling style utilized in every promotion.
Akira Hokuto: Hokuto, along with other top stars, helped revitalize women's wrestling in Japan while working for All Japan Women's Pro-Wrestling in the early 1990s, and was known for her innovative offensive maneuvers and her toughness. Had her best feuds with Manami Toyota and Bull Nakano.
Kota Ibushi: Similar to Eddie Guerrero, Ibushi is as versatile as they come, capable of performing spectacular high-flying moves while also possessing a wide-range of powerbombs and suplexes. Ibushi is a much better striker and a better athlete than Guerrero ever was, although not quite the technician. Along with his mortal enemy Kenny Omega, is probably the best wrestler to ever emerge from Japan's independent scene.
Chris Jericho: Well-traveled veteran is one of the most respected wrestlers in the industry and like his colleagues Benoit and Guerrero, was equally adept at wrestling a cruiserweight like Ultimo Dragon or a big man like The Undertaker. One of the more creative minds in wrestling, Jericho is brilliant at coming up with ways to tell a story in the ring, which goes nicely with his athleticism and stout technical wrestling.
Toshiaki Kawada: One of the best pure strikers in the history of wrestling, Kawada earned the nickname "Dangerous K" for his stiff kicks and chops. A rock for AJPW during their biggest boom period, he had five star matches with Mitsuharu Misawa, Kenta Kobashi, Stan Hansen, Terry Gordy and others.
KENTA: Better known to American wrestling fans as Hideo Itami; KENTA in Japan was widely viewed as the next great champion of puroresu, and while he never achieved the success of his namesake, he is regarded as one of the purest strikers and smartest wrestlers of his generation. Also was the first Japanese wrestler to make regular appearances on the US independent scene since the closure of Extreme Championship Wrestling.
Kenta Kobashi: An anchor for AJPW and later NOAH, Kobashi was a big man known for his trademark chops and athleticism. Despite serious knee issues, Kobashi remained a very good worker well into the twilight of his career. His match against Samoa Joe for Ring of Honor in 2005 was the first US match Dave Meltzer gave five-stars to since 1997.
Aja Kong: The best monster-heel in the history of women's wrestling, Kong was feared for her power and devastating backfist. Draws a lot of comparision to Vader, and was capable of taking some great bumps and performing moves off the top rope despite her size.
Jushin Thunder Liger: Universally recognized as the best junior-heavyweight wrestler of all-time, Liger has been a sensation for NJPW since first donning the mask in 1989 and still is a solid wrestler today, at age 52. Innovated the Shooting Star Press and popularized many other maneuvers, Liger may be the most influential worker of the last 30 years.
Akira Maeda: Technical wrestling marvel whose questionable attitude cost him his job with NJPW despite obviously being one of the best performers in the world at the time. Would go on to be the founder of the Universal Wrestling Federation and would perfect the concept of doing a worked-shoot match which would do huge business in Japan throughout the 90s.
Naomichi Marufuji: Along with KENTA and Takeshi Morishima, was a staple for NOAH after the death of Misawa and the retirement of Kobashi. Marufuji throws some of the best looking kicks in wrestling and is an accomplished high-flyer. Owner of the devastating Pole Switch finisher.
Nigel McGuinness: Maybe the least-accomplished performer on this list from a notoriety standpoint, McGuinness is one of the best technical wrestlers of the new millennium; McGuinness blended traditional, World of Sport-style chain wrestling, with the pacing and violence of American independent wrestling. One of the best sellers in the world during his active career, McGuinness had classic bouts in ROH with Daniel Bryan and KENTA, as well as during a short-lived TNA run against Kurt Angle.
Shawn Michaels: Michaels reputation as a great performer has led to him being one of the most influential wrestlers of all-time, with many young performers striving to be just like the Heartbreak Kid. Due to his selling, athleticism and imagination, Michaels was a great performer in the 90s until injuries and substance abuse issues derailed his career. Michaels would return in 2002 and more than make up for his absence by having classic matches with Triple H, Chris Jericho, The Undertaker, John Cena and Ric Flair just to name a few.
Mitsuharu Misawa: Along with Michaels, Flair and a few others has the best claim to being the greatest in-ring performer ever. The perennial ace of AJPW, Misawa's athleticism, great striking ability and selling allowed him to get the most out of his high-quality opponents. His 26 career five-star matches are the most in wrestling history.
Keiji Mutoh: Known to American fans as The Great Muta, Mutoh was a terrific athlete and became the first Japanese wrestler to get over as a main-event star in the national era when he worked for WCW. Popularized the moonsault to American wrestling audiences as well as inventing the shining wizard. Was arguably the most popular star in NJPW during the 90s.
Rey Mysterio Jr.: An electric high-flyer that changed the way American wrestling fans thought about luchadores and smaller wrestlers in general, paving the way for numerous future stars to make it in WWE. Although his lucha libre skills are legendary, Mysterio's best asset was his ability to put together matches that allowed him to plausibly go toe-to-toe with guys as big as The Undertaker. There have been plenty of wrestlers as athletic as Mysterio, but very few who could put together such a dramatic match despite a massive size difference.
Tetsuya Naito: Naito spent years as a hard-working yet uncharismatic babyface before turning heel and really hitting his stride as a performer. Although his character gives off the impression that Naito is lackadaisical, his combination of speed and technical wrestling ability are really second to none, and he has had classic encounters with Michael Elgin, Kenny Omega, Hiroshi Tanahashi and Tomohiro Ishii.
Shinsuke Nakamura: Although he is better known for his unbelievable charisma, Nakamura's in-ring skills are often overlooked. An unorthodox wrestler in every way, Nakamura's lanky frame is perfect for delivering his key strikes, and a background in MMA has allowed him to become a good mat technician. Has yet to have a really blow away match since coming to WWE, but nobody doubts he isn't capable of having one.
Kazuchika Okada: Probably the best wrestler in the world right now, like Bret Hart it is impressive to notice how many wrestlers have the best matches of their career when they are working with Okada. Athletic and terrifically conditioned, Okada's ability to string together a finishing sequence is really second to none and the last few minutes of every big Okada match are the most exciting moments in wrestling.
Kenny Omega: A self-made global star, Omega's athleticism, selling and innovative offense made him one of the best wrestlers in the world long before he started working with Okada, due to his excellent bouts with Ibushi, Naito, Austin Aries and Roderick Strong. His matches with Okada throughout 2017 have received universal acclaim and brought greater attention to wrestling outside WWE.
C.M. Punk: One of the earliest American independent wrestlers to gain notoriety after the collapse of ECW, Punk achieved tremendous success in WWE, having great matches with Jeff Hardy, The Undertaker, Alberto Del Rio and proving to be the best opponent John Cena has ever had. Wrestled a smart style that translated well from the independents to WWE, which is something not all performers can say.
Ricochet: While guys like Liger and Mysterio helped define what it meant to be a high-flyer, Ricochet led the way in taking what those legends had done, and cranking it up to eleven. From a pure agility and coordination standpoint, Ricochet may just be the most athletic wrestler in the history of the industry. In recent years he has also added more diversity to his arsenal and is capable of having very good matches without performing a bunch of high-risk moves.
Seth Rollins: Despite injuries limiting him in recent years, Rollins has become almost the perfect WWE wrestler for the modern age. A great athlete, Rollins is also a very good bump taker, sells well for larger opponents and can really do it all when he is on offense. In a lot of ways, particularly because he gives off the impression of being such a hard-worker inside the ring, he is the closest thing WWE has had to Michaels since Michaels retired.
El hijo del Santo: The son of arguably the most iconic wrestler in the history of the industry, hijo del Santo was never going to be able to be the star that his father was. However, despite the enormous pressure that being the son of Santo put on him, hijo del Santo would become a much better worker than his father was, and would end up as a lucha libre legend in his own right, largely because of his historic feud with Negro Casas.
Randy Savage: A former minor league baseball player, Savage possessed tremendous charisma but matched that with in-ring prowess, making him one of the biggest stars in wrestling history. During a time when the WWF was not necessarily known for having outstanding matches, Savage was a beacon of great work thanks to his matches with Ricky Steamboat, The Ultimate Warrior, and others.
Ricky Steamboat: A majority of Steamboat's career took place before 1987, but I'm lumping him in here because his most legendary matches, such as his match at WrestleMania III against Savage and his feud with Ric Flair over the NWA World Heavyweight Championship in 1989, took place in the last thirty years. A classic working babyface, Steamboat was a master at selling and getting a crowd into the match, regardless of opponent.
Roderick Strong: Perennially underrated, Strong has unmatched conditioning inside the ring and was capable of brawling with bigger wrestlers, or using his strength to toss around smaller opponents. Marathon matches with Daniel Bryan, Jay Lethal, James Gibson, Zack Sabre Jr. in Ring of Honor and Pro Wrestling Guerilla made him one of the best American wrestlers of the last 15 years.
A.J. Styles: Styles was a star for TNA since the company's' inception until leaving in 2013. While always thought of as a great wrestler, Styles solidified his place as one of the world's best by jumping to NJPW and immediately becoming one of the top stars in the company, and then coming to WWE in 2016 and doing the exact same thing. Even at age 40, he is probably the best in-ring performer in WWE today.
Hiroshi Tanahashi: Tanahashi's consistent IWGP World Heavyweight Championship reigns took NJPW from a failing promotion way behind the times, to back to being one of the largest promotions in the world, largely thanks to Tanahashi's brilliance in the ring. Like Mutoh, Tatsumi Fujinami, Antonio Inoki and other stars before him. Tanahashi built up business by constantly having the best matches on the card and being a tremendous hero to the NJPW fans. Like Michaels, Tanahashi always seemed to have his best matches on the biggest stage.
Genichiro Tenryu: A former sumo wrestler, Tenryu's athleticism and strength was coupled with a fast paced wrestling style that helped change puroresu and shape it into it's own unique type of wrestling. Hugely respected in Japan, Tenryu owns nine "Best Bout" awards from Tokyo Sports, a Japanese newsletter that covers pro wrestling, and his matches with Jumbo Tsuruta, Stan Hansen, Nobuhiko Takada and Mutoh are legendary.
Manami Toyota: The most athletic wrestler in AJW, Toyota is widely regarded as being the greatest female wrestler in the history of the industry. The owner of 17 five star matches from The Wrestling Observer Newsletter, Toyota had historic clashes with Aja Kong, Kyoko Inoue, Toshiyo Yamada and as a tag team with Akira Hokuto.
Triple H: Along with The Undertaker, bridged the Attitude Era with the next generation stars and continues to work with younger wrestlers today. Although he has slowed down in recent years, Triple H was a very good storyteller in the ring and bumped extremely well for a bigger guy. Has a reputation for being selfish, but frequently took a beating from smaller opponents and was a terrific seller.
The Undertaker: The best working big-man to ever lace up a pair of boots, The Undertaker had some of the best matches in wrestling well into his 40s. Athletic and versatile, The Undertaker was at his best while working with a smaller opponent, such as Bret Hart or Michaels, something that is often a challenge for larger guys. The Undertaker is also easily the best wrestler ever at working a gimmick; a gimmick that very well may have looked ridiculous if it was given to a less-talented performer.
Volador Jr.: One of the best lucha libre workers of the 2000s, Volador Jr. has been a master at playing either a babyface or a heel, and performs high spots as well as anybody in wrestling. Had an impressive feud with Mistico and helped guide Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre through a boom period.
Steve Williams: "Dr. Death" was a four-time All-American as an amateur wrestler at the University of Oklahoma and smoothly transitioned into an in-ring career that relied on his natural athleticism and monstrous strength. A star in both the Universal Wrestling Federation and WCW, Williams formed a team with Terry Gordy, the spectacularly titled "Miracle Violence Connection" and set new standards for the athleticism big men could have in wrestling. Had several high-profile matches in AJPW, including classics with Kenta Kobashi and Toshiaki Kawada.
Barry Windham: One of the rare big men who didn't rely on his size and strength, Windham was a smooth technical worker who had classic bouts with Ric Flair, Lex Luger, Dusty Rhodes, Sting and others. At one point in time he was probably the best worker in the United States not named Ric Flair.
Must Watch Matches:
Kenny Omega vs Juice Robinson: ****¼ - NJPW Destruction in Kobe