The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the opinions of WrestlingInc or its staff
During a recent excursion into the dark depths of wrestling message boards, I came across a claim that WWE right now may have the deepest, most talented roster in wrestling history. I don't think that is quite true, but it got me thinking about what has been the greatest wresting roster in history, so I decided to break down the top rosters of all-time.
The Hulkamania roster that rolled over a nation and helped make Vince McMahon the supreme ruler of the wrestling world easily stands out as one of the best rosters of all-time. At the top of the roster is Hulk Hogan, who despite being a very green worker, was arguably the most universally popular wrestler of all-time during this time period. Part of Hogan's success was also dependent on the WWF having a steady stream of top heels to both combat Hogan and also carry Hogan to respectable matches. The roster reads of a venerable list of a whose-who of wrestling heels: Roddy Piper, Paul Orndorff, Ted Dibiase, Andre the Giant, David Schultz, The Iron Sheik, realistically there has never been a better collection of top heels in a wrestling company.
In addition to the main event slot, McMahon had gone on a cross-country raid of top talent, giving the roster a deep mid-card of names, including Greg Valentine, Tito Santana, Bret Hart, Adrian Adonis, Jimmy Snuka, The Junkyard Dog and many more. It also saw the rise of Randy Savage, who by 1988 was threatening Hogan's prestige as the top dog in the company.
There might not be a more impressive list of names to casual wrestling fans, but there are two big knocks on this roster. The first is that while rattling off all the top stars that worked for the WWF during that time period is astonishing, it also should be noted that the WWF never really had all of those talents together at one time. Especially when it came to the top heels, the WWF would shuffle in talent for maybe a year or two and then move on to the next top name. Every other roster on this list has all of their talent together for at least a couple years. Another factor is that while Hogan was an incredible Alpha Dog, he was really the only main event level babyface before Savage came along. In the mid-80s that was fine, but imagine today if there was only one main event babyface and everyone else was considered a mid-carder? As annoying as John Cena can be, at least he has had relatively close equals that he has had to share the spotlight with over time, such as Randy Orton, Batista, Daniel Bryan, The Undertaker, etc.
#4 New Japan Pro Wrestling-2012-Present
New Japan has assembled one quality roster and that has led them to tremendous success, not only in Japan but also internationally. After only a few years removed from nearly going out of business, NJPW has breathed life back into wrestling in Japan.
At the top of the card, there is three top Japanese stars, all equally capable of carrying the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship for a long period of time. There is the young Kazhuchika Okada, who at age 27 has already had 584 days as champion holding the biggest championship in all of Japan. There is Hiroshi Tanahashi, who is making his claim to being not only one of the best wrestlers in the world, but one of the best wrestlers of all-time. And of course there is Shinsuke Nakamura, the wild card who is the most popular Japanese wrestler amongst American fans. In addition, AJ Styles and The Bullet Club have probably become the biggest non-WWE merchandise sellers since the NWO.
Outside of the main event, there is a great upper-mid-card of diversified talent, including the brawlers Katsuyori Shibata, Hirooki Goto and Tomohiro Ishii, the breathtaking Kota Ibushi and the technically brilliant Tetsuya Naito. What makes NJPW really successful however, is that no company does a better job of using all of their talent. Even the best rosters in the most prosperous companies have had guys that deserved pushes and never got them, but you can't really make the case for NJPW. Everyone always gets treated with importance and gets to have big matches.
NJPW's biggest weakness is it's tag division, which has gotten pretty repetitive and while KUSHIDA and Kenny Omega are about as good as it gets in the Junior Heavyweight division, the rest of the division is fairly mediocre. Still though, NJPW has assembled a deep roster of different talents, and it has paid off handsomely for them.
#3 WCW 1995-1999
The deep pockets of Ted Turner and the aggressive tactics of Eric Bischoff built a roster that was wildly successful for a period of time, until it totally wasn't. However, during their heyday WCW had one of the top rosters of all-time.
The biggest strength of peak-WCW was that it had something for every type of wrestling fan, and it took its divisions seriously. If you wanted to see crazy high-flyers they had that with luchadores Rey Mysterio, Juventud Guerrera and a litany of others. If you wanted to see great technical wrestling they had Chris Benoit, Dean Malenko and Eddie Guerrero. If you liked tag teams they had legendary teams like the Steiner Brothers, Harlem Heat and The Outsiders. And if you wanted to see the big stars, they had all of those: Hogan, Savage, Bret Hart, Piper, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, Sting, Diamond Dallas Page, Goldberg, Lex Luger, Sid, the list goes on and on.
Of course WCW doesn't rank any higher because of the aforementioned drama that infected their company. NJPW can be lauded for their commitment to utilizing all of their roster to the best of their abilities, the exact opposite can be said about WCW. There was zero room for upward mobility in the company, and if you need proof of that, just think of all the guys (Mysterio, Benoit, Booker T, Chris Jericho, Guerrero) that went on to become big stars once they were removed from WCW. Their case is also severely hampered by the fact that the company collapsed within itself by 1999.
The Attitude Era WWF that became the most successful period of wrestling in the history of the industry would probably get the nod for the greatest roster of all-time in a lot of peoples books, and there is a great case for it. No company was able to churn out major stars like the WWF did in the late-90s/early-2000s. Steve Austin was the driving force in the beginning, getting universal support from the audience in a way that no one had achieved in America since Hogan. Unlike Hogan, Austin shared the spotlight with a litany of other stars, most notably The Rock. Austin and The Rock are arguably the two greatest forces to ever be working in the same company together, and WWE milked that cow for all it was worth. Also in the main event were two veteran stars, Mick Foley and The Undertaker, who had the unbending respect of the wrestlers and the fans.
In addition to Austin and The Rock, the WWF had a remarkable ability to create new stars, seemingly out of thin air. Triple H, Kurt Angle, Kane and Chris Jericho all saw championship reigns during this period. The WWF also had a great tag team division, with the hallowed trio of Edge & Christian, The Hardy Boyz and The Dudley Boyz carrying most of the loud.
So why not rank it number one? The mid-card always seemed to be lacking a bit of gusto for the WWF during this time period. Just look at the Intercontinental Champions during the Attitude Era: Val Venis, Test, Chyna, Billy Gunn, The Road Dogg, Albert, D'Lo Brown, The Godfather, etc. That is a really mediocre lineup, and it certainly lacks the great workers that were in the mid-cards for NJPW and WCW. In addition, while WWF consistently produced popular shows and memorable moments, often times, especially looking back on it, the wrestling wasn't always that good. There were some really good matches during this era, but comparing to the Ruthless Aggression era that followed it, and especially when comparing it to #1 on this list, it isn't really comparable. If you want to rank it number one, I think that is a perfectly acceptable position and there is plenty of evidence to back that opinion up, I personally just think there are a couple flaws that keep it from the top spot.
#1 All-Japan Pro Wrestling 1990-94
From a pure wrestling standpoint, there has never been a better assemblage of talent. It actually isn't even close. No company has ever produced consistently great matches and great shows as All-Japan did for the first half of the 1990s. More five-star matches trickled out of that company than any other, and when you look at the talent it is no wonder why.
For starters, there is the golden generation of AJPW talent that began to peak at the same time. Mitsuharu Misawa, Kenta Kobashi and Toshiaki Kawada are not just three of the best wrestlers of that company or that era, they are three of the greatest ever. Coupling with them is the veteran presence of Jumbo Tsuruta, who is the greatest wrestler I have ever seen in my life, and his partners Akira Taue and Masanobu Fuchi, who while were not quite as great as the other four men, but were both extremely good professional wrestlers.
But it wasn't just the quality of the matches, they were all massive stars that led to sold-out show after sold-out show. A case could very easily be made that AJPW was the top wrestling promotion in the universe in the early-90s, as both WWF and WCW saw declines in ratings and attendance. Not only were they having the best matches anywhere (and to understand the greatness of the matches, you can't just hear about them, you have to take the time and watch them), but they were box office smash hits as well.
In addition, Giant Baba brought in top foreign talent to work with the Japanese stars, including Stan Hansen, Steve Williams and Johnny Ace. There was also a lot of young talent backing up the main event in the mid-card, with future stars Yoshinari Ogawa, Tsuyoshi Kikuchi, Dean Malenko, and a great tag team division led by Misawa and Kobashi and the criminally underrated Can-Am Express.
What do you think the greatest roster of all-time is? Sound off below.
You can follow Jesse Collings on Twitter @JesseCollings